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.
Because the handsome Duc de Richelieu was the Adonis of the day and prone to womanizing, he often found himself involved in various disputes that resulted in duels. However, 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.” 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. 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.'” But 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.” Then she aimed and fired. Her shot caused the Marquise to fall to the ground. The Marquise was covered in blood and appeared to be mortally wounded, but upon investigation, it was discovered the ball had barely grazed her shoulder.
When bystanders asked the injured Marquise if her lover was worth it, she exclaimed, “Yes, Yes! … he is worthy of even more noble blood being shed for him.” However, in the end, despite her love and bleeding wound, the romantic Marquise de Nesle found that the womanizing Duc de Richelieu preferred the charming Madame de Polignac over her.
- Bentley’s Miscellany, Vol. 57, 1865
- Steinmetz, Andrew, The Romance of Duelling in All Times and Countries, Vol. 1, 1868
- Truman, Benjamin Cummings, The Field of Honor, 1883
- Williams, Hugh Noel, The Fascinating Duc de Richelieu, Louis Franqois Armand Du Plessis (1696-1788), 1910