Chinon in History
At the heart of the Loire Valley, Chinon is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Chinon is first an exceptional site that allowed settlement: a combination of steep chalk cliffs and the Vienne River, an important waterway, facilitated the building of an enclosure wall which was naturally fortified.
“Sitting on ancient stone, on top, the wood, at the foot, the Vienne”: the words of François Rabelais to describe Chinon refer to the 5500 ha National forest that still makes for a major part of the plateau north-east of the city.
The site was already inhabited in the 7th century B.C. Settlement grows through the Gallo-roman period, together with the building of a fortified enclosure where the fortress now stands.
In the 5th century A.C., Saint Mexme, a disciple of Saint Martin, creates a monastery that becomes the religious hub of the future city, and a place of pilgrimage on the grave of the saint.
In the 10th century, Chinon belongs in the estate of the Counts of Blois, who rebuild the castle. Chinon becomes part of the estate of the Counts of Anjou, the Plantagenet.
Chinon is at the height of its glory during the middle ages. In the 12th century, with the Plantagenet Dynasty (Henry II and Queen Eleanor, Richard the Lionheart), and during the 15th century, when the exiled royal court spends lengthy stays in the city: Joan of Arc meets and acknowledges Charles, heir apparent and future King Charles VII in Chinon in 1429.
A legacy of that rich history, the Royal Fortress and Collegiate Church of Saint Mexme are the major features of the city’s Heritage. Yet the city still displays the medieval urban grid, with narrow winding streets, as well as half-timbered houses (the most remarkable of which still stand at the Carroi and Puits des Bans crossroads) and private freestone townhouses.
From the 16th century on, Chinon is no longer a royal residence, yet remains a royal administration with works on such building as the Water and Forestry Commandment and the Bodard de la Jacopière mansion.
In 1631, Chinon is attached to the estates of the Duke of Richelieu, who neglect the fortress. Counter-Reformation brings many convents to be built near the city walls, such as the Calvairiennes convent located on avenue François Mitterrand (a housing residence nowadays).
In the 19th and 20th century, numerous urban changes occur in Chinon, such as the replacement of the fortifications into wharves, the creation of public building such as the Court of Justice, the city hall and police court. Public spaces are landscaped with trees (as seen on the Dr Mattraits banks along the Vienne) and statues in tribute to the city’s historical characters such as Rabelais and Joan of Arc. From 1875 the railway brings a stop to the thriving river trade, and causes the city eastern urban expansion. The extension continues on the hillside over the 20th century.
In 1958, the first French nuclear plant is built 8 km from Chinon.
Nowadays, one comes to discover the site from the left bank of the Vienne. The fortress, perched at the top of the hillside, dominates the lower city nestled at its feet. Fortifications on the river bank have given way in the 19th century to quaysides lined with centennial poplar trees that recreate a “green” wall.
The walk at the top of the hillside from the fortress to the Sainte-Radegonde chapel offers an exceptional belvedere on the city and its profusion of slate roofs, which give way eastwards to the modern district, up to the railroad which marks the limit with the flood plains.
The city’s outstanding heritage was recognized early by French institutions; the Castle and Saint-Mexme collegiate church were registered on the first official list of historical monuments in 1840.
Nowadays more than 20 monuments are protected under this list.
Lastly, the city center is protected under a conservation area, an urban regulation that provides for recognition, and helps protect and improve the architectural and urban quality of the city’s historical center.