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Madame La Tour

A supposed portrait of Françoise Jacquelin ('Madame La Tour') costumed as Bellona, goddess of war, used as the fanciful frontispiece for a novel published in France in 1927 whose historical accuracy is 'thoroughly doubtful.' (New Brunswick Museum)

   Her story of love, battle and death used to be in all the school textbooks. But today few people know much about Françoise Marie Jacquelin, the valiant woman who led the desperate defence of Fort La Tour, and who lived and died more than three centuries ago, at the place where the city of Saint John now stands.
    These events would be enough to mark Françoise Jacquelin as a courageous woman, but there was a lot more to her than that. During the five years of her marriage to La Tour, she undertook vital and difficult journeys on his behalf, then launched, and won, a court case in a foreign country. She acted, in fact, very like a highly capable woman of today. All this, though, tells us little about her personally. Where did she come from? What was her background? What was she like? There were insinuations and rumors about her, to be sure, but it was not until quite recently that anything factual about her origins came to light.
    In May 1968, Madeleine Jurgens, curator of the central registry of the Archives nationales in Paris, was sorting through documents that had lain undisturbed for centuries, when she came upon a "book" of six pages, yellowed by time. It was the contract for the marriage of Charles de Saint Etienne, Sieur de La Tour, to the Demoiselle Françoise Jacquelin. The contract was signed and dated on December 31, 1639, at rooms in the rue St. Honoré in the heart of fashionable Paris, then a brilliant. stinking, glamorous city of half a million people. This document names the bride's father, Jacques Jacquelin, doctor of medicine in Nogent-le-Rotrou, a town on the border of Normandy and the Loire, and her mother, Hélène Lerminier, also of Nogent.
    L'Hostel Dieu: the hospital her father would have practiced medicine.While doing research in France in 1974, I was able to consult Nogent's faded and ragged early parish registers, where both Jacquelin and Lerminier were common surnames. Still today a town of charm and historical interest, Nogent is 145 kilometres west of Paris between Chartres and Le Mans, in the province of Perche, a region notable as a bastion of the Protestant faith in the 17th century. Parts of Nogent were ancient even in Françoise's day, for the hilltop Chateau Saint Jean, home of the Counts of Perche, has an 11th-century keep built on Roman foundations, as well as round towers rebuilt after the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. The chateau is still there, as is Notre Dame Church in the centre of town, which goes back to the l3th to 14th centuries.
    On a side street beside this ancient church stands the pillared stone gateway of the Hostel Dieu - the hospital of Dr. Jacquelin's era, where he would attend patients. (The modern hospital is in a separate building, behind its predecessor.) Nogent's High Town, where many officials lived, retains many of its old cobbled streets and tile-roofed houses, such as the rue des Marches which winds up to the hilltop castle.
    This part of Nogent could well be the area where Jacques Jacquelin and his family lived, convenient to the hospital and prominent patients. It is likely that his social status was solid enough for a governor of Acadia to consider an alliance with the family.
    We do not know how they met. No personal records, letters or documents have survived to tell us. Charles La Tour was in France for some months in 1632, when the king awarded him l'Ordre du Roy, and may have been there at other times. Family connections may have had something to do with the match.
    La Tour had no wife, no son to inherit his lands in France or train as his successor in Acadia. He was 46 and did not intend to waste any more time. Not free to go to France himself, he decided to give his trusted associate Guillaume Desjardins, Sieur du Val, power of attorney to go to France and arrange a marriage for him. Another close associate Etienne De Mourron, who wrote a clear and elegant hand, transcribed the document which opened vice-regally: "We, Charles de Sainct- Estienne, chevalier of the King's Order, Seigneur of La Tour and Vuarce, Governor and Lieutenant-General..," then declared that La Tour had complete confidence in his intendant, Desjardins, who was empowered to "seek out and request for us in marriage a person suitable to our condition," to negotiate a marriage contract and conduct the lady and her suite to Acadia for the wedding, all by the end of that year or the beginning of the next.
    La Tour sealed this procuration with his arms: a shield with three swans heads, supported by crowned lions holding scallop shells, with a closed helm above, and the chain and pendant of the Ordre du Roy encircling the whole.
    Remarkably, this document did not name the bride. The explanation I generally offered is that although La Tour had someone in mind, she might not be available, being either married, dead or untraceable, in which case Desjardins had the power to make another choice. It was a notable expression of La Tour's trust and confidence in his agent, although they must have talked over every aspect of the matter at the conference in La Tour's windswept Cape Sable fort (in what is now Nova Scotia) as the brief Acadian summer drew to a close.
    As soon as Desjardins and de Mourron sailed for France, La Tour began rebuilding his other fort at the mouth of the St. John. He meant it to be a strong bastion against d'Aulnay, and a suitable dwelling for a bride accustomed to the comforts of life in France.
    On New Years' Eve, 1639, a group assembled in Paris to endorse the generous provisions of a unique marriage contract. Françoise Jacquelin and her father had taken rooms in the rue St. Honoré (her mother would arrive a few weeks later), and here they all met. This was a neighborhood of the city's most expensive hostelries, like the Hôtel de Saint-Esprit. Richelieu's new palace (today the Palais Royal) was a few steps down the street and the Louvre an easy stroll away.

Marriage contract of La Tour and Francoise Jacquelin

The marriage contract of La Tour and Françoise Jacquelin. Françoise's father, Jacques Jacquelin, followed his signature with a paraph, a flourish used by professional men as a guard against forgery. Below his signature is Françoise's: clear and quick flowing, it indicates a skilled writer with a good education. (Archives nationales, Paris).

    The contract is a remarkable document and tells us a good deal about the woman La Tour was about to marry.
    First, her family. Her father follows his signature with a paraph, a flourished design used by professional men as a guard against forgery. Françoise signs next, then her sister Gabrielle; both girls’ signatures are clear and quick-flowing, indicating skilled writers and a good education. Mother Helene Lerminier signs, much less fluently, later. Françoise's writing, in her signatures and when she endorses changes in the contract, is consistently firm and clear, but also plain and unpretentious. A practical woman of sense, with a good mind, one would surmise.
    The generosity of the marriage contract between Françoise and La Tour is unusual, even though it was drawn up according to the customary laws of Paris (coutume de Paris); this code of law relates back to old Celtic customs which, unlike other regional codes of France, gave women substantial property and inheritance rights that they would lack 300 years later. She is to keep all her property and any inheritances that may come to her, and have a half share of anything acquired during the marriage. If widowed she will be entitled to half her husband's estate, with an inheritance fund of at least 10,000 livres, and have the guardianship of any children. Although she brings no dowry, La Tour gives her 2,000 livres to buy jewelry or anything she wishes, before leaving for Acadia. On her marriage, to take place on her arrival at La Tour's Cape Sable fort, Françoise would become a full partner in her husband's life and concerns. He could not have had a better ally.
    She never took La Tour's name, for at this period Frenchwomen did not change surnames when they married. La Tour's wife signed documents
    "Françoise Marie Jacquelin" to the end of her life. Françoise signs business agreements later in Boston as Françoise, or Françoise Marie, Jacquelin. The English called her Frances Mary Jacquelin, though Governor John Winthrop styles her "La Tour, his lady" and "the lady of La Tour." She was never "Lady La Tour" or "Marie La Tour."
    It is clear that each paragraph of the contract was thoroughly discussed that New Year's Eve, for several provisions were altered, every alteration initialled by the parties concerned. The stipulations that the Jacquelins were to give their daughter a trousseau suitable to her social standing and that La Tour would provide her with two maids and a manservant passed without debate.
    Everywhere the obligations of the bride were minimal and the generosity of the groom unusual. Why? Did La Tour very much want this particular person and offer anything in his power to see that she came? Or were such inducements thought necessary to persuade a woman of some quality to leave an easier life in France for the hardships of Acadia? Whatever the reason, Charles La Tour's generosity would be returned many times over by the woman he was now pledged to marry.
    In a little more than a month's time on March 26, 1640 - the L'Amitye de la Rochelle sailed for Acadia with Françoise and her attendants. Desjardins, owned a half-share in the ship, which carried eight passengers and a crew of 20, with Jacques Jamin as master. Captain and crew had contracted to serve La Tour for two months after their arrival in Acadia "in all he is pleased to command them for," a customary clause, usually without significant consequences.
    Ironically, the Amitye, whose name suggests love and loyalty, just the thing for a bride's ship, also carried heavy equipment for war. The human "perils of the sea" - corsairs, privateers could be deadly, but did a merchantman of 250 tons need nine cannon, three mortars, 16 muskets, two dozen pikes and quantities of ammunition just to defend herself? Was La Tour upgrading the defences of his forts? Or did he intend to use the Amitye as a warship for the stand-off with d'Aulnay that he now believed was inevitable?
    This most changeful decade had opened for La Tour in uncertainty, with Acadia occupied by the Scots. Then, at a stroke, he had been swept to the heights, gained his ambition, mingled with the great in Paris, and briefly enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity. Now the storm gathered fast.

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