The Loire Valley Castles : Blois

Blois LocalizationLocalization of the city of Blois between Tours and Orléans, along the Loire river.

The city of Blois is labelled Ville d'art et d'histoire (city of art and history) by the french culture department because of its rich secular heritage: religious heritage with many churches, its abbey, its basilica and its cathedral of Saint Louis ; architectural heritage with numerous places, buildings, gardens and museums; and royal heritage due to the presence of royal families during more than one century: the french king Louis XII (1462-1515) is born at the castle of Blois which becomes a royal residence for seven kings and ten queen of France, in particular for François Ist and the queen Catherine de Médicis (dead in this castle in 1589).

coat of arms of the city of BloisCoat of arms of the city of Blois The coat of arms of the city of Blois is a golden fleur-de-lys on a blue background. This flower was granted by Louis XII, King of France born in Blois, who wanted to pay tribute to the services rendered by Blois people: to put a golden fleur-de-lys on the coat of arms of the said city, between the wolf and the porcupine. The name of the city would come from the represented wolf, since important breton colonies (North-West of France) had settled along the Loire Valley and some historians think that the name Blois comes from the celtic word Bleiz meaning Wolf !

For a long time, Blois Castle was a favourite place for the kings of France, who held their court there. The original fortress, dating from the XIIIth century, was completed under Louis XII (wing + gallery), under François Ist (spiral staircase + facade of the Lodges) and under Louis XIII (construction of a classic style wing).

This was in this castle that Joan of Arc organized her army in 1429 and had her standard blessed, before leaving to free Orléans.

Every day at noon, a six-headed dragon appears in front of the equestrian statue of Louis XII. This is in fact the museum of Robert-Houdin, called Father of moder magicians, born in Blois in 1805.

Nocturnal view of Blois CastleNocturnal view of the wing François Ist

History and structure overview

View of the south-west side of the castle,  overhanging the Loire riverView of the south-west side of the castle, overhanging the Loire river and the city around

Before the current castle:

Castle of Blois: François Ier wingsThe castle of Blois, built on a promontary, overhangs the city (view of François Ist wing) The city of Blois extends on both sides of the Loire. Its historic heart is located on the right bank of the river, where the oldest traces of occupation are attested: witnesses of Gallo-Roman settlements and medieval buildings such as the castle as well as some religious buildings (churches, abbeys ...). A large number of remains dating from the early Middle Ages, and more precisely from the Carolingian period, have been exhumed from the excavations of the "Cour du château" and all around the promontory.
The promontory of the castle is formed by an imposing rocky spur that forms a corner overlooking the historic heart of the city by about twenty meters. Its status as a natural spur also offers it a guarantee from a security point of view, since only the opening on the plateau to the west is unprotected. In return, its qualities become defects in terms of exchange and communication from one area to another, and in particular from the promontory with the river and its banks. If the masonry of the remains is slightly later than the Carolingian period, their location most certainly reflects an older boundary well marked in the around landscape. These structures alone prove the presence of a fortified site since they are themselves defensive attributes. The masonry is part of the enclosure of a Carolingian fortress.

Various elements obtained during geological excavations suggest that the origin of the city can be found on the banks of the river, probably in the first century AD. At the same time, the promontory site occupied a peri-urban situation where a rural-type occupation had been developing since the first century BC. The existence of the fortified city of Blois is stipulated in Merovingian texts, notably by Gregoire de Tours in 584. The first mention of the castle of Blois appears in the texts in 834. Viking invasions reached the city in 854 and 856-571.

The county of Blois was then administered by a viscount: at the beginning of the Xth century appeared Thibaud (known as Thibaut the Cheater), Viscount of Tours and then also of Blois. The county of Blois was then one of the most powerful counties in the french kingdom.

Architecture of the castle from the Middle Age:

The architectural history of the Château de Blois really began in the Xth century when the Count of Blois Thibaut, decided to build a tower about 107 meters high on the promontory. The work was continued by the descendants of Count Thibault, since around 1080, a text showed Count Thibault III rendering justice in the fortress of Blois, in the courtyard, behind the palace, near the tower, on the ground floor between the fire chambers of the palace. However, only small parts remains from that period.

Castle of Blois: Aerial viewAerial view where we can see the several parts built along the centuries In the XIIIth century, new expansion and embellishment works were carried out: the wing François Ist was built on the site of a medieval dwelling, of which it preserves several walls, notably the thick surrounding wall on which the facade of the Lodges is leaning. Two towers are still visible from the outside: to the east is the "Tour des Champs", the smallest, flanking the gable near the "Salle des Etats" to the west, the Château-Renault tower is part of the new building that it dominates from its walkway and high roof. On the ground floor of the wing François Ist there is also a round room that shows a third tower, levelled. From this period also dates the circular tower of Le Foix, which stands on the south-west terrace and dominates the Loire and the district that gave it its name. An old corner tower of the medieval fortress, it rises on four levels, three of which are vaulted, sparsely lit by stirrup loopholes. The lower level, now in the basement, once formed the ground floor before the terrace was filled in in the XVIIth century.

Castle of Blois: louis XII statueLouis XII statue at the entry of the castle At the end of the Hundred Years War, the fortifications were reinforced and put in a state of defence by the Dukes of Orleans, Louis XI in 1404-1405, his widow Valentine Visconti in 1408 and their son Charles of Orleans in 1433-1434. In 1498, Charles d'Orléans' son, Louis, became King of France under the name of Louis XII. The castle of Blois then became a royal residence and the King of France decided to undertake embellishment work there. Louis XII first undertook to rebuild the houses, around 1500, according to the testimony of the chronicler Jean d'Auton, and the work was completed in 1501 when he welcomed the royal family of Austria.

Louis XII undertook to renovate the Saint-Calais chapel, which dated from the XIIIth century, and added a lean-to gallery to it to allow it to move from the new wing to another dwelling at the back of the courtyard, probably older, whose facade is covered with bricks and has a terrace overlooking the courtyard. This building was known as the "Breton Perch" because it would have housed the Queen's Guard and House.

Castle of Blois: View of louis XII wingsView of louis XII wings from the inner court But the king's most famous work of construction is undoubtedly the wing to which he gave his name. On the current Place du Château, formerly the forecourt, the Louis XII wing has a long brick facade, punctuated by bays of high mullioned windows crowned with dormers with arms and emblems of the kings (écus de France and monogram L and A for Louis and Anne). Balconies mark the locations of the king's and queen's rooms from where the princes contemplated the contests and tournaments organized in the forecourt. The wing is supported on the north side by the sturdy gable of the great XIIIth century hall (now known as the State Hall). It is pierced by a portal dominated by a niche where the equestrian statue of Louis XII is seen riding in arms on a horse walking with an amble (ceremonial appearance, the horse lifting both legs on the same side). A replica carved in 1857 replaces the original statue destroyed during the french revolution.

Castle of Blois: two view of louis XII wingsTwo view of louis XII wings where we can see two towers at each side On the courtyard side, the Louis XII wing has a more open aspect. The facade seems less massive: it opens on the ground floor with a gallery alternating pillars carved with candelabra and columns decorated with royal emblems. It is enclosed on either side by two towers housing spiral staircases. The square tower on the north side houses the Great Staircase and forms a pavilion, flanked by a corbelled turret leading to the upper room. On a carved panel of the staircase tower (as above several doors and wing passages) is a crowned porcupine, chosen as an emblem by Louis XII for his ability to project his quills far away. . .

The Louis XII wing reconciles fidelity to French building habits, with a Gothic tradition, and a timid appearance of newly imported Italianism (see for example the castle of Amboise). The architectural redesign ordered by Louis XII was considerable at the Château de Blois, but it was in the gardens of the Château de Blois that the gigantic size of this brand new royal residence really became apparent. And it is this work among all that will really mark a turning point in the future architecture of the Château de Blois.

Castle of Blois: Painting of François IPainting of François Ist at Blois Louis XII thus transformed a family fortress into a sublime and royal residence. However, the castle of Blois would not be the fabulous masterpiece we know without the intervention of François Ist. Crowned in 1515, François Ist decided that these first works as a king builder would take place in Blois. This choice seems to have been inspired by Queen Claude, daughter of Louis XII, who had been raised in the castle and remained very attached to it. François Ist therefore undertook numerous embellishment works that profoundly transformed the appearance of the castle. From 1515 to 1518, the king had a new, radically modern wing built on the medieval buildings leaning against the walls.

The architect of the François Ist wing in Blois is not known, the name Dominique de Cortone, who had worked for Charles VIII and Louis XII and who later provided a model for the Château de Chambord, has long been put forward. However, no document formally identifies him as the king's architect in Blois. However, it is known that it was the master mason Jacques Sourdeau who had the work carried out; he was cited in 1518 as master mason of the work of the castel of Blois before being appointed to Chambord the following year.

Castle of Blois: wing François IstView of the wing François Ist from outside of the castle The wing François Ist is a rather singular architectural work in several respects. First of all, it should be noted that this wing does not correspond to the same typology depending on whether you look at it from the courtyard or the garden side. On the courtyard side, the facade has a typology faithful to the medieval style: a massive dwelling, crowned by a high roof pierced with dormers and served by a powerful polygonal staircase tower. This traditional party is undoubtedly explained by the fact that Francis Ist reused the foundations and even the walls of a medieval dwelling, which he undoubtedly enlarged, raised and on which he placed a new façade. On the other hand, it is not impossible that the king may have insisted on standardizing the facades on the courtyard, so that all the new and old buildings remain pleasant for his guests.

Castle of Blois: Painting of François INocturnal illumination of the wing François Ist with the famous spiral staircase The innovations will therefore focus on the decoration of the staircase and facade. The ornamentation is clearly Italian-inspired and characteristic of the first French Renaissance: the façade is grid-shaped with a network of horizontal mouldings and pilasters (flat columns leaning against the wall) framing the windows. The top of the wall is crowned by a massive cornice (where antique shells are placed next to it with gargoyles of a very medieval appearance) on which runs a sculpted balustrade. This horizontality breaks the vertical momentum conferred by the dormers, very high and crowned with pedimented aedicules whose niches house statues of putti (naked children of ancient inspiration). The polygonal spiral staircase offers a striking contrast between the massiveness of the powerful buttresses that support it and the lightness conferred by the wide open loggia-shaped bays that line the climb. These balconies are part of a new staging of court life, both to see and to be seen: they allowed courtiers, sometimes to see the king walking down the stairs from the courtyard and sometimes to contemplate the festivities organised in the courtyard from the balconies.

The interior layout of the wing François Ist was partly dictated by the choice to build the new building on either side of the medieval surrounding wall. The rooms on the courtyard side occupy the right-of-way of a former dwelling, while the galleries and rooms that open onto the lodges were built outside the rampart. The inner decoration of the royal apartments, which occupy the first and second floors, was entirely recreated by Félix Duban in the XIXth century. Nevertheless, in the king's room there are still two ornate fireplaces and a door with a sculpted decoration that is largely original. In addition, the cabinet known as the Queen's cabinet, which in reality turns out to be the cabinet or studio (place of study) of François Ist arranged for the king as soon as the building was built, preserves its woodwork carved with painted and gilded candelabra, which makes it the only royal cabinet of the Renaissance preserved in France.

Sketch of the castle of BloisSketch of the castle where the two main wings are drawn

Inner rooms

Ground floor:

The ground floor is composed of 3 rooms, including the largest room of the castle: Les états généraux (General Estates) where the counts of Blois rendered justice. This sumptuous room of 540 m2 is still richly decorated today: 6720 fleurs-de-lys decorate the panelling and 237 candelabra illuminate the studio. On also may observe many monograms with 35 of them refering to François Ist 180 to the queen Catherine de Medicis and 192 to Henry III (her son). This is the largest Gothic civil hall of the early XIIIth century visible in France.

One of the rooms of Chambord (here a room exposing artillery models). We can notice the high ceiling with ancient wooden beams. At the end of the room are two large mullioned windows, dating from the XVth century. Above are stained glass windows with the emblems of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany

The main building is composed of three levels plus a level on the roofs. We can see at the background, lateral wings endind with towers and, at the foreground, ''flat'' low wings surrounding the castle. The painted decoration is the work of Félix Duban who restored it in the XIXth century, drawing inspiration from the polychromy process used in the XIIIth century. It is to him that we owe the 6 720 painted fleurs-de-lys.

First and second floors:

All the painted decorations are inspired by illuminated Renaissance books. The rooms closest to the royal chambers are decorated with canvas in various colours, while gold dominates in the royal chambers. The architect has reproduced a quality decor, in the spirit of the golden and colourful character of the royal palaces of the French Renaissance, based on two decisive periods in the history of the castle: the almost continuous stay of François Ist and his wife Claude de France between 1518 and 1524, and the presence of Catherine de Médicis and Henri II during the general states of 1588.

The royal dwelling probably occupied the western part of the first floor: a large staircase leads, on the left side, to a room decorated with the most beautiful fireplace of the castle. François Ist's private apartment has five rooms, including a wardrobe and a gallery communicating with his private room, overlooking the gardens. The royal dwelling became the royal room of Catherine de Médicis who died there on January 5, 1589.

Until 1845, the king's room was divided into two parts by a partition placed under the central beam. One of these parts disappeared during the construction of the Gaston d'Orléans wing by François Mansart. The remaining part, the most important, had multiple uses: a place of meal, reception or audience for the king. The room now has two fireplaces and a door that is contemporary to the construction of the wing Gaston d'Orléans.

The second floor is composed of several rooms, including the dwelling of Henri III, a council room and a tower. The council room allowed important figures of the king's court to meet several times a week. Nowadays, this room houses paintings from the XIXth century, evoking in particular the last war of religion (1586-1598) which saw King Henry III, Henry of Navarre (ruler of the crown) and the Duke of Guise confront each other. In the XIXth century, the representation of the Renaissance was a fashion that was accompanied by a great attention to detail in costumes and architectural elements. Thus, the account of the murder of the Duke of Guise inspired many painters, some of whose works are on display in this council chamber.

Queen's room (first floor)

Dwelling of François I, which became the royal chamber of Catherine de Médicis Dwelling of François Ist, which became the royal chamber of Catherine de Médicis who died there on January 5, 1589.

Chimney with royal emblems (first floor)

Blois castle: Chimney with royal emblemsChimney with royal emblems: The salamander is the emblem of François Ist and the ermine is the one of his wife Claude de France, duchess of Brittany.

Guard-room (first floor)

Blois castle: guards room.The topic of his room is devoted to the history of minting and neo-Renaissance earthenware produced in Blois in the XIXth century.

Queen' gallery (first floor)

Blois castle: quenn's gallery.The gallery opens onto the facade of the Lodges, inspired by Bramante's facades in the Vatican, which once overlooked the gardens created by Louis XII.

Oratory (first floor)

Blois castle: Oratory.The decoration of this small panelled room is inspired by that of the Montmorency library (Écouen castle) around 1550. The stained glass windows date from the XIXth century.

Queen's cabinet (second floor)

Blois castle: Queen's cabinet.The ceiling of this room was reconstructed from a fragment representing a siren. On the balcony remain the painted woodwork of a XVIIth century cabinet.

Bedroom of Henri III (second floor)

Blois castle: Queen's cabinet.The duke of Guise was murdered in this room in 1588.

Duban Gallery (second floor)

Blois castle: Duban Gallery.Drawings, engravings and objects evoke the work of Félix Duban (1798 - 1871), the architect who restored the castle from 1543 to 1569. He also directed the restoration work on the Sainte-Chapelle in Fontainebleau and part of the Louvre.

Council room (second floor)

Blois castle: Council room.This room contains rich furniture made in the XIXth century in the Renaissance style. The care given to the sculpture and decoration can remind us of the luxury of XVIth century princely furniture.

The tower Chateau-Renault

Blois castle: The tower Chateau-Renault.The Château-Renault tower is located in the continuity of the wing François Ist on the right. The tower offers a wide panoramic view of the site of the former royal gardens, where the Anne de Bretagne pavilion and the orangery remain.

Information and tourism around the castle

Visites and prices:

⁃ All the informations are availables on the website of the Château de Blois.

Interesting links and documents:

⁃ Websites with pretty photos of the castle website 1, website 2 and this website in particular.

⁃ Youtube account about the Loire valley (including the castle of Blois).

⁃ A Youtube video. in English about the castle of Blois.

Illumination of Blois cstleIllumination of the castle for a sound and light: click on the photo for more info.