04 July 2011

The Swan of Cambrai; the Eagle of Meaux

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.

Fénelon (1651-1715) — the Swan of Cambrai

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.

Stained glass in the cathedral at Cambrai
(above and below)

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.

The cathedral in Cambrai

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).

Sculpture by David d'Angers, 1826

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. »


  1. If you want a connection to Saint Aignan in Paris, it's the Hôtel de St. Aignan, which houses the museum of Jewish art and history, on the rue du Temple in the 3rd arrondissement. A beautiful building, a beautiful restoration job.

  2. I wonder if the Beauvilliers family had something to do with the construction of that hôtel.

  3. Ken

    The duke bought it in 1688.
    History here ( in French):


    It was on my list but Yves wanted to go back to the Nissim de Camondo - so may be next time.

  4. It was their hôtel particulier. After the Revolution, it became the mairie du 3è, city property, but when the mairie was moved closer to the Place de la République, it became a tenement -- literally. Two floors of workers' lodging were added on the top; the ground floor area became shops and the middle floors workshops. There was the population of an entire village -- all Jewish by the time of WWII. They, of course, were victims of the vel d'hiv roundup and other roundups and most died in concentration camps. After the war, the building, still city property, was derelict. Until it was decided to create the museum and use this building for it. Paul (my husband) was the engineer for the city of Paris who oversaw the restauration. They found the original blueprints (were they blueprints back in the 17th century?) -- dessins, in French -- and went to the original quarry for the stone to rebuild the bannister of the main staircase. I'd say Paul is proud of that. Also, they discovered fresco paintings and left them for all to see in what is now part of the bookshop.
    I'm not a great fan of the museum layout, but on my last visit, last fall, I felt they had improved it. They usually have some extraordinary special exhibits. There's a section on the second floor dedicated to the inhabitants of the building who were sent to the camps and you can see their names on the stones as you go down a staircase at the end. It's quite moving.

  5. Last time I was there was in December: http://ellenlebelle.blogspot.com/2010/12/day-of-rest.html

  6. I love old cathedrals, but I always wonder how much better the people might have been served if the money to build it had been used to feed them.

  7. The history lessons mixed into the chronicle of your daily life are much appreciated. Makes me think of "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down".

  8. Starman, too late! Somebody should have thought of that about 1000 years ago.

    Ellen, thank for the info. I had seen a blurb about the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan on the Paris Daily Photo blog a while back and it is on my list for a future visit to Paris. The Beauvilliers line died out a couple of centuries ago, by the way, and the château de Saint-Aignan is now owned by a different family, les Roche-Aymon.

    The Beav, thanks for the link. I'll check that out. Got your card today -- just today. Thank you. I guess the postal strike slowed it down.

    Bill, sugar-coated history lessons? Whatever works...

  9. Ken

    Thank you for letting me know. Even though they have been forced to get back to work by parliament, we are getting mostly junk mail and some magazines. No bills or banking docs. Good thing we can check the balance due on the net and pay on-line.

  10. Oh I forgot

    Happy 4th of July :-)


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