Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Death of Nicolas Foucquet?

On 23 March 1680, Nicolas Foucquet died at the prison-fortress of Pignerol in Piedmont - or did he?

Nicolas Foucquet
There has been much speculation and debate about the fate of the tragic former surintendant des finances. This has lead to several conspiracy theories, perhaps the most intriguing of which is that Foucquet went on to become the Man in the Iron Mask.

The first mention of Foucquet's death occurs on 25 March 1680 in a letter written by the comte de Bussy-Rabutin, who writes: 'You know, I expect, that Monsieur Foucquet has died from apoplexy just when he had been given permission to visit the waters at Bourbon.' Then, on 3 April, Foucquet's old friend Mme de Sévigné wrote to her daughter: 'My dear child, poor M. Foucquet is dead, and I am affected at the intelligence.' Later in the same letter, she writes of the grief of their friend, Mademoiselle de Scudéri, who was 'greatly afflicted with the death of M. Foucquet.'

She went on to say that his life 'is at length terminated, which so many pains have been taken to preserve. His illness was convulsions, and a constant retching, without being able to vomit.' Two days after this, Mme de Sévigné wrote to a mutual friend: 'And poor M. Foucquet, what do you think of his death?'

These letters among friends were followed by an official announcement in the Gazette on 6 April. Here, it was stated that 'It is reported from Pignerol that the sieur Foucquet is dead of apoplexy.'

The first mention of Foucquet's death in official government sources occurs on 8 April 1680 in a letter sent by the Minister of State for War, the Marquis de Louvoir, to M. de Saint-Mars, the governor of the citadel of Pignerol and Foucquet's gaoler. In it, Louvoir refers to a letter, now lost, dated 23 March 1680: 'The king has learned, by the letter you wrote to me on the 23 of the month past, [of] the death of Monsieur Foucquet.'

However, there were those who could not - or would not - believe that Foucquet had died. In his Mémoires, Foucquet's friend and former colleague, Jean Hérault, sieur de Gourville, speaks about him in a matter-of-fact way, as though he were still alive and had, in fact, been set at liberty.

Robert Challes, who worked as a minister of the navy, thought the same. He describes in some detail Foucquet's
supposed journey after he left Pignerol. His account stated that, when Foucquet was told he was to be freed, he did not want to spend another night in the prison but left that same evening for an unknown destination. He was later found dead at Chalon-sur-Saône, some three hundred miles from Pignerol. Upon his arrival in that town, he had eaten a meal consisting of breast of veal en ragout. Evidently, he had eaten too much for, being unable to digest it, 'or else through sheer happiness at his release, which he had kept bottled up until then, he called out at two in the morning and died an hour later in great tranquillity.' Challes adds that he found it astonishing that the body was not opened, and so no-one knew if he had been poisoned or if his death was natural.

The idea that Foucquet had been released from prison prior to his death is refuted by La Grande Mademoiselle, whose lover, Lauzun, had been taken to Pignerol 'to which Foucquet had been conducted by the same d'Artagnan eight years before and from which he had never emerged.'

Notwithstanding this, Voltaire adds his own opinion on the subject, Referring to Gourville's assertion that Foucquet had left Pignerol, he  notes that this had been confirmed by the comtesse de Vaux, Foucquet's daughter-in-law, although the family do not accept the story.

What could have inspired such contradictory stories and are any of them true? Inevitably, when a person as important and as famous as Nicolas Foucquet dies, there are always those who will question the truth of it and find conspiracy and deception in the official accounts. What fuelled this story, however, was the belief that Foucquet had no coffin in the family vault.

When Foucquet died, he was given a funeral service in the chapel of Saint-Georges at Pignerol, and this was attended by his eldest son and daughter. Meanwhile, those doctors and surgeons who had attended Foucquet during 1680 and at his last illness were paid; the bill coming to a total of 320 livres. The same sum was spent on clothes to dress the corpse: a suit of Spanish cloth, a periwig, a hat, silk stockings and linen undergarments. The funeral service cost 165 livres.

Pignerol (Pinerolo) as it appears today.
On 9 April, Louis gave the family permission to take away the coffin and to bury Foucquet where they saw fit. Until they came to collect it, the coffin was deposited in the near-by convent of Sainte-Claire, where it remained for almost a year.

In March 1681, the coffin was carried back to Paris, where a commemorative Mass was said. Foucquet was then finally laid to rest in the family crypt in the convent of La Visitation Sainte-Marie in rue Saint-Antoine (today, le Temple du Marias), where all but one of Foucquet's sisters were nuns. Each coffin in the crypt was given a plaque, stating the name of the deceased, the date of death and often other details. However, there is no plaque for Nicolas Foucquet. This is because, according to the tradition of the day, as a State prisoner, he was judicially dead in the eyes of the world and had lost his identity. It was forbidden to mark the coffin with an identifying plaque.

The nuns of the convent, however, did provide an epitaph, which is kept in the convent's archives. It records the date of Foucquet's interment: 28 March 1681; his age at death, sixty-five, and lists his achievements, the posts he held in life and his virtues. Nicolas Foucquet may lie in an unmarked grave, but he has not been forgotten.

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