The Maison des Enfants de France

Author(s) : BRANDA Pierre
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The Maison des Enfants de France was created following a decree dated 25 November, 1810. Its purpose: the education of “all princes, sons and grandsons of France, up to the age of seven years, at such time they become the charges of men; and of all princesses, daughters and granddaughters of France, until such time as the emperor judges it correct to make for them their own home.” The individuals placed in the service of the Prince Imperial were all chosen for their experience in working with children. In 1813, the Maison included a governess (Madame Louise-Charlotte-Françoise de Montesquiou-Fezensac, descendant of Louvois), two deputy governesses (Madame de Boubers and Madame de Mesgrigny), attached to the Service du Grand Chambellan, and a medical team, comprising a doctor (Bourdois), a surgeon (Auvity), and a vaccine doctor (Husson). All those mentioned answered directly to the governess, whilst the two deputy governesses replaced her in her duties in case of absence.

Just as for the empress, the Maison des Enfants de France was served by the Maison de l'Empereur for everything involving meals and stables. The Grand Maréchal du palais and the Grand Ecuyer were in charge of overseeing the provision of all that might be required by the young members of the Maison. Nevertheless, the domestic staff attached to the Aiglon was greater in size than that in the empress' service, including as it did three nurses (Madame Marchand, Madame Petit and Madame Legrand), a maid, and a number of wet nurses, which included a “supervising wet-nurse”. Also in the Roi de Rome's service were a maître d'hôtel, a carver, two ushers, four valets, and seven wardrobe servants (two women, three girls and two boys). In 1812, the officers and domestic staff numbered thirty-one, with an annual cost of 271,660 Francs.1

The Maison des Enfants de France appeared very much like an additional wing of the Maison de l'Empereur. In reality, it was nothing of the sort. The governess, a life appointment for the individual named to the post, included far-reaching powers. In terms of honours, Madame de Montesquiou possessed, “both inside [and outside] the palace, all the rank, honours and prerogatives enjoyed by the grands officiers of the Crown.” As well as this, she also held “rank over all the ladies of the Court in the apartments of Their Majesties, in the palace, and [anywhere else]”. She had complete access and could even enter the inner chambers. In the rooms of the palace occupied by the Maison des Enfants de France, she had to the right to give out orders to civil and military officers attached to the Maison de l'Empereur. As far as her duties were concerned, she responded directly to the emperor. As is to be expected of such a position, she remained permanently at the young king's side. She accompanied him everywhere, slept in chambers close-by, had her own table in the palace, exercised full control over her own personnel and departmental budget, and personally took charge of the provision of linen and baby clothes. Frédéric Masson's description sums it up succinctly: “Such was the responsibility, with such great honours bestowed upon it, that the governess became almost the second lady of state and, in some respects, even took precedence over the empress. A life appointment, answering only to the emperor, and unable to leave the child's side even for a moment, she became the official mother; she continually served as the intermediary between the child and its natural mother, who had absolutely no control or supervision over it.”2

In light of such control and presence in his life, it is hardly surprising that the Aiglon affectionately nicknamed his governess “Maman Quiou” (short for Montesquiou). Despite this wide range of powers, the Maison remained nominally subordinated to the service of the Grand Chamberlain, a state of affairs that pleased her little. And although she attempted on numerous occasions to remove the Maison from under this theoretical control, the general aura of misogyny that dominated the empire proved a formidable barrier. Despite having obtained the right to write her own budgets and deliver them before the Conseil de la Maison, practice dictated that no woman could attend council sessions.3 Ignoring this humiliation, she continued to push for autonomy. Prior to the presentation of her budget for 1813, she requested that the intendant général replace the subtitle “service du grand chambellan” with “service de la gouvernante des Enfants de France”. Her husband, the grand chamberlain, made it clear to the intendant that he would not oppose such a move, and remarked “it seems entirely reasonable that she should have this much desired complement, having already obtained the essential.”4 Her request was examined by the Conseil de la Maison at the beginning of February. Napoleon's approval followed, and on 6 February, 1813, the intendant informed the governess that her service would that year “constitute a clear and distinct chapter in the budget, under the title of service de Madame la gouvernante des Enfants de France“.5

Unlike the Maison de l'Impératrice, which had been entirely swallowed up by the Maison de l'Empereur by the end of the empire, the Maison des Enfants de France became more and more independent. This evolution however owed less to the tenacity of Madame de Montesquiou than it did to the will of the emperor. His son was the future of the imperial regime. Everything was done to ensure that his successor receive the best education and be raised in absolute safety. The importance of this mission was justification enough for the ever increasing autonomy enjoyed by the governess and the Maison des Enfants de France. Had the empire lasted, the Maison may well have become a state within a state.


1 Archives Nationales, O2 200, folio 393
2 Frédéric Masson, Napoléon et son fils, Paris, Albin Michel, pp. 83-84
3 A.N. O2 200, folio 397
4 Ibid., folio 396
5 Ibid., folio 392
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