Lamballe and Penthièvre: Riches upon Riches

One of the most prominent characters in the recent television drama about Marie-Antoinette is her loyal friend and the superintendent of her household, the Princess of Lamballe. There was no actual principality of Lamballe, but the bearer of the name was indeed a princess, by virtue of her birth into the royal house of Savoy, and by a short-lived marriage to a man who bore the courtesy title, Prince of Lamballe. He was the son and heir of the Duke of Penthièvre, one of the richest men in all of Europe, but not quite a fully royal prince.

The Princess of Lamballe, Marie-Therese-Louise de Savoie-Carignan

Lamballe is a small town on the northern coast of Brittany, capital of one of the ancient Breton regions, Penthièvre. Its name comes from the Breton word for monastery (lann) and Paul, the name of a local saint: St Paul Aurélien or Pol de Léon, who lived in the early 6th century. Penthièvre comes from Penteür, or ‘head of the clan’, and signified the lands held by a member of the ruling family. From a very early stage, at least the 1030s, the County of Penthièvre was given as an apanage to younger sons of the dukes of Brittany. This region, with its chief port town of Saint-Brieuc, had much earlier been known as the Kingdom of Domnonia, settled by refugees from Britannia and indeed naming it after their former homeland (Devon, or Dumnonia in Latin). The County of Penthièvre was held by several lineages of the Breton ducal family throughout the Middle Ages, and in the 14th century was one of the rival factions in a lengthy dynastic succession conflict. In the 15th century it was held by the Brosse family, though contested and sometimes confiscated by the main ducal line. Today’s coat-of-arms for Penthièvre still reflects this division, with the easily recognisable ermine pattern for Brittany, but differenced with a red border, on one side, and the arms of the House of Brosse (a golden wheat sheaf on blue) on the other.

arms of Penthievre

There had been an ancient castle at Lamballe, built as early as the 10th century, and it was rebuilt as a more luxurious country château in the 1550s by Jean de Brosse, Duke of Etampes, who had been richly compensated for his wife’s role as chief mistress of the late King Francis I. This castle was the seat of much political intriguing in the Wars of Religion and the court conspiracies of the 1620s, and was thus completely levelled on the orders of Cardinal Richelieu in 1626. There is nothing left to see today except the castle’s chapel, which remains as the Collegiate Church of Notre Dame de Lamballe.

Lamballe in an old post card

The Duke of Etampes had died with no direct heirs, and the County of Penthièvre passed by succession to one of the many branches of the House of Luxembourg, who in 1569 were created Dukes of Penthièvre. They will feature in a separate blog post, as will their heirs after 1579, the dukes of Lorraine-Mercoeur and then by marriage the dukes of Bourbon-Vendôme. But already, we can see that this territory was being associated with princely status, rather than merely noble, as the Luxembourgs and Lorraines were considered ‘foreign princes’ at the French court, and the Bourbon-Vendômes were known as ‘legitimated princes’ as formally recognised offspring of King Henry IV.

In 1687, much of the fiscal revenues of the Duchy of Penthièvre were forcibly acquired by the King to give to his illegitimate daughter, Marie-Anne, Princess of Conti, who in 1696 sold it to her half-brother, Louis-Alexandre de Bourbon, Count of Toulouse. He was given new patents as duke in 1697, and acquired the rest of the duchy’s estates on the death of the Duke of Vendôme in 1712. Toulouse was born in 1678 to Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan. As with all of the King’s illegitimate children, he was loaded down with estates and court posts and government offices, in part to counter-balance the power of the legitimate princes of the blood and the other high court families. He was named Count of Toulouse in his legitimation papers in 1681 (which, for legal reasons, do not name his mother, as she was married to someone else), then created Grand Admiral of France in 1683, and Governor of Guyenne in 1689, which he exchanged for Brittany in 1695. Adding the Penthièvre estates thus firmed up a growing power base in that province and a clear orientation towards the sea.

the young Count of Toulouse, Admiral of France

The Count of Toulouse was always known by that name, not Duke of Penthièvre, nor his other duchy, that of Châteauvillain, erected in 1703 on a town of that name in southern Champagne and comprising the former county of Châteauvillain, the marquisate of Arc-en-Barrois and other nearby baronies. Its medieval castle survived, at least in part, until the town was re-developed in the 1830s. Unlike the duchy of Penthièvre, the duchy of Châteauvillain was created as a peerage of France, entitling him to have a voice in the Parlement of Paris and many legal privileges.

the ruins of Chateauvillain

Not content with one duchy-peerage, Toulouse was also created Duke-Peer of Rambouillet, erected on a marquisate of that name in 1711. Located in prime hunting grounds to the southwest of Paris, Rambouillet had been a fortified manor house in the 14th century and enlarged by several subsequent noble families until it became the seat of a marquisate for the Angennes family in the 17th century (the name would become famous for one of the leading salons in Paris, that of Catherine, Marquise de Rambouillet). It later belonged to the finance minister Fleurieau d’Armenonville, who was pressured by Louis XIV into selling it to Toulouse in 1706. In 1783, the now enlarged Château de Rambouillet was sold to Louis XVI, with its estates still prized for hunting. The King built the ‘Laiterie de la Reine’, a pretend milkmaid’s dairy, for Marie-Antoinette, complete with milk pails made from Sèvres porcelain. Since the 1870s, Rambouillet has been property of the French state and has usually served as a summer retreat for the president of the Republic, and occasionally as the setting for major international gatherings, such as the first G6 Summit in 1975.

Rambouillet today

At court, Toulouse occupied a grand apartment in the Château de Versailles—on the ground floor, formerly the apartment of his mother, Montespan. And in Paris, he acquired a grand residence that had been built in the 1630s by one of the leading ministerial families of France, the Phélypeaux. Known as the Hôtel de la Vrillière, named for one of Louis XIV’s secretaries of state, the house—located close to the new Place des Victoires—was renamed the Hôtel de Toulouse after 1712, and was remodelled by the King’s ‘Premier Architect’, Robert de Cotte. Since 1808 it has housed the Banque de France.

the Hotel de Toulouse as it first appeared in the 18th century

As Admiral of France, Toulouse was not idle: he served as a commander of the French fleet in the Mediterranean during the War of the Spanish Succession, and successfully defended Málaga against the British in 1704. Later that year, he was made a Knight of the Golden Fleece by his nephew, the new Bourbon king of Spain, Philip V. Louis XIV, having seen a huge amount of his family decimated by smallpox in the last years of his reign, pressed the Parlement of Paris to accept an edict that placed his two legitimated sons, the Duke of Maine and the Count of Toulouse, formally into the line of succession. But this was seen as a step too far by the rest of the royal family and other court elites, and the decision was reversed soon after the King’s death. But unlike Maine, Toulouse was not an enemy of the Regent, his cousin the Duke of Orléans, and was not excluded from the regency government. He was appointed head of the Council of the Navy and kept himself far away from the intrigues of his brother Maine.

Louis-Alexandre de Bourbon, as Admiral of France, 1708 by Rigaud, presumably in front of the battle of Malaga

Strangely still single in his forties, in 1723, Toulouse married in secret the widow of his half-nephew, the Marquis de Gondrin (probably a secret due to such consanguinity). Marie-Victoire de Noailles, the daughter of the Marshal-Duke of Noailles, had been for many years like a surrogate mother to the young Louis XV, who had no other close family, and her marriage to the King’s uncle solidified that connection. Both remained part of the King’s inner circle for many years. Toulouse no longer exercised a ministerial post, but he remained Governor of Brittany, and at court exercised the important post—especially to this hunting-mad monarch—of Grand Veneur de France, or Master of the Hunt. This office had been purchased for him by his father the King in 1714. He was also still, at least formally, Admiral of France.

the coat of arms of both Toulouse and his son Penthievre as Master of the Hunt of France (with hunting horns)

When the Count of Toulouse, Duke of Penthièvre, Duke of Rambouillet and Duke of Châteauvillain, died in 1737, these titles passed to his only child, Louis-Jean-Marie. At age 12, this prince légitimé, who went by the title Duke of Penthièvre, also became Admiral of France, Master of the Hunt and Governor of Brittany. He was born at Rambouillet, and it remained a favourite residence until he sold it to the King in 1783. His powerful mother made sure he retained his prominent place at court, and arranged his marriage to a princess, Maria Teresa Felicita d’Este, daughter of Francesco III, Duke of Modena, and Charlotte-Aglaé d’Orléans, herself a daughter of the late Regent, who had returned from Italy and was living at the French court. The half-Italian, half-Bourbon princess was soon joined at Versailles by her sister, Maria Fortunata d’Este, who later became the Princess of Conti. Both pious, the Duke and Duchess of Penthièvre formed a close social set with the equally pious Dauphin and Dauphine in the 1740s-50s. The close consanguinity of the Penthièvres, however, was not a good thing for their offspring, and only two of their seven children survived to adulthood. The eldest son was given a new courtesy title, for the ancient capital of the Duchy of Penthièvre: ‘Prince of Lamballe’; while the second son was known as the Duke of Châteauvillain (and died aged 7). The Duchess herself died only the year before, 1754, aged only 27.

the family of the Duke of Penthievre in 1768, with the Duke, his son Lamballe, the Princesse de Lamballe, Mlle de Penthievre (standing) and the Dowager Countess of Toulouse (recently deceased)

But although the personal family affairs of the Duke of Penthièvre were not so fortunate—perhaps he should have married the other Este sister, Fortunata—his already vast fortune became even vaster in the years that followed. In 1755 he succeeded to the estates of his first cousin, the Prince of Dombes, son of the Duke of Maine; and in 1775, he also succeeded Dombes’ equally childless brother, the Count of Eu. Together, these successions brought him the duchies of Aumale and Gisors, both peerages, and the county-peerage of Eu. All three of these properties were in Normandy, meaning Penthièvre’s western powerhouse now spilled over from neighbouring Brittany. He also inherited the châteaux of the Maine branch of the family, which included Gisors and Eu, but also the famous Renaissance beauty at Anet (the old château of Diane de Poitiers), and the Colbert stronghold near Versailles, Sceaux. Another county acquired in 1775 was Dreux, one of the oldest properties of the House of France, on the borders between the Ile de France and Normandy. After Rambouillet was sold, it would become the favoured seat of the family, and the place of their burial. Finally, in 1785, after the death of the Duke of Choiseul, Penthièvre purchased the adjoining estates of Chanteloup and Amboise, the latter of which was erected into yet another duchy-peerage in 1787. So by 1787 he held seven peerages, and some of the most beautiful and well-known castles in France. His annual fortune is estimated at 6 million livres, in an era when someone was considered wealthy if they had 10,000 a year.

Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon, Duc de Penthièvre, by Nattier, about 1750

What the Duke didn’t have, however, was a male heir. His eldest son, Louis-Alexandre, Prince of Lamballe, had been given the survivance (promise of succession) of his father’s titles, notably Master of the Hunt, when he was only 8 years old. He was not quite a full member of the royal family, and was addressed as ‘Serene Highness’ rather than ‘Royal Highness’, but quickly joined the set of the more ‘fast’ young courtiers led by his cousin the Duke of Chartres, born the same year. Chartres is also seen in the recent television programme, Marie-Antoinette, and indeed is portrayed as one of the rowdier members of the Bourbon court in the late 1760s. In 1767 Lamballe’s father thought it prudent to marry him off, again to a proper princess, another Italian like his mother: Princess Maria Teresa Luisa of Savoy-Carignano. Her father, the Prince of Carignano was head of the junior branch of the royal house of Savoy (kings of Sardinia since the beginning of the century); her mother was from a junior branch of the princely house of Hesse in Germany. The new Princess of Lamballe brought a large dowry to her marriage, which the Prince soon gambled away, and after only a year of marriage, he died from a venereal disease.

The Princess of Lamballe in 1776, by Callet

Suddenly one of the greatest heiresses in France, Lamballe’s sister, Marie-Adélaïde, was scooped up by none other than Chartres himself in 1769; and when his father died in 1785, they became Duke and Duchess of Orléans, first prince and princess of the blood. Marie-Adélaïde survived her entire clan and the tumults of the Revolution, and was still a powerful force in the era of the Restoration, dying only in 1821. Nine years later, her son Louis-Philippe d’Orléans—the heir to all these vast Penthièvre domains—took the throne of France in the July Revolution of 1830.

Marie-Adelaide de Bourbon-Penthievre as Duchess of Orleans (c 1789) by Vigée Lebrun

The Princess of Lamballe was not so fortunate. As a recent arrival herself at Versailles, she formed a natural friendship early on with the new Dauphine from Austria, and once the latter became queen in 1774, Lamballe was appointed Superintendent of the Household of the Queen, the top post for any woman at the French court. And although they remained close until both of their deaths in the Revolution, the Princess was supplanted as the Queen’s favourite by the Duchess of Polignac who was given the less prestigious, but more intimately linked and potentially influential position of Governess of the Children of France, in 1782. Lamballe retreated somewhat from court and a year later purchased a house on the western outskirts of Paris, which became known as the Hôtel de Lamballe. This house was in an aristocratic neighbourhood called Passy, on the banks of the Seine. The house had been built by financiers in the 17th century, and bought first by the Duke of Lauzun in 1705, then the Duke of Luynes in the 1750s. After passing through many hands in the 19th century, it was completely rebuilt (though in the same style) in the 1920s, and since 1945 has housed the Embassy of Turkey.

the Hotel de Lamballe today

One of the attractions of this neighbourhood for the Princess was that her very sympathetic father-in-law, the Duke of Penthièvre, had recently leased the much grander château next door, the Château de Passy, also known as the Château de Boulainvilliers. This sprawling residence and its lovely terraced gardens had been rebuilt and significantly enlarged by the rich financier, Samuel Bernard in the 1720s. The château was sold during the Revolution by Bernard’s heirs, and the estate was subdivided and redeveloped as a fashionable suburb in the 1820s, the Quartier de Boulainvilliers.

Passy: the Chateau de Passy on the left, and the smaller Hotel de Lamballe in the centre

Penthièvre and Lamballe lived in Passy quietly, trying to avoid turbulent politics in the late 1780s. Sharing a love of piety and charity, they worked together on various projects to help the poor in Paris. But she was drawn back into court life as a maintainer of order in Marie-Antoinette’s household after the outbreak of the Revolution (after Polignac had fled in July 1789), and she joined the royal family in their semi-prison state in the Tuileries from October onwards. Even after she had found safety in England in 1791, she soon returned and was imprisoned with the Queen in the Temple in August 1792, then separated from her and transferred to the prison of La Force. During the September Massacres, she was hauled out and given a mock trial by the Parisian mob who then murdered her and paraded her head on a pike around the streets. The angry populace saw her mostly as a symbol of the excesses of the Queen, but also followed the anti-court propaganda that had painted her and her mistress as debauched lovers.

news from Paris, 2 September 1792

Far from Paris, the old Duke of Penthièvre now resided at another château he had acquired from his cousin the Count of Eu in 1775, Bizy, on a hillside overlooking the town of Vernon, near where the Seine crosses from the Ile de France into Normandy. It had been built in the 1670s by Michel-André Jubert de Bouville, intendant of Orléans and Alençon and a close relative to the Colbert family. The Château de Bizy was acquired in the 1720s by the Duke of Belle-Isle, who enlarged it and built a grand park. The King purchased it in 1761 and gave it to his cousin the Count of Eu. Penthièvre’s daughter the Duchess of Orléans joined him here in the Spring of 1791 (she formally separated from her increasingly radical husband, now known as ‘Philippe Egalité’ in the summer of 1792), and together they lived through the news of the murder of the Princess of Lamballe in September 1792, and the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793—but the old Duke died in March, before the executions of Marie-Antoinette in October and of Egalité himself in November. The Dowager Duchess of Orléans eventually recovered the Château de Bizy in 1817. Her grandson sold it in 1858, and today it is the seat of the dukes of Albufera.

Penthievre and his daughter the Duchess of Orleans
the Chateau de Bizy

The enormous joint Penthièvre-Orléans fortune helped fund the House of Bourbon-Orléans’ hold on power in the early to mid-19th century, and the Penthièvre burial spot at Dreux was transformed into the centre of Orléanism, which it remains today. The Chapelle Royale, formerly the Collégiale Saint-Étienne de Dreux, was rebuilt during the Restoration by the Dowager Duchess of Orléans (the former Mlle de Penthièvre). It houses the bodies of the Duke of Penthièvre and his immediate family (including his parents, the Count and Countess of Toulouse, as well as his wife and children, transferred there from Rambouillet in 1783), but it is unknown for certain whether the Princess of Lamballe is interred there as well, her body being lost in the turmoil of September 1792.

the Chapelle Royalle de Dreux (Chapelle St-Louis)

(images Wikimedia Commons)

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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