History and architecture of the royal castle of Blois

The royal castle of Blois is a famous castle of the Loire located in the department of Loir-et-Cher, in the region Centre-Val de Loire. Favorite residence of the kings of France during the Renaissance, the royal castle of Blois has been classified as a historical monument since 1840 and welcomes more than 300,000 visitors each year. Located in the heart of the city of Blois, near the banks of the Loire, the Royal Castle of Blois is also the third most visited castle on the Loire, behind the castle of Chambord and the castle of Cheverny. In this article, we will look at the history of the royal castle of Blois and its eclectic architecture that combines different styles of Gothic, Renaissance, classical and medieval inspiration.

The history of the royal castle of Blois

The origins of the royal castle of Blois date back to 854. Destroyed by the Vikings, a first fortress was built around the year 1080 and at the end of the 12th century, the collegiate church of Saint-Sauveur de Blois, a historical monument, was built in the front yard of the castle. The Collegiate Church of Saint-Sauveur was eventually sold and destroyed during the French Revolution. The Burgundian family of Châtillon rebuilt the castle of Blois in the 13th century. In 1392, Guy II of Blois, the last descendant of the Châtillon family, sold the castle of Blois to Louis of Orleans, brother of Charles VI. In 1462, Louis d’Orléans, son of Charles I, was born in the castle of Blois before becoming king of France in 1498, under the name of Louis XII. The medieval castle of the Counts of Blois became the royal residence and Louis XII abandoned the castle of Amboise to make it his main residence. In 1499, Louis XII married Anne of Brittany and the couple began rebuilding the royal castle of Blois in the early 16th century. The king and queen took the opportunity to mix elements of flamboyant gothic style with other elements of Renaissance style. Anne of Brittany died at the royal castle of Blois on January 9, 1514. Claude de France, daughter of King Louis XII, married the same year his cousin François d’Angoulême who would become, the following year, King of France under the name of François 1er. In 1515, the court moved to the royal castle of Blois and François I launched the construction of a new Renaissance style wing within the castle. The work was supervised by the Italian architect Dominique de Cortone, who was responsible for the monumental staircase in the courtyard. The day after the death of his wife, François I stopped the work and abandoned the royal castle of Blois in favor of the castle of Fontainebleau. Until Catherine de Medici, the castle of Blois became a kind of royal nursery where royal children were educated. In 1547, the son of François I, Henri II, just crowned new king of France, settled in the royal castle of Blois. In 1583, Henri III, successor to King Henri II, had his sworn enemy, the Duke of Guise, executed in his room and in 1589, Queen Catherine de Medici died in the royal castle of Blois.

The royal castle of Blois seen from the sky
The royal castle of Blois seen from the sky

The royal castle of Blois under the old regime

Henri IV succeeded Henri III in 1589 and settled in Blois, launching new constructions within the castle in 1598. At his death in 1610, the royal castle of Blois was inhabited by the cardinal of Richelieu and became a place of exile for Marie de Médicis, widow of Henri IV. In 1617, the latter undertook the construction of a pavilion in the western corner of the castle. In 1626, Louis XIII, the new king of France, granted the county of Blois to his brother Gaston d’Orléans as a wedding present. In 1635, work began on a new wing designed by the architect François Mansart, but was stopped in 1638 due to a lack of funds. In 1660, Gaston d’Orléans died and the royal castle of Blois was abandoned. Abandoned by Louis XIV who preferred to sit in the Palace of Versailles, the castle was no longer inhabited before being given to former servants who transformed the building into several small apartments. In 1788, King Louis XVI, who considered that the castle of Blois was worthless, ordered its sale or, failing that, its demolition, its maintenance having become a real financial drain. However, due to a lack of buyers, the Royal Comtois Regiment moved there in 1788, thus saving the Royal Castle of Blois from destruction.

The royal castle of Blois in the contemporary period

Looted during the French revolution of 1789, the royal castle of Blois has also been abandoned for over a century. The Collegiate Church of Saint-Sauveur, located in the courtyard of the castle, was sold before being completely destroyed. Condemned to destruction, Napoleon I gave the castle to the city of Blois on August 10, 1810, and once again the building was used as a military barracks due to lack of funds. In 1834, the southern half of the castle was destroyed to allow the construction of new military kitchens, while the François I wing remained accessible to the public who wished to visit it. In 1840, the royal castle of Blois was classified as a historical monument under the reign of Louis Philippe. In 1844, restoration work on the royal apartments was carried out under the supervision of the architect Félix Duban and with the approval of Prosper Mérimée, the general inspector of historical monuments at the time. The restoration work continued until Duban’s death in 1871 and the castle was also transformed into a museum by the mayor of Blois in 1869. A second phase of restoration was undertaken between 1880 and 1913 under the responsibility of Anatole de Baudot, the new inspector general of historical monuments. Alphonse Goubert, Baudot’s successor, decided to restore the Gaston d’Orléans wing and had the monumental stone staircase built from François Mansart’s sketches. During the Second World War, the facade of the Louis XII wing located in the south of the castle of Blois was damaged by bombing. Today, the castle is once again the property of the city of Blois and since the 1990s, new series of restoration works have been undertaken. The royal castle of Blois is made of three wings where Gothic, Renaissance and classical styles are mixed with some elements of the Middle Ages. The castle is composed of the medieval castle, the Louis XII wing, the François I wing and the Gaston d’Orléans wing.

The courtyard of the royal castle of Blois and its monumental stone staircase
The courtyard of the royal castle of Blois and its monumental stone staircase

The medieval castle of the castle

The medieval castle of Blois is composed of the State Hall, the lapidary museum and the Foix tower.

  • The hall of the States: the hall of the States was built in 1214 by Thibaut VI and remains to this day the oldest Gothic civil room of France. The Salle des Etats housed the Estates General and also served as a court. Recently restored in the 2000s, the Salle des Etats is located at the north end of the Francis I wing and features two naves and six bracketed columns, as well as two vaults juxtaposed with an oak frame. The decorations were painted by Felix Duban. Stained glass windows with the emblems of Louis XII and Anne de Bretagne decorate the openings of the building.
  • The lapidary museum: installed in the old kitchens of François 1er, the lapidary museum gathers sculptures of the 16th and 17th century.
  • The Foix tower: located slightly behind the Gaston d’Orléans wing, the Foix tower offers a panoramic view of the city of Blois and the Loire. The Foix tower was used to defend the southwest corner of the castle in the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, an astronomical observatory was built on its summit.

The Louis XII wing of the castle of Blois

Made of red bricks and white stones, the Louis XII wing gives access to the royal castle of Blois. An equestrian statue of Louis XII overhangs the entrance of the facade. Built between 1498 and 1503, the Louis XII wing combines the flamboyant Gothic style with Renaissance elements. A high roof composed of slates and dormers marks the Gothic character of the building. Several elements constitute the Louis XII wing of the castle of Blois:

  • The Blois Museum of Fine Arts: installed since 1869 in the Louis XII wing, the Blois Museum of Fine Arts is built around the eight rooms of the gallery where paintings and sculptures from the 16th and 19th centuries are exhibited. The gallery also contains a collection of French and Flemish tapestries dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. There are also terracotta medallions, as well as portraits and paintings from various castles in France.
  • La tour des Champs: adjoining the Louis XII wing, the tour des Champs is a gothic style building which mixes bricks and stones.
  • The Saint-Calais chapel: located at the end of the Louis XII wing and in the inner courtyard of the castle, the Saint-Calais chapel was built in 1498 and served as a private oratory for the king.
  • The Charles d’Orléans gallery: stuck to the Saint-Calais chapel, the Charles d’Orléans gallery, partly destroyed during the 17th century, was built in the middle of the 15th century and marks the beginning of the association of the stone and the brick.
The Queen's bedroom and its blue, white and yellow geometric tiles
The Queen’s bedroom and its blue, white and yellow geometric tiles

The François I wing of the royal castle of Blois

The François I wing, in Renaissance style, represents the largest part of the castle and was built twelve years after the Louis XII wing. It combines the following elements:

  • The staircase: the central element of the François I wing, this octagonal spiral staircase is embedded in the building and decorated with sculptures and frescoes of the Renaissance type where royal emblems are displayed.
  • The facades: the facades were inspired by Bramante’s facades in the courtyard of San Damaso in the Vatican. At the top, a cornice features a series of early Renaissance motifs and runs around the monumental staircase. The gargoyles, however, are a reminder of the gothic style heritage.
  • The royal apartments: on the second floor are the queen’s apartments and the second floor houses the king’s apartments.
  • The Queen’s Gallery: its blue, white and yellow geometrically shaped tiles host an exhibition of antique musical instruments. The queen’s gallery is also decorated with busts of French kings, including that of Francis I.
  • The Queen’s chamber: also known as the chamber of secrets, the cabinet of Catherine de Medici has in its walls wooden panels concealing four closets with secret mechanisms.
  • The Queen’s room: once the gallery of the apartments of François I, the Queen’s room is a richly furnished room in the castle.
  • The guards’ rooms: formed by the union of two rooms, they now house an important collection of ancient weapons.
  • The oratory: its stained glass windows date from the 19th century and the oratory contains a triptych belonging to the queen.
  • The new cabinet: this room is the working cabinet of King Henry III.
  • The Duban Gallery: dedicated to the architect, this gallery gathers drawings, engravings and objects created by the architect.
    • The Guises room: this room houses a collection of paintings illustrating the characters and tragic events linked to the Wars of Religion.
    • The council room: with its monumental fireplace decorated with a golden salamander, the council room of the castle of Blois has a rich furniture of Renaissance style dating from the 19th century. The boardroom is also decorated with several statutes.
    • The king’s room: richly furnished, it also has a monumental fireplace and its decoration is Italian style.
    • The King’s Gallery: this gallery houses a beautiful collection of neo-Renaissance earthenware from the 19th and 20th centuries.
    • The king’s room: it is in this room that the legend says that the Duke of Guise died. The king’s room has a monumental Italian-style bed and decorations made with gold leaf.
    • The Château-Renault tower: located in the continuation of the François I wing, the Château-Renault tower offers a view of the former royal gardens of the château and the orangery.

The Gaston d’Orléans wing of the castle

The Gaston d’Orléans wing was built between 1635 and 1638 by the architect François Mansart. Of classical style, it is located in front of the Louis XII wing and replaces the “perche au Breton” (former pavilion of Marie de Médicis and Charles IX). The Gaston d’Orléans wing houses a history room dedicated to the royal castle of Blois as well as rooms for seminars and conferences. Between 1903 and 1914, the Gaston d’Orléans wing also housed the Blois Natural History Museum, before its transfer in 1922 to the former palace of the city’s bishop. After the bombings of the Second World War, the Natural History Museum of Blois returned to the castle until 1984.

Schedules, rates, accessibility, parking, store, stay…we invite you to consult the website www.chateaudeblois.fr to organize your visit.

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