Way back in Neolithic times, the mighty rock where Château Amboise now stands was a defensive fort. The natural promontory at the confluence of the Loire to the north and the Amasse to the south, was and is still, a perfect observation point.
A town known as Ambacia, the old name for the Amasse, grew up at the foot of the fort. It was inhabited by Turones, a Celtic tribe, who gave their name to the whole area known today as The Touraine.
The territory, fought over for many years, ended up with the House of Amboise, one of the oldest families in the French nobility which took its name from the town. The first Lord of Amboise died in 1061. The family Coat of Arms are still on the Arms of Amboise.
Charles VII took Château Amboise from the family. He was the first French king to settle in the Loire Valley when his father, Charles VI, known as Charles the Mad, disinherited him in favour of Henry V of England.
When Louis XI succeeded his father, Charles VII, he deposited his wife Charlotte of Savoy in Château Amboise but chose to live in a nearby château, Plessis-les-Tours. His son the Dauphin, the future Charles VIII, was born and died in Château Amboise.
In those days the entrance to the Château had a drawbridge. It also had an oratory (chapel for private worship) against the inside wall, where Saint Hubert chapel is today. Also inside the walls was the church of Saint Florentin built in the 1100s where Leonardo da Vinci, according to his wishes, was buried. The church was destroyed during the French Revolution. Sixty years later in 1874 when the site was excavated, his skeleton was found with fragments of an inscription containing letters in his name. He was re-interred in the chapel of Saint Hubert.
One of Charles’ godfathers at his christening in Château Amboise was Edward, Prince of Wales, the young son of King Henry VI of England and his wife Queen Margaret of Anjou. She was a cousin of Louis XI. Edward and his mother were exiled to France when Henry was deposed by the usurper Edward IV.
Charles succeeded to the throne when he was 13. When he was 21 he married the 14 year old Duchess Anne of Brittany. Anne had been promised in marriage to Edward, another Prince of Wales, son of the usurper Edward IV of England. However, soon after the death of Edward IV in 1483 the boy and his brother disappeared from the Tower of London presumed murdered on the orders of the usurper Richard III.
Anne and Charles married in Château Langeais in December 1491. The marriage contract stipulated that the spouse who outlived the other would retain possession of Brittany. It also stipulated that if Charles died without male heirs, Anne would marry his successor to ensure the French kings kept Brittany. Anne, unhappy with the arranged marriage, chose to live at the Clos Lucé in Amboise. Her private chapel where she wept many bitter tears over all her dead babies is still there. The Fleur de Lys of the House of Valois and Anne’s Coat of Arms, ermine tails, are in the Château.
It was Charles who built the Royal Apartments parallel to the river Loire for the wonderful views. He also built the mighty tower with a ramp so that knights on horseback could get from the town to the Château forty metres above.
If, when you think of France, images of elegant Renaissance Châteaux spring to mind, spare a thought for Château Amboise. Although not a Renaissance Château, it still resembles a fortress, it was here the French Renaissance took root when Charles VIII returned from Italy in 1495.
The fact he went to Italy at all was something of a fluke. In 1489, to punish Ferdinand, the King of Naples, for refusing to pay his papal dues, the Pope (Innocent VIII) had him deposed and offered Naples to Charles who had a tenuous claim to it via his grandmother Marie of Anjou, and his father Louis XI.
Charles did not reach his majority until 1491 so nothing came of it before Pope Innocent died. When Ferdinand died in 1494, his son Alfonso became King of Naples and that might have been that. Charles might never have taken up the Pope’s offer had it not been for Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, the son of a close friend of his father Louis XI.
Ludovico, who claimed Milan by the back door by dubious means, was challenged for the dukedom by King Alfonso. In 1493, to see him off, Ludovico urged Charles to take up the late Pope’s offer and claim Naples. Charles was also encouraged by Julius, a pope in waiting.
And so it came about that Charles, age twenty-four, invaded Italy in 1494 virtually unopposed. When he took Naples, Alfonso left for Sicily. Charles, King of France, was now also King of Naples.
When Charles saw Alfonso’s deserted home, La Poggio Reale (royal hill), he was speechless. In modern parlance, blown away. French art and architecture could not hold a candle to that of Florence, Milan and Naples. Compared with Italy, France was, culturally speaking, backward. Alfonso, a cultured man of impeccable taste, a devotee of the Renaissance, had created a beautiful palazzo. It had arcaded courtyards, shaded avenues, splendid fishponds and fountains, a sunken centre that was flooded for astonishing water spectacles powered by sophisticated hydraulics.
One side of the beautiful gardens opened onto a spectacular, uninterrupted, view of Mount Vesuvius. Charles, born into royalty, used to the splendour of Court, born and brought up in Château Amboise, had never seen anything like them. He was so enthralled, he asked the designer, Dom Pacello Mazzarotta da Mercogliano, to return to Amboise with him. Charles had set his heart on an Italian Garden. Dom Pacello designed one for him at the nearby Château Gaillard.
When Charles came home, he brought with him eighteen men and two women, gifted in their own fields. Among them were artists, sculptors, architects, carpenters, stained glass workers, potters, stonemasons, a parrot keeper and Europe’s most famous landscape gardener, Dom Pacello.
Sadly, Charles, a pleasant young man nicknamed by his subjects Charles the Affable, did not live to see his Italian dream come to fruition. He died tragically, in the true sense of the word, long before his time. He was twenty-eight. Many Royals were tennis fans. Charles was no exception. On his way to see a match at Château Amboise he, as so many of us do, misjudged the height of an arch and struck his head a mighty blow on the lintel. He managed to watch the match but died hours later from a massive brain haemorrhage.