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La Duchesse:
The Life of Marie de Vignerot—Cardinal Richelieu’s Forgotten Heiress Who Shaped the Fate of France

by bronwen mcshea
pegasus books, 480 pages, $28.95

Marie de Vignerot, the Duchess of Aiguillon, outmaneuvered popes and overawed princes; she counseled kings and steered the state; she managed and invested a colossal fortune, with which she raised hospitals, freed slaves, and flung missions to the far corners of the earth; she negotiated treaties, governed cities, eluded kidnappers, and threw the very best dinner parties in Paris—but perhaps her most impressive triumph was refusing to sell her house.

The prospective buyer was Louis XIV, who had something of a passion for fine domestic architecture, and whose chateau-envy could be deadly—as his hapless finance minister would soon discover. To refuse the monarch any request carried a whiff of treason; to refuse this monarch on the subject of houses was tantamount to suicide. But Marie de Vignerot didn’t blink. She told the king that she couldn’t possibly sell the old place—and reminded him of all the time, toil, and treasure she and her uncle had devoted to rebuilding and maintaining it. That uncle was the late Cardinal Richelieu, and the Sun King understood what the old duchess was really saying: Think, Your Majesty, of all the time, toil, and treasure we have devoted to rebuilding and maintaining your Crown. Louis never raised the subject again.

Bronwen McShea relates this extraordinary vignette toward the end of La Duchesse, her new biography of this magnificent grande dame. Heiress to one of the most hated men in history and a lady who could stare down the Sun King, Vignerot might seem a severe subject for a biographer, but McShea’s authorial relationship with her duchess is one of affection and intimacy. (She refers to her as “Marie” throughout the book, an informality that I will adopt below—“Vignerot” does not roll so easily off the anglophone tongue.) The portrait that emerges is a winsome one, and I finished the book thinking that Marie might now be the figure from French history I would most like to invite to dinner (safer than her uncle, and more fun than Charles de Gaulle).

McShea has done a great service with this rich, deeply researched, and lively book. Though a definitive biography of luxuriant detail, La Duchesse is disciplined by short and vivid chapters. It argues convincingly that Marie de Vignerot shaped both the Catholic Church and the French state at pivotal moments in their histories but has been unjustly forgotten by both. This amnesia is hardly surprising: The Church is uncomfortable with foxy duchesses who bend popes to their wills, and France has never quite figured out how to feel about the cardinal in whose scarlet eminence Marie was regally enrobed. Happily correcting this injustice, La Duchesse rescues the memory of this indefatigable woman, illuminates her grand and gorgeous moment in history—and draws some pointed lessons for our own time.

Marie de Vignerot was born into an era of religious wars, when the extinction of France and the survival of Christendom both seemed live possibilities; by the time of her death, Louis XIV was busy rebuilding Versailles. She was thus present for, and indeed helped midwife, the birth of modern Europe. She was, at times, among the richest and most powerful people in the world. But McShea makes clear that she owed everything to Richelieu, who directed her life from her earliest childhood, loved her as a daughter, and quite unconventionally made her his primary heiress.

She was also a victim of his intrigues. He plucked her from rural obscurity, dismissed the teenage suitor whom she genuinely loved, and married her off at age sixteen to an unlovely aristocrat who promptly got himself killed. She became a childless widow at eighteen and contrived to remain so for the next half-century, despite becoming, as her uncle’s star continued to rise, the hottest prize on the aristocratic marriage market.

What Marie really wanted was not a husband but a habit. Her life was saturated with an intelligent and passionate piety, nurtured by spiritual luminaries like the mystic Pierre de Bérulle, and she attempted several times to join a Carmelite convent. Richelieu would not have it—hoping that she would make an advantageous marriage, he implacably thwarted her religious vocation.

The cardinal also relied on Marie in his personal and political affairs. He brought her into his counsels and entangled her in his intrigues, pulling the pious girl into the high politics and vivid drama of the age. Marie eluded kidnappers and thwarted assassination plots—and put on some rather marvelous parties, planning the lavish blockbuster fetes Richelieu threw for Parisian society in his colossal Palais-Cardinal.

Richelieu clearly saw something of himself in Marie. His minor aristocratic family was otherwise filled with the usual profligate mediocrities, and he knew that she was the only relation worthy to succeed him. She, in turn, was devoted to him—as McShea notes, she was probably the only person alive who truly loved him—and so, when she was still only thirty-three, Richelieu had the king create her Duchess of Aiguillon and Peeress of France. The latter title, an unheard-of honor for a woman, made her literally the “peer” of the monarch.

Richelieu is in many ways the central figure of modern European history, and in serving her uncle Marie became his accomplice in the remaking of Europe. In his galloping biography of the cardinal, published in 1929, Hilaire Belloc set out the stakes:

A single will, far more than any other conscious force . . . lay, without knowing it, at the origin of our present condition. One man, more than any other man . . . both founded Nationalism and made permanent the division between the Catholic and the Protestant culture. That man was Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal de Richelieu.

Belloc wrote with a full orchestra, but Richelieu really is an utterly singular figure. He appeared as if out of nowhere, captured and rescued a French state that seemed destined for ruin, and pursued ruthless, farsighted policies (such as joining the Thirty Years’ War on the Protestant side) that euthanized Christendom, secured France, and established the Westphalian order that endures in some form to this day—and all this in the face of bitter opposition, from within France and without, which had him dodging assassination until the last years of his life.

Richelieu’s religion was not false—he worked assiduously to strengthen the church in France (often with Marie’s help), attempted to discipline the clergy, and even authored treatises on orthodoxy and apologetics—but it was secondary. Everything was subordinated to the interests of France. As he lay dying, his confessor ritually asked him to forgive his enemies, and the most hated man in Europe replied, “I have had no enemies, save those of the State.”

True enough, perhaps—Richelieu’s enemies often did have higher loyalties than the French crown. The more “Catholic” party at court—to which the pious Marie would otherwise have been naturally drawn—hated the cardinal in part because they believed he was injuring the faith in his single-minded pursuit of French interests. In her heart, Marie may well have agreed. As McShea says: “Marie’s life may be interpreted, in part, as an epic attempt to make reparations to God for countless offenses her uncle, with her assistance, had committed against his own countrymen and against an already disintegrating Christendom.”

Marie was with Richelieu almost until the very moment of his death, leaving his bedside only to stop her sobs from disturbing his final prayers. From that moment on, “no living man but the King was in any significant way master of her destiny.” Ignoring immemorial custom, the cardinal had passed over all his male relations to make Marie the primary heiress and sole executrix of his staggering estate, leaving her “not just with one of the largest fortunes in Europe but also with titles, offices, vast lands and palaces envied by royalty, and patronage powers exercised by few men at the time, let alone other women.”

Thereafter her life was devoted almost entirely to the French state and the Catholic Church, and if Marie was more committed to the kingdom of God than her uncle had been, she did not neglect the kingdom of France. This was the time of the Fronde, a bitter civil war in which Marie played field marshal. She personally governed the fortress-city of Le Havre, negotiated treaties, hosted peace talks at her country house, and became a serious rival to Cardinal Mazarin, who had succeeded Richelieu as prime minister. Mazarin considered her his “most dangerous enemy”—and with good reason, for at one point Marie contrived to have him exiled.

It is difficult to imagine a modern analogue for this grand femme forte. Acknowledging the imprecision of such a comparison, McShea places Marie in the “billionaire class.” But billions aren’t the half of it. No modern American billionaire can quite dismiss a president (as Marie banished Mazarin), or negotiate peace treaties in his home (as Marie did during the Fronde), or legally govern Chicago (as Marie owned Le Havre). Her fortune, vast patronage networks, social preeminence, and access to the throne were all inherited from her uncle, who had accumulated them (“not without avarice,” as Belloc allows) as perquisites of high office. Marie was thus a type now more familiar to East than West: an oligarch.

Now, oligarch is a very good job if you can get it, and Marie’s status as a woman oligarch was indeed exceptional, but I suspect that the resentful hostility Marie faced from Mazarin was due not merely to her sex but also to the essential illegitimacy of her political power. She had become just the sort of overmighty subject Richelieu had worked to subdue in his quest to stabilize the state.

Another thing no modern billionaire can do is appoint bishops. One of the most delicious parts of this book is the earnestly presented but wickedly subversive suggestion that, perhaps, they should.

Toward the Church, McShea argues definitively that Marie was not some passive benefactor, but a great lay power who could outmaneuver popes, overawe genuine saints (Vincent de Paul was essentially her creature), and deftly bend ecclesial governance to her charitable and missionary ends. She contrived to have priests of de Paul’s order, the Lazarists, installed as French consuls in Algeria, over their own objections and those of de Paul. When her plan to evangelize Vietnam—under French bishops, of course—hit a snag because the papacy had long ago promised any bishoprics in East Asia to the Portuguese, she thought of a clever solution. She convinced the pope to appoint her handpicked Frenchmen as bishops in partibus infidelium—that is, as theoretical bishops of long-extinct sees in the Islamic world—and then commission them as “apostolic vicars” in Vietnam, a lowlier office they could exercise with all the authority and dignity of the episcopate.

These examples, among dozens of others, reveal that Marie—like her uncle—saw no clear division between the glory of Christ and the glory of France. Those French bishops in Vietnam were sent to save souls, to be sure, but also to bless French trade. The Lazarists in Algeria busied themselves freeing slaves; they were also the reluctant representatives of the French crown.

That said, most of Marie’s charity was unconcerned with geopolitics and indifferent to aristocratic convention: “She visited prisons . . . served the poor directly with her own hands . . . and she spent time occasionally with repentant prostitutes and unwed mothers.” Against powerful opposition and at enormous cost, she established the first general hospital for the poor in France.

She was also, again like her uncle, a committed ecclesial reformer. Like ours, Marie’s was a postconciliar age, in which Trent’s rigorous reforms had not yet been digested; and as in our own time, the Church in those years faced what seemed an existential crisis. (“In another hundred years we may lose the Church entirely in Europe,” wrote de Paul, in a lament that sounds familiar today.) Marie worked aggressively to educate and discipline the clergy—often against ecclesial and secular opposition, which preferred things to stay a bit more relaxed—and to revivify the faith among a laity that drifted between Protestantism and apathetic ignorance.

In the capital, Marie battled the latest trend in moneyed heresy: Jansenism. (Grim and rigorous, this is not a doctrine one would expect to thrive in Parisian salons, but even in theology there is no accounting for taste.) In this war, too, she followed Richelieu, who had thrown early Jansenist theologians into prison. But whereas the cardinal’s weapon of choice was terror, Marie’s was the dinner party. High society had become so polarized that Jansenists and anti-Jansenists avoided each other almost entirely, but Marie’s hospitality was too famous to refuse. Fashionable heretics flocked to her tables at the Petit Luxembourg, which she sprinkled with brilliant (and sometimes lowborn) priests who argued orthodoxy over wine and ortolans.

McShea vividly describes one such dinner, to which Marie invited Charles Picoté, an anti-Jansenist priest who was spiritually luminous but physically hideous: He had a “large growth on his neck, bulbous and deadpan eyes ringed with red skin, and a cleft lip.” Marie shrewdly plopped him at her table among the fair lords of France. When one clever Jansenist, taking the bug-eyed bait, asked him to explain a tricky paragraph from St. Augustine, Picoté “expounded on the passage with such clarity that the learned Jansenist became confused and did not dare to interrogate him further.” Say what you will about the ancien régime, but you are unlikely to find a similar level of dinner conversation at the table of a modern billionaire.

Of course, Marie was no mere billionaire, the Petit Luxembourg was no Mar-a-Lago. A contemporary clergyman described her home as “far less like the hall of a lady of quality than like a bishop’s palace, given the continual flowing in and out of ecclesiastics and of religious of all orders, who came from all places to blend together there.” McShea puts it more directly: “By virtue of the patronage power she wielded even over the heads of bishops and clerical founders . . . she presided over a kind of unofficial curia of the French church.”

She was, in other words, a great lay power within—perhaps even over—the church. The book draws a sharp distinction between this aggressive lay leadership and the Church’s sadly perennial temptation toward clericalism, a freighted term that McShea is keen to properly define:

Marie had not internalized . . . anything like what is referred to today as clericalism, or the belief that all clergymen by virtue of their consecration are superior in virtue to laypeople and should enjoy exclusive rights where church governance and internal discipline are concerned.

One is left with the strong impression that McShea would have the modern Church look to Marie’s example. Consider this passage, ostensibly about Marie’s effort to reform the French priesthood:

The moral laxity, spiritual unseriousness, and corruption that plagued the Catholic clergy in France long after the reforming Council of Trent . . . required lay elites to assert leadership over and against resistant bishops and other clergymen.

Now, delete the words “in France” and “of Trent” and the above sentence could be mistaken for an assessment of the Church’s predicament today. As if to punctuate this sentiment, on the same page McShea relates the story of a middle-aged priest, well-known in Marie’s fashionable set, who seduced a fourteen-year-old girl. Horrified, Marie dispatched Father de Paul to track down the miscreant cleric, who had fled in disguise, and drag him back to Paris, where Marie attempted to have him swiftly hanged.

It is impossible to read such a story without thinking of the grim catalogue of sexual abuse that has destroyed the Church’s credibility in recent decades, and to compare Marie’s decisive action with the plodding mendacity of the modern episcopate.

The idea of empowering lay authorities to reform and rediscipline the church is one that feels very American, and indeed it sometimes seems that though McShea is writing about Marie’s France, she is thinking about the contemporary United States. Despite the obvious differences between a historically Protestant, rapidly secularizing imperial republic and a Catholic monarchy ruled by a cardinal, the analogy is not far-fetched. Very much like seventeenth-century France, the United States is a large, wealthy realm with traditions of ecclesial independence, in which Catholics are often bitterly divided over theology and tradition, with one or the other camp usually at odds with Rome, and over which the rumor of schism hangs like a surly cloud.

But who can wield the temporal sword? The problem is not really that there is no Marie de Vignerot today—as nearly every page of La Duchesse makes clear, she was a singular figure even in her own time—but rather that her entire class of pious and powerful aristocrats has ceased to exist. The reform of the Catholic Church is not a particular priority of the current American elite, and though there are some very powerful Catholics at the summit of the American state, one doubts that McShea would want Joe Biden selecting American bishops or Nancy Pelosi taking an active part in clerical reform. The exercise of lay authority was possible in Marie’s day in part because the ruling classes of France took great interest in ecclesial affairs, and the involvement of secular rulers and lay elites in the governance of the Church was not revolutionary but simply the immemorial order of things.

Matters are different now. Regardless of who sits on Peter’s chair, one suspects the Holy See would greet the idea of a rich, powerful, and opinionated laywoman presiding over an “unofficial curia” of the American church with something less than enthusiasm. Papal disapproval may not have troubled Marie de Vignerot’s sleep, but popes are far more absolute monarchs today than they were then. The church they govern is, among other things, a centralized bureaucracy in which a pope can do almost anything he likes with bishops, and bishops can do absolutely anything they like with diocesan priests—and nobody is very concerned with the opinions of laypeople, great or small. By design, the entire edifice is sealed against intrusion from those outside the clerical state. Moreover, in our ostensibly democratic age, the laity itself is not always a source of ecclesial renewal. If subjected to a vote of all baptized Catholics, the orthodox doctrines of the Church are unlikely to carry the day.

Anyone attempting to follow Marie’s example of lay leadership will thus face far greater challenges than she did, and will be armed with far fewer resources. This is not a counsel of despair. If, as seems likely, the Church continues to shrink, then its current model of clerical governance may well prove unsustainable, and a new paradigm will be found. Committed lay Catholics may assert themselves as boldly as they can in the meantime, and in so doing they cannot help but effect change, however slowly.

Of course, things might not continue as they are. History is prone to sudden movements and wild mood swings, and it is thus a renewable source of gnawing dread and undying hope.Nobody could have predicted the figure of Cardinal Richelieu. Nor could Richelieu, for all his foresight, have envisioned the court of the Sun King, whose age was already dawning when Richelieu died. And neither the king nor the cardinal could have predicted the deluge of 1789, which would sweep it all away.

Marie’s house—the one the Sun King failed to buy—survived that revolution, only to be demolished years later by property developers. Given the remarkable way in which the fate of the ancien régime was bound up with Louis XIV’s domestic preferences, one is tempted to wonder whether history might have been different if Marie had just sold him the place.Maybe not. With the past, as with the future, often it is impossible to say.

Martin Gramling writes from Charleston, South Carolina.

Image by Sailko licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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