For generations, the room full of tiny cabinets at the famous Chateau de Blois has been described to visitors as Catherine de Medici’s private apothecary cabinet of horrors, home to her extensive collection of deadly poisons.
The massive Chateau de Blois has been home to many notable members of the French aristocracy, but none more notorious than the murderous Medici clan. Catherine de Medici, wife to one French king and mother to three more, died at Blois in 1589. She was the original evil stepmother, ultimate meddler in the affairs of her children and therefore matters of state, and notorious for the mysterious yet convenient deaths of her enemies.
Once you grasp a little of her family story, however, it seems that maybe she was the most well adapted natural product of her environment. Catherine was born to the infamous Florentine Medici family. Her mother died 28 days after her birth. Her father, Lorenzo was the young prince for whom Machiavelli penned his famous instructions, and he died only a few days later, most likely from syphilis. After being handed around by various family members, a coup in Florence saw her paraded through the streets on a donkey as a symbol of her defeated family legacy. Brought to Rome by the pope (her uncle), she was married off at age 14 to the also 14 year old heir to the French throne, who seemed to openly dislike her, and proceeded to take up publicly with another woman. After a slow start, Catherine eventually bore ten children, seven of which lived long enough to meddle in politics themselves. Her final pregnancy was with twins, two girls who had to be cut from her womb to prevent the death of them all. They did not survive.
Shortly thereafter, her husband’s reign as king was ended by a lance to the eyesocket during a jousting match held in celebration of their daughter’s marriage, at which he wore his mistress’s colors. Amazingly, a lance to the eye (and brain) did NOT immediately kill him, and he lived another ten, presumably agonizing, days. Catherine then turned her attentions to micromanaging her children’s careers, starting with the reign of her 15 year old son, Francis (dead by 16), then the sickly 9 year old Charles (dead at 24), and finally her favorite, the mama’s boy Henry, all against a general background of political mayhem, bloody rebellions and religious massacres. This tumultuous time in France and in her life was the setting for Alexandre Dumas’ Queen Margot, which tells the story of Catherine’s daughter Margaret who was married off to a protestant leader in a political move, and which seems to be be source of the legend that the cabinets at Blois were for Catherine’s poison stash.
The room in question holds 237 small cabinets, hidden in the beautiful woodwork. The room was in fact associated with Catherine de Medici, and she was certainly suspected of some heinous poison related crimes*, but historians believe that the cabinets were much more likely to have held small objects d’art or confidential papers than a poison collection, which is a little bit disappointing.
The Chateau is also the site of the elaborate assassination of the Duke of Guise, plotted by Henry III (third son of Catherine), and there is an enormous painting depicting the scene in one of the rooms. It is also known for its beautiful three storey external spiral staircase and gargoyle downspouts. The wallpaper on some of the rooms has to be seen to be believed.
The Chateau is located conveniently across a plaza from the Maison de la Magie building, home to a fine collection of clocks and automata built by the magician Robert-Houdin, the front of which has been transformed into an enormous mechanical dragon clock.
*It is worth mentioning that Italians in general, and women specifically, were widely suspected of being poisoners. Catherine definitely ordered the killing of a handful of people, but she may be innocent of poisoning, specifically.
Know Before You Go
Located on the rise at the center of Blois
- Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France , by Leoni Frieda, Harper 2006