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A rich portrait of a compelling, complex woman who emerged from a sheltered rural childhood into the fraught, often deadly world of the French royal court and Parisian high society—and who would come to rule them both.
Married off at sixteen to a military officer she barely knew, Marie de Vignerot was intended to lead an ordinary aristocratic life, produce heirs, and quietly assist the men in her family rise to prominence. Instead, she became a widow at eighteen and rose to become the indispensable and highly visible right-hand of the most powerful figure in French politics—the ruthless Cardinal Richelieu.
Richelieu was her uncle and, as he lay dying, the Cardinal broke with tradition and entrusted her, above his male heirs, with his vast fortune. She would go on to shape her country’s political, religious, and cultural life as the unconventional and independent Duchesse d’Aiguillon in ways that reverberated across Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
Marie de Vignerot was respected, beloved, and feared by churchmen, statesmen, financiers, writers, artists, and even future canonized saints. Many would owe their careers and eventual historical legacies to her patronage and her enterprising labor and vision. Pope Alexander VII and even the Sun King, Louis XIV, would defer to her. She was one of the most intelligent, accomplished, and occasionally ruthless French leaders of the seventeenth century. Yet, as all too often happens to great women in history, she was all but forgotten by modern times.
La Duchesse is the first fully researched modern biography of Vignerot, putting her onto center stage in the histories of France and the globalizing Catholic Church where she belongs. In these pages, we see Marie navigate scandalous accusations and intrigue to creatively and tenaciously champion the people and causes she cared about. We also see her engage with fascinating personalities such as Queen Marie de Médici and influence French imperial ambitions and the Fronde Civil War. Filled with adventure and daring, art and politics, La Duchesse establishes Vignerot as a figure without whom France’s storied Golden Age cannot be fully understood.
Bronwen McShea earned her B.A. and M.T.S. at Harvard University and her Ph.D. in history at Yale University. She is the author of Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits and New France and a wide range of other publications. She has held research fellowships at Princeton University and the Institute of European History in Germany and has taught history at Columbia University, the University of Nebraska Omaha, and the Augustine Institute. She lives in New York City.
"The first biography of this estimable figure. With her vivid chronicle, Ms. McShea has given a newly prominent place, in the rich tapestry of 17th-century France, to Maria de Vignerot, Duchesse d'Aiguillon. She was, as we see, intelligent, loyal, discreet, and benevoluent, committed to good works throughout her long life." Allan Massie, the Wall Street Journal
"The very best historical biographies fire the imagination and read like great novels. What Bronwen McShea achieves so memorably with the life of Marie Madeleine de Vignerot in La Duchesse simply proves the point."
The Catholic Thing
"The life and achievements of magnanimous French duchess and governor Marie-Madeleine de Vignerot du Pont de Courlay are finally explored in intimate detail after centuries of being overlooked. This biography transports readers to seventeenth-century France, absolutely immersing them in the enmeshment of royal politics, religion, and gender roles as Marie masters and changes each one of them forever, cementing her place in French history. Perfect for readers of French, women’s, and religious history as well as biography."
"This book is a meticulously researched work that reads like a novel. It is exceptionally well-written with rich details of 17th-century France. This is a fine work that sheds light on the nearly forgotten story of a consequential figure in French history." Library Journal, starred review
“Filled with dramatic, often violent, seventeenth-century court and clergy intrigues, Bronwen McShea’s La Duchesse is meticulous. Adds much to church history and restores its intriguing and formidable subject to seventeenth-century France’s center stage.” Foreword Reviews
"Well-researched and accessible, this is an enlightening look at a remarkable woman and a pivotal period in French history." Publishers Weekly
"In this jewel of a book, Bronwen McShea brings a remarkable woman and her world to life so vividly that one can easily feel transported to seventeenth century France. Painstakingly researched, beautifully written, perfectly paced, this is biography at its very best."
Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana, National Book Award 2003
"One of history's most fascinating women has, at last, been brought thrillingly back to life in this expertly researched narrative of power, resilience, glamour and darkness." Leanda de Lisle, author of Henrietta Maria
"If the past is a foreign country, nothing will seem more foreign than the world of the French monarchy. And nothing will help us negotiate its terrain more delightfully than La Duchesse. Through the formidable Cardinal Richelieu, Marie de Vignerot had the key to every locked door in the cabinet of the Ancien Régime and she shaped foreign policy, culture and business to an extent that even kings and popes seem meagre in stature. We have to thank Bronwen McShea for re-introducing us to her today.”
Allen C. Guelzo, Princeton University, author of Robert E. Lee: A Life and Gettysburg
“A delightful book that tells a clear and compelling story of a complicated era with detail and keen insight. La Duchesse is vital to our understanding of French Catholicism in the century after the Reformation and shows how Marie de Vignerot, as Duchesse d’Aiguillon and a Peer of France, had a degree of authority unmatched by most other women at court.” Susan Dinan, Professor of History, Adelphi University Honors College