French Language Blog

Before Versailles and Before the Louvre: Fontainebleau Palace Posted by on May 26, 2013 in Culture, Vocabulary

Everyone knows le Louvre. And I’m sure it is safe to assume that everyone has at least heard of Versailles.

But how about Fontainebleau, the château (castle) that is both classique and Renaissance?

It’s actually not that far from Paris, about soixante kilomètres (60 kms) South East of the French capital.

Of course, you can also choose to go to the nearby Disneyland Paris instead.

If it’s more “your thing”, that is.

But then, you would be missing out on what Napoleon Bonaparte has famously qualified as la Maison des Siècles (The House of the Centuries.)

Indeed, successive generations of French monarchs have resided in what has progressively become a full-fledged palace, at a time when most of Versailles could only offer mosquito-infected swamps and oozing marshland.

The early traces of a castle erected in Fontainebleau go back to at least the 12th century.

Before that, the whole place was dominated by a massive forest, known then as la forêt de Bière.

Now, don’t think that this name referred to a “beer forest festival”, or something of the sort.

True, the term bière usually means “beer” in French.

In this case, however, bière comes from bruyère, meaning “heather.

Today, the forest surrounding the old royal palace is known as la forêt de Fontainebleau, and is above all famed to be the inspiration of several impressionist painters as well as the so-called School of Barbizon.

Besides, it is a highly popular destination among escalade (climbing) fans!

But let’s go back to the early days of the château, shall we?

Among the earliest known people to have resided there is the celebrated archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, who (maybe thanks to his timely French escapade) started spelling his name as Thomas à Becket.

About a century after hosting Saint Thomas of Canterbury (for he had by then died a martyr in his native England), the château witnessed the birth of Philippe le Bel, aka “Philippe the Fair.”

“Fair”, however, was a bit of a misnomer.

In fact, there was very little “fair” about this Philippe (unless perhaps intended in the sense of “handsome” rather than “just”, but even that was open for debate.)

This was indeed the French King who, in cahoots with the Pope of that time (Clement V, yet another awkward misnomer you might add), ordered les Templiers (the Knights Templar) to be burned at the stake.


It probably had something to do with their vast amount of wealthy possessions.

In any case, a curse attributed to one of the Grand Masters of the monastic order is said to have caused greedy Philippe to perish in the course of a “freak accident”, only a few months later.

And where did Philippe meet his “fair” demise, so to speak?

Precisely at his birthplace, the château of Fontainebleau.

But the Templar’s curse did not seem to stop there.

During most of la guerre de Cent Ans (the Hundred Years’ War) that soon ensued, the castle had to be fully evacuated.

Wisely enough, the Royal family deemed it safer to withdraw even further south of Paris, towards the Loire and Bourges.

It was not until four successive monarchs had left the French throne that Fontainebleau experienced its first period of gloire (glory.)

This was during the reign of François Ier (in English Francis I), the King and patron of the arts who imported la Renaissance to France from its Italian cradle.



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  1. Ory:

    …Philippe le Bel, aka “Philippe the Fair.”
    “Fair”, however, was a bit of a misnomer.
    In fact, there was very little “fair” about this Philippe (unless perhaps intended in the sense of “handsome” rather than “just”, but even that was open for debate.)

    Well of course it means “handsome” if he was Philippe le Bel – this is meant to be a French blog! Teach people some French. Later on Louis XIII was called Louis le Juste – meaning the other type of “fair”

    • Hichem:

      @Ory Thank you for your comment, Ory!
      The irony within the two senses of this jeu de mot should not escape anyone, including non-native French speakers, who should on the contrary be encouraged to look for such wordplays, especially if they want one day to fully master the language.
      Besides, plenty of commentators on the subject saw beyond the mere literal acception of the term “Fair”, which as you said (and as already mentioned in the post) is “handsome.”
      In the specific case of Philippe le Bel, although this literal sense is itself open to debate (as also mentioned in the post), his unfair conduct towards the Knights Templar clearly made his title ironic.
      Hence the wordplay above.

      As for the question of “teaching people some French” (or better, “teaching some French to people”), this French Blog has the ambition of acquainting them with more than just one aspect of it. I hope that’s clear by now 🙂

      Bonne chance!