6 of the Greatest Castles in France

Alice Roberts

4 mins

25 Oct 2019

Home to cultural giants such as Claude Monet, Coco Chanel and Victor Hugo, France has always prided itself on its artistic and cultural heritage.

Alongside painting, music, literature and fashion, France’s aristocracy and nobility were patrons of monumental architectural statements, built to demonstrate power and taste.

Here are six of the best.

1. Château de Chantilly

The estates belonging to the Château de Chantilly, located just 25 miles north of Paris, were connected to the Montmorency family from 1484. It was confiscated from the Orléans family between 1853 and 1872, at which point it was owned by Coutts, the English bank.

Image source: Jebulon / CC0.

However, it was not to everyone’s taste. When it was rebuilt in the late 19th century, Boni de Castellane concluded,

‘What is today styled a marvel is one of the saddest specimens of the architecture of our era — one enters at the second floor and descends to the salons’

The art gallery, the Musée Condé, is home to one of the most magnificent collections of paintings in France. The castle also overlooks the Chantilly Racecourse, used for a scene in the James Bond film ‘A View to a Kill’.

The castle looks over the Great Stables and the racecourse. Image source: Pierre-Alain Bandinelli / CC BY-SA 4.0.

2. Château de Chaumont

A staircase inside the Château de Chaumont. Image source: Velvet / CC BY-SA 3.0.

The original 11th century castle was destroyed by Louis XI after its owner, Pierre d’Amboise, proved disloyal. A few years later, permission was given to rebuild.

In 1550, Catherine de Medici acquired the Château de Chaumont, using it to entertain astrologers such as Nostradamus. When her husband, Henry II, died in 1559, she forced his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, to take the Château de Chaumont in exchange for the Château de Chenonceau.

Château de Chaumont stands above the River Loire. Image source: Manfred Heyde / CC BY-SA 3.0.

3. Château of Sully-sur-Loire

This château-fort is located at the confluence of the River Loire and the River Sange, built to control one of the few sites where the Loire can be forded. It was the seat of Henri IV’s minister Maximilien de Béthune (1560–1641), known as The Great Sully.

At this time, the structure was renovated in a Renaissance style and an adjoining park with an outer wall was added.

Château of Sully-sur-Loire. Image source: Gerd Eichmann / CC BY-SA 4.0.

4. Château de Chambord

The largest castle in the Loire Valley, it was built as a hunting lodge for Francis I, who ruled France from 1515 to 1547.

Northwest façade of the Château de Chambord. Image source: Benh LIEU SONG / CC BY-SA 3.0.

However, in total, the king spent only seven weeks at Chambord during his reign. The whole estate was designed to provide for short hunting visits, and nothing longer. The enormous rooms with high ceilings were impractal to heat, and there was no village or estate to supply the royal party.

The castle remained completely unfurnished during this period; all furniture and wall coverings were installed before each hunting trip. This meant there were usually up to 2,000 people required to tend to the guests, to maintain the expected levels of luxury.

5. Château de Pierrefonds

Château de Pierrefonds. Image source: Flavien Brette / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Originally constructed in the 12th century, Pierrefords was the centre of political drama in 1617. When it’s owner, François-Annibal joined the ‘parti des mécontents’ (party of discontent), effectively opposing King Louis XIII, it was besieged by the war secretary, Cardinal Richelieu.

It remained in ruins until the mid-19th century, when Napoleon III ordered its restoration. Perched on a hill overlooking a picturesque village, the Château de Pierrefonds is the epitome of a fairytale castle, often used for films and TV.

Dan Snow's History Hit is revisiting its very first episode, on the Battle of Waterloo with Dan's dad, veteran broadcaster Peter Snow.Listen Now

6. Château de Versailles

Versailles was constructed in 1624 as a hunting lodge for Louis XIII. From 1682 it became the principal royal residence in France, when it was vastly expanded.

Some of its most notable features are the ceremonial Hall of Mirrors, a theatre named the Royal Opera, the small rustic hamlet created for Marie Antoinette, and the vast geometric gardens.

It receives nearly 10 million visitors per year, making it one of the top visitor attractions in Europe.

The Hall of Mirrors. Image source: Myrabella / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Featured Image: Arnaud Scherer / CC BY-SA 4.0.