There are so many beautiful châteaux in the Loire Valley, it’s difficult to choose which to visit. The Royal Château of Blois is not the prettiest, but it has been the home of no less than seven French kings and ten queens, and its imposing architecture represents four distinct architectural periods. It is definitely an important historical site to visit in France.
The châteaux of few country towns can boast so many and so important events, so long a list of illustrious inmates, or so large a collection of historical recollections, as that of Blois.A Summer in Western France, Thomas Trollope, 1841
The site of the château was originally a Roman camp (discovered in 1959), given its important situation on the Loire river. In the medieval period the land was owned by the Counts of Blois who built an impressive fortress, towers and a chapel.
Not much of the medieval architecture remains today, except for the Foix tower and the very grand Salle des États Généraux, or the Hall of the Estates-General. This huge banqueting room was used as a court by the Counts of Blois and several hundred years later for a meeting of the Estates – General (hence the name!).
By the 15th century, the château had passed into the hands of the French royal family. In 1498 Louis XII added the gothic wing which is now the entrance to the château, with its red brick and stone exterior and ornamental facade.
There is an equestrian statue of the king mounted between the arches, and several grotesque carvings as befits a gothic building. The château of Blois was the royal residence under Louis XII, and he loved it so much he spent all his life here.
In 1429, before her departure to fight the English in Orléans, Joan-of-Arc stayed briefly at the château. She was blessed in the chapel of the castle by Regnault de Chartres, the archbishop-duke of Reims.
Many visitors believe the Renaissance wing, built under François I, to be the most beautiful. François I was enamoured by the designs and ideas of the Italian Renaissance; Leonardo da Vinci came to France in 1516 at the request of François I, and remained there until his death in 1519. The wing is certainly the most mesmerising, with its richly carved stonework and large windows.
The magnificent spiral staircase with its open windows was perfect for onlookers to watch the king and his reticule in the courtyard below. Engraved inside are statues of women, gargoyles, scallop shells, references to ancient stories and the royal emblem of a salamander wearing a crown. Built between 1515 and 1520, the staircase is one of the château’s greatest masterpieces to this day.
However, François I lost interest in Blois and built instead the magnificent château of Chambord nearby.
The 16th century at the château was also ripe with intrigues, plots and murders. In 1588, King Henry III of France was fearful of the popular contender for the throne, the Duke of Guise. With the help of his courtiers, he lured him into a private room in the château where the Duke was set upon by royal guards and stabbed repeatedly. The same fate awaited his brother, the Cardinal of Guise, the following day.
Catherine de’ Medici, the Italian who had been Queen of France and mother to two queens and three French kings, Henry III being the last, was at Blois during this time. According to stories of the time she was very interested in witchcraft and superstitions (apparently the astrologist and predictor of the future Nostradamus was a good friend).
A room in the château which contains 237 tiny cabinets is attributed by legend to Catherine, where she supposedly stored her potions and poisons. Historians believe it was more likely a place where small ornaments and trinkets were displayed, but I prefer the first story.
The queen of Henry IV, Marie de’ Medici, was banished to the castle by her son, Louis XIII, in 1617 (royal life was full of politics and conflict). Two years later she threw a rope ladder out of a window and successfully escaped! However, life did not end well for Marie de’ Medici.
classic and elegant
In 1635 the château saw a momentous change to the north wing. King Louis XIII had given the château of Blois as a wedding gift to his brother, Gaston d’Orléans, who was next in line for the throne. D’Orléans intended to completely redesign and modernise the entire building. The north wing was rebuilt in a Classical style, its columns, and pillars pay homage to ancient Greek architecture. An astronomical observatory was also added to the top of the Foix Tower.
Unfortunately for Gaston d’Orléans, in 1638 an heir to the throne was born, in the shape of Louis XIV, and he ran out of money to complete his ambitious plans.
a château in ruins
The royal château of Blois never reached such heights of popularity again. Gaston d’Orléans had been given the Luxembourg Palace in 1642 when his mother died, so the château of Blois became a country house which he and his family visited occasionally. He died there in 1660.
The buildings were neglected over the next several centuries. Louis XVI tried to sell the château but was unsuccessful. It was used instead as military barracks.
When the French Revolution reared its head in 1789, the château was looted and pillaged for anything of value. Any emblems of the monarchy, such as the crown wearing salamander, were torn down and destroyed. It was ceded to the city of Blois in the 19th century by Napoleon Bonaparte, and under Louis Phillippe I in 1840 it was classified as an historic monument.
Major restoration work in the 20th century has created the beautiful château we can see today.
Here is the official website of the Château of Blois
This link will take you to a fantastic video showing you the construction of the château using digital technology. Browse a little on the page and there are other great videos to watch about Blois.