Madame de Montespan—one of the most famous women in French history, one of the most archetypal maîtresses en titre of the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. She was not a duchess, unlike many other women in her position, though she was given the equivalent rights at court as a mark of her unparalleled royal favour. But as a married woman, it would have been difficult to be created a duchess without doing the same for her husband, a man the King despised. But Louis XIV did raise several members of her close family to the highest ranks: their illegitimate son, the Duc du Maine in 1673, and her legitimate son, as Duc d’Antin in 1711. Royal favour was amply demonstrated by the King giving her sister the position of Abbess of Fontevraud, one of the most prestigious and wealthy abbeys in France, in 1670, while her brother was promoted to the top rank of the military, a Marshal of France, in 1675. A marshal is roughly equivalent in rank at court to a duke, but her brother, Louis-Victor de Rochechouart, Maréchal de Vivonne, was already in line to become a duke-and-peer (of Mortemart), as a member of one of the most ancient and enduring court families France has had in its entire history, with prominent members from the 10th century all the way to the 21st.
Although some claims take the family back all the way to the early 8th century and the powerful counts of Toulouse, the first attestable Rochechouarts were a line of Frankish lords all called Aimery (or the more Germanic form, Amalric) who, from about 980, held a string of fortresses in the border zones between the Frankish heartlands (the Isle de France and the Loire Valley) and the kingdom of Aquitania in the southwest, in areas that became known as La Marche (literally ‘the frontier’) and Limousin. Their main fortress, from which they took their name, was the roca cavardi, the ‘Rock of Cavardus’ (a personal name, or perhaps from chouard, similar to the French word chouette, owl). Situated on a plateau on the edge of the Massif Central—in fact its most westerly spur—between the provinces of Limousin and Poitou, their fortress commanded a territory they governed as viscounts, or junior count, which in this early period signified a good deal of autonomy, in affairs military as well as judicial. Aimery IV and Aimery V both took part in the early Crusades, and Aimery VI rebuilt the castle in the early 13th century. Today the donjon and entrance tower remain from this period. The castle and the title vicomte passed by marriage out of the family in the late 15th century, and into the family of Pontville (or Ponville), who rebuilt the château in a Renaissance style. It was re-purchased by the Rochechouart family in the 1820s then given to the town in the 1830s, and it now serves as the local town hall and art museum.
Meanwhile, two heiresses in the 13th century brought in two other properties that became prominent names and titles for the family in subsequent centuries: Mortemart in La Marche, and Tonnay Charente in Saintonge, closer to the coast (we will return to them below). By this point, the former frontier between France and Aquitaine was once again a place of conflict, as the King of France based in Paris tried to bring to heel his most powerful vassal the Duke of Aquitaine, who after 1152 was the King of England. As the Hundred Years War raged, in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Rochechouarts remained loyal to the King of France, so suffered from English raids into Poitou and Limousin. Louis, Vicomte de Rochechouart, at first did homage to the Prince of Wales (as Count of Poitou) in 1363, but by the end of the decade was named Governor of Limousin by the French king and helped him push the English out of the region, with his castle as a centre of resistance.
In the fifteenth century, several cadet branches were formed, most prominently the lords of Chandeniers, Jars and Faudoas, spreading out across Poitou, the Middle Loire (Sancerre) and Gascony (Lomagne). The eldest of these branches was based at a fortress of La Mothe-Chandeniers in Loudunois, and the much newer, very beautiful Renaissance château of Javarzay in Poitou, built in 1514. Both of these were sold in the early years of Louis XIV, as this branch of the family declined and ultimately died out by the end of the reign.
The next branch, Faudoas, provided generations of generals and courtiers (and a cardinal), before becoming extinct during the Revolution, making the senior line that of Jars. A famous member of the French court came from this branch, the ‘Chevalier de Jars’ a major court intriguer and enemy of Cardinal Richelieu in the 1630s-40s. After the tumults of the Revolution, there was really only one male family member left standing in this branch, Louis-Victor de Rochechouart-La Brosse, who took the title Comte de Rochechouart as an emigré and served as a general in the army of Russia until the Restoration of 1814, after which he was named as an aide-de-camp of the newly restored Louis XVIII, a field marshal, and governor of Paris, 1815-23 (d. 1858).
His descendants continue to the present, using the titles Marquis de Rochechouart and ‘chief of the name and arms’ of Rochechouart. Today’s head bears the quite traditional name, Aimery (b. 1950).
But all of these senior branches were overshadowed by a quite junior branch, the Mortemarts, which split off from the main line in a partition of the estates of 1256. Like the castle of Rochechouart, the ancient fortress at Mortemart—with roots stretching back to the 10th century—was built on one of the westernmost spurs of the Massif Central. It was destroyed by the English in the 14th century, rebuilt, then dismantled in the 17th century on orders of Louis XIII and remained a ruin until restored in the early 20th century. It is not one of the most glamorous or romantic castles in France, but it certainly looks durable. More than just the site of a castle, however, Mortemart was also the location for several prominent monasteries patronised by the family: Augustinians, Carmelites and Carthusians. Today these buildings are the more impressive local monuments. As a typical border family during the 100 Years War, the Rochechouart-Mortemart branch did a lot of side-switching: Aymery II, Seigneur de Mortemart, first served the Prince of Wales (‘the Black Prince’) and accompanied him on his campaign in Spain, but he later joined the King of France’s campaign to drive the English from Aquitaine and was appointed Captain-General of Poitou and Saintonge in 1392. He married another heiress, of the lordship of Montpipeau, in the much more agriculturally rich area of the Orléannais. This estate would later be raised to a marquisate for a junior branch of this line.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Mortemart branch of the family dominated their region, providing successive bishops of Saintes (capital of Saintonge), and captains and governors of many towns, including the important seaport of La Rochelle. They were close to the royal family and prominent at court: a second son, Louis, Seigneur de Montpipeau (d. 1566), joined the household of Francis I and was appointed a Gentleman of the Chamber, Pantler of the King (head of the kitchens), and ultimately the extremely influential position of Governor of the Royal Children de France. Unlike many noble grandees of this area, they did not become Protestants and remained close to the Crown, René de Rochechouart, Baron de Mortemart, serving as a royal commander in most of the campaigns of the Wars of Religion.
They continued to acquire feudal lands, and began to augment their status by playing up their semi-mythical princely origins by adopting the title ‘Prince of Tonnay-Charente’. There was in fact no principality of Tonnay-Charente, and the princely title—like others assumed in this period by noble families of this region, like the La Rochefoucaulds at nearby Marcillac, or Mortagne for the Richelieu family—was never formally created, and entailed no special juridical or legal privileges, but was tolerated by French monarchs who understood that the more glittering titles worn by (loyal) members of their court, the brighter the sparkle to foreign visitors. The coat-of-arms adopted by the Mortemart branch also flaunted their semi-royal status, quartering the Rochechaourt arms with those of the Visconti of Milan, the dukes of Brittany and the kings of Navarre.
Tonnay-Charente itself was an ancient fortified site, on an escarpment above the River Charente, one of the most important rivers in this province known as Saintonge. It was developed as a port, monastery and castle by early medieval rulers, and its lords (it is claimed) used a princely title as early as the 11th century. After it passed into the hands of the Rochechoaurt family, the lands were devastated by the 100 Years War, the Wars of Religion and the Fronde civil wars, until the castle was rebuilt for the last time in the 18th century. It was sold off by the Revolutionary authorities and has served as the seat of the local mayor, a sanatorium and offices for the Red Cross.
The most prominent Prince of Tonnay-Charente was Gabriel (1600-1675), who was raised as a childhood companion of Louis XIII and remained by his side as Premier Gentleman of the Chamber from 1630. In 1650, his marquisate of Mortemart was elevated to a duchy-peerage, by the Regent of France, Anne of Austria, as part of her plans to shore up support from the old aristocracy during the turbulent period of the Fronde. Parlement objected to this and other ducal creations, and had to be forced by the King to formally register it in law in 1663. Later that decade, Gabriel’s decades of loyalty to the royal family was rewarded by the office of Governor of Paris and of the Isle de France.
This grant was also a mark of personal favour, since this was now the era of Madame de Montespan, the Duke’s younger daughter: Françoise-Athénaïs. As we have seen, his other daughter, Marie-Madeleine, became a prominent abbess. Together with the eldest sister, Gabrielle, Marquise de Thianges, these three daughters of the 1st Duke of Mortemart were all celebrated both for their beauty and for their wit—the ‘esprit Mortemart’—which could either be seen as great fun or dangerously sharp. One person who understandably did not enjoy the show was the Queen, Marie-Thérèse of Spain, a woman not known as either witty nor beautiful, and who had to suffer her husband’s mistress as Superintendant of her household.
The son and heir of the family, Louis-Victor, was General of the Galleys of France from 1665, and was created Duke of Vivonne in 1668 (a ‘brevet’ title, given usually to a son in advance of his succession to his father’s dukedom). Vivonne was one of Louis XIV’s great companions, a lover of fun, passionate about literature and the theatre—it seems clear the King was captivated by this ‘esprit Mortemart’ from every angle. He succeeded his father as Duke of Mortemart and was promoted to the rank of Marshal of France in 1675. The Marshal made his name through a bold naval campaign to attempt to capture the island of Sicily from the Spanish in early 1675, and though he only controlled the city of Messina, he governed there as ‘Viceroy of Sicily’ for three years before being driven out. He died fairly young in 1688. The title ‘Duke of Vivonne’ is still used sometimes by the family, normally as the title for the second son (the eldest still using the title ‘Prince de Tonnay-Charente’).
Vivonne was the name of another important estate held by the family, not too far away from the family cradle, in Poitou. The medieval counts of Vivonne had built a lovely castle outside that town, Cercigny, which became one of the Rochechouarts’ primary residences when not at court. Another residence was at Lussac, also nearby, the birthplace of La Montespan. Lussac had been one of the most important fortresses held by the English in the 100 Years War, and is today an interesting romantic ruin of four towers on the side of a lake.
Madame de Montespan herself had of course a suite of rooms at Versailles, but she also built a country retreat for herself: the Château of Clagny, a short distance from the Palace of Versailles. Built in the 1670s, it survived barely a century before it was torn down by her heirs and sold off for parts.
In Paris, the family maintained several prominent townhouses, including two in the St-Germain neighbourhood, near the Luxembourg Palace: the Hôtel de Rochechouart (rue de Grenelle, today’s Ministry of Education), the Hôtel de Mortemart (around the corner), the Hôtel de Jars, and others.
The next generations of the family remained at the very top of the court hierarchy: the 2nd Duke of Mortemart’s son (who predeceased him by only a few months) was a General of the Galleys of France, while two of his daughters were abbesses (Beaumont and Fontevraud) and two became duchesses (Elbeuf and Lesdiguières). The son (Louis, known as the Prince de Tonnay-Charente as heir to the dukedom), even married into the most prominent political circles, through his union with Marie-Anne Colbert, daughter of Louis XIV’s first minister.
The family in the eighteenth century continued to hold the now hereditary post of Premier Gentleman of the Chamber (one of four, who rotated by quarter), positions in the military for the sons, and places in the Queen’s household for the daughters. Several family members bore the name Victor, and by the middle of the century had begun to use instead the curious name Victurnien, taken from one of their feudal estates named for a mysterious fifth-century hermit, St. Victurnien. All four of the younger children of the 9th Duke’s children had it as the first part of their name; and all of his nine grandchildren had it as the last part of their name. Victurnien-Jean-Baptiste, the 10th Duke, was a field marshal in 1788, a deputy of the nobility at the Estates General of 1789, and formed a regiment of émigrés (the Régiment Mortemart) which was funded by the British government during the wars of the French Revolution. His brother was also a conservative leader of the nobility; whereas their cousin, General Aimery-Louis-Roger, from the line of Rochechouart-Faudoas, was an ardent supporter of the Revolution from the very start, as one of the 47 noble deputies who voted to join the Third Estate to form the National Assembly on 25 May 1789.
His father having reconciled with Napoleon, the 11th Duke of Mortemart, Casimir-Louis-Victurnien (1787-1875), was first a commander of the French Empire, notably as an Ordinance Officer for Napoleon on his 1812 campaign in Russia, but was then a Restoration general and ambassador, returning once more to Russia as a diplomat rather than a soldier (1828-30). Like most of the high court nobility, Mortemart had quickly reconciled with the Bourbons after 1814, was confirmed as a duke and peer in 1817, given the post of Captain of the King’s Swiss Guard, and even asked to form a new government as Prime Minister by King Charles X on the eve of the July Revolution of 1830, during which that king lost his throne. When he appeared before the deputies of the National Assembly, the Duke was told simply: “It is too late”. He went into semi-retirement, but later served as a Senator in the Second Empire.
His only son having died young, the 11th was succeeded in 1875 by a cousin, Anne-Victurnien-René, an officer in the Royal Guard, who was in turn succeeded in 1893 by his nephew for a few months. The family continued into the 20th century (younger sons bore the title Marquis de Mortemart or Comte de Mortemart), and is currently headed (since 1992) by Charles-Emmanuel, 17th Duke of Mortemart (b. 1967). [sometimes the numbering varies, with the third duke not counting since he died before his father]. In 2015, he sold off a great deal of the Mortemart treasures, mostly 18th-century furniture, housed at the Château de Réveillon in Burgundy—a news event that rattled the modern nobility of France—so that he could concentrate his family’s remaining wealth on the traditional estates in Haute-Vienne (the former provinces of Limousin and La Marche), like the castle at Mortemart (re-developed as a hotel). In contrast, Réveillon, had been a relatively recent addition to the Rochechouart patrimony: an ancient manor house rebuilt in the 19th century (in ‘Neo-Louis XIII Style’), and passed by inheritance to the dukes of Mortemart in the early 20th.
The jewel in the crown of the family today is also a relatively recent addition, the fantastic Château de Meillant, in Berry. Originally built by the powerful medieval dynasty of the counts of Sancerre, it had been developed into a magnificent showpiece of flamboyant Gothic style by the Amboise family—one of the most influential court dynasties at the end of the 15th century, and with numerous ties to Italy, which is reflected in the development of their château. Meillant passed through the hands of various grand aristocratic families in the 16th to 18th centuries, before being acquired through marriage by Duke Casimir who invested heavily in its restoration in the 1840s. The Castle website touts it as “one of the last inhabited castles in France” and “the flagship of Berry”. For the family that claims an ancientness second only to the royal family of France itself, this seems a worthy claim.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons or individual castle websites)