Another French Duchess

February 11, 2012

Yesterday night, from complete lack of inspiration and a notable quantity of suffused boredom almost conspiratorially added to it, I’ve watched this nicely realized film which exploited the relationship between the flamboyant Louis XIV and his brilliant but nonetheless obdurate subject, the Italian composer Jean-Baptiste Lully: “Le Roi Danse” (you might like to check it out for its gorgeously reproduced atmosphere, Francophiles!). The actors were mostly fortunate choices, combining the proper looks with a quite probable epoch attitude, especially Louis, whose brass locks really reassembled those suggested by Bernini in his sculpture at Versailles. The ambiance of 17th century French court, which has always occupied a doubtlessly high rank on the scale of my interests and fascinations, reminded me some stories I read years ago regarding the main female characters in the Sun King’s time. His many mistresses, friends, companions,  relatives; I had to stop the movie for a while just to visualize their names and what motley peaces of information I had gathered about them in the past: the Princesses, the Countesses, the Annes and Louises, the intrigues and machinations engaged by or through them- what a vivid world!

So today I planned to present you my favorite feminine figure at Versailles in the early 1600s, the fair Marguerite Charlotte de Montmorency.

Charlotte Marguerite

Daughter of Henry, the Duke of Montmorency, by his second wife, Louise de Budos from an illustrious Provence noble families, Marguerite Charlotte first saw the light of day  in Pezenas on the 11th of May (surprisingly we share the same astrological sign: Taurus, that is) 1594. Her background was rich of renowned official personalities, statesmen, Grand Masters of France, diplomats and audacious soldiers (Anne de Montmorency, her Renaissance grandfather, became Constable and Marshal under Francis I), which I think wasn’t enough of a consolation for the young Marguerite Charlotte who lived in relative solitude, apart from her busy father and cruelly deprived by a mother that died prematurely before she celebrate 2 years, in the care of a senescent aunt full of religious zeal. It was a too common faith for the toddlers of her own status and those gloomy days profoundly marked Marguerite Charlotte.

However, when she had barely passed the age 4, a flourishing girl abandoning the period of infancy, writer Gédéon Tallemant reported her obviously blooming beauty which others say was extraordinarily conserved until very late in Marguerite Charlotte’s tumultuous life. Contemporary voices elected her as a paradigm of pulchritude and all women who were considered, objectively or not,  to posses great physical appeal, compared to her, proved less attractive in the public eye.

In either 1608,  Marguerite Charlotte had the opportunity to be introduced into French high society with the occasion of  Gaston’s baptism , King Henri IV’s offspring. There, at Fontainebleau, she managed to catch the royal attention through her dancing skills and was instantly offered to climbe the hierarchic stair by entering Queen Marie de Medici’s service. Now, evidently the elderly libidinous King couldn’t restrain falling for her ballerina grace and thus annulled Marguerite Charlotte’s engagement with Marquis François de Bassompierre , preferring to marry her tohis cousin,  Prince Henri II de Bourbon-Condé  (another Henri… why, humdrum aristocrats, you wanted to know everybody’s name so you only christened them “Henri” and “Louis” ?). There was a catch, though: this Prince was assumed to fancy the company of men so the King could woo Marguerite Charlotte whenever he pleased and to what extent he found delectable. Fortunately for the young lady, things went completely wrong: while she was laughing at the loutish attentions of Marie de Medici’s Henri (paradoxically, the best rulers are docile pets when in love), her own Henri, perhaps cured of his inclination for sodomy by his new wife’s charm, opposed the expectations and, jealous, flees the court with Marguerite Charlotte.

Marguerite and Henri

Could the mighty King support a defeat and give her up? What an absurdity! Surely he followed them to the countryside, trying shamelessly to approach his young sweetheart under various disguises, a cat-and-mouse game which could just enrage the Prince de Condé  who decided to withdraw in Brussels and request protection from Spain, France’s bitter enemy… Smart move.

Is it for Marguerite Charlotte that Henri IV declares war to the Emperor in 1610?

She was locked in her chambers all day, constantly monitored and very bothered by her hubby’s discourteous behavior, so what else could she do other than scheme her escape as the Prince fought on behalf of Spain somewhere in Milan? “Scheme” is the key word because she never actually did. Dear husband romantically held her prisoner in their house until the old man was assassinated on 14 May, 1610, by a catholic fanatic, after which she was free to return to Paris, subject of more gossip than ever.

And Providence had many other happenings in store for her who’d been quite restless: the Prince couldn’t help mingling in the state’s welfare by rising against Marie de Medici’s authority, taking the head of the opposition despite previously being in her graces. Oddly enough, once his wife became short of royal admirers, he simply abandoned her for concentrating on plots directed to diminish the Queen’s power as regent. In 1616, Marie concluded she had had enough from the conspiring de Condé and imprisoned him at the advice of minister Concini.

Ready for a surprise?

Guess who asked permission from Louis XIII to join her beloved spouse in jail! Yes, the very Marguerite Charlotte the Prince sequestered only years before, the one who had to stand his numerous whims and crises  of jealousy, made a 180 degrees change and wanted to accompany him, chase away his solitude! People, she might be one of the first known historical figures that actually experienced the Stockholm syndrome!

The coupled seemed to approach scarcely then, in the gloomy landscape, and Marguerite Charlotte even gave birth to their daughter, Anne-Genevieve (1619), soon-to-be  Duchess of Longueville, in Vincennes (no, not a tidy French mansion but a sober jail).

The next year they were released and in 1620, Louis, Duc d’Enghien (the future Grand Condé) came to make them happy for getting a male heir. Armand, Prince de Conti,  followed in 1629 but shortly after the two husbands begin to strain once more, this time the rupture is ensued by the Prince’s departure to Burgundy, with Louis, whom he sends to the Jesuits (meaning a spartan education for him). Marguerite Charlotte remained staid at the Hôtel de Condé to dutifully take care of the two remaining children, condemned to live without their father’s presence exactly her.

She frequented the notorious Hôtel de Rambouillet, a gathering place for the elite of literature and arts (perchance she was there as a muse) like  Madame de Sévigné, Madame de La Fayette, Duchesse de Montpensier and La Rochefoucauld.

Still beautiful, pious (not excessively), cultivated, patient and armed with noble titles galore, it wasn’t hard to obtain Queen Anne of Austria’s esteem, especially with her refined intelligence which kept Marguerite Charlotte out of any dangerous coteries. A tactful mind, although despising the Prime Minister, Cardinal de Richelieu (the Cardina Richelieu you remember from the “Three Musketeers” that were four…) didn’t meddle in the political affairs which ruined half the blue-blood instigants.

Her only interventions occurred one in 1627 (she interceded, without success, in the name of her  cousin,  Count de Montmorency-Boutteville, found guilty of violating the edict against duels introduced by the dreadful Cardinal) and another in 1632, when her last sibling, Henri II de Montmorency  (is he the 5th Henri we mention?), contriving against the vile Richelieu, was arrested, trialed and sentenced to death. The aristocrats, together with Queen Anne of Austria and Marguerite Charlotte begged Louis XIII to spare him yet Montmorency was beheaded, putting an end to the direct line of the distinguished family.


Marguerite Charlotte, since then Duchess de Montmorency in her own right, could never pass over the tragedy;  humiliated and hurt, she left Paris to dedicated herself to the upbringing of Anne-Genevieve and Armand.

In 1643, Queen Anne elected her to be the patron of the Dauphin, future Sun King (the one who caused all my remembering this), a great privilege that made her turn back to court. Louis XIII was dead and the Queen controlled the throne, assisted by Cardinal Mazarin, keeping Marguerite Charlotte close, as intimate friend. It was a peaceful time in the Duchess’ life, with her son achieving glory in his battles and being nicknamed “Grand Condé”. The Prince perished in 1646, which didn’t affect her much giving their crumpled marriage, and she took up the style “Dowager Princess de Condé” without respite.

During the Fronde, a civil war initiated to remove Mazarin from his position, Marguerite Charlotte was betrayed by all her children and, loyal to the Queen who disagreed the public revolt, retreated at St. Germain. Their treachery, leaded by the easily influenced Anne-Genevieve who further persuaded Louis and Armand, completely broke her heart and her legendary beauty started to fade.The true blow came when, in 1650, Mazarin captured them, just the Duchess of Longueville  prevailing to run abroad, and Marguerite Charlotte couldn’t bear it anymore. She died on 1 December, 1650, aged 56, at Châtillon-sur-Loire, and was buried in a Carmelite convent, Faubourg Saint Jacques, Paris.

She had lived quite like an adventurous character of Dumas’ : mistress, a French Helen of Troy, unlucky mother, faithful subject (rare case for the time when fidelity used to be bought with gold), still depicted in paintings centuries subsequent to her death…

What do you think of her?


One Response to “Another French Duchess”

  1. bennythomas Says:

    It was turbulent times and women always could wield power inasmuch as their protector the duke or prince were in unassailable position. Interesting read.

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