Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Who was the Second Duke of Richelieu?

The famous Cardinal Richelieu was awarded a dukedom in 1629 by a grateful King Louis XIII, making him the first duc de Richelieu. As a priest, he died without sons, so at his death in 1642 the title fell to his sister’s 23-year-old grandson Armand.

Briefly glorious military career
Young Armand did not live up to his great-uncle’s reputation. As a naval officer he won some impressive battles, but never quite the war. Upon his return to civilian life, he appears to have set out to dismantle his family’s fortune. Gambling, mistresses, three wives and four children, some unfortunate political alliances, at least one property destroyed by fire – by the age of 35 he had started selling off piecemeal his titles, honors, lands, and a rather nice art collection with some notable Poussins, to cover his debts.

Chateau du Val de Ruel
By 1685 he was desperate to find his way back onto solid footing. When his king, Louis XIV, set out on a royal progress to view his subjects, Armand managed to get on the itinerary. He poured a fortune into the château on the route, the Château du Val de Ruel, refurbishing the building and especially the gardens and grounds. These were already famous for their fountains, orchards, triumphal arch, and general magnificence. The duke commissioned an opera to be performed in the new grotto he was having put in, and he planned a feast and a party that would be the talk of the neighborhood (which today is just outside of Paris, but which was nicely remote and bucolic at the time.) All of this, he hoped, would garner some royal favor, and stop his long, ignominious decline. 

Le Roi-Soleil
Alas! Never count on the promises of a king. At the very last minute Louis altered his route, and visited a different courtier’s estate instead. Armand was financially crushed. The chateau fell into ruin, and no longer exists today. 

The dynasty soldiered on, the 3rd and 5th dukes being especially memorable, but by the mid-20th century it, too, was gone. The people, the gardens, the grotto, the monarchy itself: all gone. The party that never happened, the feast that was never eaten, the opera that was never performed . . . But what about that opera?  Stay tuned for our next installment!

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