Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/French castles - Part 2

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Illustrated by Percival Skelton

Part 1

No. II.


More, perhaps, than in any scenes which I have ever visited, do these old French châteaux startle one with curious contrasts. Yet again we pass on, and leaving the neighbourhood where we have lingered so long, we seek the prettily situated town of Azay le Rideau; and proceeding through one of those fine old French forests, at length emerge in a steep hollow way, at the back of the Castle of Chinon, another of those royal domains, perhaps even more rich in historic association than any of those previously visited. But, unlike the frightful traditions of Lôches, they belong more to royal and distinguished personages, who have been dwellers within these walls, than to tragic events or to terrible crimes. It is now left to the hand of time, how often the embellishing hand! and in its ruined state forms a most picturesque and striking object. In early ages it was the residence in succession of our Plantagenet kings: here Henry II. died, uttering the bitterest complaints of the undutiful conduct of his sons, whose disobedience and ingratitude hastened his death; but not alone our own kings dwelt in this royal abode, but many of the French kings from Philip Augustus to Henri Quatre: here, also, did that extraordinary drama, which had a peasant girl for its heroine, kings and princes, knights and nobles, priests and monks for its dramatis personæ, its opening scene brilliant and full of promise, its closing one a funeral pile and a woman dying a martyr to her cause—here, in these castle walls, did the opening scene of this drama first unfold itself; for it was here that Joan of Arc made her first public appearance. In one of the royal apartments, as the story goes, she first saw Charles VIII., and though he had no outward mark of his high station, and was dressed in a remarkably plain set of clothes, still she at once recognised him, and singled him out, as the favoured object to whom her high and sacred mission was to be delivered.

The ruins are of vast extent; the situation of the castle must have been magnificent, as the lofty rock on which it stands is full 300 feet above the river; the royal apartments are beneath, the only habitable part of the edifice. The scene of the memorable interview between the Dauphin Charles, and the shepherd girl of Donrèmy, is now a broken ruin, open to the sky; there, where the careless and luxurious Charles enjoyed the splendours of his magnificent court, nothing now is to be seen but a mass of luxuriant vegetation instead of the gorgeous flooring; stone walls, for gay hangings; the open air of heaven, in lieu of the perfume-laden atmosphere, in which dwelt that effeminate prince. So complete is the ruin, that one wonders at the faithfulness of tradition, that still points out the exact locality of those scenes we have been describing; but we have not yet done with the recollections belonging to these old walls. In the third court, we were shown the towers of La Glacière, where it is said Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Templars, was imprisoned; and still more interesting to one’s feelings (at least our romantic feelings), the Tour d’Argentan is now before the visitor; from hence, a secret passage had been fabricated under ground, leading beyond the outer walls, to the Maison de Robardeau, the retreat of poor Agnes Sorel, the king’s mistress. Contemplate those two lives, side by side, both women eminently gifted, mentally and corporeally—both intimately connected with the same royal personage, only in a totally different manner; neither of them born in high life; the one renouncing all her feminine attributes to serve her country’s cause and her king’s; the other, through the depth of her affection for the man, sacrificing all a woman holds most dear; but, from the time of her fall, devoting all her influence, and all her time, to doing good and showing, from her utter indifference to all the luxuries, the gorgeous dwellings, the careful tendance with which Charles surrounded her, that neither ambition, nor love of pleasure, nor a love of wealth had any share in bringing about her fall. And as widely different were their lives, so different also were their deaths: one betrayed by those who owed her most, died a miserable death, a martyr and a heroine to the last; while Agnes Sorel died tranquilly on her bed, making her final acts promote the good of numbers yet unborn, by endowing public institutions with the wealth lavished upon her by Charles, and greatly as she erred, so deeply did she repent her fall.

Who that has read the delightful pages of our matchless novelist, is not familiar with the name of Plessis les Tours, the castellated den, for really one is loth to give any other name to the residence of the cruel, crafty tyrant and bigot, Louis XI., who mixed up the most abominable hypocrisy with the most open and barefaced crimes? This castellated house (for a real castle, even a French one, it certainly is not) is situated near a small hamlet on the outskirts of the town of Tours. It resembles, in some measure, the Palace of Hampton Court, which is about the same date; but the mean, niggardly nature of Louis, so cramped the plans of his architects, while his miserable cowardice so multiplied all the means of defence, battlements, drawbridges, walls of inclosure, &c., &c., that it resembled as a whole something between a prison and an ill-built mansion; though, in some points, it recalled to one’s mind, our own far more stately palace. Only a small part of the original building now remains; it is of dark red brick, with a very pointed, high-pitched roof. The vaulted chambers under ground still remain, and according to old records of the place, dungeons abounded in this gloomy spot. At the end of the garden there is a deep vault, which is shown to strangers, and it retains the name of Cardinal Baluc’s prison. He was shut up here for telling his master’s secrets to his rival, Charles Duke of Burgundy. The barred window, the narrow stone stair, bear signs of great age. Not very far from the spot is a small deeply-vaulted chapel, which is called Louis’s Oratory. Here he spent half the day or night, in abject entreaty to the Virgin, or some one of his favourite saints, for the restoration of his health, when suffering from the different maladies that finally put an end to his life. He died as he had lived; to the very last a hypocrite, forming crafty plans for the defeat of his enemies, by every sort of wicked device, or cruel scheme, that even his fertile fancy could invent. In 1483 he breathed his last at Plessis, more abjectly and utterly miserable than any of those whom he had persecuted. A worthy end to so hateful a life!

As one passes from Tours to Angers, taking the route by Saumur, there are still several of these historical châteaux to be cursorily noticed. The name of Cinq Mars will recall the handsome, spirited, clever and ambitious favourite of Louis XIII., the sharer in all his pleasures, courageous, courtly, and fascinating; and as we gaze on the ruined walls of the castle whence he derived his title, a whole romance seems to unfold before one: indeed, his fate has been made the subject of both a French and an English novel. Not all his advantages were of any avail when he roused the suspicious fears of Cardinal Richelieu: a plot against the omnipotent minister was discovered, his share in it proved, and the cardinal represented him to the king as a traitor to his royal master. Louis made a stand in favour of Cinq Mars, and for a long while refused to give him up; but it was all in vain, the fiat had gone forth, and the favourite perished, a victim to the insatiable ambition and love of power of the cardinal. The castle is now only a picturesque ruin.

It is singular in this part of France that there is hardly a small hamlet that cannot boast of its château. Langeais, which in England would only be called a flourishing village, is still distinguished by a castle in very good preservation. It is somewhat remarkable as having been the scene of the marriage of Charles VIII. and Anne of Brittany; this great province being the appanage of Anne, became henceforth united to the Crown of France. It was built as far back as in the time of Philippe le Hardi, by Pierre le Brosse, who had been minister to the good St. Louis. That was in the thirteenth century. His end was most tragical; he perished on the gibbet, having poisoned the king’s son, and endeavoured to accuse the queen of the crime.

How can we pass unnoticed the far-famed Fontevrault? Though an abbey and not a château, still its associations have so much in common with the subjects of our previous remarks, that I cannot pass it by.

In ancient times it was one of the most opulent institutions of the kind in France, and entirely at variance with all similar places of retreat; it had the peculiarity that monks and nuns were all subject to the control of a lady abbess, and yet it did not owe its foundation to a lady, but to a Breton monk, named Robert d’Arbriseil, so early as in the year 1098. His followers, when he arrived in the dense and magnificent forest which he fixed on for his future home, numbered nearly 3000 persons of all ages and both sexes, and strange to say, though it was in opposition to all known schemes of the sort, for more than nine centuries did this singular convent maintain its existence. This venerable and beautiful abbey was in former times the prison of many royal and celebrated persons, who were entrusted to the safe keeping of the reverend brothers.

Fontevrault is the last resting-place of many royal persons. Our own valiant Richard Cœur de Lion here reposes after his stormy career. As one gazes at his effigy clad in royal robes in lieu of armour, and notices the lofty stature of the figure, more than six feet in height, the fine broad forehead and the finely cut features, how many thoughts crowd into the mind as it contemplates the exact resemblance of this renowned Norman king! The strong natural frame, the hasty, fiery temperament, the chivalric honour, all so in unison with the Norman character, all seemed pourtrayed in this sculptured face—a most interesting monument! And who reposes by his side? His father, Henry II., the wisest, and one of the best kings that England ever saw, the greatest trouble of whose life was the undutiful conduct of this very son. The only one of his sons who accompanied their father’s remains to this last home, was his natural son, Geoffrey; and tradition says that, when Richard afterwards came and stood by his father’s tomb, remorse for his conduct to him quite overcame the iron-hearted prince. How true it is that if “We sow the wind we shall reap the whirlwind.” Nearly the sorest trial of Richard’s life was the treacherous conduct of his brother John.

The monument of Henry is as fine as that of his son. His queen, Eleanor of Guienne, beautiful even in this stone effigy, rests near her husband. That of Isabella d’Angoulême is even more beautiful. She was the widow of King John; her features are of rare and most queenlike loveliness. The body of Henry II. was brought from Chinon, and laid in the sanctuary for some time before interment, and Richard saw it just before the closing of the royal coffin.

Château de la Vignole (OAW).png
Château de Dampierre.

How do these royal recollections crowd upon one! We pass on but a small distance, and what is the next picture in this interesting collection? A very melancholy one, and at the same time a very instructive one. As one stands and gazes at the Château de Dampierre, we seem to see before us the melancholy figure of Margaret of Anjou, who passed within its walls the latter years of her ambitious and most unhappy life, Louis XI. having ransomed her from Edward IV. for the enormous sum of 50,000 crowns, after she had been imprisoned already five years. This closing part of her life was spent in misery, and, for one in her station, in actual poverty. What a fate for this strong-minded, ambitious, and yet fine-natured woman! All her plans defeated, the survivor of all she loved, not a single thing, as far as this world was concerned, to soften the dread reality. Truly these pictures of bygone royalty are not without their lesson, if we read them aright.

We are drawing rapidly to the conclusion of these sketches. Our last but one will take a different line to any of the preceding ones; though the story connected with the castle we are now to speak of is sadly and terribly true, the romance that has arisen out of these facts has been one of the most widely-circulated and ancient fairy tales on record.

Near the little village of Champtoie there are some very magnificent ruins of a feudal castle, which we stopped to explore, having heard previously of the celebrity they had acquired from the frightful crimes of their owner, by name Gilles de Retz Sieur de Laval, who lived in the reign of Charles VII. He was a perfect monster in human shape, and a complete bugbear to all the surrounding country, who gave him the name of Barbe Bleu, the original of our well-known story of Blue Beard. The story-tellers have thought proper to clothe the hero in a turban and Eastern dress; though he comes from the banks of the Loire. His history affords a remarkable instance of the superstitions of the fifteenth century, and of the impunity for his atrocities which a feudal seigneur enjoyed in that dark age. This wretch, having run through an enormous fortune by extravagance, and greatly injured his constitution in early youth, sought to renovate both by magic arts. He kept in his pay an Italian alchemist and magician, who induced his miserable dupe to believe that a charm could be produced from the blood of infants, which would restore both his health and fortune, if he used it as a bath. For this purpose children and young persons were spirited away, and then murdered in the deep dungeons of his castle, or in the dense darkness of his forests, to the number, as stated in ancient chronicles, of one hundred, the monster in many cases plunging the dagger into the breasts of his victims. At length the fury and indignation of the whole country reached such a height that a regular insurrection was organised, and the people rose against their lord with a determination to put him to death, but the then Duke of Brittany interfered in the business: he heard the charges against De Retz; he was found guilty, condemned, and burnt at Nantes, in 1440, after making a full confession of his monstrous crimes. The peasants actually still regard with horror the ill-omened walls and vaults in which these awful atrocities were committed, and the popular belief is still unaltered, that this wretched being had made a compact with the Evil One. This whole story is accurately recorded in the ancient chronicles of the time.

The locality of this sad story of crime and misery suits well with the events that then occurred. The country hereabouts is wholly devoid of attraction, though there is a gloomy grandeur about these really fine ruins, that renders them no unfitting stage for the awful tragedy that was here enacted; but we will leave this mixed chapter of fact and fiction and close our chronicle with one more scene of stirring and brilliant events; and then drop the curtain.

The last castle to which we will lead the reader is that of Saumur, which we visited on a beautiful autumnal day. Its situation is most striking; it crowns a ridge that rises like a lofty wall above the pretty town (Sous-le-Mur is a fanciful derivation of its name). The donjon is of great height, and is now used as a powder magazine. The associations with this castle are numerous. The great Protestant leader, Du Plessis Mornay, was sent there as governor by Henri Quatre. It was under his care made the great stronghold of the Protestants; but the revocation of the Edict of Nantes altered all that state of things, and the castle is next brought before our notice during the stirring times of the Vendean War. One of the greatest events of that time was the capture of the castle, June 10, 1793, after storming the heights on which the Republican army was intrenched. Henri de la Rochejaquelin, that pattern of a brave and valiant gentleman, devoted, loyal, generous, and warm hearted, was more like one of the chivalrous Paladins, in the days of knight-errantry, than like a real existing character in the awful times in which he lived;—this brave chief forced the intrenchments of the town, and excited his followers to the capture of a redoubt by throwing his hat, decorated by a white plume, into the midst of it, calling out “Qui me le cherchera?” an appeal not thrown away, we may be sure. With only 60 men to back him, he dashed into the town, clearing all before him as far as the bridge. This gallant conduct gained the day, the castle surrendering almost immediately. 11,000 prisoners were taken and arms in proportion. This was one of the many successes that made the Vendean War rather one continued chronicle of wondrous deeds, than a matter-of-fact account of fights between two contending parties.

And now we have done. What a period do our slight chronicles embrace, beginning with our recollections of the magnificent Francis the First, embracing in its annals our own Plantaganet monarchs; one French king after another appearing upon our motley page. The great, the distinguished, the learned, the brave, the criminal; the fairest, the noblest, and again the frailest among women; stirring events, deep tragedies, pathetic love stories, conspiracies, massacres even, all have had their place here, till we are brought down to the memorable time when a whole nation was convulsed throughout the length and breadth of the land, and when such characters as Henri de la Rochejaquelin are seen to rise to the distinction they merit. To the present day his name is worshipped in all the country, where the account of his exploits are still handed down from father to son, as their boast and glory. On such a memory it is pleasant to dwell, and pleasant to drop the curtain on a character so deserving of all praise, though a degree of mournful pathos is mixed up with it when we reflect on his tragic fate.