16th century France, Alexandre Dumas, Early Modern Europe, Kings and Queens, Leyrac de la Mole, Marguerite of Valois, Movies I Love, Patrice Chéreau, Queen Margot, Vincent Perez
A very significant portion of Queen Margot (1994, dir. Patrice Chéreau, French with English subtitles, based on Alexandre Dumas’ 1845 novel La Reine Margot) deals with Leyrac de la Mole (Vincent Perez). In the film la Mole is a Huguenot soldier who has come to Paris to seek service under the Huguenot commanders gathered in Paris for the wedding of Henry of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil) to Margot (Isabella Adjani). Unfortunately, he gets caught up in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre when Coconnas (Claudio Amendola) tries to kill him. In his desperate flight, la Mole staggers into Margot’s chambers, who prevents Coconnas from killing him. Later that same night, la Mole runs into Coconnas outside and the two men fight until they are both unconscious.
Instead of being buried with the rest of the dead, the two men are rescued by the executioner, who nurses them both back to health. La Mole has fallen in love with Margot and wants to see her again. He learns that Coconnas has access to Margot’s handmaid Henriette (in fact, they seem to be lovers) and when he meets Coconnas again, he discovers that the man has had a change of heart and now repents of the murders he committed that night. So with the aid of Henriette, la Mole becomes Margot’s lover and tries to find a way to help her escape the royal court. Navarre knows of their affair and gradually learns to tolerate it, since he doesn’t love Margot anyway.
Unfortunately, for la Mole, when Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi) hatches a plan to murder Navarre with a poisoned book, the book that gets used coincidentally turns out to be one that la Mole inherited from his father and sold to a bookdealer. It has la Mole’s name written in it. So when Catherine discovers to her horror that she’s poisoned her own son Charles IX, she blames the poisoning on la Mole, who by this time is known to be Margot’s lover. As a result, la Mole and Coconnas are apprehended and executed shortly after Charles’ death. Margot, acting on a comment la Mole once made to her, claims his head and has it preserved as a memento of their love.
La Mole’s story is a grand example of the sort of story 19th century audiences had a taste for: doomed romance, dramatic changes of heart, narrow escapes, the struggle for redemption, and macabre details like preserved heads. But does it have any basis in fact?
The Real La Mole
While not entirely fiction, Dumas’s doomed lover is a far cry for the historical la Mole. Joseph Boniface de la Mole was a French nobleman, who does seem to have been part of the Huguenot faction at court. He was indeed rumored to have been Marguerite of Valois’ lover early in her marriage to Navarre. So that part is basically true.
But Marguerite didn’t rescue him from death during the Massacre. It was another man, the fortunate Huguenot M. de Teian, who benefitted from Marguerite’s somewhat unintentional intervention. Here is Marguerite’s description of what happened:
“As soon as I beheld it was broad day, I apprehended all the danger my sister had spoken of was over; and being inclined to sleep, I bade my nurse make the door fast, and I applied myself to take some repose. In about an hour I was awakened by a violent noise at the door, made with both hands and feet, and a voice calling out, “Navarre! Navarre!” My nurse, supposing the King my husband to be at the door, hastened to open it, when a gentleman, named M. de Teian, ran in, and threw himself immediately upon my bed. He had received a wound in his arm from a sword, and another by a pike, and was then pursued by four archers, who followed him into the bedchamber. Perceiving these last, I jumped out of bed, and the poor gentleman after me, holding me fast by the waist. I did not then know him; neither was I sure that he came to do me no harm, or whether the archers were in pursuit of him or me. In this situation I screamed aloud, and he cried out likewise, for our fright was mutual. At length, by God’s providence, M. de Nangay, captain of the guard, came into the bed-chamber, and, seeing me thus surrounded, though he could not help pitying me, he was scarcely able to refrain from laughter. However, he reprimanded the archers very severely for their indiscretion, and drove them out of the chamber. At my request he granted the poor gentleman his life, and I had him put to bed in my closet, caused his wounds to be dressed, and did not suffer him to quit my apartment until he was perfectly cured.”
If you’re interested, you can read her recollection of the Massacre (including this incident) here, under Letter V. You’ll find that it differs substantially from the film’s depiction of the slaughter.
But La Mole’s historical importance is completely unrelated to his relationship with Marguerite. What he’s actually remembered for is an attempt to assassinate Charles IX. He was a friend of François of Alençon, Margot and Charles’ youngest brother. In the film, Alençon is a secondary character; he participates in the Massacre, it’s hinted that he would like to see his brother dead, and in one scene he humiliates Margot and helps force her to confess her adultery.
In reality, before the Massacre, Alençon aligned himself with the Huguenot faction, which included Navarre and Admiral Coligny. When there was a proposal to marry his brother Henry of Anjou to Elizabeth I, Alençon acted as the French negotiator perhaps because he was seen as a Protestant sympathizer. When the Massacre happened, la Mole and another Huguenot nobleman, Annibal de Coconnas, were arrested and thrown in prison but survived, apparently due to their relationship with Alençon.
As Charles began his final decline, Alençon was implicated in a plot to assassinate Charles by means of a wax doll stabbed with pins. The doll was found in la Mole’s possession, and after being tortured, la Mole and Coconnas were both beheaded. Whether they had genuinely attempted to kill the king or were simply convenient scapegoats for Charles’ medical problems is unclear. Charles, however, was still alive when they were executed and only died later on, so Dumas has reversed the order of the events here. Margeurite mentions all of this in her memoirs (see the previous link, in Letter VII), and offers no suggestion that she had any feelings for la Mole at all, although it’s unlikely she would have admitted to the affair in such a document. There was indeed a rumor that Marguerite had his head preserved.
So what Dumas has done is taken two separate men, la Mole and de Teian, and conflated them. He’s built the post-Massacre portion of his story around la Mole’s eventual execution and has greatly changed Coconnas to turn him into a redeemed villain rather than a man who avoided one political plot only to fall victim to a second one. The historical la Mole was not an outsider at court but rather a well-known courtier.
But if you’re a long-time reader of this blog, it won’t come as a surprise that the facts and the story you saw were quite different things, will it?
Want to Know More?
Sure you do! Queen Margot (English Subtitled)is available on Amazon. The novel is available in English there as well, as Queen Margot; Or, Marguerite de Valois – With Nine Illustrations.There’s also a historical biography of Margot and her mother Catherine, The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom, although Nancy Goldstone is not a professional historian.