BRETEUIL IN THE HISTORY OF FRANCE
At the Château de Breteuil, make a trip through history and fantasy !
The XVIIth century architecture, rare portraits of Kings, magnificent XVIIIth century furniture and an impressive collection of family paintings make the decor for a fascinating visit during which you will encounter fifty wax figures made by Musée Grévin, tracing the history of a family whose ancestors were at the heart of the European History.
THE ORIGINS OF THE ESTATE OF BRETEUIL
The Château de Breteuil is built on a promontory overlooking the Chevreuse Valley. The place is named Bévillier after two villas (two farms)- which implies that this property would date back to the gallo-roman period. As the story goes, the name Breteuil first appeared in Normandy as early as 1066 when William the Conqueror named Guillaume Osbern Comte de Breteuil. The Duke of Normandy saw Breteuil as his most faithful companion and appointed him Viceroy of England when he returned to Normandy.
At the time, a fortified castle was built in Bévilliers on the roman villas; its dovecote still remains today. The owners passed from Choisel, Poissy, Plessis, Allemant, Hotman and finally Le Jay.
In 1596 Thibaut Desportes bought the estate, called Bévilliers for the last time on a deed of sale, from Nicolas Le Jay. A new castle was built with a square courtyard surrounded by a moat, an entrance pavilion and a drawbridge. The main building, overlooking a beautiful garden, stood at the far end of the courtyard.
Due to the lack of direct descendants, the Desportes bequeathed the property to their nephews, the Chanteclerc, then to the Renouard families. In 1712, due to the lack of a direct descendant once again, Bévilliers came back to Claude-Charles de Breteuil (1697-1735), who later married Laura O’Brien de Clare (1700-1781), niece of the famous Marshal of Berwick. From then on, the castle has been handed down from generation to generation.
THE BRETEUIL FAMILY AND ''LE GRAND SIECLE', THE XVIIth CENTURY.
The Breteuil family became reknowned during the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries.
Louis de Breteuil (1609-1685) had an exemplary career which took him from the Judicial Court to the Royal Court: Advisor in the Parliament of Brittany in 1632, then of Paris in 1637, Master of Requests in the King’s council in 1644, and Intendant of Languedoc in 1646 and Paris in 1653. In 1657, he was appointed as Controller General of Finance upon the proposal of Cardinal Mazarin. In 1665, Colbert, alone, held this post after engineering the downfall of Superintendant Fouquet in 1661 and reorganizing this ministerial department. Despite this turn of events, Louis remained a member of the Council of State until his death in 1685.
Charles Perrault was one of his close collaborators (read the sections ‘Perrault’s fairy tales’ and ‘The storyteller’).
Louis-Nicolas (1648-1728), Louis’s seventh son and first Baron de Preuilly and de Breteuil, was appointed as ‘Special Envoy’ of Duke de Mantoue (1682) before exercising his role as Introducer of Ambassadors and Foreign Princes for Louis XIV. He acted as chief of protocol, set its rules with great accuracy and wrote them down in his Mémoires.
THE BRETEUIL FAMILY IN THE AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT
Louis Nicolas de Breteuil and Gabrielle Anne de Froullay gave birth to Gabrielle Emilie de Breteuil, future Marquise du Châtelet and the first woman scientist in French history. Won over by Newton’s ’Mathematic Principles’ written in very intricate latin, she translated and commented on them, bringing this work within the reach of the scientists of her time. She even put the finishing touch on the book by adding her own scientific discoveries. Her work still attracts the attention of scientists today from all over the world.
Gabrielle Emilie lived with Voltaire for 15 years ; they were one of the most famous couples of the XVIIIth century.
A Lady of the Age of Enlightenment, she is one of the most outstanding ancestors of the family.
Emilie du Châtelet’s first cousin, François Victor de Breteuil (1686-1743) was State Secretary of War from 1723 until 1726. The King called upon Marquis de Breteuil again in 1738 upon request from the Army. He launched a major reform by which promotion to officer grade became more accessible. He was seated in the Royal Council directly across from the Sovereign.
He was the head of the elder branch of the family and both Marquis de Fontenay Trésigny and Marquis de Breteuil.
François-Victor’s image is evoked in the ‘Salon of the four seasons’, at the beginning of the visit.
On the eve of the French Revolution, the great man of the family was Louis-Auguste (1730-1807), Baron de Breteuil, great grandson of Louis and grandson of the Introducer of Ambassadors. He belonged to the Barons de Preuilly branch of the family, just like his aunt Gabrielle-Emilie, Marquise du Châtelet.
He joined the French Foreign Ministry and was sent on special diplomatic assignments in the Netherlands and in Cologne, before being sent to St Petersburg as the French Ambassador to Imperial Russia and then to Stockholm, Vienna and Naples. After accepting to be sent as ‘Grand Viguier’ in Andorra, position that other important people had turned down, he helped the principality to avoid being attached to Pamplona and keep its independence; he is still vividly remembered in Andorra.
As Ambassador to Sweden, he was given a faience table service from the famous manufacturer Marieberg, The ”de Breteuil” coat-of-arms is featured on each of the pieces of this service which is displayed in the China cabinet, among which is an amazing punch bowl.
The Baron de Breteuil distinguished himself in 1779 in his ambassadorial function, playing an essential part in maintaining peace in Europe. War had broken out between Prussia and Austria over the Bavarian succession after the death of Prince Elector in 1778 without a direct descendant. Finally, Maria Theresa and Frederic II agreed to submit the dispute to a double mediation, entrusted on the one hand to Catherine II and on the other to Louis XVI. The latter designated the Baron de Breteuil to represent him, while Catherine II chose Prince Repnin.
The elector of Palatine, allied with Joseph II and his mother Maria Theresa of Austria, objected to the Elector of Saxony and the Duke of Deux-Ponts whose interests were championed by King Frederick II of Prussia.
Louis-Auguste arranged for the discussions to be held at Teschen, a little town divided between Slovakia and Poland nowadays. The surrounding roads were in a terrible state, and there was not much in the way of entertainment in this town, not even a theatre! Thus, the discussions were not expected to last very long. However, it took four months before the Treaty of Teschen was finally signed on May 13, 1779. In recognition of his good offices, Maria Theresa rewarded the Baron de Breteuil with the Teschen Table.
This unique and magnificent table enriched with semi-precious stones is the work of the famous saxon goldsmith and mineralogist Neuber.
In 2015, the table was sold to the Louvre Museum.
An exceptionally faithful repliqua has been exhibited at the Château de Breteuil since April 2016.
From then on, peace being secured in Europe, Louis XVI was able to send troops in America, where the colonies were rebelling against the French traditional ennemy, the British. This event helped the United States win the War of Independence more quickly.
Minister of the King’s Household from 1783 to 1788, Louis-Auguste was the first Minister of the Interior in its modern sense. He pursued an active policy in support of the development of hospitals in Paris; his portrait by Jean Mosnier, exhibited in 1787 at the Salon du Louvre, shows him with the plans relating to the reform and administration of the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital.
Innovating in the field of city planning, he ordered the demolition of the houses that obstructed the bridges, and built the first two-way avenue with a central reservation behind Les Invalides, the Avenue de Breteuil.
Highly interested in sciences and especially in the beginnings of ballooning, he encouraged the Montgolfier brothers and the physician Jacques Charles.
He supported flight experiments and created the first balloonist army corps. This corps was a major help to the victorious French revolutionary army at the Battle of Jemmapes. It was dissolved by Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt and never re-formed.
Openminded and in favour of freedom, Louis-Auguste de Breteuil took a series of measures of a highly social character; among others, he mitigated the ‘lettres de cachet’ system, (letter of the signet) and allowed the play ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ to be performed, in spite of its denouncement of aristocratic privilege.
THE BRETEUIL FAMILY ON THE EVE OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
While Louis Auguste de Breteuil was Minister of the King’s Household, on August 15, 1785, the Diamond Necklace Affair broke out. In the « Salon of Queen Marie-Antoinette», with wax figures made by Musée Grévin, the order for the arrest of Cardinal de Rohan is being signed. Cardinal de Rohan had purchased a fabulous 650-diamond necklace in the name of Queen Marie-Antoinette without her consent. But France was in debt, and even though Marie-Antoinette was innocent, the scandal discredited the unpopular queen. King Louis XVI, Queen Marie-Antoinette and their minister, the Baron de Breteuil were furious with Cardinal de Rohan and had him arrested in the Versailles Palace Galerie des Glaces in front of a dumbfounded royal court. As Minister of the King’s Household, Louis Auguste de Breteuil proceeded with the arrest of the Cardinal.
The Cardinal de Rohan was imprisonned in the Bastille. An investigation was led, followed by a sensational trial which resulted in the acquittal of the Cardinal. Countess Jeanne de la Motte was found guilty. But an unprecedented media lynching of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI made the affair historically significant as one of the events that led to the French populace’s disillusionment with the monarchy, which, among other causes, ultimately culminated in the French Revolution.
The Queen’s Necklace, the object of scandal, is displayed in the Treasure Room. The reproduction in this showcase is the exact copy of the actual necklace created by jewellers Bassenge and Boehmer.
On July 11, 1789, unsettled by the death of his eldest son, the Dauphin de France, and by agitation within the Estates-General, the King dismissed Necker and appointed the Baron de Breteuil Prime Minister. He hoped to regain some authority and Baron de Breteuil could be seen as the man most devoted to the Sovereign and Monarchy.
But Louis-Auguste’s appointment worried the deputies of the Estates-General and the population, and was one cause of the July 14th uprising. The storming of the Bastille, where only one prisoner was found and the governor Mr de Launay slaughtered, hastened his downfall. The King dismissed Breteuil and recalled Necker. Breteuil took the road of emigration. He settled in Switzerland, in Soleure, then in Hamburg. In October 1791, the King sent him a letter granting him all power needed to incite European powers to contribute to the ‘restoration of his legitimate authority and the happiness of his subjects’.
During the French Revolution, the owners of the Château were two children, Charles, 5th Marquis de Breteuil (1781-1864) and Laure (the future Duchesse de Praslin). They remained in France with their mother. The castle was sequestrated, as being property belonging to minors. Times were difficult.
The children, Charles and Laure, were left in a locksmith’s care to give them a proper education. In this pursuit, on January 21, 1793, he took them to Revolution Square, today’s Place de la Concorde, and forced them to attend the beheading of King Louis XVI. Their mother was imprisoned under the Terror, ‘suspected of being suspect’. Their uncle, Anne-François-Victor de Breteuil, bishop of Montauban, Deputy of the Clergy of the Estates General, died in prison in Rouen.
THE BRETEUIL FAMILY IN THE XIXth CENTURY
Having crossed ‘the river of blood’, Charles de Breteuil made a brilliant career. He was one of the first graduates of Ecole Polytechnique (1801), and he soon devoted his free time to the embellishment of his castle, uninhabited for 18 years.
Later, Charles distinguished himself at the Battle of Wagram (1809) by getting treatment for the wounded of both sides. Appointed Intendant of Styria and Korinthia, then Governor of Nièvre and of Bouches de l’Elbe (1813) during the First Empire, he joined the Restoration’s personnel as Governor of Nièvre, then of Eure-et-Loir, Sarthe and Gironde.
In the library of the castle, the wax statue of Charles de Breteuil welcomes you with Duke Decazes, the Prime Minister (1820) and Louis XVIII, the younger brother of Louis XVI, seated in his wheelchair.
Made by Jacob Desmalter with a mechanism by Callas, this wheelchair is a centrepiece of the château’s furniture.
Charles de Breteuil was named Peer of France in 1823. As such, for New Year’s Eve in 1830, he received a gift from Charles X (brother of Louis XVI and Louis XVIII): the impressive and complete collection ordered by Napoleon ‘La Description de l’Egypte’ (Description of Egypt). This series of 26 volumes is the collaborative work of 167 scholars, scientists and historians who accompanied Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt from 1798 to 1801, which aimed to comprehensively catalog all known aspects of ancient and modern Egypt as well as its natural history.
‘La Description de l’Egypte’, with its 3000 drawings and 900 copperplate engravings, is displayed in the Egyptology room.
To follow the fashion of his time, Charles had the facades of his château plastered in white, reminding Empress Josephine’s Malmaison.
Rather than restoring the XVIIIth century bosquets and flowerbeds, he decided to create a beautiful landscaped English garden.
Joseph, 7th Marquis de Breteuil, Charles’s son, married Charlotte Fould on May 4, 1846. Her father, Achille Fould, was the future Minister of Finance of Emperor Napoleon III. Their marriage contract was signed by King Louis-Philippe, Queen Marie-Amélie and the Royal bloodline Princes. Most of the ministers and all the high society were their guests. Prosper Mérimée was one of their closest friends. Joseph and Charlotte de Breteuil made major changes to the estate; a well-ordered garden was laid out and the castle recovered its lovely Henri IV style with brick and stone.
A new chapel was built under Napoleon III.
Its neogothic style enhances the XVth and XVIth centuy stained glass windows which come from Chartres Cathedral : Saint Catherine and Saint John the Baptist (XVIth century) and Saint Martin (XVth century).
The outstanding antependium (embroidery before the altar) dates back to the XVIIth century.
Joseph et Charlotte tore down the old outbuildings which were too close to the château (only the medieval dovecote, which was a cornertower of the outbuildings, remains today.) In 1874, they reconstructed two big buildings which can still be seen: a farm and stables furnished with modern comforts of the day, which aimed at enlarging and updating the castle to new aesthetic criteria and showed how this large estate was a self sufficient economic entity.
Reconstructed in millstone of the region, the outbuildings are nowadays enlivened with the scenes based on Charles Perrault’s fairy tales.
Henri, 8th Marquis de Breteuil (1848-1916), son of Joseph and Charlotte, a Saint-Cyr Officer, was Deputy in Hautes-Pyrénées, where he succeeded his grandfather Achille Fould.
He was a close friend of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. Henri organized several meetings with the future King of England and Léon Gambetta, President of the Chamber of Deputies. The three men had a discussion on March 12, 1881, as reconstituted by the Musée Grévin in the Smoking room. That constituted the beginnings of the Entente Cordiale signed twenty-three years later, in 1904, by the French and English governments.
A great traveller, Henri participated in hunts in India and travelled to Russia where, as the unofficial eminence of the Count of Paris, he went to see Tsar Alexander III, the Czarina and Dukes Vladimir and Nicholas. He was a major promoter of the Franco-Russian alliance and the Triple Entente, signed in 1907 between France, England and Russia.
In his book ”In Search of Lost Time”, Marcel Proust described Henri de Breteuil under the transparent pseudonym of Hannibal de Bréauté, with the same initials, H.B. The Lacquer Room pays homage to this famous writer, exhibiting his wax statue of the Grévin Museum.
THE ESTATE OF BRETEUIL COMES BACK TO LIFE
Widow of Constance de Castelbajac, Henri de Breteuil remarried an American heiress, Marcellita Garner (1868-1943) with whom he had two sons, François and Jacques. Henri and Lita carried out huge renovations at Breteuil. The castle was furnished with modern comforts (central heating, electricity, running water…) and new kitchens were installed in the basement. They wanted to come back to a French garden in its purest tradition. The landscape architects Henri and Achille Duchêne orchestrated major transformations: a water mirror and beautiful grounds laid out in harmony with the rythm of the facades. It was in this newly renovated castle that the young Prince of Wales, the future Duke of Windsor, stayed several months with the Breteuils, in 1912.
Henri de Breteuil died in 1916, and his wife in 1943.
The XXth century has seen two World Wars. François, 9th Marquis de Breteuil, the son of Henri and Marcellita, was mobilised twice.
The chateau was occupied in 1940 and 1944, and finally liberated by a unit of the American army commanded by Major Burgess.
After World War II, Breteuil was ‘a threatened masterpiece’ which required such a huge investment in time and money that François, quickly discouraged, put it up for sale in 1958. Two agreements to sell were signed but finally, Henri-François, the son François had had with actress Martine de Breteuil, persuaded his father to give him the estate.
BRETEUIL OPENS UP TO VISITORS
Aged 23 in 1967, Henri-François and his wife, Séverine Decazes, decided to breathe life back into the family dwelling.
The Château opened to the public in 1969, with 5000 visitors that year.
In 1971, Breteuil won the “Chefs d’œuvre en péril” (threatened masterpieces) Award.
On June 18, 1973, the château, with its gardens and the park, was listed as an historical monument.
The restoration works have been led successively under the authority of the Historical Monuments’ architects for the Yvelines county, Jean-Claude Rochette, Bernard Fonquernie, Philippe Oudin and Pierre-André Lablaude, with financial support from the Agence des Espaces Verts of the Ile-de-France region (Agency for Green Open Spaces in the Paris Region) and the Ministry of Culture. In 1987, the Regional Nature Park of Haute Vallée de Chevreuse was created. The Château de Breteuil is one of its jewels.
Over the years, the visitors, whether young or mature, have become the masters of Breteuil, which combines relaxation and culture.
Henri-François de Breteuil, the current owner of the castle, continues to pursue his forebears’ enterprise, that of enabling the family dwelling to survive the affront of time, a long-drawn-out task that requires energy and inventiveness.