The doomed Princesse Joséph de Monaco

19 January 2011

Françoise-Thérèse de Choiseul-Stainville, Princesse Joséph de Monaco is one of my personal obsessions. She is one of those historical figures that I glean random odd facts about from different sources but who will never get her own book. I’m always left looking for more. I’ve been researching her life and times for several years now, ever since I was a teenager actually, when I came across an old French history magazine in a brocante shop in Versailles, which had a feature on her life. I’d love to write a book about her just as soon as I get enough material together but to be honest I don’t know if that will ever happen.

The painting reproduced above is the only one that is freely available online, but no one seems sure who it is by or where it is, although I suspect that it is in the Château de Fontaine-Française in Burgundy. A comment left here a while ago suggested that it might be by the portraitist Angelica Kauffman, which seems plausible.

Detail from a painting featuring Françoise and her elder sister, Marie-Stéphanie with their aunts, the Duchesse de Choiseul and Duchesse de Gramont. Françoise is presumably the small girl in pink. I was very excited when I stumbled on this picture quite by chance a couple of years ago  – the whole painting depicts Françoise’s father, the Comte de Stainville reviewing troops while his family watches. Many thanks to my husband for successfully enlarging the painting for me and cropping out the relevant detail!

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 (born in September 1746) 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 only daughter and heiress of the Marquis de Reynel and his wife Marie-Jacqueline Racine de Jonquoy. Her grandmother was Lady Henriette FitzJames (daughter of the Duke of Berwick-upon-Tweed) so the family were clearly well connected – in fact Thérèse was fortunate enough to grown up at the Château d’Amboise, which at that time belonged to her family.

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 also rumoured, with much foundation, to be the son of Françoise’s uncle, the Duc de Choiseul and was certainly treated very much as a nephew by Choiseul’s fearsome sister, Béatrix, Duchesse de Gramont. 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. However, her husband was to be immediately dumped by his own mistress, a famous opera dancer who, like the rest of Paris, sided with his unfortunate wife and considered his behaviour beneath contempt.

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 went to the Abbaye aux Bois convent school on the Rue de Sèvres in Paris although rumours abounded that the younger was not the daughter of the Comte (her mother had been made to solemnly make an oath that Françoise, just a few months old at the time of her mother’s disgrace, 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 kind hearted and much loved 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 great 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, as was the custom, 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, who was her best friend in her memoirs as ‘very pretty’. One of their most notorious pranks was to pour ink into the holy water in the school chapel.

Marie-Stéphanie, Duchesse de Choiseul-Beaupré, sister of Françoise and lady in waiting to Marie Antoinette. Stéphanie was the petted and adored favourite of her family, while her younger sister was always somewhat ignored.

Until Françoise’s arrival at Abbaye aux Bois, after her mother’s downfall, the two sisters had been barely in each other’s company – the elder girl was already well established when Françoise arrived at the school, apparently from a convent elsewhere which makes me wonder if Françoise, who was just a baby when her mother was sent away had in fact accompanied her into exile at Nancy and remained with her until it was considered judicious to remove her and send her to school in Paris.

The two sisters were of markedly different temperments. Hélène recounts that her friend, Stéphanie described her own sister, 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.’

It seems from this that the sisters had probably never been in each other’s company before Françoise arrived at the school in Paris, which I think confirms that the younger girl had in fact been raised separately by her own mother at the convent in Nancy.

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, a red haired lothario 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 together: Honorine, born on 22 April 1784; Athénaïs, born on 22 June 1786 and Delphine, born on 22 July 1788. Sadly, Delphine was to die during infancy. Their births were registered in the Saint Roch district of Paris (now the IV arrondissement).

Françoise’s handsome prince, Joséph de Monaco.

They made their home in an apartment on the lovely, peaceful Rue de Monsieur, which is a short walk away from Prince Joséph’s father’s palace, the Hôtel de Matignon (now official residence of the French President) on the Rue de Varenne. Françoise probably spent a lot of time at the stately Hôtel, with its enormous gardens as her father in law seems to have been extremely fond of her.

The beautiful yellow salon of the Hôtel de Matignon.

The Rue Monsieur in Paris, where Françoise and Joséph lived with their children. I wasn’t sure where it was and came across it quite by chance while walking to the Hôtel de Matignon. I took a stroll down it, enjoying the peaceful calm and the beautiful pale mansions that overlook the road. I don’t know yet what number house, the Monaco couple lived in but there were several aristocratic looking gates with a courtyard and mansion tucked behind so I am guessing it was one of them.

We catch brief glimpses of Françoise in the years before the Revolution – she, along with her sister, the Duchesse de Choiseul-Beaupré are there in the official lists of young ladies presented to Marie Antoinette after their weddings and also on that of ladies of high rank granted permission to sit on a tambour stool in the presence of the Queen – a great honour at this time so clearly both were well established at Versailles.

Françoise doesn’t appear on any lists of ladies in waiting during this period but her sister was one of Marie Antoinette’s attendants. The Queen, of course, would always be fond of the Choiseul family as she saw them as primary movers in the arrangement of her marriage to Louis XVI.

She seems to have belonged to a slightly more rakish set of young aristocrats, counting the lovely Duchesse de Fleury and the Princesse Rosalie de Lubomirska amongst her friends.

Françoise and her dashing young husband, Prince Joseph de Monaco. The couple were reportedly devoted to each other.

Françoise emigrated with her husband after the initial outbreak of the Revolution in 1789 and then 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, whose cousin shared a room at school with Hélène de Ligne and Françoise’s sister. Aimée and Françoise 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 where she gained a reputation for sweet natured optimism in the face of almost certain death and then later moved on, thanks to pulling some strings, to Saint-Pélagie.

The Princesse de Créquy, a fellow prisoner there, was to describe Françoise in her memoirs:

Je fus enchantée de retrouver là Mme Joseph de Monaco, qui, comme je l’espérais bien, me fut d’une grande ressource. Quoi qu’elle eût naturellement de sages pensées, des idées religieuses et des dispositions charitables, elle avait l’esprit très malin. Avec l’imagination gaie, elle avait le cœur triste ; c’est la plus aimable espèce de gens ; mais bien qu’elle eût acquis assez de connaissance du monde et du cœur humain, elle n’avait aucune expérience de certaines choses vulgaires, et je lui disais toujours : Ma pauvre princesse, vous êtes de ces femmes qui croient que les diamans naissent dans les chatons et les fruits dans les corbeilles.

Je me souviens qu’elle avait, à portée de voix, du côté de sa chambre, une famille vocale et instrumentale admirablement experte et qui lui faisait souffrir le martyre ; elle ne pouvait s’expliquer une disposition qui n’avait rien d’analogue à ses habitudes passées, car elle avait eu pendant toute sa vie la passion contraire à cette aversion-là.

Je me suis souvent demandé pourquoi la musique légère m’est insupportable, tandis que la musique qui prie et la musique qui pleure ont beaucoup de charme pour moi ?

Mme de Monaco me dit un jour, et tout uniment, comme si de rien n’était : — La musique me fait un mal affreux depuis que je ne suis plus jeune. Elle me cause des émotions sans me donner des affections.

Si Mme de Monaco avait connu les choses de la terre aussi bien qu’elle distinguait les choses du cœur, on n’aurait jamais vu plus habile femme. Elle a toujours été bienveillante et bienfaisante ; mais elle n’était pas restée capable d’amitié, parce qu’elle avait éprouvé trop d’amour et trop souvent. Il en est pour les sentimens comme de la grammaire, où le superlatif exclut toujours le comparatif.’

Despite being so harmless 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 blonde 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.

Françoise’s aunt, the Duchesse de Choiseul, who was also imprisoned during the Terror but would escape with her life and take care not only of Françoise’s two daughters but also the children of other friends who had been guillotined. This despite the loss of much of her fortune and being forced to live in drastically reduced circumstances in Paris.

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 in the harsh sunlight 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 execution, her body and those of her fellow victims were taken to the cemetery at Picpus and there stripped and dumped into one of two grave pits without any ceremony.

Françoise’s name on the list of guillotine victims that is kept in a small room in the Conciergerie. She is listed next to the Saint-Amaranthe family and Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just.

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. I’m not sure whether the attribution is correct – the bust is signed and dated ‘1788’, when the Princesse was twenty two years old so I think that either the date or the attribution is wrong.

After the revolution, Françoise’s daughter Honorine married the Marquis de la Tour du Pin on the 20th July 1803, while Athénaïs married the Marquis de Louvois on the 8th August 1804. Her widower, Prince Joseph was to later marry again to a Frances Rainford.

This is the fifth (eek!) version of this post, I thought I should update it a bit as I am still working on the research for this. I’m hoping one day to be able to properly work on a book about Françoise, Lucile Desmoulins, Rosalie Lubomirska and Émilie de Saint-Amaranthe.

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