The Loire castles have adorned our architectural heritage for centuries with gems of beauty attracting millions of tourists each year. Often these architectural marvels were born out of transformed Benedictine abbeys or forts designed to carry out the many wars of the Middle Ages, while others were erected during the Renaissance to please the kings and their court. Back to a time when sophistication and the arts slowly takes the place of fighting ferocity.
An origin marked by the will of kings
To grasp why so many castles adorn the regions around the Loire, we have to go back nearly ten centuries, to the core of a history tormented by ceaseless wars. At that time, the houses of Anjou and Blois fought for the county of Tours, eventually won by the Angevins after more than fifty years of war, followed by the two-hundred-year wars between France and England between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, during which many fortresses were built.
Charles VII and Louis XI made Tours, at the end of this time, the capital of the Kingdom of France (before its transfer to Paris in 1594). Therefore the Renaissance starts with the court of the King sitting in this area, where many nobles eventually create their own homes. Marignan’s battle won by François I in 1515 marks a turning point at the end of which construction is started in several castles, the first being in Chambord.
The object of this same Francis I and his successors was to increase the prestige of the Kingdom of France on a world level. That resulted in many Italian artists and craftsmen, including Leonardo da Vinci, arriving in the Loire Valley. The arts developed, in particular music and painting. The existing castles were transformed, rivaling in the richness of luxury and architecture, to appeal more to the period’s festive lifestyle than warriors. When the kings moved to Paris (we think of Versailles, of course, as well as Fontainebleau and the Louvre) they were somewhat neglected, other nobles took over the castles of the Loire regions by acquisition or even by donation.
Finally, a particular collection of residences is not included in the appellation “Loire Châteaux.” Rather, it takes on a tourist character connected to the wealth of monuments in this area which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 under the name of the Loire Valley. If we can find points in common with constructions mostly constructed in tufa or tufa chaining stone, there is no list of them. Even the geographical region is being debated: sometimes the departments of Sarthe and Mayenne are included, sometimes not, and some even wish to expand the appellation to Nièvre.
Magnificent royal castles from history
11 in number, the so-called “royal” castles obviously owe this name to the fact that kings built them and owned them. Here is a short description of where they started.
• Chambord: the largest castle in the Loire region, built in the heart of Europe’s largest forest park, impresses with its unrivaled architectural richness. It was François I who had it erected in place of the Counts of Blois castle, as we know it in the 16th century. Originally conceived as a hunting lodge designed to the king’s pride, the project grew under the aegis of architecturally great names.
• Chenonceau: The Château de Chenonceau was designed in its current form from 1513 in Indre-et-Loire. It was called the Château des Dames because it was successively erected and embellished in the history of France by many great female names including Katherine Briçonnet, Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Médicis. Notice that François I annexed it to the Crown in debt-payment in 1535.
• Langeais: reconstructed by Louis XI in 1465 on the ruins of a medieval fortress demolished by Charles VII (apart from the fortification which is one of the oldest extant stone remains), the Langeais castle overlooks the Loire in Indre-et-Loire. It was in its walls that on December 6, 1491, Charles VIII married Anne of Brittany at 7 a.m.
• Saumur: added by Philippe Auguste to the crown of France, Saumur castle is built on a height of Maine-et-Loire that makes it visible for kilometres. Constantly fortified in the background of the feudal wars, it remained a powerful warrior throughout the Renaissance, until being converted briefly by Napoleon into a fortress, then by Louis XVIII into an weapons depot. In 1862, it was listed as a historical monument.
• Amboise: added to the crown in 1434 to become the Kings of France’s residence, the Amboise castle overlooks Indre-et-Loire’s Loire and has a sumptuous array of Gothic furniture. If it was the scene of Amboise’s coup in 1560, the first act of religious wars, the castle of Amboise was formerly the home of Leonardo da Vinci, invited by François I to this location.
• Plessis-lez-Tours: formerly known as Montils-lez-Tours, this castle was acquired in 1483 by King Louis XI who died there fifteen years later. It was first enriched then embellished, then ended up being abandoned until the Movement was almost entirely ruined after that. Since then only the southern portion of the old house has been refurbished and remains today.
• Angers: Located on a promontory overlooking Maine in Maine-et-Loire, Angers castle is also known as the Duke of Anjou castle. This held a strategic role but, after the difficulties of religious wars, Henry III decided to pull this down. Only the upper part of the towers were demolished, and more recently during World War II the castle acted as a prison, garrison, and weapons depot.
• Chinon: Retaining protection of the Vienne, Chinon Castle is founded on a site that has been inhabited for many millennia. Owned by the counts of Blois from the 10th century, it was slowly divided into three very distinct parts: Fort du Coudray, Château du Milieu and Fort Saint-Georges, each with its own enclosure and separate ditches. It had been attached to the Crown of France during Philippe Auguste’s conquest in 1205.
• Blois: favorite residence of the Renaissance kings, Blois castle was built in the Loir-et-Cher to become a royal residence under the reign of Louis XII who was born in 1462 there. The rich history caused it to be destroyed in the 9th century during an assault by the Vikings, then passed into the hands of several families. Before her departure Joan of Arc was blessed there to lift the siege of Orleans in 1429.
• Loches: Founded in the Loire Valley in the 11th century, Loches Castle was conquered at the end of the 12th century by Richar Coeur de Lion and then taken over by Philip II of France who annexed it to the royal realm. It was then used as a prison from the 15th century to 1926, particularly during the American Revolution to lock up the English captives. • Tours: a royal residence since the 15th century but built in the 11th century before being expanded, the Château de Tours lost its splendour during major devastation in the 18th century. Thereafter, two remaining towers were reinforced with a new building to act as a garrison, until a successful reconstruction in the last century thanks to the archeological excavations begun in 1980.
Noble castles that multiply
The presence of royalty in the Loire Valley for many centuries prompted the building of several mostly fortified, then embellished residences in this position to please the kings’ court. Their number is estimated at 3000, most of which are situated in the regions of Pays de la Loire and Centre-Val de Loire. We’ll mention 12 of the most important castles here.
• Châteaudun looks out over the Eure-et-Loire Loir. It is one of France’s first castles of pleasure of architecture. It is protected well, and listed as a historical monument.
• In 1905, following its sale to the State the same year, Azay-le-Rideau became a historic monument; It is now operated by the National Monuments Centre.
• Beauregard has been open to the public since 1840, and is listed as a historic landmark. Thanks to its Galerie des Illustres, it is especially well known.
• Brézése distinguishes its basement and its ditches by the troglodyte network, traditionally composed of numerous rooms of varying usefulness, both civil and military. In 1979, it was classed as a historic monument.
• Valançay is located in Berry but has characteristics typical to Chambord. It was converted from a feudal fortress into a modern castle in the 16th century, at the initiative of Louis d’Etampes. It took more than 100 years to embellish the work.
• Brissac is a castle with a rich past that has many times seen it change its owners. It is now open to the public, and was listed in 1958 and 1966 as a historical monument.
• Chanteloup is a castle dated from the 18th century which was demolished by merchants in 1823. Several parts of the estate, such as the pagoda or the gardener’s home, have since been listed as historic monuments.
• In the 10th century Chaumont-sur-Loire was founded by Eudes I, before spending five centuries in the Amboise family. The castle then changed owners several times until being sold to the state in 1938.
• Built in the 17th century, Cheverny is remarkable because it inspired Hergé to build the Moulinsart Castle, a replica of its central portion.
• In the 15th century, Clos-Lucé, formerly known as Manoir du Cloux, was created. For his achievements Leonardo da Vinci spent three very fruitful years there.
• In the 13th century the dukes of Brittany were created to protect Nantes. Ducal house, it became a royal fortress by an edict signed at the castle in 1532 when Brittany was formally annexed to the Kingdom of France.
• Villandry is the last of the great palaces built in the 16th century, on the banks of the Loire. It has impressive gardens on over six hectares, carefully restored by Dr Joachim Carvallo from 1906.
Many other mansions and landmarks are worth admiring, in a area that has seen many twists and turns that developed our country as we now know it. One thing is certain: History and stone lovers will definitely not get bored during a Loire Valley stay!