Temps passé: Philippe d’Auvergne
Thursday 4th December 2008, 3:00PM GMT.
PHILIPPE d’Auvergne had one of the most dramatic and illustrious careers of his time. He was an explorer, scientist, naval officer, administrator, and spymaster – and that was just the day job.
By an extraordinary coincidence he met, while being kept in not undue hardship as a prisoner of war in France in 1779, an elderly French aristocrat in search of an heir to adopt. His name was Godefroi de la Tour d’Auvergne, Duc de Bouillon, and reigning prince of an independent principality in what is now the Ardennes area of eastern Belgium.
The two surnames were not unalike; the elderly Duke got him out of internment, liked him, invited him to stay at his castle in Normandy (Château de Navarre, near Evreux), and in due course arranged an exchange of prisoners to allow Philippe to return to his naval duties.
The Duke, in the words of a previous Jersey biographer, G R Balleine, was ‘a wealthy old reprobate who divided his time between the chorus girls of Paris and his castle in Normandy’. Bouillon was a sovereign territory – 18 miles long by 15 miles broad, and with a population of 10,000 – so as its reigning prince, the Duc de Bouillon had royal status.
Genealogists were commissioned to establish a family link between the family of Tour d’Auvergne and the Jersey Dauvergne family… and, obligingly, they did indeed find a suitable link that went back to the Middle Ages Philippe became his acknowledged heir should his own son die without issue. As the Duke’s son was a cripple, this appeared very probable.
Dauvergne had been Philippe’s surname; ‘d’Auvergne’ now became his conceit. He changed his name from Dauvergne to d’Auvergne in 1787 – it is not known what family friends and neighbours in his home parish of St Ouen thought about this upwardly mobile move by the boy Dauvergne, who now expected the deference due to royalty.
He was doubtless helped by his own, friendly and affable nature, and transparent honesty. Years later, in 1809, when he had been promoted Admiral, he was described as: ‘a very pleasant, cheerful man, always cracking jokes and making ‘bons mots. It is curious to hear a British Admiral talk broken English, and to see on his breast the Star and Order of a French Prince of the Blood.’
Throughout the rest of his life, there always lay ahead of him the never quite reachable mirage of royal status and unlimited wealth. But only a mirage is what this inheritance would always remain, one that would elude him to the end.
The elderly Duke died in 1792, and was succeeded by his son who, as expected, died without issue some years later. The old Duke had acknowledged Philippe to be his heir, after his son; he had been given permission by King George III ‘to accept the sovereignty of Bouillon’. The Assemblée Générale at Bouillon took an oath of loyalty to him as Prince Successor. But little did that avail him when Britain and France were at war, as happened in February 1793, and which continued, with only two brief interludes, until 1815.
So he remained in Jersey where he had been posted to provide naval defence for the Channel Islands, to provide support for the insurgent forces in Brittany, Normandy and the Vendée, to spy on the movements of French forces – particularly on preparations to launch an imminent invasion of the Channel Islands – and to distribute British government funds for the relief of Royalist émigrés in Jersey. These were all onerous tasks, which he carried out with great diligence and capability.
Jersey was the centre of support for the many French insurgent forces that came so near to toppling the cruel and blood-thirsty young French Republic. The agents, secretly dispatched and collected from France; the resistance cells and safe houses, the codes, the informers, daring raids and rescues, collaborators and betrayals – all those elements familiar to us in the dramatic stories of the French Resistance during the Second World War, were anticipated by that other resistance story of 140 years earlier.
A fortune was spent on encouraging the insurgents, and d’Auvergne honestly and efficiently accounted for all the vast sums of money that passed through his hands, trouncing the inevitable allegations of embezzlement publicised – inevitably – by the London-based press.
But all this responsible and admirable work did not bring him any nearer to that mirage of royal estate. In a letter of 1807 he wrote: ‘You know what a punishment it is for the lawful owner of [the Chateau de] Navarre to vegetate in a sordid way in an obscure hermitage.’ But there was no way forward while the war lasted: Bouillon had been annexed to France, and Napoleon had given the Château de Navarre to his divorced Empress, Josephine.
That ‘obscure hermitage’, by the way, is a reference to Princes Tower, the Gothic folly erected over the mound and chapels of La Hougue Bie. In addition there was his official headquarters at Mont Orgueil, and his home at Bagatelle, the mansion and extensive grounds which would give the name to Bagatelle Road.
At long last, with the exile of Napoleon to Elba in 1814, Bouillon thought the realisation of his dream was near. He hurried to Paris, where his right to the Duchy was recognised by the King. At Bouillon, he was welcomed by the inhabitants and the Assemblée Générale accepted him as Sovereign. He appointed state officials and reorganised its tiny army.
But then the cup was dashed yet again from his lips. Napoleon escaped from Elba, although he was later defeated at Waterloo. And after Waterloo the Congress of Vienna began the task of redrawing the map of Europe. Dauvergne employed expensive legal representation to plead his case before the Congress, and his contention that an adopted son could inherit to the prejudice of blood relations. There were four other claimants to the principality – all of them blood relations of the old Duke’s family.
But the Congress decided against him. Bouillon lost its independence and was annexed to the Netherlands; the Duke of Rohan was given the right to the title of Duke of Bouillon. Not one of the sovereign and noble families whose cause he had done so much to further and to whom he had given such generous aid in dangerous revolutionary times, raised a finger to help him.
Two months later, the soi-disant Serene Highness the Duke of Bouillon, Vice Admiral Philippe d’Auvergne, FRS, FSA died, in a Westminster hotel, aged 61. He died alone, lonely and disillusioned. His wealth had always resided in his great expectations; now those expectations had come to naught, and his legal bills had ruined him financially. After his death, suicide was strongly suspected, although the allegation was unprovable. But, actually death from a broken heart was just as likely.
• Words: Alasdair Crosby