The Château of Maintenon

From its beginnings as a defensive fortress in the 13th century, the Château of Maintenon was gradually transformed by various owners into a comfortable aristocratic residence.

Françoise d’Aubigné, the future Madame de Maintenon, bought the entire estate, including the château, land and farms, in 1674, with money given to her by King Louis XIV. She had ideas of actually living in the château, and retiring there in her old age, but her increasingly close relationship with the king meant that she spent more of her time in Versailles than in Maintenon. 

Entrance to the château, garden and aqueduct

When construction of the aqueduct was begun in 1685, her garden and in fact the entire valley of Maintenon became a huge construction site. The king, who was by now her husband, came to visit repeatedly with some of his courtiers to watch the construction work, but rarely stayed more than three days because it turned out to be rather boring to watch 40,000 men carry stones around in the swamps. After 1688, Madame de Maintenon no longer stayed at the château, presumably because the construction work got on her nerves.

The square and round towers

In 1698 Madame de Maintenon, who had no children of her own, gave the estate as a dowry to her niece Françoise Amable d’Aubigné on the occasion of her marriage to the future Duke de Noailles. Thereafter, the château remained in the Noailles family until 1983, when it was bequeathed to the Maintenon Foundation. Since 2005 the site has been managed by the Eure-et-Loir General Council.

The new 17th century garden

 

Behind the château im Maintenon is the newest addition to the site, a formal French-style garden stretching from the château to the aqueduct. This garden was created in 2013 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the birth of André Le Nôtre (1613-1700), the landscape architect and principal gardener of the royal palaces during the reign of Louis XIV.

In 1676 Louis XIV sent Le Nôtre to Maintenon to draw up plans for the château grounds. It is unclear if these plans were actually implemented at the time, but in 2013 the gardens were “fully restored in keeping with the spirit of Le Nôtre’s original creation” under the direction of Patrick Pottier, the master gardener at the Château du Champ-de-Bataille in the French region of Normandy.

In the summer of 2014 a new system of illumination was installed, so visitors on summer nights can now see the gardens and the aqueduct “with striking illuminations accompanied by a musical soundtrack”.

Allee Racine

This promenade leads along one side of the garden from the château to the aqueduct. It is named after the French dramatist Jean Racine (1639-1699), who was a frequent guest at the château. Racine is one of those dramatists everybody has to read in high school, at least in French speaking countries. He wrote classical tragedies in classical blank verse, particularly in dodecasyllabic alexandrines, which were very much the fashion in seventeenth century France.

While his reputation as a classicist seems to place him above any sort of petty quarrels, the fact is that he was involved in some of the most contentious artistic and religious disputes of his century. He considered himself a victim of mobbing (as we would say today) and even gave up writing tragedies for many years because he was so distressed at the treatment he received from his fellow authors. One of the few who continued to support him as a dramatist was Madame de Maintenon, who eventually ended his writer’s block by commissioning two plays for performance at the school she had founded for impoverished young aristocratic women. See my post Racine’s Esther in Saint-Cyr-l’École.

In addition to writing tragedies (or agonizing over not writing them), Racine had a career as a royal historiographer in the court of King Louis XIV. In this capacity he accompanied the king on his inspection tours of various sieges and battles, which he was expected to document and of course glorify. Most of the writings of Racine as a royal historiographer have disappeared, but two texts and a few fragments still exist, for instance his description of the siege of Namur, Belgium, in 1692. 

St. Nicolas Church

This church is at the front end of the château in Maintenon, where it forms part of the wall between the château and the square Aristide Briand. The building on the right is the “Grand Gallery” between the château and the church. This gallery, also known as the north wing of the château, was built starting in 1686 to provide a direct indoor connection between the château and the church, so the king would be protected from bad weather on his way to mass each morning.

As a child, Françoise d’Aubigné was brought up partly as a Protestant, by her father’s side of the family, and partly as a Catholic, by her mother’s side. When she was in her teens she felt the need to decide, one way or another, which religion she was going to belong to.

Book on Louis XIV by Pierre Gaxotte

As with most biographical details of her life, there are different versions of how this happened. One version is that when she was fifteen she arranged to have a Protestant minister and a Catholic theologian debate in her presence (for several days!), and on the basis of their arguments she decided in favor of the Catholics. (I found this version in Pierre Gaxotte’s book on Louis XIV. This book was originally published in French in 1946 as La France de Louis XIV, but I read it in German translation because I found a copy at home in a box of old books of unknown origin.)

A more plausible version is that she developed a pre-pubescent crush on one of her lady teachers, called Sister Céleste, and converted to Catholicism in order to please her.

Be that as it may, she remained a Catholic for the rest of her life. During her lifetime she was rumored to have been the one who talked Louis XIV into abolishing freedom of religion, but later scholars have found little or no evidence to support this assertion. On the contrary, she seems to have been opposed to religious persecution and forced conversions, though she was pleased when people converted voluntarily to Catholicism as she herself had done. (And she talked one of her Protestant cousins into converting so he could have a successful career as an officer in the French navy.)

Audio guide

The audio guide to the Château of Maintenon is in the form of a tablet computer, which includes maps of the site and pictures of some of the things on display. It also includes interviews with historians such as Jean Paul Desprat, Eve Ruggieri and Georges Poisson. I used the French language audio guide (as I always do because I need all the listening practice I can get), but I believe it is also available in English.

 

Picture from the tablet

Here is one of the rooms of the château, as shown on the tablet. Visitors were unfortunately not allowed to take photos inside the château, so I have no photos of my own to show you.

Poster about the evening spectacle

In the summers of 2013 and 2014, an evening spectacle (in French) called Madame de Maintenon, ou L’Ombre du Soleil (Madam Maintenon or the Shadow of the Sun) was presented at the Château of Maintenon. Unfortunately I didn’t see this show, so I can just quote the official description, which called it a “fantasy told in three scenes re-tracing on the facades of the chateau the exceptional destiny of Madame de Maintenon,” with words, images and music by the “video painter” Xavier de Richemont. “The show tells the story of Francoise d’Aubigné, the future Madame de Maintenon and secret wife of the Sun King. It is presented in three scenes describing three epochs in the life of the illustrious inhabitant of the eponymous castle, projected on the façade of the castle: the Châtelet, Logis and the Keep. The public will thus be led to immerse themselves in the story and open their hearts to one of the most beautiful stories of France.”

I hope they will go on presenting this show in future years, because I would be interested in seeing how they portray the career of Madame de Maintenon, whether they just idealize it as a rags-to-riches story or try to show some of the complexity and ambiguity of her situation.

The price of admission in 2014 was five Euros for adults and three Euros for children, with children under 7 years old getting in for free. Reservations were required. It was recommended to bring a folding chair and warm clothing. The showings in 2014 were on five evenings per week, Tuesday through Saturday, and included illuminations of the garden and the aqueduct.

Aerial view and photo of the château on monumentum.fr

My photos in this post are from 2014. The text was last revised in 2017.

 

 

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