Monday, May 25, 2015

Comtesse du Barry: The Comtesse and the Commander of the National Guard

Madame du Barry's last portrait
Forty-nine years old
painted in England by Richard Cosway

It could have been of this, my favorite du Barry likeness,  that Stanley Loomis was thinking when he expressed the opinion that the Madame du Barry of mature years was fascinating and, in many ways even more beautiful than the version that lived at Versailles.  He said that one cannot help but feel that Louis XV was a bit cheated.  

As her final love, the duc de Brissac was able to benefit from the woman that Jeanne Bécu became. They'd become acquainted during her time at Versailles when he, as the Duc de Cossé, was a member of her (and Louis XV's) inner circle.  They remained friends as she transitioned from King's Favorite to her quiet life at Louveciennes.  Their romantic relationship probably began in 1782. Brissac was tall, blond and blue-eyed - a gentleman, a gentle man, a member of the Ancien Regime with idealistic views of a new order, and the Governor of Paris.  He loved art, opera, theatre and books.  Though the duc was married, in a typical 18th century way, he and Madame du Barry were a couple.  He appropriated a portion of his Hôtel de Brissac in Paris to the Comtesse, she became friendly with his daughter, and theirs was a peaceful, happy existence.

As the economic noose tightened and as more and more people embraced the new philosophies of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, tensions rose in Paris.  On July 14, 1789, the Bastille was overrun and
all seven of its prisoners released (yes, seven) and the Revolution was off and running.

Right after the fall of the Bastille, Brissac returned to his estates in Angers to take the pulse of the peasants and villagers in his domain.  He was immediately arrested as "being under suspicion," but the matter was resolved quickly and he was released.  He wrote to the Comtesse, telling her that but for a few malcontents with whom he simply needed to be patient while the higher ideals of Liberty manifested themselves, the situation was tranquil.  He optimistically ended his letter, "Yesterday my birthday was celebrated here with much noise and martial display.  I felt that my fellow citizens [the villagers] put their heart into this demonstration.  The feudal system has been destroyed, but this should not deprive us of respect and love..."  Well, we'll see...

On Oct. 5, 1789, a mob of women (partially populated by men dressed as women and, some believe, instigated by the King's cousin, the duc d'Orléans) marched from Paris to Versailles to confront the King about, generally speaking, the lack of bread.  The confrontation ended with a few guards dead and injured and the Royal Family forced to leave Versailles for Paris. A couple of the injured guards sought and received refuge at Louveciennes which I mentioned here.

Amidst the tempest, the duc de Brissac and the Comtesse du Barry took comfort in their friendship. These words, penned weeks after the King and Queen and their children were forced to the Tuileries Palace in Paris, make me wish for them the domestic bliss that wasn't to be:  "I am going to bed, dear heart, so that tomorrow I may be less stopped up than I am now and so be better company for you than I should be if I were as ill as I am now.  This cold is a humor and the result of stagnating so long in Paris to which I am not accustomed.  It will either end in killing me or driving me mad if my stay here doesn't come to an end....  Farewell, sweetest friend.  I love you and kiss you a thousand times with all the tenderness of our hearts.  I meant to say my heart, but will not cross out what my pen has written, for I like to think that our hearts are forever one.  Adieu, until tomorrow.  Everything that happens seems to me to be mysterious and mad and the only wisdom is for us to be together.  Adieu, beloved friend;  adieu, dear heart."

The duc de Brissac hosted a large lunch at his home in Paris in January, 1791.  The du Barry attended and stayed the night afterwards.  During the night, thieves drugged the guard at Louveciennes and stole from her one of the largest jewelry collections in Europe.   She, in what seems a unwise validation of the Citoyens' outrage over the gulf between the lifestyles of the aristocracy and the peasantry, published a pages long inventory of the priceless stolen jewels and offered a reward for its return.  The bulk of the haul soon surfaced in England.  Madame du Barry travelled back and forth between France and England in a quest to recover her treasures and, according to accusers, spying and passing information and funds to French émigrés in London.  Her associations didn't escape the notice of spies and were duly reported to the authorities in Paris.

While Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their children were under guard in Paris, Louis' brothers and cousins who'd escaped abroad (to Belgium, England, Italy, and Germany) were making life more difficult for them by undermining their statements, adopting a threatening posture and generally acting like the jackasses many of them were. Loomis said it (better) this way:  The gay and frivolous French aristocracy, incorrigible even in poverty and exile, gathered like butterflies about honey in the salon of Madame du Barry, squabbling wittily and venomously among themselves as though were back again in the halls of Versailles."

Ultimately, an English judge decided that since the jewels had been stolen in France, the case was under French jurisdiction and the French government would have to declare the property to belong to Comtesse du Barry before it could be released to her.  She returned to Louveciennes where only heartbreak awaited.

At about this time the King and Queen tried to escape France, but were apprehended at Varennes and returned to an even harsher existence in Paris.  The King's Bodyguard was disbanded and replaced with a Constitutional Guard whose members had to give "proofs of good citizenship."  Louis XVI was allowed to choose the commander and he bestowed the honor, fraught with danger as it was, to the Comtesse du Barry's lover, the Duc de Brissac.

Cossé-Brissac Coat of Arms
         "I only do what must do for my ancestors and my family."  
...  Duc de Brissac on his loyalty to Louis XVI

While serving as Commander of the Constitutional Guard, Brissac wrote, in a letter to the Comtesse, "My little Dauphin has gone out.  I am without my glasses so I shall write you only one thought which encompasses all:  I love you and will do so all my life.  I dine with you tomorrow and will bring Madame de Bainville, the Abbé Billiardi and Monsieur le Goust.  We rode eight leagues today and the King killed three pheasants so that my breakfast turned out to be a good dinner.  I love you, my dear, and kiss you with all my heart.  I have just made blot for which I beg your pardon.  There is no news."  "My little Dauphin" - touching reference to the poor little boy who was to die abandoned and abused in prison.

From the beginning, members of the Constitutional Guard were accused of being Royalists sympathizers.  The Duc de Brissac came under particular fire and less than a year after his appointment, in an evening emergency session, the Assembly disbanded the Guard and issued a warrant for the his arrest.  The man who was charged with warning him left this account: "The King and Queen had retired.  They sent me to the apartment of the Duc de Brissac with the order to advise him to flee.  He was in bed;  I delivered their message to him.  I told him that in a matter of hours the decree of arrest would be put into effect and implored him to take advantage of the time remaining. His age and the conviction he had of his innocence argued against me.  The only matter that now occupied his attention was to write a long letter to Madame du Barry which he dispatched to Louveciennes by his aide-de-camp, young Maussabré.  His only thought, his only care, was for Madame du Barry."

As expected, the Duc was arrested and moved to a prison about eighty miles from Paris where he spent several months awaiting trial.  He and fifty-three other prisoners were loaded into straw lined carts and set out for Paris to be tried at what may've been the worst possible time...  early September 1792.  As the Duc, tall, regal and dressed conspicuously in a blue uniform with gold buttons, was jostled through villages, all hell broke loose in France's capital.  The September Massacres, with fourteen hundred victims, famous and obscure, were underway.  On September ninth, the carts, surrounded by escorts meant to protect the prisoners from the unruly crowds that surrounded them, neared Paris. The threatening mob, swelled by bloodied murderers who'd taken to the road to meet the newly arrived batch because they'd run short of victims now that they'd pretty much emptied the prisons of Paris, had grown to such proportions that the decision was made to seek refuge at the Château de Versailles. With the logic that "Feelings of hatred will be lessened by arousing those of contempt." they planned to lock the prisoners in the now empty zoo on the grounds of the château. Unfortunately, the mob was a step ahead of them and locked the zoo gate and the prisoners, including the Duc de Brissac, were trapped in the open.  They were slaughtered in L'Orangerie, a location that surely held memories of happier days for the Duc.


After a valiant attempt to defend himself, the Duc was brutally murdered and mutilated.  Illustrating the barbarism of the times, the attackers hacked of hunks of flesh and ate it.  Then they cut off his head, attached to it a label with his name on it, wrapped it in a cloth, and set off for Louveciennes.  

Madame du Barry had been notified that her love was being transferred over dangerous roads toward a more dangerous Paris.  She was at Louveciennes anxiously waiting for news.  The still, dark night was split by the approaching crowd singing the revolutionary anthem, Ça Ira.  Imagine her fear and confusion as she tried to make sense of what was going on.  Something was thrown through the window, rolled across the floor almost to her feet.  Madame du Barry fell to the floor unconscious as she realized it was the head of the Duc de Brissac.

Sorry to say, this story doesn't get any cheerier.  To tell it, though, is to honor them.  So, I do.

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