Françoise-Thérèse de Choiseul-Stainville, Princesse Joséph de Monaco is one of my personal obsessions. She is one of those historical figures that one will glean random odd facts about from different sources but who will never get her own book. One is always left looking for more.
Detail from a painting featuring Françoise and her elder sister. Françoise is presumably the small girl in pink.
Françoise-Thérèse was the daughter of unattractive, rather boorish army officer Jacques Philippe de Choiseul, Comte de Stainville and his beautiful wife, Thérèse de Clermont d’Amboise who married on 3 April 1761 in Paris when the groom was forty and his bride barely fifteen. Jacques was the younger brother of the powerful Duc de Choiseul, advisor to Louis XV while Thérèse was the daughter of the Marquis de Reynel. The match produced two daughters: Marie-Stéphanie on 10 November 1763 and Françoise-Thérèse on 8 December 1766. The marriage was not a happy one and both parties were unfaithful – Madame de Stainville was the long time mistress of her husband’s cousin, the Duc de Lauzun as well as enjoying liaisons with her brother in law, the Duc de Choiseul amongst others.
The Duc de Lauzun, longtime lover of the Comtesse de Stainville and possible father of Françoise. He was to be guillotined during the Terror.
The Comte de Stainville, as was the custom of the time got away with his various infidelities but Madame la Comtesse was found out when she fell madly in love with the actor and singer Clairval and began to meet with him in her home with little regard for social niceties.
Her downfall is outlined in the memoirs of her lover, Lauzun:
‘Mme. de Stainville meanwhile lived in apparent ease of mind, and her trust seemed to know no limits. The talk of the town at this moment was a fancy-dress ball which the old Marechale de Mirepoix,’ still crazy for pleasure, intended to give at the Hotel de Brancas to the young people of the Court and town.
Twenty-four couples are to perform a ballet which is to be the great feature of the evening. The costumes, all of the rarest magnificence, are borrowed from Eastern lands : there will be Sultanas, Chinese, Indians, Dervishes, Rajahs, what not. The dancers are divided into six sets of four couples each. The Due de Chartres and Mme. d’Egmont will lead the first set, and Mme. de Stainville is to be in it ; her costume is that of a German peasant-girl, and her partner is the Prince d’Henin.
Mme. de Stainville never missed a rehearsal, and was conspicuous for her grace and brilliant beauty. On a certain Tuesday, three days before the ball, a gay supper at Mme. de Valentinois’ brought together all the performers in the famous figure dance; every one was in the highest spirits excepting Mme. de Stainville, who was in the deepest dejection ; her eyes filled constantly with tears, and her friends could not rouse her from her thoughts. The young woman’s depression was only too natural. Her husband, having arrived the day before from Metz, where he was in command, had reproved her for her conduct in a violent scene, and had told her that he intended asserting his rights and placing her in a convent.
What had immediately led to this action cannot be known. It is certain that he had procured a lettre de cachet from his brother, the Due de Choiseul. Mme. de Stainville went home after the supper at Mme. de Valentinois’ full of terrible apprehensions. They were only too well founded. That same night, the night of the 20th-21st January, 1767, at three in the morning, the Comte had his wife placed in a post-chaise, seated himself by her side, and carried her to Nancy, where, armed with the King’s written order, he shut her up for the rest of her days in the Convent of the Filles de Sainte-Marie.
A waiting-maid and a footman who were suspected of having been in their mistress’s confidence were also shut up, she at Sainte-Pelagie and he at Bicetre. There was even a talk of imprisoning Clairval too, but the Due de Choiseul opposed it, that the public might not be deprived of a favourite actor.
All M. de Stainville’s friends had done their utmost to persuade him against such a scandal ; they besought him to have patience, or, if he were bent on carrying out his purpose, at least to choose a better and more fitting moment ; but he would listen to no one.
The scandal was, in fact, tremendous. The young wife, brutally snatched away on the very eve of a ball of which she would have been the queen, was regarded as a victim, and the world had no mercy on him. But he had at least the decency to place all his wife’s fortune in the hands of the guardians of his children.
When M de Stainville’s second daughter (Françoise) was going to be married, the young girl declared she would never consent unless her mother were present at the ceremony. He was forced to yield, and Mme. de Stainville came out of the convent for a few days. By the intervention of the Duchesse de Choiseul she was then invited to return to her family; but she had become very devout, and refused to leave the convent. She died soon after in a frame of exalted piety.‘
Her lover, Lauzun was devastated by her fall from grace but was soon consoled by Lady Sarah Bunbury, one of the famous Lennox sisters.
Françoise’s mother, the Comtesse de Stainville with her sister in law, Béatrix de Choiseul, Duchesse de Gramont and her lover, the Duc de Lauzun.
Françoise’s father, the Comte de Stainville.
The two Stainville girls were sent to the Abbaye aux Bois convent school on the Rue de Sèvres in Paris at this time although rumours abounded that the younger was not the daughter of the Comte (her mother had been made to solemnly make an oath that she was the Comte’s daughter), which may explain why the Choiseul family took little interest in her and refused to see her when they visited her elder sister. The only exception was her aunt by marriage, the Duchesse de Choiseul who was extremely fond of her and made sure that she was included in family visits to Chanteloup, such as on the occasion of her sister’s marriage on 10 October 1778 to a cousin Claude Antoine de Choiseul, who would later succeed their uncle as Duc de Choiseul.
Abbaye Aux Bois school.
Hélène, Princesse de Ligne, friend of Françoise and her sister at school. She wrote at length about them both in her memoirs.
At this time, Françoise was described as ‘wild’, badly behaved and ignorant and both Choiseul-Stainville girls were considered to be trouble makers and the driving forces behind minor acts of disobedience at their school, to which the elder returned after her marriage. Their best friend at this time was Hélène Massalska, who married the Prince de Ligne on the 29th July 1777 and who described the elder Choiseul girl in her memoirs as ‘very pretty’. One of their most notorious pranks was to pour ink into the holy water in the school chapel.
Until Françoise’s arrival at Abbaye aux Bois, after her mother’s downfall, the two sisters had been barely in each other’s company and were of markedly different temperments. Hélène described the younger Choiseul girl as ‘a mere child ; that she was rather pretty, but did not appear very lively, and she thought her ignorant and badly brought up ; that she had made a great deal of her, but that she had appeared very untamed. She also told me that she was called Mademoiselle de Stainville.’
Louise-Honorine, Duchesse de Choiseul. She was very fond of Françoise and took her young daughters in after she was executed.
The Duc de Choiseul, Françoise’s uncle, who always believed that she was the bastard of his sister in law and one of her lovers.
Béatrix de Choiseul, Duchesse de Gramont. She was known for her caustic wit and snubbed Françoise as she also believed that she was in fact illegitimate. She would later be guillotined during the Terror.
The rumours about Françoise’s parentage did nothing to deter suitors and on 6 April 1782 she was married to Joseph Grimaldi, son of Honoré III Grimaldi, Prince de Monaco and Marie Catherine Brignole-Sale, which was a brilliant match. The young couple were extremely fond of each other and had three daughters: Honorine, born on 22 April 1784; Athénaïs, born on 22 June 1786 and Delphine, born on 22 June 1788.
Françoise and her husband, Prince Joseph de Monaco.
Françoise emigrated after the initial outbreak of the Revolution in 1789 and travelled Italy with her friend Aimée de Coigny, Duchesse de Fleury while her husband became involved in the uprising in the Vendée. She met with Vigée-Lebrun, who admired her sweet expression. Françoise and Aimée were present in Naples when Madame Vigée-Lebrun painted Lady Hamilton as a Sibyl. Vigée-Lebrun last encountered the Princesse at the ceremony of the marriage of the Doge and the sea in Venice.
Aimée de Coigny, Duchesse de Fleury, who shared a room at school with Hélène de Ligne and Françoise’s sister. They remained great friends after school and travelled Europe together before returning to France during the Terror. Aimée was also imprisoned and became, unwittingly, muse to André Chénier, who immortalised her in his poem La Jeune Captive.
The principality of Monaco signed a treaty with France on 21 September 1791 but on 14 February 1794 Monaco was annexed to France, with disastrous results for Françoise, who up until that date had been regarded as a foreigner in France and was therefore free to travel as much as she liked. As soon as she became a French citizen again in 1793 she immediately returned to Paris in order to avoid being denounced as an emigré and losing her property and also to be reunited with her daughters, who were being cared for by her aunt, the Duchesse de Choiseul, however it was too late and she was arrested in Paris while trying to regularise her situation. She presented forged residence papers and was released, at which point it was discovered that her husband had joined the royalist insurrection in the Vendée. Another warrant was issued for Françoise’s arrest and she was hidden by a friend, Rollet d’Avaux in the fashionable convent school Panthémont on the Rue de Grenelle.
The women’s exercise yard of the Conciergerie. Françoise was held here before her execution.
She was eventually arrested in the Winter of 1793-4 and sent to the Petit Force, one of the very worst Parisian prisons. She was later transfered to the Anglaises, which was much more comfortable and then later moved on, thanks to pulling some strings to Saint-Pélagie. She was denounced by a prison spy, Ferrières-Sauvebeuf and then promptly sentenced to death. The Princesse immediately responded by informing the authorities that she was pregnant – pregnant women were not executed until their children were born so this postponed execution.
The Princesse was subjected to the indignity of an examination by a doctor Enguchard, an apothecary Quinquet and ‘the widow Prioux’, presumably a midwife. Their official report states: ‘ Nous avons examiné et visité la nommée Thérèse Stainville, épouse de Joseph Monaco, âgée de 26 ans, déclarée être enceinte de deux mois et demi. Notre examen ne nous a fourni aucun signe de grossesse. Ce 8 thermidor, l’an 2® de la République une et indivisible, (signé) Enguchard, Quinquet, veuve Prioux.‘
She wrote this letter to Fouquier-Tinville after they had left:
“Citizen, I wish to inform you that I am not pregnant. I wanted to tell you. Though I can no longer hope you will come, I beg you do so nonetheless. I did not soil my mouth with this lie out of fear of death, nor to avoid it, but to give me one day more, so that I might cut my own hair, and not have it done at the hands of the executioner. It is the only legacy that I can leave to my children; at least it must be pure.
Choiseul-Stainville-Joseph-Grimaldi-Monaco, foreign princess, and dying from the injustice of French judges.”
She then removed a pane of glass from the window, plaited her long hair and used the glass to cut it off before writing to her children:
“My children, here is my hair. I have postponed my death by one day, not out of fear, but because I wanted myself to cut off these sad remains of me so that you might have them. I did not want it to be left to the hands of the executioner and these were my only means. I have spent one more day in this agony, but I (crossed out) do not complain.
I ask that my hair be put under glass, covered with black crepe, put away for most of the year and brought out only three or four times a year in your bedchamber so that you may have before you the remains of your unfortunate mother who died loving you and who regrets her life only because she can no longer be useful to you.
I commend you to your grandfather: if you see him, tell him that my thoughts are with him and that he stands in place of everything for you, and you, my children, take care of him in his old age and make him forget his misfortunes.”
To her children’s governess, Citoyenne Chevenoy she wrote:
“I have already written to you and I am writing to you again to commend my children to you. When you receive this note, I shall be no more, but let my memory make you take pity on my unhappy children. That is the only feeling that they can now inspire.
I leave you, as a souvenir, the ring in which my children’s names were inscribed and which you should have received by now – it is the only thing at my disposal to give. Let Louise know the reason why I postponed my death, that she may not suspect me of weakness.”
Louise was a reference to her beloved aunt, the Duchesse de Choiseul, who was also a prisoner at this point but would be released soon afterwards and take charge of the two Grimaldi girls Athénaïs and Honorine until their father returned from England a year later.
The delay meant that the Princesse was in what was to be the very last such tumbril from the Conciergerie on the afternoon of 9 Thermidor. She made sure to apply extra rouge before she left, so as to hide any signs of paleness that may be construed as fear. As she stepped out, blinking into the cour de Mai by the Palais du Justice, she was seen to display ‘righteous indignation’ at her fate and remarked to the porter, as she handed him the packet containing her hair and the letters she had written during the previous night: ‘Swear to me, Monsieur, in the presence of these honest men, whom the same fate awaits, that you will carry out for me this last service, which I expect of a human being.’ She then turned to the Comtesse de Narbonne’s maid, who was to die with her and who was hysterical with fear and said: ‘Courage, my dear friend! Courage! Only crime can show weakness!’
The cortège was held up by excited crowds in the wake of Robespierre’s fall that day but the executions continued nonetheless. She was the last person to be guillotined that day and as Olivier Blanc writes: ‘She climbed the steps in her turn. On the platform, her youthful beauty shone in the dazzling July light.‘
After her departure, her cell was found to contain: ‘un jupon de bazin blanc garni, deux chemises de femme, une camisolle de taffetas bleu, quatre mouchoirs de poche, une paire de poches, trois serre-tête, un fichu de linon, deux paires de bas de coton, une cravate de soye, un sac à ou- vrage de taffetas vert contenant un tricot avec des aiguilles, un oreiller avec taye garnie.‘
Her hair was delivered to her daughter, Honorine, who later became Marquise de la Tour du Pin and it remains in the possession of her descendants, the Chabrillan family at their château Fontaine-Française. Along with a portrait of the Princesse, it was loaned to the Musée Carnavalet for an exhibition about the French Revolution in 1934 and is reportedly a very beautiful plait.
Bust of Princesse Joseph de Monaco by François Martin.