Blanche, meaning White, was a popular name for aristocratic ladies in the Middle Ages. There were several queens and princesses named Blanche in various centuries. No one is quite sure which of them this castle was named after, but some think it might have been Blanche de France, a daughter of Louis IX (1214-1270, later canonized as Saint Louis), since her mother Marguerite de Provence (1221-1295) was the first owner of the castle.
Another candidate might be Blanche de Navarre (1330–1398), also known as Blanche d’Evreux, who in her younger years had the reputation of being the most absolutely beautiful and lovely and gorgeous and irresistible princess of her generation. I imagine dozens of steamy historical novels have been written about Blanche de Navarre — but if not, some aspiring young author should get busy and write one.
Blanche de Navarre was originally engaged (or rather ‘betrothed’) to the king’s son, but then the king himself took a liking to her and snatched her away. So it was a situation like the one in Schiller’s play and Verdi’s opera Don Carlos: the king marries his son’s fiancée and the son is understandably not pleased.
It you have seen the play or the opera you know how this sort of thing turns out. In the case of Blanche de Navarre and her husband King Philip VI, who was forty years older than she was, the marriage lasted only one year because then the king died (in 1350), reportedly of ‘amorous exhaustion’ from trying to fulfill his conjugal duties to his libidinous young wife.
(See also: my Saint-Denis post Queen for a Year.)
Forty-three years later the original ‘Castle of Queen Blanche’ was badly damaged by fire during a wild costume party of the type known as a ‘charivari’ on the night of January 28, 1393. King Charles VI (the great-grandson of Philip VI) was disguised as a ‘savage’ at this party. He was wearing a highly inflammable costume and narrowly escaped being burned to death, but four of his companions died in the flames. The king was already mentally unstable (perhaps due to generations of inbreeding in the royal family), and this fire pushed him over the edge, so he was no longer capable of governing and had to let his uncles take control. The badly damaged castle was demolished soon afterwards.
The current building dates from the beginning of the 16th century, when it was built for the Gobelin family. The Gobelins were dyers from Flanders (or Reims, depending on which website you believe) who specialized in dyeing scarlet cloth. As I have mentioned in my post A new home for the Huguenots, the dyeing of cloth was in former times a profitable craft which required a great deal of skill and knowledge because each color needed a different kind of dye made of different ingredients.
The turrets on the building were later demolished, but they were reconstructed in 2002 when the building was made into condominiums. The owners of the new apartments carefully restored the entire complex in such a way that the buildings and courtyards are now again arranged as they were in the seventeenth century.
The gate at the entrance to the Castle of Queen Blanche is nearly always locked, but on the fence there is a sign offering free guided tours at certain times on certain days — “meeting point in front of this fence.”
So I went over on a Sunday morning at 11 o’clock and found that two other people were also waiting for the tour, a French couple in their sixties who later let on that they were not actually a ‘couple’, just friends. They had been living in and around Paris all their lives but were still going out on weekends to discover places they hadn’t known about before, with the help of a guidebook.
Soon a young man came out of the building, unlocked the gate and introduced himself as the owner of one of the condominiums. It was his turn to show people around, which he did with great enthusiasm. He had obviously been involved in the renovation project eleven years before, and was proud of how they had created modern apartments while preserving or restoring the historic buildings (and removing some unsightly ramshackle structures that had been added in the nineteenth century).
He took us into one of the buildings to show us the spiral stone staircase, which had been built around a thick oak beam. Before renovation it had looked completely decrepit, but after the accumulated residue of several centuries was carefully removed, it turned out that both the stone staircase and the oak beam were still in good condition, so they are now clean and are still in use today.
In the courtyard there were originally several wells. During renovation, one of the wells was rebuilt, but it now serves a different purpose, not to get water out of the ground but to hold an exhaust fan for the ventilation of some of the basement rooms.
This piece of real estate is still known as the Island of Queen Blanche, because in former times it really was an island between the two arms of the River Bièvre.
But since 1912, when the highly polluted Bièvre was banished underground, this is just a triangular piece of land bounded by the streets called rue Gobelins, rue Berbier-du-Mets and rue Gustave-Geffroy.
The tour really was completely free and was in French. When I walked past in 2018 there was still a sign on the fence from the year before, offering free tours in July, August and September 2017. (So I suppose they will keep on doing it in the years to come.)
Location, aerial view and photo of the Island of Queen Blanche on monumentum.fr.
After our guided tour of the Château de la Reine Blanche in 2013, the French couple I met there asked if I would like to come along with them to look for two more nearby sites that were mentioned in their guidebook. I gladly agreed to this, so we set off and after just a few meters we came to La grande maison des Gobelins (the Large House of the Gobelins) at 3 bis, rue des Gobelins. (Not to be confused with the larger Avenue des Gobelins, which is nearby.)
The historical sign at this site says that this house was the main residence of the Gobelin family, the skilled craftsmen who became very wealthy between 1550 and 1650 by dyeing scarlet cloth.
On September 27, 1621, this house was attacked by a mob of fanatical Catholics, because numerous Protestant refugees were hiding inside. Fortunately the house was defended by royal troops (Louis XIII was the king at the time), so the attack was repelled and the Gobelins’ houses and workshops were not seriously damaged.
The large house of the Gobelins is now private property and the entrance gate is usually locked, but as we were peering in through the bars one of the residents came along and kindly let us in so we could have a look around the courtyard.
The second site we went looking for was La cité fleurie (The Flowery City), a tract of land on the Boulevard Arago where there are twenty-nine artists’ ateliers that were built between 1878 and 1888.
Unfortunately this time nobody came along who could let us in, so we could only look in through the gate and get a glimpse of the flowery courtyard.
Among the artists who have lived and worked here at various times were Paul Gauguin, Amedeo Modigliani, César Domela, Henri Laurens and Antoine Bourdelle.
Another artist who lived and worked here was Louis Bouquet (1885–1952). This is where Bouquet painted his notorious murals glorifying French colonialism which can still be seen on the ground floor of the Palais de la Porte Dorée, the building that is now the home of the Museum of the History of Immigration.
Next door to the Cité Fleurie there is a small park named after the painter Henri Cadiou (1906-1989). He was the one who gave the Cité Fleurie its name at a time when real estate developers were trying to get control of the property to destroy the ateliers and build large apartment buildings instead. Cadiou said the site needed a name because “a place without a name does not exist”. He campaigned throughout the 1970s to save the site. In 1981 the newly elected president François Mitterrand paid a visit to the Cité fleurie and arranged for it to be bought by the French state. Since then it has been administered by a society of the HLM (“Habitation à Loyer Modéré” = rent-controlled housing), and to this day it is still reserved for artists.
Location, aerial view and photo of the Cité fleurie on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2013 and 2018. I revised the text in 2018.
See more posts on the 13th arrondissement of Paris.