When we were children my father would occasionally mention our French heritage, some vague story about the Huguenots, French Protestants who, after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, had to flee the country to escape persecution. A quarter of a million of them, apparently – 50,000 of them landing in England.
Perhaps that’s why I'd always been so obsessed with France, I thought, why I picked up the language so easily. (Of course my first love affair at 17 with a boy who spoke no English probably helped...)
My father was eighty-eight when I bought Chateau de la Vinouse, back in 2005. And in anticipation of his first visit, he’d been researching our family tree.
He’d managed to get hold of a copy of his grandmother’s birth certificate, Mary Chabot, born in London in 1851, daughter of John Chabot. He’d also found out that our ancestors – one at least, Jacques Chabot – to escape death had been smuggled across the English Channel in a wicker hamper, landing in the East End of London.
There is a plaque in Christ’s Church, the French church in Spitalfields, he told me, with the family crest –– three undernourished-looking red fishes standing on their tails, plus the family motto: Potius mori quam foedar–– “Death before dishonor”
Well, a little late for me, I told him!
Apparently, after that, our descendants became silk weavers, or cord waners. However, in light of the fact that I now owned a manor house that was still called a “chateau,” I convinced my father to abandon this lowly branch of workers ( Spitalfields used to be a notoriously poor area of London) and to align ourselves with the Duke de Chabot who hailed from Aigues Mortes.
The excitement of this discovery had injected some purpose into my father’s otherwise empty days. He still lived at South Hall, our English country house, dilapidated though it was, the kitchen overrun with boxes of his medications, the old dining room table home to what he admitted was a bewildering stack of insurance forms and bills.
I used to call him from France mid-morning. I liked to picture him in the drawing room, still dapper, dressed in a check sports jacket, striped shirt and knitted tie (though he was going nowhere), sitting in his old armchair, his library books and magazines stacked up beside him.
"I’ve been up to London," he told me, the next time I called, “to University College. They have all the Huguenot records there.”
With his grandmother’s birth certificate in hand, he’d asked the head librarian there if he could see any relevant papers about a seventeenth century ancestor. A certain Jaques Chabot who’d been smuggled across the Channel from France in a laundry basket.” My father’s voice, laughing now, gives me the librarian’s reply: “'Oh, that bloody laundry basket. I’m always hearing about that!’”
But after a day poring over the files the laundry basket story was actually confirmed. Jacques (James) Chabot, aged seven, had apparently escaped to England –– his small body narrowly missed by the king’s 'dragonnards,' the soldiers who patrolled the boats and pierced suspicious-looking hampers with their swords –– where he was taken to the Duke of Bolton’s estate near High Wycombe. “Most likely, the Duke was a friend of his parents,” my father said, “who, in light of the times, were probably murdered…”
And he had more information. From his recent correspondence with an existing member of the Chabot family, he’d found out that our false claims (mine, at least) of noble French ancestry were, in fact, true. It seems we were descended from a Guy de Chabot, seventh Baron of Jarnac, originating in the Poitou area, a man who became notorious in France after his argument with the Dauphin in 1547. There was a duel, which, as it happened, turned out to be the most famous one in France.
The young Henri, son of Francois 1, had accused his friend Guy de Chabot ( seigneur de Jarnac) of having relations with his own father’s new wife. Having been thus insulted, Guy followed the usual procedure of the day and challenged the Dauphin to a duel. Naturally, the king forbade his son to fight. But after Francois 1 died and Henri was crowned, determined to be rid of his rival Chabot, the Dauphin commissioned Francois de Vivonne, seigneur de la Chataigneraie, to represent him. As Vivonne was the most formidable swordsman in France, Guy was convinced he would lose.
Nevertheless, he hired an Italian fencing master, Captain Caizo, to coach him. My father told me the duel took place on the terrace of the castle at St Germaine-en-Laye. There was a large crowd, including the King, his court and the marshals of France, plus a lavish banquet laid on by Vivonne – a meal, incidentally, he would never eat. The Jarnac flag flew: the three bullheaded fishes with the blazing motto – death before dishonor– and the rule was to fight a toute outrance: “All out, to the death.”
The weapons were broadsword and buckler, a corselet of armor and a coat of fine maille, plus daggers. There were several thrusts and parries. Guy was almost overpowered by heavy blows. Then, using a secret thrust he’d learned from Caizo, he suddenly cut low, delivering two slices behind Vivonne’s knees, severing the muscles to the bone. Hamstrung, Vivonne collapsed. He refused medical attention, or he simply bled to death a few days later out of shame. “No one’s sure,” my father added.
The spectators, confused at first –– after all Vivonne was the country’s champion –– hesitated, then rushed in and devoured the banquet. ( The French and food!) The thrust, my father explained, then unknown in France, was considered fair game by the Italians. And after that the expression Coup de Jarnac, named after Chabot, came to mean an ingenious way of solving a problem.
Later, I look up the Coup de Jarnot story. I find out that a few centuries later, the Jesuits in their famous Dictionnaire de Trevoux added a negative connotation and the expression came to mean an “underhand move” –– as it does still in France today.
By 1710, 5 per cent of the London population were French.
A descendant of Jaques, Philip James Chabot, after going to Cambridge, then practicing law, went into business in Spitalfields as a silk dyer. He became the originator of the Silk Conditioning Society. As the French method was far superior to the English technique this caused a considerable amount of resentment in London.
Frankly, I think the English are still annoyed!
MARLON BRANDO, WINSTON CHURCHILL, LAWRENCE OLIVIER, JUDY GARLAND, KEITH RICHARDS, HOWARD HUGHES, TOM BROKAW, JOHN ROCKEFELLER, WARREN BUFFET, JOAN CRAWFORD.