We spent an afternoon at about 20 minutes outside of the center of Angoulême. It has a long history. The family who built it first occupied the site in the late 10th century and have resided in it continuously since then. They claim to be one of the oldest families in France and the family archives certainly suggest that.
The château is privately owned and operated. We arrived late in the afternoon. There were perhaps a dozen other people on the property. A sole employee, the cashier, was to be seen. Classical music was blaring in the courtyard. The cashier informed us that the mother of the current Duke lived in half of the château, that she liked classical music to be played at all times, and that a large portion of the building was off limits.
We wandered out into the courtyard which overlooks the town below—hundreds of red clay roofs and lichen covered stone walls lining a river bank and dominated by an ancient Catholic church. We then made our way into the family chapel, which features a prominent display of the family tree and the crypt of a male heir who had died at the age of five. The chapel is two stories and includes a choir loft on the second floor. It could be described as modest in reference to Versailles.
Overall, the contrast between Versailles and Château de La Rochefoucauld was informative. Versailles is no longer occupied by the Bourbon family. The Rochefoucaulds wanted visitors to know that they are still around, still wealthy, and still important. Each room we went into after the chapel featured some series of portraits of influential family members or recently deceased ones (the recently deceased ones seemed much less impressive than their ancestors) and information about the family’s history. I learned that some of its members had been executed during the French Revolution despite their, in the family’s account, liberal sympathies. I also learned that the Duke La Rochefoucauld had been Louis XVI’s Master of Wardrobe. The, probably apocryphal, story is that when Louis XVI learned of the storming of the Bastille, he said to the Duke La Rochefoucauld, “It’s a revolt.” The Duke is alleged to have responded, “No, sire, it’s a revolution.”
The continuing ownership of the château by the Rochefoucaulds made me question how much of revolution it actually was. I mean, the mere fact that at least this branch of the French nobility has maintained control of a castle for over a thousand years suggests a certain continuity over time. I don’t know how the Rochefoucaulds are faring financially, but I suspect that they’re not poor. It’s true that they’ve had to monetize the family estate but the mere fact that such an asset has remained in the family is significant. As is the fact that they’ve recently been thinking of adding to it. In one of the rooms we saw an architectural model that included a proposed new wing designed by I. M. Pei (it looked to me like it would have been an aesthetic disaster).
The proposed Pei wing, however, was in keeping with the château’s most interesting feature. It has been consistently added to over the centuries. The original keep was built in the 11th century. The most recent additions are from the 18th. The real gem is the château’s grand staircase. It was supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci and traversed the height of the building as a continuous piece. It is beautiful white stone and when the light hits it glows. At the very top of the staircase is a drawing of the castle attributed to da Vinci (it was unsigned).
Near the close of our visit the cashier let us into the family library and archives. They are incredible. The library contains around 18,000 volumes, most from the 18th and 19th centuries. It focuses on law and theology. We were able to find other things, including a beautifully illustrated edition of François-René de Chateaubriand’s translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost that we were allowed to page through. One of the real treasurers was an original edition of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the work that invented the genre. I’d never seen an original copy before. It was a little awe inspiring to stand in front of the first European attempt to systematize human knowledge and realize that when it was written it was the project of only a handful of polymaths.
Undoubtedly, the family archives are of greatest interest to historians. I imagine all of the volumes in the library exist elsewhere. The archives, however, stretch back to the 13th century and contain records of all the kinds of wealth and power the French nobility attained for itself—mostly, I imagine, through theft and violence—over the years. The cashier had closed the front gate so she could accompany us into the library and archives. She showed us a couple of thirteenth-century documents. And then she showed us what must be one of the family’s prized possessions, the Duke La Rochefoucauld’s inventory of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s jewelry. It was in an archival box. The cashier showed us the handwritten original and according to her the total value of the jewelry was 3 million pounds. At the time, she said, the Rochefoucaulds could have sold their château for 60,000 pounds.
The inventory and the cashier’s statement were, like Versailles, a good summary of reasons why the French Revolution ultimately happened—vast income inequality. Prior to the Revolution France was ruled by a hereditary elite who cared little for the vast majority of people in the country. Their wealth insulated them from everyone else’s reality. It meant that a few people had extravagant and sumptuous lives while most people eked out an existence. As year-by-year countries like the United States become more economically unequal and the dire threat of climate change increases I can’t help but think that such a situation is returning (or less romantically has returned). The world can only be different if we organize mass movements to make it so.