GUEST POST: The duchess as ‘foreign princess’

by Dr Jonathan Spangler

Jonathan Spangler is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern European History at Manchester Metropolitan University and senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. He is a specialist in the court and high aristocracy of France in the early modern period, with a particular interest in borders and trans-national exchanges. His next book, tentatively entitled Monsieur: Always Coming in Second, will be a wide-ranging study of the role of second sons in the French monarchy. He writes:

When Innocente-Catherine de Rougé married her second husband, Prince Emmanuel-Maurice de Lorraine, in 1747, she anticipated a rank with great privileges at the French court, that of duchess, as her new husband’s older brother had no children. A duchess took precedence over most other women and enjoyed specific honours such as the right to be seated in the presence of the queen. But even before her husband succeeded his brother as duke of Elbeuf in 1748, the new princess of Lorraine enjoyed even greater privileges, restricted to a very small number of families at the French court, those given to the princes étrangers, or ‘foreign princes’.

This phrase is a misleading one, as there was very little that was ‘foreign’ about the families that enjoyed this title and its privileges in the mid-eighteenth century: Lorraine, La Tour d’Auvergne, Rohan. Instead, it was a historical idea, a recognition by the French crown that they belonged to families that were sovereign outside the Kingdom of France, or that had been at some point in the past. For some, this was a genuine and tangible situation, for example the Grimaldis did rule a sovereign territory, however small, as indeed they do today; and the Lorraine-Elbeuf and Savoy-Carignan families were recognised as cadet branches of the ruling princely houses in Austria and in Sardinia, respectively. Others were more ‘creative’ in their claims, for example the Rohans as descendants of semi-mythical kings of Brittany, or the La Tour d’Auvergne from equally shadowy kings of Auvergne, but also as rulers through marriage of the sovereign duchy of Bouillon in the Ardennes. These last claims brought out great discussions in the period about whether princely status was something innate, something a person was born with, or whether it could be acquired through marriage. Many argued vehemently that it could not, but there was, in the end, no formal arbiter of who was or was not a prince étranger except the monarch himself. In fact, the rank had no formal legal status in France, unlike that of duke or duchess, which pointed to its true meaning in the hierarchy of nobles under the Old Régime: it was precisely the fact that the French monarch could not create or regulate the princely status of foreign ruling houses, that legitimised their standing. But the French king could choose to recognise it or not, and the privileges they enjoyed at the French court were his to give or to take away. At least in theory; in reality, by the middle of the eighteenth century no French king wanted to remove this recognition, in part not wanting to risk the anger of some of the most powerful courtiers in the kingdom, but also knowing that a princely court’s prestige was augmented by the attendance of other princes. A big fish looks bigger when attended by other big fish, not just minnows.

No less than four ‘princes étrangers’ from the House of Lorraine-Guise, identified here on the left, accompanied the new Duchess of Lorraine, Elisabeth-Charlotte d’Orléans, to the frontier to meet her new husband, Duke Léopold of Lorraine, in 1698. Anonymous engraving (1699). Image available via Gallica, the digital hub for the Bibliothèque nationale de France

This was not always the case. There had been no formalised concept of the prince étranger at the French court until the 1570s, when King Henri III issued orders regulating the ceremonial life of his court that gave precedence to the princes from Lorraine, Savoy, Cleves and Luxembourg over all other noble families, except those of the royal lineage itself, notably the House of Bourbon. For the next century, there was a struggle for precedence between these princes and those born of kings though outside marriage, the legitimated princes (Vendôme, Maine); at the same time, other grandee families pressed their own claims to princely status (Gramont, La Rochefoucauld), and some were temporarily recognised during times of political turmoil, before being ‘un-recognised’ once order was re-established.

By the eighteenth century, the privileges granted to the foreign princes were mostly about honour and access: remaining seated in the presence of the queen, keeping your head covered in the presence of foreign ambassadors, being addressed as ‘monseigneur’, easy admittance to court and prominent positions at all of its ceremonies—and not just for the head of the family, but all of its members, male and female. This was one of the key differences from the privileges granted to the families of dukes. Sons received the Order of the Saint-Esprit at a younger age, and daughters did not need to marry before being presented at court—in essence they enjoyed the right of access to the king and the queen at almost any time of the day, a crucial commodity in terms of aristocratic power at this time. They also by right could have all their lawsuits heard in the Parlement of Paris, or even directly in the King’s Council, rather than submitting to the local jurisdiction in which their estates were situated. If a lawsuit was against their person only (i.e. not their property), they could claim to be immune from French jurisdiction altogether, as subjects only of the ‘foreign’ head of their house, though there are few instances of this happening in practice.

Innocente-Catherine de Rougé thus entered a fairly closed world—by this point the families of Lorraine, Rohan and La Tour d’Auvergne were almost exclusive in their marital endogamy—but how precisely she navigated this world, and to what extent she made use of her new privileges, remains to be further explored and analysed using new-found sources such as the letters presented by this project on the ‘Revolutionary Duchess’.


Further reading:

For more on the history of the dukes of Elbeuf and a survey of the chief lands, castles and palaces they possessed, see my recent post on my own blog.

I have also published a chapter specifically on the meaning of princely status, and a monograph devoted to the Lorraine family at the court of Louis XIV:

Jonathan Spangler, “Les Princes étrangers: Truly Princes? Truly Foreign? Typologies of Princely Status, Trans-Nationalism and Identity in Early Modern France”, in Martin Wrede and Laurent Bourquin, eds., Adel und Nation in der Neuzeit: Hierarchie, Egalität und Loyalität 16.-20. Jahrhundert (Thorbeke Verlag, 2017), pp. 117-141.

Jonathan Spangler, The Society of Princes: The Lorraine-Guise and the Conservation of Power and Wealth in Seventeenth-Century France (Ashgate, 2009). [now Routledge]

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