Antonin Nompar de Caumont, Duc de Lauzun

Sometimes the life of someone is so adventurous that one questions if fact or fiction. This is certainly the case with the infamous Duc de Lauzun and let me assure you, that fact can be as strange as fiction at times.


Antonin Nompar de Caumont

The man who became famous as Lauzun was born in 1632 to Gabriel Nompar de Caumont, Comte de Lauzun, and his wife Charlotte de Caumont La Force, a daughter of Henri Nompar de Caumont, Duc de La Force.

As little Lauzun had reached the age to learn the important things to survive the court, he was sent to Paris by his parents and given into the care of Antoine de Gramont, not just a mere relative… but one of the most important people at court and a hero of war. From then on, he grew up in company of Monsieur de Gramont’s children, the future Princesse de Monaco and her brother the Comte de Guiche.

Lauzun was enrolled in one of the many Parisian military academies as one of the Cadets de Gascogne, a special regiment under Louis XIII that mainly consisted of the youngest sons of Gascon noble families, and learned what all noble boys of his age had to know. How to read, write, dance, fence, ride and how to make fine speeches. When he was not busy with learning how to war, he enjoyed the many delights Paris had to offer. Frequenting taverns and various salons, like that of Olympe Mancini, or ogling Gramont’s daughter, who became the crush of his teens.

Back then Lauzun was not yet Lauzun and known as Marquis de Puyguilhem, also spelled Péguilin, and his daring nature made quite the impression on Turenne. It led to a friendship between them, which was a bit of a jackpot for Lauzun. He lacked money, as well as scruples, and needed friends… little did he know that he soon would become friends with the most important person in the kingdom.

As it happened, the young Louis XIV was a frequent guest at the salon of Olympe Mancini as well and someone like Lauzun, a man with a bold tongue, is often topic of gossip… thus the King heard talk about that daring gentleman, that was not handsome at all, but somehow rather successful with the ladies for some reason. At some point both of them met and Louis was so impressed and amused by Lauzun that he wished him to remain close-by.

Lauzun’s star rose swiftly after that. The King found him rather entertaining and Lauzun made sure it stayed like that by showering him with compliments and flattering his ego, being not always honest in his compliments. Louis was a sucker for compliments and Lauzun discovered this quickly. He also took to playing jests on various courtiers to amuse the King, which earned him the reputation of being the greatest jester at court.

But then Louis started to ogle Lauzun’s crush, Catherine-Charlotte de Gramont. At that time, Louis XIV’s mistress was the shy Louise de la Vallière and he was quite into her… but that didn’t stop him from bedding others. Both Lauzun and Catherine-Charlotte were on friendly terms with Henriette d’Angleterre and she apparently shoved Catherine-Charlotte into the direction of the King, in hopes she might be able to replace Louise de la Vallière. Of course Lauzun wasn’t at all happy about that plan. Catherine-Charlotte was something like his first great love and if the rumours are to believed, she also loved him in return. Yet, refusing the affections of the King… that was not easy.

Catherine Charlotte de Gramont, attributed to Jean Nocret. Domaine de Versailles.

And so, while the King was officially with Louise de la Vallière, he also began to date Catherine-Charlotte, while Catherine-Charlotte apparently dated Lauzun. The latter, out of jealousy, began to sabotage the planned meetings of Catherine-Charlotte and the King. You might guess it. The whole thing did not end well, for Lauzun knew no bounds in matters of jealousy.

One evening, for example, as he knew the King would visit Catherine-Charlotte, he stole the keys to her rooms from a chambermaid and locked her in. Thus the King stood a bit like an idiot in front of closed doors, which neither King nor Catherine-Charlotte could open, while Lauzun watched the whole thing from a place of hiding. Shortly after, he ‘accidentally’ crushed one of Catherine-Charlotte’s slander hands under his heeled shoe.

There are two versions on how the whole thing ended: version one says Catherine-Charlotte preferred Lauzun over the King, which enraged the latter; version two says Catherine-Charlotte preferred the King and that turned Lauzun hostile towards both of them. Either way, Lauzun was gifted a six-month stay at the Bastille by the King. Breakfast, or any other comforts, not included.

Upon his release and return to court, Lauzun began to act friendly with Madame de Montespan in the very selfish hope, that if this Montespan will be able to replace Louise de la Vallière he might be rewarded for helping her ascend… or she will at least owe him a favour.

It was the year 1669 and Lauzun had his eyes on office of Grand Master of the artillery of France. Luckily, the King had forgiven him for all that ado with Catherine-Charlotte and promised to grant it to him. Antonin enjoyed to boast a bit now and then, and becoming Grand Master of the artillery was quite the thing to boast about, thus before he had the papers of appointment in his hands, he spilled the beans to Monsieur Noyert, a premier valet de chambre, as both stood outside the King’s council room, where a few moments later the papers were to be signed. Monsieur Noyert had a quick look at his pocket-watch and excused himself politely afterwards, to make his way to the chambers of Louvois, which he knew found Lauzun rather annoying, to spill the beans to him. Louvois in turn, slipped into the council chamber, saying he came with urgent business, and asked the King for a word in privat… then told Louis what he had just heard and how it was not a wise decision, since Lauzun did not like him, the Minister of War, when it was of utmost importance, to the kingdom, that Minister of War and Grand Master of the artillery are able to be civil with each other and how he saw himself incapable of working harmoniously with Lauzun, who always talked ill of him.

Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Marquise de Montespan

Louis XIV felt quite betrayed by his good friend Lauzun, after all he had requested him not to tell a single soul about it until the matter was settled proper. The King thus told Louvois that the matter was not yet decided. The council came to an end shorty after and the gilded doors were opened for Louis XIV. Lauzun, totally ignorant of what had happened, expected the King to make the announcement, but Louis walked straight past him, not saying a word. Antonin, irritated and in a bit of a foul mood, hid in his rooms for the rest of the day, before asking for a private audience in the evening.

It was granted and Antonin was told by his King to be patient for a little longer, because there was a unexpected hitch. Of course, the bold Lauzun didn’t take that for an answer and rushed to Madame de Montespan. She did her best to calm him with fair words, not really making any promise, but saying she would inquire about it… days passed and Lauzun did not hear anything back from her. Now he thought himself betrayed, suspecting that Montespan was playing a false game. Since he was a ladies-man, he did not have too much trouble to talk a chambermaid into letting him slip inside Montespan’s rooms… and there he hid… under her bed.

Just in time because mistress and royal lover appeared shortly after for a tête-à-tête, during which Louis mentioned what had happened. Lauzun had difficulties not to jump out from under the bed. As both left, he slipped out and plotted his vengeance.

At the first chance that presented itself, he confronted Madame de Montespan about her falsehood and how she had no intention to help him, her friend. He called her all sorts of names, of which liar was the least offensive, and proceeded to make all sorts of threats towards her. ( One of the insults he used was pute à chien.) Two days later, he took his chance with the King. In a scandalous scene, he broke his sword over his knee and said he will never serve a King who has relations with a harlot. Louis in turn threw his cane out of the window, fuming with anger, saying he would feel sorry to have struck a man of quality, but it was hard to resist the temptation at the moment. Then turned and left.

Lauzun was again treated to a stay at the Bastille, but this time only for two months. To the great surprise of the whole court, Antonin was fully restored again after his release. Around the same time, the leading grande dame of the court fell hopelessly in love with him.

Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans, Duchesse de Montpensier

It was Louis XIV’s cousin la Grande Mademoiselle and she described Lauzun like this: “He is a small man, but nobody can deny that he has a most pleasing and upright figure. His legs are well turned; his hair is scanty, fair, but tinged with grey, badly brushed and often greasy; he has fine blue eyes, which are generally bloodshot; a distinguished air and a pleasing expression. His smile is charming. The tip of his nose is pointed and red… He is very slovenly in his dress; when he takes pains he looks very well.

After a long and mostly one-sided courtship, la Grande Mademoiselle managed to lure Lauzun, quite reluctantly, into an engagement. (You can read all about that here.) She wrote to the King for permission to marry Lauzun and it was granted, in first. As soon as the news was made public, many of the great nobles uttered their displeasure. Madame de Montespan, who had promoted the match in first, joined in as well in fears it might reflect badly on her to have encouraged it. More and more people joined the anti-fraction and Louis had to withdraw his permission, on the eve of the planned wedding.

Mademoiselle’s petit homme, as she called him, discovered his old friend Montespan was involved and might have changed the King’s mind. Lauzun’s temper got the better of him once more. He took to publicly denouncing her at every chance he got. At court, in Paris, in salons, the theatre, the streets, in her very presence, calling her by whatever insult came into his mind, night and day, without thinking of the consequences or not caring about them.

It is not surprising that this led to another prison visit. Lauzun was arrested in his rooms at Saint-Germain on November 25 in 1671, but this time not brought to the Bastille. He was transferred to a worse place, the place were Nicolas Fouquet had spent almost twenty years by then as a sort of living corpse.

Saint-Mars, the governor of Pignerol, wrote to Louvois to apprise him of the preparations he had made for the expected guest: “M. de Nallot… will tell you how I am preparing for M. de Lauzun. He will tell you, Monseigneur, that I shall lodge him in the two rooms below M. Foucquet; they are the same that you saw, with windows guarded on the inside by great bars of iron; my arrangements are such that I can answer for it, on my life, that M. de Lauzun will not be able to escape or receive any communication from outside. I pledge my word of honour, Monseigneur, that you will never hear speak of him, so long as he is in my keeping, any more than if he were dead… The place which I am preparing for him is so situated that I cannot make holes in the wall to watch him but I intend to know what he does and says, down to the minutest detail, through the valet whom I shall give him. I have procured one with much difficulty, and it is this class of people who are my chief worry, because they don’t like to spend all their lives in prison…

Monsieur de Saint-Mars tried his best regarding the valet, but no matter what he did, not even when using force, said valet could not be persuaded to play the spy. Since, as he mentioned, it was not an easy task to find valets for noble-prisoners, the valet’s refusal was tolerated at some point and Monsieur de Saint-Mars gave up. In regards of Lauzun, he kept true to his promise. He was entirely cut off from communication with the outer world, was given no occupation, and not allowed to walk the grounds of Pignerol for six long years.

Nicolas Fouquet painted by Édouard Lacretelle

For fear he might use books to hide or transport correspondence, he was only allowed to be in possession of one or two exemplars of pious nature after several years imprisonment. And each time his linen was changed, it was first searched carefully and then again when it returned freshly washed, to make sure no secret messages were sent or received this way.

Lauzun was visited in his cell by Saint-Mars twice every day, but the latter had orders not to answer any questions, thus Lauzun did not even receive an answer upon asking if his mother was still among the living. Of course, all of that was not easy to endure and Saint-Mars was quite positive that Lauzun would go mad at some point. He had already started to neglect his looks, even more than usual, hosted a mighty untamed beard in his facial area, refused to speak a word with his goaler, and his mood changed between long fits of depression and outbursts of hysterical passion.

With nothing to occupy himself with, Antonin had plenty of time to think… also about how to get out of this place. It did not look like the King was willed to forgive him this time, so he had to take matters into his own hands. He could appeal to the King and politely request his release… or he could attempt to escape. Lauzun decided for the latter. With old nails and the blades of broken knives he tunnelled through the stone floor of his room until he had scraped out a passage large enough to admit his somewhat diminutive person. At the bottom he found himself in an empty chamber lighted by a barred window, patiently, little by little, he chipped off an angle of this window and removed one bar. Then, letting himself down into the dry moat by a ladder made of towels, which he had carefully hidden, he burrowed under the wall and emerged one February morning in 1676 in a courtyard of the fortress. Three years after he started the tunnelling. Unfortunately for him, he did not find any open gates to the outside world and instead encountered a quite incorruptible sentry, who thus escorted him back to where he ought to be, his cell.

As mentioned, the most famous prisoner of Pignerol at the time was Nicolas Fouquet, but at the very same time Pignerol also hosted a different gentleman whose identity had to be kept secret at all cost and later became even more famous than Fouquet and Lauzun together…. the Man in the Iron Mask. This Iron Mask was a black velvet mask (Voltaire was the first to mention one made of iron.) and this mysterious gentleman acted for a time as valet to Monsieur Fouquet…. where he might have made the acquaintance of Lauzun. As it happened, the rooms of Fouquet and Lauzun were straight underneath each other and the latter discovered a way to visit his neighbour secretly. Via the chimney.

Fouquet received frequent visits from Lauzun and seeing Fouquet’s daughter visiting her papa at Pignerol, Lauzun tried his best to get close to her by shamelessly flirting. The secret connection between the rooms was only discovered after Fouquet’s demise in 1680. Saint-Mars figured that Lauzun might know of the mysterious prisoner and had him change rooms. He was moved to the room Fouquet had occupied and, since there was a chance that Lauzun might be released at some point, he was told that said mysterious man had been released after Fouquet’s demise… which was, of course, not true. The masked man was just moved to a different part of the fortress, far away from Lauzun. Thus Monsieur Lauzun was probably one of very few people who knew of the existence of said man, who was later nicknamed the Man in the Iron Mask.

With Fouquet he had lost his only conversation partner, but by then Lauzun’s was not kept under the same strict rules as when he entered Pignerol. He received permission to walk the grounds of the fortress and to ride along the fortified walls.

Louis-Auguste de Bourbon, Duc du Maine.

All the while Monsieur Lauzun was kept prisoner, la Grande Mademoiselle did what she could to get him out of there. Eventually, after long years of waiting and a river of tears later, an opportunity presented itself in 1680. The King agreed that if la Grande Mademoiselle transfers a part of her fortune, namely County of Eu and the Principality of Dombes, to the Duc du Maine, one of the sons he had with Madame de Montespan, Lauzun would be a free man again after nearly ten long years in prison.

Mademoiselle hesitated in first, then agreed for the sake of her beloved, but there was a bit of a problem. The ransom in question was not really Mademoiselle’s anymore. She had given both, the County of Eu and the Principality of Dombes, to Lauzun ages ago. Thus it was necessary to get a renunciation from Lauzun first. Easier said than done. Antonin was transferred form Pignerol to a less terrible place, Bourbon, under the pretext of bad health.

There he received a visit from his old friend la Montespan, whom he was probably really happy to see. The Marquise informed Lauzun of the terms of his release, and Mademoiselle’s agreement to them, but Lauzun himself found the whole thing too one-sided and off to prison he went again. Luckily not back to Pignerol, but a prison in Chalon-sur-Saône.

After a couple of months there, he changed his mind and agreed as well. He became a free man again in 1681, but not as free as he and Mademoiselle thought. Unbeknown to them in first, Mademoiselle only bought the release of her beloved, but no permission to return to court for him to resume his previous lifestyle. Instead Lauzun received orders to travel to Amboise and remain there in exile.

Both had been tricked by King and mistress. Again. Yet stubborn as Mademoiselle was, she was not willed to have the story end like this. She appealed to the King, again and again, with red eyes and an expression of misery on her face, until Louis XIV eventually agreed to her suggestion. To allow Lauzun to appear at court in order to pay his respects and afterwards be allowed to settle where he pleased, as long as it was not anywhere close to King, mistress and court. After long years of separation, the rather ill-matched couple met at Versailles. Mademoiselle writes: “He came to me after seeing the king; he had on an old doublet, all torn, and a shocking wig. He threw himself at my feet and did it with a good grace. Then Madame de Montespan took us into her cabinet and said, “You will like to speak to one another alone.” She went out, and I followed her.

It was probably not the welcome he expected, but whatever irked Mademoiselle that day was swiftly forgotten. Rumour has it they got married shortly after… yet instead of a “and they lived happily ever after” they argued and argued and argued. Mademoiselle felt offended by Lauzun not showing her enough affection, or any gratitude for getting him out of prison and having made his exile a like less exile-like. Then he began to flirt with the maids under her very eyes. To make up for it, she kicked him out and let him only return after he had crossed the long gallery of her chateau on his knees to beg forgiveness.

Antonin Nompar de Caumont, duc de Lauzun, portrait by Alexis Simon Belle.

She showed him to the door yet again shortly later, as their arguments became more heated and violent, because Lauzun was sure it was Mademoiselle’s doing when he, after asking politely, was not allowed to accompany the King to war. It was the end of their unhappy life together. Mademoiselle did not wish to ever see him again and stayed true to it until her death.

With the support of Mademoiselle gone and without a proper place at court, Lauzun found himself in a not too good situation. He decided that if no-one wanted him in France, he might as well leave the kingdom and seek a fortune somewhere else. After a bit of thinking, Antonin decided for the court of James II of England. It was 1685 and James II was not stranger to Lauzun. He had met him years ago already, as James was still Duke of York, and Lauzun served under him in Flanders. Like with Louis XIV, Lauzun managed to impress James II quite a bit… but then the Glorious Revolution happened and England was no option anymore. James had to flee and so had his family…. Lauzun’s chance for glory. He planned and carried out the flight of the queen and her son, smuggled them out and brought them to Calais.

The exiled James II presented him with the Order of the Garter and Louis XIV wrote him a letter of thanks, lifted the banishment from court, despite the protests of la Grande Madmoiselle, and rewarded him with the command of French troops sent to Ireland to support the cause of the Stuart dynasty. Lauzun knew how to war, but not really how to lead, thus it was not that successful a mission for him and he was swiftly back in France after suffering defeat. Louis XIV made him a Duc, but he received no further employment.

Antonin married in 1695, aged sixty-two, three years after the death of Mademoiselle. The bride was Genevieve de Durfort, the youngest daughter of the Marechal de Lorges, and tender fourteen years old. One of her sisters married the Duc de Saint-Simon a couple of years earlier, thus Lauzun became brother-in-law to him. The bride expected to be widowed soon and though becoming a wealthy Duchesse was worth to spend a couple of years with one of the most disagreeable males in France… but Lauzun, jealous and malicious, lived for another twenty-eight years.

His brother-in-law, who was probably even more disliked than Lauzun, tells of a story that happened shortly before his demise. Lauzun never lost his appetite for playing jokes on people and played one on his heirs: ” In his extreme age he had an illness which nearly proved fatal. One day, when he was very ill, he saw in a mirror that two of his heirs had entered the room on tiptoe and were hiding behind the curtains to see if they could discover how soon they were likely to come into their inheritance. Lauzun pretended not to see them and began to pray aloud, like a man who believes himself to be alone. He asked God to pardon his past life and regretted that he had no time left for penance. There was but one way left to him, he said, of winning salvation, and that was to employ all the wealth that God had given him in atoning for his sins; and he took a solemn vow that he would leave all that he possessed, without a single exception, to the hospitals. He made this declaration with such fervour that his heirs fled in dismay to relate the disaster to Madame de Lauzun.

Lauzun died on November 19 in 1723, aged ninety years and six months, without children, due to cancer in the mouth. After his death, the dukedom of Lauzun fell to his niece’s husband, Charles Armand de Gontaut.

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