Driving into the Village of Maintenon with a population of just 5,000 and 39 miles from Paris you are in for a surprise. It is the beneficiary of a love story and more. Behind the chateau walls is a romantic and picturesque castle of turrets, towers and steeples. The château's main features are the keep, constructed in the 13th century, and the principal corps de logis, flanked by two round towers. With strong Renaissance influences, the east and west wings frame a cour d'honneur, beyond which is the moat filled by the waters of the Eure, and, beyond, the parterre and park.
I was totally unaware of the stunning Château de Maintenon, the famous landmark has played an important role in French history. Over the course of its existence, the chateau has had many incarnations, evolving from the 13th century. What’s more, one of the most remarkable treasures is hidden beyond the well-manicured gardens, a monumental structure, the 230 foot Aqueduct de Maintenon which took 5 years to complete. This titanic project and vestige of the Sun King’s excesses is the aqueduct which carried the water from the Eure at Pontgouin to Versailles over a distance of 50 miles. At Maintenon, the aqueduct transported the water of the Eure above the Eure itself.
King Louis XIV employed his celebrated royal gardener, André Le Nôtre, the mastermind behind the gardens of Château de Versailles, to reimagine the gardens of Château de Maintenon. The gardens you can view today have been recreated to resemble the original plans drawn up by Le Nôtre, and his stamp is unmissable: from his love for symmetry to the geometric patterns, and of course the dominance of water as a central design element.
The stories contained here belie the calm and sophisticated splendor of the château; the aqueduct and the Château de Maintenon painting by François-Edmée Ricois in the 19th century. Sometime you enter a place and can feel the souls that lived once within its walls.
The twist and turns of history: The Château de Maintenon was once a defensive fortress, and records indicate that it can be traced back to the 13th century. Gradually the property was converted into a splendid residence fit for aristocrats, as successive occupants passing from family member to family member implementing various renovations and transformations.
Perhaps the most remarkable and pivotable person to live at Château de Maintenon was Françoise d’Aubigné. She was born in the prison of Niort, where her father a knight, a baron and above all, an adventurer was detained for a debt. When he was released, he took his family to Martinique hoping to find his fortune as governor of the island of Marie-Galante. It did not turnout well and with her father dead and the family struggling; Francois’ Godmother came to the rescue by getting her into a convent school and introducing her to the Parisian way of life. At just 16, she was married to a crippled satirical writer and was widowed by age 25, again in dire circumstances. Luckily she was employed as the governess to the children of King Louis XIV and his mistress, Marquise de Montespan.
In 1675, on the advice of her friend the marquise, the king paid her enough to buy the land from Jean Cottereau (a former financier of Kings) and she became the Madame de Maintenon. In a shocking twist of events, in 1683, she went on to marry Louis XIV in secret. He had fallen in love with governess Francoise, turning this to be a true love story. The couple were married for 32 years until the Kings death. Their marriage pulled the Château de Maintenon from its fate as an obscure little castle into the glitz and glamour of the royal court, with the Sun King himself becoming a frequent visitor, solidifying its importance as a geographical location of royal importance. The period after Françoise d’Aubigné’s acquisition of the château, and the subsequent marriage between her and Louis XIV, saw the Château de Maintenon transform extensively, as he was a "vast builder king."
In 1698, without any offspring Madame de Maintenon bequeathed the Maintenon estate to her niece Francoise, as a dowry for her marriage to Marshal Adrien-Maurice de Noailles. This moved the property into a new high-ranking family by marriage. The Noailles family has an illustrious history. Adrien Maurice was the third duke and served in all the most important wars of the reign of Louis XV. The Noailles were a prominent French noble family over the centuries and continued to be prominent throughout the 18th & 19th century.
Another Noailles family member has an even more prominent connection, Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, Marquise de La Fayette. She was a great-granddaughter of Françoise Charlotte d'Aubigné, niece of Madame de Maintenon. In 1774, she married Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, who left France in 1776 to volunteer in the American Revolutionary War where he served under General George Washington, then later became a key figure in the French Revolution of 1789. In 1795, during the French Revolution, the Marquise de La Fayette was imprisoned and facing execution. Elizabeth Monroe, a future First Lady of the United States and wife to James Monroe, the United States envoy to France, luckily intervened to save her. Hence France abruptly reversed its verdict and did not execute her.
Later owners, such as Duke Paul de Noailles, also left their mark on the property by modernizing it. Walking through the many rooms and wings arranged and decorated according to the wishes of the owners over the years you find architectural details, from the
Middle Ages, Renaissance, obviously King Louis, the Revolution and through both world wars when it was requisitioned by the German Military.
There is a photo on the grand piano of Duke Jean de Noailles that caught my eye from the other family photos, Jean Maurice Paul Jules de Noailles, 6th Duke of Ayen, was a Resistance Fighter in World War II. And unfortunately, he was betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo on January 22, 1942. He was tortured at the Paris Gestapo headquarters on Avenue Foch and then subsequently interned in the Compiegne before being deported successively to Buchenwald, Flossenburg, Oranienburg, and finally Bergen-Belsen, where he wretchedly died April 14, 1945, a few months before the end of the war. Sadly, it is not known if he was aware that his 19-year son was killed October 9, 1944 fighting in Rupt-Sur-Moselle.
Bergen-Belsen was originally established as a prisoner of war camp in 1943, parts of it became a concentration camp. From 1941 to 1945, almost 20,000 Soviet prisoners of war and a further 50,000 inmates died there. Horrible conditions overcrowding, lack of food and poor sanitary conditions caused outbreaks of typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and dysentery, leading to the deaths of more than 35,000 people in the first few months of 1945, shortly before and after the liberation.
In 1952, the Paris military court sentenced Suzanne Provost, a Gestapo collaborator accused of having denounced Jean de Noailles, to twenty years of imprisonment.
The duke’s daughter Geneviève Hélène Anne Marie Yolande de Noailles, who married Jean Gaston Amaury Raindre inherited the Chateau de Maintenon or what was left of it after repeated bombings made the chateau uninhabitable; roofs, windows blown away and damaged interiors. In 1953, Geneviere and her husband Jean devoted themselves enthusiastically to the renovations. In 1983 the Raindre family established the Mansart Foundation to ensure the chateau's preservation and opened to the public.
Maintenon is an ideal day trip from Paris. It is less than an hour by train from Paris’s Gare Montparnasse or car and provides all the mix of nature, culture and history. Plus, a lovely golf course right next to the chateau grounds.
Suggest reading: Love and Louis XIV by Antonia Fraser
The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray