On the misty morning of December 23, 1588, Henri I, the duc de Guise, had just left a warm bed of one of Catherine de Médicis’ ladies-in-waiting. His archrival, King Henri III, had summoned him, but when the duke arrived, only the king’s minions were about. The guards approached with daggers. Wounded, the duke made for the door, where more guards awaited him. Staggering, he fell to the floor in a pool of his own blood. Only then did Henri III emerge from behind the curtains. “Mon Dieu,” he reputedly exclaimed, “he’s taller dead than alive!” The body couldn’t be shown: The duke was too popular. Quartered, it was burned in a fireplace.
The murder of the duc de Guise is only one of the events associated with the Château de Blois, begun in the 13th century by the comte de Blois. Blois reached the apex of its power in 1515, when François I moved to the château. For that reason, Blois is often called the “Versailles of the Renaissance,” the second capital of France, and the “City of Kings.” But Blois soon became a palace of exile. Louis XIII banished his mother, Marie de Médicis, to the château, but she escaped by sliding into the moat down a mound of dirt left by the builders.
If you stand in the courtyard, you’ll find that the château is like an illustrated storybook of French architecture. The Hall of the Estates-General is a beautiful 13th-century work; Louis XII built the Charles d’Orléans gallery and the Louis XII wing from 1498 to 1501. Mansart constructed the Gaston d’Orléans wing between 1635 and 1637. Most remarkable is the François I wing, a French Renaissance masterpiece containing a spiral staircase with ornamented balustrades and the king’s symbol, the salamander.