‘Marie Courtenay’: a Romance, with a new Afterword

On the day following her 57th birthday, long after William Courtenay’s death, a court in Paris judged Marie Baty’s claim to a third part of his estate in France. Madame Baty was, or so she claimed, William’s daughter by his French wife Marguerite.

La Gazette des Tribunaux published an account of the proceedings that differs in some details from this later version which appeared in the London magazine, Household Words – for example, Marie’s mother is named there as Marguerite Titan rather than Titau.

Articles in Household Words were printed anonymously but Anne Lohrli has identified John Robertson as the author of ‘Marie Courtenay’. The story was soon reprinted in the Boston magazine Littell’s Living Age and again, much later, as ‘The Romance of Marie Courtenay’ in Frank Leslie’s Pleasant Hours.

The writer takes us straight into Marie’s story as presented to the court in August 1857 by her advocate, maître Limet. Saint Christoly is situated north-west of Bordeaux on the west bank of the Gironde estuary. The prison of Beysac was at Vertheuil, to the south of Saint Christoly and a short distance inland from Saint Estèphe. The village of Draveil is to the south of Paris between Sénart forest and the river Seine. George Henry Woods, the last surviving member of his family, was born in Paris in 1820 and died in 1881 in Exeter, England.


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MARIE COURTENAY

TOWARDS the end of the eighteenth century, Lord William Courtenay, the young Earl of Devon, a descendant of the ancient imperial family of Constantinople, having been convicted of felony, having had his estates confiscated, and having been outlawed, left Powderham Castle, near Exmouth, and fled from his native land. A short time afterwards, a young stranger arrived upon the coast of France, near Lesparre, in the department of La Gironde, and took up his residence in the village of Saint Christoly. This foreigner, who lived in great seclusion, was first known by the name of Thomas; and afterwards was called citizen Thomas, or William Courtenay.

While Thomas Courtenay was living at Saint Christoly, the great French Revolution of seventeen hundred and ninety-three broke out; and his English accent having betrayed his foreign birth, Thomas Courtenay became an object of suspicion and persecution. At length, he was arrested as a supposed aristocrat, and conducted to the Convent of Beysac, which had been converted into a prison, and which the Reign of Terror had peopled with the noble families of the county. Although Thomas Courtenay declared himself to be an Irishman, he stood in a very perilous position. Happily for him, however, he had excited the interest and compassion of a young and beautiful woman, named Marguerite Titau, who was the widow of a peasant, named Jean Orry. Marguerite Titau walked six miles, from Saint Christoly to Beysac, every two days to carry clean linen and fresh food to the unfortunate young prisoner. In those days to be poor was to be powerful, and Marguerite Titau, by exerting her influence with the local authorities and the country people, after some time obtained the release of Thomas Courtenay.

Gratitude, it may be easily imagined, soon gave place to more tender sentiments in the breast of Thomas Courtenay, especially as his devoted liberatrice united to goodness of heart, the charms of youth and beauty. The simplicity of the republican forms making marriage easy, the youthful betrothed in the year seventeen hundred and ninety-five, repaired to Bordeaux; where their union was celebrated by Ysabeau, a representative of the people, under the flags (sous les drapeaux). Marriage under the flags, was the only existing form of marriage during “the Reign of Wisdom.” It consisted in the appearance of the contracting parties at the head of a regiment, under the flags; where, in presence of a representative of the people, their union was announced by bugle blast and tuck of drum. These marriages were afterwards legalised by the Code Napoléon.

Two children were the fruit of the union of Marguerite Titau and Thomas Courtenay: Jean Courtenay, born upon the twenty-first Floréal, year V., and Marie Courtenay, born upon the twentieth Thermidor, year IX. of the Republic. Thomas Courtenay brought up his children modestly and respectably; and, when the Reign of Terror had passed, and tranquillity was restored, he announced to his friends that he was Lord William Courtenay, the outlawed Earl of Devon. This announcement procured him admission as an equal into the best families of the neighbourhood; and he henceforth signed his name, William, or Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon.

Napoleon the First having been proclaimed First Consul, M. de Courtenay, after the rupture of the peace of Amiens, was suspected of being a spy of England and the French princes, the brothers of Louis the Sixteenth; and was obliged once more to seek his safety in flight. He wished to take his family with him; but his wife, having had a daughter to whom she was much attached, by her first marriage, and who was settled in her village, refused to accompany him. Courtenay on embarking alone for England or America, promised to provide for his family, and to return to them as soon as the political horizon had somewhat cleared up.

On arriving in England, Courtenay wrote to his wife, saying, that his family having repudiated him, he was living with a tailor in Oxford Street; but, would, as soon as he could, return to France, to pass the remainder of his days with his dear little children. He appeared to be particularly fond of little Marie; who, strikingly resembled her father. Sometime, after the receipt of his first letter, Courtenay wrote from America, announcing a remittance, through a third party, of eight hundred francs; which, however his family never received. Marguerite Titau, or Courtenay, heard no more of her husband after that letter; and, at length, believing herself to be once more a widow, and resigning herself to her misfortune, continued to bring up her children as well as her feeble resources permitted. The eldest, Jean Courtenay, as soon as he was able to handle an oar, became a sailor; and Marie assisted her mother in her household occupations.

Years rolled on; and, after the peace of eighteen hundred and fifteen, Lord William Courtenay appeared in England, and had his estates restored to him. A rumour floated over the county of Devon, about this time, to the effect, that the noble Earl having disguised himself as a common sailor, had gone to one of the principal hotels in Exeter, and mingled in the conversations of the bar, and tap-rooms, with a view of finding out the sort of reception he might expect, if he returned publicly to his estate and lordship of Powderham Castle. Learning, however, that stoning, or tarring and feathering, would be deemed the most appropriate welcome, Lord William Courtenay, thinking it imprudent to venture, returned immediately to France. The restored Earl of Devon took up his residence in a sumptuous hotel, in the Place Vendôme in Paris; and bought a most beautiful and agreeable country-house, situated near Corbeil, in the little village of Draveil. In this country retreat he soon won for himself the name of the Bear of Draveil. His only associates were his steward, Mr. Woods, and his family. He went out seldom, and was generally accompanied by Miss Woods, the steward’s daughter; and, of course, Lord William Courtenay was not spared by the evil tongues of his neighbourhood.

In eighteen hundred and thirty-five, the Earl of Devon died, leaving by his will all his property to Mr. and Mrs. Woods, and their three children, George, Henry, and Jane. After going through the necessary legal formalities prescribed by French law, Mr. Woods came into possession of the furniture of the hotel, at number eighteen Place Vendôme, and the country seat of Draveil. After disposing of the Chateau of Draveil to a Monsieur and Madame Dalloz, and after realising the sum of eight thousand pounds by the sale of the furniture, which was rich in objects of art vertu, Mr. Woods on receiving the proceeds of these sales, hastened back to England with his family.

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We must now return to humble life, and the little village of Saint Christoly. In eighteen hundred and thirty-six, Marguerite Titau, or Courtenay, was dead. Her son, Jean Courtenay, had gone to sea, and never more been heard of; and Marie Courtenay was supporting herself by her labour, when, one day, she received a letter from Paris, written in English. Now Marie, so far from knowing how to read English, could not speak French, knowing nothing but the patois of her department. Luckily, however, she knew an Englishman who had lived twenty years in her native village, and who translated the letter for her. It was from an unknown person, informing her of the death of her father, at number eighteen or nineteen Place Vendôme, leaving a large fortune, and advising her to take the steps necessary to inherit it.

Marie, believing the letter to be an ill-timed jest, and putting it into her pocket, kept it there until the edges became chafed, and the letter destroyed. Nevertheless, in eighteen hundred and forty-one, a M. Falempin, a lawyer, having business which called him from Saint Christoly to Paris, Marie begged him to make inquiries respecting the particulars mentioned in the mysterious letter; but, soon after his arrival in Paris, the lawyer fell ill, and died. Some time afterwards, the Maire of Saint Christoly wrote to the English consul at Bordeaux, to enquire the fate of Lord William Courtenay, but he never received any answer to his letter. At length, in eighteen hundred and fifty-three, a lawyer who happened to be passing some time at Lespaire, heard the story of the poor woman, said to be the daughter and heiress of Lord Courtenay. Incredulous at first, after seeing and questioning Marie, now Madame Baty, and after having made inquiries in the neighbourhood, the lawyer became convinced that the story told by the poor woman was perfectly true.

Of course he was entrusted with the case, and went up to Paris, where, after having ascertained the particulars of the death of Lord Courtenay, he commenced legal proceedings, for the purpose, in the first place, of proving the legitimacy of Marie Courtenay, and, in the second place, of claiming, in her name, the only property of the late Earl which Mr. Woods had not taken to England, namely, the estate of Draveil. The estate had gone into the hands of third parties, Monsieur Dalloz having sold it to Monsieur Séguin.

On the eighth of August, eighteen hundred and fifty-seven, the case was tried before the First Chamber of the Civil Tribunal of the Seine. Henry Woods, the only surviving member of his family, did not answer the summons of the court. M. Limet, the advocate of Madame Baty, in her name begged the court to declare her the legitimate daughter and heiress of Lord William Courtenay, and to condemn Henry Woods to restore to her a third part of the movable and immovable property of the late Lord Courtenay, and to declare nul the two successive sales of the estate of Draveil.

The third parties raised up two objections to the appeal, demanding, firstly: Is Thomas Courtenay the same person as William Courtenay, the Earl of Devon? and secondly: If Marie is the legitimate daughter of the Earl of Devon, can she legally claim her inheritance?

In answer to the first objection, he produced the written testimony of six respectable inhabitants of the village of Saint Christoly, namely, Jean Servant, aged seventy-seven years, formerly Maire of the village of Saint Christoly; Guilaume Grand, aged sixty-three years; M. Bénillan, aged sixty-five years; Arnaud Courrain, aged eighty years and six months; Pierre Curat, aged seventy-three years; and François Normandine, aged seventy-two years;—who all affirmed, upon oath, that they had known Thomas Courtenay; that they knew for certain, that he remained in the village of Saint Christoly from fourteen to fifteen years, until the year ten of the French Republic; that during his stay at Saint Christoly they saw and spoke to him daily; that he was about forty or forty-five years of age when he left Saint Christoly to return to England; that during his sojourn at Saint Christoly he married Marguerite Titau: that Marie Jeanne Courtenay was born of this marriage, and that M. Thomas Courtenay caused himself to be called in the country William or Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon, &c.

The next document produced was the only piece of writing which could be found with the signature of Thomas Courtenay. It was a promise to pay the sum of four hundred and fifty-nine francs eleven sous, written in bad French, and signed Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon. This document was compared, by M. Limet, with the will of Lord William Courtenay; and he found, he said, a manifest analogy between the two handwritings, by making an allowance for the difference thirty-five years must make between the handwriting of a young man and the handwriting of an old man.

M. Limet having thus tried to prove the identity between Lord William Courtenay and Citizen William or Thomas Courtenay of Saint Christoly, went on to prove the legitimacy of Marie Courtenay. He presented to the court the declaration of her birth, made to the Maire of Saint Christoly, in which she is declared the legitimate daughter of Marguerite Titau and Thomas Courtenay, an Irishman.

Great doubt having been thrown by the adversaries of Marie Courtenay on the truth of the romantic story of the marriage of her father and mother, M. Limet procured the testimony of a lady who had known Marie Courtenay from her childhood, who had often played with her, and whose grandmother had been imprisoned with Thomas Courtenay in the convent of Beysac. Madame Mazel said, her grandmother had frequently told her the history of the romantic courtship and marriage of Marguerite Titau and Thomas Courtenay, and certified to Marie’s striking resemblance to her father. And she herself had seen the letters which Thomas Courtenay had written to his family. All this evidence not being considered conclusive, the tribunal decided that there was no proof of the identity of Thomas Courtenay, mentioned in the certificate of the birth of Marie Courtenay, with William Courtenay, the Earl of Devon, who died upon the twenty-sixth day of May, eighteen hundred and thirty-five; and the court accordingly rejected the appeal of Madame Marie Baty, and condemned her to pay all the expenses to all parties.

Household Words, Saturday, November 28, 1857


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AFTERWORD

Madame and monsieur Dalloz, who had bought William’s château from the Woods family, sold it to the Séguins in 1854. After the judgment of 1857 madame Séguin continued to live at Draveil for a quarter of a century, at first as the wife of Charles Séguin then as a widow. In that time, during the war of 1870, the villagers received an unwelcome visit from some Prussian uhlans (light cavalry troops). According to Édouard Fournier, they arrived on the 15th of September, a fortnight after Napoléon III, emperor of the French, had been defeated in battle at Sedan near the border with Belgium.

Prussian forces were advancing on Paris. A group of six uhlans had made their way through the forest of Sénart and hoped to cross the Seine a little farther downstream by the ferry at Juvisy. It was the ferryman who raised the alarm. Several armed peasants hurried to the river, led by madame Séguin’s gamekeeper with her gardener and another of her servants. They opened fire as the uhlans set foot on the ferry. None of the Prussians was killed but five were hit and tumbled into the water.

An hour later a troop of uhlans appeared and overran the village. The ferryman took to the woods and managed to reach Paris in safety but the Prussians seized madame Séguin’s three servants. They hanged the gamekeeper from the gates of the château and they shot dead both the gardener and the other servant alongside him.

After the killings came a conflagration. Fires had already been lit and soon the principal houses in the village with the château itself were all ablaze. Firemen rushed to the scene from all parts of the neighbourhood but were greeted with bursts of carbine fire: the uhlans did not want people coming along to spoil their revenge. Before the shooting was stopped two of the firemen had been murdered.

It took the killing of five men, with the burning of some houses and a château thrown in for good measure, to avenge an attack in which five uhlans suffered a soaking in the Seine. A few days later Prussian forces had encircled Paris and the siege of the city began.


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Photographs from Wikimedia Commons:

 

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