St Germain en Laye

11 January 2012

I hope you’ve been enjoying the history posts that I scheduled for this month while I crack on with writing my novel about Henrietta Stuart! I think that I may have gone a teensy bit overboard, but I hope you’ll all forgive me for that.

I’ve been really enjoying writing this novel as it means I can write about the English Civil War, Charles II and the young Louis XIV, who is a bit of an enigma really. Henrietta makes a splendid heroine too.

They arrived at the small town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye on the outskirts of Paris in the early afternoon and Lady Dalkeith looked impatiently out of the window as they slowed down and rolled along narrow cobbled streets lined with trees and well tended honey coloured stone houses whose residents stared at them curiously as they went past. There were two royal châteaux in Saint Germain – the older was an imposing, unfriendly grey structure vaguely reminiscent of Venetian palaces, which rose ominously above the surrounding houses, while the newer one, the Château Neuf which had been built by Henri II and his wife Catherine dei Medici was a harmonious red and gold brick miniature summer palace made for pleasure with a celebrated series of sweeping tiered terraces with several inventive little grottos that led down to expansive, beautiful gardens beside the Seine.‘ — from Minette by me.

In my most recent chapter, I had to write about the two châteaux of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where Louis XIV and his brother, Philippe were born and which, along with the Louvre and Fontainebleau was the centre of French royal power before they all scuttled off to Versailles.

Sadly, as with Oatlands, the other royal palace that has featured so far in my story, not much of the Château Neuf at Saint-Germain-en-Laye exists any more as it was demolished during the French Revolution. It must have been beautiful in its heyday though, as demonstrated by the paintings that still exist and also descriptions of its beautiful terraces and grottos.

Henri II… commissioned Philibert de l’Orme to design the ‘Chateau Neuf’, a sort of annexe to the castle on the very edge of the high ground which would command the view directly from its windows and the terraces of its gardens. Seen from the river it dominated the colline du Pecq and clothed its slopes with masonry. Beneath the actual château the ground was cut back into two perpendicular faces, adorned with arcades and pilasters. Each of these two faces was traversed by an enormous ramp.

It was along the terraces thus formed that Henri IV created his grottoes. They give an insight into the mind of the seventeenth century, with their moving figures and changing scenery. One was particularly remarkable — the Grotte de la Demoiselle qui joue des Orgues. The lady’s fingers were activated by water so that she played a music (so claims a document of 1644) “hardly inferior to the best of concerts“‘. — from Louis XIV by Ian Dunlop.

The Château Neuf must have been a lovely place, but Louis XIV doesn’t seem to have been all that keen, oddly enough and after ruining it in 1680 by getting Mansard to add long blocky wings to the sides he promptly abandoned it to move into Versailles. Prior to this, he had, as a child, graciously turned the building over to his aunt Queen Henrietta Maria of England and her children for use as a summer palace (they were usually housed in an apartment in the Louvre) and therefore the château would have been very familiar to his cousins Henrietta, Charles, James and Henry in their youth.

Later on, he would turn the older château at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which was his birthplace and which he personally preferred of the two (and would make his primary residence immediately before the court’s move to Versailles), to his cousin James II and his family and loyal courtiers (and some spies) when they had to leave England in a bit of a hurry at the start of 1689. They spent their exile at Saint-Germain, which subsequently became something of a haven for exiled Jacobites on the run, including at least one of my own ancestors who followed Bonnie Prince Charlie into exile.

The ‘Vieux’ château, which I think a most unappealing structure devoid of any grace or charm, still exists and now houses the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale of France and it is still vaguely possible to get a sense of how it must have been in its glory days as you wander around. Queen Victoria, ever the sentimentalist where her Stuart ancestors were concerned, made a pilgrimage there in 1855 to see where they had ended up.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to. I’ve also been having fun writing about the Louvre as it would have been in the seventeenth century when it was still a royal palace and was a warren of galleries, state rooms and small apartments, rather like Versailles would end up but rather more compact.

In other news, I’ll have a bit of an announcement soon about my third novel, Before the Storm, which is out very, very soon…