Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, May 29, 2015

Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans, duchesse de Montpensier: If Only She'd Behaved Herself, She Might Have Been a Queen

Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans, duchesse de Montpensier (born 29 May 1627)


Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans, duchesse de Montpensier, known to her contemporaries as la grande mademoiselle, was a princess of the royal blood, the daughter of Gaston d’Orléans and Marie of Bourbon (m. 1626), who was the heiress of Henri de Bourbon, duke of Montpensier.*

La Grande mademoiselle,
painted c. 1650-75
As her recent editor, Joan DeJean, explains, Montpensier was “the richest woman in France, wealthier than almost any French prince,” and “probably the wealthiest woman in all Europe.”

In addition to this great wealth, she was “the most noble of any contemporary French princess,” the granddaughter of Henry IV of France and the niece of Louis XIII, his son. From the moment of her birth, on 29 May 1627, the choice of her husband was “the foremost question on her contemporaries’ minds.”

Among the many possibilities for a “suitable” husband were Philip IV of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III, and Charles Stuart, who would eventually become Charles II of England, but perhaps the most frequently discussed candidate was Montpensier’s first cousin, who in 1638 would succeed his father, becoming Louis XIV.

And yet, despite her royal blood and her enormous wealth, Montpensier did not marry one of these glittering prospects--in fact, she did not marry at all. Instead of the politics of marriage, she involved herself in the politics of the nation. In 1648, when she was just twenty-one years old, she engaged herself in the series of French civil wars known collectively as the Fronde. During the second phase of the civil wars, the so-called Fronde of Princes, Montpensier took command of one of the armies on the rebels’ side. Like Joan of Arc before her, she took the city of Orléans. In July of 1652 she was in Paris during the battle of the Faubourg Saint Antoine; commanding the Bastille and its adjoining walls, she opened the gates of Paris to Louis II de Bourbon, prince de Condé, and his army, then saved the rebel leader and his troops by turning the guns of the Bastille against royal forces. 

From a spot just outside the walls of Paris, Louis XIV and his Italian advisor, Cardinal Mazarin, watched la grande mademoiselle; Mazarin is reported to have remarked that when she “redirected the cannon, she ‘killed’ her husband”—that is, any chance that might have remained for that much-discussed marriage with Louis XIV. As armed hostilities drew to an end, Montpensier acted as a mediator between the king and the rebel parties, but in 1652, along with “all the rebel leaders,” her father among them, she was exiled from court, allowed to return only in 1657. 

By the time Montpensier rejoined the court, she was thirty years old. Three years later, in 1660, she began a brief exchange of letters with Françoise Bertaut de Motteville, an attendant at the court of the dowager queen of France, Anne of Austria. Motteville’s mother had been born in Spain, like the Habsburg Anne, and had accompanied her to France at the time of her marriage to Louis XIII.

In her first letter to Motteville, Montpensier envisions establishing a "rural Republic" where she would reign as queen--she writes that the idea of utopian retreat first began to take shape in her imagination after she overheard Motteville’s conversation with a friend. “Finding myself next to you the other day at the queen’s [Anne of Austria's] when you were speaking with one of your friends about the joys of the secluded life,” Montpensier writes, “I thought that your conversation had never been more charming and agreeable.” Since that time, she has “spent many hours thinking about it,” and she writes to Motteville to offer a few “principles” that will make such a life “both entertaining and beneficial.” Thus begins the correspondence that takes place over the course of year, from May of 1660 to August of 1661. 

This 1660 painting, with a tiny shield,
may represent the duchess
as an Amazonian warrior?
But theirs is to be no city of ladies, in which Christine de Pizan had envisioned the gathering of a community of women of all social classes.

Montpensier’s imagined republic is to be peopled by those “of the highest rank of both sexes.” While thus admitting both men and women to her retreat, she does propose one condition: “I would rather there were no married people and that everyone would either be widowed or have renounced this sacrament, for it is said to be an unfortunate undertaking.”

In her response to Montpensier’s first letter, Motteville warms to the prospect of a secluded retreat, but she chides Montpensier—gently, to be sure—about her assumption that she will rule over it. “I see clearly how it is,” she writes, 
you were born to rule and to wear a crown, and it is so logical for things to be this way that I am not surprised that, without even giving it a second thought, you have established yourself as our sovereign. This power, noble Princess, is rightly your due; other honors await you, and you could choose to rule any of the peoples of Europe, but if your philosophy induces you to choose our forest rather than an empire, I am sure that the bliss of your isolated subjects will be so great that all the kings in the world will have reason to envy them.
For her part, Montpensier only hopes that she is “worthy of being governed by the greatest princess in the world.”  

However graceful and flattering Motteville’s compliment, when she and Motteville began their correspondence, Montpensier was thirty-three years old. She was still la grande mademoiselle. And like the legendary Amazons, to whom she and her fellow frondeuses had been compared, Montpensier had armed herself and gone to war; like the Amazons, too, she would establish her own kingdom, at least in her imagination. But there the similarities end. 

Totally free to dream any kind of republic she wanted, she envisions not an Amazonian kingdom of warrior women but a pastoral idyll, where she occupies herself by painting, drawing, reading, listening to music, and herding sheep. She gives up the breastplate and lance she had worn during the Fronde for, in her own words, “shepherds’ staffs and wide-brimmed hats.”

The only question of substance she and Motteville debate is whether or not marriage should be allowed in their republic—Montpensier says no, while Motteville suggests that the duchess will, in the end, have to allow it. “I think that in the end you will be forced to allow the time-honored and legitimate custom called marriage,” she writes, since so few of the shepherds and shepherdesses would be able to achieve celibacy, even given the model of Montpensier’s “perfection.”

For her part, the duchess is certainly aware of the absolutist politics of her cousin Louis XIV, and she isn’t averse to a little absolutism of her own in her “rural Republic.” Surprised at Motteville’s defense, however weak, of marriage, Montpensier responds that “in this matter” she will “put to use the authority given to me by the blood of all the kings” from which she descends: “I will maintain with confidence that I think everyone should defer to my conviction, that my opinion should prevail. Lastly, as my fathers used to say, such is my pleasure and too bad for those who do not find it to be theirs.” “Nonetheless,” she adds, “to show that I do not act so absolutely, I will try to prove to you that it is not unprecedented to see people adapt their inclination to the taste and humor of those on whom they depend.” 

Their focus on marriage is not frivolous, for both women recognized that marriage was an institution that destroyed women’s freedom and opportunity. It is a destiny that Montpensier herself had sedulously avoided, and as she draws this letter, the third in the series, to a close, she lifts the curtain on her imaginary world just a bit, allowing a brief glimpse at the real world of the seventeenth-century woman. Montpensier describes marriage as “this dependence to which custom subjects us, often against our will and because of family obligations of which we have been the victim.” Marriage “is what has caused us to be named the weaker sex”: “Let us at last deliver ourselves from this slavery; let there be a corner of the world in which it can be said that women are their own mistresses and do not have all the faults that are attributed to them; and let us celebrate ourselves for the centuries to come through a way of life that will immortalize us.” 

In her response to this letter, Motteville, hitherto the defender of marriage, pleads to be allowed “to be one of the soldiers” in Montpensier’s army; she wants to face the “ranks” of their “enemies” so that she too can “inflict a small blow” against the tyranny of marriage. But even as she builds this fanciful image, Motteville, who as a teenager had been married off to a ninety-year-old man, reveals the harsh reality behind the metaphor: 
I know that the laws that subject us to [men’s] power are hard and unbearable; I know that men have made them unfair for us and too advantageous for themselves. They take away from us dominion over the sea and the earth, the sciences, merit, power—that of judging and being the master of human lives—and dignity in all situations, and with the exception of the distaff, I know of nothing under the sun that they have not appropriated; even though their tyranny has no just basis.
To illustrate her sense of loss, Motteville embeds a brief history of women in her letter, focusing in part on great female rulers. “The history books are full of women who have governed empires with singular wisdom, who have gained glory by commanding armies, and whose abilities have given rise to great admiration,” she tells Montpensier, naming Isabella of Castile, Elizabeth Tudor, Margaret of Parma, and Catherine de’ Medici.

It seems significant, however, that when Motteville summons up the names of female rulers, she fails to include Anne of Austria, who had been regent for son, Louis XIV, and who had controlled the government of France for more than eight years. The dowager queen regent was still alive when Motteville and Montpensier were dreaming their dreams of a utopian retreat, and both women were on intimate terms with her: she was Montpensier’s aunt, and Motteville was her attendant at court and had served her for more than twenty years.

But, in the end, even the debate about marriage is moot. The two women give up their dream of a “famous Republic.” In her last letter to Motteville, dated 1 August 1661, Montpensier writes that she is living quietly and in seclusion. “I do almost exactly what I would do if we were already in our retreat,” she tells Motteville, adding, “I read and I work at my needlework.” Her “most agreeable hours,” she writes, “are spent dreaming” about their plan.

Four letters exchanged between the two correspondents were published by Motteville as Recueil de quelques pieces nouvelles et galantes, tant en prose qu’en vers (Cologne, 1667). Now, these four letters, as well as four additional letters, have been published under Montpensier’s name in Jean DeJean's Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans, Duchesse de Montpensier, Against Marriage: The Correspondence of La Grande Mademoiselle, from which I have quoted here. Montpensier's memoirs, which cover her life until 1688, are available at Google Books by clicking here. Peter Yarrow's new affordable translation for the Modern Humanities Research Association is available in print.

Motteville’s five-volume memoir of her life at court was published in the nineteenth century as Mémoires pour server à l’histoire d’Anne d’Autriche, épouse de Louis XIII, roi de France; you can find this at Google Books by clicking here. An abridged translation of Motteville’s memoirs was published by Katherine Wormeley as Memoirs of Madame de Motteville on Anne of Austria and Her Court; print-on-demand copies of this translation are available at Amazon.

*This post has been adapted from Debating Women, Politics, and Power in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).