At Montmorency, Corruption and Secret Deals

With the city of Laval currently basking in provincial tutelage and the title of most corrupt city in the province, one might ask if the mayor had been reading from the life of the man whose name his city takes. Not that François de Laval de Montmorency was himself corrupt. No, it seems that he was a model of piety in the midst of web of secret deals and power grabs.

Montmorency. Orange Line. Opened 2007.
Montmorency. Orange Line. Opened 2007.

The political battle for seventeenth-century New France is worthy of a Dan Brown novel. In it features the young Louis XIV and his mother, Anne of Austria; a papacy anxious to regain control over missionary work from the powerful and almost autonomous Jesuits; and the Archbishop of Rouen, who jealously guarded the control he exercised over the colony through Sulpician priests, Ursuline nuns and Nuns Hospitallers.

Caught between the calls from the Associates of Montreal for a titular bishop,  answerable to Rouen, and pressure from the Vatican to  to relinquish their autonomy, the Jesuits played the Archbishop and the Pope off one another. Appearing to relinquish their autonomy in return for greater powers from the Vatican, the Jesuits also took care to write to Rouen asking that their superior in Quebec be offered the lower post of vicar general. This agreement ensured the continuing freedom of the Jesuits while bringing them under the jurisdiction of the Rouen in Quebec. The snub to the Archbishop’s usual allies meant that the deal was kept secret until 1653, but when the Associates renewed their proposal in 1657, suggesting the Sulpician Gabriel de Thubières de Levy de Quelys for the position of bishop, further secret deals were made to protect Jesuit autonomy.

Anxious to promote good relations between the various religious orders, Anne of Austria, rejected the the Sulpician and asked the Jesuits to propose their own candidate. Seeing their chance to completely separate the colony from the authority of Rouen, the Jesuits suggested François de Laval de Montmorency and it was he that Anne submitted for Rome’s approval.

Laval was an unusual choice which was not without a tactical advantage. Although born into one of the noblest families in France – it traced itself back to the fourth century and bore on its coat of arms “Dieu ayde au premier baron chrestian”, Montmorency had given up his patrimony over the call of his mother to head the family to devote himself to a life of piety. Although he had expressed an interest in missionary work, earlier possibilities had fallen through and he had retired to the Hermitage at Caen. There, under the guidance of the mystic, Jean de Berniéres, he worked with the poor and reformed a local monastery.

Educated by the Jesuits, but not active within the order, possessed of reputation for piety and good administration, Laval might be acceptable to the Vatican while still furthering the Jesuits interests. Still, after much inquiry about the order to which this most christian of candidates belonged, Rome began to smell a rat and refused to create the bishopric. A compromise was found in the newly created and controversial position of vicar apostolic. Laval would be under the authority of the Vatican, friendly to the Jesuits, and theoretically beyond the reach of Rouen.

So much for theory: the French clergy had lengthily debated the new position of vicar apostolic, and seeing them as a threat to their own powers, agreed not to recognize them. Still their deliberations had no legal basis, and with the backing of the king, his regent, and the Vatican, Laval was secretly consecrated in Paris on 8 December 1658.

Upon hearing the news, the Archbishops of both Rouen and Paris, who had not been informed of the consecration in his jurisdiction, issued numerous threats forbidding the recognition of Laval. These carried no weight, but they succeeded in adding to the confusion. On 30 March 1659, Anne prepared Laval’s letters patent and directed that he be recognized “to fulfill all the functions of the bishop, without prejudice to the rights of the regular jurisdiction [of the Archbishop of Rouen]. On 30 March 1659, she recognized her error and wrote directly to Governor Argenson in Quebec, instructing him “to see that [Bishop Laval] is obeyed in all the functions of the bishop” and “to prevent any ecclesiastic or other person from exercising any ecclesiastical jurisdiction except by [the Bishop’s] orders or consent”.

Blessed with such clarity and a thousand livres from Anne, Laval swore his oath to the king and set sail from La Rochelle two weeks later.

Consulted for this post

André Vachon, “François de Laval de Montmorency”. Dictionary of Canadian Biography (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2013)

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