Château de Rambouillet, the Estate, and its History

The Château de Rambouillet also known in English as the Castle of Rambouillet, is a château in the town of Rambouillet in northern France about 31 miles southwest of Paris. It was originally a fortified manor that dates to 1368. King Francis I died there in 1547 and during the reign of Louis XVIII it was owned by Charles d’Angennes whose family maintained ownership until the 17th century.

Château de Rambouillet

Château de Rambouillet. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

During the time that the d’Angennes family owned the estate the lands surrounding the Château de Rambouillet were swampy and flat. To help correct that situation two canals (one being tranverse) were built to create a trapezoid that then formed islands. Moreover, a flat expanse of grass, known as a tapis vert, separated the canals from the Rambouillet forest. In addition, parterres were placed close to the château, a geometrical quincunx was laid out to the west, and on the eastern side an impressive avenue of cypress trees purchased from Louisiana were planted.

Eventually Louis-Alexandre, Count of Toulouse, the legitimized son of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan came to own the Château de Rambouillet. He then enlarged the château between 1705 and 1737. However, it was his son, Louis de Bourbon, Duke of Penthièvre, who really made the estate stand out because he incorporated both beauty and diversity in the design.

After the Duke’s wife died, he increasingly lived away from the court of Versailles and divided his time between his many country residences. However, he stayed primarily at the Château de Rambouillet or the Château de Sceaux. The Duke’s son, Louis Alexandre de Bourbon (known as the Prince de Lamballe), married Maria Teresa Louisa of Savoy (who became known as the Princesse de Lamballe) in 1767 and they also visited Rambouillet. When the Prince died from syphilis sixteen months after their marriage, the princess began spending much of her time with her father-in-law at Rambouillet. It was there that father-in-law and daughter-in-law dispensed charity to the surrounding people, resulting in him being “known as the ‘King of the Poor,’ and she the ‘Good Angel of Penthièvre.’”[1]  

Château de Rambouillet held many bittersweet memories for the Duke of Penthièvre. For instance, the Duke’s father died in the chateau in 1737. The Duke’s wife also died there some seventeen years later. It happened on 30 April 1754 the day after she gave birth to Louis Marie Félicité de Bourbon, who survived just a few hours and then died the same day as her mother.

Part of the reason that the Duke liked Rambouillet so much was its park and forests. They consisted of about 33,600 acres and furthermore Rambouillet was a lovely and quiet getaway from the hustle and bustle of the Versailles court. Among some of the other attractions at Rambouillet was a French garden next to the château that had staggered rows of lime trees. The Duke also extended an area between the canal and the tapis vert to create an English garden that extended over 61 acres and contained a mixture of hills, meadows, exotic trees, winding rivers, and several bridges.

Château de Rambouillet

Grounds at Rambouillet estate. © G.L. Walton.

Between 1779 and 1780 the Duke also built a wonderful shell cottage, Chaumière des coquillages, for the Princesse de Lamballe. It was situated in the English garden about a mile away from the chateau. The princess found it a relaxing retreat where she could read, play her harp, or pass time with friends. The cottage had a thatched-roof and was built by the Duke’s architect Claude-Martin Goupy. It had a luxurious interior with a circular room encrusted with shells and mother of pearl. Next to it was a small room, or rather a closet or changing room, where reputedly years later “Napoleon I. used to partake of a frugal breakfast.”[2]

The Shell Cottage at Rambouillet. © G.L. Walton.

Rambouillet was highly desirable to Louis XVI, who was cousin to the Duke of Penthièvre. Louis loved its game-rich forests and that resulted in him purchasing the Château de Rambouillet and its grounds from the Duke in 1783. Louis wanted to use it as a private residence and being an avid hunter, it was ideal spot for him to hunt.

As to Château de Rambouillet it was not particularly impressive as it was a plain square brick building flanked with towers, the largest of which was built by Hugh Capet. The interior was somewhat plain too. On the ground floor was the summer dining room lined with slabs of marble. Another interesting thing to see at the château was a map of the forests of Rambouillet that were in part executed by Louis XVI and there was the toilet-room for Marie Antoinette that had its ceiling and walls lined with carved oak.

A year after Louis purchased Rambouillet he ordered the construction of the Hôtel du Gouvernement. It was built on a parcel adjacent to the gardens and after Napoleon I came to power, he renamed it Palais du Roi de Rome in honor of his infant son, the Prince Imperial, for whom the residence served. The entrance to this building is situated in the rue Charles de Gaulle, Rambouillet’s main street.

Another addition in 1786 at Rambouillet soon followed. It was the Bergerie royale later called the Bergerie nationale. It was established because Louis XVI hoped to improve sheep breeding in France. It was France’s first experimental farm and it became known for the establishment of the famous Rambouillet Merino sheep line that exists today. It all began after Louis purchased over 300 Spanish Merinos (318 ewes, 41 rams, and 7 wethers) from his cousin, King Charles III of Spain. The Spanish Merinos were then outcrossed with English long-wool breeds and with special selection a well-defined breed was produced that differed from the original Spanish Merino. For instance, the Rambouillet Merino was larger (full-grown ewes weighed up to 200 pounds and rams up to 300 pounds), the wool clips were larger, and the wool length increased to more than three inches. The flock was also raised exclusively at the Bergerie and no sheep were sold until the nineteenth century. Of these sheep it was stated in 1802:

“These fine creatures have bodies of extra-ordinary beauty. … They are remarkable strong, square, and low upon the legs.”[3]

Rambouillet Merino sheep. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The year 1786 was also the year that Hôtel de Ville, the former Bailliage (Bailiwicks building) was built by the architect Jacques-Jean Thévenin. His neo-classical style building has white stones from Saint-Leu and Conflas with a plaster that imitates bricks. Napoleon later donated this building to the inhabitants of Rambouillet to serve as their City Hall. The inscription over the door can still be seen today and reads “Donated to the inhabitants of Rambouillet by Napoleon the Great, [in the] Year 1809.”

In 1787 Louis the XVI had the Laiterie de la Reine or the Queen’s Dairy built on the Rambouillet estate in great secrecy. The dairy was a way to entice his wife Marie Antoinette to stay at the Château de Rambouillet. She had built a rustic retreat in the park of the Château de Versailles in 1783 near the Petit Trianon known as the Hameau de la Reine and loved it. So, Louis must have surmised that he could recreate the rustic atmosphere of Versailles at Rambouillet. The dairy in this Doric pavilion that was placed adjacent to the Bergerie was also designed by Thévenin and was inaugurated in June 1787.

Exterior of the Laiterie de la Reine at Rambouillet. © G.L. Walton.

The Laiterie de la Reine still exists today and is a wonderful building. It contains two rooms both with polished marble floors of grey and white. The first room is a circular rotunda surmounted by a cupola with walls of sandstone. Around the walls are slabs of white marble that rest upon elegant consoles. It was here that during Marie Antoinette’s time basins of fresh milk were placed in Sèvres porcelain buckets that had been painted and grained to look like wood. In the middle of the room is a magnificent round table of white marble, with a mosaic colored marble in the center.

The adjoining room, a cooling room to preserve the milk, is rectangular and has an artificial grotto, with rocks that form a rustic basin. In the center, entering the Bath, is a sculpture by Pierre Julien that is considered his most outstanding work. It is of a marble nymph Amaltheia, the foster-mother of Zeus. From a reservoir on the top of the grotto two men would fill it with water so that the water would fall over the nymph’s shoulders and jets spout up water from the pavement.

Near to the dairy are two pavilions. The one on the right was used as a dwelling for the porter and employees of the dairy. The one on the left was Pavilion des Quatre Saisons or the Pavilion of the Four Summers. It contains four grisailles in gray for each of the seasons that adorned the walls of the principal chamber and like the dairy’s first room, this room was circular too. This site is where Louis and Marie Antoinette breakfasted during the summer months. It was also a habit of Napoleon when at the chateau to breakfast here while he examined his charts and his maps when anticipating an upcoming campaign.

In advance of these pavilions was at one time a beautiful pheasant house. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in 1830 during the July Revolution. That was partly because Charles X’s royal soldiers had insufficient provisions during the four days that they were encamped at Rambouillet. What remained after their departure was then poached and destroyed by local Rambouillet residents.

Château de Rambouillet

Château de Rambouillet in the distance in 1791. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

During the French Revolution, Rambouillet became bien national and the château and the shell cottage were emptied of their furnishings. In addition, the gardens and surrounding park was neglected. That may be why when Napoleon came to power, he included Rambouillet on his liste civile. The Emperor also stayed several times at the Château de Rambouillet with his last stay being on the night of 29-30 June 1815, as he was on his way into exile on Saint Helena. Although Napoleon may not have used Rambouillet as much as the Duke of Penthièvre or Louis XVI, Napoleon’s influence at Rambouillet can be seen in the château with its Pompeian style bathroom and small bathtub. There is also an exquisite balcony built that linked the emperor’s apartment to that of his second wife, the empress Marie-Louise.

Château de Rambouillet in the 1800s. Author’s collection.

At the time of the Bourbon Restoration, Rambouillet was again on the liste civile. Like Napoleon, Charles X’s exile also began at Rambouillet when on 2 August 1830 he signed his abdication in favour of his 9-year-old grandson, the Duke of Bordeaux. It supposedly took twenty minutes to talk his reluctant son, the Duke of Angoulême, into countersigning the document, thus abandoning his rights to the throne of France in favor of his nephew.

When the Duke of Penthièvre’s grandson, Louis Philippe I, came to power (from 1830-1848) Rambouillet was not on the liste civile. After the revolution of 1848 that ended Louis Philippe’s I reign, the Château de Rambouillet and its grounds were let to a private person. He then “transformed [it] into a summer residence for lovers of the picturesque, and … public balls in the park [were given].”[4] The new Saint-Lubin church was built between 1868 and 1871 replacing a 12th-century church that was considered too old and too small. The architect of this church was a student of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc named Anatole de Baudot. He was French pioneer of reinforced-concrete construction and the new church was neo-Gothic in style with a bell tower and three bells.

Rambouillet was leased from 1870 to 1883 to the Duke of Trémoille. He came from a French noble family from Poitou whose name comes from the village La Trimouille in the départment of Vienne. Then in February 1896, the château served as the official summer residence for the French President of the Republic after President Félix Faure chose it as his family’s summer residence. Furthermore, after serving as the official summer residence of the Presidents of the Third Republic, the Château de Rambouillet has remained a summer residence to other French presidents until 2009.


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