A few weeks ago my daughter and I went to the Chateau de Maintenon. It was no carefully planned decision; we were staying the weekend at Rambouillet and after a hard morning’s sightseeing and a good lunch the OH declared he was retiring back to his room with Terry Pratchett, leaving the daughter and I to pick somewhere to visit.
As we didn’t have a guide book our choices had to be made from thumbnail descriptions on the tourist leaflet and we picked the Chateau de Maintenon basically because it was easy to get to. The château is in Maintenon – naturally, and was the home of Madame de M., Louis XIV’s mistress and almost certainly his morganatic second wife (no documents exist to prove there was a marriage but it’s generally accepted that there was). Madame de M was supposed to have been very beautiful and must also have been somewhat of a tough cookie. She started off as governess to the children of Louis’s previous mistress Madam de Montespan, knocked her off her perch and established herself as the King’s mistress. Madame de M, who was very pious, then persuaded the King that his immortal soul was in danger through all this fornication and the best solution, now he was a widower, was to marry her. How many royal mistresses would even have thought of that? She was also much given to good works and established a school for the impoverished daughters of noble families, where yet again she showed that she was endowed with a certain steeliness of character. She once had a real scaffold erected as a means of controlling the pupils. Fortunately, it was never used.
Her château is right in the middle of town, eminently practical in the days when it took so long to travel anywhere, and the original part is surprisingly small for somewhere Louis XIV used to stay. She’s said to have suffered from the cold and deliberately chose small, sunny rooms for her own apartments because they were easier to heat. After several winters spent in French houses with inadequate insulation I sympathise.
As happened so often, the château was extensively “improved” in the nineteenth century with a smart Gothic facade and several large rooms, big enough to reflect the importance of a Second Empire Duke, including a gallery modelled on those in Versailles and Chateau d’Eu were added. I suppose one day we’ll come to appreciate French nineteenth century taste with all its polished wood, gold leaf, red velvet and delight in ornamentation but I still prefer the simpler charms of the older parts of the château which has been left fairly untouched.
Luckily the improving Duke appears to have been content to leave the garden alone. It was designed by La Notre, one of the best known landscape gardeners, in 1676. He must have been an extraordinarily hard-working man, every garden we visited that weekend claimed to have been designed by him. There seem to be even more gardens by La Notre than there are beds slept in by good Queen Bess herself. This one though is absolutely gorgeous. The formal part is not particularly big and is laid out with lawns and paths in swirls and curls around flowerbeds which include the most deliciously smelly pick roses. Then beyond the formal garden there’s the grand vista which every decent château had to have. But this one’s a bit different. It starts conventionally enough with the all important water feature, so beloved at the time, in this case a canal which leads the eye towards the distance and… an aqueduct. An aqueduct only about 500 metres from the château.
Louis XIV came up with a grand scheme to build a canal from the Eure to Versailles to provide water for the fountains and the route went straight across the bottom of the château’s gardens. The designer suggested the most practical way of getting the water across the château grounds was via a siphon but Louis, not adverse to blowing his own trumpet, demanded that something to reflect the grandeur of the king must be erected, and came up with the idea of an aqueduct modelled on the Pont de Gard. But bigger. The Sun King had to be capable of doing better than the Romans.
The aqueduct was started in 1685 and three years later the King made Madame de Maintenon a marquise as compensation for the damage being done to her grounds by the building works. Then the money began to run out due to the King’s passion for fighting wars. The plans for the aqueduct had already been scaled down and by 1695 the work stopped completely. The King was left with a half-finished aqueduct he had no use for. So he did what men have done for centuries when they don’t now what to do with something – he gave it to the wife.
I’d love to know what Madame de Maintenon’s reaction was on having her husband’s unwanted possession so generously bestowed on her. Did she grit her teeth, he was the King after all, and think that it wasn’t everyone who could boast of an aqueduct in their garden while thanking him profusely, but perhaps not entirely sincerely. Or, being one tough lady after all, did she grimace and say, ‘Well actually Sunny, when you said you were giving me something really big made of rocks I thought we were talking diamonds…’?