The Château de Chambord was our first stop on our day-trip from Paris to see the Loire Valley. Chambord is one of the most distinctive châteaux of all the grand estates in the Loire. It is also the largest, tallying 440 rooms (60 of them open to the public), 282 fireplaces, 77 staircases, and over 800 sculpted columns. It is a perfect example of French Renaissance architecture, blending French medieval tradition (a central keep in the shape of a Greek cross, round bastions at the corners, two wings, two towers, a curtain wall) with the classical influences of the Italian Renaissance. The château is also one of the inspirations for the castle in Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and, when I take you up to see a closer view of the towers on the roof later in this post, you will see why.
The owners of the Château de Chambord and the progression of their tenancy present a microcosm of France’s turbulent political history over the last 500 years. The château was commissioned by François I (1494-1547) in 1519, who planned to use it as a (super-fancy) lodge for hunting parties. He appreciated the seclusion of the location in the marshy, game-rich region of Sologne. François (known as Francis in English) was a great patron of the arts, and he kick-started the (Italian-influenced) Renaissance in French art, culture, and architecture. He was a patron of Leonardo da Vinci, and brought the Italian artist and inventor to the Loire Valley in 1517; da Vinci remained there for two years until his passing in 1519. It’s rumoured that da Vinci had a hand in the design of the Château de Chambord, especially with the double-helix staircase, but it is unknown exactly how much he was involved. The original design of the château is attributed to another Italian, architect Domenico da Cortona. However, construction was slow as François was soon caught up in the Italian War of 1521-26. Dwindling royal funds meant that work all but ceased, and there was difficulty with laying the chateau’s foundations in the swampy soil. In 1524, the walls were barely above ground level. In 1526, construction resumed with 1,800 workers hired to work on the project.
François maintained his royal residences at the Château de Blois and the Château d’Amboise; consequently, he spent very little time at Chambord itself. He only spent 72 days in residence at Chambord, and all of this time was part of short hunting visits. However, it should be noted that the château was designed for brief stays rather than for living on a long-term basis. The massive windows, high ceilings, and open windows made it impossible to heat. There was no nearby village or estate to help keep it properly supplied and staffed, so all provisions (including furnishings, as the château was kept unfurnished at the time) had to be brought in by the traveling party, which often numbered 2,000 people. Seclusion has its benefits, but also its challenges.
Like his father, Charles d’Angoulême, François used a crowned salamander as his personal emblem. It was thought that salamanders could walk through flames and extinguish them, hence the motto: nutrisco et extinguo (“I nourish and I extinguish”). For this reason, salamanders are also popular symbols used by firefighters. In medieval lore, a salamander was symbolic of a man who trusted in God and whose soul remained peaceful, even as he walked through the fires of passion, war, and uncertainty. A salamander was also a Christ-like figure who baptized the world with flame. So adopting a salamander as a personal totem signified a man’s bravery, his chastity, as well as power through his ability to harness fire. “Salamander hair” was once marketed to the wealthy for use in their cloaks and garments as a fireproof material that wouldn’t burn; in reality, this indestructible material was actually asbestos.
Chambord was the château François used to impress foreign dignitaries, including his archrival Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, whom he invited to Chambord in 1539. Charles praised Chambord as “a summary of what human industry can achieve.”
Construction on the château was unfinished at the time of François’ death in 1547; the central keep and the royal wing had been completed, but the chapel wing and the lower enclosure were not yet finalized. Following the death of its creator, Chambord fell into disuse for a period of more than 80 years. François’ son, Henri II, died rather unexpectedly in 1559 and royal succession quickly cycled through Henri’s three short-lived sons. The French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) kept the country fairly occupied as tensions between Catholics and Protestants hit a fever pitch.
In 1626, Gaston, Duke of Orléans and brother of King Louis XIII, was granted the County of Blois (to which Chambord belongs). Gaston occasionally dabbled in a little conspiracy here and there against Louis XIII and Prime Minister Cardinal Richelieu, but what’s a little treason, war, and attempted assassination between brothers? Gaston was placed under house arrest in 1534 at Chambord. The Château benefitted from the attention, as the Duke restored the building and its towers, enlarged the property, and completed construction of a wall enclosing the entire estate. It is thanks to him that Chambord was saved from total ruin and became as large as it is today at 13,450 acres, with a wall spanning 32 km (20 miles). It is the largest enclosed park in Europe, and is as vast as inner Paris.
When Gaston died in 1660, Chambord became property once more of the crown. Gaston’s nephew, Louis XIV, completed construction of the château at long last. He finished construction on the chapel wing and the lower enclosure, furnished the royal apartments, added a 1,200 horse stable, and restored the great keep. He and his court visited Chambord seven times between 1660-1685, usually in the autumn, and they spent their weeks hunting, throwing grand balls, and watching comedic performances. Chambord had at last become the grand royal retreat that had been envisioned by François I. Louis XIV’s last visit to Chambord was in 1685, as he soon had another pleasure palace at Versailles to keep him entertained.
In 1725, Chambord became home to the exiled King of Poland, Stanislaw I Leszczsynski, upon marriage of Leszczsynski’s daughter, Maria, to King Louis XV. Leszczsynski enjoyed a quiet, secluded stay in Chambord with his modest court, all the while plotting to recover the Polish throne. Outbreaks of malaria in the summertime occasionally forced Leszczsynski to retreat from Chambord and its marshy grounds to nearby residences (such as Blois). He decided to address the problem of the infected swamp areas around Chambord in order to improve living conditions at the château. He installed bridges and dykes, cleaned and widened the nearby river Cosson to make a canal, raised the walls of the artificial terrace, and deposited extra soil. His work was interrupted in 1733 when destiny called for Leszczsynski once more, when Augustus II of Poland died. Leszczsynski returned to Poland and was elected King. However, his subsequent reign was brief, as Russia and Austria then invaded the country in order to depose him; they didn’t want Leszczsynski to unite Poland with their rivals, Sweden and France. The Château de Chambord would remain empty while Leszczsynski chose to stay in Lorraine following his second loss of the Polish throne.
In 1745, Louis XV gifted Chambord to Maurice de Saxe, Marshal of France, as a reward for his victory in the Battle of Fontenoy. Interestingly, Maurice was one of eight acknowledged illegitimate children of Augustus II, Saxon elector and Leszczsynski’s rival for the Polish throne. Maurice, one of the great generals of the age, installed his military regiment at Chambord. Military maneuvers, hunting parties, and other forms of entertainment kept him and his men entertained. Maurice lowered Chambord’s ceilings, made the rooms smaller, and brought in tiled heaters from his home region of Saxony in an effort to heat the giant estate. Many of the furnishings present today at Chambord are meant to reflect the look of this period. Maurice also had a formal French garden planted, built numerous roadways in the park to better serve his hunting parties and their hounds, and commissioned other projects throughout the château and its grounds. Maurice died in the château on November 30, 1750. Again, Chambord fell into disuse.
In 1792, Chambord was stripped of its furnishings, wall panelings, and even its floors as revolutionary activity swept through the Loire Valley. Anti-monarchists sought to sell everything they could find, even the timber. The panelled doors of Chambord were said to have been burned to keep the rooms warm as everything was sold off. In spite of the thorough ransacking, the château was thankfully not destroyed (as other châteaux were). It remained abandoned until 1809, when Napoleon Bonaparte gifted it to Louis-Alexandre Berthier, Chief of Napoleon’s Staff, French Marshal, and Vice-Constable of the Empire. But Berthier did little with Chambord but pass through it, and his widow later sought to sell it off.
In 1821, a nation-wide fundraising campaign was held to purchase the estate from Berthier’s widow in order to gift it to the one-year old Duke of Bordeaux, Henri of Artois. Henri, also known as the Count of Chambord, was the grandson of Charles X and the last legitimate descendant in the male line of Louis XV of France. Henri’s father Charles Ferdinand, the Duke of Berry, was stabbed by an anti-royalist assassin on February 13, 1420, and died the next day. His wife, Marie-Caroline of Bourbon-Two-Siciles, the Duchess of Berry, gave birth to Henri seven months after Charles’ death. He was called Dieudonné (God-given), as his birth saved the senior male line of the House of Bourbon from extinction.
On August 2, 1830, Charles X abdicated his throne as a result of the July Revolution. Charles’ son Louis Antoine followed suit. Charles X encouraged his cousin, Louis Philippe of Orléans, Lieutenant General of the Kingdom, to proclaim ten-year old Henri as King Henri V. Louis Philippe refused to do so. After a period of seven days, the National Assembly decreed that Louis Philippe was King. It is disputed whether Henri could be considered King of France for that period of time between August 2-9. Monarchists became divided on who they felt was the rightful ruler of France: Henri or Louis Phillippe. Henri’s supporters became known as Legitimists, as he was the genealogically senior claimant to the French throne (especially after Charles X passed away in 1836, and his uncle Louis Antoine in 1844). Those who supported Louis Phillippe’s family and his “July Monarchy” were called Orléanists.
Henri and his family went into exile in Austria on August 16, 1830. The Château de Chambord was the only piece of property Henri was allowed to retain, and he preferred to go by the courtesy title of “The Count of Chambord.” He administered the estate from afar through a steward, commissioning numerous restoration projects to the building and the grounds. The château was opened to visitors for the first time, where Henri had some artwork (such as family portraits) exhibited. Henri hoped to one day return to France, where he would reside in Chambord and reign as King. He waited as France cycled through Louis Philippe’s July Monarchy (1830-1848), the Second Republic of President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (1848-1851), and the Second French Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870). His chance seemed to come with the breakout of the Franco-Prussian War in July of 1870 and the collapse of the Second French Empire. In September, royalists became a majority in the French National Assembly, and restoration of the monarchy seemed like a good possibility. The Orléanists joined forces with the Legitimists, throwing their support behind Henri with the expectation that upon his death (leaving no heirs, as he was childless), their preferred claimant, Philippe d’Orléans (Louis-Philippe’s grandson) would ascend to the throne. However, Henri said that he would accept the crown only if France abandoned the use of the tricolour flag and return to the one with the white fleur-de-lys. He was uncompromising upon this point, and it cost him a crown. Instead of restoring the monarchy with Henri at its head, a temporary Third Republic was established. The royalist majority of the National Assembly intended to wait until Henri died, and then they would move forward with the more liberal Philippe d’Orléans as King. But by the time Henri died in 1883, public opinion had changed and now it preferred a continuation of the republican government. The Third French Republic would last until the breakout of World War II in 1940, and the German occupation of France.
Chambord was used as a field hospital during the Franco-Prussian War, which lasted until January 1871.
Upon Henri’s death, ownership of Chambord fell to his nephews, the princes of Bourbon-Parma (Parma is a city in northern Italy). The estate went first to the elder nephew, Robert, Duke of Parma, who died in 1907, and then to Elias, Prince of Parma. Their Austrian nationality became an issue during World War I, and Chambord was confiscated as enemy property in 1915. Elias’ family sued, and they were compensated for the loss of the estate when the suit was settled in 1932. In 1930, the château became state property. On August 25, 1939, as the Germans began to invade France, many pieces from the Louvre art collection were relocated to Chambord. 203 trucks were used to transport 1,862 wooden cases. The art pieces were moved from chateau to chateau throughout the Loire Valley, trying to keep them out of the hands of the Nazis.
On June 22, 1944, an American heavy bomber plane, a B-24 “Liberator” from the U.S. Air Force based out of England, crashed on the lawn of Chambord. The crew parachuted to safety, and the pilot and co-pilot were hidden separately in nearby villages for several months. The pilot, Lt. William Kalan, took part in Allied arms drops and other French Resistance activities while in hiding. Both Klemstine and his co-pilot, Lt. Kenneth Klemstine, crossed the Loire and joined up with approaching U.S. troops as the Loire Valley was liberated from German occupation.
In 1981, the Château de Chambord was added to UNESCO’s world heritage list.
And, with the history settled, lets move on to some more pictures taken from our visit!
Let’s start with the roof, as that is the highlight of the visit. It’s also where we started, as our time was short and we wanted to make sure we had enough time to appreciate it.
Here is the top of the double-helix stairwell, which takes you up to the roof. The stairwell is housed in the most beautiful tower on the terrace, known as the lantern tower.
The inside of the stairwell (this picture is from Pixabay, as my shot ended up being too blurry to use).
This shot, also from Pixabay, is too good not to use. How many salamanders can you see?
The exterior of the lantern tower.
As promised, let’s now take a look at the castle used in Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
Here are some stills featuring the castle from the 1991 animated film.
The similarities are even more apparent with the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast in 2017. (Which, coincidentally, I watched on the plane on our flight over to France, and so I had the songs stuck in my head the whole time we were touring the countryside).
Back to the real castle, for comparison’s sake.
Looking at the grounds from the terrace of the real tower.
All right, let’s go back through the château itself. Let’s start with some stained glass windows.
Let’s check out some of the furnished apartment rooms. Remember, furnishings weren’t kept at Chambord until the time of Maurice de Saxe, and all original items that remained at Chambord would have been pillaged and sold off during the French Revolution. Other period-appropriate pieces have been brought back to Chambord to recreate what the rooms would have looked like.
A copy of a painting of The Field of the Cloth of Gold; the original hangs at Hampton Court Palace. It depicts a summit that took place between Francis I and Henry VIII from June 7-24, 1520, in northern France near the then-English held Calais. Both Francis and Henry wanted to be seen as Renaissance princes, and tried to outdo each other at this meeting. Their tents and costumes featured an expensive fabric woven with silk and gold thread, as can be seen in the painting below.
A photograph of the original painting, from Wikipedia. Please note the dragon in the top left corner.
All right, that does it for the Château de Chambord. Next up, the Château d’Amboise!