Medieval royal rivalries are supposed to end in beheadings or duels – yet the feud between King Henri II’s wife and his mistress at Chenonceau seems to have been remarkably civilised. The reason why, of course, is sex.
The two women at the heart of the story are Henri’s wife, Catherine de’ Medici, and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.
In 1534, just a year after his marriage to Catherine, Henri II began an affair with Diane that would last some 25 years.
He installed Diane in one of the royal palaces, the château of Chenonceau, in the Loire. She had it rebuilt, extending it over the river Cher on stone columns and adding beautiful formal gardens along the river, protected by stone terraces.
However, when Henri died in 1559, Catherine ousted Diane and forced her to move into Château de Chaumont instead. Catherine then took over Chenonceau for herself.
Not nice perhaps, but it’s hardly an act of revenge to launch a thousand TV mini-series.
The reason for her leniency is more revealing – Henri was only 15 when he married Catherine and was sexually inexperienced. Diane was 20 years older and was able to educate him in matters of the bedroom. Catherine would eventually have ten children, so Henri clearly got the hang of what went where.
The official start of spring today is a time when Chenonceau might reasonably expect to start attracting large crowds. It is already France’s second most visited château, after Versailles.
However, the story of the two women is downplayed. Chenonceau’s guardians may feel they don’t need to focus on royal rivalry to boost ticket sales.
The château’s appeal, then, appears to be simply its beauty. For once, perhaps, sex doesn’t sell.