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From Romantic Castles and Palaces, As Seen and Described by Famous Writers, edited and translated by Esther Singleton; New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1901; pp. 321-328.
CHÂTEAU DE CHINON, FRANCE.
TO the traveller who arrives at Chinon from the south or west, the aspect of the old castle is imposing. What an effect it must have produced at the period of its full splendour! Originally it was a fortress situated on an eminence commanding the course of the Vienne and the fertile plain of Veron. It might be regarded as the key of lower Touraine. Therefore we see the Romans, the Visigoths, the Franks, and, later, the Counts of Anjou and Touraine, the Kings of England and France sparing no efforts to secure its possession. In 462, Frederic, brother of Theodoric King of the Visigoths, having advanced as far as the banks of the Loire, seized the Castle of Chinon: up to that time the Romans had occupied it, and by its favourable position it had become the last citadel of their power in this part of Gaul. Ægidius Afranius, the Roman governor of Gaul, hastened into Touraine to recover Chinon; but he could not do it by force of arms. Despairing of carrying the place of assault, the Romans blockaded it. The defenders were at the last extremity from lack of water when a violent storm poured abundant rain within the ramparts. The Romans raised the siege and the Visigoths remained masters of the castle until the defeat of Alaric in the plains of Vouille. The conquering Clovis 322 understood the importance of this military post and made it one of the ramparts of his kingdom.
The Frankish princes installed themselves there so well that no foe ever thought of disputing its possession with them. The Carlovingians were still its masters when feudalism transformed to the profit of the great barons the precarious title that they held by the confidence of the sovereign. Thibault the Trickster had Touraine as his share in this vast parcelling out of France. He had the Castle of Chinon repaired and often resided there, as in an impregnable fortress. Thibault’s lot in the partition of the territory was not in the least an agreeable one, for he had to defend it against the envy of his neighbors. Touraine for about a century was a prey over which rival powers fought. In the end it remained with the strongest. The Count of Anjou became completely master of it after the battle of Nouy, fought on the heights of Montlouis in 1044. Even in the bosom of this powerful house there were quarrels over the possession of the Castle of Chinon. An unequal partition between Geoffroy le Barbu and Foulques le Rechin led to war between those two brothers. Abandoned and betrayed by his followers, Geoffroy was made prisoner and cast into the cells of the Castle of Chinon, where he remained closely immured for the space of eighteen years with such rigour that he almost lost his reason. Nothing less than the intervention of Pope Urban II. In 1096 was required to have him set at liberty.
Thanks to a marriage, the house of Anjou mounted the throne of England and Chinon became a royal possession. 323 Henry Plantagenet, great-grandson of Foulques le Rechin, brings this fine residence into new relief. Henry II. made it his favourite manor. He made it the seat of a royally privileged domain, comprising Cande, Champigny, La Haye, L’Île Bouchard, Saint Epain, Sainte Maure, Azay le Rideau and Bourgueil. Henry II. added to the Castle of Chinon a fortress distinct from the other buildings, with its own ramparts, moats, gates, drawbridges, buildings for the accommodation of the King, his court and his archers, and its church dedicated to St. George. From his donjon keep, the King of England ceaselessly laboured to increase his territory and his influence on the Continent. By means of his marriage with Eleanor of Guienne, repudiated by King Louis VII., he had become more powerful than his sovereign. It seems as if nothing could stay the course of such success, were it not for discord in his own family. At war with Philip Augustus, and with his own son the famous Richard Cœur de Lion, the King of England retired to Chinon. Necessity compelled him to sign with the King of France the humiliating peace of Azay sur Cher. “Shame!” he cried, “shame to the vanquished king! Cursed be the day I was born! Curses upon my two sons!” This fit of fury sent him to the tomb, July 6, 1189. He was carried without pomp to the Abbey of Fontévrault, near Chinon, where he had desired to be buried.
Ten years later, another train took the same road: it was that of Richard Cœur de Lion. Being mortally wounded at the siege of Chaluz, that prince caused himself to be taken to Chinon, where he quickly succumbed in cruel 324 agony. He was buried beside Henry II. in the Abbey of Fontévrault, that celebrated house that has had as abbess fourteen princesses of the royal blood, and that had deserved the name of King’s Cemetery. In an obscure corner are still to be seen the admirable statues of the counts of Anjou, masterpieces of the statuary at the close of the Twelfth Century.
At that time, nothing presaged that the Castle of Chinon was to leave the hands of the Kings of England, when suddenly a protracted cry of horror and indignation resounded through the world. John Lackland had just got rid of his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, by a cowardly murder at Rouen. Philip Augustus summoned the murderer to appear before the court of the peers of the realm. After several adjournments regularly notified, the criminal, not having presented himself, was condemned to lose the fiefs held from the French crown. The sentence was easy to deliver, but not so easy to execute. The King of France hastened to Touraine at the head of an army and took possession of Tours, Loches and Chinon.
It must be admitted that the Castle of Chinon was valiantly defended; it was carried by assault after an obstinate struggle in 1205. Philip Augustus gave it a good garrison. After that day, the English never set foot in it; and when during our intestine discord they profited by treason and dominated many of our provinces, the Castle of Chinon was the last refuge of the monarchy. From there were struck all the blows that gave France back her independence.325
Feudalism had greatly lessened the royal power. Noble efforts had been made to restore the authority that the king ought never to have lost. These attempts had produced memorable results; but the great feudatories were discontented. They wanted to profit by the minority of Louis IX. and the regency of a woman to recover the power that had escaped them. Events called St. Louis and Queen Blanche to Chinon. The young king held a parliament of twenty days at the castle gates. The rebel lords refused to attend, but their plans were rendered abortive, thanks to the activity of Blanche of Castile.
Philip Augustus had partly rebuilt the Castle of Chinon: the Thirteenth Century work is easily visible amid the later constructions. Under the reign of St. Louis, further works to render this fortress as a whole more formidable were executed.
In 1308, a great bustle was manifest in the Castle and town of Chinon: Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the Order of the Templars, Hughes de Péraldo, Visitor of France, and the Commanders of Cyprus, Aquitaine and Normandy had just been brought in. Other Knights of the same Order had already been confined there. They were all to be taken to Poictiers where were Pope Clement V. and Phillipe le Bel, King of France; but several of them had fallen ill on the road, so the sovereign pontiff deputed three cardinals to proceed with the investigation at Chinon. Every one knows the result of these grave proceedings: the Order of the Templars was suppressed, and those who were prisoners at Chinon only left their cells to 326 go to the stake at Paris. They had confessed their crimes in the question to which they had been put; but most of them retracted amidst the flames. This frightful execution took place in 1313.*
Towards the end of the Fourteenth Century, Charles VI. ceded the duchy of Touraine and the county of Chinon to his brother Louis, Duke of Orleans, who was afterwards assassinated by order of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. This period recalls the most mournful memories of our history. Our land was ravaged by bands of English, skilful to profit by our dissensions. At last the hour of deliverance has arrived. France will now see more prosperous days; and Charles VII., the Victorious, will stretch his sceptre over the territory formerly subject to his ancestor.
Charles VII. established his court at Chinon. Joan of Arc came to see him there and to inaugurate her extraordinary mission beneath the castle arches. Everybody knows the details of the heroine’s arrival at Chinon: how she recognized the disguised king in the midst of his courtiers, revealed a secret known only to himself and God, showed herself full of confidence in the cause that she was to make triumphant and finally succeeded in inspiring the hearts of others with the enthusiasm that overflowed her own.
Thus the first public deeds of the providential mission of Joan of Arc are connected with Chinon. At this moment, Charles VII. had by his side another woman of generous heart and strong spirit: this was the queen, Marie of Anjou. Her influence was greater than historians have 327 recognized; it was much more salutary and efficacious than that of Agnes Sorel. When the latter appeared at Chinon for the first time before the eyes of Charles VII., it was already six months since Joan of Arc had gone to the stake at Rouen. Is not that enough for us to say that France had already been saved and that the advice and remonstrances of Agnes Sorel came too late?
However that may be, the presence of Agnes Sorel at the court of Chinon was insupportable to the Dauphin, afterwards Louis XI. He even made it a pretext for a conspiracy against his father. These designs of an unnatural son did not succeed, but they poisoned the King’s last years.
In 1461, Charles VII. died at Mehun sur Yèvre, and Louis XI. succeeded to the throne. Louis XI. took up his abode by preference at the Castle of Plessis-les-Tours: he often came to Chinon. It was in the environs of that town, at the Castle of Forges, that he felt the first attack of the malady that carried him off. Philippe de Commines, Seigneur d’Argenton, governor of the Castle of Chinon, informs us how this accident, which was nothing less than an attack of apoplexy, came upon him.
In the very year of the death of Louis XI. a famous personage in buffoon literature was born at Chinon. François Rabelais is the most cynical of writers, and if, as some people assert, he tried to hide his philosophy beneath the masque of folly, it must be acknowledged that he succeeded.
After the reign of Louis XI., the Castle of Chinon was 328 very little frequented by the court. Catherine de’ Medici was there in 1560, and the Duke of Anjou, afterwards Henry III. appeared there at the head of his army, marching against the Reformers, who were to be so rudely chastised in the plains of Montoncour.
In 1629, the Princess de Conti, who possessed Chinon by virtue of an exchange of property with Henry of Lorraine, Duke of Chevreuse, sold the castle with all its dependencies to Cardinal Richelieu. The sale gave the signal, so to speak, for the demolition of the royal castle of the Plantagenets and French monarchs. When the Revolution, that piled up so many ruins arrived, it found nothing more to do here.
The remains of the old manor are still gigantic. Those high walls, dismantled curtains, crenellated masonry, and discrowned turrets harbour glorious memories; but it is not always easy to distinguish what belongs to each century, or clearly to discern the work of the Romans or the Visigoths, of Thibault the Trickster, Henry II., Philip Augustus, Charles VII., or Louis XI. The greater part of these ruins, however, is characteristic of the Fifteenth Century. Scarcely anything remains intact except the belfry tower, now called the Tour de l’Horloge, twenty to twenty-five meters in height. These picturesque ruins belong to the town of Chinon, having been left to it by the house of Richelieu.
* For a detailed account of the fate of the Templars, see the Chapter XV, The History of Chivalry, by G. P. R. James, on this site.