June 22nd, 2012 Headsman
On this date in 1627, the Comte de Bouteville plus his cousin Des Chapelles lost their heads for fighting a duel — ultimately (because of the execution) one of the most notorious duels in French history.
Though this is the duel that everyone knows, Francois de Montmorency-Bouteville (English Wikipedia entry | French) had engaged in 22 such affairs of honor between the tender ages of 15 and 28. Like as not, he was the duellist par excellence in an age where demanding lethal satisfaction was all the rage among devil-may-care aristocratic straplings.
And this, of course, is why he was nominated for condign punishment in Louis XIII’s struggling anti-dueling campaign. One might say he nominated himself.
Dueling, a mano-a-mano vindication of feuds between fops, was an archaic holdover of Burgundian clan violence turned preposterous baroque ritual of conspicuous consociation.
It was also incredibly epidemic in France at this period.
During the reign of Louis’s predecessor Henri IV, 7,000 to 8,000 people are reported to have died in duels, which works out to the suspect rate of one per day for the entire period. Then again, France did have an excess supply of noble progeny whose violent impulses were no longer preoccupied by fratricidal religious warfare.*
Henri IV had tried to ban dueling, even in 1610 executing for lese majeste a couple members of his own guard who defied the ban. Just weeks later, and for no reason connected to dueling, Henri was assassinated. Then-nine-year-old heir Louis XIII was in no position at the time to follow up his father’s policy, and the naughty sport continued to flourish.
“Duels had become so common among the French nobility that the streets of Paris usually served as the field of combat,” according to the Mercure Francois. And as Richard Herr described in his “Honor versus Absolutism: Richelieu’s Fight against Dueling” (The Journal of Modern History, September 1955; this is also the source of all other quotes in this post), they often arose over utterly trivial “slights.”**
Typical was a duel in Lent of 1626 in which Bouteville [i.e., the subject of our post] with two seconds engaged the Comte de Thorigny and his two seconds. The fight was over a dispute between Thorigny and the
Marquis de Chalais, who was in prison accused of treason. Bouteville was merely defending the honor of a friend. All six spent the night before the engagement in an inn outside Paris, and in the course of a fairly amicable conversation, they expressed regret that being good friends, they were going to kill each other over another gentleman’s quarrel. But they agreed that they had gone too far to be able to abandon the project without loss of honor. The next day Bouteville killed Thorigny after the latter’s sword broke.
By the 1620s, Louis was old enough to make another run at this intractable elite-on-elite crime wave, and did so with the full encouragement of his famous consigliere Cardinal Richelieu. Depriving the aristocracy of this weird extra-judicial prerogative fit right into the latter’s going campaign to centralize the French state and bring its quarrelsome lords to heel.
What with all those duels he liked to fight, Francois de Montmorency-Bouteville was a great test case. Fighting a public duel in January 1627 — at which his second was slain — made Bouteville a target, and he fled to the Netherlands for safety.
Our fugitive figured he’d send word that a pardon would be appreciated, and everything would blow over like it always did. But Louis was determined to disabuse this type of any privilege to commit public mayhem, and refused to grant Bouteville his absolution.
Honor offended — his default state, to judge by his career — Bouteville vowed angrily to “fight in Paris and in the Place Royale!” This he did on May 12, 1627, slipping back into France for the express purpose of dueling Guy Harcourt, the Marquis de Beuvron. And Bouteville disdained a private fight for the occasion, insisting, as he had declared, on a daytime melee where everyone could see it at the grand new Place Royale (today, Places des Vosges).
Bouteville and Beuvron fought to a bloodless stalemate and agreed to call it a draw. But Bouteville’s second Des Chapelles mortally wounded Beuvron’s second.
Everyone fled, and while Beuvron made it out of the country, Montmorency and Des Chapelles were nabbed, and condemned to death by the Parlement of Paris for violating Louis’s royal edict against duels.
From the king’s standpoint, this was just about the most egregious possible arrangement of factors.
The guy was a serial offender, and he was already a fugitive for his last duel.
The fight had produced a fatality.
Worst, the whole scene — sneaking back into Paris, fighting openly within the potential view of the sovereign — had been overtly staged to scorn the royal ban.
If Louis intended his decree to mean anything at all, he had to come down hard on this one. “It is a question of cutting the throat of duels or of your majesty’s edicts,” Richelieu summarized.
But as clear-cut as were the case indicia, this was still a hard one for Louis, and even for the usually-ruthless Richelieu. Bouteville was a well-born noble, with powerful friends and family who were also close to the king, and they besieged the royal person with petitions for mercy. A sorrowing but firm Louis had to personally refuse mercy to Bouteville’s tearful wife. “Their loss affects me as much as it does you,” he said. “But my conscience prevents my pardoning them.”
Although the poor wife couldn’t make any headway for clemency, she had the better of Bouteville’s swordsmanship off the field of honor. The doomed duke bequeathed one last rapier thrust to posterity by leaving his widow-to-be pregnant with a posthumous son who eventually generalled French armies to any number of routs of the Dutch in the late 17th century.
And while Richelieu’s memoirs would depict this instance of executive implacability as a decisive turn, Herr argues that it was nothing but a brief interruption. The pernicious hobby was back in all its glory within a couple of years, an evil that even Richelieu could never master. France’s aspired-to absolutism could not reach that ancient and intimate noble right save in the very most exemplary case.
In Dumas’s Three Musketeers, set in 1620s France, D’Artagnan is charged by his father in the opening pages to “[n]ever fear quarrels … Fight on all occasions. Fight the more for duels being forbidden, since consequently there is twice as much courage in fighting.” And indeed, it is by blundering into silly duels (e.g., the “offense” caused by bumping into Porthos while hurrying down the stairs, the latter of whom considers D’Artagnan’s apology discourteously perfunctory) that D’Artagnan becomes the fourth of their cadre … because Richelieu’s men arrive to break up the illegal D’Artagnan-vs.-Musketeer melees, and D’Artagnan joins with his “foes” to defend, all for one and one for all, their privilege as gentlemen to slaughter one another.
The dueling phenomenon faded significantly under Louis XIV, but still not completely: Voltaire almost fought a duel in 1726; the artist Manet dueled a critic in 1870; and YouTube will favor the viewer with a number of 20th century professors and litterateurs settling long-forgotten affairs of honor — like disputes over wartime collaboration after World War II — in ceremonial swordfights.
* Also worth noting relative to the casualty numbers: each side’s seconds also fought, so it wasn’t strictly a one-on-one affair. A move for taking seconds out of the fight eventually prevailed, long before the end (if there has been a real end) of dueling, but in 1627 that time was not yet come.
** Across the Channel at this time, Francis Bacon was making much the same complaint against English duels.
Also on this date
- 1535: Cardinal John Fisher
- 1669: Roux de Marsilly, employer of the Man in the Iron Mask?
- 1920: Dennis Gunn, hanged by a fingerprint
- 1711: Ifranj Ahmad, Janissary