Pretty and fair with skin like cream, Françoise de Brancas Princesse d’Harcourt lived in that strange world Versailles, when the Sun King Louis XIV ruled. He demanded his aristocrats paid court to him in his glorious over stuffed castle and so there they lived, squeezed into every last corner and cupboard. Privacy was unthinkable.
Which is how the story of Françoise’s humiliation became known.
A grand alliance
Françoise de Brancas married the Prince d’Harcourt, comte de Montlaur in 1667 when she was 18 and he 19. The marriage gave her a wonderful title and a soldier for a husband. It was arranged by her dear friend Madam de Maintenon, mistress to the King and rumoured one-time mistress of her own father.
The marriage must have been successful for a while; 8 children were born, although just four would outlive Françoise. But as she aged and her cream skin soured under poisonous cosmetics, the soldier who never valued his own faithfulness stayed away. By 1687 he was cheerfully living on his estates in Lorraine with his mistresses, his wine and what he could win from the fools taken in by Harcourt charm, the fools whose fortunes he fleeced at cards.
The mad, bad world of Versailles
Françoise continued to live in the rarefied world of Versailles with the protective friendship of those at the top of the social tree. Their protection gave her great power in that suffocating place, and great enemies. Unfortunately for her memory, one of them wrote a diary.
Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon was not a fan of the arrogant Princesse. She was 52 when wrote in 1702:
“She had once been beautiful and gay; but though not old, all her grace and beauty had vanished. The rose had become an ugly thorn. At the time I speak of she was a tall, fat creature, mightily brisk in her movements, with a complexion like milk porridge; great, ugly, thick lips, and hair like tow, always sticking out and hanging down in disorder, like all the rest of her fittings out.“
“Dirty, slatternly, always intriguing, pretending, enterprising, quarreling always low as the grass or high as the rainbow, according to the person with whom she had to deal: she was a blonde Fury, nay more, a harpy: she had all the effrontery of one, and the deceit and violence: all the avarice and the audacity”
An unpleasant dinner companion
Saint-Simon even suggested Françoise was incontinent and unbothered by it:
“she drove out of their wits those at whose house she dined; was often a victim of her continence and was many a time sent to the devil by the servants of M. du Maine and M. le Grand. She, leaving a frightful trail, was never in the least embarrassed, tucked up her petticoats and went her way; then returned saying she had been unwell. People were accustomed to it.”
Of course Françoise cheated at cards:
“Whenever money was to be made by scheming and bribery, she was there to make it. At play she always cheated, and if found out stormed and raged; but pocketed what she had won. “
Saint-Simon’s description does make Françoise sound unlikable but perhaps he did not know or care how many pregnancies had damaged her. At least one child was known to have died before birth and its removal probably caused the damage that left her leaving a “frightful trail”.
Terrible treatment of servants
With aristocratic neighbours just inches away from her rooms in Versailles, Françoise’ terrible treatment of her servants was well known. Saint-Simon reported that she paid them badly, beat them constantly and changed them “every day“. This would be the cause of her comeuppance, much to the courtly amusement of Versailles, and earn her another unpleasant place in the memoirs of Saint-Simon.
The comeuppance of a Princesse
We will let the duc de Saint-Simon tell his tale.
“Upon one occasion, she took into her service a strong and robust chambermaid, to whom, from the first day of her arrival, she gave many slaps and boxes on the ear.
“The chambermaid said nothing, but after submitting to this treatment for five or six days, conferred with the other servants who arranged one morning to be elsewhere.
“While in her mistress’s room, the chambermaid locked the door without being perceived, said something to bring down punishment upon her, and at the first box on the ear she received, flew upon the Princesse d’Harcourt, gave her no end of thumps and slaps, knocked her down, kicked her, mauled her from her head to her feet.
“When she was tired of this exercise, left her on the ground, all torn and dishevelled, howling like a devil.
“The chambermaid then quitted the room, double-locked the door on the outside, gained the staircase, and fled the house.“
We suspect the chambermaid may have been a robust woman from the Harcourt lands in Normandy that her husband Prince d’Harcourt signed over to Françoise’ care 1687.
Saint-Simon’s vindictive pen enjoyed relaying many stories about the Princesse that, with a more distant eye, reveal just how unpleasant life could be as an aging unwanted guest in the Sun King’s court. Firecrackers were set off in the gardens as she rolled by in her bath-chair causing her to panic and fall. The courtiers left her where she lay as they laughed. She was pelted with snowballs in the middle of the night, twenty Swiss guard were sent drumming to her chamber as she slept. ..
Saint Simon said “It was enough to make one die of laughter. On the morrow she sulked, and was more than ever laughed at for her pains.”
What the memoirs didn’t say
What Saint-Simon failed to mention is that Françoise, Princesse d’Harcourt, for all her silly ways and short temper, made the lives of many people considerably better.
At Harcourt and around her other grand properties at Arcueil and Clermont-en-Beauvaisis, she was extraordinarily charitable.
In the village of Harcourt Françoise had built a large retirement home and hospice and with it an institution for poor girls, educating them to make lace, a trade then unknown in that region of Normandy. Opened in 1695, it is impossible to calculate how many old folk were able to end their days in some comfort thanks to her generosity. Or how many girls were then able to provide for their families. A legacy worth remembering.
With permission from her son, Françoise then set about updating the old Harcourt chateau. From 1696 she began a dramatic reconstruction; ditches were filled, ramparts removed and an ornamental garden created. She had one side of the castle rebuilt using limestone in the 18th century style, completely at odds with the medieval styling around the other side. A Parquet floor similar to floors in Versailles was installed and a grand staircase.
Thomas Corneille described the castle of Harcourt in 1704: “The castle … is very lodgeable and has a beautiful air. The apartments have been restored to the modern with a well-ordered and very clean garden “.
Death of a princesse
On 11 April 1715 while staying at her chateau in Clermont-en-Beauvaisis, Françoise was taken ill. Age just 60, she was dead in two days.
Her heart was buried in Clermont-en-Beauvaisis, her body was taken back to Harcourt. Records say the burial 19 April 1715 took place in the chapel of the chateau d’Harcourt, a chapel now lost.
Françoise de Brancas Princesse d’Harcourt, left many important properties but also debts. Her heirs sold many of the chateaus, but kept Harcourt for a while although it was inhabited less and less. In 1786 much of the land was sold then in 1802 Louis Gervais Delamare, a lawyer and arborist, bought the chateau. His arboretum is a national treasure today.
The old hospital today
A wing of the old hospital on Place Françoise de Brancas burned down in 1895 and was rebuilt in 1896 by the architect Gossart. The buildings were still in use in living memory but now look abandoned. A recent newspaper report mentioned they were rejected as in too poor condition to house migrants from the east. On the land next to the old hospital stands a vast modern retirement home.
Françoise is remembered, if at all, by the stories in Saint-Simon’s memoirs. She is a historical figure of fun, tormented across time by a duc whose never expected his diaries to be published. They were seized after his death by the crown and only appeared many years later.
We don’t forgive Françoise her bad behaviour but are pleased our postcard match can do a little to balance history’s view of this complicated, grand and charitable woman.
Read a free online translation of The Memoirs of Louis XIV., His Court and The Regency, by Duc de Saint-Simon on Project Gutenberg.