If you get a chance to visit the Chateau de Chenonceau, you might miss the part of the interpretation that covers Louise of Lorraine’s life and death in 1601 at the chateau in the Loire Valley.
The way that the building and the main tour are structured, the typical visitor gets an overview of the rivalry between Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitiers, and a few mentions of the short time that Gabrielle d’Estrees, mistress of Henry IV, stayed at the chateau. The woman who made a clear mark on the chateau from 1590 to 1603 was Louise of Lorraine, wife of Henri III and a cousin of the powerful Guise clan from Lorraine.
Louise became a widow suddenly and horrifically when her beloved husband, Henri III was assassinated. Initially, Henri thought he would recover, and sent a letter to his wife assuring her that he was fine. Unfortunately, he died in August of 1589. As her mother in law, Catherine de Medici had died in January of that year, Louise inherited Chenonceau from her, intending to use it as a dowager home. Catherine’s many creditors descended upon Louise, however, and if it weren’t for the quick intervention of Henry IV, she would’ve been homeless.
The marriage was, to say the least, odd. Louise had dreamed as a girl of becoming a nun, despite the fact that the family pushed several suitors towards her. A jealous and petty stepmother made her life miserable, and some sources say that it wasn’t until the managed to leave her own home in Vaudemont for the seat of The Duc of Lorraine that she managed to come out of her shell. She was most likely verbally and emotionally traumatized by her parents, and did as much she could to fade into the background.
Claude de Valois, second daughter of Catherine de Medici and Henry II, took Louise under her wing, and one day she was present when the future Henri III came to visit his sister on his way to claim the crown of Poland. Henry was smitten with Louise, although he was at that time in love with and planning to marry Marie, the Princess de Conde. Henri has been characterized as a homosexual, but most of those views came from English Protestants hoping to disparage the house of Valois in favor of the Protestant Bourbons. Historian Robert J Kneckt, who I feel is one of the most credible experts on Henri, argues that Henri most likely was bisexual in a time when being anything other than heterosexual was a sin.
Marie de Conde died before Henri could marry her, and his ascension to the throne meant that he had to find a bride, fast. Remembering the shy brunette he met at his sister’s home, he sent inquiries asking for her hand. Henri most likely wanted to save Louise from the hell she experienced at her childhood home, and there’s no doubt that in one form or another, he sincerely loved her.
Louise was shocked and gutted at his death, and threw herself into mourning. She covered her bedroom at Chenonceau with black paint and decorated the walls with spades, symbols of deep mourning. With no reason to hold a formal court, she decided to invite a chapter of Carmelite nuns to live in the third floor of the chateau.
With the nuns living upstairs, Louise lived the rest of her life until 1601 mourning Henri’s death in her own way. Despite their efforts, they had no children, and Louise planned to leave the chateau to her niece, who was betrothed as a child to the illegitimate son of Henry IV and his mistress, Gabrielle d’ Estrees. Gabrielle probably visited the chateau before Louise’s death, and she has a chamber named after her in the chateau. Louise has been described as wandering the halls of the chateau in morning clothes, a virtual wraith, but I think that’s an exaggeration. She undoubtedly fell into a deep depression, but I think that as a grieving widow, providing a home for the nuns and providing for her niece in her will proves that Louise was more capable emotionally than she’s been portrayed.
These days, Louise is represented at the chateau in a chamber at the back right corner of the main house, where the nuns actually lived during her tenure. She most likely occupied the chamber over the tiny but exquisite chapel, located on the second floor. At the museum on the second floor of the bridge section, the chateau has some interpretation about Louise, but since her presence there was such “a downer” for contemporary visitors, she’s shuttled to the corner, unfortunately.
I’m working on a future book about Louise, and one of my life goals is to have it in the bookshop at Chenonceau, so that Louise can finally get her due as Mistress of Chateau de Chenonceau.