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Chinon And Fontevrault

( Originally Published 1911 )

LE CHEVAL BLANC, ANGERS, September 12th.

FATE certainly seemed to be against my seeing Chinon today, as we awoke this morning to hear the rain pattering against our windows. A rather disconsolate party, we gathered around the table for the breakfast, which we had ordered an hour earlier, in order to make the day as long as possible. Miss Cassandra, who was the only really cheerful member of the party, reminded us of the many days of sunshine that we have had in Touraine, adding with her usual practical optimism, "And thee must remember, my dear, that constant sunshine makes the desert," this to Lydia, but we all took the wise saying to heart and were quite cheerful by the time we had finished our break-fast, perhaps also for the more material reason that Walter, through various gratuities and persuasions, had succeeded in making it of better cheer than the ordinary light déjeuner.

Another pleasing circumstance was the assurance of the chauffeur, who arrived while we were still in the breakfast room, that the clouds were breaking away and that we should have sunshine by noon. By the time we had reached Villandry the sun was struggling through the clouds, and as we approached Chinon, its long line of ancient ruins and the little town clustered beneath were bathed in sunshine.

Although from several points the old château on the crest of the hill, dominated by the lofty Tour de l'Horloge, is beautiful and impressive, the best general view of it is from the middle of the lower bridge, from which we could see the three distinct foundations, the Château of St. George at the upper or right side, the bridge which connects it with the Tour de l'Horloge, the Château du Milieu, and finally the Château de Coudray at the extreme lower or left end of the plateau. The whole is far more ruinous than the other famous castles of Touraine and requires as much imagination to make it whole and habitable as some of the ruins along the Rhine. Of the Château of St. George, built by the Plantagenet Kings to protect the one vulnerable point in a position almost impregnable in its day, nothing is left but parts of the lower wall. So ruinous, indeed, is this château, that one is almost ready to accept Pantagruel's derivation of the name of Chinon, or Caino, from Cain, the son of Adam its founder.

We climbed up the hill and rang the bell at the Tour de l'Horloge, which is the only part of the buildings still boasting a roof, and here the concierge and his family tuck them-selves away somewhere within its high, narrow walls. The bell that we rang is on the outer side of the tower, and in the course of time a girl, about as big as the old key she carried, unlocked a door in the archway through which we entered. The level spaces inside between the different buildings have been laid out as a sort of promenade which is open to the public on Sundays and holidays. The view up and down the slow, shallow river with its yellow sand-flats, little green islands, and the softly wooded country beyond seemed to us one of the most charming in Touraine. The concierge, who was attempting to act as guide to two separate parties at once, hurried us around in such a bewildering fashion that it would be almost impossible for me to give the exact locations of the different buildings. What we all remember distinctly is the bare, roofless hall, of which only a western gable and a vast chimney-piece remain, in which Joan had her audience with the King. This hall was the throne room, in 1429, when the fearless Maid appeared at Chinon, having journeyed one hundred and fifty leagues through a country occupied, in many places, by English and Burgundian troops, in order to deliver her message to the King. Although the meeting between Charles VII and Joan was by candlelight, even in the garish light of day it seemed strangely real here in this great ruinous hall. Nearly three hundred knights were present, and the King is said to have stood a little apart amidst a group of warriors and courtiers, many of them more richly dressed than himself, with the idea, perhaps, of testing Joan.

There are various accounts of this audience, but the one that we like best because it seems the most probable is that Joan knew the King at once, although she had never seen him, and going straight to him, accosted him humbly and reverently like the poor, little shepherdess that she was.

"Gentle Dauphin," she said to the King (for she did not think it right to call him King so long as he was not crowned), "My name is Joan the maid; the King of Heaven sendeth you word by me that you shall be anointed and crowned in the city of Rheims, and shall be lieutenant of the King of Heaven who is King of France. It is God's pleasure that our enemies, the English, should depart to their own country; if they depart not evil will come to them, and the kingdom is sure to continue yours."

Even after these earnest words from Joan, the King, although impressed, was not convinced, and with some reluctance allowed her to remain at Chinon. We were afterwards shown the lodgings, which this inhospitable royal host gave to the persistent visitor, in a very thick-walled little tower, and according to our guide, Joan could get in or out of her room, on an upper floor, only when her guards put a ladder up to her small window, permanent stairways being considered unsafe for such guests.

The King saw Joan again several times. She did not delude herself as to the doubts he still entertained. "Gentle Dauphin," she said to him one day, "Why do you not believe me, I say unto you that God hath compassion on you, on your kingdom and your people; St. Louis and Charlemagne are kneeling before Him, making prayer for you, and I will say unto you, so please you, a thing which will give you to understand that you ought to believe me." Charles gave her audience on this occasion, in the presence, according to some accounts, of four witnesses, the most trusted of his intimates, who swore to reveal nothing, and, according to others, completely alone. "What she said to him there is none who knows," wrote Alan Chartier a short time after [in July, 1429], "but it is quite certain that he was all radiant with joy thereat, as at a revelation from the Holy Spirit."

Archie, who read the most recent life of Joan of Arc, on the steamer, as a preparation for Chinon, reminds us that after much sifting of history and tradition, it has been decided by learned authorities that the revelation of the Maid, which filled the King with joy, was a positive assurance that he was the rightful heir to the throne of France and the true son of his father, Charles VI.

It is not strange that Charles VII should have doubted his own paternity with a mother as unnatural and depraved as Isabel of Bavaria, and that with a kingdom chiefly in the hands of the English he should have seriously questioned his right and title to the throne, being himself of a weak and doubting nature. It is said, that in an hour of great despondency, Charles prayed to God from the depths of his heart that if he were the true heir of the house of France, and the kingdom justly his, God would be pleased to help him and defend it for him. This prayer, which he thought known to God alone, the Maid recalled to the mind of the King, thus giving the sign and seal of her mission, and by this revelation she not only caused the King to believe in her, but strengthened his confidence in himself and in his right and title. True to herself and "the voices," for she never spoke as of her own motion, it was always a superior power speaking through her, as the mouthpiece. She said:

I tell thee on behalf of my Lord that thou art the true heir of France and son of the King."

After some weeks of discussion and delay, Joan's plan for the relief of Orleans was adopted, troops were gathered together, of which she was given the command, or as she naïvely expressed it, she was made the "war-chief." Yolande, Queen of Sicily, the young Queen's mother and the Duc d'Alençon, were her zealous advocates. Yolande gave of her treasures for the relief of Orleans, and soon at the head of her army, her banner flying, upon which was inscribed the name of the Prince of Peace, surrounded by the lilies of France and with her troops singing Veni Creator, the dauntless Maid passed through these gates and Chinon knew her no more.

We know that Joan accomplished in less than a year all that she had promised. The city of Orleans was relieved, she had led Charles to Rheims to be crowned and had done much toward delivering France from the English. Then came the sad part of the story, which you know so well. While we were following the fortunes of the Maid, and here where she had so courageously taken up what she deemed her heaven-appointed task, feeling more than ever before the cruelty and rank injustice of her treatment, Lydia exclaimed : "Nothing could prove more forcibly the old saying about the ingratitude of princes than the King's treatment of Joan!"

A voice behind us echoed, "Nothing," and we turned to see M. La Tour, who had followed us and entered the hall so quietly that we had not known that he was anywhere within miles of us. "No," he said, when the first greetings were over, "I am not here to defend my country for her treatment of the noble and fearless Maid. She did much to regain the territory of France from the English and to establish the King upon his throne; she came to him in the darkest hour and inspired him with hope and courage, and yet in the time of her trial he basely deserted her. No, there is no excuse except that at the King's side there were many men jealous of the success and military glory of Jeanne, to whisper tales in his ear. He was a weak and vacillating creature, at the best, ready to follow the last person who talked to him, and he probably believed some of the stories told him about the good Maid."

"And then," as Archie reminded him, "Joan was given papers to sign which she was not able to read and thus set her mark to her own death warrant."

"A sad and shameful tale!" exclaimed the young Frenchman, as we passed by the donjon where Joan had been lodged and by the scanty ruins of the little chapel where she stopped to pray, and wept because the angels left her.

Just then, as we were passing on to find some traces of the several Angevin kings, who lived and died at Chinon, something happened which I cannot quite explain. In some way Lydia was separated from us, as we were passing from one ruinous castle to another. She has not told me, and indeed there has been little time to have a word with her, but I shall always think that she was so impressed by the wonderful story, which seems so real here, where Joan saw the angels and revealed her mission, that Lydia was in a way overwhelmed by the mysterious, spiritual power of it all, and lingered behind us for the peace and rest of being alone, and away from all the talk and from that small child, with the big key, who recited her monotonous tale like a parrot. Then later, in trying to find us, Lydia must have gone off quite a distance in the wrong direction, and so became confused and lost her way among the ruins. This is only my explanation, Lydia is writing to you and may give you another. All that I know is that we heard a sharp, sudden cry and turning we saw the poor dear perched up quite high on the ruins of a wall, with a steep, precipitous descent between her and ourselves. Miss Cassandra was scared out of her wits, M. La Tour begged Lydia to be calm, in French and English, with the most dramatic gestures, while Archie, without a word, sprang up the steep ascent, agile and surefooted like the good mountain climber that he is, and without more ado picked Lydia up in his strong arms and bore her down the precipice as if she had been a baby, and she is no light weight, as you know. All that Lydia said, when she found herself in Miss Cassandra's embrace, was "I am so ashamed of myself for losing my head. I think I was just a little dizzy, and I was. so afraid of falling from that wall."

"Don't think about it, dear," said Miss Cassandra, "now that you are safe and sound, thanks to Dr. Vernon."

The good lady was so overjoyed at having her treasure beside her again that she would have been quite ready to include her deliverer in the warm embrace with which she welcomed Lydia, nor do I think that Archie would have objected. The situation was somewhat strained, for the moment, as he had been living at rather high pressure with the Joan of Are associations when Lydia's escapade came to cap the climax. Miss Cassandra's eyes were brimming over with tears, and I was more ready to weep than to laugh, when Walter, as usual, came to the rescue with his sound common sense, saying to Lydia, whose modesty and reserve were distinctly shocked by the idea of having made a scene.

"You would never have lost your head up there, Miss Mott, if you had had your luncheon before you ascended to the heights above," this in Walter's most comforting manner. "We have gone through a lot of history and emotion on a breakfast that is a good many hours away. Let us go down to the town and see what they can do for us in the way of luncheon or afternoon tea."

M. La Tour, who had been rather left in the background during the last excitement, now came forward and offered to conduct us to a nice little hotel for luncheon,--insisting, however, that we should first go with him to see the part of the castle in which Henry II of England died, in the midst of the dissensions of his rebellious sons.

"The most pitiful, disgraceful death-bed scene in all history!" exclaimed Miss Cassandra. "I don't see why we need trouble ourselves about it. Henry was lying half dead, here or somewhere else near Chinon, when his son Richard, who had joined the French King against him, approached his father to receive from him the kiss of peace, and such a kiss of peace as it was!—the dying King muttering under his breath as he gave it, `May God keep me alive till I have given you the punishment you deserve!' "

"That was at Colombiers, near Villandry," said M. La Tour, laughing over the Quaker lady's picture, gruesome as it was. "Henry was too ill to return to Chinon, and so passed the night at Azay-le-Rideau, or at the Commanderie of the Templars at Ballan. It was there or at Chinon that his clerk, at his request, read to him the list of the rebellious barons. `Sire,' said the man, `may Jesus Christ help me ! The first name that is written here is the name of Count John, your son.' Then Henry turned his face to the wall, caring no more for himself or the world, and lay there muttering, `Shame upon a conquered King!' "

It really seemed to us as if M. La Tour took a certain ghastly satisfaction in telling us of the unseemly behavior of these English kings and princes who had appropriated, justly or unjustly, so much of his country's territory. The only human incident in the last hours of the great King was the devotion of his son Geoffrey, who sat through the hours of the long summer day fanning away the insects from his father's face, the dying man's head resting upon his shoulder while a knight supported his feet. The King opening his eyes, recognized his son, blessed him, and said that he of all his children was the only one that showed any affection for him, and that if his life was spared he would make him the most powerful prince of them all. This, like many another death-bed resolution, was not carried out, as Henry died the next day, before the high altar of the church of St. Melaine, which was within the château, at Chinon.

We did not feel at all sure that we had seen the spot where the King breathed his last; but it really does not much matter, as Miss Cassandra says, and it is not easy to locate the scene of remote events among these ruinous buildings.

The trial of the Grand Master of the Knights Templars was held here in one of the halls of Chinon in 1309, and swift retribution was meted out to the members of the order, more for the love of gold than for the love of justice, as the Templars had become the bankers of Christendom and were possessed of vast treasures, which were seized upon forthwith.

A carving in the donjon of Coudray of three kneeling knights, each one bearing a sword and a shield, is thought to have been carved by the Templars on their prison wall.

As we made our way down the hillside to the town, M. La Tour reminded us of a more cheerful association connected with Chinon than those upon which we had been dwelling, for here it was that the historian Philippe de Commines was betrothed. He had been created Prince of Talmont by Louis XI, who arranged a marriage for him with Hélène de Chambès, daughter of the Lord and Lady of Montsoreau. This betrothal was attended by the whole court, and Louis heaped honors and rewards upon his favorite who was made Governor of Chinon. A few years later, after the death of the King, Commines entered into the involved politics of France, and incurred the displeasure of Anne de Beaujeu who imprisoned him at Loches; or, as he expressed it in Scripture phrase, "I ventured on the great ocean, and the waves devoured me." He, however, escaped from this sea of troubles and gave to the world his valuable history, composed, it is said, in the hours of his enforced retirement.

"Which is," as Walter says, "a delicate and extremely polite manner of referring to his imprisonment in one of those infernal iron cages at Loches." (Pray notice that the language is Walter's, not mine.)

On our way to the café we passed by the statue of Rabelais, and although this was not a market day, to M. La Tour's infinite regret, there were some booths in the busy little square and a number of traffickers. The face of the humorist who loved his kind, even if he often made game of them, looked down upon the gay, chattering, bargain-making crowd in the square beneath him, with an expression half satirical, half laughing and wholly benevolent.

There is some uncertainty as to the date of the birth of Maître François at Chinon, and he may or may not have lived in either of the old houses pointed out as his, but he certainly belonged to this part of the country, and we are grateful to his fellow-townsmen for honoring him so fittingly.

In the centre of the little square a fountain, surrounded by acacia trees, was playing, and beyond was the welcome Hotel de France opening its doors to us. After we had ordered our luncheon, Walter suddenly remembered the chauffeur, and started to hunt him up and tell him where to meet us with the automobile, and I joined him for the pleasure of another stroll through the town. M. La Tour, who accompanied us, again regretted that this was not a market day, when the peasants come in from the surrounding country, and we could then see just such a noisy merry crowd as Rabelais de-scribed when Couillatris goes to Chinon, which he calls "that noble, antique city, the first in the world," to buy oxen, cows and sheep, pigs, geese and capons, dead and alive, and all manner of country produce. An antique city Chinon appeared to us, above all that we had seen; and to add to this impression we met a number of peasant women and black-eyed girls with the picturesque lace caps of this province, veiling but not concealing their fine dark hair.

After a luncheon that more than answered our expectations, we strolled about the old town, through its narrow winding streets and by the Place Jeanne d'Arc, with its remarkable statue which represents the Maid riding rough-shod over the prostrate bodies of her foes; her horse has all four feet off the ground, his means of support, a bronze rod as a sort of fifth or middle leg, being more practical than artistic. "The rider's position in the saddle," as Archie says, "would turn any circus per-former green with envy." An altogether atrocious piece of sculpture is this, with an element of grotesqueness in its conception quite unworthy of one of the most serious characters in all history, the Maid to whom, as Carlyle says, "all maidens upon earth should bend."

Finally, and I must say with some reluetance, we turned our backs upon Chinon and our faces toward Fontevrault, journeying by much the same route that Henry II was carried on his last journey, over the bridge that he had built and by the river and the village of Montsoreau.

By the way, M. La Tour showed an amiable desire to accompany us to Angers, and as our touring car is of hospitable proportions we were glad to have his good company. At Fontevrault, which has been turned from an abbey into a reformatory for criminals, we were fortunate to have some one with us to speak to the sentinel, as this seemed to be a day when visitors were not welcomed here. After some parleying with the officials, M. La Tour gained permission to have us enter and see all that is left of the fine old church, whose buttresses and roofs we had admired from a distance. In the little chapel we saw the four Plantagenet statues that still remain, after the vandals of the French Revolution had broken open the tombs and destroyed all that they could lay their hands upon. These four statues have been restored and the faces re-painted. Here lies Henry II, robed and sceptred as he was when borne forth from Chinon for burial at Fontevrault, and Richard Coeur de Lion, both in the middle of the group. To the left is Eleanor of Guienne, the wife of Henry II. Three of these recumbent figures are of colossal size, hewn out of the tufa rock and painted. The other statue of smaller size, carved in wood and colored, represents the English queen, Isabel of Angoulême, one of the most beautiful as well as the most depraved queens of history; only excelled in wickedness by her French sister of a later time, Isabel of Bavaria. This earlier Isabel, daughter of Aymar, Count of Angoulême, upon the day of her betrothal to Hugues de Lusignan, was carried off by John of England, who put away his wife, Avice, to marry this beautiful, wicked enchantress. After the death of John, Isabel came back to France to marry her old lover.

As we left Fontevrault and motored down the hill towards the Loire, M. La Tour recalled to us the ancient glory of this abbey, whose walls now echo to the clank of arms instead of to the Ave Marias of the gentle sisters. Fontevrault was founded in the eleventh century by Robert d'Abrissel, a monk, as a place of refuge for. a vast and ill-assorted company of men and women who gathered around him when he was preaching a crusade to Palestine. From this strange beginning the abbey became one of the most famous in Christendom, as it was richly endowed by kings and princes, especially by the early English kings who loved this beautiful valley of the Loire. Many noble and royal ladies presided over Fontevrault, among them, Renée de Bourbon, sister of Francis I who, while she was Abbess, rebuilt the beautiful cloister which we saw to-day. Another and later Lady Abbess was Marie Madelaine Gabrielle de Rochechouart, who found time in the midst of her religious duties to make translations of some of Plato's works. New ideas, you see, were finding their way into the con-vent, it being the fashion about that time for women to be learned, Mary Stuart having led the way by delivering a Latin oration at the Louvre to the edification of all who heard her. And here came Mary Stuart herself, while Louise de Bourbon was Lady Abbess, brought hither by her aunt, the Duchess of Guise, to charm and delight the nuns by her beauty and ready wit. As a religious establishment for men and women, ruled over solely by a woman, the Abbey of Fontevrault was unique in Christendom.

As we motored along the river bank beyond its low-lying sand marshes and line of small hills, we noticed tiny black wind-mills spreading out their arms to. the breeze, and wreaths of smoke curling up from the cliffs. Here and there the lowering sun would light up a window pane in the cliff, as if to remind us that these hillsides are burrowed out by the workers in the vineyards who make their homes here as in Touraine and in the valley of Vendomois.

"It seems that we are again in the land of the troglodytes," said Walter. "Alfred de Vigny says these peasants `in their love for so fair a home have not been willing to lose the least scrap of its soil, or the least grain of its sand.' I think myself that it is for more practical and economic reasons that they live underground."

These cliff dwellings continue for nearly eight miles around Saumur, and M. La Tour tells us that many of them go back to the days of the Roman occupation when they served the conquered tribes as a last retreat from the invader. Some one has said that every step to the southward takes us further back in the history of France. Chinon and Fontevrault are not far south of Tours and Blois, and yet we are far back in history to-day, living with the Angevin kings and with the cave-dwellers of Gaul.

Even the coiffes of the women are different here from those worn in other places on the Loire, and in a very distinct way we realize that we have left Touraine and are in Anjou.

In the fields the peasants were gathering in their stores for the winter; the women pass along the road constantly with their odd panniers upon their backs, full of treasures. Sometimes they are filled with fruit and vegetables and again it is only grass for the cattle or faggots for the fire. As we drew near Saumur, grapes filled the hottes to overflowing, for this is the land of the vine, one of the great grape-growing regions of France.

We are spinning along all too rapidly over these perfect roads, as we long to stop at so many places, especially at that tiny Venice on the Loire, a republic of fishermen and laborers established by King René when he was still in power. From its sole palace, the Château de l'Ile d'Or, René's daughter went forth to be the unhappy Margaret of Anjou, the Red Rose of the House of Lancaster, during the war of the succession which raged in England for so many years.

M. La Tour tells us there is much to see at Saumur, a very old Hotel de Ville, a twelfth century church, and other ancient buildings. This city, once a favorite residence of Angevin princes and English kings, was in the reign of Henry IV, the headquarters of Protestant-ism, with DuPlessis-Mornay, the Pope of the Huguenots, as its governor. All that we had time to see, this afternoon, was the fortress château, which stands high up on the Quay de Limoges, overlooking the junction of the Loire and the Thouet. We were warned that if we stopped again we should not reach Angers until after dark, and so we sped along past many an historic landmark of interest.

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