A celebrated denizen of Versailles, Armand de Gontaut, Duc de Lauzun and Biron would appear to have gatecrashed my novel. I was sitting here minding my own business, tap tap tapping away at the keyboard and writing a potentially dramatic scene when BOOM there he was and he is still there and it would appear that he would like his story to be known.
Armand was born on the 13th April 1747, the son of the Duc de Gontaut and his wife Antoinette-Eustachie de Crozat. Madame de Gontaut had died giving birth to him and on her deathbed had made her younger sister, Louise-Honorine then aged just twelve promise to marry her lover, the Duc de Choiseul who was also probably the father of her baby.
The boy grew up to be universally adored, particularly by his aunt, the Duchesse de Choiseul who was devastated when he fell in love with her sister in law, the Comtesse de Stainville. Lauzun and the Comtesse were both teenagers at the time and were the youngest members of a family that mostly comprised much older people – the Comte de Stainville was forty when he married his fifteen year old wife. I love this Carmontelle painting of Lauzun with his mistress, the Comtesse and her sister in law, the fearsome Béatrix, Duchesse de Gramont.
Even at a young age, Lauzun had a terrible reputation amongst the noble ladies of Paris and he details some of his amorous adventures in his memoirs. He was also a favourite of Marie Antoinette but was certainly not her lover. I don’t, for the record, believe that Marie Antoinette had lovers in the physical sense but think that she probably had an aesthetic weakness for handsome, dashing young men. Her tastes seem to have been rather pedestrian – men should be gallant and good looking and women should be beautiful and tender hearted.
But I digress. Lauzun did not just have a fearsome reputation as a lover. Oh no, he was also a brave and celebrated soldier as well and took part in the American War of Independence where he fought against the English and was involved in the Siege of Yorktown. His return to France as a hero must surely have increased his popularity even more with the ladies of Paris.
In 1763, his father the Duc de Gontaut decided that it was about time Lauzun got married and arranged a splendid match with Amélie de Boufflers, the twelve year old granddaughter of the fearsome and influential Maréchale de Luxembourg. However, Lauzun at this time was still madly in love with Madame de Stainville and so asked that the marriage be delayed for two years. In 1766, he could put it off no longer and the wedding took place before most of the court on Tuesday the 4th February in the chapel of the Hôtel de Luxembourg, 16 Rue St. Marc.
Armand was nineteen and Amélie was just fourteen. Both looked appalled and terrified.
Madame du Deffand wrote about the young Duchesse: ‘The little woman is a small bird which has not learnt any of the tunes which have been whistled to her; she makes little sounds which really mean nothing, but as her plumage is pretty, she is admired and praised all the time; her timidity pleases, her little frightened air interests one. But I don’t prophesy that any good will come of it.’
Madame de Choiseul befriended the timid girl and encouraged her to spend as much time as possible at Chanteloup. The marriage was a failure however and there were no children. Lauzun’s adventures continued apace and he was to become entangled with several noble ladies, including Aimée de Coigny, Duchesse de Fleury who went to school with the daughters of his former mistress, the Comtesse de Stainville. You can just imagine the raised eyebrows and gossip about that!
Like many other nobles with a liberal turn of mind, he wasted no time throwing in his lot with the revolutionaries of 1789 and in 1791 he was appointed commander of the army of Flanders by the National Assembly. July 1792 brought further promotion when he became commander of the army of the Rhine, a great responsibility.
Disaster struck in late 1793 after he was sent to La Rochelle to lead the French Revolutionary Army against the Vendéan Uprising. He was responsible for the capture of Saumur and the victory at Parthenay against the troops of Henri de la Rochejacquelin but this wasn’t enough to prevent him falling under suspicion and being accused of what Aimée de Coigny calls ‘inertia’ and so he handed in his resignation.
He was almost immediately arrested and imprisoned in the Abbaye prison in Paris, where as one of the wealthier prisoners he was treated with deference and dined on champagne and oysters. He was transfered to Sainte-Pélagie, one of the more pleasant of the Parisian prisons where he immediately began an intrigue with Mademoiselle Raucourt, an actress from the Comédie Française. Madame Roland, who was a fellow prisoner at Sainte-Pélagie encountered him at this time and seems to have fallen under his spell as well.
Lauzun was transfered to the Conciergerie for his trial and it was there that he wrote his final letter before facing the guillotine on the 31st December 1793. Of course it was addressed not to his wife or even his adoring aunt, the Duchesse de Choiseul but to a Citizeness Laurent.
‘In a few hours my fate will be sealed, my poor, hapless friend, you are the more to be pitied, for your sufferings will not end so soon and you will weep for me for a long time to come. If I could glimpse some happiness for you in the future, that hope would much migrate the harshness of my fate. I have every reason to believe that my sex and the only friend that still remains to me in the world will take good care of you. I recommend you to the care of your brother and even of your lady companion. She will carry out that trust so necessary to my tranquillity.
Farewell, farewell, I embrace you again and for the last time.‘
The poor little Duchesse, his wife Amélie de Boufflers was herself executed on 27 June 1794.
Lauzun leaves a permanent memorial in his home, the beautiful Hôtel de Biron, which is now the Rodin Museum. He was a keen gardener, thanks to several trips to London in the 1770s and 1780s and created there one of the most stunning gardens in all France.