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The following is excerpted from Bronwen McShea’s new historical biography, La Duchesse: The Life of Marie de Vignerot, Cardinal Richelieu’s Forgotten Heiress Who Shaped the Fate of France, out today from Pegasus Books.

Before dawn on Wednesday, December 3, 1642, the most feared and hated man in France received Last Rites from a fellow priest of the Catholic Church. His Eminence Armand-Jean du Plessis, the Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu et Fronsac and the First Minister of State to King Louis XIII, had been bedridden since the weekend. Suffering a fever and sharp pains in his side, he struggled to breathe and periodically coughed up blood.

The King and many other dignitaries visited and prayed with the fifty-seven-year-old cardinal-minister at his deathbed. Among them was one of the only people alive who truly loved him, despite all he had made her endure, beginning with that marriage he had pushed her into when she was just a child . . .

Thirty-eight-year-old Marie-Madeleine de Vignerot du Pont Courlay, titled the Duchesse d’Aiguillon and a Peer of France since 1638, had learned of her uncle’s worsening condition on Sunday. She had rushed across the Pont-Neuf in Paris from her stately home on the Rue de Vaugirard to stay with him at his colossal palace near the Louvre. Ever since, she had been storming Heaven with prayers, begging for the restoration of his health.

As Wednesday drew on, the cardinal’s decline appeared to reverse course. By dawn on Thursday, the word on the street was that the true ruler of France, the King’s controlling Éminence Rouge, would live after all. But by late morning, it was clear to his intimates that his time was approaching.

Marie by this point was so distraught that Richelieu asked her to leave his bedchamber, the better for him to concentrate on his final spiritual exertions. Overcome by tears, she ran out of the room, never to see him alive again. But before this, the cardinal had whispered secret instructions to her, kissed her hands, and told her that he loved her more than anyone else in the world.

Marie would go on to mourn Richelieu more intensely than she had her own father, a courtly military officer who had died eighteen years earlier. She also prayed more urgently for her uncle’s soul, recruiting countless others to do the same in churches across France, Italy, and faraway mission lands. His Eminence had been far more powerful than her father. His sins were numerous and had affected the lives of so many. There were, for example, those ruthless banishments and executions of people whom Marie had first known as friends . . .

Signaling his complete confidence in Marie—and cutting out her brother François in the process—Richelieu made her the major heiress and administrator of his staggering fortune. While his male protégés such as Cardinal Jules Mazarin would succeed him in high office, Richelieu ignored ancient French norms by giving far more to his niece than to his nearest male relatives, all of whom, because of their sex, had had far more advantages than Marie from the moment of birth. These men included not just her brother, who was then serving as a royal governor in Normandy, but also her other ambitious uncle, Urbain de Maillé-Brézé, who was a highly decorated commander and diplomat.

Indeed, Richelieu entrusted Marie 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. He knew that Marie would work better than anyone else to preserve and enhance his legacy in ways that would serve France, the Catholic religion, and the honor of the Richelieu name.

What Marie would do with the power put in her hands would shape the course of French history, the history of many other countries, and the history of the worldwide Catholic Church. It would also influence how Richelieu himself, and other prominent men of the age, would be remembered.

Yet her name and achievements are all but forgotten today. Perhaps because Marie was a woman, and a laywoman at that, too few noticed or cared as she was slowly written out of both European and Church history over time. This was in spite of the fact that in her own time, she was known, respected, and sometimes feared by monarchs, popes, scholars, and saints.

She also had famous enemies, including Medicis, Bourbons, Habsburgs, and members of her own powerful clan. During the height of the French civil war known as the Fronde, Cardinal Mazarin, her uncle’s successor as prime minister, confided to his inner circle that Marie was his most dangerous and irreconcilable opponent in French politics. Some of the duchess’s enemies so effectively dragged her name into the mud, exploiting the burgeoning popular press of the time, that no less a novelist than Alexandre Dumas, two centuries later, was able to plausibly caricature her as the slutty slave of Richelieu’s every whim who hypocritically behaved in public like a nun.

Marie faced down her detractors with steadiness and grace. Literary lights of the age said of her that she possessed “the courage of a king” and that her eyes, although enchantingly beautiful, could “make even the most resolute eagles” lower theirs with their intensity. She was adept at courtly intrigue in an era when political missteps could be deadly, and more than once she proved herself capable of the sort of ruthlessness that made her uncle Richelieu legendary. But she often used her power for unexpected causes, for example to champion other women—poor and rich, living and already in history books—who were misunderstood, mistreated, and, above all, underestimated. All the while, she played critical roles in the social and intellectual life of Golden Age France and in the ongoing reform and expansion of the Church and disciplining of its clergy. Even more than this, she was an early prototype of the modern entrepreneur, philanthropist, and global businesswoman as she built up a veritable empire of religious and cultural institutions, business ventures, and social charities that stretched into Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

One of the most independent and energetic women of her age, Marie nevertheless lived a life that is incomprehensible apart from her uncle’s. Much of her career can be seen as the natural fruit of her unusual relationship with one of history’s most renowned and controversial clergymen. Her stage for action and her accomplishments owed much to the unconventional decisions that the great political churchman, long regarded as a misogynist, made in her favor. Furthermore, 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—the latter of which he had left war-torn, divided over faith, and dominated by new sorts of nationalistic rivalries. 

But it is also true that Richelieu’s story, although it has been told many times over the last four centuries, has never been complete while that of his beloved niece and heiress has been neglected.

Marie de Vignerot’s story is that of a scared, sheltered girl who rose to the challenge—beyond even her uncle’s expectations—of shouldering an unprecedented role that was thrust upon her amid dangerous and turbulent circumstances. It is one, too, of a woman whose ambitions changed over time as she became one of the most influential leaders of her age. Subject to all the temptations that come with great wealth and power, she held exceptionally true to her deepest convictions and her evolving sense of her unique purpose in the lives of her family, friends, and dependents, her Church that was expanding globally, and her country, which was wracked by a succession of crises at the very same time that it was emerging as Europe’s cultural standard-bearer.

Tenacious and creative, fierce in her loves and loyalties, and as enigmatic and captivating as any of the well-remembered personalities of France’s Golden Age, Vignerot is a figure without whom the times she lived through cannot be fully understood. 

Bronwen McShea is based in New York City and is on the faculty at the Augustine Institute Graduate School. 

Excerpted from La Duchesse: The Life of Marie de Vignerot—Cardinal Richelieu’s Forgotten Heiress Who Shaped the Fate of France by Bronwen McShea. Published by Pegasus Books. © Bronwen McShea. Used with permission. 

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Image by Österreichische Nationalbibliothek on Picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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