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The Prince of Conti

The Prince of Conti assumed, perhaps quite reasonably, that a woman without title, and from a relatively humble background, would be content with a role between sheets bearing the Royal Insignia, inoffensively basking, if that be the correct expression, in the satisfaction of her duties as the King’s Official Mistress. However as well as an eye for the main chance, Jeanne was possessed of a formidable intellect, and this, combined with a capacity for clear and original thinking, were assets respected and valued by the King. Her dexterity in the delivery of physical regal satisfaction, was said to be constrained by an ingrained ‘froideur’, which on the face of it, could be something of a disadvantage, given the nature of her chosen vocation. But what Madame Pompadour lacked in unbridled passion, was more than compensated for by a sensible pragmatism, and she correctly calculated, that the King required his hands holding, just as often as his loins. Sensing that she was firmly entrenched in what might otherwise be regarded as perhaps a tenuous sinecure, she confidently met the Prince’s arrogant disdain head on.

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson was born in Paris on 29 December 1721. She was a sickly child, and until her death in 1764, at the tender age of 42, was plagued by periodic bouts of ill health. At the age of 9 her mother took her to see a fortune teller, who accurately predicted that one day she would rule over the heart of a King. At the age of 19, it was arranged that she marry Charles Guillome Le Normant d’Etoilles. d’Etoiles was captivated, and fell under her spell. She for her part, declared that she would never leave him, unless it was to be with the King. There was a charming openness, and absence of guile about her ambitions. She attended literary circles with the likes of Voltaire, and was able to converse on a wide range of subjects, becoming known for her acerbic, but engaging wit. In 1744 (after several shots wide of the mark) she finally attracted the eye of the King, and when His Majesty’s incumbent mistress died in December of that year, Jeanne stepped straight into her shoes. In May of 1745, she announced her official separation from her husband, and in June she was given the title of ‘Marquise de Pompadour’.

Compared to Louis, a monarch plagued by self doubt and lacking in confidence, the Prince of Conti was a paragon of aristocratic self esteem. Notwithstanding repeated financial bailouts, he was beholden to no-one. His good looks, and early successes on the battlefield, poured fuel on the fire of an already an impetuous nature. More of a schemer than a thinker, his conceit blinded him to the strengths of those he held in contempt.

However Madame de Pompadour’s perspicacious intelligence had quickly got the measure of Conti. A shrewd judge of character, she suspected his motives from their first encounter. She was troubled by the secrecy with which he sought to shroud his meetings with Louis, and his easy trespass into affairs of State which were outside his area of responsibility, and which Louis lacked the force of character to resist. She realised the King had come to rely upon his cousin to fill the vacuum created by his own shortcomings, but sensed that Conti’s actions were driven by his own self interest, rather than an honest desire to aid the King in his duties. When Conti put forward his protege for a senior position in the military, which he had assumed Louis would simply rubber stamp, Madame Pompadour proposed her own candidate, who Louis accepted. Conti’s reputation was undone. He had been undermined at Court, a slight from which his reputation would never recover.

The events of early January 1757 were destined to put the Prince once again under the Royal spotlight. On a bitterly cold 5 January, as the King was returning to his apartments, a devious looking domestic servant of the Royal Household by the name of Robert Damiens, plunged a dagger into the King’s side. A spur of the moment act by a treacherous loner, or the paid hand of a pre-meditated conspiracy? The King survived, and a panel of Judges was swiftly convened to try Damiens for the attempted regicide. More important than his guilt, which was a foregone conclusion, was the tribunal’s task to elicit the motive, and if others were involved, who they were. One of the Judges that took up the challenge, was none other than the Prince of Conti, suspected by many as the architect of the conspiracy.

By 1760 the game was over for the Prince of Conti. His failure to appreciate the influence of the Madame de Pompadour hands had cost him dear. His military and political aspirations over, he resigned himself to the life of a well educated noble. Had he been part of a conspiracy to kill the King? The findings of the judicial inquiry, apart the obvious guilt of Damiens, were inconclusive. Conti was alleged to have frustrated the enquiry at every opportunity. However on the other side of the fence, those supporting the Monarch were keenly aware that a conspiratorial finding would do nothing to promote the King’s reputation and good name, and might encourage others. At the root of the suspicions against Conti, was his engagement with the Protestants. The King’s lack of confidence in his own powers, had led him to take a defensive stance against a perceived Protestant challenge to his right to govern. The King associated the Protestant movement with Republicanism, and discontent. And his assessment was correct, for the Protestants were by this time a force to be reckoned with in France, both in terms of numbers, and organisation. The threat was amplified by their contacts with Protestant Governments in other countries, in particular England. Conti, while not a Protestant himself, aligned with their cause, anticipating the movement developing to an overthrow of the King, probably after an English invasion. He saw himself as a Protestant friendly royal replacement, and sought to position his politics accordingly. However, while Conti had some support, influential Protestant voices were less enthusiastic, speaking openly of their continuing allegiance to their King and France. Conti had overplayed his hand for the last time.

Enclos du Temple

In 1748, with the support of the King, and against the wishes of the Order, the Prince had become the Grand Prieur of the Order of Chevaliers de Malte. In addition to a substantial income, the appointment brought with it a lifetime proprietorship of the Palais du Grand Prieur in the Enclos du Temple. This was an extra territorial city within the City of Paris, immune to French law, exempt of taxes, enjoying its own jurisdiction, and possessing the right to grant asylum within its walls. The privilege had been bestowed by the Kings of France since the 14c. It was here that Conti and his mistress, the Comtesse de Boufflers, started holding a regular court to rival Versailles - receptions, concerts engaging the finest musicians, suppers and games.

Cros des Cloux

In 1760, the Burgundy vineyard La Romanée was sold to the Prince by a family called Croonembourg. At the time of the Croonembourg’s purchase, the vines were known by the rather less romantic sounding name of ‘Cros des Cloux’. One has to wonder whether the estate would have reached its later dizzying heights of fame and demand, had the name remained unchanged! Idle speculation! In any event, the Croonembourgs hailed from Flanders in Belgium, one of the early centres of commercial activity in Europe. They were soldiers, but were endowed with enough business acumen to appreciate that selling fine wine requires more than just producing the stuff. So they adopted a marketing strategy, and some time between 1631 and 1651 changed the name. Cros des Cloux, became the rather more taster friendly, ‘La Romanée’. This had the desired effect, diverting attention from the Cote de Beaune to the under appreciated attributes of the wines of the Cote de Nuits. By 1733, the wine of La Romanée was fetching five to six times the price of its nearest rival (Montrachet excepted). However, notwithstanding their success in the sale of their wines, the Croonembergs had encumbered themselves with too much debt, and by 1760 were obliged to sell.

Conti the connoisseur

As with everything else in his life, the Prince’s purchase of La Romanée from the Croonembourg’s, was anything but straight forward. The estate was sold to satisfy Croonembourg’s creditors, a circumstance which rarely results in the vendor obtaining a true market value. However in this instance, Conti paid considerably more than perceived market value. The Prince’s identity as purchaser was kept a secret until after the contract of sale was signed. Gossip at the time suggested this was because Madame de Pompadour also had a predilection for the wine, and had she known of the proposed purchase may have acted to thwart him. If this be true, it might explain why he subsequently decided not to release any of the wine to the market.

Of course from a marketing perspective, the purchase by the Prince, and his decision not to market the wine, was about as good as it gets. Everyone who was anyone wanted La Romanée. Jean Jacques Rousseau was one of many distinguished literary guests, to whom, with all due pomp and ceremony, the wine from of the newly acquired Domaine La Romanée would be served.

Death of a Prince and Birth of a Legend

The Comtesse de Boufflers remained at the Prince’s side, long after their physical relationship ended. She was with him until his death on the 2 August 1776, a few days before his 59th birthday. Upon his passing, his son Louis Francois-Joseph became the Prince of Conti. A troubled relationship between father and son was made good before the Prince died, the son’s inheritance was re-instated, and with it the responsibility of dealing with a mountain of debt. The new Prince of Conti had inherited the title, but fortunately not his father’s profligate ways, and in a sensible and considered fashion, set about disposing of assets to pay off the creditors. La Romanée was not one of them, and those managing the estate were told to focus their attentions on quality, rather than quantity. Come the Revolution, and immediately after the taking of the Bastille in July 1789, the Prince, fearing for his safety, fled the country. A few months later he returned, determined to integrate into life under the New Order. This prompted the revolutionary zealots to portray him as Public Enemy No 1, and in 1793 he was arrested, and incarcerated in prison in Marseilles. Later that year, signs were posted in front of La Romanee reading ‘National Property for Sale or Rent’. In September 1793, while the Prince was still in prison, he was declared to have emigrated, and all his property to be liable to confiscation. It was in this context, that one of the councils dealing with the sequestration decided to add the name ‘Conti’ to La Romanée, and soon after the Domaine became known by its present title of ‘Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’.

In 1794 a report was prepared by experts in anticipation of the forthcoming sale which read as follows:

“We cannot disguise the fact that the wine of La Romanée is the most excellent of all those of the Cote d’Or, and even all the vineyards of the French Republic; weather permitting, this wine always distinguishes itself from those of the other Climats of predilection, its brilliant and velvety colour, its ardor and its scent, charm all the senses. Well kept, it always improves as it approaches its eighth or tenth year; it is then a balm for the elderly, the feeble and the disabled, and will restore life to the dying”

Who could put it better?