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MURDER, MYSTERY AND MAYHEM (Loose in the Loire 4)

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I love a good murder mystery story. ‘It is the stuff of life!’ a fellow addict told me recently. Well, I wouldn’t go that far but everything from Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle to Dorothy L Sayers or J K Rowling make for good holiday or bedtime reading as far as I’m concerned. We have a couple more chateaux to visit before we come to the end of our short holiday here in the Loire, and both have ongoing stories of murder, mystery and sometimes even mayhem!

When we visited the Château de Chenonceau earlier in the week we were captivated by the story of the (understandable) ongoing rivalry between Catherine de’ Medici, the wife of Henry II of France, and the King’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers during the mid-16th century. Seized by King Francis I of France in 1535 for unpaid debts to the Crown, the château was given to Diane de Poitiers by King Henry after Francis’ death in 1547. Diane de Poitiers became fervently attached to the château along the river, and over the following years had a beautiful arched bridge built joining the château to its opposite bank and oversaw the planting of extensive flower and vegetable gardens along with a variety of fruit trees. After King Henry II died unexpectedly in 1559, following a duel (what was a King doing fighting a duel?), his strong-willed widow and regent Catherine de’ Medici took her revenge on Diane de Poitiers by forcing her to exchange it for the Château Chaumont. Queen Catherine then made Chenonceau her own favourite residence, spending a fortune on the château adding a new series of gardens and a grand gallery to the existing bridge that crossed the entire river. Quite naturally we wanted to follow up this story of mystery, intrigue (and possible murder?) by visiting Diane de Poitier’s new residence at Château Chaumont.

Château Chaumont was acquired by Catherine de Medici in 1550. Today, it is a beautiful place set high on a hill above the village of Chaumont overlooking the River Loire. We park at the top of the hill in the designated car park (we are glad we are visiting now and not in the height of summer when the château would be packed with tourists) and walk down through the beautiful grounds to the château itself. We are very pleased with ourselves in as much as since we are both ‘students’ (and have our student cards to prove it) we get a reduced rate for entry. The grounds are magnificent and the views amazing.

In 1550, however, Château Chaumont was not quite the place it has now become and was small recompense for Château de Chenonceau. Catherine de Medici did little to improve the place after she acquired it. History records, however, that whilst there the Queen entertained numerous astrologers, among them Nostradamus, before forcing Diane de Poitiers, to accept the Château de Chaumont in exchange for the Château de Chenonceau. Astrology in those days was very much considered a science – a way of divining the most appropriate way forward – rather than the kind of thing it has become for so many today. Julia and I have found that prayerfully seeking to know the mind of Christ, centring in on Jesus day by day, being guided by the teaching of the Christian Scriptures, and being sensitive to the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit, has been much more fruitful than reading your horoscope in the newspaper.

On our second to last day in the Loire we finally make it to the other château we want to visit, the one most local to us, the Château d’Amboise that we saw (from the outside) on virtually our first full day in the area and promised ourselves (like Jesus and Arnie) that ‘We will return!’ Built on a spur above the River Loire the château is very impressive rising, as it does, above the surrounding town. It turns out to be even more impressive when we get inside. Today we are early enough to go for coffee first. Our plan is to spend time looking over the château and then have a final lunch somewhere in Amboise. Once again, our student cards come in handy and we manage to save a few more euros that can now go towards the cost of our anticipated gourmet lunch!

Expanded and improved over time, more intrigue ensued when Château d’Amboise was seized by Charles VII of France in 1434, after its owner, Louis d’Amboise, was convicted of plotting against the king and condemned to be executed. However, the king pardoned him but took his château at Amboise as ‘compensation’. Once in royal hands, the château became a favourite of various French kings who developed it over the years. Other stories of murder, mystery and mayhem connected to this château abound. Charles VII died at Château d’Amboise in 1498 after he hit his head on a door lintel whilst playing tennis. Leonardo da Vinci came to Château Amboise in 1515 as a guest of the King, and lived and worked in the nearby Clos Lucé, connected to the château by an underground passage. When da Vinci died in 1519, he was buried in the nearby Chapel of St. Florentin which lay within the stone fortifications surrounding the property of the Château d’Amboise. After the French Revolution (1789–1799), the Chapel of St. Florentin was in such a ruinous state that the engineer appointed by Napoleon decided that it was not worth preserving and had it demolished. Some sixty years later (and 330 years after Leonardo’s death and original burial), the foundational site of the Chapel of St. Florentin was excavated and it a collection of bones were found together with an extraordinarily large skull, and fragments of a stone inscription containing some of the letters of da Vinci’s name. These were supposedly re-buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert, where a large floor-level marble stone bearing a metal medallion relief portrait of Leonardo da Vinci and the words LEONARDO DA VINCI seem indicative of his final resting place. Henry II and his wife, Catherine de Medici, also raised their children in the Château d’Amboise, along with Mary Stuart, the child Queen of Scotland who had been promised in marriage to the future French King, Francis II.

Most interesting to us (as Protestant-Christians) however, is what has become known as the ‘Amboise Conspiracy’. In 1560, during the French Wars of Religion, a so-called conspiracy by members of the Huguenot House of Bourbon against the House of Guise (that virtually ruled France in the name of the young Francis II) was uncovered by the Comte de Guise and stifled by a series of hangings, which took a month to carry out. By the time it was finished, 1200 Protestants were gibbetted, strung from the town walls, hung from the iron hooks that held pennants and tapestries on festive occasions and even from the very balcony of the Logis du Roy. The Court actually, eventually had to leave the town because of the smell of corpses. A so-called ‘Edict of Pacification’ was signed at Amboise in 1563, between Louis de Bourbon (who had been implicated in the conspiracy to abduct the King) and Catherine de Medici which authorised Protestant Worship Services (but only in chapels belonging to Seigneurs and Justices) and stipulated such services could only be held outside the walls of towns. Neither side was satisfied by this compromise, nor was it widely respected.

Read what you will into this cruel episode of murder, mystery and mayhem but Amboise never returned to royal favour after this and at the beginning of the 17th century, the huge château was all but abandoned. Following the French Revolution, and the later rise of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, a great deal of the château was eventually demolished. Towards the end of the 19th century, however, a major effort was made to restore what was left of the château and eventually it was made open to the public and remains so today – an absolute delight and well worth a visit should you ever be in the area.

Whilst we were at the château, and looking down from the walls at the lively little town below, we saw several locals visiting one of the restaurants opposite. Now it is always a good thing when in France to go eat where the locals eat – you can then be certain that the food there is top notch. So when we concluded our visit to Château d’Amboise we headed straight for said restaurant. It was packed but fortunately there was one table for two available, so they were able to fit us in. And what a wonderful meal we enjoyed – great food, flowing conversation (in French) with the locals, lots of laughter (especially at us photographing every dish before we consumed it), and great service from the owner and her staff. A fitting conclusion to a wonderful holiday in the Loire before we packed the car in readiness for a long drive the next day up to Boulogne (where we stopped the night) and then back to the UK via Calais and the Eurotunnel. With all the murder, mystery and mayhem surrounding Brexit we wonder if will we ever be able to make such a trip so easily ever again?

Jim Binney


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