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Fran?oise d?Aubign?, marquise de Maintenon and secret wife of the Sun King, Louis XIV, was born in a bleak French prison in 1635, her father a condemned traitor and murderer, her mother the warden?s seduced daughter. A timely pardon and a hopeful Caribbean colonial venture failed to mend the family?s fortunes, and Fran?oise was reduced to begging in the streets. Yet, armed with beauty, intellect, and shrewd judgment, she was to make her way to the center of power at Versailles, ...
Françoise d’Aubigné, marquise de Maintenon and secret wife of the Sun King, Louis XIV, was born in a bleak French prison in 1635, her father a condemned traitor and murderer, her mother the warden’s seduced daughter. A timely pardon and a hopeful Caribbean colonial venture failed to mend the family’s fortunes, and Françoise was reduced to begging in the streets. Yet, armed with beauty, intellect, and shrewd judgment, she was to make her way to the center of power at Versailles, the most opulent and ambitious court in all Europe.
At fifteen, she was married off to the forty-two-year-old satirical poet Paul Scarron, a former roué now grievously deformed by rheumatism—“a sort of human Z,” as he described himself. Despite his ailments, Scarron presided over the liveliest and most scandalous literary salon in Paris, and Françoise quickly became its most prized ornament.
After Scarron’s death, she enjoyed a merry widowhood in the fashionable Marais district, in the company of the courtesan Ninon de Lenclos and the King’s splendid mistress, Athénaïs de Montespan, who made the young widow governess to her brood of illegitimate children. The appointment transformed Françoise’s life, but was fatal to the temperamental Athénaïs herself, with the King soon turning his attentions to the graceful governess. Françoise was raised to the nobility as Madame de Maintenon—and, unofficially, “Madame de Maintenant,” the lady of the moment.
The acclaimed biographer Veronica Buckley traces the extraordinary story of Françoise’s progress from pauper child to salonnière to the compromised position of Louis’s secret wife and uncrowned Queen. An absolute ruler, Louis turned away his many other mistresses to live with Françoise only, trusting her as his closest confidante and remaining in love with her for forty years.
Sparkling with the irresistible wit of contemporary chroniclers such as Madame de Sévigné, this exactingly researched biography is a pinnacle of the form. In vibrant colors, The Secret Wife of Louis XIV paints a portrait of Europe in an age of violent change, and the Sun King’s France in the process of becoming its modern self.
There were no chains or balls of pitted lead. There were no shrieks from racks or wheels of torture. It was a long and narrow cell, without much air, without much light, damp, bare, its window barred. Bundles of drab belongings lay piled in the corners, with half a dozen mugs in brown clay and a few chipped bowls, sticky with the leavings of the last grey meal. Hard sleeping-benches lined the walls, spread with dirty blankets, and in the middle of the floor, wittily, defiantly, stood a gaming table served by a couple of rickety chairs. Next door, a bigger but equally bleak room for the indebted and the destitute, then a dreary sickroom, and one chilly little private cell, available to anyone in exchange for a silver coin. Below, there was “the cave,” a dank cell like the first, and like the first, serving both men and women. And beside this, the dungeon, where the least fortunate coughed and sighed through the days and nights of lives with no more hope.
Thus the home of Sieur Constant d’Aubigné de Surimeau, only son of the famous Agrippa d’Aubigné, poet and Protestant warrior, friend of kings, angry, disinheriting father. With the fifty-year-old Constant in his grim confinement were his wife, Jeanne, aged twenty-four, their little boys, Constant, aged six, and Charles, just one year old, and a baby girl, newborn in the prison, in the sickroom perhaps, or in the little private cell, struggling to life on the narrow bed or on the rough floor. They named her Françoise.
It might all have been very different. Constant had stood to inherit, in whole or in part, three substantial estates, in addition to the lucrative governorship of an important Protestant town in his native region of Poitou, in western France. All this would have come to him through the efforts of his father, whose constancy in faith, bravery in battle, and shrewdness in outwitting his in-laws had won him a premier place among France’s Huguenot gentry. Agrippa d’Aubigné had made his name in the previous century, during France’s “spectacularly un-Christian” wars of religion; he had been the close friend and comrade-in-arms of the Protestant Henri of Navarre, later King Henri IV, first Bourbon King of France. After more than fifty years of pitched battles and acts of savagery on both sides, the matter had been more or less resolved in 1594, when Henri agreed to accept Catholicism as the price of the French crown. “Paris is worth a mass” was his legendary remark on this occasion; cynically setting aside his unpredictable wife into the bargain, he had then married the solid and solidly Catholic Marie de’ Medici.
Apart from his capture of the crown itself, the signal achievement of Henri’s life was beyond doubt his promulgation of the Edict of Nantes, four years after his accession to the throne, in 1598. This famous Edict, at the time one of the most advanced pieces of legislation in Europe, guaranteed a limited toleration of Protestantism within predominantly Catholic France. Members of the Protestant RPR, the Religion Prétendue Réformée (“so-called reformed religion”), as hostile Catholics referred to it, were thenceforth permitted to train pastors, retain their temples (though not more than two in the same district), conduct services, get married, baptize their children and educate them, all within their own Huguenot sect; moreover, Protestant men could once again purchase civil service posts or commissions in the King’s army, two vital methods of social and economic advancement. On the surface a peacemaking measure between two factions long at war, the Edict of Nantes contained a grain of revolutionary significance for France: it recognized that religious and political allegiance could be two separate things. After 1598, a Frenchman could officially be both a Protestant and a loyal servant of his Catholic King.
Nonetheless, Henri’s farsighted Edict was too soon, or perhaps too weakly enforced, to overcome the country’s religious divide, and far from integrating the two communities, it finally dictated their formal separation. Most of France remained officially and exclusively Catholic. The Huguenots were accorded 120 “places of safety,” towns with an already Protestant majority, mostly in the south and west of the country, where their cult might be freely practised. And it was to one of these, his own staunch western province of Poitou, that the disgusted Agrippa d’Aubigné had retreated after the King’s apostasy to the “stinking” Catholic Church. Here, over the next twelve years or so, he had raised three children (Marie, Louise, and Constant), buried his wife, fathered an illegitimate son (Nathan), and produced a series of poems and tracts of high literary merit, “my spiritual children,” as he termed them. On the clever and spirited Constant, “my eldest and only son,” Nathan notwithstanding, Agrippa lavished “the care and expense,” as he said, “that might have been spent on the son of a prince.” The boy was taught “by the best tutors in France, all enticed away from the best families by the doubling of their wages.”
Agrippa’s efforts were to no avail. Constant proved an unwilling pupil and a most ungrateful son. By the age of twenty he was squandering his talent and his property in the time-honoured ways. “This wretch,” wrote his father, “first abandoned his books, then took to gaming and drinking, and then managed to undo himself completely in the stews of Holland.” Returning to France, Constant had compounded his reputation, first by marrying without his father’s consent, and then by killing a man in a duel; the latter, however, an affaire d’honneur, occasioned him no penalty. It was only in 1613, when he abducted a girl admired by one of his friends, that Constant was arrested and, at the age of twenty-eight, condemned to death.
He escaped execution by agreeing to enlist in the army, a Protestant army then in rebellion against the Queen Mother, Marie de’ Medici. King Henri IV, royal friend of Agrippa’s youth, had been assassinated in 1610, and his widow Marie was now Regent of France on behalf of her son, the twelve-year-old Louis XIII. On Henri’s death, his widow had at first confirmed his great religious Edict, but in the ensuing three years, guided from afar by the Pope and from closer at hand by her own court favourites, the malleable Marie had begun a general suppression of Protestantism within the country. In practice, the terms of the Edict had never been fully observed, but now the protective walls of the Protestant “safe places” were crumbling, and the soldiers deputed to guard them were well in arrears of pay. Huguenots on their deathbeds were being accosted by Catholic priests threatening hellfire, funerals were being disrupted, and Huguenots going innocently about their business were being harassed in a thousand petty acts, in direct violation of the Edict.
More important than all the daily frictions of Catholic-Protestant life, however, was the Queen Mother’s increasingly apparent enthusiasm for the cause of the Spanish Habsburgs, which loyal Frenchmen of both confessions eyed with distaste and anxiety. The Habsburgs in general, and the Spanish in particular, were among France’s bitterest enemies. It was their fanatical King, Felipe II, the “stately Catholic,” who had kept the fires of France’s internal religious wars stoked for decades, providing “Indian gold”—money from his mines in South America—to Catholic extremists in France. Fears of outright war between France and Spain had remained alive right until Henri’s death. Naïve politically, his widow, Marie, had failed to grasp that the death of her powerful husband had greatly weakened the country’s standing; France was no longer viewed in Europe as a steady bulwark against Spanish Habsburg influence. A Habsburg herself on her mother’s side, Marie was even seeking to forge an alliance with the Spaniards by a double royal marriage: her daughter Elisabeth was to marry the Prince of Asturias, heir to the Spanish imperial throne, and even more alarmingly, her son, France’s boy-King Louis XIII, was to marry the Spanish King’s daughter. In these two impending marriages, Marie saw a double celebration of alliance between two equal powers, while the Spaniards, and many Frenchmen, too, saw instead the doubly sure Spanish capture of a weakened but still useful dominion, and its certain continuance thereafter in the Catholic religion.
In 1613, just in time to ensure Constant d’Aubigné’s reprieve from execution, the boy-King’s cousin, the prince de Bourbon-Condé, decided to oust Marie and capture the Regency for himself. He set himself at the head of an army manned by anxious Huguenots concerned for their fate if France should fall under the control of fiercely Catholic Spain. Condé himself was Protestant less by conviction than by political convenience, but he was Frenchman enough and nobleman enough to resent the power of the German-Italian Marie de’ Medici, sprung from a despised branch of parvenu merchant bankers and manipulated by her papist puppet masters in Madrid—which provided a good excuse, at least, for an ambitious and greedy prince more than ready to capitalize on the genuine fears of his Protestant compatriots.
It was in Condé’s army of Huguenots that Constant now enlisted, apparently following arrangements made by his father. After desultory warfare of three years or so, during which both royal marriages defiantly took place, peace was finally concluded in 1616. The peace brought freedom for Constant, and a payoff of a million and a half livres for the prince de Condé. The provisions of King Henri’s Edict were reaffirmed, Protestant security assured, and the encroachments of Rome on French-style Catholicism once again repelled. But a year or so later, the bridegroom-King, now aged fifteen and already two years into his legal majority, decided to take the reins of the kingdom into his own hands. He banished his mother to her country château and incarcerated the prince de Condé with his lovely young wife in the fortress of Vincennes, where the pair consoled themselves with the procreation of a family of distinguished troublemakers. To his alarmed Huguenot subjects, the young King declared baldly, “I do not like you,” then set about undermining them financially and, spasmodically, by armed assault.
Constant transferred his allegiance to the newly ascendant Catholic extremists without a moment’s remorse—not even for his Protestant father, who was now, for the fourth time in his life, under sentence of death as a traitor. Indeed, far from appealing to his new comrades to spare the aged Agrippa, the “wretch” of a son pocketed his 8,000-livre “conversion fee” and set off to lead an armed attack on his father’s fortified redoubt of Dognon in their native region of Poitou. But the old soldier proved too tough for them; he repelled the attack, disinheriting the apostate Constant once and for all and renouncing him as “henceforth a bastard.” Constant’s place in his father’s affections was taken by Agrippa’s actual illegitimate son, Nathan, a steady young man of some seventeen years. The fortress of Dognon and the governorship of the nearby town of Maillezais, two jewels in Constant’s expected inheritance, were sold to a more reliable Protestant, and with the proceeds in his purse and Nathan at his side, Agrippa betook himself to a gentlemanly exile in Calvinist Geneva, acquiring, at the age of seventy-one, a rejuvenating new wife into the bargain. “Father, forgive them” was the coincidental lesson of the day, recited by the officiating minister, “for they know not what they do.”
The disowned Constant lived a year or so on the 8,000-livre price of his apostasy before adding a double murder to his sins. Learning that his wife, an heiress whose money he had himself frittered away, had arranged to meet a lover, he stormed into the auberge of their tryst, where he found the young man seated on the privy, and there he stabbed him, not once, but thirty times. He considerately permitted his wife to say her prayers before dispatching her, too, with a restrained six blows of the same dagger. Murder being considered a reasonable revenge for outraged seventeenth-century manhood, for these two deaths Constant paid no penalty at all. Even his father forbore to censure him for this, though he soon enough had other cause to do so.
In 1622 Constant made a second attempt to recapture his lost inheritance of Dognon; once again he failed, and this time found himself imprisoned in the Protestant “safe town” of La Rochelle, on France’s Atlantic coast. Once out, he wrested control of his father’s former town of Maillezais and shrewdly turned it over to the Catholic party at court. Their gratitude was insufficient, it seems, for by 1624 Constant was at Geneva, weeping on his father’s knees, “furiously writing prose and verse against the papacy,” and vowing to take up arms again in the Protestant cause. Agrippa, trusting more to hope than experience, gave him money; Constant departed for Paris, but was back again a few years later, in need of more.
The old man did his best to persuade his son to take to soldiering again. It was February of 1627; Protestant armies were on the march all over Europe, battling the Catholic Habsburgs for the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. The war was entering a critical phase, and France’s Huguenots were again in open revolt, this time against the repressive policies of the now twenty-six-year-old Louis and his premier ministre, Cardinal Richelieu. Agrippa felt that Constant could provide a useful extra sword for the Huguenot bastion of La Rochelle, in the family’s home region of Poitou. Instead, the son declared a preference for England, where the late King James’s favourite, the “duc de Boucquinquant” (Buckingham) was preparing an invasion fleet in support of the La Rochelle Huguenots. To England and its Protestant King Constant did go, but not before stopping in Paris to relay his own Catholic King such information as he possessed concerning France’s Huguenots and their military plans. A succession of conversions and betrayals followed, and by the end of the year Constant found himself once again in prison, this time in Bordeaux, on the order of the Catholic duc d’Épernon, governor of the region.
No one could pretend that he had not brought his misfortune upon himself, unless the blood of a born adventurer can be blamed for reappearing in a second generation. Constant had inherited enough of his father’s bold temperament to get himself repeatedly into trouble, but not enough of his strength of mind to get himself out of it. After years of pardons and second chances, Agrippa at last turned his back on “the treacherous soul and leprous body” of his only legitimate son, and abandoned him completely.
Constant was down, but not out. The ups and downs of a wayward life had detracted nothing from his habitual charm and plausibility. The prison governor at Bordeaux, Pierre de Cardilhac, was delighted to have so entertaining a prisoner under his dismal roof. He allowed Constant an unusually long leash, and even gave him leave to play the viol and the lute in one or two concerts in the town. He had, moreover, a very young and very pretty daughter, herself apparently kept on a leash of equally flexible length.
Pierre de Cardilhac was a distant cousin of the duc d’Épernon, at whose orders Constant had been imprisoned; indeed, he owed his post to this connection. Quite suddenly he received a letter from the duc, ordering him to have his daughter married “before Sunday” to the prisoner d’Aubigné. Constant had been in the prison not yet three months; he was forty-two years old, and the girl was just sixteen. The assumption must be that she was already pregnant, or at least that she had been seduced by Constant. No birth was recorded, however, and the hasty wedding ceremony itself remains the only possible evidence of it.
In the short life of Constant’s bride, Jeanne de Cardilhac, there had been much less drama than in his own, although there would be compensation, and more than enough, in the years that lay ahead of her. Her family background was modest by comparison with his, though in quality of birth they were more or less equals. Her father, formally a “gentleman landowner,” does not in fact seem to have owned any land at all, and his present position as prison governor, “lieutenant commander of the Château-Trompette,” was a minor post by the standards of the day. Though Jeanne brought no property to the marriage, she was attractive and intelligent; Constant was later fond of declaring that he had “fallen in love” with his jailer’s daughter. The marriage contract does not seem to have been graced by any exchange of money, or indeed any dowry at all, except an early freedom from prison for the bridegroom and a precocious strength of character in the bride.
The ceremony took place on December 27, 1627, with conditions attached, both positive and negative: Constant’s sentence was quashed, but Jeanne was forbidden to see any member of her family ever again—further evidence, perhaps, of an illegitimate pregnancy. Unwelcome in their native district, nonetheless the couple could not go far, being without money; Constant even had debts outstanding. To repay them, if he did repay them, he fell back on his old habit of gambling, and adopted the new habit of counterfeiting coins. From Bordeaux, the pair moved a hundred miles north, to Niort, and in 1629 Jeanne gave birth to her first son, named Constant for his father, who was by now involved in open conspiracy against the state. Though his political principles were no stronger than his religious convictions, he was keen to make money, and to that end was busy recruiting men for the mercenary army of Gaston d’Orléans, brother of King Louis XIII, and at twenty-one years of age already an experienced rebel.
Though Marie de’ Medici, mother of Louis and Gaston, had been recalled from exile in her country château, the government of France was by now dominated by the King’s brilliant prime minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Three years before, Richelieu had arranged an advantageous marriage for Gaston—advantageous, but unwanted—and the young duc had responded by plotting to have Richelieu assassinated. The plot had failed; Gaston had saved his own skin by denouncing his accomplices, and was now up in arms once more against the Cardinal and his own brother, protesting the increasing centralization of power in France at the expense of the great local princes, including, of course, himself. Though this rebellion failed, too, sending his fellow conspirators to the scaffold, Gaston was pardoned, to carry on plotting further, equally unsuccessful campaigns. Recruiting-master Constant was arrested yet again and incarcerated in a first prison, then in a second, where in 1634 Jeanne gave birth to their son Charles, and then in a third, at Niort, where, on November 24, 1635, their daughter, Françoise, was born.
The little girl was one of the least welcome things in the world: a daughter in a poor gentry family. Even if Constant should be released, even if they could move to some other district, away from their disgrace, and find some steady way of life, perhaps even reclaim a part of their lost inheritance, Françoise would be as a millstone around their necks. Her brothers would somehow make their way—the Church, perhaps, for the introspective elder boy, the army for his outgoing brother; either one of them might be apprenticed in the law or find a place with a merchant house in one of the great cities. But the girl would be only a liability, draining the family purse for a paltry dowry to persuade some man to transfer her to his own account books. In the meantime, she would passively reflect the family’s standing, wherever they might find themselves. In an age of fervid social consciousness, the dependent daughter was the readiest weather-vane for the fortunes of the family as a whole, and every gown, or last-year’s gown, would tell the tale: the d’Aubignés still belonged, or they belonged no longer, within the blessed circle of gentlemen’s families.
To start their baby girl on her difficult journey, Jeanne and Constant took at least a first sensible step: they engaged two promising godparents, both nobles with definite links to the d’Aubigné family. The godfather, François de La Rochefoucauld, seigneur d’Estissac, was a cousin of sorts to Constant—in fact, Agrippa’s great-nephew. The nine-year-old godmother, Suzanne, was the daughter of Charles de Baudéan, a boyhood friend of Constant’s (Constant had served as a page to Charles’s father) and a distant relation, now governor of the town of Niort. Though Suzanne was to make a prestigious marriage, and her mother was to interfere determinedly, for good and ill, in the baby’s later life, the godfather would live out his days in the provinces, and his expected influence would come to nothing at all.
The baptism took place four days after the birth, in the church of Nôtre-Dame in Niort. The child’s name was a tactical choice, as her elder brother’s had been: Françoise was named for the governor’s wife, as Charles had been for the governor himself. Constant père did not attend the baptism; the prison regime at Niort being less liberal than he had known in Bordeaux, he had not been given leave. It is not certain whether his family returned to him once the ceremony was concluded. The baby was provided with a wet-nurse, as was customary, and it may be that she was taken to live with this woman, in or near Niort, for her first two years or so. In any event, by the end of 1638, soon after her third birthday, she was living with her Aunt Louise, Constant’s surviving sister.
Jeanne had departed the year before for Paris, with the two boys in tow, seeking to overturn a part of Agrippa d’Aubigné’s will. The old warrior had died in 1630 at the age of seventy-eight, and Constant’s lost inheritance had been bestowed on his two sisters. The greater part of it, Agrippa’s château of Crest near Geneva and, above all, the very fine estate of Surimeau, had been left to the elder sister, Marie, who had since died. Surimeau was in the Niort region; it had woods and meadows and a valuable mill, and contained within it the second estate, smaller but very beautiful, of la Berlandière. Long before, old Agrippa had craftily winkled Surimeau away from its legal owner, his brother-in-law, and now, in similar mode, Constant’s own brother-in-law, Josué de Caumont d’Adde, was winkling it away from him. Allowing a few begrudged parcels of its land for his son, Agrippa had bequeathed most of the property to Marie and her heirs, in default of whom it was to return to the d’Aubigné family. Marie was no more, though her two daughters were still living, but their “ugly, vulgar spendthrift” father had no intention of returning the inheritance to the family of his late wife. Neglectful of his elder daughters, he had married again and was now bending or breaking the law to ensure all rights to Surimeau, including those reserved to Constant, for the children of his second wife. And he had a certain right on his side: the estate had technically belonged to Agrippa’s first wife, not to Agrippa himself; moreover, after the last Huguenot uprising, Agrippa had been convicted of treason, so that his property in France was not legally his to dispose of. Nothing was quite clear, and in this lack of clarity Jeanne had mounted a plucky challenge to her brother-in-law Caumont d’Adde.
This required her to bring a case before the Parlement of Paris, a lengthy and expensive business with no certainty of success. It was no doubt her sister-in-law, Louise, who had agreed to finance the undertaking. On their father’s death, eight years before, Louise had been shocked to learn of Constant’s exclusion from the family fortune, and had set aside from her own inheritance the substantial sum of 11,000 livres, amounting to several years’ income, for the benefit of her brother and his family. Now she had taken in his little daughter to live with her as one of her own children.
Louise and her husband, Benjamin Le Valois, seigneur de Villette, lived at Mursay, a pretty château a mile or two from Niort, with a small farm and its own peasant-worked lands attached. The estate, made over to Louise by Agrippa twenty-five years before, had provided her husband with a way of life perfectly suited to his uncomplicated temperament. Hampered by his Protestantism in a time of Catholic favouritism for every official post, and lacking the ambition in any case to make a successful career, Benjamin in his thirties had taken readily to the life of a country gentleman. It was not high living—the land around Mursay was swampy and he was obliged to do plenty of physical work himself—but a regular income, a steady domestic life, and the consolations of his religion had made him a contented man.
Louise and Benjamin de Villette, now in their fifties, had four children of their own, two older girls and a boy and girl nearer in age to Françoise. Their elder daughters, Madeleine and Aymée, aged seventeen and fifteen in 1638, when three-year-old Françoise came to live with them, played the roles of big sister and governess to their little cousin, but it was the boy, Philippe, aged six, rather than five-year-old Marie, who became her daily companion and a fast childhood friend.
The château of Mursay, complete with moat and turrets and a fairy-tale forest, was a paradise for an active child; memories of the years she spent there were to remain a source of delight to Françoise for the rest of her life. She was treated no differently from the other children; her clothes were hand-me-downs from the three sisters, just as they had been between the sisters themselves. Her wooden shoes were her own, however, made expressly for her, deliberately too big and stuffed with straw until she should grow into them. Françoise’s daily needs were attended to by Aunt Louise herself, and from the elder girls, sitting at a table in the warm château kitchen, she learned to read and then to write, and it was fortunate that the girls knew how, since even many of the teachers in the petites écoles of the time did not. In the 1640s, writing, as distinct from reading, was still an expensive skill to acquire; parents had to provide the necessary “little lap desk, a knife, some paper, an inkwell and some powder,” and as yet it was of hardly any practical use for country boy or girl alike. But as well as writing, Françoise learned, from cousin Philippe, the even rarer skill of arithmetic, “the nine arabic numbers, as well as the roman numerals, and [counting up] to a thousand,” then calculation of the cost of household purchases, the values of the different coins, and so forth. Of arithemetic, she was a keen pupil, or perhaps her cousin taught her particularly well; whatever the case, all her life she would retain a habit of regular accounting, keeping notes of incomings and outgoings, adding up expenditures even in her letters. A bright and precociously mature child, she no doubt learned a good deal as well from her Aunt Louise, whose own methodical temperament was in perfect accord with the orderly and frugal dictates of provincial gentry Protestantism.
Life at Mursay was lived in modest comfort. There was money and moral approval enough for all necessities, but not for any luxury. In a rare criticism of Mursay, Françoise was later to note that no fire was ever set in the bedrooms, a hardship for her if not for the other girls, for she felt the cold keenly: the need for a “good big fire”—“I love a big fire more than any other luxury”—is a frequent refrain in the pages of her adult correspondence. Despite their fervent Protestantism, Louise and Benjamin did nothing to turn their very young niece away from her baptismal faith, except to provide her with a daily example of kindness and generosity and quiet personal effort—in short, an example of practical goodness, without the crucifixes and holy icons so beloved of contemporary Catholicism. Françoise absorbed the lesson thoroughly, and through it learned to value the principles of Christian living above any technicality of faith or form of worship. In her adult life, through years of bitterly contested religious disputes, she would hold to this unfashionably tolerant view.
On Sundays, while the de Villette family attended the service at Niort’s Huguenot temple, Françoise was deposited in the prison with her father. It is a moot point whether these visits were of benefit to either of them in the development of filial or parental love. Françoise’s own memories have her often left standing in a corner of the cell, in silence, while Constant played cards with the jailors, now and then interrupting the game only to berate the little girl for her mother’s continued absence and his own poverty. She did sometimes play with the daughter of one of the jailors, the gloating little owner of a miniature tea service, which the prisoner’s daughter could not match with a single toy of her own. Françoise, however, at five or six years old, was able to make a spirited response to this undeniable inequality of worldly goods: “I’m a lady, though,” she would remind the little girl. “You’re not.” Constant apparently did now and then have a tender word for his daughter; at least he supposedly said of her, once, that “this innocent little thing is my only consolation.” But a letter of Françoise’s adult life, written to her Uncle Benjamin, tells a more likely story: “You were my father, really, when I was a child,” she wrote. “I owe more to you than to any man in the world.”
If she had found a father in her uncle, Françoise was equally fortunate in finding a mother in her kindly aunt. Jeanne herself was still in Paris, where she had begun very boldly by seeking to have her husband set at liberty. To this end, she had managed to secure an audience with Cardinal Richelieu himself via a Dr. Citois, a native of her own Poitou region and now personal physician to the Cardinal. Son éminence rouge had refused to release Constant, remarking that Madame d’Aubigné would be much happier with her husband in prison than if he were to be set free, but he had agreed to speak to the King about having him transferred to a prison in Paris, so that the family might at least be reunited. They had painted “a very black picture” of Constant at court, added Citois; Jeanne should give up hope of any further favours.
So the battle had begun, and it was to last five years, with writ followed by suit and suit followed by countersuit. Jeanne sought, and gained, a formal financial separation from Constant; her claims might be better pursued, it seemed, if she were legally his creditor rather than his dependent, and she spent her last good sum on buying up his debts. She became a regular supplicant at the Paris law courts, striding over, then trudging over, and finally shuffling over, worn and discouraged, to the grand palais de justice from her nearby lodgings in the rough-and-tumble courtyard area of the Sainte-Chapelle. Plan after plan came to nothing: brother-in-law Caumont d’Adde had proved as determined as he was unscrupulous, and he was more than a match for Jeanne, struggling more or less alone in Paris. In the spring of 1642 he gained a vicious reinforcement in the person of his son-in-law, who arrived in Paris to prod things along, “painting some good colourful portraits” of Jeanne, as he himself admitted, to discredit her in the courts. Several times he turned up at her lodgings, threatening to have her children declared bastards and herself a criminal and a whore if she refused to withdraw her case. “Since then, she’s been ill,” he reported with satisfaction. “But she’s agreed to write to her husband about it, and she will. She’ll do anything to escape my tyranny…I’m very pleased to see that Monsieur and Madame de Villette appear to be sound asleep…”
It was not so. Louise and Benjamin continued to support Jeanne—“The smallest gift to those in need is much more valued than the greatest gift to those living in plenty,” she wrote gratefully to them. But in the lawsuits themselves, they seem to have had no hand, and in fact had been advising her for almost a year already to abandon them. Carrying on, they felt, would help her “more morally than legally.” Benjamin visited Jeanne in Paris at least twice, travelling by coach or on horseback the three hundred miles of rough road from Niort, and from time to time she also saw the baronne de Neuillant, wife of Constant’s friend Charles de Baudéan and mother of Françoise’s godmother; with Madame de Neuillant, Jeanne even went to court at the Palais-Royal, presumably to solicit the help of some powerful person, though if so, nothing came of it.
Louise remained in Niort with the children and the farm. Though a financial pillar for Jeanne, she could also be critical of her. Always kind but also naïve, Louise adored her wastrel brother, regarding him as one of the world’s perennial unfortunates, more sinned against than sinning. Jeanne was sufficiently aware of her own dependence on Louise to avoid risking any criticism of Constant in her letters. “I feel so sorry for him,” she wrote, carefully saying nothing of her own deprivations. “I wish with all my heart that I could be with him, as he wishes. I’m sure it would bring him relief and consolation.”
Whether he wanted his wife’s company or not, Constant certainly wanted money: in the summer of 1642 he had not even been able to pay for medicines for six-year-old Françoise, who had fallen ill with a serious case of ringworm. The apothecary had been paid by her Uncle Benjamin, who, evidently not trusting his brother-in-law to pass the money on, had obliged him to sign a little declaration: “I acknowledge that I have received…the sum of seventy-two livres, which Monsieur de Villette has kindly provided as an outright gift to accommodate the urgent needs and expenses incurred by illness of Françoise d’Aubigné…” Jeanne, not yet aware of the payment and so not yet embarrassed by it, apologized to her sister-in-law simply “for the trouble this poor itcher is causing you. It was so very good of you to have taken her in. God grant she may be able to repay you for it someday…” And she signed the letter with a more than conventional declaration of subservience and fidelity: “I trust that one day I will be able to be with you as much as possible, rendering you my services, my most honoured sister. Your most humble, most faithful, and most obedient servant, J. de Cardilhac.”
To this letter, Constant replied, through Louise, by return of post. He told Jeanne that he had had enough of waiting for her to return, and had himself initiated a case against her in the local Niort court. She had been paid the money from the Caumont d’Adde family, he insisted, 14,000 livres of it, and she was living off it in Paris, “having abandoned, against all the demands of justice, her imprisoned husband and her daughter, six to seven years old,” the latter being in consequence “in great danger of being turned from the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman religion, and spiritually corrupted” at the hands of the Huguenots who had taken her in. This danger was causing “greater concern” to Constant, or so he had declared, with fantastic hypocrisy, in his deposition to the court, “than all the other afflictions that I am now suffering.” Louise herself added that she had taken her brother’s part, that Jeanne had been too long away, that she was wrong to hold Constant’s “bit of misbehaviour” against him, and that her own behaviour itself could scarcely be justified.
Jeanne’s response this time was swift and spirited. She suggested that Louise “cast aside your sisterly passion and imagine yourself in my place.” It was true that she had received a small sum from the sale of Agrippa d’Aubigné’s château in Switzerland, but this had long since been spent. For the past eighteen months, she wrote, she and the boys had been living “on the providence of God and nothing else,” or, more specifically, on less than five hundred livres. “I haven’t a penny to my name,” she insisted, “and I owe money to everyone, to three quarters of the people in the house we were in, to the baker, and others…I’ve had to sell all my furniture, and cheaply, too, in a single lot, since the landlord refused to let a stick of it leave the house until the rent arrears were paid, and we’re now in a convent, living on the generosity of an honourable and virtuous lady, but only until Michaelmas. That’s the only help I’ve had that I felt I could accept. It’s true that other people have offered to help me,” she conceded, “but only under certain conditions…You call it a bit of misbehaviour on your brother’s part to leave his wife and children in a situation like this…It’s time I learned my lesson…In future I’ll take care of things myself…You should approve of all this. I know that I have God’s blessing. He sees into my heart…” There followed a brusque, conventional signature: “Your most obedient and humble servant, J. de Cardilhac”—with the afterthought, perhaps a little anxious: “And my brother’s humble servant, too.”
Jeanne does not seem to have been exaggerating. The Paris courts soon declared her bankrupt, and Constant dropped his case; even Caumont d’Adde’s son-in-law went home to Niort, though he did not give up: for the rest of Jeanne’s life he was to harry her, though unsuccessfully, for the money she had received from Agrippa’s Swiss château. The five-year battle had cost her almost everything, not least her dignity. She had refused to prostitute herself to some wealthy “protector,” as her reference to “certain conditions” suggests, but she had not been able to avoid the next-to-last lady’s refuge of “taking in” work—doing small pieces of embroidery and basketwork for the better-off people of the town. This was a double humiliation to her genteel soul, since, in addition to an admission of poverty, it was a degradation to the ranks of those who laboured with their hands.
Jeanne had never received much formal education, but her letters reveal a woman of intelligence and moral strength. She was now thirty-one years old, to all intents and purposes alone with her two sons, aged eight and thirteen. The three of them would be safe at the convent “until Michaelmas,” that is, for three months, until the autumn of 1642. In the meantime, and perhaps afterwards as well, her only consolation, it seemed to her now, would be found in her religion. Given her girlhood in the prison and her years with the irreligious Constant, it is curious that Jeanne should have found her way to the writings of one of the most farsighted churchmen of the day, “one of our Catholic authors, the late Bishop of Geneva,” as she called him, in fact none other than the great humanist François de Sales, later a saint in his own Church and a fount of practical wisdom for Christians of every kind. Perhaps it was the same “honourable and virtuous lady” who was paying for her keep in the convent who had directed her towards him; in any case, his words were of comfort to her now—though one piece of advice she must have read ruefully: “Widows should not take up lawsuits,” wrote the virtual widow Jeanne, relaying the Bishop’s advice. “He says it generally has bad consequences.”
Jeanne and the boys remained in the convent well beyond Michaelmas, and might perhaps have stayed for years had it not been for the death, in December 1642, of Cardinal Richelieu, who five years before had declined her request to set Constant at liberty. King Louis XIII, anxious to distance himself from the unpopular policies of his late prime minister, announced a flourish of political amnesties. Prisons were opened around the realm, among them the prison at Niort, and Constant breathed the air of freedom at last. He paused long enough to collect his unwilling seven-year-old daughter from Mursay, then took the road for Paris, and it was there, in the early months of 1643, that Jeanne and the boys and their father, and Françoise, came together to be remade as a family.
And in the same city, at the same time, the royal family itself was being remade. The death of Louis XIII in May, at the age of forty-one, had left a little boy just four years old on France’s Bourbon throne. In political terms, at least, the new King Louis XIV was perched most unsteadily.
THE SECRET WIFE OF LOUIS XIV Copyright © 2008 by Veronica Buckley
Posted August 25, 2011
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Posted July 18, 2013
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