Maison militaire du roi de France

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Gendarmes de la Garde (Historical reenactment)

The maison militaire du roi de France (military household of the king of France) was the military part of the royal household or Maison du Roi in France under the Ancien Régime. The term only appeared in 1671, though such a gathering of units pre-dates this. Like the rest of the royal household, the military household was under the authority of the Secretary of State for the Maison du Roi, but it depended on the ordinaire des guerres (controlled by the Secretary of State for War) for its budget. Under Louis XIV, these two officers of state were given joint command of the military household.

Composition[edit]

The household was akin to the Household Division of the British Army in that it comprised a number of both cavalry and infantry units, serving as the sovereign's personal guard as well as elite troops during war. Recruitment to some of its units were limited to gentlemen, like the grades du corps and musketeers. The rank and file of other regiments, such as the French Guards, were made up of commoners. However, it was impossible for commoners to rise to officer rank in units of the military household. On the field of battle, the "Maison du Roi" fought around the king and the "porte-cornette blanche" (the king's white standard), although the corps also fought in the absence of the king. Until the second half of the 17th century, The "Maison du Roi" had — along with the "Cavalerie d'ordonnance", the six "Vieux" and the six "Petits-Vieux" — made up the permanent army of the kingdom.

Corps[edit]

French Guards circa 1750
Swiss Guards circa 1750

Over the years, the "Maison du Roi" included the following corps:

History[edit]

Uniforms of the Musketeers of the Guard from 1660 to 1814

Far from being simply a ceremonial corps, the "Maison du Roi" participated in all the major military campaigns of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Under Francis I[edit]

The oldest of the regiments of the Maison du Roi was the Garde Écossaise, formed in 1440, and traced its ultimate origins to the Scots forces brought to France in 1419 by John Stewart, Earl of Buchan, to fight against the English in the Hundred Years' War.

Buchan's original company was divided in two, one part becoming the 1st (or Scottish) Company of the Life Guards (Gardes du Corps), the other becoming the senior company of Gendarmes. A second, French, company of Life Guards was formed by Louis XI in 1474 and the third by Louis in 1479. The fourth company, again French, was raised by Francis I in 1516. These companies existed until the French Revolution when they were disbanded.

In 1567, during the "surprise of Meaux", the royal family escaped capture by Protestant troops of the prince de Condé through the intervention of the Cent-Suisses.

Francis I-Louis XIII[edit]

During the final period of the French Wars of Religion, Henry IV wished to provide guards for christening of the Dauphin (later Louis XIII). He created a new company of 200 men-at-arms which formed half of the Dauphin's guards. In 1611, this company became the Gendarmes de la Garde. This company was paired with another company of heavy cavalry. These chevau-légers (light cavalry) wore armour and were only light when compared to the Gendarmes, who wore more armour. This company dated to 1570, and became part of the Dauphin's guard and then of the Maison du Roi.

The next companies of the Maison du Roi, and by far the most famous, were the Musketeers, the guardsmen who appear in Dumas senior's The Three Musketeers. The first company, which was formed in 1622, represents the Musketeers in which D'Artagnan and his friends served. The second company, not taken into the Maison du Roi until 1663, has previously been the Cardinal Mazarin's guards. Perhaps, by this route, some of Cardinal Richelieu's guards eventually became King's Musketeers.

Louis XIV - apogee[edit]

Unlike the previous companies, officered by powerful nobles, and with many nobles in their ranks, the final company of the Maison du Roi was created as an elite force, formed by taking one grenadier from each infantry regiment and making him a mounted grenadier. The resulting picked men who would become the Grenadiers à cheval were interviewed by Louis XIV. Those colonels who, in the Sun King's opinion had not sent the best of their men, were reprimanded and ordered to send a suitable replacement. The company was completed in 1676. The military household played a vital role in the Battle of Oudenarde of 1708, when it saved the French army from probable destruction.

18th century - decline[edit]

The regiments of the Maison du Roi did not see significant active service after the Seven Years' War of 1756-1763. For reasons of economy at a time of financial crisis, several of these expensive units were disbanded in 1787. These included the gardes de la prevote, the gardes de la porte, the gendarmes de la Garde, and the chevau-legers de la Garde. The mousquetaires de la Garde had already been dissolved on 1 January 1776. The Garde du Corps (Body Guard), the Gardes françaises (French Guards) and the Gardes suisses (Swiss Guards) were however retained in service, the first named because of its close ties to the Royal Court, the second two because they comprised the largest, and historically most effective, infantry components of the Maison du Roi.

At the outbreak of the French Revolution in July 1789, the French Guards defected from the Monarchy and joined in the attack on the Bastille. The Body Guard was formally disbanded in 1791, although this aristocratic body had dispersed when the Royal Family had been forced to leave Versailles in October 1789. This left the Swiss Guard as the last remaining unit of the old Maison du Roi, although a short-lived Garde Constitutionelle du Roi was raised on 16 March 1792.

On 10 August 1792, most of the 900 Swiss Guards defending the Tuileries were massacred when the palace was stormed by revolutionary forces. With the overthrow of the Monarchy the Maison militaire du Roi ceased to exist.

Restoration[edit]

Following the First Restoration of 1814 the Bourbon Monarchy attempted to recreate the Maison militaire du Roi, even re-establishing the mostly-ceremonial units that had been disbanded by Louis XVI in 1787. In part this was to provide military roles for emigre royalist officers who had returned to France, or their sons. There was not however sufficient time to raise a new Swiss Guard before Napoleon's return from Elba in March 1815, although the future Charles X acknowledged that the regiment's past services warranted this being done. The Maison militaire disintegrated during the flight of Louis XVIII to Belgium and only 450 men remained with him to cross the frontier. After the Second Restoration, no serious attempt was made to again restore the Maison militaire du Roi and it was (with the exception of a re-organised Body Guard) replaced with an entirely new Royal Guard.

Bibliography[edit]

  • (French) Barbiche, Bernard, Les Institutions de la monarchie française à l'époque moderne, Paris, PUF, 1999.
  • (French) Chagniot, Jean, "Maison militaire du roi", Dictionnaire de l'Ancien Régime, Lucien Bély dir., Paris, PUF, 1996.
  • (French) Drévillon, Hervé, L'Impôt du sang, Paris, Tallandier, 2005.