‘Queen Elizabeth I slept here.’ It’s well known that Tudor monarchs imposed on their subjects’ hospitality to reduce their own household expenses. But if Elizabeth I stayed in all the places that lay claim to it, she would never have been at home. So it was with some scepticism that I visited ‘Queen Margot’s Château’ at Saint-Projet last week.
The original château dates back to the 12th century, built on a Gallo-Roman mound. It was besieged several times during the Hundred Years War and, after the French defeat at Crécy, the king of France ceded it to the Black Prince, along with other territories. It reverted to the French at the end of the war. A suit of armour belonging to the Black Prince is on display in the salle des gardes. He was of surprisingly small stature.
Marguerite de Valois
The Margot in question was Marguerite de Valois (1553-1615), daughter of Henri II of France and Catherine de Medici. On 18 August 1572, she married King Henri of Navarre, later Henri IV of France, in an attempt to reconcile the Valois and Bourbon families and to unite Catholics and Protestant Huguenots in France. But six days after their wedding, targeted assassinations of prominent Huguenots, who were in Paris to celebrate the event, took place, known as the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre.
I won’t give you her life story or try to unravel the politics of the French court during the Wars of Religion. She didn’t get on with either her husband or her brother, Henri III of France, who exiled her from the court. Cutting a very long story short, she went to Agen, which belonged to her, and tried to engineer a coup d’état from there against her mother and brother. However, the townsfolk rebelled against her after a few months and she had to flee. During her flight, she was sheltered at the Château de Saint-Projet, 26th-27th September 1585.
Now to the secret. Her bedroom remained undiscovered for four hundred years until restoration work uncovered it in 1999. There are several possible reasons for this. The bedroom was blocked up after she left, presumably to conceal the fact that she had been there. Her brother, Henri III, destroyed all the other châteaux that had sheltered her but Saint-Projet remained intact. After the Revolution, the château became a bien national and was divided up amongst various owners. It became dilapidated and the floor of the ante-chamber leading to the bedroom collapsed.
It was easy enough to guess by looking at the outside of the château that there must have been a room there but nobody was either curious or brave enough to investigate further. When they finally opened up the room, however, they found various items of furniture that had remained untouched since Margot’s visit. They included the bed – which still sports the original tester –, a buffet and a chest containing books belonging to Margot. Documentary evidence also exists to prove that she stayed there, so my scepticism was misplaced.
From the various portraits of her, Margot does not appear to have been particularly attractive. However, she had a reputation for loose morals and took a number of lovers. In her book Aveyron: A Bridge to French Arcadia, Thirza Vallois relates that, while staying at the Château de Carlat in northern Aveyron in 1585, Margot was entertaining a new lover when the lords returned unexpectedly from hunting. In her haste to dress, she put on her bodice the wrong way round, thus exposing her bosom. To cover herself, she stuffed a bouquet of flowers into her cleavage and started a new fashion for the women of the area. Whether Margot was any worse than her contemporaries is a matter of some dispute.
Today, the château de Saint-Projet is impeccably restored. The present owners have put on display all the items they found during the restoration work, including this massive coffer that required three separate keys to open it.
Well worth a visit. See their website here.
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