I will be the first to admit I’m a history geek. From the moment I watched the “Six Wives of Henry VIII” TV series in the early seventies, it was love at first sight. I read everything I could get my hands on about Henry and his wives. This even led me to major in history in college. Alongside this obsession, I began studying the French language in the ninth grade and decided to make French my minor area of studies.
All this made it seem inevitable that I would take courses in French history. The French history professor at my university was eccentric and entertaining. He paced back and forth at the lectern holding an unlit cigar in his hand. He also had a career on the side, training German Shephard dogs and would bring a dog to the classroom and make it sit on the floor in front of him. What’s not to like? For the final exam of the course on the French Revolution, he posted one question on the chalk board: “Was the French Revolution inevitable?” A yes or no answer certainly wasn’t enough to get a passing grade!
Most of the history we learn comes from books, courses, movies, television and in this day and age, the Internet. This is all well and good and we can learn so much through these methods. But a lot can be said for visiting the places we study about. Having just returned from my first visit to France, I can attest to the fact that being in the country whose history you have studied really makes the history exciting. Here are just a few examples of what I learned.
On my first day in France, I toured the magnificent Château of Versailles, the home of the Sun King, Louis XIV. For some reason I didn’t realize how much art work was in the Château. There were so many portraits of royalty, mistresses, ministers, generals, artists, playwrights, battles, landscapes, etc. many of which I had seen on the Internet and in books. These paintings were displayed so they could easily be seen in great detail. I saw the Chapel Royal where the kings worshiped and stood in Louis XIV’s bedroom. As I entered the Hall of Mirrors, I contemplated the momentous signing of the Treaty of Versailles which ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. It was signed in the Hall on June 28, 1919, exactly five years to the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Another of my favorite moments on that day happened in the Petit Trianon, the small pleasure château given to Marie Antoinette by Louis XVI so she could escape the stifling atmosphere of the court. This building is intimate and warm. As I was standing in an antechamber, I turned and looked to my right. On the wall hung the famous portrait of Marie Antoinette called “La Reine en Gaulle” by the artist Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun. I was stunned. The original portrait was considered scandalous because the Queen was portrayed in a plain muslin gown with a simple hat. Because of this the painting was altered to depict her in more appropriate clothing.
My tour of the Louvre was chaotic because of the crowds. Our guide led us into the room where the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci is hanging. We could barely see the painting as people were crowded in front of it and were holding up their cameras to take pictures of it. In that crazy moment, I just happened to look on the wall to my right and lo and behold, there was the portrait of King Francis I by Titian. It was another special moment.
Our tour took us to several places in Brittany. This was of particular interest to me because of the remarkable life of Anne of Brittany who was twice crowned Queen of France. Before she was Queen she was Duchess of Brittany which was an independent state not attached to France during her lifetime. The turning point for Brittany came with the Siege of Rennes in 1491. Anne was forced to surrender and marry King Charles VIII which started the process of merging Brittany into the kingdom of France. We visited a couple places connected with Anne’s life.
Charles and his sister Anne de Beaujeu who was acting as his regent at the time wanted to keep the marriage a secret as long as they could. The actual wedding took place in the Château of Langeais in the Loire Valley in the early morning of December 6, 1491. We visited this beautiful castle on our tour and in one of the rooms, there is a tableau of wax figures representing Charles VIII, Anne of Brittany, Anne de Beaujeu and her husband Pierre along with the officiating bishop and other officials. The figures are all dressed in authentic costumes of the period and they all resemble their portraits. It’s a very charming scene.
We also visited the medieval walled city of Vannes which also has a connection to the story of Anne of Brittany. The treaty fixing the terms of her marriage to Charles was negotiated and finalized in the Hôtel de Ville in Vannes. But I also had another medieval historical revelation while in Vannes.
As our tour guide took us through the town, he stopped at an overlook and pointed out a building along the river. He mentioned this was where the women did their communal laundry. I imagined women with their skirts pulled up, washing their clothes in the cold water. Then something occurred to me. There is a legend that Duke Robert II of Normandy was on the ramparts of his castle in Falaise one day. He looked down upon the river and saw the beautiful Herleva, daughter of the tanner of the town, with her skirts pulled up washing clothes. He wanted to know who this woman was and she was brought to the castle to meet him. She became his mistress and gave birth to a son. That boy was would grow up to be William, Duke of Normandy, also known as William the Conqueror. After seeing this riverside laundry in Vannes, I realized perhaps the story of Herleva and the Duke of Normandy is not a legend after all!
These are just a few of the magical moments of my tour that I wanted to share with you. If you have any historical monuments nearby and you love history, take a moment to visit. It just might make the history come alive.