Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Next to welcome us was the city of Angers, capital of the historic province of Anjou. That province is now wholly subsumed by the modern region of Pays de la Loire. The earliest known inhabitants of Angers were the Andecavi, a Gallic tribe. Angers was called Juliomagus when it came under Roman rule in 80 BC, and came into the possession of the Counts of Anjou in the 10th century. Angers remained the Plantagenet stronghold in Anjou until John lost the region to Philippe Auguste in 1204.

The town has prospered over the years primarily due to the region's productive slate quarries. Another interesting (and tasty) industry is that of liqueur distillation from fruit; the liqueur Cointreau comes from here. My friend Tee was kind enough to acquire some and share to make the bus ride go more smoothly. Blame any blurry photos from this entry on her.

Photo by Sue O'Dee

We're going to spend most of our time at the château, which fronts the Maine river. The seventeen picturesque towers we see today were built of shale and limestone during the reign of Saint Louis (Eleanor's great-grandson) between 1230 and 1240 to surround the buildings and structures within. The castle was built on his behalf by his mother, the redoubtable Blanche of Castille, when she served as Regent of France. The towers were topped with pepperpot or conical turrets, now gone. The walls themselves are nearly 10 feet thick and cover a total distance of almost a third of a mile.

In 1562, Catherine de Medici undertook restoration of this château. During the Wars of Religion when the Huguenots threatened to take it over, her son King Henri III stripped the ramparts so the château was a less attractive prize. Each tower was once 131 feet high, but Henri III had all but one cut down by 32 feet by removing the charming pepperpot turrets. For a time he maintained the fortress' defensive capabilities by placing artillery on the upper terraces, but decided in 1585 that the château should be completely demolished. Fortunately for history, he died in 1589 and his successor Henri IV (the Bourbon who reputedly said "Paris is well worth a Mass") halted that destruction.

So what we are looking at is nothing like the Angers that Eleanor would have known.

While very little remains of the original Plantagenet dwellings, Angers was nonetheless important to Henry and Eleanor, both politically and personally. Their youngest daughter Joanna was born here in October 1165.

The ruins and remnants of the buildings Eleanor would have known are to the far upper right of this diagram, which can be found on the grounds.

Photo by John Phillips

Legend has it that once upon a time, wild lions and antelope lived in the dry moat to deter interlopers. If so, seems to me to have been a poor deal for the antelope.

The moat itself dates to 1485. Today, a herd of deer roams these formal moat gardens. No lions.

While certainly having undergone its share of reconstruction and repurposing over the centuries, Angers still looks like a serious fortification not to be trifled with. It was re-fortified for military purposes during the Revolution, when it came under major attack but suffered little damage. The château's last military purpose was when it served as a munitions dump for occupying German forces during WWII. The inner grounds sustained considerable damage from an explosion. Restoration began in the 1950s and continues today.

Tour Moulin (the last, darkest tower in the photo to the left, in focus to the right) is the only tower that retains its original height. But it, too, was stripped of its pointy little pepperpot turret by the deconstruction efforts of Henri III.

Once inside, visitors are greeted by the formal gardens in the centre of the château grounds.

I suspect the gardener went on his break in the middle of trimming this archway.

These gardens seem unchanged since my previous visit twenty years ago. I have fond memories of wandering around here one evening during a son et lumière show.

Judging from the photos below, apparently this château is guarded by a chivalrous order of height-challenged knights. They have eschewed armor in favor of cardboard helmets, shorts, and sandals but are ever-vigilant to defend the castle against ubiquitous hordes of Japanese tourists.


(My elementary-school-aged son, having seen these photos, has yet to forgive me for not bringing him home a cardboard helmet).

We spent some time wandering the grounds and walls, though I passed on the rampart wall walk in favor of sitting in the garden and remembering my previous visit.

Random photos of a guard pigeon and a Green Man carving on an interior wall.

Portcullis envy, I mean entry.

Long narrow stairway, with modern steps.

Photo by Nicole Benkert

We paid a requisite visit to the sainte chapelle, so-called because it once enshrined a Passion relic (in this case, a splinter from the True Cross).

A fire caused by a malfunctioning portable electric heater resulted in extensive damage to the roof of the royal apartments -- the Logis Royal -- on January 10, 2009. Damage to the collections housed within was minimal and the adjacent Chapelle Sainte-Geneviève was spared. However, the fire truck couldn't pass through the narrow drawbridge entryway, so the roof was destroyed. Repairs were still on-going at the time of this visit, as can be seen by the scaffolding and crane in the photo below.

As of March 2011 the new curator of Château d'Angers is American-born Patricia Corbett, lauded for her work at Carcassonne.

Photo by Sue O'Dee

Of course, no visit to Angers is complete without viewing the Tapisseries de l’Apocalypse.

Photo by Nicole Benkert

Created between 1375 and 1382 in Paris for Duke Louis I of Anjou, these allegorical tapestries portray scenes from the Revelation of St John, but they also include commentary on 14th century politics and the Hundred Years War. There were once 105 individual tapestries measuring 551 feet long by 19 feet high, a woven surface of 10,764 square feet. The tapestries would have adorned the château for special occasions. They were eventually passed to the Cathedral of Angers, and then suffered during the Revolution. After that, their history is fragmented -- used as blankets to protect orange groves from the frost, as wall insulation, saddle covers, and floor rugs. Gradually recollected between 1843 and 1870, a total of 67 panels and 9 fragments were restored.

This modern L-shaped room, built circa 1952, is dimly lit to protect the already-fading vegetable dyes on woolen threads. That ill-conceived wall of windows is now completely covered over inside to keep out the damaging effects of sunlight.

To create what we know as the Apocalypse Tapestries, weavers copied illustrations from a manuscript, working horizontally from the back of the tapestry (checking position via a mirror set below the loom). The tapestry was designed to be viewed from both sides and could thus be used as a partition, which was common in the Middle Ages.

This is one of my favorite depictions, that of The Great Whore of Babylon: "Come hither, I will shew thee the judgment of the great harlot that sitteth upon many waters." (Revelations 17:1).

Photo by Nicole Benkert

Just before leaving the room housing the tapestries, we looked down through this window to see the ruins of this chapel from the original Plantagenet-era palace. At last, something Eleanor would have found familiar! How I would have loved to have seen more of the original dwellings.

Photo by John  Phillips

More from Eleanor's day, much to our delight, was the original Plantagenet aula or Great Hall. These ruins likely predate Eleanor, since we know that Geoffrey and Maude also lived in Angers.

Classic Norman arch. Obviously the interior is a ruin, but it must have once commanded a great view over the Maine River.

Henry established l'hôpital Saint-Jean d'Angers in 1180 across the river from the château in the Doutre district. The royal charter says it was "founded of his own alms in honour of God, for care of the destitute and to relieve their want." Much of this 12th century hospital still exists, and is today the site of the Jean-Lurçat Museum of contemporary tapestry. We unfortunately did not get to visit there but it is likely that Eleanor would have, in the way of royal benefactors inspecting and showing favor to a pet project.

Photo by Sue O'Dee

I love the above photo because even though I suspect this is a modern reproduction, the chevron or zigzag moldings typical of Norman architecture of the 11th century can clearly be seen. Eleanor would have seen a great deal of this kind of ornamentation, all most likely painted.

Here's our merry band of medievalphiles gathered around this architectural witness to Plantagenet history.

I finally had the chance to peer through the great archway to see what remains of the aula: walls, a staircase, hints of a fireplace. Perhaps someday there will be restoration to evoke the structure in Plantagenet times.

The diorama below from Angers shows what the site likely looked like during Eleanor's time. The Plantagenet aula is toward the front.

Photo by John Phillips

Having finished our tour, we were funneled into the gift shop...was oddly situated in the middle of the château grounds so that visitors had to pay to enter before even buying anything -- not the best marketing plan. I had to take a photo of this replica helmet and hauberk for my knight-obsessed son.

We exited the château and walked down the charming Rue Saint-Aignan, heading toward Cathédrale Saint-Maurice d'Angers.

Below is the tall, narrow west front of St-Maurice. At one time there was also a porch, but that was destroyed in 1806. The lowest part of the cathedral dates to 1170 (and is thus something Eleanor would recognize); the twin towers are 15th century; the central tower is 16th century. Right now there is wooden scaffolding over the entrance portal at the bottom. The portal dates to the mid-12th-century and was inspired by Chartres Cathedral.

Because of the construction we didn't get to see the famous portal, so Wikipedia Commons to the rescue here:

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Statues flank either side, including one of the Queen of Sheba on the right. That statue has been claimed by some as having Eleanor for its model. That's possible, but not probable, since there's never been anything to substantiate the claim. To adjust perspective, keep in mind that the inset door to the bottom right is people-sized; that's how we entered the church.

These stained glass windows on the north side of the nave date to the 12th century and portray the Dormition of the Virgin Mary and the Martyrdom of St. Catherine of Alexandria.

In this town so associated with the Plantagenets, one of the east choir windows dating to the 13th century is dedicated to Thomas Becket, that great frenemy of Henry Plantagenet. Unfortunately I didn't get a photo of it but detailed views can be seen HERE on the Kenyon College site.

Photo by Tee McNeill

St-Maurice has a grandiose Baroque high altar that dates to 1758, designed by Henri Gervais. Legend has it that Gervais was carried to the altar while he lay dying so that he could give final construction instructions. I like how this gaudy altar contrasts with the simple lines of the Plantagenet-style vaulting.

It was time for lunch so we wandered into the heart of town. Below is a lovely example of a half-timbered house which greeted us in the square outside the east end of the cathedral. This is Maison d'Adam, at the intersection of la Rue Montault and Place Sainte-Croix. A shop called La Maison des Artisans is on the bottom floor, a kind of artist consortium.

I love this fish-eye view of Place St-Croix, with Maison d'Adam to the far left.

Source: Google Earth

Several of us had a counter lunch at La Gourmandise, then wandered back along Rue Toussaint, ogling closed antique store windows along the way. I'm pretty sure that Wendy left nose-marks as she lusted with heavy breaths after the full set of Quimper pottery she saw inside.

We were originally meant to stay overnight in Angers but in order to cut travel time for our last day of touring tomorrow we had to press on to the city of Orléans. I would have welcomed a longer stay in Angers but was also pleased to visit the city that New Orleans was named for!

So next stop: Orléans.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Chapelle Sainte-Radegonde de Chinon

Friday, June 10, 2011

Having lost my boutique innocence in Chinon, I cheerily boarded the bus. I was basking in a splash of sun like a well-contented cat when it was announced that we had more Plantagenet exploring to do. Off the bus, then, and out for a walk along some troglodyte dwellings high above the city.

Having studied Latin in my youth (or having pretended to), I was transported by the word 'troglodyte' to images of enchanted Hobbit-like creatures living in twee caves far from the soul-numbing influences of civilization. But of course in France, the word troglodyte refers to dwellings dug into the rock faces of the landscape, and to the residents thereof.

Troglodyte caves like the ones that housed the tasting rooms of Domaine Fillitreau maintain a fairly constant 53 degrees Fahrenheit. That sounds nippy to me, but means minimal effort gets expended to heat the home in winter and cool in summer. The soft shellstone that characterizes this region was easily worked, and thus very much in demand for building. Working the stone had a potential double benefit: income from selling the quarried product whilst simultaneously creating living spaces.

There are many examples of inhabited troglodyte caves to be found in the Loire Valley, particularly between Saumur and Angers. These caves, aside from being practical and charming, also provided the region with an underground defense system. The Norman invasions of the 9th and 10th centuries prompted people to create underground passageways as escape routes from the local chateau, so they could hide in caves and forest.

When wandering the town of Chinon, I'd seen winding streets with signs like this one, pointing the way to caves beneath the castle mound.

You can follow a steep path which will take you on a 20 minute walk to the caves which house the Chapelle Sainte-Radegonde de Chinon. Lucky us, our big old bus hauled up the hill. We thus had a short but pleasant walk to the chapel.

There really is something that stirs the inner Hobbit when visiting a cluster of these caves.  Tall people like me would have developed a permanent stoop from passing through the wee doors.

Photo by John Phillips

Knowing that troglodyte dwellings were ubiquitous in these parts, I was not surprised to learn that we'd be visiting the caves, but I didn't realize we were about to see something related to Eleanor. We found ourselves at the site of a 12th century chapel that had been built around the tomb of a hermit known as Jean Le Reclus, or St. John of Chinon. Jean had been spiritual advisor to Saint Radegonde, for whom this chapel was named. As we listened to the tour guide share Radegonde's story, my imaginary solar of favorite women from history shifted to allow a new person to enter the room. 

Born circa 520 CE the kingdom of Thuringia, in what we know now as central Germany, Princess Radegonde and her brother were taken hostage by their uncle who had killed their father to claim the crown of the kingdom. What goes around comes around: this power-hungry uncle refused to honor a treaty with the Merovingians, and so lost kingdom and life when the Franks invaded Thuringia. Without their uncle's protection, Radegonde and her brother were again captured. Radegonde was forced to marry Clothaire, a son of Clovis first King of the Franks.

Marriage did not suit Radegonde but piety did, and she soon assumed the life of an ascetic. Radegonde eventually learned that her brother had led a revolt against her husband's rule of their native lands and been assassinated by order of Clothaire. She repudiated her husband, took sanctuary, and eventually became a nun. Clothaire did not take kindly to his wife's abandonment and Radegonde sought spiritual direction from Jean Le Reclus in the face of obstacles Clothaire placed in her way. She founded L'Abbaye de Saint-Croix at Poitiers, and was revered by the women who joined her there. The convent declined following her death in 587, but Radegonde's personal legend strengthened. One part of her legend credits her with single-handedly killing a marauding, nun-killing dragon. You go, Radegonde! She was consecrated a saint in the 9th century. A number of towns, churches and chapels in both France and England were dedicated to her, including an abbey founded in Dover in her honor in 1191.

I can imagine that the legends surrounding this remarkable woman gave solace to medieval ladies who were betrayed by the men they had married, and that Radegonde's piety and strength of character must have proved inspirational.  Perhaps her story had special resonance for Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was married to a man she felt she no longer knew and whom she felt compelled to challenge on behalf of their sons. Certainly Eleanor would have been intimately familiar with Radegonde's legend given their shared city of Poitiers.

But we're in Chinon, not Poitiers. How does all this connect? Jean was supposedly a refugee from the Saxon raids on Britain, which would have made him a sympathetic figure to our Radegonde. She revered him for his wisdom and spiritual direction, so much so that legend has it that upon his death Radegonde had a chapel built here to honor his remains: 

If we can imagine that Eleanor of Aquitaine considered Radegonde to be a saint of particular personal devotion, then it is not a stretch to consider that Eleanor may have endowed this chapel and even visited it when in Chinon. Perhaps her personal favor was signified by a fresco upon the wall.  

This one:

This so-called Plantagenet mural in the chapel dates to the 12th century.  In The Rough Guide to The Loire, author James McConnachie wrote: 
High on one wall of the chapel, a captivating painting depicts a horseback cortege of regal figures, probably the Plantagenet royal family.  It's uncertain whether it celebrates the marriage of King John in 1200 or marks the end of Eleanor of Aquitaine's captivity in Chinon....The leading figure is probably Henry II...followed by his wife Eleanor (crowned, centre) and their daughter Jeanne....Dated to the end of the twelfth century, it may be the only contemporary portrait of Eleanor in the world - not counting the effigy on her tomb in Fontevraud.
Hmmm, not exactly. The Crucifiction window that we saw at Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Poitiers is another likeness of Eleanor created during her lifetime. 

But this scene is quite different and intriguing.

Is it son John's wedding? Ha, not much to celebrate there, although I suppose if you had to commemorate that event a drawing on a cave in deepest France would do. 

Let's say the main figure is Henry. Then Richard and John must be in the rear. Or maybe it's Young Hal and Richard. But then where are Geoffrey and John?  We might presume Eleanor is in the center, but who's that beside her? Joanna?  Seems strange to exclude Matilda and Leanora, but they were married and far away, so perhaps we're only seeing the kids who are at home. But wait, are Hal and Geoffrey deceased at the time of the mural? Is that maybe a servant beside Eleanor? What if that's Richard in the lead? Eleanor could be riding with Berengaria, but the latter ought to have a crown, right? And who's in the rear -- John and, uhm, Arthur? Nah, not Arthur. Hey, maybe that's Henry in the lead with his four sons on a hunt; Henry the Young King is crowned, then followed by Richard, Geoffrey and John.

Such was the gist of our group's discussion. We wanted to believe that the figure in the green cape was Eleanor. We really wanted to believe that.

Granted, there's plenty of room for doubt. The walls can't talk, after all. For all we know, this mural has nothing Plantagenet to do at all and instead portrays a scene from the cycle of Radegonde.

Our group stood around staring at that section of wall, debating the royal cortege portrayed in the fresco. I'll tell you what, the world could have ended in that moment and we'd not have noticed. 

This chapel had apparently been inhabited as a private residence from the time of the Revolution until 1959, when the Chinon town council took control. The mural was discovered when a bit of plaster fell down during clean-up in 1964.  

After finally tearing ourselves away from the mural, we wandered around inside the caves. The site has been converted to a regional life museum, Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires

There is still a working well dug 15 feet into the cave walls.  Things were rather haphazardly strewn about the walls but it all had a charming effect. The stone head below is wearing the hat I bought in Poitiers. I don't know how that happened. *whistles innocently*

Photo by Nicole Benkert

There is an altar in the chapel nave, which is itself the reputed site of the cell of the hermit Jean.

 Some more 12th century mural work.

 And lastly, here is a 19th century gisant that commemorates Jean.

Photo by Sherill Roberts

We headed back to Fontevraud for our last night in the leper quarters. Outside of St-Lazare are medicinal gardens, such as might have existed near an infirmary.

 Also, there were bees. Lots of bees.  I liked this fellow.

That evening before dinner, our group was treated to a private reading by Sharon Kay Penman from Lionheart, which was due out the coming October. We then had a lovely meal in the former St-Lazare refectory, provided by the hotel restaurantI later spent some quality iPad time in this room, checking in with my family.

Photo by Nicole Benkert

We leave on the morrow. Next stop: Angers.