The name Talleyrand is generally synonymous with the famed “Prince of Diplomats” who spanned the Republic, Empire, and Kingdom.
But that Talleyrand — Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, multiply French foreign minister, former Bishop of Autun, one-time Prince of Benevento, Ambassador to the United Kingdom — was just one in a long line of the Talleyrand-Perigords (pdf link) who made a name for themselves.
In 1626, Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord, Comte de Chalais, head of wardrobe to King Louis XIII, was one member of that house whose neck was shortened for an offense against the king’s court.
Henri — as he shall be herein known, so as not to confuse him with his many relatives — was the youngest of three children. Born in 1599, he served in the military at the unsuccessful Siege of Montauban in 1621 and 1622. (The defeat (temporarily) preserved Huguenot rights in France.)
In 1623, Henri returned from war and married Charlotte de Castille (not to be confused with the modern porn star!). It was not long after that rumors of Castille’s impropriety started making the rounds, as immortalized in Tallemant de Réaux‘s verse, whose rough translation is as follows:
On seeing the slit
Of the Countess of Alais
Who likes the strong ballet,
And says hers is more charming
Than the Chalais’.
And that, not so roughly translated, is why Pontgibault received a visit from an irate Henri.
Henri is alleged to have challenged a duel, where he cock-blocked his cuckold — permanently. The European ideals of chivalry yet persisted, so there was some question whether this affair constituted murder, and the trial was the talk of France through the winter of 1623.
It was at this trial that the lines were drawn: Henri was joined in his effort to fight the charges by the Grand Prieur Alexandre de Vêndome, Monseiur Gaston d’Orléans (brother to the king), Jean-Baptiste d’Ornano, Louis de Bourbon (Comte de Soissons), and others.
Henri successfully defended himself, but this did not put the fire back into the marital bed. Instead, Henri’s loins turned toward Marie de Rohan-Montbazon, duchesse de Chevreuse.
Madame de Chevreuse, former lover of Henry Rich (later Earl of Holland), had a string of lovers, and it’s questionable whether Henri was among them. Whether he was or not, she ignited in him a passion that would lead to his execution.
The impetus for this execution was ostensibly a plot to save Gaston d’Orléans, who, by decree of Louis XIII, was to marry Marie de Bourbon, duchesse de Montpensier. The union would bring significant wealth into the family of Louis XIII.
Backed by his First Minister Cardinal Richelieu, the king was insistent. For several years, Richelieu had also been reducing the power of the nobility and consolidating central authority around the king, which was not the way Madame de Chevreuse envisioned the world.
Instead, she sought to install Gaston d’Orléans on the throne, thus advancing her agenda to restore power to the nobility. The forced marriage became a convenient excuse to enact her plan against Richelieu. And her charming way with men made it easy to find participants.
Madame de Chevreuse and d’Ornano were at the heart of the conspiracy, but their reach extended as far as England and Spain. She was also supported by Anne of Austria, who is thought to have played a critical role in organizing the conspirators. At the very least, the collective hope was to make Monseiur abandon Louis XIII’s court and seek an alliance with the Hugenots, who would be sympathetic to a cause against the Catholic Church.
The juicy details of the winter of 1625-1626 are cataloged in H. Noel Williams’ A Fair Conspirator Marie De Rohan, Duchesse De Chevreuse, but a summary version is sufficient here.
At some point, Richelieu caught wind of d’Ornano’s involvement in a conspiracy against the throne; not knowing the extent of the effort, he had d’Ornano detained. Lest their plot be found out, the conspirators encouraged Gaston to initiate a war; this was particularly true of Comte de Soissons, who posted a reward should Monseiur take up arms against his brother.
Gaston hesitated, and a new plan was enacted.
Instead, some of the conspirators would take audience with Richelieu and either detain or kill him, depending on the story. Needless to say, the plan failed, and the conspirators were found out. Chalais tried to lay low while the plot against the king and his minister unfolded, but he did not sufficiently distance himself from Madame de Chevreuse: Gaston was exposed and named names, and Chalais, not well-connected enough to fight the charges against him, was captured at Nantz on July 8.
Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord, Comte de Chalais, was sentenced to death by beheading for lèse-majesté, and on August 19, 1626, he mounted the scaffold at Place de Bouffay in Nantz. In a last, cruel twist, the conspiracy had bought off the town executioner in hopes that, lacking a practitioner of the macabre art, Chalais might be spared. But a replacement had been hastily found: a man himself condemned to death:
The [replacement] was so unskillful that, besides two blows from a Swiss sword, which had been purchased on the spot, he gave him thirty-four with an adze such as carpenters use; and was obliged to turn the body round to finish the severing of the neck, the patient exclaiming up to the twentieth blow: ‘Jesus, Maria et Regina Cali!’
No other conspirators were put to the sword, and Gaston and his brother eventually made up. Richelieu, meanwhile, gained more power and transitioned France from a feudal state to an absolute monarchy under Louis XIII and his successor, Louis XIV. His dealings form the backdrop of The Three Musketeers.
As for Madame de Chevreuse — who also figures in The Three Musketeers, scheming behind the scenes against Richelieu and crushed on by Aramis — she fled to Château d’Dampierre, then was exiled to England, where she fell in with the Duke of Lorraine (and became his mistress); she attempted to organize several more coups against the Red Eminence, but each fell short of the mark.
Madame de Chevreuse eventually ended up in Spain, then moved back to England, then shipped out to Flanders, where she connected once again with the Comte de Soissons and attempted to usurp the throne before it could be passed to Louis XIV. When Richelieu finally passed, she sought to oust his replacement, this time relying on César de Bourbon, duc de Vendôme, who was also involved in the Chalais conspiracy. After this failure, Madame de Chevreuse retired to Gagny.
Elizabeth Stone writes of Madame de Chevreuse in Political Women, “It was not she evidently who made of Buckingham a species of paladin without genius; a brilliant adventurer of Charles IV of Lorraine; of Chalais a hair-brained blunderer, rash enough to commit himself in a conspiracy against Richelieu, on the faith of the faithless Duke d’Orleans; of Châteauneaf, an ambitious statesman, impatient of holding second rank in the Government, without being capable of taking the first.”
Be that as it may, she is a compelling historical figure, and the Chalais conspiracy formed the basis for the operatic tragedy Maria di Rohan.
The conspiracy has also been used in an unusual modern form as an audio drama episode of Doctor Who.