From Loire's castles, Blois is probably one of the most original. The castle is also famous for its remarkable Grand Staircase, built in the middle of the Francis I wing during the latter's reign. Residence of the counts of Blois, then of the kings of France from Louis XII to Henri III, the scene of decisive events such as the assassination of the Duke of Guise, it is a remarkable monument to address the history of France during troubled times like the wars of religion.
The Counts of Blois in the Middle Ages
Placed in a strategic position, at the top of a hill overlooking the Loire, Blois has been a place of power since the Counts of Blois since the Carolingian era. The influence of these counts, initially designated by Charlemagne to control territories, increases from the 11th century, when their possessions are enlarged with the acquisition of Touraine and the country of Chartres, then of the county of Champagne, thus enclosing the small royal domain, and opposing the powerful Anjou.
However, nothing remains of their constructions today, except the Great Hall of States, built at the beginning of the 13th century, during the reign of Philippe Augustus.
Blois and the Hundred Years War
At the same time, the lineage died out and the county of Blois passed to the house of Châtillon-sur-Seine until the end of the 14th century, when the enclosure was built, of which there are still some vestiges today ( including the Foix tower). It was then bought by Louis d'Orléans, brother of the King of France Charles VI. In 1407, the Duke of Orleans was assassinated on the orders of Jean sans Peur, and his widow, Valentine Visconti, died in Blois a year later. He was succeeded by his son, Charles, who was captured at the Battle of Azincourt (1415) and imprisoned in England until 1440. It was there that he began to compose his nostalgic poems, becoming the "duke-poet". Back in Blois, he developed the arts at his court, inviting and protecting poets like François Villon (1431-1463?), Organizing poetry competitions.
During the captivity of Charles of Orleans in 1429, Joan of Arc went to Blois and had her standard blessed there, before going to free Orleans from the English siege.
Blois, royal residence of Louis XII
When the Duke of Orleans died in 1465, he was succeeded by his son Louis II. He became king of France in 1498, following the accidental death of Charles VIII, his cousin, in Amboise. Louis XII then marries the widow of Charles VIII, Anne of Brittany, as provided for in the marriage contract of the latter with the late king.
The King of France, born in Blois in 1462, obviously keeps a strong link with the castle. He therefore undertook renovation work, and built the brick and stone wing, known as the Louis XII wing (through which visitors enter the castle today), as well as the gallery, the chapel, and another wing which has since disappeared, as have the gardens. The work took place between 1498 and 1501, and Louis XII was able to welcome Philippe le Beau and Jeanne la Folle, parents of Charles V, there during their visit to France. A few years later, it is Machiavelli who resides in Blois, as Ambassador of Florence.
Blois and François I
In 1515, François I succeeded his cousin Louis XII, while Anne of Brittany died in Blois the year before. Inspired by the Italian style, the new king of France continues the work of his predecessor, renovating another wing, while keeping the walls of the medieval castle. It is against this Francis I wing that the Grand Staircase is built. The style of the two facades (that of the main courtyard, and that of the Lodges) shows the evolution of architectural taste over barely fifteen years, from the Middle Ages (the Louis XII wing) to the Renaissance (the François I wing). A style that mixes French and Italian taste.
During the beginning of the reign of François Ier, Blois was one of the favorite royal residences, but the situation changed after the defeat of Pavia (1525) and the detention of the king. On his return, he decided to move closer to Paris, and transferred the furniture from the castles of the Loire (including Blois) to Fontainebleau in 1539. The same year, François Ier still welcomed Charles V to the castle of Blois.
The place remains an important place for the kingdom and the arts, even after the departure of François I, as shown by the famous example of Pierre Ronsard (1524-1585), who would have met his muse Cassandra during a ball at the Court of Blois, in 1545.
Blois and the wars of religion
Upon the death of François I, his son Henri II ascended the throne. Like his father, he stayed less in Blois (the county became part of the royal domain), but artistic life was still active there, even more so when the Court was passing through, thanks to the influence of Catherine de Medici.
This became even more important after the death of her husband (1559) and following the untimely death of Francis II. The royal couple's second son, Charles IX, becomes king as the wars of religion break out. In 1562, the Catholics took Blois, where Protestants were hanged by order of Anne de Montmorency. Under the leadership of the queen mother, the Treaty of Amboise was signed in 1563, and Admiral de Coligny welcomed in Blois by Catherine de Medici. Thus, until Saint Barthélémy (1572), the castle of Blois remained a place of meetings and negotiations during the civil war, and Charles IX stayed there regularly. It was also in Blois that the marriage between Henri de Navarre and Marguerite de Valois was negotiated.
Henri III, who acceded to the throne in 1574, stayed in Blois more often than his predecessors. Above all, it was in the castle itself, in his own room, that the king had his rival and leader of the League, the Duke of Guise, assassinated in 1588. A year later, he was killed in his turn, and Henri de Navarre becomes king under the name of Henri IV. The same year, Catherine de Médicis died in Blois.
Blois in the Grand Siècle
With the end of the Valois comes the end of the castle of Blois as a royal residence, especially after Henri IV, who stayed there a little in the middle of his reign.
Blois then becomes a sort of residence for the king's rivals or enemies. Thus, Louis XIII had his mother, Marie de Médicis, watched there in 1617. Two years later, she escaped and ended up being exiled to Cologne.
In 1626, Blois returned to center stage when the county was given by the king to his brother, Gaston d´Orléans. The latter then becomes the main rival of Louis XIII, and is exiled like their mother to Blois between 1635 and 1638; the Duke of Orleans launched major works there, including the unfinished wing (for lack of funds) known as the "Mansart wing". The birth of the future Louis XIV put an end to the ambitions of Gaston d´Orléans.
As we know, the reign of Louis XIV and his successors is centered on Versailles, and Blois - like the other châteaux of the Loire - is very uncrowded, almost abandoned. So much so that in 1788, Louis XVI decided to sell Vincennes, la Muette, the castle of Madrid and Blois to replenish the kingdom's coffers. Not finding a buyer, the Château de Blois was transformed into a barracks, a status it retained thereafter, including under the Revolution.
Blois saved in the 19th century
The fate of the Château de Blois almost turned tragic in the first half of the 19th century. A decree of 1810 makes it, as a barracks, the property of the city of Blois. In 1824, the latter proposed to offer it to the State so that it could make it a prefecture after having destroyed the François I and Louis XII wings! Fortunately, the project did not succeed ...
It is the great minds and the Romantics who, in the end, save the castle of Blois. In 1825, Victor Hugo denounced its condition and its abandonment, but it was necessary to wait several years for the threat of destruction to be stopped. Meanwhile, the army continues to destroy pieces of it. In 1840, finally, thanks to Prosper Mérimée, the castle of Blois is classified on the first list of historical monuments.
The restoration is carried out by the one who can be considered as the real savior of Blois, Félix Duban, between 1845 and 1870. It is to him that we owe the decoration of the rooms, inspired by the decorations of the Renaissance, such as we had an idea in the nineteenth century anyway. The soldiers are gradually driven out. From 1869, the Louis XII wing hosted the Museum of Fine Arts. Since then, the castle of Blois has become a place of visit whose success is undeniable, in particular since the UNESCO classification of the Loire Valley in 2000.
- P-G. Girault, The castle of Blois in dates and figures, editions J-P Gisserot, 2008.
- Y. Denis, History of Blois and its region, Privat, 1988.
- G. Denizeau, Larousse of the castles, Larousse, Paris, 2003, p. 150-151.
Thanks to Pierre-Gilles Girault, conversator-assistant, for his visit.
- The official site of the Château de Blois
- The castle of Blois on the RichesHeures site