Château Chaumont

Posted on June 13, 2016 by

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When children draw fairy tale castles with moats, drawbridges and pepper pot turrets, Château Chaumont overlooking the river Loire in France is what they imagine.

When Diane de Poitiers (more anon) infamous mistress of Henri II first set eyes on Chaumont (an unwanted acquisition) she conceded that it was pretty. The interior was quite a different matter. It was so dark, so gloomy, so forbidding that, according to some sources, she did not spend one night there.

Past owners have had a lasting influence on the history of France. Chaumont was owned by the centuries old Amboise family who took its name from Château Amboise, not the other way round. Successive generations served the King but this did not prevent the ghastly Charles VII depriving the family of Château Amboise in 1431 after which it was the favourite château of all the French kings up to and including François I. ‘Ghastly’ Charles VII because although Joan of Arc restored the ingrate to the throne of France, he did nothing to save her from stake.

Charles VII, from necessity, not choice, was the first French king to settle in the Loire Valley. He took Château Amboise because he didn’t have one, for the very good reason that his father, Charles VI, Charles the Mad, from necessity, not choice, disinherited him in favour of (the English Thug/Hero according to your point of view) Henry V.

When Charles declared Château Amboise a Royal Château, the Amboise family was devastated. Worse was to come. Charles’ son, Louis XI, accused the family of plotting against him so ordered their other home, Chaumont, be destroyed. Both châteaux had been in the family for five centuries.

The Amboise family may have fallen out of royal favour with Charles VII and his son Louis XI but it was back in favour with Louis XII whose Arms, the Fleur-de- Lys, with those of his second wife, the Ermine Dots of Anne of Brittany, are carved into the walls with their initials L and A. Louis was close to George d’ Amboise, his Prime Minister, and helped finance the rebuilding of Chaumont.

Born at Chaumont, George’s nephew Charles II also served Louis. He was Governor of Milan. He too was astonished by the Italian Renaissance. France had superb portrait painters such as father and son Jean and François Clouet but they could not compete with Leonardo da Vinci. Charles, the first Frenchman to give Leonardo a commission, persuaded Antonio Solario, one of Leonardo’s acolytes, to move to France. Among his paintings in The Louvre Paris is a portrait of Charles. Charles died for Louis following the battle of Correggio in Italy in 1511. His son Georges died fighting for Louis’ successor, François I, in the ill-fated Battle of Pavia in Italy of 1525.

On the frieze outside are intertwined initials, a double C, Charles of Chaumont interspersed with what looks like a steaming dung heap. Representing Chaud (hot) hence the flames and Mont (mountain), those who know about these things say the correct name is Chauve (shaved) Mont (mountain)  referring to the mountain ‘shaved’ of its trees to build the castle. Is there another possible explanation? Chaumont was burnt to the ground. Could it be that the flames represent the tragedy?

Another owner of Chaumont was the formidable Catherine de Medici, infamous on many counts, one being the brains behind the horrific St Bartholomew Day Massacre of 1572.  Thousands, some sources say seventy thousand, French Protestants were slaughtered when Catherine and her son Charles IX ordered the murder of the Protestant leaders. Roman Catholics in Paris took this as carte blanche to hunt down all Protestants including women and children. Chains were used to block streets so that they could not escape. Their bodies were collected in carts and thrown into the Seine. The massacre lasted three days.

Catherine is also infamous for a debauched sex orgy in Château Chenonceau. In 1577 she held a transvestite ball in honour of her son Henry III, an effeminate obsessed with hermaphrodites. The ball was attended by her ‘flying squad’ of two hundred bare breasted female prostitutes dressed as men.

Inside Chaumont are the initials and Arms of Catherine who bought it in 1550 to use as a stopping off place between Château Amboise and Château Blois. The Medici Arms are five balls. No-one knows why. The consensus is that it was the symbol for the Medici Bank which, at the time of Catherine, had five branches in Florence.

Catherine also used Chaumont for secret meetings with Nostradamus and Ruggieri her astrologer brought with her from Italy. Her husband Henri II strongly disapproved of her obsession with the occult. It was at Chaumont that Nostradamus predicted the end of the Valois dynasty and the rise of the Bourbon dynasty. He predicted that her husband would reign for fourteen years. It was here that Ruggieri saw her three sons in his mirror. The number of times the mirror rotated indicated the number of years that each would reign – François II (1559-1560), Charles IX (1560-1574) and Henri III (1575-1589).

Catherine is also remembered for her understandable hatred of her rival Diane de Poitiers, The Uncrowned Queen of France. Another reason why Diane would not spend the night in Chaumont is because, some sources say, when she first visited the caretaker showed her the room where Catherine asked Ruggieri to conjure magic spells to precipitate Diane’s death. If true, it’s doubtful whether Diane was surprised. The Medici family was renowned for poisoning their enemies.

When, as predicted by Nostradamus, Henri II died before his time (he was 40) in a tournament, Catherine could now at last vent her hatred on his mistress. She turfed Diane out of her beloved Château Chenonceau which she had always coveted and gave her Château Chaumont. Things could have been much worse. Catherine’s son François II could have ordered her death.

Diane marked her territory with her monogram. Her intertwined double D is all over the Château. Although she did not stay here, she maintained all her properties to a very high standard. The way it looks today is largely due to her impeccable good taste. When she died in 1566 she left Chaumont to her daughter. The original chateau had four wings. One was demolished to access the spectacular views of the Loire we can enjoy today.

When Jacques-Donatien Le Ray, one of the wealthiest aristocrats in France, bought Chaumont he set up a glass making and earthenware factory and employed Italian sculptor Jean-Baptiste Nini to make terra cotta portrait medallions of the great and the good. They are still there. One is of Benjamin Franklin. Le Ray, the intermediary between the ill-fated Louis XVI and Franklin, financed the American army. He approved of the American Revolution but was appalled by the French Revolution. His profitable factories saved Chaumont from destruction during the Revolution.

Marie Charlotte Constance Say, granddaughter of sugar magnate Louis Say, apart from the Rothschild’s, the wealthiest woman in France, bought the château in 1875. She was seventeen. The story goes that one day, walking along the banks of the Loire, as she was passing Chaumont her sister told her it was for sale. She said ‘I want it, I want it! This was no passing whim, Chaumont was her pride and joy.

She married Prince de Broglie a few months later. They went on to have five children. They filled the rooms with Renaissance furniture, built luxurious stables, a model farm, gave great parties and entertained everyone who was anyone here including Edward VII. For forty years, Chaumont received distinguished guests who came by special train from Paris. The cast of La Comédie Francaise and members of the Paris Opera and its orchestra were regular visitors. Her husband did everything for the wife he adored and managed her estates. When he died in 1917, Marie Charlotte, Princess de Broglie, was lost without him. She had no idea of managing money. The stock market crash of 1929 resulted in huge losses for her. In 1930 she married HRH Louis Ferdinand of Orléans and Bourbon. She was 72, he was 42. Not a good move. He squandered her fortune. In 1937, Marie Charlotte, Princess d’Orléans, was served with a State compulsory purchase order for Chaumont. She spent her remaining days in her Paris apartment where she died in 1943 at the age of 86.

Since 2007, Chaumont has been owned by the Centre-Loire Valley region.

Just at the point when we assumed we had explored every nook and cranny, we spotted some dusty stairs hidden away in a dark corner. What an unexpected treat, the proverbial cherry on the gateau. They led to the most romantic part of the Château, the abandoned top floor. The ornate fireplaces must mean that these once grand rooms were used for Marie Charlotte’s famous guests. It didn’t take too much imagination to hear the cast of La Comédie Française, maybe even The Divine Sarah (Bernhardt), rehearse plays by Victor Hugo or Alexandre Dumas or for members of the Paris Opera practise their scales.

Chaumont we loved everything about you. We will be back.

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