THE traveller who visits Loches for the first time is greatly struck by the picturesque position of the town on an elevation - gently sloping down to the meadows watered by the Indre. Above the houses rise the turrets of the castle, which in turn are dominated by the pyramids of the old collegiate church of Our Lady, above which again appears the ancient mediæval fortress in its somewhat austere majesty. The combination forms an enchanting view seen under the first beams of the rising sun from the edge of the forest on the Montreéor road.
About the beginning of the Sixth Century, St. Ours came to Touraine to settle at Loches. There several monks placed themselves under his discipline. The monastery of St. Ours made a town of Loches. As has often been remarked, the people of the country like to group around these religious houses where they find at the same time a church with its spiritual aid, a refuge always open against the persecution of the mighty, a school, a hospital, and a model farm with its agricultural and industrial instruction. In a few years the collection became sufficiently important for the establishment of a castrum. This strong castle, which was already in existence at the time of Gregory of Tours, was placed in a position that was very easy to defend: it was protected on one side by that elbow of the mountain to which St. Ours had retired and by the escarpment towards the Indre, a flank that was rendered almost inaccessible by the river and the valley marshes; on another, by the natural depression of the vale of Mazerolles; and, on the third, by a deep and wide cutting in the chalky tufa. The castle which crowned the hill and commanded the surrounding country was so strong for that age that all conquerors contended for its possession.
After the Romans, we find the Visigoths here, and then the Mérovingian princes, the feudal lords, the counts of Anjou and Touraine who became kings of England and the kings of France after Philip Augustus. At the foot of the ancient castle of Loches, a hundred fights of chivalry were settled. Under the feudal rule, the surrounding fields were thronged with bands of men marching under various banners.
The counts of Anjou, whose ambition was the scourge of our province, had become masters of Loches, thanks to skilfully calculated matrimonial alliances. The citadel of Loches became the boulevard of their warlike enterprises in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.
The Eleventh Century fortress, whose square donjon commands the surrounding country, is not so well preserved as the collegiate church. Nevertheless, the learned who study our national antiquities consider it one of the most precious remains of the military architecture of that remote age. Picture to yourself an imposing mass, formed of two bodies of buildings shoulder to shoulder rising to a height of forty mètres. The principal building is 25 m. 33 cm. long while the other attains only half this length. The interior disposition of the small tower is visible at the first glance on account of the disappearance of the floors that formerly divided it into four stories. In the lower portion is a low hall from which rose a stairway of from thirty-five to forty steps, with two landings, by which to reach the principal rooms. At the top of this stairway is the door that gave access to every part of the donjon. On the first story, it opens into a hall of the great tower, the dimensions of which are so vast that it could contain five hundred men; then, at the same level, into the corresponding hall of the little tower; and lastly by a secret passage, twenty-four mètres in length, hidden in the thickness of the wall, one could descend to the vaulted hall that occupied the base of the donjon, and that served as an arsenal, a treasury and a prison. Three flights of steps, at present interrupted and set in the interior of the walls, led to the upper stories. The donjon probably terminated in an exterior wooden gallery resting on a movable scaffolding intended for repulsing assaults; the numerous holes to be seen at the top of the wall authorize this supposition.
Thus established, the Roman donjon of Loches is one of the most remarkable monuments of its kind. The beauty of its size, the masterly skill of its construction, the imposing amplitude of its mass, half disguised by round buttresses that rise to the summit, the artifice of its military dispositions, the ingenious multiplicity of its defences, the boldness of its outline, and the proud aspect of the whole, all recommend it to the attention of the antiquary and the artist. To-day it is of no military importance; but for the town of Loches it will ever constitute a picturesque element of the first order.
In 1194, Richard Cœur-de-Lion, being delivered from the prison in which he was unjustly kept by the Emperor of Germany, made haste to Touraine, his possession of which was being disputed by Philip Augustus. Nothing could moderate his boiling heat. After having captured and ransomed Châteauneuf de Tours, the King of England hastened to Loches. The castle was defended by twenty knights and eighty archers under the command of Guy de Laval. The governor at first defended himself resolutely enough; but Richard attacked the place with such fury, and himself directed the assault with such energy, that it was necessary to yield. Guy de Laval was made prisoner with some of his most intrepid knights. But the struggle was far from being ended: it only slumbered for a few years. Richard, wounded at the siege of Chaluz, in Limousin, died at Chinon at the age of forty-two, April 6, 1199. He was buried at Fontevrault, leaving behind a troubled and more especially a greatly disputed heritage. Queen Berengaria, his wife, received Loches and Montbazon with their domains and dependencies as her dowry.
In 1204, we see Philip Augustus reappear in Touraine. In consequence of the confiscation pronounced against John Lackland, the King of France himself came to take possession of the principal places and towns in the province. Tours opened her gates at the first summons. Loches did not show herself so obliging. The castle was defended by Girard d'Athée and other lords devoted to the interests of England.
It was necessary to lay a regular siege. After a year of struggle and toil, the place was forced to capitulate on account of the failure of provisions and ammunition. Philip Augustus gave it in recompense to Dreux de Mello, constable of France, a brave knight, celebrated for his exploits in France and Palestine, whither he had accompanied the King. Afterwards this gift was bought back by St. Louis, by an act dated December, 1249, on the banks of the Nile in Egypt.
On returning to France, St. Louis spent several days at Loches. In 1301 and 1307, Philippe le Bel rested eight days at the castle of Loches on his way to talk to Pope Clement V. about the affair of the Templars. Half a century later, John II. arrived at Loches at the head of the flower of French chivalry on his way to Poictiers to give battle to the Black Prince. Fortune appeared to be smiling upon him and victory seemed to be assured; but instead of accepting the advantageous propositions made by his adversary, he wanted to crush the army of the foe. He then fell victim to one of those disasters that leave a long and sad echo in history. The evils that overwhelmed France were horrible. Anarchy was complete, and reigned in every rank of the hierarchy. The English re-took Loches, and for more than half-a-century the foreigner trampled on and desolated our provinces.
At length came Charles VII. When he first visited Loches, he was still only the King of Bourges. A poor suite followed him; but he was accompanied by Marie d'Anjou, a princess of rare prudence and a courage proof against everything. This virtuous queen was France's good genius. In spite of the miseries of the time, she never despaired of her country. Her confidence was not deceived: Joan of Arc soon accomplished her glorious mission: France was saved.
In 1436, Charles VII. reappeared at Loches; but this time the queen was not alone. In her company was a young girl whose timidity seemed to recommend her, but whose position was no mystery to anybody: she was Agnès Sorel, born in the village of Fromenteau in Touraine. Charles VII. gave her the castle of Beauté in Champagne, it is said, so that she might be Dame de Beauté by title as well as in reality. Agnès possessed a small house at Beaulieu where she sometimes stayed to hide herself from the eyes of the courtiers. So the King had the tower built at the Castle of Loches that still bears the name of Agnès Sorel. This tower stands in a delightful spot: it commands the smiling vale of the Indre, and from it the view embraces a charming panorama. The eye is arrested by a curtain of verdure formed by the ancient oaks of the forest and then wanders with pleasure over the freshest meadows imaginable. Agnès Sorel is in the choir of the church at Loches. Her white marble tomb, with her statue also of white marble, the feet resting on two little lambs and hands clasped, is now to be seen in the castle tower that bears her name.
[Agnès Sorel, known by the sobriquet Dame de beaut´, was a favourite mistress of King Charles VII of France, by whom she bore three daughters. She is considered the first officially recognized royal mistress. -- Wikipedia]
The strong position of the castle of Loches gained for it at an early date the sad honour of becoming a state prison. Behind its beautiful and solid walls, great lords came to expiate their ambitious intrigues, or the simple misfortune of having displeased those more powerful than themselves. Geoffroy de Saint-Aignan was shut up here and strangled in the Eleventh Century; Thibault, Count of Tours, suffered the severest treatment here after his defeat at Nouy; and John, Duke of Alen^on, was cast into a deep cell here by order of Charles VII. for having aided an ungrateful son in his attempts at rebellion, a son who was always ready to foment trouble in the realm. But it was Louis XI. who made the most frequent use of the Loches cells. Charles VIII. often inhabited the castle during his early youth. Charlotte of Savoy, his mother, was treated in it almost like a prisoner by the suspicious Louis XL, who never exhibited a very lively friendship for his wife. On his accession, Charles did not forget Loches; he began the great tower that was completed by his successor, and he took his graceful wife, Anne of Brittany, thither. Louis XII. constructed the building that connects the round with the square tower. In this is found the low room in which Louis le More was confined in 1505. The Duke of Milan spent several years in his prison at Loches, in a truly sinister cell.
The soldier became an artist, and on the sombre walls of his cell he laid a strange and original composition, full of grandeur and character. Over the chimney-piece he placed his portrait, more than life size, with casque on head as on the day of battle, and vizor raised. The energetic features of this profile, the aquiline nose, prominent chin and upper lip curled in a disdainful smile, depict for us the entire man. Between the lines pens are ranged, punning allusions to the pains he suffered. The whole cell is decorated in three colours, yellow ochre, red brown and almost blue black, combined with the white of the walls. It was with this work that Sforza occupied the interminable hours of his solitude. Travellers view these paintings with curiosity as if to probe the secret thoughts that filled the bitter heart of the dethroned prince. One cannot help shuddering at the thought that the unfortunate Duke of Milan lived here for long years, shut up in this in pace by the good Louis XII. However, Ludovic did not remain forever in this cell. Towards the last, the King permitted him to occupy the upper apartments of the palace under surveillance of some Scottish soldiers.
Another noted prisoner deserves mention. John, lord of Saint Vallier, father of Diana of Poictiers, allowed himself to be drawn into the conspiracy of the Duke of Bourbon. The plot was revealed by Louis de Brézé, who had no idea that he was implicating his father-in-law. Saint Vallier was arrested and imprisoned in the Castle of Loches. From his prison, September 19, 1523, he wrote touching letters to his children begging them to appeal to the King in his favour. But Francis I. showed himself hard and impenetrable. The guilty man was condemned and led to the Place de Greve, more dead than alive, to be decapitated. At the moment when the sentence was about to be carried out, an archer came from the King, bringing, not a pardon, but a commutation. The unfortunate man, whose hair had turned white in a night, was so affected by the preparation for his death that he almost lost his reason. Ever afterwards he was afflicted with a nervous trembling, accompanied by fever, which became known as the fever of St. Fallier.
By a singular irony of fate, splendid fêtes were held in this same castle, whither so many wretches came to groan. Thirty years had not elapsed since the Duke of Milan had breathed his last sigh, when the conqueror of Pavia was received at Loches by him who there had lost "all but honour." Francis I., like a generous prince, on this occasion displayed extreme magnificence: he came to meet his rival, December 12, 1539, accompanied by his queen, Eleanor, and followed by his whole court. The entertainments were numerous and splendid, and only ended when the Emperor had arrived on the frontier of the Low Countries.
The splendour of fêtes shone anew at Loches in 1559, when Henri II. and Catherine de'Medici passed through ten years afterwards; Henri III., while still the Dauphin, stayed there for several days, at the moment when he was going to take his place at the head of the army concentrated in the environs, on the eve of the victory of Moncontour. Here also were seen Charles IX., Henri IV. and Marie de'Medici. The latter was a fugitive, taking refuge here for a few moments after leaving the Castle of Blois, whence she had succeeded in escaping. From that epoch, silence has invaded the vast halls and towers, the terraces and gardens. Nothing has interrupted it except the savage cries of the Revolution. To-day the palace of the Kings, discrowned and almost deserted, keeps only the memory of magnificence gone forever.Romantic Castles and Palaces, As Seen and Described by Famous Writers, Edited and Translated by Esther Singleton. 1901.