Chantilly, facciata settentrionale

If you happen to be here by chance, please notice that this article is part of a series that explores the main stages of the fabulous Marie-Antoinette Tour 2019, created by Alice Mortali, President of Aimant, Italian Marie Antoinette Association (Here the complete series)

Guided Tour to Chantilly Castle



Once upon a time, there was a rocky outcrop right in the middle of a pond, along the ancient way connecting Paris to the northern region of Picardy. During the XI century, here was built a defensive stronghold.

During the Middle Ages, the fortress expanded until it covered the whole little island (to be honest, the little islands are two, but the second one has been completely swallowed by the size of the modern complex).

Vista aerea Chantilly
Image from Google Maps shows in the upper right the triangular original medieval part of Chantilly castle. In the lower part of the image, you can see the rectangular map of a later building (XVI century) built on the second little island.

It’s still possible to recognize in the castle its strange triangular map, and the foundation of the ancient fourteen-century towers (5 out of 7, not bad!)

Chantilly, facciata settentrionale
The northern façade of Chantilly castle, where you could clearly see the foundation of the medieval stronghold still intact.

If the building went from being an anonymous fortress to a castle that made the kings of France envious, it’s thanks to their illustrious owners, whose personal lives could be worthy of a novel, or rather an entire saga. So, without further ado, let me introduce them.

Anne de Montmorency (1493-1567)

The incredible Anne de Montmorency was a great soldier and statesman, and was the right-hand man of king François I, his son Henri II and even of the latter’s widow, the famous Caterina de Medici’s.

Ritratto di Anne de Montmorency
Léonard Limosin, Anne de Montmorency (1556, Musée du Louvre, photo from Wikipedia), constable of France, commander-in-chief of the king’s army.

During the bloody Religion Wars, Anne was part of the moderate Catholics clan, close to the protestant (the so-called “Huguenots”). He saved the lives of a great number of protestant artists during the persecutions, and his sister Louis even married an Huguenot nobleman. She was the mother of the illustrious Gaspard the Coligny, who later became the leader of the protestant nobles faction.

Gaspard de Coligny
Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, protestant nephew of Anne de Montmorency. If you remember the assassination attempt on Coligny was the spark for the infamous Massacre of St. Bartholemew (to know more, here’s the dedicated article).

Nonetheless, in one of the bloodiest eras France has ever known, Anne de Montmorency lived to be 74 years-old, dying for severe wounds suffered on the battlefield!

We owe to him the first great transformation of the castle, which left behind its obsolete medieval appearance for a more “modern” look, the Reinassance style typical of the XVI century.

Even if the triangular building has been mostly demolished in the riotous years of the French Revolution, duke Anne’s touch lingers elsewhere.

For example, in the castle’s park – whose extension today is “just” 115 ha of the original 900 – Anne built seven chapels, seven pilgrimage stations of which four still exist (ca. 1535).

One of the chapels in Chantilly’s park.

Anne de Montmorency’s so-called Petit Château (‘Little Castle’) is one of the few places that survived the revolutionary plunders of the end of the eighteenth-century. It was built on the second little island of the pond, near the one where the original medieval castle was built (1560).

Grand Château a sinistra, Petit Château a sinistra, visti dal lato nord
In the image on the left, you could see the bulk of the Grand Château or “old castle”, the most antique medieval part of the complex. On the right, the façade of the Petit Château, wanted by Anne de Montmorency in the XVI century. We’re looking at the complex from the northern side.
Chantilly Vista Aerea
Aerial view of Chantilly castle, from Google Maps with the Grand Château or “old castle” and the Petit Château (XVI century).

The new building, wanted by the duke of Montmorency, followed the aesthetic fashion of the time: a low, regular home, surrounded by water and gardens, like the villas in Florence.

Petit Chateau Chantilly
The Petit Château surrounded by the pond’s waters. We’re looking at it from the western side.
Il giardino realizzato di fronte al Petit Château
The garden in front of the Petit Château, always on the same island. Following the perspective, beyond the fountain, a narrow bridge connects the garden to the rest of the park.
Antico Ingresso Petit Chateau
Anne de Montmorency’s Petit Château had independent access with a drawbridge. Today, the access is closed but easy to spot.

Henri de Montmorency (1534-1614)

Faithful to his father Anne’s policy, Henri de Montmorency too sympathized with the protestant masses during the Religion Wars. Because of this, he fought beside Henri IV, the famous Heugenot king who converted to catholicism. The kind called the duke “my pal”.

Ritratto di Henri de Montmorency
Daniel Dumonstier, portrait of Henri de Montmorency (ca. 1610, photo from Gallica).

At the beginning of 1600, Henri de Montmorency had some refurbishments done on the eastern side of the pond. So, the place was named Sylvie’s Woods, afterthe forest nymph.

Bosco di Sylvie
The eastern side of the pond, leading to the Maison de Sylvie.

Near the spring pouring beside the pond, was built a place for quiet and pleasure, with a garden (1604-1606), the Maison de Sylvie.

La Maison de Sylvie
The Maison de Sylvie (early XVII century).
Il giardino della Maison de Sylvie
Maison de Sylvie gardens.

According to King Henri IV, Chantilly castle was “the most beautiful residence of all France“, and he uselessly offered “his pal” to exchange it with any of the many royal residences. No way, the duke never surrendered his castle, but His Majesty spent a lot of time here, even a bit too much, even when the landlord wasn’t there!

Henri IV
King Henri IV of Bourbon (1553-1610), a great admirer of Chantilly.

The official reason for this predilection was hunting, and Chantilly’s wonderful park overflowing with game, but the duke knew his king too well to ignore the true reason of such dedication: being a refined lover of “natural beauties”, the king had set his sight on the young daughter of the duke, Charlotte-Marguerite (1594-1650).

Charlotte-Marguerite de Montmorency Condé
Pierre Paul Rubens, Charlotte-Marguerite de Montmorency, wife of the Prince de Condé (ca. 1610, from The Frick Pittsburgh collection).

To have Charlotte all for himself, the king had her marry his cousin, the Prince of Condé, who was said to have an inclination towards men (1609).

From their union was born the legendary Louis II de Bourbon-Condé also called The Great Condé (1621-1686), future owner of Chantilly and cousin to Louis XIV, the Sun King (I will tell about him in the next article).

Henri II de Montmorency  (1595-1632) 

Charlotte’s brother, Henri II de Montmorency, married one of queen Maria de Medici’s cousins, Maria Felice Orsini (in French “des Ursins”), to whom he consecrated the Sylvie Woods, included the little Maison of the same name built by his grandfather.

Maison de Sylvie dettaglio
The Orsini’s rose decorates the windows of the Maison de Sylvie, in Chantilly park, but they’re a tribute, added in the XIX century.

They had a happy marriage, and when Henri died the grieving widow retired in a nunnery. The duke had dared to plot against Cardinal Richelieu, the powerful éminence grise operating during Louis XIII’s reign, and for that, he had been sentenced to death.

Portrait of Duke Henri II de Montmorency, author unknown, preserved at the Musée Carnavalet. The duke died for defying Richelieu.

Chantilly was then confiscated, with the chance of being a royal residence forever, just like Louis XIII’s father, Henri IV, had dreamed it to be. It was thanks to the political maneuvers of his late flame, Charlotte-Marguerite, if the castle will go back to whom it belonged to.

Thanks to that, the castle passed down to her son, the future Grand Condé, marking the beginning of a new glorious era for Chantilly…