Louis de Rouvroy, Duc de Saint-Simon
Saint-Simon. You probably heard that name once or twice before and most likely in combination with quotes. Louis de Rouvroy, commonly called Saint-Simon, managed to write himself into the history books of the world by writing his memoirs. If he had not written those, hardly anyone would know he existed.
Louis de Rouvroy was born on 16 January 1675 in Paris at the Hôtel Selvois to Claude de Rouvroy and his wife Charlotte de l’Aubespine. Charlotte was the second wife of Claude. His first wife, Diane de Budos de Portes, a relative of Condé, died in 1670 after giving him three children. This Claude de Rouvroy, whose family was ruined during the Wars of Religion, was placed as a page in the petite écurie -small stables- of Louis XIII. (The father of Claude was a supporter of the Lorraine-Guise during the Wars.)
Claude managed to win the friendship of Louis XIII, who loved to hunt and thus horses, and acted as a bit of an adviser, for which he was rewarded with better positions. In 1635 a ducal title followed, that of Saint-Simon, and a peerage on top, along with a promotion to the Ordre du Saint-Esprit. The next year, Claude was disgraced, losing his favour over a dispute involving an uncle. Spending the next years in the Provinces with cultivating marshland, Claude returned to Paris just in time for the demise of Louis XIII. Afterwards, Claude’s life wasn’t too spectacular anymore. Although he supported the Queen Regent and Cardinal de Mazarin during the Fronde, he gained no influence and lived a quiet country-life at the chateau of La Ferté-Vidame. As Claude reached the ripe age of sixty-seven, he got a little worried he might die without a male heir and thus married his second wife. Three years later, a heir was born.
From then on Claude dedicated his life to the education of his son Louis. Little Louis received the courtesy-title Vidame de Chartres, which came with the family seat, the chateau de La Ferté-Vidame, as Claude bought it. Funnily enough, the Vidame de Chartres was the title of a character in Madame de La Fayette‘s La Princesse de Clèves, which was published just after Saint-Simon’s birth.
Charlotte de L’Aubespine did her fair bit in educating her son as well. She came from an old noble family and had a bit of a strong will. What she said, had to be done. Little Louis de Rouvroy got baptised on 29 June in 1677 in the presence of ‘the most illustrious patrons who one can find‘ as he called them in his memoirs. Those Godparents were Louis XIV and his wife Marie-Thérèse d’Autriche, who also sponsored the education of little Louis. Not much more is known about the childhood of Louis de Rouvroy. He himself does not waste a sentence on it, but it seems to have been a sad affair. According to biographer François-Régis Bastide, he seems to have grown up largely secluded with the highlight of the year being the annual visit to Saint-Denis on May 14, to honour the memory of Louis XIII, along with the participation in the occasional princely funeral. What Louis later described as an education which set him apart from other children, was an austere and solitary one. (A bit like those kids who are only surrounded by adults and thus act like one, although just seven.) He was taught to read, to write, Latin, and got genealogy lessons from his father, along with lessons on the alliances of the great families, how the court functions, what rank came with which privileges, how the parliament worked and lessons in matters of precedence. (Might explain his future obsessions and why he considered himself so very above.)
In 1692, Louis joined the Mousquetaires de la Garde and served at the Siege of Namur and at the Battle of Neerwinden. It appears the seventeen year old Louis did not have too much interest in military service and instead decided to spend his days with matters of precedence. His first attempt on it happened already two years earlier, upon the death of Marie-Anne de Bavière, wife of Le Grand Dauphin. Aged only fifteen, Louis de Rouvroy produced a detailed account about the funeral of the Dauphine for his mother, which centred around the people present and their precedence, already having the tone of his future memoirs. (It is full with grand words.)
The future Duc de Saint-Simon neglected a possible military career, it appears his father suggested to take that path, for the joys of court life. The family settled in a little house in Versailles. Louis was not much of a looker, he was short and not really attractive, but now of an age to find a wife. Mother wanted it to be so. Among the ladies he courted, was a daughter of Louis de Lorraine, but said daughter declined the offer and this provided the future memoir writer with another reason to dislike the whole family. Already before Louis was even born, they gave him a reason to dislike them. According to Louis himself, the position of Grand Squire of France was meant to be given to his father, but Henri de Lorraine, father of Louis de Lorraine, got it instead because wicked Henri de Lorraine did a bit of intrigue with Anne d’Autriche. The latter then entered the name of evil Henri into the document of promotion, instead of, as Louis XIII had wished before his demise, that of Claude de Rouvroy.
A other possible bride was a daughter of the Duc de Beauvillier, but this did not happen either. The chosen bride, in the end, was Marie-Gabrielle de Durfort, daughter of the Duc de Lorges. According to Saint-Simon himself, he was quite taken with the father-in-law, a Maréchal de France, and quite pleased with the probity, integrity and freedom of the Maréchal. Madame de Lorges wasn’t bad either. “Madame de Lorges by her virtue and good sense was all I could wish for as the mother of my future wife.” he said, and Mademoiselle de Lorges was “a blonde, with a complexion and figure perfect, a very amiable face, an extremely noble and modest deportment, and with I know not what of majesty derived from her air of virtue, and of a natural gentleness. The Maréchal had five other daughters, but I liked this one best without comparison…”
Louis de Rouvroy, now Duc de Saint-Simon after his father had died in 1693, married Marie-Gabrielle de Durfort at the Hôtel de Lorges on 8 April in 1695.
Shortly after the Duc ended his military career. All the responsibilities that came with the Duchy and Peerage, kept Saint-Simon too busy to invest time in a military career and on top of that, he was a bit in a huff. Due to neglecting said military career in the previous years, the promotions went to others. Much to Saint-Simon’s displeasure, who although he neglected his duties, thought himself still worthy of promotion and was put in a mighty rage as junior officers received those promotions instead. One of those officers did thus become his arch-enemy.
It was Adrien-Maurice de Noailles and Saint-Simon considered him to be bit of a viper. He could not deal with the lack of promotion for himself and left the military service under the pretext of health issues in 1702. By that time, the Duc de Saint-Simon had already gained the reputation of being a little strange, yet he had one friend who stood with him, the Duc de Chartres, heir of Louis XIV’s brother and future Regent of France.
Sans position in the military, the Duc was now a mere courtier and not much favoured by Louis XIV, due to the fact that he gave his career up. Not a good starting position, considering a courtier depended on the favour of the King.
For Louis XIV, Saint-Simon, although Duc and Peer, seems not to have been a person of particular importance and thus Saint-Simon began to mingle in intrigues and to collect all sorts of information on his fellow courtiers, from Princes to servants. This did not increase his amount of friends of course. As did his obsession with rank and privileges. The Duc de Saint-Simon acted as observer of the grand dames and grand hommes of the court, without ever belonging to them.
In 1705, it seemed Louis XIV was willed to give him a chance. Saint-Simon was nominated as ambassador to Rome, but it should not be and the appointment was cancelled before he departed. Someone else was sent instead. Saint-Simon attached himself to the former Duc de Chartres and now Duc d’Orleans afterwards. That did not sit well with Louis XIV. The King had a bit of a problem with his nephew’s lifestyle and was not really favourable to those close to him… but at least Saint-Simon belonged to a party now. He also attached himself to the Duc de Bourgogne, eldest son of the Dauphin, next in line to the throne after the Dauphin.
Louis de Rouvroy developed a love-hate relationship towards the court and his life there. On one hand, he enjoyed to be there. On the other, he did not enjoy at all how dependable on the King’s favour he was and how he could not so easily leave court to live in his Duchy. If he was not present, it could mean that he, as Duc and Peer, lost importance or cause a devaluation of his own status. (The horror.) His living situation at court was not too good either and it was due to his wife alone, that Saint-Simon managed to get a larger apartment in Versailles. He obtained an apartment in the north-wing in 1702, which was occupied by his father-in-law previously, but lost it already in 1709. Afterwards, the Comte de Pontchartrain lent him an apartment located on the second floor of the minister-wing. Undoubtedly, he considered both of the apartments not really suitable for his rank. In 1710, the Duchesse de Saint-Simon was appointed dame d’honneur to the Duchesse de Berry, daughter of the Duc de Chartres, and Saint-Simon moved, with his wife, into a larger and better suited apartment, formally belonging to the Duchesse Sforza.
Another thing that was contrary to gaining the King’s favour, was the fact that Saint-Simon hated the royal bastards and the privileges they were given. Especially because they were given precedence over the Peers of France.
Saint-Simon finally gained a bit more importance after the death of Louis XIV and the rise of his old friend to Regent of France. The Duc was nominated to join the Regency Council and finally had an opportunity to make his ideas heard. The great Sun King turned a bit of a deaf ear to them. Saint-Simon, being a fan of the old ways, had the vision to replace the ministers and their departments with more worthy people, namely the old nobility. Everything sorted by rank and status, of course. In this vision of how the Kingdom should be governed, he himself would have quite a bit to say, of course. After all, he ranked rather high. The Regent ignored most of his suggestions. Yet Saint-Simon was successful in a other matter. With his dislike for the royal bastards, he aided the Regent to degrade them in rank.
The Duc had another chance to shine in 1721 as he was nominated to go to Spain in order to arrange the engagement of Louis XV with the Infanta Marie Anne Victoire and that of the Prince of Asturias to Élisabeth d’Orléans. Saint-Simon went happily. He admired the Spanish court for its dignified air. The prospect of securing a grandeeship for himself was not bad either. He returned as grandee, but financially ruined.
He partly attributed his poor financial status to the doings of Cardinal Dubois, who did his best to make Saint-Simon’s life as hard as possible in Spain, according to Saint-Simon. Cardinal Dubois was another of Saint-Simon’s self-declared arch-enemies. During his time in Spain, Cardinal Dubois was Saint-Simon’s direct superior. As in Cardinal Dubois was the one who said what had to be done.
After Saint-Simon’s return, Cardinal Dubois was appointed Prime Minister and the Duc excluded from the Regency Council. Ruined and with no position, he retired gradually in 1722 and lost his last remaining friend the next year. The Regent died aged forty-nine in the arms of his mistress and Saint-Simon became a person no longer wanted at court.
Louis de Rouvroy retired to his childhood home the château de la Ferté and lived the life of a country gentleman, with occasional visits to his Parisian house and rarer visits to court. In 1728, Saint-Simon gave his title and peerage to his eldest son to devote his own life to reading and writing. During these years, he came across the diary of the Marquis de Dangeau, which he found rather boring, and began to collect notes for an own writing project, his memoirs. Saint-Simon had plenty material at hand already, since he had made notes of all the gossip he collected during his time at court, and got some more material from various other sources. His father-in-law kindly provided him with talk of what happened before the Duc had joined court.
His own children, two sons and a daughter, are only side notes in his memoirs. He mentions them only in relation of rank and status, perhaps not considering them worthy to be his heirs. The sons did inherit Saint-Simon’s stature, and were apparently even smaller than him, but not what he considered to be his brilliant intellect. He saw them as quite troublesome, yet tried to use his last bit of favour for them. The death of Madame de Saint-Simon put him in deep mourning and with the death of his sons, in 1746 and 1754, Saint-Simon is left without any heirs.
The Duc de Saint-Simon died aged eighty in Paris on 2 March 1755, having exhausted his family wealth and without descendants to continue the line of Duc’s de Saint-Simon. All his possessions, including his memoirs, consisting of countless pages of paper and notes, were seized by the Crown. It is believed that a large part of the memoirs vanished after being seized.
Saint-Simon’s memoirs were published long after his death and should be read with a pinch of salt. While they paint a picture of the time of Louis XIV and the following Regency, they are tainted by the author’s opinion to the degree where it is easy to see whom he liked and did not like. The Duc paints his enemies in the worst light and lifts his friends to the highest of virtues. Since a part of Saint-Simon’s memoirs consists of what he was told by others, those accounts were probably already tainted by personal opinion before he put them to paper. He writes in grand words about ceremonial, rank and status, privileges, fights for precedence, making sure to appear himself as perfect as possible, while his own life was not particular noteworthy. What makes his memoirs worth a read is not so much what he describes in it, there are far more reliable sources, but how he describes it. As a sort of narrative novel.
Saint-Simon is a model example of how you can waste your life at your own wish. I’m not a historian, so I can say what I feel, not what I know for sure. And I feel that even in more favorable circumstances (e.g. a father in a better position or a different kind of education), Saint-Simon would not be a better man. It’s a matter of character. He lived long and had the opportunity and the time to change himself, but he did not.