Langeais And Azay-le-rideau
( Originally Published 1911 )
PENSION B ____, TOURS, September 3rd.
WHEN we started toward Langeais this afternoon we were pleased to think that our way was much the same as that which Félix took in search of his "Lily of the Valley." The Loire lay before us just as he described it,—"a long watery ribbon which glistens in the sun between two green banks, the rows of poplars which deck this vale of love with moving tracery, the oak woods reaching forward between the vineyards on the hillsides which are rounded by the river into constant variety, the soft outlines crossing each other and fading to the horizon."
We passed by Luynes, whose steep hillside steps we shall mount some day to see the fine view of the river and valley from the outer walls and terrace of the château, as its doors are said to be inhospitable to those who wish to inspect the interior. This afternoon Langeais and Azay-le-Rideau are beckoning us, although we were tempted to stop for a nearer view of the strange Pile de Cinq Mars, which is, we are told, an unsolved architectural puzzle. The most probable explanation is that this lofty tower was once part of a signalling system, by beacon fires, which flamed messages along the valley, past Luynes to the Lantern of Rochecorbon and as far eastward as Amboise.
Although there are the ruins of a castle of the same name quite near the Pile de Cinq Mars, the home of Henry d'Effiat, Marquis de Cinq Mars, seems to have been at Chaumont, where Alfred de Vigny placed the opening scenes of his novel.
To compensate for our disappointing morning at Plessis-les-Tours, we had an entirely satisfactory afternoon at Langeais, where we beheld a veritable fortress of ancient times. At a first glance we were as much interested in the little gray town of Langeais, which is charmingly situated on the right bank of the Loire, as in the château itself, whose façade is gloomy and austere, a true mediaeval fortress, "with moat, drawbridge, and portcullis still in working order," as Walter expresses it. As we stood on the stone steps at the entrance between. the great frowning towers waiting for the portcullis to be raised, we felt as if we might be in a Scott or Dumas novel, especially as our Quaker lady repeated in her own dramatic fashion:
.... And direst thou then
Lord Marmion turn'd,—well was his need,—
Fortunately for us the portcullis rose instead of falling, and so, with plumes unscathed, we passed through the doorway, and as if to add to the vraisemblance of the situation and make us feel quite mediæval, soldiers stood on each side of the entrance, apparently on guard, and it was not until after we had entered the château that we discovered them to be visitors like ourselves.
If the façade of Langeais, with its severe simplicity and solidity, its great stone towers, massive walls, chemin de ronde and machiolated cornices, gave us an impresion of power and majesty, we found that it also had a smiling face turned toward the hill and the lovely gar-dens. Here the windows open upon a lawn with turf as green and velvety as that of England, and parterres of flowers laid out in all manner of geometrical figures. From a court basking in sunshine, two beautiful Renaissance doors lead into the castle. Through one of them we passed into a small room in which the inevitable postcards and souvenirs were sold by a pretty little dark-eyed French woman, who acted as our guide through the castle. We begged her to stand near the vine-decked door-way to have her photograph taken, which she did with cheerful alacrity. Some soldiers, who were buying souvenirs, stepped through the doorway just in time to come into the picture, their red uniforms adding a delightful touch of color as they stood out against the gray walls of the château. It was a charming scene which we hoped to be able to send you, but alas ! a cloud passed over the sun, and this, with the dark stone background, made too dull a setting, and by the time the sun was out again our guide was in request to take a party of tourists through the château, ourselves among them. Langeais is so popular during this busy touring season that hours and turns are strictly observed.
One of the soldiers is evidently the cher ami of our pretty Eloisa, who waved her little hand to him as she sent a coquettish glance from her fine eyes in his direction, and threw him a kiss, after which she applied herself to her task as cicerone, conducting us from room to room, enlarging upon the history and associations of the château, and explaining to us that of the original castle, built by Foulques Nerra, or "Fulk the Black," in 990, only the ruinous donjon keep is to be seen beyond the gardens. The present château is of much later date, and was built by Jean Bourré, comptroller of the finances for Normandy under Louis XI, who was granted letters patent of nobility and the captaincy of Langeais about 1465. After listening to thrilling tales of the barbarous cruelty of Fulk the Black, Count of Anjou, who had his first wife burned at the stake and made himself very disagreeable in other ways, as our guide naively remarked in French of the purest Touraine brand, Lydia exclaimed, "The more perfect the French, the easier it is to under-stand!"
"It is all the same to me, good or bad," groaned Walter in reply to Lydia's Ollendorf phrase, uttering quite audible animadversions against foreign languages in general and the French in particular, which our guide fortunately did not comprehend, especially as he concluded with a crushing comparison, "Why are not all the guides like that wonderful little woman at the Castle of Chillon, who told her story in English, French, and German with equal fluency and facility?"
"Why, indeed!" echoed Miss Cassandra, who being a fellow sufferer is most sympathetic.
It certainly is exasperating to a degree to have the interesting history and traditions given forth in a language that one does not understand, and with such rapidity that if those who are able to grasp the meaning attempt to translate they quite lose the thread of the discourse and are left far behind in the story.
As we passed through the great-halls and spacious rooms with timbered ceilings, tapes-tried walls, and beautifully tiled floors, we were impressed with the combination of mediæval strength and homelike comfort, especially in the living rooms and bedrooms. The graceful mural decorations of flowers and cherries in the Salon des Fleurs are in strong contrast with the massive woodwork and the heavy carved furniture, and yet the ensemble is quite harmonious. In the guard room we noticed a fine frieze in which the arms of Anne of Brittany are interwoven with her motto, "Potius Mori quam Foeddari!"
From this and much more in the line of careful restoration and rich decoration and furnishing, you may believe that the interior of Langeais has undergone a transformation, at the hands of several owners of the château, since the days when Mr. Henry James spoke of its apartments as "not of first-class interest." M. Christophe Baron and Monsieur and Madame Jacques Siegfried have, while preserving the distinctive characteristics of an ancient fortress, made of Langeais an entirely livable château.
Just here we are reminded by our historians that we Anglo-Saxons have a link far back in our own history with Langeais and the cruel Fulk, Duke of Anjou, as one of his descendants married Matilda, daughter of Henry I, of England, and their grandson was Richard Coeur de Lion, who was Count of Touraine and Lord of Langeais as well as King of England.
In the beautiful long salon, with its wonderful sixteenth century tapestries and handsomely carved Spanish choir stalls, our guide became especially eloquent, telling us that this was the room in which Charles VIII and Anne de Bretagne were married, the inlaid table in the centre being that upon which the marriage con-tract was signed.
"What is the little black-eyed woman talking about?" asked Miss Cassandra, in a most pathetic tone. Fortunately, our cicerone gave us more time in this room than in the others, and as we stood by the windows which look out upon the court and gardens, a blaze of color in the September sunshine, Lydia and I tried to explain about the very remarkable marriage solemnized in this château between the heiress of Brittany and the young King of France.
Odd as royal marriages usually are, this was especially melodramatic, as the royal lover seems to have set forth to meet the lady of his choice with a sword in one hand and a wedding ring in the other.
The hand of the young Duchess of Brittany was naturally sought after by many princes, who looked with longing eyes upon her rich inheritance, in addition to which, as Brantome says, she was renowned for her beauty and grace, which latter was not impaired by the fact that one leg was shorter than the other. She was also learned, according to the learning of her day, and clever, which circumstances probably weighed lighter than vanity when put in the scale against the wealth of the Duchy of Brittany. Among the various pretendants to the hand of the Duchess was Louis, Duke of Orleans, who as next in succession to his cousin Charles was a suitor quite worthy of the hand of this high-born lady. Feats of valor had been performed by Louis in Brittany earlier in his career, which of course reached the ears of Anne, who like every woman of spirit admired a hero, when lo! misfortune of misfortunes, he was taken prisoner at the battle of St. Aubin, where he fought bravely at the head of his infantry. This capture must have been a sad blow to the hopes of the young Duke of Orleans, as Maximilian, Duke of Austria, promptly stepped in and claimed the hand of the Breton heiress; but even this wooing was not destined to prosper, as Charles VIII, who had just succeeded to the throne of France, suddenly announced that he was the proper person to wed the Duchess Anne and her possessions, and promptly breaking his engagement with Margaret of Austria, set forth upon his war-like wooing. She, poor girl, would probably have preferred any one of her suitors to the boy of nineteen or twenty, misshapen and ignorant, says a chronicler of the time, and so feeble in body that his father, despairing of his holding the throne, had arranged a marriage between the next heir, this same Duke of Orleans, and his daughter, Jeanne of France. The young Duchess, an heiress in her own right, and possessed of a decided will of her own, as appeared later, was singularly hampered in the choice of a consort, several eligible suitors being separated from her by the armies of Charles, who, closely besieging the town of Rennes, demanded her hand at the point of the sword. Thus wooed, Anne reluctantly consented to become Queen of France, and was secretly betrothed to Charles at Rennes.
If the betrothal of Charles and Anne was accomplished with scant ceremony, their marriage at Langeais was celebrated in due form. The bride, accompanied by a distinguished suite, is described, as she arrived at the château upon her palfrey, wearing a rich travelling costume of cloth and velvet, trimmed with one hundred and thirty-nine sable skins. Her wedding dress of cloth of gold was even more sumptuous, as it was adorned with one hundred and sixty sable skins. Fortunately for the comfort of the wearer, the wedding was in December, and in these stone buildings, destitute of adequate heating arrangements, fur garments must have been particularly comfortable. The nuptial benediction was pronounced by the Bishop of Angers, probably in a chapel which was formerly in the southwest wing of the château, and in the presence of the Prince of Orange, the Duke of Bourbon, the Chancellor of France and other nobles of high degree, among them the Duke of Orleans, afterwards Louis XII, who was destined to become the second husband of Anne. One of the articles of the marriage contract signed in this room at Langeais was that if Charles should die without issue Anne should marry the next heir to the crown, thus uniting Brittany indissolubly with France.
Brantome described the fourteen-year-old bride as pretty, with black eyes, well-marked eyebrows, black hair, fresh complexion and a dimpled chin, but as Lydia says, one cannot always trust Brantome, as he painted Catherine de Medici whom he beheld with his mortal eyes in all the glory of the lily and rose, and later, when he saw Queen Elizabeth in London, he wrote of her as beautiful and of lofty bearing. It is quite evident that Brantome's eyes were bedazzled by the glitter of royalty, or was it the glitter of royal gold?
"Well, whether or not Anne was beautiful, it is a comfort to have her safely married in the midst of so much confusion and warfare," said Miss Cassandra, with the satisfied air of a mother who has just made an eligible marriage for her daughter.
"But we have not done with her yet," exclaimed Lydia. "We shall meet her and her ermine tails and tasseled ropes in every château of the Loire, and at Amboise we shall go a step further in her history, and only reach the last chapter at Blois."
From the mediæval fortress, with its wealth of French and English history that Lydia and our. guide poured into our willing ears, we crossed the Rue Gambetta to the little Café Rabelais, opposite the entrance to the château, where we spent a cheerful quart d'heure over cups of tea, and classic buns that are temptingly displayed in the window. Although this genial reformed monk, as Walter is pleased to call Rabelais, was born at Chinon, he seems to have lived at Langeais at two different periods of his wandering and eventful life, Guillaume, Sieur de Langeais, having given him a cottage near the château.
Having come to Langeais by train we en-gaged a hack to convey us to Azay-le-Rideau, a drive of about six miles. As we drove over a long bridge that crosses the Loire, we had another view of the château, with its three massive towers, many chimneys, and of the wide shining river that flows beside it, bordered by tall poplars and dotted with green islets. Our drive was through a level farming land, where men and women were at work cutting grass and turning over the long rows of yellow flax which were drying in the sun. Here again we saw many women with the large baskets or hottes on their backs, as if to remind us that the burden-bearers are not all of Italy, for the women of France work quite as hard as the men, more constantly it would seem, if we may judge by the number of men who are to be seen loafing about the little inns and cabarets.
Across the wide, low-lying fields and pasture lands, we could see the long line of foliage that marks the forest of Chambord. All these great country palaces of the kings and nobles of France were comparatively near each other, "quite within visiting distance," as Miss Cassandra says. As we walked along the avenue of horse-chestnut trees, and over the little bridge that spans the Indre, we felt that no site could have been better chosen for the building of a palace of pleasure than this. With a background of forest trees, a river flowing around it, the stone walls and bridges draped with a brilliant crimson curtain of American ivy, the Château of Azay-le-Rideau justifies Balzac's enthusiastic description : "A diamond with a thousand facets, with the Indre for a setting and perched on piles buried in flowers." Yet this gay palace, like most of the châteaux of the Loire, has arisen upon the foundations of a fortress, and its odd name was given it in honor of a certain Hughes Ridel or Rideau, who in the thirteenth century built a castle on an island to defend the passage of the Indre, the position being an important one strategic-ally. When our old Dijon friend, Jean Sans-Peur, came this way in 1417, he took care to place a garrison of several hundred men at Azay. These Burgundian soldiers, having a high opinion of the strength of the castle and of their own prowess, undertook to jeer at the Dauphin, afterwards Charles VII, as he passed by on his way from Chinon to Tours, upon which he laid siege to Azay and captured and meted out summary vengeance upon those who had mocked at and insulted him. The story told to us sounds, as Miss Cassandra says, like a chapter from the Chronicles or the Book of Kings, for although a great bear did not come out of the woods and devour those wicked mockers, they were hanged, every one, their captain was beheaded and the castle razed to the ground.
Upon the piles of the old fortress the Château of Azay arose to please the fancy of a certain Gilles Berthold, a relative of the Bohier who built the Château of Chenonceaux, and like him a minister of Finance.
Built upon an island, the slow flowing Indre forms a natural moat around the castle, or as Balzac expresses it more picturesquely, "This most charming and elaborate of the châteaux of beautiful Touraine ever bathes itself in the Indre, like a princely galley adorned with lace-like pavilions and windows, and with pretty soldiers on its weathercocks, turning, like all soldiers, whichever way the wind blows." The lace-like effect that Balzac speaks of evidently refers to the exquisite carving on the walls and around the windows, and upon the graceful corner towers of the château. Here, over the driveway and in other places, are the salamander of Francis I and the ermine of his wife, Claude of Brittany, who died before the château was completed. Francis lived to use and enjoy Azay in the hunting season, as did other sovereigns.
The architect, whose name seems to have been lost sight of amid much discussion and some chicanery with regard to the possession of the château, was a wise man in his day and instead of attempting to unite the feudal for-tress and the hunting seat, as Le Nepveu was doing at Chambord, he was content to make of Azay-le-Rideau a palace of pleasure. Indeed, he seems to have allowed his fancy free play in the construction of this château, with the result that he has made of it a dwelling place of great beauty, richly decorated but never overloaded with ornament. Even the chimney tops are broidered over with graceful designs and covered with a fine basket work in metal.
A true gem of the French Renaissance is Azay-le-Rideau, so the learned in architecture tell us, and yet enough of the old fortress construction has been preserved to add strength and compactness to the fairy-like beauty of this château.
Through the handsome double doorway above which the salamander of Francis breathes forth its device, "Nutrisco et extingo," we passed into the beautiful hall and up the grand staircase, with its sculptured vaults of stone, rich beyond compare, adorned with medallions of royal faces and decorations of fruits, flowers, and heraldic emblems. Miss Cassandra, being somewhat fatigued after our ramble through Langeais, sat down upon the steps to enjoy at leisure the delicate beauty of the ornamentation of the stairway, declaring that she was quite ready to take up her abode here, as this château fulfilled all the requirements of a pleasant country home, and after reading Madame Wadding-ton's book she had always wished to try château life in France.
Lydia and I objected, for after the complete and harmonious furnishing of Langeais the interior of Azay-le-Rideau seems a trifle bare, as only two or three of the rooms are thoroughly furnished. As the property now belongs to the State and is in the care of L'Ecole des Beaux Arts, which is gradually collecting rare and beautiful articles of furniture, this compact little château will soon be completely equipped as a Renaissance museum.
The room of Francis I is shown, with hand-some carved bed and rich hangings of turquoise blue damask, adjoining it the room in which Louis XIV slept, which is hung in crimson damask. These rooms, with some fine tapes-tries, scattered articles of furniture and a number of portraits, complete the present equipment of Azay-le-Rideau. Among the portraits that interested us was one of Catherine de Médicis by Clouet, and another by the same artist of Francis I, as he so often appears in his portraits, "with the insufferable smile upon his lips that curl upward satyr-like towards the narrow eyes, the crisp close-cut brownish beard and the pink silken sleeves and doublet." Near by, in strong contrast to the sensual face of Francis, hangs the clear-cut face of Calvin. Here also are the portraits of Henry of Navarre and the wife for whom he cared so little, the beautiful Marguerite of Valois, less beautiful in her portrait than one would expect, and of the woman whom he loved so deeply, Gabrielle d'Estrées, Duchess of Beaufort.
A charm of romance 'ever surrounds the graceful figure of Gabrielle d'Estrées, whom the usually inconstant Henry seems to have loved tenderly and faithfully to the end of her days. Many persons have excused this connection of the King with la belle Gabrielle because of his loveless and enforced marriage with his cousin Marguerite, who was faithful to her royal husband only when his life or his throne were in danger. At such times she would fly to his aid like a good comrade. The handsomest and the most brilliant and daring of the unfortunate and ill-fated brood of the dreadful Catherine, Marguerite seems to have been particularly happy when she was able to thwart the malicious designs of her mother, from whose plots the King of Navarre so often escaped that he was said to have borne a charmed life.
As we quitted the château to wander through its lovely gardens, gay with many flowers, and over the lawn with its fine copper beeches, exquisite mimosa trees, hemlocks, and delicate larches, we thought of the many great lords and noble ladies who had walked over this fair demesne and, like us, had stopped to enjoy the soft breezes by the side of the little river where the birches spread their long branches over the gently flowing stream. So near the great world and yet so retired from it, it is not strange that Francis, and the kings who followed him, should have often turned from the turmoil and unrest of the court to enjoy this happy valley.
We were tempted to linger so long in the grounds that we had only a short time to spend in the interesting eleventh century church which adjoins the park and, like the château, belongs to the State. The façade of the church is richly decorated with quaint statuettes and carvings, and here also is a seigniorial chapel with inscriptions of the Biencourt family who owned the château of Azay-le-Rideau before it passed into the hands of the government.
Our appetite for châteaux has so increased with the seeing of them that we regretted not having time to go to Ussé this same afternoon, but we shall have to make a separate trip to this palace, which is said to be a superb example of Gothic architecture. Although the château is often inhospitably closed to visitors, its exterior, with innumerable towers and tourelles, and the terraces, gardens, and vast park, nearly seven miles in circumference, are well worth a visit.
As usual, the afternoon was not long enough, and the shortening September light warned us that we must take a train from the station at Azay-le-Rideau about six in order to reach Tours in time for dinner.