The dukes of Guise are famous primarily as leaders of the ultra-Catholic side in the French Wars of Religion of the late 16th century. One of the most famous political assassinations in European history is undoubtedly the double murder of the third duke of Guise—with the dramatic nickname ‘scarface’ (‘le Balafré’)—and his brother the Cardinal de Guise, on Christmas Day, 1588. The King, Henri III, feared the power of this family so much that he resorted to such drastic action to try to preserve the power of his own family, but instead further alienated those who might have supported him, and in the end was assassinated himself a few months later, bringing the rule of the Valois Dynasty in France to an ignominious end.
The story of the Duchy of Guise stretches from its creation as one of the first non-royal dukedoms in France in 1528, for Claude de Lorraine, until the death of its last holder in 1688, and beyond as one of the many dukedoms held by the House of Bourbon-Condé, and even today as a title occasionally used by the current royal family of France. The last of these was Prince Jean, who died in 1940. This article will focus mostly on the family of Claude de Lorraine—a family I have been researching for the last two decades—though I will stick with the main line, leaving the cadet branches and their own dukedoms to separate posts. The Dynasty of Lorraine itself is far more ancient, as dukes and prince in the Holy Roman Empire from as far back as the 11th century, so they too will have a separate article.
Guise itself was a fairly unimportant town, but with a whopping huge fortress which guarded the northern approaches to the Kingdom of France in the Middle Ages. Today it is mostly a ruin, but you can visit the large single tower and even larger subterranean fortress. Much of what is below was built by the dukes of Guise in the 16th century, but there is also a lot of the structure that dates from the later 19th century when this was still a very sensitive border region. This part of Picardy, was ruled directly by a branch of the French royal dynasty from as early as the 9th century, the counts of Vermandois. The area around Guise is known as the Thiérache, which is a high plain. With the fortress of Guise at a high point on this plain, its commanders could signal other high fortresses miles away, to let them know invaders were arriving from the north. It is visiting places like this that really give you a sense of why these frontier hilltop castles were important. Guise had its own Frankish lords until it became part of a collection of feudal properties held by the prominent northern noble houses of Avesnes and Châtillon then passed to the House of Anjou, one of the junior branches of the Valois Dynasty, in 1360.
One of the last dukes of Anjou, René I, was not only count of Guise, but also duke of Lorraine, count of Provence, and king of Sicily and Naples. When he died in 1480, his domains were split up, and the county of Guise went to his grandson, René II, the Duke of Lorraine. René had to fight for this inheritance, and in 1506, he had a bright idea to defend his interests within the Kingdom of France (Lorraine being a state outside its borders at the time) by dividing his inheritance into two, and sending his younger son, Claude, to be raised at the French court. These lands inside France included not only the county of Guise, but the extremely wealthy lordships of Joinville in Champagne, and Harcourt, Aumâle and Elbeuf in Normandy. As it turned out, Claude got along extremely well with the young, vibrant heir to the throne, François de Valois, whose cousin, Antoinette de Bourbon, he married in 1513. When François became king in 1515, he rewarded his friend with military commands and household offices, and the two friends fought together in the wars of Italy, notably at Marignano. In 1526 Claude was named Grand Veneur de France (‘Master of the Hunt’), which reflected how close he was to the King, since hunting was how kings spent most of their time. This ensured Claude de Lorraine had daily access to the King and thus to the King’s patronage, for himself, his family and his clients. In 1527, he was named governor of Burgundy, one of France’s most important provinces, and in 1528, François broke with tradition and elevated Guise to a duchy-peerage. At first the Parlement of Paris rejected the documentation needed to make this creation legal, believing that duchies were meant only for princes. The King’s insistence set a precedent that would affect French history and politics for the next three centuries: by creating a new class of aristocrat, the ‘foreign prince’, he essentially recognised that Claude de Lorraine was already a prince, hailing from a sovereign house outside France’s borders. Other prince étranger dynasties would follow, hailing from the neighbouring states of Cleves, Savoy, Luxembourg etc.
Claude, 1st Duke of Guise, was the founder of a new and powerful dynasty that would dominate French, even European, affairs for the next century. He and his wife Antoinette, developed their main residence, the Château of Joinville, into a magnificent court on the eastern borders of France, and Claude imported much of the new ideas about design, art and architecture he had seen when on campaign in Northern Italy. He built a Renaissance pleasure palace at Joinville, in the valley below the main castle, and surrounded it with gardens and water features. The Duke and Duchess of Guise collected art, commissioned grand tapestries, and raised their children to think of themselves as princes, so it was not too difficult for their eldest daughter Marie to act as a queen after her marriage to James V of Scotland in 1538. Their eldest son, François, 2nd Duke, was one of the most famous generals of the century, while their second son, Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine, became a leading statesman for the Catholic Church, and very nearly was elected pope.
The family seemed unstoppable. Duke François retained his father’s household office of Master of the Hunt, and added those of Grand Chamberlain and Grand Master (ie, Grand Steward or head of the household). He added a second duchy (Aumâle) to his family’s collection, and even obtained the unprecedented elevation of Joinville into a principality, in 1552, one of only a handful of these created in France. These titles reflect the dual power centres of the Guise family, in Champagne and Normandy, to the east and west of the capital (not to mention the duchy of Guise itself in Picardy to the north).
As a general, François, 2nd Duc de Guise defeated the forces of the Emperor at Metz in 1552, and those of England in 1559 at Calais—taking away the last vestige of England’s once great continental empire. He and his brother the Cardinal dominated the government of King François II, a teenager married to their niece, Mary, Queen of Scots. But at the start of the Wars of Religion, having challenged the growing power of the Protestants (Huguenots) led by Admiral de Coligny, the Duke was assassinated, in February 1563. This murder led to one of the greatest clan rivalries in French history, and the Guise-Coligny vendetta would continue for several generations until it petered out in the 1640s.
François, 2nd Duke of Guise, left behind five brothers, including two cardinals, a Grand Prior of the Order of Malta in France, and the founders of the two main cadet branches of the House of Guise: Aumâle and Elbeuf (see separate articles on these). The elder cardinal, Charles, had succeeded his uncle, Jean de Lorraine (another of the favourites of King François I) as Archbishop of Reims, the premier ecclesiastical position in France, notably with the responsibility of crowning the monarch. The Guise family would hold onto the archbishopric of Reims for 100 years, before finally losing it in 1641. The ecclesiastical dynasty, like its secular counterpart, was unstoppable. To continue to secure their rise, Duke François had, as befitted his rank, married not a noble Frenchwoman, but an Italian princess, from the family of the Dukes of Ferrara. Anne d’Este was also, crucially, grand-daughter of a French king, Louis XII, and also grand-daughter of Lucretia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI. Anne had the blood of kings and popes coursing through her veins, and a potential claim to the independent duchy of Brittany, so she had to be treated with care by the kings of France. Like her Italian counterpart, Queen-Mother Catherine de Medici, she understood politics and propaganda, and easily took over as head of the Catholic faction in France after the murder of her husband, until she could pass on the reins to her sons.
The eldest of these, Henri, 3rd Duke of Guise, took over as leader of the Catholic faction in France from the 1570s. In 1575 he obtained his famous scar in battle against the Protestants. Like his father and grandfather, he held prominent posts at court (Master of the Hunt, Grand Master) and married a foreign princess: Catherine of Cleves, heiress of strategic properties in the far north-eastern borderlands of France, but also the county of Eu, the equivalent of a duchy in all but name (it even was considered a peerage), on the borders between Normandy and Picardy. The Château of Eu would become the second jewel in the crown of Guise residences, and, unlike Joinville, it still exists and can be visited, including the wonderful Renaissance Jesuit Chapel built by Henri and Catherine and where they are buried. Duke Henri’s ambition, and indeed his charisma—the Guise were like the Kennedys of their day, particularly to the people of Paris—ultimately led to his downfall. In 1584, King Henry III’s younger brother died, making the heir to the French throne his Bourbon—and Protestant—cousin, Henri de Navarre. To Guise and his followers, this was unacceptable, and they revived an ancient tradition that the House of Lorraine was truly the last representative of the royal dynasty of Charlemagne. Guisard propaganda began to propagate ideas about how the throne of France had been usurped by Hugh Capet in 987 and had been held illegally by his descendants ever since. They also spread ideas about how decadent the King was, spending his time lounging around with attractive young men (his mignons), cross-dressing (a myth that still holds power today, as seen in the 1998 film Elizabeth), and generally not behaving the way a true Catholic monarch should. In May 1588 Guise was powerful enough to drive the King out of Paris itself, and to force him to convene the supreme legislative body of the Kingdom, the Estates General. He wanted this body to proclaim that France was a Catholic country, period. But there were also fears, perhaps justified, that he wanted them to choose him as the next king of France. As the Estates General gathered at the royal château of Blois that winter, the King panicked and decided to eliminate his rival, thus sealing his own fate, and making Henri de Guise into a martyr
The Guise family was devastated by the death of the 3rd Duke and his brother the Cardinal. The pieces were picked up by his younger brother, the Duke of Mayenne, and his sister, the Duchess of Montpensier, who took charge, in particular, of Catholic propaganda in Paris. Mayenne would continue to lead the Catholic League until the end of the Wars of Religion in 1598. The 4th Duke of Guise, Charles, was too young to lead the family, but slowly rebuilt his family’s reputation and power in the next reign, that of the first Bourbon king, Henri IV. He lost his family’s senior posts at court, and never was a major military commander, though he was appointed Governor of Provence and Admiral of the Mediterranean fleet, perhaps in an attempt to keep him far from the court in Paris. Duke Charles responded by establishing an effective southern power-base, and he proved to be a popular governor. He also married the heiress of a prominent southern dynasty, Henriette-Catherine, Duchess of Joyeuse, whose lands lay a bit further north in the Rhône valley, but significantly was also a favourite of the new power in the Kingdom following the assassination of Henri IV in 1610: the King’s widow, Marie de Medici. The Queen Mother surrounded herself with women of powerful and devout Catholic families. This might have been the Guise family’s way back in to the centres of power. But they overplayed their hand, and when Marie was driven from court, and indeed from France, by her son Louis XIII, the Guise were exiled too. The 4th Duke and his family spent much of the 1630s living abroad in Florence, until the King died in 1643 and they were finally allowed home.
By 1643, however, and with the fresh start that would be the reign of Louis XIV, the 4th Duke of Guise was dead, as was his heir, Prince François. The head of the family was now, unfortunately, the famously feckless Henri II, who had initially been, as usual for a second son, assigned to succeed as Archbishop of Reims. But he had little inclination for the church, and pursued a series of ill-advised love affairs (at one point he was ‘married’ to three women at the same time), until he was removed from his clerical positions by Cardinal Richelieu in 1641. Guise didn’t seem to mind really, as his passion was for adventure, and he set his sights on helping the Neapolitans throw off the yoke of Spanish rule when they revolted in 1647. With his mother’s financial assistance and Florentine connections, Henri set off for Italy, where he managed to hold off the Spanish for several months—a significant feat given the position of Spain as the world’s sole superpower in the 17th century—and proclaimed himself King Enrico I of Naples, drawing on the claims of his distant ancestor, René I (see above) to the thrones of Sicily and Naples. This was in spite of the fact that the Neapolitans had proclaimed a republic. ‘No matter’ said Henri, ‘I will be king of the republic in the way the Prince of Orange is governor of the Netherlands’. In the Spring of 1648, the Spanish fleet arrived, and Guise was taken away to spend the next few years in captivity in Spain. He was freed in part through the efforts of, once again, his clever mother, Henriette-Catherine de Joyeuse, who knew not only to conserve fiscal responsibility (of which her son had none), but also to cultivate friendship with the new regent, Queen Anne of Austria, who conveniently was the sister of the King of Spain. Following his release and return to France, the 5th Duke of Guise’s reputation in France was in ruins, and he was forced to sell off several of the family treasures, notably the Château of Eu.
The Dowager Duchess also knew that she had other sons, and made sure their reputations were more secure: in particular, her son Louis was created Duke of Joyeuse and recovered one of the senior positions in the royal household, Grand Chamberlain of France. Although this son was killed fighting versus the Spanish at Arras in 1654, he had married well, the heiress of the Duchy of Angoulême (near Bordeaux), and proprietress of another spectacular château, that of Écouen, north of Paris, today’s National Museum of the Renaissance. And although this woman Françoise-Marie de Valois, was, quite tragically, mentally disabled from a very young age—a priest refused to give her communion when she was young girl, claiming she was unable to understand its meaning—she had produced a son, who was set to take on one of the largest fortunes in France, if not in Europe.
This son, Louis-Joseph de Lorraine, succeeded his uncle as 6th Duke of Guise, in 1664. He was also Duke of Joyeuse thanks to his grandmother, and Duke of Angoulême thanks to his mother, by special royal favour, since she was still alive, though kept firmly hidden from public view, in her grand Paris residence, the Hôtel d’Angoulême, later renamed the Hôtel de Lamoignon, and now the seat of the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris. Nearby, also in the fashionable aristocratic district known as the Marais, lived his aunt and guardian, Marie de Lorraine, known as Mlle de Guise, in the old urban palace of the family, the Hôtel de Guise, which today houses part of the National Archives. Although much of this grand palace was remodelled by its subsequent owners, the Rohan princes, there are still elements of the inside, such as the chapel, that remain original, and you can still see the original grand portal, with its 14th-century tower and the prominent coat-of-arms of the Guise family, on the rue des Archives. The 6th Duke would attempt to raise his family back up to truly princely level one last time in 1667 by marriage to a royal princess, Elisabeth (or Isabel) de Bourbon, daughter of Gaston, Duke of Orléans, the late uncle of King Louis XIV. Louis-Joseph therefore resided with her not at the Hôtel de Guise, but across the Seine at the Palais du Luxembourg, his wife’s property which she shared with her mother and half-sister, La Grande Mademoiselle. According to memoirs from the time, he and his wife maintained proper etiquette regarding their respective ranks, she being a petite-fille de France, grand-daughter of a king, and she had to invite him to sit down when they dined. But Louis-Joseph was never in great health, and he died at just age 21, leaving behind an infant son.
The 7th and last duke of Guise, François-Joseph, lived less than five years. He was also Duke of Joyeuse and Angoulême, and was set to inherit his mother’s duchy of Alençon, in southern Normandy. Had he survived, he might have been the first of a new breed of semi-royal princes in France, half-Bourbon, half-French (in fact he was referred to as the Duc d’Alençon, not Guise). When he died in 1675, the entire succession passed to his great-aunt, Mlle de Guise, who obtained an extraordinary concession from the King of being named Duchess of Guise, Princess of Joinville—titles normally reserved for men (I’ve even seen her referred to as ‘paire de France’, using a noun (peer) that is almost always masculine). This same great favour allowed her to get away with having her own court composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, when everyone else had to submit to the King’s official composer, Lully. The ‘Guise Music’ (the composer and his small orchestra and band of singers) is seen as the last flourish of a long history of patronage of the arts and music in France, and Marie de Guise’s contribution in bringing Italian styles to France—remember that she had spent much of her childhood in exile in Florence—is widely recognised in musicological circles.
Marie de Lorraine, Duchess of Guise, died in 1688. She had never married, officially at least (there are rumours to the contrary), and her enormous succession was thus thrown into the courts where it would be squabbled over for two decades. She had attempted to leave much of her fortune, including the Duchy of Guise itself, to a cousin from the House of Lorraine who was serving in Vienna as an Imperial general, but that was understandably deemed unacceptable to Louis XIV, enemy of the Habsburgs, so her will was legally broken (‘cassé’) by the Parlement of Paris. Her senior ‘natural’ heir was deemed to be the Princess of Condé, but there were also significant claims put forward by the King’s cousin, La Grande Mademoiselle (whose grandmother was Henriette-Catherine de Joyeuse), and after her death in 1693, by Philippe d’Orléans, the King’s brother. Ultimately it was decided that the Duchy of Guise would be given to the Condé family (who kept it until the 19th century), while the Principality of Joinville, was given to the Dukes of Orléans, who dismantled its splendid medieval château in the 1780s. After the Revolution and the Restoration, the House of Orléans would continue to use the titles Guise and Joinville for various of their sons.
The reputation of the dukes of Guise of the House of Lorraine has fluctuated widely since their disappearance: in the 18th century they were considered a throwback to a violent and ambitious time—Saint-Simon wrote that he hated seeing the Lorraine princes at court, since they had the ‘stink of the League’ about them. He despised that they thought they could rival kings. By the 19th century, however, the mood had changed, and the revival of conservative Catholicism, and a mistrust of over-powerful monarchs, turned the 16th-century Guise into heroes, defenders of the faith, and challengers of royal tyranny. The murder of the 3rd Duke became a popular subject for grand historic paintings, such as those by Charles Durupt (1832) and Paul Delaroche (1834), and was even turned into one of the world’s first feature films, L’Assassinat du duc de Guise (1908), with a score by the eminent composer Camille Saint-Saëns. The legacy today is mixed—all French schoolchildren learn about their heroism and bravery in the Wars of Religion, but there is certainly a sense that their unbridled religious intolerance no longer has a place in a modern society.
Places to visit: Donjon de Guise in Picardy, Château de Joinville in Champagne, Château d’Eu in Normandy, Hôtel de Guise in Paris.
and if you’d like to read my book about the Guise in the time of Louis XIV:
and a collection of essays I edited with my friends Penny and Jessica about the Guise more generally, and especially about their connections to Italy:
(images in text either from Wikimedia Commons or personal photos)