Duchess of Aiguillon
Marie Madeleine de Vignerot1 du Pontcourlay, Duchesse d’Aiguillon, Pair de France (1604–1675) was the niece of Cardinal Richelieu, a collaborator with Vincent de Paul in many works of mission and charity, and a supporter of Church and those in need.
Marie de Vignerot was born at the Château de Glénay near Bressuire in Poitu, west-central France. She was the daughter of René de Vignerot, Seigneur de Pontcourlay, Gentleman of the Chamber to Henri IV as well as Captain of the Guard, and of Françoise de Plessis2, elder sister of Armand-Jean du Plessis (later known as Cardinal Richelieu). Marie had a brother François who was five years younger than herself. Her father René was often absent at Court. Her mother, conscious of the importance of education in religious matters, did her best to instil in her children a sense of deep piety, prayer, charity, and family loyalty. This devotion to religious matters, the need for the practice of charity, as well as the idea of family loyalty, influenced Marie for the rest of her life. Early in Marie’s life, her family experienced several.hardships. At the age of about two years, her brother François suffered a fall, with apparently some brain damage. Though he recovered physically, his mental development was somewhat slow, and he was always a concern for the family. It was around this time that Armand-Jean du Plessis, already Bishop of Luçon, (Loire region of western France) began to show his support for his sister’s family. Again In 1610, when Henry IV was assassinated and René de Vignerot (Marie’s father) lost his position at Court and became distressed and depressed, Armand-Jean showed his support. In 1616, when Marie was about 12 years old, her mother Françoise, by then of weak constitution and worn out with the family difficulties, died, but not before entrusting her two children to the care of Armand-Jean de Plessis. As a result, Marie, with her father and brother, moved to the Chateau de Richelieu3, the Plessis de Richelieu family home, which was located on a plain near the stream l’Amable in the region of Tours and Poitier.
Despite their age differences, Marie and her grandmother, Mme de Richelieu (Suzanne de la Porte) who had been a widow for many years, got on well together. Both had serious interests and pious tastes. While in the care of her grandmother, Marie learned Italian and Spanish, and was educated in literature, prayer and piety. Her father, who had a good voice, gave her lessons in singing ! She further developed the sense of obedience and family duty that she had received from her mother.
In 1620, though Marie had previously been promised to the Compte de Bethune, son of Sully, it was arranged that she should marry a nephew of the constable of Luynes, Antoine de Beauvoir du Roure, marquis de Combalet. Two years after their marriage, Antoine was taken captive by the Hugenots during the wars of religion and then killed while a prisoner. In their two years of marriage, Antoine and Marie spent no more than six months together, Antoine being absent most of the time. There were no children to the marriage, and Marie de Combalet, as she was then known, was a widow at 18. She had no wish to marry a second time, nor even remain “in the world”, and so she joined the Carmelite Order in Paris. She spent more than two years with the Carmelites, finished her novitiate, and was ready to take vows, until, as a result of the intervention of her uncle, Cardinal Richelieu, and with the agreement of Pierre de Bérulle, the Director of the Carmelites at the time, she was called out of the convent and appointed by Louis XIII as a Lady-in-Waiting (“dame d’atour”) to Queen Marie de Medici, mother and Regent of Louis XIII.4 Marie de Combalet held this position until 1631.5
Marie de Combalet and Cardinal Richelieu
Up until 1605, Armand-Jean du Plessis (1585-1642) had been preparing for a life in the military, but when his elder brother Alphonse, who it was thought would succeed his uncle as Bishop of Luçon, decided to join the Carthusians, pressure was put on Armand to make his life in the Church rather than the military. Accepting the change in plans as a requirement of family duty, in 1605 Armand was nominated as Bishop of Luçon and appointed a deacon in the diocese of Paris. He studied theology under a Doctor of Louvain, and was eventually ordained bishop in 1608 at the age of 22. In 1622, he became Cardinal de Richelieu and in 1624 he was appointed the King’s Chief Minister, a position he held till his death in 1642. This appointment as Chief Minister was the occasion for him to have Marie de Combalet brought out of the Carmelites and into the Court, appointed by Louis XIII as a Lady-in-waiting to his mother, Queen Marie de Medici. Cardinal Richelieu insisted that he desperately needed her support and advice in the onerous office of Chief Minister. He also needed her to run his household.
Marie de Combalet came out of the convent unwillingly but obediently, and the first time she appeared at Court as a Lady-in-Waiting in 1625, she signalled to all by her severe form of dress that she had no wish to be there. However, her good nature soon impressed Marie de Medici, and with her clear blue eyes, she was soon seen as a beautiful, elegant and courtly young woman. Nonetheless, her formal request to Marie de Medici to be allowed to leave the Court and return to the Carmelites was refused. Cardinal Richelieu was not going to lose his niece.
As well as attending Court, Marie de Combalet conducted a salon in the Place Royal (now known as the Place des Vosges), the residence of Cardinal Richelieu. But when Marie de Medici moved into the Luxembourg Palace (now the seat of the Franch Senate), Cardinal Richelieu was given the use of the Petit-Luxembourg (a smaller building near the Luxembourg Palace) where Marie de Medici had formerly resided. Marie de Combalet herself was provided with a small mansion adjacent to the Petit-Luxembourg in which to live, but conducted a salon in the Cardinal’s Residence, organised his household and also the evening visitors who came to pay court to the Cardinal. Her salon, conducted over a number of years in different residences, showed her as an enlightened patroness of the writers of her time. Voiture, Scudéry, Molière, Scarron, and Pierre Corneille were all recipients of her favors. The last named, Pierre Corneille, who dedicated to her his work "Le Cid", had a falling-out with Cardinal Richelieu over the same work.
In 1638, after Cardinal Richelieu had left for a new residence which became known as the Palais Cardinal (now the Palais Royal) in the rue St Honoré in Paris, the Petit-Luxembourg was deeded to Marie de Combalet.6 In 1638 too, at the request of Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII set up the Duchy of Aiguillon with Marie de Combalet as Duchess of Aiguillon, and conferred on her the title of Pair de France. This meant that Marie now had the protection of both King and Cardinal. By accepting these titles, she renounced formally any idea of being a Carmelite. When Cardinal Richelieu died in 1642, the Duchess of Aiguillon was his chief beneficiary, with portions of his estate also going to various nephews and nieces. He saw this as fulfilling his duty to his family.7
Association with Vincent de Paul
Being under the patronage of Cardinal Richelieu provided the Duchess of Aiguillon with much power, protection, influence and wealth. This was reinforced by her consequent connections with Queen Marie de Medici, King Louis XIII, and later, her friendship with Queen Anne of Austria. However, her situation in turn also gave her some influence over Cardinal Richelieu. She soon realised she could influence him in works for good and for the poor. And out of her own wealth, as well as indirectly, she became an extraordinary benefactor of many causes and needs.
Her concern for the poor and needy was evident in her being one of the Ladies of Charity in the parish of St Sulpice (Paris) for a number of years, and, as mentioned further below, she was for many years the President of the Ladies of Charity at the Hotel-Dieu in Paris. After Louise de Marillac, she was probably one of the closest lay collaborators of Vincent de Paul, assisting him in a variety of ways with his works of charity and mission. The many references to the Duchess of Aiguillon in the correspondence of Vincent de Paul attest to this. Vincent de Paul was deeply indebted both to her influence and her wealth in the accomplishment of many of his undertakings. Whenever any difficulty arose from the civil authorities, or whenever there was a favour to be asked, it was the Duchess to whom he turned immediately.8
The Duchess provided funds directly to set up several houses and works of the Congregation of the Mission. These included the mission of Nôtre Dame de la Rose in the diocese of Agen, (within the Duchy of Aiguillon)9; the development of the mission in Rome10; a hospital for galley slaves, and missioners to work in that hospital, in Marseilles11; the Consulates of Tunis and Algiers (the Duchess purchased the positions of Consul and provided income for the Priests of the Mission whom the Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission would appoint as Consuls and as chaplains to the galley slaves)12; and funds for the provision of theological students resident at the Collége des Bons Enfants (Paris) to spend time in formation at the Seminary of St Charles which was to be part St Lazare in the north of Paris13 . Some of the funding took the form of outright gifts, some was derived from on going sources such coach routes which the Duchess purchased, the income from these routes being allocated to a particular work. When, on Cardinal Richelieu’s death, the income organised by the Cardinal for the work of the Congregation of the Mission based at the town of Richelieu was in doubt owing to some sources of that income being in the process of re-investment, the Duchess intervened and made sure that the foundation of the Congregation of the Mission there was secure.14 There were also many smaller gifts for a variety of causes, not the least being the assisting in payment of passages for missioners working in Ireland.15
On more than once occasion, the Duchess of Aiguillon showed her care for Vincent de Paul’s wellbeing. As he grew older, she indicated her concern both to him and to members of the Congregation that he should not be carrying out missions in his deteriorating state of health. Near the end of his life, in August 1660, the Duchess expressed a strong desire to have him transferred to her palace where he would be better nursed than at Saint Lazare.16 Probably the most famous incident in the area of the Duchess’ concern for Vincent’s health is that which involved a carriage and horses. The Ladies of Charity in Paris, concerned that Vincent de Paul might come to harm as he travelled across Paris to their meetings, had tried to give him a carriage. The Duchess of Aiguillon had had a very simple and poor horse-drawn carriage (as unadorned as could be constructed - so that he would accept it) made for him, but Vincent had refused the gift. Around 1650, Vincent de Paul went to visit the houses of the Congregation of the Mission at Nantes and Angers. On his journey back to Paris he stopped at Richelieu and fell ill. The infirmarian from Saint Lazare was sent to him, but was reprimanded by Vincent for considering his health worth the trouble, though Vincent did apologise the next morning for his behaviour. The Duchess then sent a slightly improved version of the carriage previously offered to Vincent, together with horses from her own stables, to bring him back to Paris. Vincent returned to Paris in the carriage, and then sent the carriage and horses to the Duchess. The Duchess promptly returned the carriage to Saint Lazare, and Vincent again refused to accept it. The conflict continued for some weeks (humility vs. compassion or stubborness vs. stubbornness ?) until the Duchess appealed to the Queen (Anne of Austria) and the Archbishop of Paris (Jean François de Gondi). At their insistence, Vincent gave in, and thereafter referred to the carriage as “La honte” – The Shame, The Disgrace.17
The death of Vincent de Paul grieved the Duchess deeply. When he died, she had a silver-gilt reliquary made in the shape of a heart surmounted by a flame to enclose Vincent’s heart.18
Other Works of Charity and Mission
The Duchess of Aiguillon did not restrict herself to assisting Vincent de Paul with the Congregation of the Mission. As Pierre Coste wrote: “The parish of Saint-Sulpice (M. Olier's Community), the Society for Foreign Missions, the Carmelite Convent of Paris, the Daughters of the Blessed Sacrament, of Mercy, of the Cross, and of Providence, the nuns of the Precious Blood of Our Lord, the Missions to Canada, the Clergy Fund, the devastated provinces of France, especially Lorraine, the Foundling Hospital and General Hospitals (for mendicants), all received much from her hands. She used to visit the House of Refuge established by Madame de Miramion, and waited on the penitents. To a gentleman who expressed surprise she answered: 'There is nothing surprising about a great sinner serving others.' Her biographer (Count Bonneau-Avenant) was fully entitled to say: 'There is not a single work of piety or of charity in which she would not have desired to play a part. She gave two hundred crowns a year for the extra meal at the H6tel-Dieu and, by her will, assured its continuation after her death. The Ladies of Charity (of the Hôtel-Dieu) placed her at their head in 1652, and kept her there until she died, that is to say, for twenty-three years, despite her repeated requests to be relieved of the office. Under her direction, all the works of the Company (of the Ladies of Charity) prospered.”19 She was also involved with the work of “l’Oeuvre de la Propagation de la Foi” in India and China.20
The Missions in Canada referred to above deserve some extra mention. Around 1637, Cardinal Richelieu and the Duchess provided the funds to establish a Catholic colony in Quebec City, and the Duchess provided funds for a hospital (Hôtel-Dieu)l there as well. It was apparently the first hospital in North America, i.e., north of Mexico City.21 In 1642 or thereabouts, the Duchess also prevailed on Cardinal Richelieu to have a Catholic Colony (Ville-Marie) established in Montreal and she also contributed to setting up the Colony. The Catholic Colony there was intended to be a mission base.22
Remembering the Duchess
There have been few great monuments set up to honour the Duchess of Aiguillon, but she is remembered in history for her goodness, generosity, charity, loyalty, and care for others. She never forgot the Carmelites, and went to the Carmelite Convent in Paris regularly - and more often as she grew older. She went there for prayer and reflection whenever she needed time and space from her life of charity and caring for others, and as an escape from the world in which she found herself. When she died, she was buried in the Carmelite Church in Paris. She paid for her close association with Cardinal Richelieu, her status at the Court, and her influential position in society, by the slurs that were cast on her character and her motivation. This did not deter her from what she believed she was called to do – to use her power, influence and wealth for the benefit of the needy. At her Funeral Service in the Carmelite Convent in 1675, when Esprit Fléchier, who gave the eulogy, began with the words “Haute et puissante Dame Marie Wignerod de Pontcourlay, Duchesse d’Aiguillon….”, the congregation wept.23
1. The name “Vignerot” was sometimes spelled “Wignerod”.
2. Françoise de Plessis is referred to also as Françoise de Richelieu or de Plessis-Richelieu
3. This was not the sumptuous Château that Cardinal Richelieu had built for himself later, but a more modest manor house. For more details, see: Rybolt John E., CM, In the Footsteps of Vincent de Paul – A Guide to Vincentian France, DePaul University Vincentian Studies Institute, Chicago, 2007, pp 248ff. See also the item Richelieu, Vincentian Encyclopedia, (Accessed November 25, 2010).
4. Bonneau-Avenant, Alfred, comte de, La Duchesse d’Aiguillon, niéce du Cardinal de Richelieu, sa vie et ses oeuvres charitables, 1604-1675, Paris, Didier et cie., 1879. Microfilm, Research Publications, New Haven, Conn., 1977, Chs 1&2, pp 1-34.
5. Carron, Abbé, Sur la Duchesse d’Aguillon (Extract), Volume 78: 1913, Annales de la Congrégation de la Mission (Congregation of the Mission), p. 115, http://via.library.depaul.edu/annales/78 (Accessed November 28, 2010)
6. See also Rybolt, 1 Paris: Left Bank, Luxembourg Palaces and Gardens, pp 28-29.
7. See Bonneau-Avenant, Chs III-VI, pp 38-142
8. Coste, The Life and Works of St Vincent de Paul, Trans. Joseph Leonard CM, New City Press, New York, 1987, Vol I, Ch XVI, p326
9. Rybolt, 5: South, Aquitaine, Saint-Livrade-sur-Lot, pp 326-327
10.Coste, The Life and Works of St Vincent de Paul, Vol II, Ch XXIV, p3ff
11.Ibid., Vol II, Ch XXVIII, p 324ff.
12 Ibid., Vol II Ch XXXIX, p 343ff.
13.Coste, Pierre Ed., Saint Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, Vincentian Conference, New City Press, Brookly N.Y., 1990, Vol II, Letter No 760, p 585f.
14 Coste, THe Life and Works of St Vincent de Paul, Vol I, Ch XXIII, p 537ff.
15.Ibid., Vol II, Ch XXV, p 35.
16.Ibid., Vol III, Ch LXV, p 393.
17 Bonneau-Avenant, Ch XIV, p. 389ff.
18.Coste, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, Vol I, Letter No 224, p 322. Footnote No. 8.
19.Coste, The Life and Works and Works of St Vincent de Paul, Vol II, Ch XVI, p 326f.
20.Bonneau-Avenant, Ch XV, p 415
21.Ibid. Ch IX, p 223.
22.Ibid. Ch XI, p.290.
23.Ibid., Préface, p.I .