Who hasn’t dreamt about visiting Chambord ? Undoubtedly, this castle is the crazy dream of a young King, François I, but nevertheless, during the forty years of his reign, he only spent forty days there. Five centuries after the commencement of its construction, seeing it is still a dream. To reach the château you must enter deep into the grounds, a superb 5000-hectare state forest enclosed by a 32 km. wall, with six gates corresponding to the six main avenues. When rounding a bend, Chambord suddenly appears in the glory of its white stone, the visitor is transfixed, petrified by the unreal, dream-like magnificence of the vision. So, this is Chambord, the most grandiose, the most majestic, the most sumptuous of all châteaux of the Loire. With it grandiose symmetrical facade (230-meters long) flanked with four enormous towers, surely only Versailles can equal it.
Together in Chambord, France and Italy to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death
The crazy dream of a young King
December 1539, a distinguished guest is expected in Chambord. Everything must be ready. Four hundred and forty rooms, eighty-three staircases and three hundred and sixty-five fireplaces must be prepared for the arrival of Charles V. «Let us go to my place» says François I falsely modest to his imperial guest, who has no choice but to admire the architectural exploit and the thousand and one masterpieces gathered in Chambord.
So, are you prepared for the visit ? There is still a long way to introduce yourself into the Chambord’s world.
I/ The most spectacular to see in the Château
II/ Brief History of Château de Chambord
III/ What you need to know about Chambord
IV/ New projects for Chambord
V/ The Francois I vineyard is back to Chambord
I/ The most spectacular to see in the château
The famous double helix staircase inspired by Leonardo da Vinci
The most extraordinary party venue ever seen! Judge for yourself: 440 rooms, 73 staircases, (including 10 principal), 365 windows and an infinity of corridors and galleries. Impressive dimensions of 157-meters long by 114 meters wide, not to mention the incredible staircase, a real feat for the period! The staircase is in the center of the castle at the meeting point of four central galleries. It had to serve all the apartments occupied by the guests of the King without them having to go up and come down in permanence. In addition of all this, outhouses, kitchens and stables, there is a falconry, which could accommodate 300 hawks. There are also the kennels, which housed hundreds of hunting dogs. Last but not least, there is fairy-tale roof terrace. The roof terrace forms a miniature city, consisted of carved stone gables, dormers, chimneys and pinnacles under the 32-meters- high lantern, creating an extraordinary crown for the château.
Chambord, the influence of Leonardo da Vinci
In September 1519, François I ordered the construction of Chambord. The year 2019 is marked by the half-millennium of the outset of the construction of Chambord, the most eminent Renaissance castle in the world*. In 2019, France and Italy honor also the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death in the Loire Valley in a fine manor house at Clos-Lucé in Amboise. No doubt the role of Leonardo was the brain behind the work of François I. His influence in drawing up the Chambord construction project is displayed when comparing the architectural orientations adopted in Chambord with the sketches in his notebooks.
* And also, the birth of Catherine de Médicis in Florence.
One of miracles of the world
Who could be more crazy than François I for building bigger, more beautiful, more luxurious? Everything was built without moderation. To see this white palace draped in the mist in the early morning, appearing in the middle of the woods and marshes, is a surreal dream. The poet Alfred de Vigny compares Chambord to the shiny hair of a girl! Brantôme said, : “it is one of miracles of the world.”Nevertheless, François I only stayed here for brief periods. Brief visits for hunting in the autumn mornings,where Chambord awoke to the sound of horns and fell asleep in the twilight. There were periods where hunters and followers would thrown disembowelled deer and wild boar at the ladies feet in the glow of the gigantic fireplaces.
Who are the real architects of Chambord?
Could it be Leonardo da Vinci, installed nearby in Clos Lucé, Amboise ? The King and this genius of the Italian Renaissance got along famously. The place is chosen, it will be Chambord. Together, they work on the plans. Their imagination ran wild, as far as diverting the Loire, (over 4 km away) to surround the castle. The engineers of the King, frightened by the project, dissuade him. Da Vinci died on May 2nd 1519, just before the start of work. François I then appointed François de Pontbriant as the man of the situation. Another supposition suggests Dominique de Cortone, known as “the Boccador”, created a wooden model of the castle. Did he work from Leonardo da Vinci’s plans? The Italian influence is strong. One name remains attached to this monumental undertaking; that of Jean Le Breton, responsible to finance the construction of Chambord and who took advantage of this responsability to build Villesavin and also Villandry. Construction would continue for a very long time to bring this “colossal whim” to conclusion, exhausting 1,800 workers and the kingdom’s finances. At the time the dungeon foundations finally rose, and the defeat of Pavie and the captivity of the King of Spain took place. “Everything is lost except honour” he wrote to his mother.
II/ Brief History of Château de Chambord
Over a century of construction
Why Chambord? Why the site of a small manor house, the hunting place of the counts of Blois? The château is said to have been haunted during autumn nights by a malefic black hunter. Chambord, in the manner of Versailles, was the decision of Prince, Francis I who had just celebrated his twenty fifth birthday. He likes this place, abounding in game, and situated near to his good friend, the Countess of Thouin. Upon his return from Italy in 1519, he decided to build a castle in his excessive image. “Such is our pleasure,” he liked to say! It would be his life work. He saw everything on a huge scale, even diverting the course of the Cosson to the foot of the castle to provide water for moats and lakes. Huge amounts of money were engulfed and thousands worked around the clock. Often interrupted, the work lasted over twenty-five years. At the King’s death in 1547, Chambord was still un finished.
Until the Sun King
Upon the return of Francis I, in 1526, he arrived at Chambord to oversee the construction work. The dungeon would take 12 years to raise. Towers and pavilions would be covered before undertaking the buildings forming the enclosure. When the death bell resounded as far as Chambord, on the 31st of March 1547, to announce the death of the King, the chapel and the lower wings were still incomplete. Henry II, son of Francis I, continued the work until his death during a jousting tournament in July 1552. Then came the religious wars. Chambord would only be finished one century later, by a King just as crazy about greatness as Francis I, Louis XIV- the Sun King!
A nomadic court
Chambord was only inhabited for high days and holidays or for hunting. The furniture pre-dates it with hangings and tapestries to warm the cold walls of the immense castle. Beds with curtains and hair mattresses were also installed near fireplaces to try to keep warm. Tables rose on trestles. There were no chairs, but stools. No forks, but fingers. Nevertheless it is frowned upon to wipe your nose on your sleeve! From this, new treaty of “savoir-vivre” is brought to the court, that of Il libro Del Cortegiano published by Baldassare Castiglione in 1528.
François I in Chambord
From his expeditions to Italy, François I brings back a new art of living known as “the Renaissance” to France. Following the example of the Italian patrons, he attracted the most famous artists of the time. He lived surrounded by a large court of which Chambord was built to house during hunts and high holidays. It is a nomadic court, which accompanies the King to the castle. At Chambord (where François I only ever stayed a few weeks), the King settled in the eastern wing and the northeast tower. His immense bedroom opens onto the lake and the grounds through vast windows. Everywhere, the walls are decorated with the salamander, his emblem. Next to the royal chamber is a dressing room, a bathroom and latrines. He also had a secret staircase built, giving access to the moats of the castle, a good means to escape, to tie up intrigues or to hold secret romantic encounters.
An insatiable Lover
François I, prisoner of Charles V after the defeat of Pavie, regained his freedom in 1525 by the treaty of Cambrai, also known as “the Lady’s peace.” He had promised to marry in exchange Eleonore of Hapsburg. Having been Queen of Portugal, Eleonore thus became Queen of France in 1530. The King, who preferred his mistresses nevertheless, abandoned this woman, of whom Théodore de Bèze loved to sing her beauty. It was during his last stay in Chambord in 1545, that Francis I would engrave, using the point of a diamond on the window pane of his bedroom, two verses that have become famous: “A woman often varies. Crazy is he who trusts her.”Louis XIV, accompanied by the young Marie Mancini, read this sentence and broke the pane. But to whom were these disenchanted verses intended? To the countess of Thouin or to Claude of France – more sweet than beautiful and slightly lame like her mother – Anne of Brittany? And how many women did this chiv¬alrous King and serial lover seduce? There was after Claude the new Queen, the beautiful Eleonor of Hapsburg, sister of Charles V, his second bride. 1530 was an exceptional year; the King spent a full month at Chambord in her company.
Claude, Eleonore, Françoise, Anne and the others
Who would have been able to list all of the mistresses of the King? Two of them marked this insatiable Sovereign. The dark corridors and the hidden staircase of Chambord allowed him to join them discreetly. The first one was the haughty and very spiritual Françoise de Châteaubriant. A woman of temperament, married at the age of seventeen to Jean of Montmorency-Laval, Count of Châteaubriant, she became the mistress of the King in 1518, for a “reign” lasting ten years. Nobody could ignore the style she showed when the King, preferring the very young Anne d’Heilly, asked her to give back the jewels he had given her. She returned them, but… melted down. The second, the ravishing Anne de Pisseleu, was the real Queen of Chambord. Considered the equal of a Queen, she was however exiled upon the death of the King and her duchy handed back to her worst enemy, Diane of Poitiers.
When Chambord receives the master of the world
When Chambord receives the master of the world, François I seeks to impress Charles V, his enemy, whose immense empire extends over Spain, its colonies of America and the Philippines, to the Austria of the Hapsburgs, the possessions of the Dukes of Burgundy, including the Netherlands and as far as the kingdom of two-Sicilies (or Naples). Charles V is a severe man. He is very ambitious and without generosity. Did he not demand the sons of Francis I as prisoners ten years earlier, against the freedom of the King as well as an enormous ransom after defeat at Pavie?
His motto was, “always more ultra.» A complete contrast to François I who is depicted as being noble, chivalrous, generous and loving. This meeting is crucial. It has to seal their agreement. It is in December 1539 and Chambord’s dungeon is finally finished and ready. What luxury! The constable of Montmorency, a confidant whom the King held in highest esteem, had managed to transform the empty and unfinished castle in a few days, giving it a party atmosphere. He sent in a full troop of decorators responsible for making the castle habitable. For Charles V, nothing was too luxurious. His bedroom was decorated with black damask to satisfy his personal taste and black taffeta enriched with gold creating a canopy around his bed. The decoration was completed with numerous black wall hangings decorated with crowned eagles and bearing the imperial coat of arms.
Three days of hunting, feasts and holidays
On December 8th, 1539, Francis I welcomes Charles V to Amboise. The next day the entire court leaves for Blois and then on to Chambord. In the procession, Queen Eleonore is recognised along with second wife of François I and sister of Charles V, Queen Marguerite of Navarre. The sons of the King including the heir apparent Henry (future Henry II) and his wife Catherine de Medici, Jeanne d’Albret, the Duchess of Étampes and more we also present. Three days of holidays feasts, ballets and deer hunting. Flowers and spices were spread in all the rooms. Perfumes were burning everywhere in the apartments. The immense fireplaces of Chambord glow red, illuminating rows of rooms filled with courtiers. However on December 19th the holiday is over. The bedazzled Emperor leaves Chambord and the King leaves for a pilgrimage to Notre-Dame-de-Cléry. The palace empties out. Everything is packed away. There is nothing left but the wind, the cold and the fog of winter.
649 officers in the king’s service
Whenever the King goes to Chambord, he takes his entire staff who, in 1532, counts: 649 officers, among whom are 48 chaplains, 24 cupbearers, 22 doormen and 80 kitchen staff. With his 8 doctors, 7 surgeons, 5 barbers and apothecary, there is no doubt that he would be kept in good health! In addition to that there is the royal post office assured by 120 “outriders” and the musicians of the King who lead the religious ceremonies and liven up the parties. A brief calculation shows that when he visited Chambord 15,000 people, all of whom needed accommodation, accompanied the King. What a court!
Nothing is as before
Upon François I’s death, Henri II pursues his father’s work, adding to it his own signature, increasingly connected to his mistress, Diane of Poitiers, to Francis I’s salamanders. The Queen, Catherine de Medici, still engaged in astrology at the top of the bell tower, but nothing is as before. The castle falls into ruin, water leaking everywhere. An inventory of the time notes a total disappearance of furniture.
Chambord abandoned by the Kings
This château, wrote Flaubert,”Was given to lots of people, as if nobody wanted it, or could keep it. It seems never to have been used, and always to have been too big.” François I, during the forty years of his reign, spent only forty days there. Henri IV never set foot in it, Louis XIII put in only a brief appearance, Louis XIV brought it back to life and the court went there for the last time in 1684.
A pleasure palace for the Sun King
This “beauty of a sleeping castle” would have to wait for Louis XIV to awaken it. In autumn, 1669, he stays there with a full court. Hunting is his favourite pastime, but “the party also included comedy (played by Mr. de Molière), a ball and a huge supper. The court had never been so entertained.” In 1725, Louis XV offered Chambord to his parents in law, Stanislas and Catherine Leszczynski, dethroned in Poland, but the damp of the moats did not suit Stanislas, who suffered from rheumatism. He preferred the nearby castle of Ménars.
A Marshal’s baton for the conqueror of Fontenoy
In 1748, Louis XV gives Chambord to a talented megalomaniac, Maurice de Saxe, named Marshal of France after the victory at Fontenoy in 1745. Horses, soldiers and women are at the same time the extras and the actors of intrigues, farces and dramas all played out against the backdrop of Chambord. Louis XV had authorised the Marshal to keep his regiment of cavalry. They thus hold the garrison in Chambord. The Garnison consisted of six brigades of 160 men consisting of Poles, Hungarians, Germans, Turks and many other nationalities, who paraded around the castle every morning to the sound of the trumpet in a splendid uniform. The stables are transformed into barracks. It is the first and the last time Chambord would really be lived in.
A kingdom lost for a flag
This luxurious debauchery would end in 1750 with the death of the Marshal. Officially the Marshal died from a commonplace congestion of the lungs but, according to legend, during a duel in the grounds of the castle with a jealous husband. The Revolution plunders Chambord. After being used for a short while as a garage for the coaches of the Empire, in 1809, the castle is offered by Napoleon to his faithful Berthier, Prince of Wagram. His widow would sell it. The costs of its restoration were so expensive that only national subscription would allow it to be attributed. In 1821, it is attributed to the son of the Duke of Berry, heir to the throne. This “miracle child,” as he was known, becomes Henry, Count of Chambord and legitimist pretender to the throne of France. In 1871, a royalist assembly favourable towards a restoration is elected. The crown is then offered to the count of Chambord who, in 1873, would reject it by refusing to give up the “white flag of Henry IV.”
III/ What you need to know about Chambord
The most sumptuous of the Loire châteaux
The château itself has four hundred and forty rooms, eighty-three staircases (including thirteen main ones), three hundred and sixty-five windows and innumerable galleries linking the main parts of the building together. Inside the keep you will find the famous open double-spiral staircase, in which people can go up and down without meeting. It ends with a 32-m. lantern topped by a fleur-de-lis. This masterpiece of Renaissance art is said to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci.
The keep itself is composed of thirty-two identical five-room apartments. Louis XIV’s apartment is on the first floor with wood panelling from Versailles and Gobelins tapestries. It was also occupied by Stanislas Leszczynski and the Marshal of Saxe. François l’s apartment is in the annexes to the east and can be reached by galleries. The chapel, finished by Jules Hardouin Mansart under Louis XIV is in the northwest tower. The vault is adorned with suns, Louis’s emblem. The stained-glass windows were commissioned by the Count of Chambord in the 19th century.
A fairy-tale roof terrace
The terraces form a miniature city, a forest of carved stone gables, dormers, chimneys and pinnacles under a 32-metre high lantern. They form an extraordinary crown for the château. For Chateaubriand they evoked “an arabesque, a woman with her hair uplifted by an ascending wind.” The rooftops of Chambord are magical indeed, a slate-coloured symphony of terraces, belvederes, lanterns, pinnacles, pilastered chimneys, dormers and battlements.
The Republic good Prince
In this way, the Republic settled in France and Henry V, by his intransigence would remain forever Count of Chambord. As a final touch of history, his heirs, the princes of Burbon-Parma, chose to serve in the Austrian army during the First World War! The Republic “good Prince” not at all vindictive, bought Chambord in 1932 from the princes of Bourbon-Parma and began its restoration.
IV/ New projects for Chambord
The drafty castle?
On the legal front, the domain of Chambord is now a public industrialist and commercial establishment created in 2005. For a very long time, the castle was, sadly, empty of all collection. However today it houses a rich collection* of paintings, tapestries, furniture and works of art, thanks to a partnership with National Furniture signed by Jean d’Haussonville, head of this public institution since 2010. Please note the refitting of François I’s bedroom, in which 10 local craftsmen recreate copies of the original furniture, impossible to trace today.
* Not counting the collection of coaches the Count of Chambord ordered for a coronation which never took place.
Chambord, the only village in France owned by the State
Chambord is the largest game reserve in France, with seven hundred cervidae and over a thousand wild boars. (Visitors are allowed in the western part only, where watchtowers have been set up). The village of Chambord with its church, is unique in France, because it is entirely owned by the state. The inhabitants can only be tenants. The cemetery concessions do not even belong not to the families, but to the state.
The Chambord estate reopened its French gardens
The grass lawns, flowerbeds, rows of trees and hedges were restored to their original form and size in 2017(using the same technique used for the restoration of the alleys at Versailles). In total, this gigantic project mobilised a hundred people, replanting 618 mature trees, 840 shrubs, more than 15,000 border plants and nearly 11,000 flowering perennials. The project was carried out with sustainable development in mind, using perennial species requiring low maintenance and no phytosanitary treatment. Since Spring 2017, 176 rose bushes have bloomed each year in a magnificent display.
Sleeping in the castle … or almost
The 4* Hotel Relais de Chambord just 50 meters from the castle, opened in March 2018. After three years of renovation, the former hotel Saint-Michel offers a brand-new look plus 55 rooms and suites entirely redesigned by architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte. It is important to know that Chambord, apart from the castle, is the only municipality (130 inhabitants) in France, whose land tax belongs to the State.
Holiday cottages: three cottages sleeping six to eight people, located 200 meters from the château or at the entrance into the grounds. To rent by the week or a shorter period (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Restoration of the estate’s enclosure wall
This wall alone is a monument. There is no equivalent property fence in France and around the world. Chambord is not only a château, it is also an estate as large as Paris proper, featuring the largest walled and enclosed park in Europe (5440 acres protected by ramparts measuring 32 kilometers/20 miles). From the beginning, the wall was designed as a Garden of Eden designed by François I.
V/ The François I vineyard is back in Chambord
In June 2015, the National Estate of Chambord replanted “the François I vine” 500 years after its introduction in Val de Loire. The grape varieties chosen were those from the region of Romorantin,* in memory of François I, who brought the fruit of the vine to Val de Loire in 1519. The plantation has entailed two phases: 15 acres were planted in June 2015 (5 acres of pre-phylloxera Romorantin and 10 acres of Pinot Noir) and 20 acres added in 2016 and 2017 (pre-phylloxera Romorantin plants, Gamay and Pinot blanc). The first harvest is scheduled to take place in 2019, on the anniversary date when the construction of Chambord began. The vineyard is located a little more than a kilometer from the château, in the locality called “l’Ormetrou.” The construction of the wine cellar for vinification was entrusted to the internationally renowned architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte.
*This is in the Sologne region of the Loire. Just on the far side of Chambord’s walls are the appellations of Cheverny and Cour-Cheverny (where the entirety of France’s Romorantin can be found). The Cour-Cheverny, which comes from the Romorantin grape, is truly typical for the region, as it cannot be found in any other wine growing area in France.
2019, the first organic cuvée of Chambord wines
A selected bibliography of the Author (by François Collombet) :