François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon died in Cambrai in 1715 as archbishop. King Louis XIV a.k.a. « Le Roi Soleil » died that same year. A priest, educator, and theologian by training, and noble by birth, at the age of 38 Fénelon had been appointed by the king as tutor and spiritual adviser to the royal grandson, who was second in line for the throne. As such, Fénelon was elected to the Académie Française. He was having a successful career.
Earlier, Fénelon had been asked by the Duchesse de Beauvilliers, who had eight daughters, for advice on raising and educating her children. He wrote a book on the subject. He became a friend and confidant of the duke's, who had himself been assigned responsibility for the education of the king's grandchildren. That's the local connection: Beauvilliers was the Duc de Saint-Aignan. The château here was his domain.
Later, in 1695 Fénelon was named archbishop of Cambrai, a city that had only 20 years earlier been annexed into the Sun King's realm. There he wrote a novel called Les Aventures de Télémaque, a story of the education of a young man — the son of Ulysses, in this case — featuring many exciting voyages and adventures. In it, he set forth his rather liberal ideas on questions of education and child-rearing.
Fénelon's manuscript, which he had not intended to make public at that stage, was stolen by a servant, printed, and circulated at Louis XIV's court without his permission. Louis XIV saw the satire in Fénelon's novel and wasn't pleased. Fénelon portrayed kings as authoritarian, militaristic, and mercantilist. For this offense, and for theological missteps, Fénelon ended up disgraced, banned from the court, and exiled in Belgium.
As archbishop, Fénelon came to be known as the "the Swan" — Le Cygne de Cambrai. He was eloquent, handsome, and refined, and he had a following in the highest circles. A chronicler of court life at the time, the Duc de Saint-Simon, described Fénelon as "a tall, thin man, fine-featured and pale, with a big nose, eyes in which you could see torrents of fire and spirit, and a face like no other I have ever seen, and which you could never forget even if you never saw him but once." Fénelon's appearance, his entire being, made evident his "finesse, intelligence, grace, decency and, especially, his nobility. You had to struggle to turn your gaze away" when you looked upon him, according to Saint-Simon.*
Fénelon's greatest theological and political adversary was the bishop of the town of Meaux, near Paris. He was a man named Bossuet, who was by 25 years Fénelon's senior and had been one of his mentors. Bossuet had come to be known as « L'Aigle de Meaux » – "The Eagle of Meaux." He was a fiery preacher and orator who was determined to return French Protestants to the Catholic fold. His nature and religion were stricter and more traditionalist than Fénelon's.
Okay, there. Writing this has plunged me back into 17th century French literature and history. I now know more about Bossuet and Fénelon than I remembered from before.
When I was in Cambrai in June, I of course went to see the cathedral. I wanted to know if there was anything there about Fénelon. There was of course — his tomb and the sculpture (1826) in the pictures above and below. It turns out that the 12th century cathedral in Cambrai was demolished during the French Revolution. Today's cathedral, Notre-Dame de Grâce, is a church constructed in the French classical style that dates back only to 1703 (when Fénelon was the archbishop).
When I was in Cambrai, I thought I was a little disappointed in the place. It was a letdown. The weather was gray and almost chilly. I thought it might rain at any minute. I wandered through sad, gray little streets. The old main square was a big parking lot. I had lunch but didn't enjoy it. Now that I look back through the pictures I took there, I see how colorful it all was. Those are the joys of digital photography, I guess.
* Here's Saint-Simon's description of Fénelon in French: « Ce prélat était un grand homme maigre, bien fait, pâle, avec un grand nez, des yeux dont le feu et l'esprit sortaient comme un torrent, et une physionomie telle que je n'en ai point vu qui y ressemblât, et qui ne se pouvait oublier, quand on ne l'aurait vue qu'une seule fois. Elle rassemblait tout, et les contraires ne s'y combattaient pas. Elle avait de la gravité et de la galanterie, du sérieux et de la gaieté; elle sentait également le docteur, l'évêque et le grand seigneur; ce qui y surnageait, ainsi que dans toute sa personne, c'était la finesse, l'esprit, les grâces, la décence et surtout la noblesse. Il fallait effort pour cesser de le regarder. »