Imagine you’re the King of France. You have a nice house in Paris, although it requires a lot of upkeep. You need a place to meet up with your favorite mistress, a place where your wife can’t find you. You also need a place to hang out with the boys on the weekend and go hunting. What should you do?
The love nest for the mistress is a more urgent need than the hunting lodge, so first you dispatch your minister of extracurricular affairs to search for a suitable place. He finds a great chateau in a good location in the Loire Valley south of Paris. It’s not too far from the city, so taking the royal carriage ride for a long weekend is doable. However, it’s not so close that the wife will tag along.
The chateau the minister found is called Chenonceau. King Francis I seized it from its owners in 1535 due to unpaid debts to the French crown. After King Francis I died in 1547, his son Henry II gave the chateau as a gift to his favorite mistress, Diane de Poitiers.
The place needed some work, so Diane commissioned an architect to expand the chateau to span the River Cher. She also oversaw the planting of extensive and intricate gardens.
Unfortunately for Diane, Henry II was critically injured in a jousting tournament in 1559. His widow Catherine de Medici wouldn’t let Diane see the king, despite Henry’s repeated calls for her on his deathbed. After his death, Catherine got payback and forced Diane to trade Chenonceau for another place, probably in a lesser part of town.
Diane must have been quite a babe for her time. She was married at the age of 15 to a guy who was 54 years old. Of course, he died before her, and she became the mistress of the king when she was 35 and Henry II was only 16!
Diane was so beautiful that she was immortalized in sculpture and paintings, sometimes shown topless or completely naked. She was rumored to drink a potion containing gold in order to preserve her youthful good looks. In 2009, French scientists dug up her remains and determined that she indeed had high levels of gold in her hair. This might have killed her. There is no fountain of youth…
The hunting lodge for Francis I was built from 1519 to 1547. It was named Chambord and became the largest chateau in the Loire Valley.
Chambord was designed to look like a magnificent castle, although it was never used for actual defense. It has 440 rooms, 282 fireplaces, and 84 staircases. Imagine the size of the staff to take care of such a place! But when you’re the King of France and you need a little shack in the woods to show off to your rivals such as Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and the King of Spain, cost is no object.
One of the architectural highlights of Chambord is the spectacular double helix, open staircase that is the centerpiece of the château. Some scholars think Leonardo Da Vinci designed the staircase.
The two helices ascend the three floors without ever meeting, illuminated from above by a light source at the highest point of the château. So if your mistress was going down the staircase, and your wife was coming up the staircase at the same time, they wouldn’t see each other! Brilliant!
King François I didn’t spend much time at Chambord, only visiting for short hunting trips. The château was not practical to live in on a longer-term basis for the King and his court. The massive rooms, open windows and high ceilings meant heating the place was impractical. Because the château was not surrounded by a village or estate, there was no immediate source of food other than game. This meant that all food had to be brought in with the hunting party, which could include as many as 2,000 people (including all of the servants and entourage members).
After Francis I died, the chateau was abandoned for a very long time, until it was used as the inspiration for the Beast’s castle in the Disney classic “Beauty and the Beast.”