"If I could turn back time, if I could find a way." So sang uplifted songstress Cher in 1989. Well, if we could all turn back time to 1559 and find ourselves at the River Cher in the Loire Valley, we might find Diane de Poitiers expressing the same sentiment. Because that was the year that King Henry II died in a jousting tournament, and her perch on the untouchable pedestal as mistress to the king was knocked from under her. The power was suddenly in the hands of the king's wife, the formidable Catherine de Medici. One of the first things Catherine did to her rival? Take back her prized possession, her beloved, her perfect Chateau de Chenonceau.
The story of the Chateau de Chenonceau, a Loire Valley luxury castle with aspirations of becoming a bridge, is very much a story of the women who built and owned it. Throughout its history, Chenonceau has been associated with women, two of whom were queens, one a king's mistress. It is a feminine Wonder, delicate and attractive, not a vast assault of the senses. At the heart of it lies an awkward love triangle, centred around King Henry II of France, his queen Catherine, and his mistress Diane. The glory of Chenonceau is based upon the rivalry of these two women.
It begins, however, with a different woman, and a different Catherine. Catherine Bohier was the wife of a finance minister who acquired the land and the old castle in 1513. They dismantled the existing castle, except for the circular keep by the riverside which remains today. Under Catherine's management, a square chateau in the Renaissance style was built, replacing the old mill that had been anchored in the river. With its ornamental towers and faux-medieval defences, this was very much in the style of the day, as per the many other Loire chateaux built during that era. As such, King Francis I - the king behind the Chateau de Chambord, among others - must have felt right at home during two visits. So much so that upon the Catherine's death in 1526, Francis pulled some shady legal tricks, and had the Bohiers' son charged with fraud. Handing over Chenonceau was his convenient punishment. It became a royal residence. Moral of the story? Never have the king round for dinner.
Francis I died in 1547, and his son Henry II took over. The chateau at this point was the circular 15th keep, and the Renaissance chateau jutting out into the River Cher. So far so good, another pleasant addition to the Loire Valley chateau repertoire, but another woman was to get her hands on it and begin its transformation. Henry II was married to Catherine de Medici, but despite them eventually having ten children together, he couldn't really be bothered with her. This lack of interest is perhaps highlighted by the fact they were married ten years before the first of their children appeared. Instead, Henry was far more interested in his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, almost 20 years his senior. Captivated with her, he showered her with gifts, including the Chateau de Chenonceau.
The chateau became Diane's passion, and she transformed it both into a profit-making estate and into a spectacular vision of beauty. She wanted to create a model of perfection. Prior to her control, it barely had a one-acre vegetable garden, but she expanded this to create a series of immaculate gardens, not to mention protecting the land from flooding by installing expensive stone terraces along the riverbank. Significantly, she built an arched bridge linking the square Renaissance chateau to the bank at the opposite side of the river - the castle-on-a-bridge we see today was taking shape.
It's fair to say that Queen Catherine was not terribly happy about all of this. The king's mistress was wealthy and powerful, and with a residence fit for royalty. The only consolation she could take, other than her children, was that the rest of the court hated Diane too - they all thought Diane to be a manipulative money-grabbing harlot. Perhaps that was true, but it's fair to say that Henry was also a bit of a dick. It wasn't as if Diane was his only weakness. Some years earlier, before Catherine had produced any children, he'd impregnated a girl. This was no secret - he had been openly delighted about it, boasting to everyone that he'd only spent one night with her and so therefore Catherine's childlessness was all her fault. He, the king, was a fertile stud. But to go just a little further, he then named the baby girl "Diane de France", presumably after his mistress, put the mother into a convent and gave the baby to Diane de Poitiers to take care of. Because that's how the king of France rocks.
Nonetheless, Catherine's loyalties were with Henry, and it was the other woman she, and the court, focussed their dislike upon. But while Henry was alive, there was nothing they could do. Diane de Poitiers had the favour of the king, and with that came power, wealth, and her favourite chateau. As she was 20 years his senior, she must have assumed she had it all made as she was unlikely to outlive him. But then, in 1559, Henry II was killed in a jousting accident. Without the king she had nothing. Catherine must have rubbed her hands in glee.
"Do you believe in life after love? I can feel something inside me say, I really don't think you're strong enough." So sang Cher in 1998. Cher probably wasn't directly referencing Diane de Poitier's situation in 1559 but her words are very apt. Diane wasn't at all in a strong position after Henry II's death. But fortunately for her, Catherine was very magnanimous in her ascent to power. Now the mother of a king (Francis II, already married to Mary Queen of Scots a year before in the Notre-Dame) rather than the unloved wife of a king, she could have made Diane's life a hell. Instead, she simply forced her out of Chenonceau, forcing her to swap for a more valuable but less desirable chateau elsewhere. Her revenge, if it could even be called that, was making her chateau on the Cher even more splendid, developing Diane's chateau and gardens further to create something fabulous and celebrated, and into the Chateau de Chenonceau that we know today. She took Diane's perfect vision and made it even more perfect.
For me, the standout feature of Chenonceau is the bridge-castle. To be more precise, it's a two-floor gallery built by Catherine de Medici over the existing arched bridge from Diane's time. It's 60 metres long, and is a striking addition that elevates what would otherwise be just another pretty Loire chateau into something of unusual beauty. Wonders are never generic, they should always capture the imagination, and be somewhat improbable, even preposterous. Chenonceau has got the beauty, the white-stone Renaissance architecture and perfect gardens, but it also has the unexpected. It doesn't look like anything else. By taking her rival's pet project and passion and making it even greater, Catherine got her revenge.
The Chateau de Chenonceau's history didn't stop after Catherine, but significant building work did. Its next inhabitant was the wife of Catherine's son, King Henry III, who retired to Chenonceau in mourning after his death. The estate went through some ups and downs after her, sometimes falling into neglect, other times with strong, inevitably female, owners who revived its fortunes. These days it finds itself in the hands of former chocolatiers, the Menier family, and as a recognised French Heritage Site is open to the public, with up to a million visitors per year.
I'll be visiting the Chateau de Chenonceau in the summer of 2014, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.