The sad little Duchesse de Lauzun

3 January 2012

Amèlie de Boufflers was born on the 5th May 1751 and raised by her formidable grandmother, the Maréchale de Luxembourg after being orphaned at a young age. She was renowned throughout high society for her intelligence, prettiness and charmingly shy ways. Of course, as the sole heiress of the Maréchale’s enormous fortune, she could have looked and behaved like the Gruffalo and all of Versailles would have affected to be utterly charmed.

Both Rousseau, whom she met in 1760 and Madame Necker fell under her spell, with the latter pronouncing that she possessed ‘une figure, une douceur, une timidité virginales‘.

In 1763, when Amélie was twelve, the Duc de Gontaut decided that it was about time that his son, Armand the Duc de Biron got married and he and the Maréchale cooked up a splendid match for the young couple. However, Biron 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.

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.

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.

Amélie, with an enormous fortune at her disposal became a well known leader of fashion and was particularly well known for her excessively over the top hats and poufs. It was she who ventured out into society with an entire rustic scene arranged on top of her powdered hair, complete with a miller working behind her ear.

Disaster struck in late 1793 after Biron, now Duc de Lauzun 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 unfortunate Amélie had taken the earlier precaution in 1791 of escaping to England but then foolishly returned to Paris after the upheaval of 10th August 1792 and was immediately arrested. She followed him to the guillotine on the 27th June 1794.

The Lauzun couple’s beautiful Parisian mansion, the Hôtel de Biron (now the Musée Rodin) stands as a permanent memorial to their taste and the charmed lives that they led until disaster and revolution struck.