In the world of the old aristocracy, the primary duty of a noble family was to maintain and hopefully augment status, wealth and power. The granting of a dukedom was a symbol of a noble family having reached the very top. Some, in circumstances of exceptional royal favour, achieved this in just one lifetime, while most instead slowly progressed along the pathway for centuries. One such family were the Polignacs, from amongst France’s oldest noble dynasties, who attained the ducal coronet on the very eve of Revolution. Their success was secured by the particular royal favour of Queen Marie-Antoinette, and although the Queen and the monarchy were swept away only a few years later, the Polignacs survived, and under the Restoration started a new chapter as one of Europe’s now more pan-continental aristocrats, even going one further in obtaining a princely title. The family’s 19th– and 20th-century story is one of glamour and art—not to mention champagne and haute couture—and it led, it seems almost naturally, to one branch taking over the glamour and art of ruling the principality of Monaco.
Perhaps fittingly for a fairy-tale ending such as this, one of the ancient seats of the Polignac family, the château of Lavoûte, rests romantically on a jagged promontory overlooking a river bend deep in the mountains of southern France, almost like a Disney castle. Even older is the castle of Polignac itself, which sits atop the ruins of an extinct volcano looking somewhat like an ancient Greek acropolis. In fact, evidence suggests this was the site of a temple to Apollo, giving the site its name (from Apollon in French). A castle replaced this temple by the early 10th century, 800 meters above the valley floor. Its lords were styled ‘vice-counts’, and were given extensive powers to govern this region, known as the Velay (today the Department of Haute-Loire), by the most powerful magnates of central France, the counts of Auvergne. As these counts weakened in independent power, the power of these vice-counts was challenged by the growing authority of the far-off French royal crown, exercised on its behalf by local bishops who had their seat nearby in Le Puy. By the start of the 13th century, these Polignac viscounts were forced to submit to episcopal authority, and this balance remained as the secular and temporal leadership of the province for centuries. In fact several members of the Polignac family were appointed as bishops of Le Puy, and the partnership was strengthened even further.
Le Puy-en-Velay takes its name literally from the small peaks (puy) that are scattered around the extinct volcanic ranges of central France. It has one of the most dramatic landscapes of any town in Europe, with its cathedral dominating one rock and the Chapel of Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe on another. Three miles from the town is the château of Polignac, expanded in the 13th and 14th centuries, but gradually abandoned by the family for the more accessible castle of Lavoûte a few miles away. The older castle was severely damaged in the wars of Religion of the 16th century and left to turn into a romantic ruin—it was confiscated and sold during the Revolution, but re-purchased in 1830 and somewhat restored in the 1890s.
Lavoûte (or Lavoûte-Polignac) was acquired in the 1250s, enlarged in the 14th century, then built anew in the 1550s in a Renaissance style and as a more ‘modern’ comfortable residence. It sits in a bend on the River Loire, though not really the Loire one thinks of when dreaming of romantic French châteaux—it is certainly the same river, but it is hundreds of miles upriver from the more well-known settings of Chambord, Chenonceau and Amboise. This part of France is remote and rugged. Its warrior nobles, including the Polignacs but also their close neighbours the Lafayettes, took part not only in the crusades to the Holy Land, but in more local crusades against heretics in the south of France. This region would remain a hotbed of resistance to authority, and notably a centre for Protestantism, well into the 17th century, meaning the local Catholic nobility always had opportunities to prove their loyalty to the Catholic kings of France.
By the 16th century, the original line of Polignac lords—mostly named Armand, one after another—had died out, and were replaced by another local noble house, Chalencon, who assumed the more prominent regional name. This second house of Polignac regularly served as royal governors of this province and the province next door, the Vivarais. Chalencon castle is not far from Polignac, similarly built atop of rocky outcropping, this one guarding two bends of the river Ance which flows into the Loire. Dating from the early 11th century, its lords were raised to the rank of baron sometime shortly after. After they took over the Polignac lands and castles, Chalencon was abandoned and it remains mostly a ruin today.
Towards the end of the 17th century, the long-standing dual service of the Polignac family to crown and church brought the family to greater prominence in the promotions of two brothers. Scipion-Simon-Apollinaire, governor of Le Puy, was raised to the rank of marquis in 1689, while his brother, Melchior, became a cardinal in 1713. Melchior de Polignac had served as a successful ambassador to Poland in the 1690s, then a French agent in Rome during the War of the Spanish Succession. He was one of the French negotiators sent to Utrecht to end this war, and was later sent back to Rome as formal ambassador (1722), and was further elevated to the archdiocese of Auch in 1726.
While he was in Rome, Cardinal de Polignac oversaw the construction of the famous Spanish Steps and threw one of the most lavish parties in the history of Roman lavish parties. In September 1729, to mark the birth of a new Dauphin for France, the Piazza Navona was decorated, and fireworks lit up the night skies.
The Cardinal was also a poet, a member of the Académie française, and an art collector—his collections were bought after he died in 1741 by Frederick the Great and are still on display at Sans Souci in Potsdam. The Cardinal had brought this ancient family, after 800 years, to national prominence, and left this legacy for his nieces and nephews to build upon. Louis-Melchior, Marquis de Polignac, was a soldier who made his name in the wars of the middle of the century, then was named to one of the top offices of the court, First Equerry in the new household of the Count of Provence, formed in 1773 at the time of his wedding. Provence was the younger brother of the Dauphin, who became Louis XVI the next year, alongside his wife, Marie-Antoinette of Austria.
The new Queen had an emerging favourite, already by about 1775, the daughter-in-law of the Marquis de Polignac. Gabrielle de Polastron. She and her husband, Jules de Polignac, swiftly became part of the ‘in’ set at the youthful court of Versailles. Jules was named First Equerry of the Queen in 1776; his sister, Diane, was given the post of Dame d’honneur of the King’s sister, Elisabeth in 1778; while Gabrielle’s sister-in-law, Louise, became a Dame du Palais of the Queen, and then the mistress of the King’s other brother, the Count of Artois. They formed a tight social set, which is depicted with great flair in the film ‘Marie-Antoinette’ by Sophia Coppola (2006), in which Gabrielle is portrayed by Rose Byrne.
Gabrielle de Polastron was born in Paris, from a noble family which, like the Polignacs, came from ancient noble stock in the far south of France. She became the new Queen’s favourite from about 1775 and soon was showered with gifts and favours (for example, her cousin was appointed to a wealthy bishopric). Her husband, Jules de Polignac, also enjoyed the Queen’s favour, and in 1780, he was appointed Duc de Polignac, by royal brevet, which is not quite the same thing as a duchy-peerage as it only applied to him personally, and did not become a hereditary possession of the family. Similarly, he was given a peerage, in 1783, but it too was for life only. The new duke and duchess were soon promoted to ever greater heights in the court and government hierarchies: in 1782, she was named Governess of the Children of France; and in 1785, he was named director-general of the postal system and director of the royal stud farm, both highly lucrative posts. The Duchess replaced a Rohan princess as governess, which scandalised the court as this office had been held by the very highest families of the court aristocracy for centuries, and it came with one of the largest suites of rooms at Versailles. The Duke and Duchess became symbols of the excessive favour shown by the King and Queen to their friends, the excessive spending of the court, and the corruption of the aristocracy in general. For example, their daughter Aglaé was given an absolutely enormous dowry (800,000 livres) by the Crown in 1780—she’s only 12—to marry another court favourite, the Duc de Guiche.
The Polignacs, as leaders of the fashionable social set, needed a fashionable place to entertain, and decided to refashion a property Jules inherited from his mother, Claye, east of Paris, in Brie. It had formerly belonged to the dukes of Nevers. In 1787 plans were drawn up to rebuild the château de Claye on a much grander scale, but these were never realised. The family did recover this property after the Revolution, but it was sold in the 1830s.
By the late-1780s, the Duchesse de Polignac in particular was one of the most hated women in France, and regularly featured in pamphlets that pilloried the foreign Queen (‘the Austrian’) as a lesbian. Like the Queen, one of the particular reasons for her unpopularity was her regular intervention in government affairs—the ‘parti de la reine’ were active in favouring their own choice of finance minister and trying to ruin the career of the ever-popular Jacques Necker, the people’s favourite. After the storming of the Bastille, it was agreed that, for the good of the monarchy (and probably their own safety), the Polignacs needed to go, and on 17 July 1789 they fled abroad to Switzerland, then Italy, then Vienna. The Duchess died there in 1793, and the Duke continued to move, now to Russia, where he was joined by his sister, Diane, and his two younger sons, Jules and Melchior. They formed part of the court of the king in exile, Louis XVIII, at Mitau in what is now Latvia. The Duke was given an estate in southern Russia, and did not return to France at the Restoration, though he was rewarded for his loyalty by the now restored French king with a more solid hereditary duchy-peerage a few weeks before his death in 1817.
The second duke, Armand, also went into exile during the Revolution, but was already old enough to lead his own life and thus remained closer to the action, mostly in the service of the youngest Bourbon prince, the Count of Artois. In 1804, he (and a younger brother, Jules) was involved in a plot against Napoleon and was arrested, but escaped. He remained close to Artois, formed part of the ultra-Catholic party during the Restoration (being named one of the ‘chevaliers de la foi’), and served as the prince’s First Equerry and aide-de-camp. He then joined the government of Artois once he succeeded to the throne as King Charles X, and fell from power with him after the July Revolution of 1830. Armand retired to his estates in the south of France where he remained until his death in 1847.
It was his brother, Jules, however, who was more prominent in the conservative regime of Charles X, and was more severely punished at his fall. Nine years younger than his older brother, he had been raised almost as one of the royal children in the 1780s and was much closer to the royal family in exile. He spent time in Britain in the suite of the Count of Artois, and even retained his ties to the United Kingdom after the Restoration, marrying first the Scottish aristocrat Barbara Campbell in 1816, then Charlotte Perkyns, daughter of an English baronet, in 1824. He was in London at that time, serving as French ambassador (1823-29). He had already gained a reputation abroad as a chef defender of the old Catholic aristocracy as a pillar of the Old Regime—to the extent that the Pope had created him ‘Prince de Polignac’ in 1820, a title recognised by the king of France in 1822. This title was not like other principalities, bringing with it no sense of sovereignty, merely honours, and was one of several similar titles created by Rome in the 19th century (as ‘princeps Romanus’) as a means of extending Papal influence in the Catholic monarchies of Europe. Jules de Polignac returned to France to lead the government of Charles X in the summer of 1829—an appointment that was violently opposed by the liberals and the press. He acted as President of the Council and Minister of Foreign Affairs until the Revolution of July 1830 sent him, and the entire Bourbon monarchy, packing. The Prince de Polignac was arrested and tried for treason in late 1830 (accused of abusing the Constitution of 1814). He was imprisoned until 1836, then given amnesty but required to go into exile. He went to Bavaria, where the King gave him estates and confirmed his princely title (1838), in fact recreating it so that, like mostly German princely titles, it would be given to all sons and daughters of the prince, not just the eldest [NB: lots of online sources say they have a title as ‘Prince of the Empire’, but this is not correct, especially since the Empire did not exist after 1806]. The Prince de Polignac was allowed to return to France in 1845, but not to Paris. He succeeded his childless elder brother as 3rd Duc de Polignac in 1847, but only for a few months.
We will return to the youngest of the Polignac brothers, Melchior, and his descendants (the non-princely branch), but will first carry on with the senior line. Each son bore the title of prince, but only the eldest was a duke. The 4th Duc de Polignac, Jules-Armand, as a young man had been an officer in Bavaria during his father’s exile, then returned to France to continue the process of restoring the family’s ancient possessions. Claye had already been sold, and the châteaux of Polignac and Lavoûte were much too far from the social and political lights of the capital, so he relied on his wife’s inheritance to establish a new base in Paris, the Hôtel de Crillon, one of the finest mansions in the city, on the old Place Louis XV (renamed Place de la Concorde in the later years of the Revolution). Amélie de Berton des Balbes de Crillon was also heiress of the château de St-Jean du Cardonnay, in Normandy (NW of Rouen), a 17th-century château that remained one of the principal country seats of the Polignacs until at least the middle of the 20th century (the Hôtel de Crillon was sold in 1907).
There is not much to say about the 5th or 6th dukes (Héracle and Armand-Henri). The latter added to the family’s holdings by the acquisition, again through marriage (to a princess of the Bauffremont-Courtenay family), of the château of Mercastel, another 17th-century residence, this time to the north of Paris in the Beauvaisis. The 7th Duke, Jules-Héracle, who succeeded his father in 1961, resided at Mercastel, then moved more permanently in the 1970s back to the old family seat at Lavoûte. He was very interested in preservation of France’s cultural history and served as a member of administrative council of La Demeure historique (sort of like the National Trust in England). He died in 1999 and was succeeded by his son, Armand-Charles, 8th Duke and 6th Prince of Polignac (b. 1946), who is divorced and has no children, so his heir is his second cousin Prince Alain, who is married to a Belgian princess from the Ligne family. One of the other residences of the most junior line of this branch is the château of La Jumellière, in the Loire Valley, built in the 19th century in ‘Louis XIII’ style, acquired through marriage by Prince François (younger brother of the 6th Duke).
Other members of the princely branch of the family who rose to prominence include Prince Camille and Prince Edmond, younger half-brothers of the 4th Duke. Both had an English mother, so were at ease moving back and forth between the French and English speaking aristocracies. Indeed, Camille made a name for himself as a soldier, and took himself to America in the 1860s to serve as a major-general in the Confederate army in the Civil War (mostly serving in Texas and Louisiana). He later commanded a division in the Franco-Prussian war.
Edmond followed a quite different path. A man of the arts and literature set, a composer himself, and founder of an aristocratic club in the 1860s that supported the work of their friends Berlioz, Gounod, Proust, and so on.
Late in life, despite his fairly evident homosexuality, Edmond married a soul-mate (with similar temperament artistically and sexually), Winnaretta Singer (‘Winnie’). He was nearly 60, and she 28, but in fact already a widow. The Singers were originally from New York, part of the great Singer sewing machine dynasty, but had moved to France and England (Winnaretta’s mother was French) shortly after her birth in Yonkers in 1865, and she became heiress to her father’s millions in 1875. Her first marriage to Comte de Secy-Montbéliard was annulled in 1892 and she married Edmond de Polignac in 1893. With her fabulous millions, the new Princesse de Polignac set up a salon in fashionable Passy on one of the grand avenues near Trocadero—it remains the site of the Fondation Singer-Polignac, which continues to support the development of young musicians and academics. In its heyday the Polignac salon was a source of patronage for Debussy, Ravel, Satie and young Stravinsky and Milhaud. As a widow (Edmond died in 1901), Winnaretta maintained friendships with Isadora Duncan, Jean Cocteau, Diaghilev, Colette … on and on … but was even closer to notable women artists, counting amongst her lovers the British composer Ethel Smyth and the writer Violet Trefusis (and some add Virginia Woolf). Late in life, her philanthropy extended to commissioning the great modernist architect Le Corbusier to build homeless shelters for the Salvation Army. She died in 1943.
We can return to the cadet branch of the family, founded by Melchior, comte de Polignac, the youngest son of the first Duke and Duchess. He lived with his father in Russia, but returned to France at the Restoration of 1814 to a post as Field Marshal of the Royal Army and Gentleman of Honour of the Dauphin (the son of the Count of Artois), and was later appointed Governor of the Château de Fontainebleau, 1825 to1830. Like his brothers, he was removed from his posts in 1830 and spent the next twenty years far from politics. He had five sons, but by the end of the century, only the descendants of the youngest, Charles, remained to carry on the line. These took the title ‘Marquis de Polignac’ as marker of distinction for the head of the junior branch of the family.
Charles’s eldest son, Guy, Marquis de Polignac, married in 1879 another great heiress from the world of commerce: Louise Pommery, from one of the great Champagne houses—still today one of the biggest in France. Their son, Melchior became the head of Pommery in 1907, and was a prominent early member of the International Olympic Committee in the 1920s. As an older man he was a leader of the French businessmen who advocated collaboration with the German occupation, and after the war was tried, but pardoned. His line continues to present, his son becoming a noted journalist ‘Louis Dalmas’ who founded a left-wing press agency in the 1950s.
A younger son, Comte Jean de Polignac, also married a ‘business heiress’, the daughter of Jeanne Lanvin, founder of a Parisian haute couture empire. The Count and Countess de Polignac ran Lanvin in the 1940s-50s, but are also known for the foundation of a music colony at the family château of Kerbastic on the south coast of Brittany (acquired by marriage in 1851 by his grandfather, Comte Charles), which hosted many of the celebrated names of the age, like François Poulenc and Nadia Boulanger. Comte Jean left this residence and its colony to his nephew Prince Louis (from the princely branch) who founded an annual music festival at Kerbastic which continues to this day.
Finally, the youngest son of the youngest line of the junior branch of the House of Polignac, Count Pierre, raised the family’s name once more to princely heights through his 1920 marriage to Charlotte Grimaldi, the illegitimate daughter of Louis II, Prince of Monaco. Pierre was the son of Count Maxence (the younger brother of the Marquis who married the Champagne heiress) and a Mexican aristocrat, Suzanna Marianna de la Torre y Mier. Charlotte, born in 1898, had been adopted by her father in 1919 as means of legitimising her, primarily in order to avoid diplomatic conflict with France who did not want his natural heir, a German prince, succeeding to the Monegasque throne. Her grandfather (the reigning prince, Albert) created her on the same day Princesse de Monaco and Duchesse de Valentinois (the usual title for the heir, since the early 18th century). She married Pierre de Polignac who was naturalised in Monaco and took the name and arms of Grimaldi by princely decree. Two years later, her father succeeded as Prince Louis II, and Charlotte was declared ‘Hereditary Princess of Monaco’. Her husband, SAS Prince Pierre, Duc de Valentinois (a new creation, in Monaco, since by the laws of the French Old Regime, this title could not pass to Charlotte), swiftly took to life in the Principality, and even after they were divorced in 1933, he remained active locally, as patron of writers and artists (there is even a literary prize named for him). In contrast, his wife was generally disinterested in the affairs of Monaco, and spent more of her life at the family château in the far north of France, Marchais, near Laon. She renounced her claims to the throne in favour of her son, Prince Rainier, when he came of age in 1944. Rainier therefore succeeded his grandfather as Prince of Monaco in 1949.
Like his distant cousin, Prince Pierre de Polignac was significantly involved in the operations of the Olympic Committee (something he passed on to his grandchildren), and later represented Monaco at the international gatherings of UNESCO. He occupied the curious, but certainly well-considered, position of ‘Father of the Prince’ until his death in 1964. The story of Prince Rainier III, his marriage to the actress Grace Kelly, and the very prominent lives of their children, Albert, Caroline and Stephanie, are certainly well known. They belong to a separate blog posting about the history of the Grimaldis of Monaco, though technically, they are members of the House of Polignac.
Though the first Duke and Duchess de Polignac can rightly be accused of taking and taking from the monarchy’s coffers, perhaps we can see some giving back to France in the family’s subsequent contributions to the worlds of art, music, champagne and high fashion!
(images Wikimedia Commons)
Simplified Polignac family tree