This is a true story, even if it’s hard to believe.
The event seems to come out from a novel and to be honest someone has actually written that novel. It’s “Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge” (“The Knight of Maison-Rouge“) and it comes from the great pen of Alexandre Dumas.
When it was first published, the book had a different title: “Le Chevalier de Rougeville”.
Right then, Dumas got a letter signed by Charles François Alexandre de Rougeville, son of the title-name elusive knight.
Perfectly aware of Dumas’s republican sympathies, Charles was worried that the opera was an attempt at slandering the image of his father, whose actions during the Revolution had been, by his own admission, “mysterious”…
Surprised to find out a still living heir of the knight, Dumas made sure to inform Charles that the novel was “to honor” his father, but that he would have immediately changed the main character’s name to Maison-Rouge.
That’s right, despite his political ideas, Alexandre Dumas was, first of all, a human being, and the figure of the ultra-monarchic Alexandre Gonsse de Rougeville (1761-1814) had managed to enthrall him. Let’s see together how.
Bold or Reckless?
It’s still difficult to perfectly understand the knight, but we can be sure of at least two aspects of his personality: his blind a complete devotion to the monarchic cause and his boldness… or madness, if you prefer.
Alexandre Gonsse de Rougeville was a true blowhard. He dared to boast about an aristocratic origin, actually non-existent, that he perceived as a right, nonetheless.
His position on the matter can be perfectly summarized by an answer he gave to the revolutionary police during one of his many interrogations:
«Are you an aristocrat?», they asked him.
«I am due to my military services».
So, the knight boasted an aristocracy acquired by merit, just waiting for an official acknowledgment.
When we come to Rougeville, the line between truth and lie it’s not simple to find. The “military services” he refers to in his memoirs are often made up, embellished and romanticized, but in fact, they’re not a complete work of fiction.
Historians long debated, for example, about his actual involvement – he would have been 15 years old! – in the American War of Independence as field helper to generals Washington and Lee, as the Knight has declared.
Well, according to recent research by historian Michelle Sapori, the young and passionate soldier de Rougeville actually went to America! Maybe not exactly with Washington and Lee, as the knight declared, but let’s allow him this vanity…
Another verified feat: during one of the two most famous Parisian citizen’s assaults to the Tuileries palace (June 20th, 1792), Rougeville was by the side of the Royal Family as a member of the National Guard.
It was him who prevented the queen from reaching the king, who was facing an irrepressible crowd.
«Let me pass; my place is by the King’s side!», ordered the queen.
No can do, it was too dangerous: the mob – and Rougevill knew that well – was looking for her, the Austrian.
The legend says that the knight even dared to catch her by the arm! Today we wouldn’t give any importance to such an accident, but at a time when the personas of the sovereigns were – not for long – still considered sacred and inviolable, Rougeville’s act could be considered profane.
Did he actually dare touch Her Majesty? After all, the knight was impulsive, passionate, wildcatter and, not being noble, he wasn’t familiar with court etiquette.
It’s impossible to draw the line between reality and literary “filters” that embellish memories, but what’s sure is that Rougeville was there, that day, at the palace. Not just that: facts show that the queen actually knew him, but we’ll get to that.
Later on, while the royal family was confined in the Temple prison, Rougeville conspired tirelessly with other crown faithful followers, to plan the breakout of king Louis XVI.
When it became clear that any hope of freeing him was gone, the knight decided then to propose himself as a defense for the ex-king’s trial. Sadly, Louis XVI preferred actual lawyers. Can we blame him?
What did Rougeville do, then?
While France waited, on the edge of their seat, the outcome of the trial, the knight published an essay called: “Political and moral considerations about Louis XVI’s trial” where he pleaded for the King’s life to be spared.
It’s important to point out that at the time nobody dared pronounce Louis XVI’s name: the king of France was, at this point, just a common citizen, to be called with his bourgeois name: Louis Capet.
Apart from that, Rougeville had dared to publish the essay under his name, despite he had been firmly advised against that.
By now, we have understood that the knight loved to dare, but we’re way behind from really grasping how far he could go.
Once the king had been guillotined, Rougeville swore there wouldn’t have been any rest for him as long as even one single member of the royal family was in danger.
The Affair of the Carnation
Later on, thanks to a deep web of high-risk corruption and intrigue, the knight was able to enter three times in the supermax of the time: la Conciergerie.
The target: plan the breakout of ex-queen Marie-Antoinette.
The crazy endeavor went down in history as the Affair of the Carnation, from the creative way by which Rougeville had two or three (sources disagree) messages delivered to the queen, with the instructions for the plan.
The notes had been tightly rolled up and hidden in the corolla of a carnation.
The knight had donned an anonymous bourgeois attire and had put the flower on his lapel, ready to start the operation.
August 28th, 1793, Rougeville arrived at the gates of the Conciergerie – clearly under a false name – with the chief of police Jean-Baptiste Michonis. He was in charge of jail inspections, and so above any suspicion, or so they thought…
The presence of a stranger didn’t alarm anyone, because “citizen Michonis” had already brought some curious visitor to see the “Capet Widow”.
Some days after, recalling the visit, one of the two sentries tasked with close guarding the prisoner, remembered he had seen a sudden flushing on the “Capet widow” – even a tear – right when Michonis and the visitor had entered her cell.
While the officer was distracting the guards, the knight pretended to inspect bars and walls, ad if he wanted to check their robustness.
Meanwhile, the prisoner was trying to hide her emotion, having immediately recognized the bold soldier that had saved her once already. What was he thinking? What was he doing here? Was he brave or simply mad?
Suddenly, a flower fell at her feet. The queen didn’t understand, so the knight signaled her with a glance to pick it up.
Michonis and Rougeville had no more excuses to stay, so they left for the courtyard.
Everything went down in a few minutes: Marie-Antoinette pretended to have a complaint to bring up to Michonis and asked Gilbert, one of the two guards, to go and report it for her. The sentry went right away.
Under the control of just one guard, it was easier for her to pick up the flower, discover the message, read it and swallow it.
Probably, the message asked the queen to have faith and try to buy the help of the guards, promising money that the knight would have given her on his next visit.
How everything went down after that, and how much the guards, Michonis and the general personnel dedicated to the queen’s custody were complicit, isn’t clear, but we can speculate.
The queen gave it all a lot of thought and then found the resolve to talk to her guardians.
Having reached an agreement, Marie-Antoinette carved the answer for the knight on a piece of paper with a needle and gave it to Gilbert.
The note is today in the National Archives and it’s absolutely impossible to read. There was an attempt at a translation, but only the third line makes some sense:
I trust you. I’ll come.
In the lines before, probably, the queen guaranteed the guards’ collaboration.
Gilbert the guard, under questioning, claimed he had immediately given the note to the concierge’s (the warden) wife, but it’s much more probable it was confiscated. Thinking she was doing the right thing, the woman put it right into Michonis’s hands.
Knowing that rumors would start and that he would soon be forced to turn in the proof to authorities, it was probably the officer himself who made the note unreadable with more holes here and there.
Questioned later, Michonis confirmed he had gotten the note, but that he had given no importance to it. Better to look incompetent than complicit!
On the night between September 2nd and 3rd, 1793, Rougeville entered the prison again with the officer, claiming to have been given order to transfer the prisoner back to the Temple.
According to Rougeville, just one more barrier and the queen would have been free.
Suddenly, someone, even if he had already been paid – nobody knows who – got cold feet. They made some noise, the risk of being discovered was high.
Marie-Antoinette herself ordered her saviors to scram, and she went back to her cell.
Later, during exhausting questioning, the “Capet widow” strongly defended all the suspects in the Affair of the Coronation.
Even today it’s difficult for historians to fully understand the level of complicity of the jail’s personnel.
What’s sure is that Michonis paid with his life the suspect hovering over him, even if he never gave up his accomplices.
Meanwhile, thanks to his network, Rougeville moved from shelter to shelter, despite being wanted by the police. For a period he even sought refuge in the maze of Montmartre’s quarries!
After reading death threats from the press, the knight allowed himself yet another blowhard act.
In the darkness of his lair, he prepared two copies of a speech called “The crimes of the Parisian people against their queen, from the author of the carnations presented to the sovereign in her prison”.
Appropriately disguised, he marched in broad daylight first at the seat of the National Convention, then to the Revolutionary Court. He got there right before the daily session started, and left his work with nonchalance on the table as many did at the start of the day’s proceedings.
I’ll leave to your imagination the reaction when the copies were discovered…
Rougeville, as you probably imagined, never stopped scheming, not even after his queen’s death.
He paid his stubbornness with his life, but not on the guillotine.
He died by firing squad in 1814, at Reims. He was charged with High Treason to have served as a scout for the invading army that was coming to put Louis XVI’s brother, the Count of Provence, back on the throne. Rougeville died as he had lived: without covering his eyes in front of the danger. The perfect end for a romantic hero!