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CHAPTER II
The Greatest Names in France—The Maréchale de Noailles—Strange proceedings—Death of the Dauphin—Of the Dauphine—Of the Queen—The Children of France—Louis XIV. and Louis XV.
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“THE first family in France after the royal family, is evidently that of Lorraine; the second without dispute that of Rohan, and the third La Tour d’Auvergne, or Bouillon-Turenne, after that La Trémoille,” [66] and then come a whole string of illustrious names, Mailly-de-Nesle, Créquy, Harcourt, Clermont-Tonnerre, Saint Jean, Thoury; Sabran, La Rochefoucauld, Montmorency, Narbonne-Pelet, Béthune, Beauvoir, Beauffremont, Villeneuve (premier Marquis de France), and many others.

The writer of these fascinating memoirs of the time proceeds, after speaking of various noble names and regretting many that were extinct, such as Lusignan, Coucy, Xaintrailles, Chatillon, Montgommery, &c., to say, “One thing that has always given me the best opinion of the Noailles, is the protection they have never ceased to grant to all gentlemen who can prove that they have the honour [174] to belong to them, no matter what their position nor how distant the relationship.” He (or she) [67] goes on to relate that a family of much less consideration, the Montmorin, being envious of the Noailles, asserted that they were not of the ancient noblesse, and pretended that they possessed a piece of tapestry on which a Noailles was depicted serving a Montmorin as a ma?tre d’h?tel, with the date 1593.

But as the Noailles were known to have possessed the estate and castle bearing their name in the twelfth century, and that in 1593 the Seigneur de Noailles was also Comte d’Ayen, and of much more consequence than the Montmorin, this spiteful fabrication fell to the ground.

Nobody ever saw the tapestry in question because it did not exist, and Louis XV., speaking of the story, said scornfully, “Have there ever been such things as tapestries chez les Montmorin?”

For no one knew better than he did the histories and genealogies of his noblesse, and that he did not hesitate to explain them even when to his own disadvantage, the following anecdote shows:—

A discussion was going on about the great difficulty of proving a descent sufficiently pure to gain admittance into the order of the Knights of Malta.

“You think me de très bonne maison, don’t you?” said the King; “well, I myself should find difficulty in entering that order, because in the female line I descend in the eighth degree from a procureur.”

[175]

There was a general exclamation of dissent, but the King replied—

“I am not joking, Messieurs, and I am going to give you the proof of what I say. Griffet, the procureur, who was one of my ancestors, made a large fortune and gave his daughter in legitimate marriage to a Sieur Babou de la Bourdoisie, a ruined gentleman, who wanted to regild his shield. From this union was born a daughter who was beautiful and rich, and married the Marquis de C?uvres. Everyone knows that of la belle Gabrielle, daughter of this Marquis, and Henri IV., was born a son, César de Vend?me; he had a daughter who married the Duc de Nemours. The Duchesse de Nemours had a daughter who married the Duke of Savoy, and of this marriage was born Adéla?de of Savoy, my mother, who was the eighth in descent of that genealogy. So after that you may believe whether great families are without alloy.” [68]

The Noailles, unlike most of the great French families, although they lived in Paris during the winter, spent a portion of their time on their estates, looked after their people, and occupied themselves with charities and devotion. The Maréchal de Mouchy de Noailles, brother of the Duc d’Ayen, even worked with his own hands amongst his peasants, while his wife and daughter, Mme. de Duras, shared his views and the life he led, as did his sons, the Prince de Poix and the Vicomte de Noailles, of whom more will be said later.

With these and all the different relations of her husband, Mme. d’Ayen lived in the greatest harmony, [176] especially with his sister, the Duchesse de Lesparre, a calm, holy, angelic woman after her own heart.

With his other sister, the Comtesse de Tessé, she was not at first so intimate. For Mme. de Tessé, a brisk, clever, amusing, original person, was not only a friend of Voltaire, and a diligent frequenter of the salons of the philosophers, wits, and encyclop?dists, but, although not going to their extreme lengths, was rather imbued with their opinions.

But the most extraordinary and absurd person in the family was the Maréchale de Noailles, mother of the Duc d’Ayen, whose eccentricity was such that she might well have been supposed to be mad. It was, however, only upon certain points that her delusions were so singular—otherwise she seems to have been only an eccentric person, whose ideas of rank and position amounted to a mania.

She had a large picture painted by Boucher, in which all her grandnephews were represented as Cupids, with nothing on but the Order of the Grand Cross of Malta, to show their right to belong to it. None of the family could look at or speak of it with gravity. But what was a more serious matter was her passion for stealing relics and objects of religious value. She even mixed one into a medicine for her son, the Duc d’Ayen, when he had the measles. This had been lent her by some nuns, who of course could never get it back again. The nuns were very angry, so were the Archbishop of Paris and the Bishop of Chartres; she had also stolen a beautiful chalice and they refused to give her the Holy Communion. Her [177] family were much disturbed and had considerable trouble in getting her out of the difficulties and trying to hush up the affair.

She also used to write letters to the holy Virgin, which she hid in a dovecote, in which she always found answers, supposed to be written by her priest. On one occasion she complained that the way of addressing her, “Ma chère Maréchale,” was not quite respectful in une petite bourgeoise de Nazereth, but observed that as she was the mother of our Saviour she must not be exacting; besides, St. Joseph belonged to the royal house of David, and she added, “I have always thought St. Joseph must have belonged to a younger branch, sunk by injustice or misfortune.”

The Abbess of the Abbaye-aux-Bois, hearing that a pilgrim was in the habit of coming into the Abbey Church during dinner time when nobody was there, had her watched, and discovered that it was the Duchesse de Noailles, who would stand for an interminable time before a statue of the Virgin, talking and even seeming to dispute with it.

One day she arrived, and after many bows and speeches began to address her prayers to the holy Virgin, and it appeared that what she asked for was in the first place a sum of eighteen hundred thousand livres for her husband, the Maréchal, then the Order of the Garter, which he wanted because it was the only great order not possessed by his family, and finally the dipl?me of a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, because it was the only title he did not already bear.

Suddenly a shrill voice was heard from the altar, [178] saying, “Mme. la Maréchale, you will not have the eighteen hundred thousand francs that you ask for your husband, he has already one hundred thousand écus de rente, and that is enough; he is already Duke, Peer, Grandee of Spain, and Marshal of France; he has already the orders of the Saint-Esprit and the Golden Fleece; your family is loaded with the favours of the court; if you are not content it is because it is impossible to satisfy you; and I advise you to renounce becoming a princess of the Empire. Your husband will not have the garter of St. George either.”

The Maréchale thought it was the Holy Child Himself speaking, and called out to Him to be quiet and let His Mother speak; when a burst of laughter was heard from behind the altar. It was the Vicomte de Chabrillan, one of the Queen’s pages, the little nephew of the coadjutrice of the Abbey, who had hidden there to play a trick.

But fantastic and ridiculous as she was, the old Maréchale went bravely to the scaffold years afterwards and died without fear.

Her daughter-in-law seems to have got on very well with her, and with all her husband’s family. Besides the Maréchal de Mouchy, there was another brother, the Marquis de Noailles, and numbers of other relations, nearly all united by the strongest affection and friendship.

The year 1765 witnessed the death of the Dauphin, and soon after that of the Dauphine, who was broken-hearted at his loss. The Dauphin died of a wasting illness, to the great grief of the King, who stood leaning against the doorway of [179] his son’s room, holding by the hand the Duc de Berri, until all was over. Then, turning away, he led the boy to the apartment of the Dauphine to acquaint her with what had happened, by giving the order to announce “the King and Monseigneur le Dauphin.” [69]

The Queen died three years later. Her death did not make much difference to the court, but devotion to religion in the royal family now seemed to be concentrated in the households of Mesdames.

From the care of the Dauphin and Dauphine, who had exercised the most affectionate supervision over them, their children passed to that of their grandfather, who, though he was fond of his daughters, cared very little about his grandchildren, never inquiring about their studies, conduct or habits. He only saw them at the hours required by etiquette, when he embraced them with ceremony; but he took care that they were treated with all the homage due to the “Children of France,” and gave orders that their wishes were always to be gratified.

The late Dauphin was said to have regarded with especial affection the unlucky Duc de Berri, who was awkward, plain, brusque, and dull; but the favourite of Louis XV. was his youngest grandson, the handsome, mischievous Comte d’Artois, in whom he recognised something of his own disposition, and upon whom he was often seen to look with a smile of satisfaction.
COMTE D’ARTOIS, AFTERWARDS CHARLES X.

Between Mesdames and their nephews and nieces [180] there was always the most tender affection. They had adored their brother, were inconsolable for his loss, and devoted to his children, whom they spoilt to their hearts’ content, giving them everything they liked, and allowing any amount of noise, disturbance, and mischief to go on in their presence. Madame Adéla?de, who was extremely fond of the eldest boy, would say to him, “Talk at your ease, Berri, shout like your brother Artois. Make a noise, break my porcelaines, but make yourself talked about.”

Madame Victoire’s favourite was the Comte de Provence. She found that he had the most sense and brains, and prophesied that he would repair the faults his brothers would commit.

The King, after the death of Mme. de Pompadour, of whom he had become tired, lived for some years without a reigning favourite, in spite of the attempts of various ladies of the court to attain to that post. His life was passed in hunting, in the festivities of the court, and in a constant succession of intrigues and liaisons for which the notorious Parc aux cerfs was a sort of preserve. His next and last recognised and powerful mistress was Mme. Du Barry.

Amongst other contrasts to be remarked between Louis XIV. and Louis XV., was the opposite way in which they treated their numerous illegitimate children.

Those of the Grand Monarque were brought up in almost royal state, magnificently dowered, raised to a rank next to the princes of the blood, amongst whom they were generally married, and with whom they kept up constant quarrels and rivalry.

[181]

The King regarded them with nearly, if not quite, as great affection as his legitimate children, and even tried, though in vain, to alter the laws of succession in their favour, and allow them to inherit the crown failing his lawful issue.

This, however, neither the Princes of the blood, the nobles, nor the French nation would stand, and the project had to be relinquished; but the rapacity and outrageous arrogance and pretensions of “les batards,” as they were called, had aroused such irritation and hatred that Louis XV. took care to go into the opposite extreme. Unlike his predecessor, he cared nothing for the children of his innumerable liaisons, which were of a lower and more degraded type than those of his great-grandfather. He seldom recognised or noticed these children, made only a very moderate provision for them, and allowed them to be of no importance whatever.


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