Antoinette d'Orléans-Longueville

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Entry by Micheline Cuénin, 2004

Antoinette d'Orléans (b. Trie 1572, d. Poitiers April 24, 1618) was the third daughter of Léonor d'Orléans, Duke of Longueville (1540-1571), prince of the royal blood, governor of Picardy and Normandy, and of Marie de Bourbon, first cousin of Henri IV's father. Antoinette was destined for a bright future: she was preferred for her beauty over her sisters, and her upbringing was entrusted to Henriette de Clèves, Duchess of Gonzague and Nevers, at the Valois court. She grew up in a highly cultivated, libertine society, which gave her a profound distaste for worldly things and a deep desire for spirituality. She was lady-in-waiting to Catherine de' Medici, who married her to Charles de Gondi, invested with the title of Marquis de Belle-Isle as a consequence (the contract was signed in Trie on Sept. 6, 1587, when Antoinette was sixteen). Charles was the eldest son of Catherine's favorite Albert de Gondi, whose title, Duke of Retz, passed through his wife since he descended from untitled Florentine bankers. Marie de Bourbon saved the honor of the family by disinheriting her daughter, but the Gondis set the young couple up in lavish style. The troubles of the League and the assassination of Henri and Louis de Guise in Blois, followed by the death of the Queen Mother, led the Gondis to flee to their lands in Lower Brittany and Poitou. Antoinette rejoined her husband at the castle of Machecoul. There she gave birth to two sons, but only the elder boy, Henri, the future Duke of Retz, survived. This occurred just as Brittany was rallying to the League under its governor the Duke of Mercoeur. When the wind turned in favor of Henri IV, Charles de Gondi was assassinated by soldiers occupying Mont-Saint-Michel in 1596.

The widowed Antoinette handled her late husband's succession superbly, as dowager taking over her lands in Normandy and devoting herself to a religious vocation which her marriage had merely delayed. She wished to forget her rank and wealth, noting that "the world is a prison", and to spend the rest of her days in a reformed convent. However, years of civil war meant that the Tridentine reform was some forty years behind the times; of all the orders of nuns, only the Poor Clares still obeyed their founding rules, and they did not accept widows. Antoinette was thinking of leaving for one of the convents of St. Theresa of Avila in Spain when she heard of a recently founded convent that served as refuge for aristocrats widowed or orphaned by the wars, led by reformed Cistercians from the abbey of the Feuillants near Toulouse. She managed to convince the reluctant nuns to accept her and fled Paris to join them. The Gondis and the Bourbons immediately joined forces to get her to leave the convent, even planning to kidnap her, but she appealed to Pope Clement VIII, who protected her until his death in 1605. Her fate was then in the hands of Paul V, who let himself be persuaded by her family to name her abbess of Fontevraud (following her great-aunt Eléonore de Bourbon), to bring the mother convent back to its original rules. Antoinette was saddened, if not surprised, to find in Fontevraud everything she had hoped to leave behind, with the added burden of the hostility of the nuns. In 1611, Paul V allowed her to resign from Fontevraud after ten long years of struggle and much effort, and to establish a strict Benedictine rule in one of the abbey's annexes, the priory of Lencloître in Poitou. So many postulants flocked there that after three years, Antoinette was the object of sustained attacks by the abbess who had taken over at Fontevraud. She was soon obliged to flee to Poitiers with twenty-four nuns who upheld her reforms. She had the support of the bishop, M. de La Roche-Posay, and Paul V sent her three papal briefs (April 26, 1617) authorizing the foundation of several Feuillants convents. However, on April 25, 1618, Antoinette died of a form of lead poisoning along with four of her nuns. When Paul V, protector of the future Feuillants nuns, died on Jan. 28, 1621, the well-known priest Father Joseph (1577-1638) built the first two convents as an independent congregation (bull of Pope Gregory XV, dated March 22, 1621). Contrary to Antoinette's intentions, he called them Our Lady of Calvary.

Although Hilarion de Coste dedicated a long article to Antoinette d'Orléans, her role was effaced by Father Joseph, who took credit himself for the founding of congregation of the Calvary. Antoinette's contribution has been acknowledged, but only in part, since the 1930s.

(translated by Susan Pickford)


- Correspondance : elle fut abondante, mais il n'en demeure que des traces. À Madame la duchesse de Nevers (23.08.1587, autographe), inédite (BNF); à Madame la Prieure des Feuillantines de Toulouse (20.09.1598), au pape Clément VIII (16.11.1599), avec sa réponse (27.01.1600), au pape Paul V (03.1608), in Vie de la Mère Antoinette d'Orléans [manuscrit rédigé entre 1641 et 1656 par «un Feuillant anonyme», en fait Dom Lherminier]. Édition critique, notes et annexes par l'abbé Pierre Petit, Paris, Haton, 1880, p.107-108, 204.

Selected bibliography

- P. Anselme de Sainte-Marie. Histoire généalogique de la maison de France (notice). Paris, E. Loyson, 1674, t.1.
- Corbinelli, Jean. Histoire généalogique de la maison de Gondi (notice). Paris, J. B. Coignard, 1705, t.1, p.247-250.
- Cuénin, Micheline. Antoinette d'Orléans, princesse et fondatrice. Bouzy-la-Forêt, Monastère des Bénédictines de Notre-Dame du Calvaire, 2003.
- Madame Antoinette d'Orléans-Longueville, fondatrice de la Congrégation des Bénédictines de Notre-Dame du Calvaire, par une moniale de la même congrégation, Poitiers, 1932
- Vie de la Mère Antoinette d'Orléans..., voir supra.


- [déplore, au milieu d'éloges hagiographiques, son] « inclination opiniâtre, s'il faut ainsi dire, de retourner au lieu de sa profession» (le «Feuillant anonyme», Vie de la Mère Antoinette d'Orléans..., voir supra, p.429).
- «[cette] très noble et très grande princesse, douée de beauté, de richesse et de tous les dons de la nature et de la fortune, méprisant tout pour le Christ, embrassa l'institut de Cîteaux dans la très austère Congrégation des Feuillants où, persévérant très saintement, elle institua la Congrégation de Notre-Dame du Calvaire sous la règle de saint Benoît...» (Dom Jean-Chrysostome Henriquez, Menologium Cisteriense [fin XVIIe-début XVIIIe siècles], cité in Vie de la Mère Antoinette d'Orléans..., voir supra, p.335, n.4).
- «Le luxe, le faste et la vanité qui font ordinairement leur séjour dans les palais et à la suite des Grands n'érigèrent jamais leurs trophées dans le coeur de cette amazone chrétienne» (J. Corbinelli, Histoire généalogique..., voir supra).
- «Elle ne fut fondatrice que du monastère de Poitiers où elle reprit l'habit de Feuillantine et en pratiqua les exercices; ce ne fut qu'après sa mort que s'y forma l'ordre du Calvaire; enfin elle voulut être inhumée aux Feuillantines de Toulouse [...]. Cette mère a voulu quitter ses filles...» (P. H. Hélyot, Histoire des ordres religieux, Paris, Gosselin, 1714-1718, t.V, chap.47).

Antoinette d'Orléans-Longueville
Spouses Charles de Gondi, marquis de Belle-Isle
Also known as Mère Antoinette de Sainte-Scholastique
Birth date 1572
Death 1618
Biographical entries in old dictionaries
Dictionnaire Hilarion de Coste
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