Chambord: François I’s Hunting Lodge and Home

In French Blog Posts by Brock Bourgase

In 1513, a wild boar entered the chateau in Ambois and raced through its halls. Lords and ladies were terrified as the beast charged towards them. The only person in the Royal Court who could stop the four-legged marauder was the Dauphin, François. The future king slew the animal with his sword, exhibiting his hunting prowess and gallantry.

When he became King of France in 1515, François I remained an avid hunter. Following his campaigns in Italy, he ordered the construction of a new chateau in Chambord to serve as a royal hunting lodge. Not only did François I seek to defeat Charles V on the battlefield but he wanted to surpass the Holy Roman Emperor in terms of fashion and sophistication. Chambord was his attempt to become the “greatest builder of his time” (McConnachie 154). Construction began in 1519 and was eventually completed in 1547.

Like the limestone blocks used to build the castle walls, some of the Chambord’s distinctive features have worn away but its origin is still clear. Build to be a hunting lodge that befits a king, it was also a home and safe haven for François I. From afar or up close, inside or outside, symbols of the hunt appear. Material and symbolic clues are found in the castle’s architecture, emblems throughout the property, and pieces of art.

The size and surroundings of François I’s permanent residence in Blois precluded him from hunting as much as he would have liked. The chateau in Blois was too small to lodge the large number of people involved in the hunt and the hilly environment was not fruitful for game. Twenty kilometres to the East on the Rivière Cosson, the enormous Chambord estate was designed to be the complete opposite (Hélène).

Measuring 156 metres in length and 56 in height, Chambord holds 426 rooms. A 5,440 hectare park was enclosed by a thirty-two kilometre wall. In the past, two thousand people would stay there (in the chateau or camping on the grounds). To the thousands of tourists who visit today, it is immediately apparent that this is not a typical property.

François I took an integral role in the design of the property. He selected a site near the old Park of Chambord, which had become a ruin but was a favourite hunting spot when he was younger (Buzon 4). The location also boasted a large number of stags in the vicinity (Saussaye 53). Besides deer, the marshy surroundings suited wild game that the king enjoyed to hunt, like wild boars, wolves, and 120 types of birds. The king required a hunting party of four hundred people, who could only be accommodated on the vast grounds of Chambord (Hélène).

The architecture belies another subtle signal that this was meant to be a hunting lodge: the facility is not suitable for year-round occupation. The immense rooms – some almost four metres in height – are extremely difficult to heat. François I and the Royal Court travelled from castle to castle with all of his furniture and belongings. Since there are no villages near Chambord, any food would have to be brought in the royal caravan or hunted, making long stays impractical.

When designing Chambord, François I wanted the chateau to be comfortable for everyone. At the time he said that “a royal court without ladies is like a year without spring and spring without roses” (Fabri 36). As he result, ornate rooftop terraces and belvederes were included in the facility. Nevertheless, there are no pleasure gardens or outdoor features such as the fountains and pergolas found at Villandry. The chateau is huge but the rooms within are small and it lacks the rooms and facilities for a royal ball or banquet. Chambord is more of a lodge than a palace, displaying a cottage aesthetic, exemplified by the exposed half-timbering seen in the walls of the upper stories.

There are hundreds of symbols of all sizes throughout Chambord, representing François I or hunting. Over seven hundred salamanders inhabit the in the castle. The arched ceiling outside the king’s quarters is a checkerboard of “F” and salamanders. The cross-shaped floorplan of the centre tower was part of the king’s personal influence on the project. Vaulted halls intersecting in a cross design were popular during Antiquity but had not been used in modern times until Donato Bramante included the idea his blueprints for Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome (Fabri 32). The social and structural focal point of Chambord harkened back to classical buildings like the Pantheon and remained current with Renaissance trends.

The wooden doors are carved with a salamander on top and flames below. The flourishes in Chambord’s capitals and entablatures call to mind elements of flamboyant Italian architecture at the time. During the erection of the chateau, François I had been captured at the Battle of Pavia and held prisoner by Charles V. Observers believe that the elaborate rooftop city built on top of the castle was inspired by the Charterhouse of Pavia (McConnachie 155).

The emblems of the chateau were a stag and a boar; today the tourism office logo is a salamander and a stag. The stag and the boar were chosen because of their abundance outside the castle walls where they number seven hundred and twelve hundred respectively in the flesh. Consequently, the animals were frequently hunted and their prominence in Chambord’s architecture is an emblem for François I’s love of the sport. At the time that Chambord was built, the stag and the boar had been portrayed in art for centuries and possessed their own symbolic meanings.

The winged stag was formerly the emblem of the French royal family until Louis XII adopted the porcupine. It is also a Christian allegory because of the way a herd of deer help each other in the wild and the manner in which it renews its horns each spring. Other symbolic characteristics of the animal are pride and purification.

According to mythology, stags would hunt snakes, drawing the creature out of its hole and trampling it. If the stag were bitten by the serpent or ate their prey alive, they could purify themselves by drinking water. Venison was sought in the 1500s because it was believed that the meat had medicinal properties (Badke “Stag”). Antlers of the deer that were killed in the hunt were often exhibited on the walls of the castle. Today, dozens of trophies are displayed in the Musée de la Chasse.

The wild boar was often hunted by nobility in the sixteenth century as a way to demonstrate courage and athletic skill (Colson 1266). The ferocity of the animal symbolizes courageous and strong warriors (Decker “Animal Symbolism”), in addition to recalling François I’s exploit in Amboise. When a boar was cornered by a hunting party, it was customary for the lord to dismount his horse and kill the animal with his dagger.

These symbols are incorporated in the detailed decorations of Chambord, along with many other animals. The downspouts – now a common item but richly embellished in Renaissance castles like Blois (Figure A) – shaped like stags (Figure B). The cornice is engraved with nature scenes and a variety of wild beasts (Figure C).

Meticulous tapestries hung throughout the chateau serve two purposes. The fabric insulates the stone walls and conserves heat generated from the many fireplaces. In order to embody style and status, some of the apartments are covered in fine silk embroidering and others with ornate tapestries crafted by a skilled artisan. At Chambord, tapestries usually feature scenes of hunting or nature.

One of the tapestry sets in Chambord was called “The Story of the Hunting Expeditions of King François I.” One scene shows the king hunting with the Royal Court. Despite foraying into the woods, François is lavishly attired in god britches. He is looking at the viewer confidently, pointing a staff to direct his party. On the left side, some men prepare horses to be mounted. On the right, a group of hounds are on the scent of prey and in the background a gloved falconer is readying his charges. The faces in the border could represent a hunting god or goddess, like Diana (Figure D).

Another work on the ground floor shows the king on horseback, leading his party. François I is riding forward fearlessly, followed by his group with hounds and birds. On the opposite wall, a lord and lady examine the birds that they have trapped in the woods near Chambord. In a different scene, courteliers are watching hounds chase a flock of fowl into a stream (Figure E). These scenes are a stark contrast to other royal accommodations where the artwork showcases portraits of the king and his predecessors, like the Louis XIV apartments at Chambord (Figure F).

“The Wolf Hunt” hangs in the Flemish Room, showing a large hunting party pursuing a wolf with hounds. They have trapped their quarry and the leader is about to dismount his horse and deliver a killing blow with his spear. Others are armed with different weapons symbolic of the hunt. It is an allegory for humans working together and overcoming the temptation of sin (Badke “The Wolf”), like farmers collaborating to save their flocks from a wolf. Nature’s bounty is plentiful; trees bear scores of oranges and the tapestry is bordered by oranges, grapes, and flowers (Figure G).

The king was only able to spend seventy-two days at Chambord during his thirty-two year reign and did not see its completion. At the time of his death, only the royal apartments had been finished (Buzon 8). Though he was not involved, events that preceded and followed his reign have interlocked seamlessly with his symbols and added to the heritage of Chambord.

Chambord was built on the site of an old-hunting lodge that had been used by the Dukes of Orleans for centuries. Local legend says that the forest is haunted by “Black Hunter” during autumn nights. The ghostly Thibault of Champagne, clad only in black – along with black dogs and black-haired companions – chases his prey between Bury and Monsfrault all night. It was said that Thibault’s howls could be heard by farmers and residents of Chambord (Saussaye 43).

Two seventeenth-century tapestries hang in the Musée but they would have fit perfectly in François I’s décor. As classical myths became more popular during the Renaissance, he would have appreciated the “The Story of Meleager and the Wild Boar Hunt” (Figure G) and a depiction of Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt.

As told by Ovid, Meleager, met his demise while hunting a legendary boar with his uncles and a woman named Atalanta. When the hunt concluded, Meleager awarded the head and tusks to Atalanta because her spear had drawn first blood. His uncles objected and Meleager killed them. Afterwards, his mother throws the log that signifies Meleager’s lifespan into the fire, killing her son (Ovid VIII 250-456).

The myth is an image of hunting but it also an allegory for the four seasons. The Calydonian boar, arriving in the spring and fall, destroyed farmers’ crops. When the weather was cold, farmers were at risk that a late frost might kill newly planted crops in the spring and early snow or hail that would do likewise before the harvest in the fall. The heat of the summer sun allows crops to thrive, like those shown on the border of the tapestry. Meleager’s death mirrors the limited length of the summer and the interaction between light and dark, summer and winter, and day and night (Hooker).

Some of these elements can be seen in the symmetrical layout of Chambord. There are four turrets on the centre tower, which is divided into four quarters. Outside, slate diamonds indicate symbols, such as the four seasons and the four elements. When balanced with circles and ellipses Figure H, the shapes show the balance of the king’s temporal power on Earth and the heavenly power of God (Hélène). The spiral staircase and other features make the chateau a blend of Medieval and Renaissance architecture (Buzon 11).

François I ultimately succeeded in matching his Italian rival. When Charles V first visited in 1535, he remarked that Chambord was a testament to what could be accomplished by the human spirit (Saussaye 19). Now, it is a national symbol of France, internationally known for its architecture.

Finally, the strongest symbols of how Chambord was the king’s hunting lodge are stories retelling how François I referred to the chateau. When announcing a trip to the estate, the sovereign would tell his court “let’s go home.” There are many associations with the word home – such as safety, comfort, family, enjoyment – which François wanted to recall by using those words. To him, it was a place where he could truly relax and indulge his favourite hobby.


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Decker, Judy and Vivian Komando. Animal Symbolism. Princeton Online. 27 July 2008 .
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