CLIO TALKS BACK: Clio Remembers a Powerful Princess: La Grande Mademoiselle (1627-1693)

University of Chicago Press book cover, via Google
La Grande Mademoiselle
Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans, duchesse de Montpensier, was the daughter of Gaston d’Orléans – the younger brother of King Louis XIII of France – which made her the cousin of Louis XIV, the Sun-King, eleven years her junior. Inheriting her mother’s vast fortune, she was without a doubt the wealthiest young woman in France and perhaps in all of Europe. In consequence, she refused to become a commodity in the royal marriage market. Even her uncle the king could not force her to accept any of the proposed suitors. She yearned for a women's republic, where women could be free and independent.

In the account that follows, the story of La Grande Mademoiselle (as the duchesse de Montpensier was known) picks up with the outbreak of civil war in France (1647-53), called La Fronde, during which various factions of the nobility contested the authority of the king’s chosen minister Cardinal Mazarin. The incident described below by literary historian Joan de Jean took place when Montpensier was around 25 years old.

“. . . . Among the least expected consequences of the Fronde was surely the fact that during those tumultuous years, women from the highest ranks of the nobility participated in military actions to a degree unheard of in France before or since.

“Among them, three duchesses – the duchesse de Chevreuse, the duchesse de Longueville, and the duchesse de Montpensier – were by far the most visible: all three rode at the head of armies and played key strategic roles. Their military daring was so striking that their contemporaries referred to them as Amazons, as though they were the legendary women warriors come to life. Thus, Montpensier managed to enter the city of Orléans by battering down the only gate no one had thought to fortify and thereby won that city over to the rebel cause. Later, in an exploit that quickly became the stuff of legend, in July 1652 she gave the rebels, known as frondeurs, their final victory. The battle was raging throughout the streets of Paris, between the vastly outnumbered opposition forces, led by their finest general, the prince de Condé, and the royal army, under the command of their leading general, Turenne. Louis XIV and Mazarin were watching from high ground just outside Paris, awaiting the seemingly inevitable massacre – when Montpensier issued orders to turn the cannon of the Bastille, which normally faced inward on the city, against the royal forces. Condé and the rebels were saved. And, as if to make certain that her first cousin the king would know who was responsible for his defeat, Montpensier – in this case, every inch the “grande” Mademoiselle – dominated the scene from the towers of the Bastille: she even added a large hat and long plumes to make her already notable stature more impressive still and guaranteed that she would be visible from a great distance.”

Clio notes that following these events, Louis XIV ordered all the rebel leaders into exile and began building Versailles, where the nobility of both sexes would be required to reside under the surveillance of the king, subject to elaborate rituals that would keep them too busy to plot ever again.

Clio wonders how Europe’s history might have been vastly different, had the armies of the Grande Mademoiselle and the other two duchesses defeated the king’s forces. Could rank have trumped gender in such a situation? If the duchesses had overthrown the king, could they have then abolished the so-called Salic Law that forbade women from ruling France? Could women have then established their own republic?

Source: Joan de Jean’s “Introduction: La Grande Mademoiselle,” to the Duchess of Montpensier’s Against Marriage (University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 6.