|A portrait thought to be of Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore, comte d'Artagnan.|
Few figures have entranced imaginations more or longer than the young country bumpkin swordsman d’Artagnan and his Musketeers pals Porthos, Athos, and Aramis who swashbuckled their way across the pages of Alexandre Dumas, père’s adventure novels and almost innumerable film and TV adaptions. D’Artagnan and his companions have become so iconic—almost super heroes in plumed hats, high boots, livery emblazoned with a cross, that it comes as something of a surprise to learn that there really was a man by that name and he really was the Captain of the elite company of Musketeers that served Louis XIV and his chief minister Cardinal Mazarin.
When he arrived in Paris as a young man, the son of a freshly minted minor nobleman from the distant provinces in the 1630s, Charles de Batz assumed the name and identity of his much older and more influential mother’s family, d’Artagnan. It was fortunate that he did so because he had an uncle, Henri de Montesquiou, Comte d’Artagnan and a cousin Field Marshal Pierre de Montesquiou d’Artagnan whose influence bought him an appointment to the prestigious Musketeers. He entered the service under the name Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore, Comte d’Artagnan.
The Musketeers of the Guard was a military unit belonging to the personal household of the French king. Although it sometimes fought in battle alongside the professional national Army it was separate from that establishment and under the direct orders of the King, who was officially their Captain. As we shall see, a second company of Musketeers was formed and assigned duty to the personal service of the King’s minister. The initial company was formed by Louis XIII in 1622 when he outfitted a company of his light cavalry with muskets instead of lances. The company was trained to operate as either cavalry or infantry and indeed when assigned to war duty usually operated on foot.
The Musketeers had special duty as the personal guard to the King whenever he was away from the Royal Palace. At his residences the King was guarded by the Garde du corps and the Gardes suisses (Swiss Guard). The Musketeers were an elite unit recruited only among the nobility and recruits required the sponsorship of important members of the Court or of the Royal Family. All members were required to serve as common soldiers for some years before they were even eligible for an officer’s commission. But such was the prestige that competition was fierce for the limited number of slots that became available in any year.
Shortly after the first Company of Musketeers went into service of the king, a second Company was formed and assigned to Cardinal Richelieu, the powerful first minister. This was the unit in which d’Artagnan enrolled. Serving with him in the Company were Armand d’Athos, Henri d’Aramitz, and Isaac de Porthau who each inspired a similarly named character in Dumas’s tales.
After Richelieu died his Company fell to his successor, Cardinal Mazarin who became d’Artagnan special patron and for whom he often loyally performed certain secret and delicate missions involving espionage on rivals, secret communications, and occasionally blackmail. All were routine parts of life in the intrigue that always swirled around the Royal Court as rivals maneuvered for favor and position. Mazarin was an ally of Louis XIII and his son who sought to limit the feudal liberties of chartered towns and communes and of the nobility. After two periods of civil war known as the Fronde the King consolidated his power and began to assert control over France as an absolute monarch. D’Artagnan was the loyal supporter of Cardinal and King through all of this.
Three years after Mazarin rose to power in 1443 he dissolved his unit of the Musketeers, perhaps because he did not trust the loyalty of all of the nobles enrolled in its ranks. But d’Artagnan remained in personal service to the Cardinal and continued to be used for discrete missions. He even followed Mazarin during his brief exile in 1651 in the face of the hostility of the aristocracy.
Upon Mazarin’s return in 1652 the King appointed d’Artagnan lieutenant in the Gardes Françaises, then to captain in 1655. The Gardes were the household infantry of the King. When in service in the line with the Army in battle, a Gardes captain was the equivalent of a regular army colonel.
Still the subject of much plotting and even possible assassination by disgruntled Nobles, Mazarin re-constituted his Company of Musketeers in 1658. D’Artagnan received an appointment as lieutenant, but because of the prestige of the Musketeers, this was actually a promotion.
|As Captain of the Musketeers d'Artagnan would have worn the livery at left.|
When Mazarin died in 1661 his Musketeers and d’Artagnan passed into the personal service of the young King who continued to use him for the most discrete missions.
And no mission required more discretion than his most famous one—the arrest of Nicolas Fouquet, Superintendent of Finances on September 5, 1661. Fouquet may have been the richest man in France, rivaling the personal wealth of the King. As Superintendent of Finance he co-mingled his own assets and that of the State at first by personally guaranteeing large loans to the government. After that he became almost flagrant in his tangled accounts and skimming of the Treasury. He also publicly hoped to inherit Mazarin’s position as First Minister. But the King, eager to consolidate his own power, announced that he would “be my own First Minister,” although Fouquet’s bitter rival Jean-Baptiste Colbert assumed many of the duties in fact.
Fouquet had become so powerful that he seemed oblivious to the rising resentment of the King. In August of that year he hosted a huge fête inaugurating the new château on his estate Vaux-le-Vicomte. It was the grandest house in France. And the party celebrating it was so luxurious that each guest was made the present of a horse and Molière’s Les Fâcheux was staged for the first time. The King was sure that such extravagance was proof of Fouquet’s looting of the treasury.
To get Fouquet away from Paris, the King invited him and other members of the Court to Nantes in Brittany. There, as he emerged from a banquet, he was arrested by Lieutenant d’Artagnan. Fouquet was put under the Musketeer's personal guard for more than three years as his lengthy trial dragged on. Fouquet was ultimately convicted and was sentenced to life in prison. He was sent to the infamous fortress/prison of Pignerol where the never-to-be-named Eustache Dauger, the man identified by historical research as the Man in the Iron Mask was held. In fact Dauger was made one o Fouquet’s prison valets. Later the stories of the two men would become entwined and even confabulated.
For such conspicuous service to the King d’Artagnan was promoted in 1667 to Captain-lieutenant of the Musketeers, the commander of both Companies. The same year he was also made Governor of Lille, which had just been captured and made a French city. He was profoundly unpopular as a governor of an unwilling people and yearned for a return to more active military duty.
That opportunity arose when he was called to lead the Musketeers during the Franco-Dutch War. While serving in the front lines during the Siege of Maastricht on June 27, 1673 d’Artagnan was struck in the throat by a musket ball and killed. In death at age 62 he was hailed again as a national hero.
In 1700 Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras published a novel in the guise of a memoir called, Mémoires de M. d’Artagnan. He probably gathered tales of the Musketeer’s adventures from a former comrade-in-arms, Besmaux, who was Warden of the Bastille while the writer was imprisoned there. Historians are still trying to sort out the fact from the fiction in this account.
|The Three Musketeers and d'Artagnan as imagined by Dumas.|
Enter Alexandre Dumas who in 1844 published The Three Musketeers, the first of three D’Artagnan Romances which included Twenty Years After, and The Vicomte de Bragelonne. The later book was often broken into three parts each published separately, the last of which was The Man in the Iron Mask. In the introduction of the first book, Dumas referenced his discovery of de Sandras’s novel which he treats as if it was a factual memoir. But the books not only elaborated from the original story, but often diverted from it, combining or creating characters, and even dramatically altering the relationships of some characters.
We know now that many of d’Artagnan’s characteristics and some of his experiences and adventures were drawn from Duma’s father, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas who was born in French Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, to an aristocratic French officer and a Creole slave woman. Raised in France, his father became the first mulatto to achieve the rank of general in the French army and served with notable distinction during the Napoleonic Wars before falling out of favor with the Emperor.
We also know that Dumas collaborated with a writer named Auguste Maquet who often provided him with plot outlines and ideas.
Dumas was a prolific and popular writer. In contrast to his best known contemporary, Victor Hugo, he was an unabashed monarchist and ached for the return of French glory. His romanticism struck an international chord and his books were widely translated and popular around the world. His conservatism and romanticism caused him to go out of favor in French literary circles in the early and mid-20th Century. That reputation has been somewhat restored with honors and recognition by French President Jacques Chirac in 2002 at ceremony where his ashes re-interred at the mausoleum of the Panthéon of Paris, where many French luminaries were buried.