Chinon a formidable Fortress at the heart of a vast Empire

One of the greateast mythical places! History has stopped many times at Chinon. Just think about it and marvel before this formidable Fortress. It occupies a rocky outcrop above the city, the Plantagenet Royal Fortress was the centre of the Kingdom of France, birthplace of Rabelais the great humanist and  let it not be forgotten that Chinon is the most important designation of Loire red wine … 

The poor little sheperd girl

One date amongst many stands out… March 9th, 1429, as the sun was setting… “l was present myself in the town and in the château of Chinon and I saw her when she presented herself to his Royal Majesty with great humility and sim­plicity, the poor little shepherd girl”, wrote Raoul de Gaucourt, Governor of Orleans. The poor little sheperd girl was Joan of Arc.

 

Fortress of Chinon in 1429 from Histoire de France by François Guizot (1875)
Fortress of Chinon in 1429 from Histoire de France by François Guizot (1875)

Chinon the heart of a vast empire and the seat of the Plantagenets

The history of the Fortress of Chinon, the best protected in Touraine began well before the meeting of Joan of Arc and the Dauphin. This stronghold, first Neolithic then Gallic, a Roman fort and then medieval Fortress belonged to the Counts of Anjou. Anjou, at that time, was allied to the English throne. After falling into the hands of Henry II Plantagenet, Duke of Anjou and King of England, Chinon became his Royal Seat. Henry II was a builder King (he covered Touraine and Anjou with Romanesque churches with domical vaulting, the famous “Plantagenet” style) an astute politician with a good sense of strategy. When he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom Louis VII had repudiated, her dowry gave England the whole of the Southwest of France, and he became more powerful than his suzerain, the King of France. Powerful as he was, however, he could not prevent his own son the famous Richard the Lionheart, from waging war upon him on the 6th July, 1189. He was abandoned by all, even betrayed by his children.

The Plantagenet style was in competition against Parisian Gothic (like in Reims and Paris) offering lighter vaults and much more direct light. As the Gothic Plantagenet style could not achieve that, it lost the competition.
Voûte Plantagenêt in La tour du Moulin, a rare exemple in a military context.Three arrowslits cover the arches of the vaulted ceiling. The Plantagenet style was in competition against Parisian Gothic (like in Reims and Paris) offering lighter vaults and much more direct light. As the Gothic Plantagenet style could not achieve that, it lost the competition (Photo FC)
The sentry walk on the ramparts lead to the Mill Tower built in the late 12 th century by the Plantagenet Kings and has a segmented-style vaulted ceiling Photo FC)
The sentry walk on the ramparts leads to the Mill Tower built in the late 12 th Century by the Plantagenet Kings and has a segmented-style vaulted ceiling Photo FC)
The Royal Quarters. Duke Louis I of Anjou had the royal quarters rebuilt around 1370, using the existing building that dated back to the 8 th century. In the 15 th century, the Royal Quarters housed the apartments of Charles VII and his wife, Mary of Anjou. Joan of Arc also met the King here in 1429 (Photo FC)
The Royal Quarters. Duke Louis I of Anjou had the royal quarters rebuilt around 1370, using the existing building that dated back to the 8 th Century. In the 15 th Century, the Royal Quarters housed the apartments of Charles VII and his wife, Mary of Anjou. Joan of Arc also met the King here in 1429 (Photo FC)

The King is dead!

 On the 7th July 1189, Henry II, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, Duke of Aquitaine and … King of England breathed his last breath at Chinon, his favourite residence. He was 56 years old and he died of grief. His eldest son, Richard the Lionheart, had declared a bitter war on him and his youngest son, and favourite, King John had betrayed him. No sooner did give up the ghost than his heirs looted his furniture and personal belongings, leaving him naked on a table. It was a young pageboy who took pity on him; he threw a cloak over the body. The body of Henry II of England and Count of Anjou, one of the most powerful man of his time, was lying miserably on a stretcher. As to the Royal Treasure, it was never found. Richard the Lionheart, who rushed to Chinon as soon as he heard the news, met the funeral procession as it was leaving Chinon for the Abbey of Fontevraud. The corpse which was not placed in a coffin, was bleeding from the nose, a bad omen! Ten years later it was Richard’s turn. He was wounded at the siege of Châlus, and taken to Chinon, where he died.

The Royal Quarters (Photo FC)
The Royal Quarters from the Boissy Tower (Photo FC)
From the sentry walk on the ramparts, you can get exceptional views of the surrounding countryside and the Vienne river valley (Photo FC)
From the sentry walk on the ramparts, you can get exceptional views of the surrounding countryside and the Vienne river Valley (Photo FC)

The English driven out of Chinon

A quite ordinary (!) assassination was to change the course of his­tory and return Chinon to the French. Henry II’s second son, John Lackland, who was married to Isabelle d’Angouleme, had plotted the murder of his nephew, Arthur of Britanny. For that he was condemned to give back all the fiefs he held from the French Crown. This enabled Philippe Auguste to expulse the English from Chinon once and for all and to occupy the castle himself. The new master altered the architecture of the Fortress to make it even more military than before: he added the Coudray Keep, which is 25 metres high.

Four effigies can be found in the abbey church of The Royal Abbey of Fontevraud founded in 1101: Eleanor of Aquitaine who spent the last years of her life in Fontevraud, her son Richard the Lionheart as well as his father King Henry II (who died in Chinon) and Isabella of Angouleme, wife of John Lackland (Photo FC)
Four effigies can be found in the Abbey Church of The Royal Abbey of Fontevraud founded in 1101: Eleanor of Aquitaine who spent the last years of her life in Fontevraud, her son Richard the Lionheart as well as his father King Henry II (who died in Chinon) and Isabelle of Angouleme, wife of John Lackland (Photo FC)
Effigies of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II at Fontevraud (Photo FC)
Effigies of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II at Fontevraud (Photo FC)

The Templar’s prison

A little over a century later in 1307 and 1308 Philippe Le Bel, King of France, turned the Dungeon at Coudray into a prison for major dignitaries of the Order of the Temple, before they were transferred and burned alive in Paris. You can see moving messages left by the Templars on the walls of the tower (in 1308, Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, was held prisoner in the castle during the Trials of the Templars). And what about the crime committed at Chinon during the reign of Philip the Long a few years later? One hundred and sixty Jews were burned, unjustly accused of having poisoned the wells.

Jeanne in front of Chinon

On March the 6th 1429 at “high time”, just as the sun glows on the hori­zon, Joan of Arc and Robert Baudricourt appear before the formi­dable Fortress of Chinon, three castles separated by ditches and a fantastic fortified enclosure 400m long. They only had to cross the bridge over the Vienne. Suddenly Joan stops dead, petrified to continue. Would she, a simple shepherdess, be able to con­vince the man they derisively called the “Little King of Bourges”?
“Go boldly”encouraged a voice, “he will receive you and believe you!” So, with a firm step, she crosses the bridge. The small troupe enters the enclosure through the fortifications of the Fort St. George. Then she crossed the drawbridge and arrived at the Middle Castle, home of the heir to the throne, by the Clock Tower. Did she, innocent Joan, realise that she was about to meet a man scorned and challenged, who doubted his own origins, the future Charles VII? France, at the height of the Hundred Years War, was
partially occupied by the English, while a civil war between Burgundy and Armagnac was ravaging the country.

The fire place is all that is left of the great hall on the first floor where Joan of Arc was received (Photo FC)
The fire place is all that is left of the great hall on the first floor where Joan of Arc was received (Photo FC)

“God give you long life kind Dauphin”

Louis de Bourbon, Count of Vendome, Grand Master of the King’s house was waiting for her. At the sight of this young girl wearing the rough black clothes of an equerry, he believed that it was a trick. Negotiations lasted two days. Charles did not wish to receive her, fearing a trap. Finally, the hearing is held in the great hall of the Royal House (now in ruins). It is a huge room, 90 feet long by 50 wide, lit by fifty torches. Three hundred gentlemen are crammed in. Joan advances alone, they only just about let her pass. Everyone is pushing and shoving to see her. Whipping people aside the bailiffs open a path to the throne. This is when something extraordinary happened. Instead of going towards the Royal dais, where the Count of Clermont is standing, she goes towards a gentleman in the crowd. At a spear’s distance, she kneels. Silence falls, the crowd is stunned. The crowd can hear the crackling of the torches: “God give you long life, kind Dauphin. -It’s not me, he said, pointing to the Count of ClermontIn God’s name, it is you and not another.”

Joan's first meeting with Charles took place here, at the Royal Court at Chinon in 1429, when she was aged 17 and he 26. She promised Charles she would see him crowned king at Reims, the traditional site of French royal investiture, and asked him to give her an army to lead to Orléans, then under siege from the English.
Joan’s first meeting with Charles took place here, at the Royal Court at Chinon in 1429, when she was aged 17 and he 26. She promised Charles she would see him crowned King at Reims, the traditional site of French royal investiture and asked him to give her an army to lead to Orléans, then under siege from the English (miniature Musée de Rouen)

To crown him at Reims

Charles is stunned. Joan tells him that her mission for that day is to crown him at Reims, in private, a secret that would never be revealed. The Dauphin convinced, offers her whom is already being called the Maid of Orleans, armour and a small band of soldiers. Orleans under siege since October 1428 and her people were starving. Dunois begged her to go with him to lend a hand. Joan enters the city by surprise at the head of a supply convoy. May 8th 1429, the City was liberated. The Dauphin can finally leave Chinon.

On 17th July 1429, Charles VII was crowned king of France in Reims beside the Maid of Orleans and her proud banner (Photo FC)
On 17th July 1429, Charles VII was crowned king of France in Reims beside the Maid of Orleans and her proud banner (Photo FC)

An arranged hearing

This telling of the recognition of the Heir to the throne by the maid of Orleans in the great hall of the Royal residence in Chinon, in front of his entire court is not entirely accurate. In the records of her trial, Joan stated that she had met him previously. Their first meeting was in secret in the King’s chamber, thanks to Joan’s powerful protector Yolande of Aragon, whose daughter, Marie of Anjou, had married Count Charles Ponthieu (heir to the throne) seven years earlier without ceremony. So Joan had no difficulty that day in recognising the future Charles VII.

An apt setting for Gargantua

In the 15th century it was at Chinon that the annulment of the marriage between Louis XII and Jeanne de France took place, ena­bling Louis to marry Ann of Brittany. In 1493, or perhaps 1494 the wife of one Antoine Rabelais, a man of law attached to the Royal Seat at Chinon, gave birth to little François, literary Father of the giant Gargantua. He is supposed to have been born 5 km away, at La Devinère, where his father had “a house in the fields”.

 

The Argenton Tower topped by the vineyard of Chinon. In 1477, King Louis XI gave the Fortress of Chinon to Philippe de Commynes, Lord of Argenton. The Argenton tower reinforced the north west corner of the Middle Castle with battlements capable of withstanding new gunpowder weapons. The tower was converted into a prison in the 17 th century, as can be seen by the graffiti that still marks the walls. (Photo FC)
The Argenton Tower topped by the vineyard of Chinon. In 1477, King Louis XI gave the Fortress of Chinon to Philippe de Commynes, Lord of Argenton. The Argenton tower reinforced the north west corner of the Middle Castle with battlements capable of withstanding new gunpowder weapons. The tower was converted into a prison in the 17 th century, as can be seen by the graffiti that still marks the walls. (Photo FC)

The Clock Tower : this is the "gate" tower to the Middle Castle. It was built by Jean Sans Terre in 1200, as he prepared the Fortress for war. The tower was subsequently altered several times and by the late 14th century, it was raised to make room for a clock and reach its current height (Photo FC)
The Clock Tower : this is the “gate” tower to the Middle Castle. It was built by Jean Lackland in 1200 as he prepared the Fortress for war. The tower was subsequently altered several times and by the late 14th Century it was raised to make room for a clock and reach its current height (Photo FC)

Chinon saved by Mérimée

Charles VII returned regularly to Chinon with his court up until 1447, to the point of building a small house (known as the Roberdeau) for his favourite, Agnes Sorel. During the seventeenth Century, Cardinal Richelieu and his heirs became owners of the castle. They left it to fall into ruin, so much so that there was even talk of demolishing it. In 1808 after the Revolution, the monument was donated to the borough council (today known as the general council). In 1854, Prosper Mérimée saved it from destruction and
the first restorations began. In 2010, after six years of excavation and six years of site restoration unprecedented in Europe, Chinon has given its Fortress its military splendour and coherence of days gone by.

Tourists from around the world visiting Chinon (Photo FC)
Tourists from around the world visiting Chinon (Photo FC)

Three Fortresses in one

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Royal Fortress of Chinon is one of the few medieval sites in the Loire Valley. The Castle is built on 3ha of rocky spur 400m long over­ looking the Vienne river. On three sides there are steep cliffs. The Castle, of which only ruins are left, is composed of three Fortresses separated by deep dry moats.

  • The first one is the Fort St. Georges to the east. Only the curtain-walls are still visible. Its purpose was to protect the side of the castle that was accessible from the plateau.
  • The Château du Milieu is reached by going under the tall Tour de l’Horloge (clock tower), which houses the Joan of Arc Museum, after crossing a bridge over the moat. This is the Grand Logis, (12th, 14th and 15th Centuries), with the Royal apartments. On the first floor you will find the Great Hall where Charles VII received Joan of Arc on 9 March 1429. The only thing left of the throne room is the west wall with its large fireplace.
  • The Fort du Coudray. This is a round Keep, at the tip of the spur, reached by a second bridge. It was built by Philippe Auguste and it is there that the Templars were imprisoned. Joan of Arc used it in 1429.

Chinon Plan-parcours

Christmas at the Royal Fortress of Chinon As a symbol of "rebirth", the pine tree was associated to Christmas throughout the Middle Ages. By the end of the 15th century, it started to be used inside houses. Since then, its decoration evoluted gradually (Photo FC)
Christmas at the Royal Fortress of Chinon. As a symbol of “rebirth”, the pine tree was associated with Christmas throughout the Middle Ages. By the end of the 15th Century, it started to be used inside houses (Photo FC)
Christmas at the Royal Fortress of Chinon (Photo FC)
Christmas at the Royal Fortress of Chinon (Photo FC)

Clos de l’Echo, the best known vineyard within the entire Chinon appellation

Just across from and to the west of the medieval Fortress of the Château de Chinon, the Clos de l’Echo is the best known vineyard within the entire Chinon appellation* taking its name from the echo transmitted from the northern cliff of the Fortress. The legend goes that doubtful lovers would tease their maidens by shouting a pair of leading questions: “Les femmes de Chinon, sont-elles fidèles?” “Elles” asks the echo. “Oui, les femmes de Chinon“. “Non” says the echo. The Clos de l’Echo, 100% Cabernet Franc was once owned by François Rabelais’ family. In 1952 it was bought by René and Madelaine Couly.

Le Clos de l’Echo (the best known vineyard of the Chinon appellation) is Just across from and to the west of the medieval fortress of the Château de Chinon (Photo FC)
Le Clos de l’Echo (the best known vineyard of the Chinon appellation) is just across from and to the west of the medieval Fortress of the Château de Chinon (Photo FC)
From the vineyard, The Clock Tower of the Fortress of Chinon (DR)
From the vineyard, The Clock Tower of the Fortress of Chinon (DR)

*AOC Chinon is the most important designation of Loire red wine (15 millions bottles per year): red (85%), rosé (13%) and white (2%). Vineyards are present in 26 villages, to the south west of Tours. The various wines of Chinon are grown on alluvial terraces, hillsides and limestone hills overlooking the Loire and the Vienne rivers, or on plateau of flint and clay. The Cabernet Franc grape, the “star of Chinon” is locally called “Breton”.

A selected bibliography of the Author (6 books by François Collombet) :

 

 

 

 

 

 

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