An architectural mixture of late Gothic and early Renaissance, Château de Chenonceau and its gardens are open to the public. Other than the Royal Palace of Versailles, it is the most visited château in France.
The château has been classified as a Monument historique since 1840 by the French Ministry of Culture. Today, Chenonceau is a major tourist attraction and in 2007 received around 800,000 visitors.
In the 13th century, the fief of Chenonceau belonged to the Marques family. The original château was torched in 1412 to punish owner Jean Marques for an act of sedition. He rebuilt a château and fortified mill on the site in the 1430s. Jean Marques's indebted heir Pierre Marques found it necessary to sell.
Thomas Bohier, Chamberlain to King Charles VIII of France, purchased the castle from Pierre Marques in 1513 (this leads to 2013 being considered the 500th anniversary of the castle: MDXIII–MMXIII.) Bohier demolished the castle, though its 15th-century keep was left standing, and built an entirely new residence between 1515 and 1521. The work was sometimes overseen by his wife Katherine Briçonnet, who delighted in hosting French nobility, including King Francis I on two occasions.
In 1535 the château was seized from Bohier's son by King Francis I of France for unpaid debts to the Crown; after Francis' death in 1547, Henry II offered the château as a gift to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who became fervently attached to the château along the river. In 1555 she commissioned Philibert de l'Orme to build the arched bridge joining the château to its opposite bank. Diane then oversaw the planting of extensive flower and vegetable gardens along with a variety of fruit trees. Set along the banks of the river, but buttressed from flooding by stone terraces, the exquisite gardens were laid out in four triangles.
Diane de Poitiers was the unquestioned mistress of the castle, but ownership remained with the crown until 1555, when years of delicate legal maneuvers finally yielded possession to her.
After King Henry II died in 1559, his strong-willed widow and regent Catherine de' Medici forced Diane to exchange it for the Château Chaumont. Queen Catherine then made Chenonceau her own favorite residence, adding a new series of gardens.
As Regent of France, Catherine spent a fortune on the château and on spectacular nighttime parties. In 1560, the first ever fireworks display seen in France took place during the celebrations marking the ascension to the throne of Catherine's son Francis II. The grand gallery, which extended along the existing bridge to cross the entire river, was dedicated in 1577. Catherine also added rooms between the chapel and the library on the east side of the corps de logis, as well as a service wing on the west side of the entry courtyard.
Catherine considered an even greater expansion of the château, shown in an engraving published by Jacques Androuet du Cerceau in the second (1579) volume of his book Les plus excellents bastiments de France. If this project had been executed, the current château would have been only a small portion of an enormous manor laid out "like pincers around the existing buildings."
On Catherine's death in 1589 the château went to her daughter-in-law, Louise de Lorraine-Vaudémont, wife of King Henry III. At Chenonceau Louise was told of her husband's assassination in 1589 and she fell into a state of depression, spending the remainder of her days wandering aimlessly along the château's corridors dressed in mourning clothes amidst somber black tapestries stitched with skulls and crossbones.
Henri IV obtained Chenonceau for his mistress Gabrielle d'Estrées by paying the debts of Catherine de' Medici, which had been inherited by Louise and were threatening to ruin her. In return Louise left the château to her niece Françoise de Lorraine, at that time six years old and betrothed to the four-year-old César de Bourbon, duc de Vendôme, the natural son of Gabrielle d'Estrées and Henri IV. The château belonged to the Duc de Vendôme and his descendants for more than a hundred years. The Bourbons had little interest in the château, except for hunting. In 1650, Louis XIV was the last king of the ancien régime to visit.
The Château de Chenonceau was bought by the Duke of Bourbon in 1720. Little by little, he sold off all of the castle's contents. Many of the fine statues ended up at Versailles.
In 1733 the estate was sold for 130,000 livres to a wealthy squire named Claude Dupin. His wife, Louise Dupin, was the natural daughter of the financier Samuel Bernard and the actress Manon Dancourt, whose mother was also an actress who had joined the Comédie Française in 1684. Louise Dupin was "an intelligent, beautiful, and highly cultivated woman who had the theater in her blood." Claude Dupin, a widower, had a son, Louis Claude, from his first wife Marie Aurore of Saxony, who was the grandmother of George Sand (born Aurore Dupin).
Louise Dupin's literary salon at Chenonceau attracted such leaders of the Enlightenment as the writers Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Fontenelle, the naturalist Buffon, the playwright Marivaux, the philosopher Condillac, as well as the Marquise de Tencin and the Marquise du Deffand. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was Dupin's secretary and tutored her son. Rousseau, who worked on Émile at Chenonceau, wrote in his Confessions: "We played music there and staged comedies. I wrote a play in verse entitled Sylvie's Path, after the name of a path in the park along the Cher."
The widowed Louise Dupin saved the château from destruction during the French Revolution, preserving it from being destroyed by the Revolutionary Guard because "it was essential to travel and commerce, being the only bridge across the river for many miles."
In 1864 Marguerite Pelouze, a rich heiress, acquired the château. Around 1875 she commissioned the architect Félix Roguet to restore it. He almost completely renewed the interior and removed several of Catherine de' Medici's additions, including the rooms between the library and the chapel and her alterations to the north facade, among which were figures of Hercules, Pallas, Apollo, and Cybele that were moved to the park. With the money Marguerite spent on these projects and elaborate parties, her finances were depleted, and the château was seized and sold.
José-Emilio Terry, a Cuban millionaire, acquired Chenonceau from Madame Pelouze in 1891. Terry sold it in 1896 to a family member, Francisco Terry. In 1913, the château was acquired by Henri Menier, a member of the Menier family, famous for their chocolates, who still own it to this day.
During World War I Gaston Menier set up the gallery to be used as a hospital ward. During the Second World War the château was bombed by the Germans in June 1940. It was also a means of escaping from the Nazi occupied zone on one side of the River Cher to the "free" zone on the opposite bank. Occupied by the Germans, the château was bombed by the Allies on 7 June 1944, when the chapel was hit and its windows destroyed.
In 1951, the Menier family entrusted the château's restoration to Bernard Voisin, who brought the dilapidated structure and the gardens (ravaged in the Cher River flood in 1940) back to a reflection of its former glory.