Duel of Madame de Polignac and Marquise de Nesle

Louis François Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, better known as the Duc de Richelieu, was Louis XIV’s godson. He was also known as a man with loose morals who enjoyed numerous lovers, including the novelist Claudine Guérin de Tencin’s two sisters — Marie Louise Élisabeth d’Orléans, Duchess de Berry, and her younger sister Charlotte Aglaé d’Orléans — and their first cousin, Louise Anne de Bourbon.

Duc de Richelieu and Madame de Polignac, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Duc de Richelieu. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Because the handsome Duc de Richelieu was the Adonis of the day, he was prone to womanizing, and of his immoral nature, in a letter dated 27 April 1719, one woman wrote:

“The Duc de Richelieu is an archdebauchee (ein ertz desbeaucherter) and a poltroon; he believes neither in God nor in his word; he has made nothing of his life and will never do anything worth doing; he is ambitious and false as the devil. … I do not find as pleasing as all the women who are mad about him. … His insolence is remarkable. He is the worst of spoiled children.”[1]

He often found himself in duels because of his ways, but the duel Richelieu may be best remembered for was not fought by him but rather fought over him. It occurred between two of his lovers, the Marquise de Nesle, daughter of the Duc de Mazarin, and her sister-in-law, Madame de Polignac.

It began in 1721 when Richelieu told his secretary to schedule a rendezvous with each woman on the same day. The first rendezvous was to be scheduled for two o’clock and the second at four o’clock. Unfortunately, the secretary mistakenly scheduled both women for the same time. When Madame de Polignac and Marquise de Nesle appeared and saw one another, a jealous scene erupted.

The Marquise was so upset she attempted to rip a diamond necklace from Madame de Polignac’s neck. In fact, one writer claimed the Marquise “sprung like a tigress upon her rival.”[2] Failing to pull the necklace off, the Marquise then snatched some roses from her breasts and flung them in Madame de Polignac’s face. Madame de Polignac struck back assaulting the Marquise in the same way, so that roses, jewels, and ribbons were soon strewn across the floor.

At that point, the two disheveled combatants were separated. The decision was made that neither could obtain satisfaction unless they met in the forest of Bois de Boulogne for a duel. So, on the appointed day, at the appointed time, they arrived, attended by two squires. Marquise de Nesle chose the weapon, selecting pistols because she was familiar with them. It was also decided the two women would walk towards a scarf placed between them, and, that during their advance, the women could fire whenever they say fit.

The Marquise saluted her rival and stepped forward. According to one report:

“[Madame de Polignac] thought proper to break through the regulations, and called out to the Marquise, ‘Fire first, and mind you don’t miss me, if you think I am going to miss you.'”[3]

So, that was exactly what happened. The nervous Marquise de Nesle fired first completely missing Madame de Polignac and hitting a tree branch.

Madame de Polignac then taunted the Marquise saying, “Your hand trembles with passion.”[4] Then she aimed and fired. Her shot caused the Marquise to fall to the ground and she was covered in blood and appeared to be mortally wounded. The duel had drawn curious persons to the scene and as the Marquise lay injured upon the ground, they rushed to her only to find that she had suffered a mere scratch on the top of her shoulder. Then according to one source:

“After recovering from her fright, she returned thanks to Heaven, saying that she had triumphed over her rival. These words made the bystanders, who had been much puzzled by a combat of this nature, understand that some lover was in question and they asked Madame de Nesle if this lover were worthy of the pains she was enduring for his sake. Yes, Yes! … he is worthy of even more noble blood being shed for him.’ They stopped the flow of blood with nettles crushed between two stones, bandaged the wound with some compresses, and bore her to her carriage; and when they inquired who was the fortunate mortal for whom she was shedding her blood, ‘He is,’ said she, ‘the most amiable nobleman of the Court; I am ready to shed it for him to the last drop in my veins. All the ladies set traps for him; but I trust that the proof that I have just given him of my love will make him wholly mine. I am,’ she added, ‘under too much obligation to you to conceal from you his name. He is the Duc de Richelieu — yes, the Duc de Richelieu, the eldest son of Venus and Mars!'”[5]

However, in the end, despite the Marquise’s love and bleeding wound, she found that the womanizing Duc de Richelieu preferred the charming Madame de Polignac over her.


  • [1] Williams, Hugh Noel, The Fascinating Duc de Richelieu, Louis Franqois Armand Du Plessis (1696-1788), 1910, p. 50.
  • [2] Truman, Benjamin Cummings, The Field of Honor, 1883, p. 152.
  • [3] Steinmetz, Andrew, The Romance of Duelling in All Times and Countries, Vol. 1, 1868, p. 257. 
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Williams, Hugh Noel, p. 50.

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  1. Mike Forth on September 14, 2023 at 9:34 am

    Fascinating and such detailed research, well beyond my expectations of what I might find on the web. Thank you. What a window into the mores of the class and time. I visited the castle today (14/9/23). While browsing all the detailed century-by-century panels in the tower, each outlining highlights of the Polignac family history, this event caught my eye. The panel did not appear to do more than mention the duel and display the painting of the event, which whetted my curiosity.

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