The family history of the dukes of Villeroy is one of the best examples of a the successful rise of a non-noble family into the very highest ranks of the French aristocracy, even to the point of being considered members of the intimate royal circle at Versailles. Indeed, one of these, the 2nd Duke, might be considered one of the few men Louis XIV would have called ‘friend’, a person who certainly would have made an intriguing contribution to the recent television show Versailles. The same might be said for his sister, Catherine, one of the great intriguers of the French court, whose brazen attempt to bring down the power of Madame de Maintenon led instead to her downfall and banishment from court.
The story of the Neufville de Villeroy family is also a neatly self-contained saga of the Ancien Régime, from their rising up in the era of ‘new men’ promoted in the exuberance of a reforming monarchy in the early 16th century, to obtaining the highest positions of duke and peer, marshal of France and provincial governor in the 17th century, then coming to a complete and swift end via the guillotine during the French Revolution. It is also one of the best examples of a family whose origins were most often obscured by the large-scale genealogical volumes produced in the eighteenth century. Rising from the status of a propertied government minister into the court nobility was acceptable for the image the monarchy and its supporters wanted to portray; rising from fish merchants was not.
Because of this desire to obscure a family’s origins in ‘trade’, there are therefore a lot of conflicting accounts about the origins of the Neufville family. Their surname means simply ‘new town’, but there’s no real indication what this refers to. It seems that they were successful merchants dealing in fish from one of the great port cities in Normandy, Rouen, who in the 15th century transferred their business to the great central market in Paris known as Les Halles. Near this great commercial centre, they built one of the many residences that later bore the name Villeroy, named for a lordship they acquired by marriage in the 16th century (see below). This Hôtel de Villeroy (rue des Bourdonnais) was conveniently located between Les Halles and the government centres a few streets to the west clustered around the Louvre. Richard Neufville combined his thriving mercantile business with administrative positions, first looking after the Paris residence of the Duke of Burgundy as his maître d’hôtel, then as a tax official for the district of Paris.
His son, Nicolas, seems to have added a ‘de’ around 1500 when he acquired some small seigneuries in the environs of Paris, and shortly thereafter the prestigious post of royal secretary. Most importantly, he had married well, to Geneviève le Gendre, whose father and brother (also from Rouen) both held offices of treasurer of France (high ranking finance officials), and Nicolas soon joined them in this position. He served Louis XII and Francis I as a finance secretary and a privy councillor, as did his son, Nicolas II. The latter in particular became an intimate financial officer for Francis I, financial secretary for his private affairs, and treasurer of his order of knighthood. He also continued the family’s rise in prominence within the city of Paris as administrator of the Hôtel-Dieu, the most prominent charity hospital. And he too married well, first to a great-niece of the Chancellor of France (Briçonnet), and then two more times within Parisian parlementaire circles. In the late 1530s, he secured for his son, Nicolas III, his mother’s claims to the Le Gendre properties, Villeroy and Alincourt, on opposite sides of Paris. Alincourt, in the small province known as the Vexin, was situated perfectly on the route between Paris and Rouen to allow convenient contacts with their former business network in Normandy. It possessed a medieval castle which was modified in the 16th century and still exists today, in private hands.
The lordship of Villeroy was to the south-east of Paris, in the region of great forests so cherished by royalty and the nobility for its hunting (the grandest of all these, Fontainebleau, is in the same general direction). Built on the banks of the River Essonne, near its confluence with the Seine, Villeroy was part of the lordship of Mennecy which had long been a fief of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, but was sold off to financiers in the 15th century and eventually acquired by one these, Le Gendre. In the 1560s, Nicolas III de Neufville rebuilt the château and enlarged its gardens. The house was rebuilt in a neo-classical style in the 18th century, and the family supported the opening of a nearby porcelain manufactury. This was closed by the 1780s, and in the 1790s, after the extinction of the family, the château was pulled down. Only the park remains today.
Nicolas III Le Gendre de Neufville, Seigneur de Villeroy and Alincourt, had a career much like his father, a royal finance secretary and a Parisian city official, who also married within the circle of Parisian high finance. He rose higher in the ranks, however, serving as a Secretary of State for King Henry II and his Lieutenant in the Ile de France, and ending his career in the top position in the hierarchy of the city of Paris, the Provost of the Merchants (essentially the mayor), 1566 to 1570.
Nicolas IV was therefore launched very well into his career, and would become one of the leading government figures of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In addition to serving as one of the chief ministers of Charles IX, Henry III, Henry IV and Marie de Medici—in a long career spanning from the 1560s to his death in 1617—he and his wife, Madeleine de l’Aubespine, also hosted a leading Parisian salon at their home the Hôtel de Villeroy. She was a leading light in the Parisian intellectual scene, a hostess and patron of major poets like Ronsard, and known herself as a poet and a translator.
Père Anselme’s genealogical history of the family praises Nicolas IV as ‘a strong supporter of men of letters, with the reputation as one of the wisest and skilful men at court’. He succeeded his father-in-law as a Secretary of State in 1567, and soon became the close personal secretary of King Charles IX, then one of the most influential ministers, particularly in foreign affairs, of King Henry III. Initially a supporter of the Catholic League, Villeroy transferred his allegiance to Henry IV after his conversion to Catholicism in 1594, and was confirmed by the new king as a Minister of State. Towards the end of his career, his lordship of Villeroy was raised to the status of marquisate. He had been influential in the fall of the chief minister, Sully, in 1611, but was himself pushed aside in 1614.
By this point, however, the Neufvilles’ place was secure as a court family, and Nicolas V’s only son, Charles, Marquis de Villeroy, was already acting as a grandee nobleman, with the kinds of provincial and court offices that went along with such status. Charles had made a name for himself in the early years of the 17th century as ambassador to Rome (two of his sons were born there and were honoured with significant godfathers, who gave them their names: Ferdinand for the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Camille for Cardinal Borghese, the future Pope Paul V). On his return to France, Charles was named Governor of Lyon, and the neighbouring provinces of Lyonnais, Forez and Beaujolais, 1612, a powerful position in France’s second city that his family would turn into a nearly hereditary possession, retaining the governorship of these provinces until the Revolution. Charles also retained his father’s position on the Council of State, and obtained a court office, Grand Marshal of the Lodgings of the Royal Household, the officer in charge of distributing rooms when the court moved from one residence to another, or traveled in the countryside or on campaign. He was therefore key in determining access to the king, a crucial element of court life and royal patronage in this period. The Marquis de Villeroy displayed the perfect blending of administrative and court worlds that consumed the energies of so many families on the rise. This is seen in his marriages as well, and those of his children: he first married the daughter of the previous governor of Lyon, Marguerite de Mandelot, then the daughter of one of the most influential Parisian parlementaire families, Jacqueline de Harlay. The daughters of his first marriage both married within this same mixed old/new noble/ministerial world: a Brulart and a Souvré, and obtained posts as ladies-in-waiting to the Queen. From the second marriage, Villeroy’s elder sons were launched on military careers, while the younger sons entered the Church and the Order of Malta (an exclusively noble order—they had now definitely arrived)—the youngest was even named ‘Lyon-François’ to demonstrate the family’s new prominent position in the southeast of France.
Of the clergymen, Camille became the most prominent, first being sent to the southeast as an abbot and lieutenant-general of the Lyonnais, then elevated to the position of Archbishop of Lyon in 1654. His long reign in Lyon was one of the most intriguing fusions of secular and spiritual power in early modern France, as both archbishop and lieutenant-general (virtual governor, since his brother was usually elsewhere). He rebuilt the archiepiscopal palace and also a country château at Ombreval (renamed Neufville for the family), on the river Saône north of the city of Lyon. Here he acted like a virtual sovereign and lived in great splendour.
He was a reformer in his archdiocese, built numerous schools and churches, rebuilt the Hôtel de Ville in Lyon, and gathered a huge collection of books (estimated at over 5,000) which he donated to the Jesuits of Lyon upon his death in 1698. His devotion to the city of Lyon was clear: although always supportive of Louis XIV in his struggles against religious dissent, he opposed the King’s actions against Protestants, since many of these were essential to Lyon’s most important industry, silk weaving. Ombreval was erected into a marquisate for him, and this and the château were passed on to Archbishop Camille’s nephew, the Marshal de Villeroy, and then into the family of Boufflers by marriage in the 1730s.
This Marshal de Villeroy was the second of two pre-eminent Marshals of France in the reign of Louis XIV, the first and second dukes of Villeroy. Most noteworthy about these men, father and son, was their position of extreme intimacy with the monarch himself, the first as governor of the young Sun King, and the second as intimate friend, then as governor of the royal successor, Louis XV.
The first of these, Nicolas V, first known as the Marquis d’Alincourt as his father’s heir, was given the survivance of the governorship of Lyon and the Lyonnais in 1615, when he was only 17. A survivance is an important indication of a family’s importance within the monarchical structure of ancien régime France, as it was a basically a guarantee that the office would pass from father to son, and that if it wasn’t, the family would receive significant financial compensation. Young Nicolas also secured a bright future through marriage in 1617 to Madeleine de Créquy, daughter of a leading general, the future Marshal-Duke de Lesdiguières, under whom he served in numerous campaigns in northern Italy in the 1620s-30s. Rising in the ranks of the French army himself, Alincourt played important role in the wars of Louis XIII in the Piedmont, Franche-Comté and Catalonia—often using nearby Lyon as his base of operations—then made a real name for himself in the siege of Turin, 1640, and the successful capture of the nearly impregnable fortress of La Mothe in Lorraine, 1645. The next Spring he was chosen to act as the governor of the new king, Louis XIV, who was now 7, the year princes traditionally were moved from the care of women into that of men. He was also raised to the rank of Marshal of France, the highest military grade in the Kingdom.
The Marshal was more than merely a loyal commander, but had been a childhood companion (enfant d’honneur) of Louis XIII, and the King’s widow now ensured that the two families would remain close. The proximity between the Hôtel de Villeroy and the Palais Royal where the young king was being raised meant that a lot of time was spent in both places, and the two Bourbon princes played and were schooled together with the Neufville sons and daughters. To further honour this long-term connection, the marquisate of Villeroy was elevated into a duchy in 1651, though given the fragile politics of the era, the new duke had to wait until 1663, once the King was fully in his majority, for the title and peerage to be confirmed by the Parlement of Paris, who were not so keen to promote this relatively arriviste family, formerly very much one of their own, to the premier ranks of the nobility. The King had to force them, and force them he did.
Now that Louis XIV was an adult, the first Duke of Villeroy’s position as princely governor was transformed into a government post, as Chief of the Royal Council of Finances, in 1661, though this was mostly symbolic—the actual financial control was held firmly by Louis XIV’s chief minister, Colbert. Here was a source of conflict, however, in that Villeroy continued his families links with the other main ministerial clan, the Le Telliers, rivals of the Colberts: his half-sister’s grand-daughter Anne de Souvré married the leading Le Tellier, the war minister Louvois, and his own grandson, Nicolas VI, would later marry the child of this union, Marguerite Le Tellier. Such was the way that Louis XIV encouraged his chief courtiers and ministers to remain in constant competition with each other rather than united and against the Crown. It is the chief strength of his reign.
The chief weakness, however, was in Louis XIV’s complete loyalty to his favourites, regardless of the cost to the state or to his reputation as king. One of these favourites was his governor’s son, his childhood friend, François de Neufville, 2nd Duke of Villeroy. We can see it also in the King’s relationship with the Duke’s sister, Catherine, who was married in 1660 to the King’s other great childhood friend, Louis de Lorraine, Comte d’Armagnac. Such was the King’s affection for Armagnac that despite Catherine’s repeated scandalous transgressions at court in the later 1660s which cost her the post of Dame du Palais of the Queen and even her expulsion from court (after she informed the Queen about the King’s affair with Madame de Montespan), she never lost the King’s favour completely, and their sons were highly favoured by him throughout the reign.
This was hardly comparative with the on-going favour given to her brother, the 2nd Duke, who was repeatedly rewarded with military commands even following great disasters. He had been ceded his father’s regiment from Lyon, his position as governor there, and even the ducal title and peerage from 1675. He was rapidly promoted brigadier general in 1672, field marshal in 1674, lieutenant-general in 1777, and finally Marshal of France like his father in 1693.
A year later the new Marshal de Villeroy was in charge of the siege of Namur, but allowed the armies of William of Orange escape, refusing to listen to the voices of his advisors. Yet he remained in command of the Army of the Low Countries until peace was declared in 1697. When the War of the Spanish Succession broke out in 1701, Villeroy was sent to command the Army of Italy, but was soon defeated by the Austrian General Prince Eugene, at Chiari, then shortly after at Cremona in 1702, and was held prisoner in Austria for several months. Nevertheless, he was welcomed back to Versailles with open arms—to the great ire and disgust of contemporary memoirists like Saint-Simon—and sent out again in 1703 to command the Army of Flanders. The greatest defeat of his career came at Ramillies, May 1706, at the hands of the Duke of Marlborough. This time Villeroy’s favour was not enough to save him, and he resigned his command as well as his household post as Captain of the King’s Guard.
Nevertheless, disfavour did not last long, and Villeroy was restored to Louis XIV’s inner circle in 1712, and was named to his father’s old post as Chief of the Council of Finances in 1714. More importantly, he was named future governor of the Dauphin Louis, aged only 4, soon to succeed as Louis XV. The Regency established in 1715 by the new King’s uncle, the Duke of Orléans, would be fractured by two major factions: that of the liberals and reformers led by Orléans and his chief minister Dubois, and the conservatives led (rather weakly) by Villeroy, and the late King’s widow, Madame de Maintenon and illegitimate (and favourite) son, the Duc du Maine. Villeroy was given a seat on the Regency Council, as head of the Council of Commerce, but his real power emerged in 1717 when the boy king was formally transferred into his care (upon reaching the age of 7). The Marshal lived with the King in the Tuileries, rather than in his large Paris residence the Hôtel des Lesdiguières.
This residence, close to the Bastille, was part of a large inheritance that fell to the Villeroy family thanks to the first Duke’s marriage to Madeleine de Créqui de Lesdiguières, followed shortly by the inheritance that came from his own wife’s family, heirs of the duchies of Retz and Beaupréau (both located in western France, near the mouth of the Loire). The 2nd Marshal’s grandson would be known as the Duke of Retz from 1716 (as his father was already 3rd Duke of Villeroy, from 1696). Since the King’s governor resided at the Tuileries, the Hôtel de Lesdiguières was provided for the visit of Peter the Great to France in 1717, and Villeroy and the King visited the Russian Tsar there to attempt to build stronger connections between their two nations.
The Governor of Louis XV was known to contemporaries either as a bulwark of solid, pious louisquatorzian values, or as a vain, rigid relic of the past who was teaching the boy king to be pompous and frivolous. Finally, the Regent Orléans had enough and managed to exile Villeroy from court, ordering him to tend to his governorship in Lyon in August 1722. When the King attained his majority a few months later in February 1723, this order was not reversed, which demonstrates pretty clearly that the old love between the monarchy and the Neufville de Villeroy family was finally at an end. Although he did return to Paris in 1724 after the death of Orléans, the Marshal resided in the Hôtel de Lesdiguières and ceased to play an important role in the Kingdom.
The 3rd Duke of Villeroy, Nicolas VI, may have seemed set to restore the family position. Already a lieutenant-general by 1702 (promoted despite his father’s defeat), and commanding a part of his father’s army crushed at Ramillies, he was nevertheless given his disgraced father’s post of Captain of the Guard in 1708, and assured the succession to the governorship of Lyonnais, Forez and Beaujolais. In October 1722, even after the father had been sent to Lyon, the son was given a place of honour at the coronation of Louis XV, as commander of troops camped outside the city of Reims and ceremonial captain of the Scottish Guard. But the timing was off for this generation—the 3rd Duke was part of that missing generation, those born in the 1660s, who lost their chance of being intimates of the sovereign when that potential sovereign (the Grand Dauphin) died in 1711. His wife, Marguerite le Tellier, also died in 1711 during the same smallpox epidemic, severing the ties of the Neufville and Le Tellier families. Now firmly established as high aristocrats, the children of the 3rd Duke and Duchess married into exclusively ducal circles: two of the oldest families in France, Montmorency and Harcourt, and a fairly recent military dynasty like their own, Boufflers, with a double marriage to a brother and sister in 1720 and 1721.
The 3rd Duke didn’t live much longer to build on this new dynastic power base, however, and died only four years after his ancient father (aged 86), in 1734. His younger brother, François-Paul, had also been set up to continue to build the family’s power in the south-east, as Archbishop of Lyon in 1714. He had been considered as successor to his great-uncle Archbishop Camille as early as 1698, but at only 19, even Louis XIV’s extreme favour towards this family was not enough to overcome clerical opinion that an archbishopric was not appropriate. He did finally take over in Lyon, as well as the country château at Ombreval, but he too died in middle age, in 1731.
The 4th Duke, Louis-François, who had been known as the Duc de Retz as heir, had no children, and his brother had been created Duc d’Alincourt in 1729 by royal brevet as a sign that he was the assumed heir (and he was also created lieutenant in Lyon). But Alincourt died in 1732, so the 4th Duke raised the only surviving nephew as his own son.
The 4th Duc de Villeroy, like his ancestors, rose through the military ranks, attaining the rank of Field Marshal in 1738 in the run-up to the War of Austrian Succession. But his interests were more in developing his family properties, notably with the proclaim manufactury at Villeroy mentioned above, but also rebuilding the château there and its gardens, and building a new Hôtel de Villeroy in Paris. The Hôtel de Lesdiguières was mostly sold off in the 1730s, and the old Hôtel de Villeroy, entirely rebuilt by the first Marshal in the 1640s, had been sold in 1671 (the building remains and for a while served as the Bureau de Poste). So a new Hôtel de Villeroy was built in the newly fashionable neighbourhood on the left bank of the Seine, near the Invalides—originally built for the Swiss banker, Antoine Hogguer, it was redesigned in the 1730s by the fashionable architect Jean-Baptiste Leroux.
But like many of the grand court families in the latter half of the 18th century, the Neufvilles ran into financial difficulties. The new Villeroy residence in Paris was sold in 1768 (it became a government building during the Revolution, and has been the seat of the Ministry of Agriculture since the 1880s), the porcelain factory was shut down in 1777, and the duchy of Retz was sold in 1778. The 4th Duke had died in 1766, and even though his nephew the 5th Duke, Gabriel-Louis, succeeded to the now informally hereditary posts of Captain of the King’s Guard and Governor of Lyonnais, Forez and Beaujolais, and rose through the military hierarchy as lieutenant-general by 1781, he was never a major presence, in court, government, or military. Having sold the Hôtel de Villeroy, he acquired the smaller Hôtel de Beauharnais for his residence in Paris, but spent much of his time at the Hôtel de Villeroy in Lyon. Like most dukes by the 18th century, he married within the now exclusive circle of ducal families, Jeanne-Louise-Constance, daughter of the Duke of Aumont, but they had no children. No longer part of the inner royal circle, his family’s long service to the Crown nevertheless tarred him during the Revolution, and he was executed during the Terror in April 1794. There were no nephews or cadet branches, so when the Duke’s widow died in 1816, the Neufville de Villeroy name was completely extinguished.
(images from Wikimedia Commons)