Friday, October 26, 2012

Gubernatorial Battle Royal

History is serious business, and historians are serious people.  Sometimes.  A question made the rounds on the history blogosphere a few months ago, eliciting responses not only from the general public but also from a number of professional historians: suppose we brought all of the Presidents of the United States back to life, issued each man with a knife, and ordered them to fight to the death in an arena. Who would win?  The consensus seems that it would come down to a fight between Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt.  For the initial thread see here, and see here for the Canadian blog which brought it to my attention.

This got me thinking about unexplored historiographical expanses, and brought to my mind an equally serious question: in a mass knife fight between every governor of New France, who would win, and why?  Actually, we might have to alter the terms of engagement of this colonial jeux de la faim.  Indeed, while knives might do the trick in the down and dirty, populist world of American politics, the fact that most of the governors of New France were drawn from the old families of the noblesse d'épée surely allows them the dignity of fighting with swords.  

A late nineteenth century imagining of seventeenth century
combat.  From François Guizot's Histoire de France (1875).
 For our illustrative purposes, this will do the trick.

The fight might be a good one, for the majority of these nobles "of the sword" had a military background.  Most entered the army at a very young age, and by the time they crossed the Atlantic were tested veterans of Louis XIII and XIV's wars.  Some acquired their experience fighting with the army in the Netherlands, but several also fought in more exotic climes.  Charles de Huault de Montmagny, a knight of the Order of Malta and New France's first governor (Champlain is excused from the fight, folks, as he never bore the title), fought against the Turks and North African pirates through the 1620s and early 1630s.  Pierre du Bois d'Avaugour for his part spent some forty years in the army before his short stint as governor, and within a year of his return would go on dying in battle against the Turks along the Hungarian frontier.  Jacques-René de Brisay, marquis de Denonville, is another who campaigned both in the Netherlands and against the pirates of North Africa through the 1660s and 1670s.  Then there are those, particularly later governors, who had a background not with the army, but rather with the navy.  Charles de Beauharnois served at sea through the Wars of the League of Augsburg and Spanish Succession and appears to have been involved in quite a bit of close quarters fighting.  Same with Jacques-Pierre de Taffanel, marquis de la Jonquière, who began his naval career at the helm of modest fireships, sloops and feluccas.  Swashbuckling!

Military or naval experience, to be sure, did not entail actual experience in combat, nevermind of the types of bloody melees we're talking about here.  Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil-Cavagnal entered the troupes de la marine at the age of ten, but being the son of a governor of New France he was promoted through the ranks rapidly and without any combat experience it seems.  Add to that that he was already fifty-seven years old when he became governor in 1755, and that his health at the time wasn't the most solid.  The portrait of him attributed to Donatien Nonotte, in the collection of Library and Archives Canada, shows a rather plump man.  Let's just say that New France's last governor would not fare particularly well in our imaginary fight to the death. 

Age must be factored into all of this more generally.  Most governors were already well advanced in years at the time of their appointment.  This was the case of all the men cited so far: Denonville was forty-three and Jonquière was sixty-one, but the rest were in their fiftees.  It was also the case of Louis de Buade de Frontenac.  He too had seen battle through the 1640s, but was already fifty when he arrived at Quebec.  Add to that the fact that he had received a wound to his right arm during the siege of Orbitello in 1646.  Scholars have noticed that his writing does not change very much thereafter, suggesting that it was only a slight wound, but still...  And did I mention that by the late 1680s he was suffering from frequent attacks of gout, and that later in life he also suffered from asthma?

So a handful of governors might stand out merely because of their young age and youthful energy.  Pierre de Voyer d'Argenson was thirty-three when he arrived in the colony to serve as governor in 1658.  Having served a short stint in the king's guards, he's known to have personnally taken the field in pursuit of marauding Iroquois war parties.  Another young and early governor was Louis d'Ailleboust de Coulonge, who would have been around thirty-six years old in 1648 when he set out on his first or two mandates as governor.  He was an "engineer skilled in the profession of arms", though it's not clear what sort of actual fight-to-the-death experience this entails.

Then there is Philippe de Rigaud de Vaudreuil (the other Vaudreuil's father).  He was already sixty when at the time of his appointment, to be sure.  But having read far too much Alexandre Dumas as a youth, I'm inclined to think that he might prevail.  You see, before coming to New France Philippe served for fifteen years in the mousquetaires du roi.  That's right: the musketeers.  Having joined this elite corps of the French army in 1672, he likely served a campaign alongside the historical Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore, Comte d'Artagnan, who had himself come out of retirement at the ripe age of sixty-two only to die at the siege of Maastricht in June of 1673.

So while we're imagining a mass swordfight between every governor of New France, it's shouldn't take a great deal of additional exertion of the mind to grow convinced that the old d'Artagnan naturally taught a trick or two to the young Vaudreuil.  Right?  Vaudreuil, in any case, fought through the Dutch wars of the 1670s with bravery, it is reported, and distinction.  It was the courage he displayed at Valenciennes in 1677 and Ypres in 1678 that appears to have brought him the king's favour.  Looking for promotion opportunities, he sailed for New France in 1687.  During his early field commands against the Iroquois he displayed rather poor tactical judgement, and was arguably responsible for several near disasters.  But who's to say that he was not a capable fighter.  Between the fancy musketeer footwork and the blind rage he'll no doubt experience upon seeing his coddled son go down early in the fight, my money's on Vaudreuil the elder.

Any thoughts?  Have I missed or underestimated anyone?



  1. Champlain would have taken all these poncy aristos. Champlain was tough.

  2. Mind you, he would no doubt bend the rules by trying to fell three of his adversaries with a single arquebus shot. ;-)

  3. I suspect that the shot that killed the Iroquois Chiefs came from a nearby grassy knoll. There was a second shooter!

    ...And a third one, too.

  4. All this reminds me of a plate commentary for a small book I just completed on the King's Musketeer for a publisher in Oxford. The draft goes as follows:

    Duelling with the Cardinal’s Guard

    Challenging an opponent to a duel was the gentlemen’s way to settle more or less personal issues with the assistance of “God’s judgement” during the Middle Ages. In spite of the reprobation of the Church, the practice carried on into the 16th century at which time fencing with rapiers became very popular. At a time when the slightest perceived insult was cause for a duel, sword fights between gentlemen became rampant in France; up to 10,000 may have perished in duels between 1588 and 1608. It had become a scourge that uselessly decimated many a gentleman that could have used his sword better fighting against the nation’s enemies. Thus, King Henri IV forbade duelling in 1609, but this was largely ignored. On 24 March 1626, King Louis XIII, encouraged by Cardinal Richelieu, signed another edict forbidding duelling on pain of the guilty gentlemen loosing their commissions in the royal service as well as their pensions if caught. On that very day, which was Easter Sunday, François de Montmorency, count of Bouteville, a notorious swordsman who had fought some 20 duels, ignored the edict and slew yet another opponent on a busy Paris street. This was too much for king and Church. He was caught and, as a warning to others, condemned and beheaded. Duellists were thereafter were careful to be discreet, choosing isolated spots to fight and being secretly treated if wounded. Indeed, it seems the real musketeer Athos died from duel wounds in 1643.

    What then of the famous sword fights between the King’s Musketeers and Cardinal Richelieu’s Guards? They certainly occurred, perhaps on a near-constant basis, and were looked upon as something of a sport by both the king and the cardinal rather than individual duels. Typically, small groups of musketeers and guards would run across each other on a Paris street and, after a few cat calls, sword would be drawn and swashbuckling action occur. This is what is shown in our plate. Just the sight of the blue and the red cassocks must have been a signal to the people on the street to stay clear of them, but watch the fight — officially called a “meeting” — that was tolerated by the highest authorities in the realm. Thus, a King’s Musketeer and a Cardinal’s Guard of the 1620s and 1630s enjoyed royal tolerance when it came to swordplay in the streets.

    Louis XIV felt duelling and such fights simply had to stop. In 1655, he stated his resolute persistence to “abolish this pernicious practice in my kingdom.” His successive edicts were largely applied and it spelt the end of duelling as a fashionable practice. Being a King’s Musketeer of Louis XIV or Louis XV was very different than in the freewheeling times of Louis XIII.