Strange tales: Condé, Cognac and Bourbon lilies

In the spring of 1569, in a field in Cognac, two French armies clashed in a battle that would later inspire one of the region’s most famous spirit brands.

A German illustration of the Battle of Jarnac. The prince of Condé’s capture and murder is depicted in two stages on the left of the picture, where he is the figure in gold.

The battle was fought near Jarnac, on the road from Cognac to Angoulême between an army of French Catholics under the Burgundian nobleman, Gaspard de Saulx, the Sire of Tavannes and French Protestants (Huguenots) commanded by Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé.

An otherwise inconsequential piece of detritus from the battle would later inspire Paul-Émile Rémy Martin to create his Cognac house’s most prestigious creation, Louis XIII, while the two principal generals have also left a mark on the vineyards of Burgundy, in their own way.

Gaspard de Saulx-Tavannes was the scion of two powerful Burgundian houses, his mother being Marguerite de Tavannes. Born in Dijon and a governor general of Burgundy in the late 1550s, the Saulx-Tavannes family owned extensive land and property throughout Burgundy including in Pommard where the lieu-dit which bears their name, ‘Les Tavannes’ (a village-level vineyard opposite Les Petits Epenots), exists to this day.

The Prince of Condé, meanwhile, was the four times great-grandfather of Louis-François de Bourbon, Prince of Conti, the man who, in 1760, would acquire the vineyard of La Romanée and affix to it his title, giving the wine world one of its most storied names.1

‘The wine is drawn’

The battle of Jarnac was a minor clash in what was the third phase of the Wars of Religion, an exceedingly vile and bloody civil conflict that wracked France from 1562 to 1598 and during which some 3 million people are thought to have died, making it Europe’s second deadliest religious conflict behind only the Thirty Years War which erupted in 1618 and would claim an estimated 8 million lives.

The wars were, in effect, a Protestant reaction to increasing persecution that had begun under Francis I and continued with even greater brutality under Henry II; with massacres and counter-massacres fuelling hatred and internecine violence between Catholics and Protestants.

Louis, Prince of Condé was one of the foremost Protestant noblemen in France (although a relatively recent convert) and quickly became a champion of the Huguenot cause.

After another massacre at Vassy in March 1562, Condé and other Huguenot nobles declared they would now fight to protect their co-religionists and that they intended to free the king, Charles IX from the “evil counsel” that was clearly being fed to him by those his close (fervently Catholic) advisors, especially the ambitious and powerful Duke of Guise and Charles’s mother, Catherine de Medici.

There followed two periods of war and uneasy truce between 1562 and 1568 with the Peace of Longjumeau being signed in March of 1568 and promptly collapsing by August.

In early 1569 Condé was engaged in laying siege to various Catholic-held cities first in Poitou and Saintonge and then Angolême and Cognac in order to protect the foremost Huguenot city in France, La Rochelle, which was also an important port through which support from Protestant England could arrive. In fact, one English adventurer who fought for the Huguenots during the war and may have been at the battle of Jarnac was none other than the famous Elizabethan privateer, Walter Raleigh.2

A Catholic army moved to intercept the Huguenots. It was nominally led by the 17-year old Henry, Duke of Anjou (brother of King Charles IX and later king himself) but no doubt commanded in fact by the redoubtable Sieur de Tavanne (a veteran of Francis I’s Italian wars and soon to be made a Marshal of France).

Under cover of darkness the Catholics crossed the Charente at Chateauneuf (now Chateauneuf-sur-Charente) and advanced up the right bank of the river to surprise the Protestant picquets outside Bassac on the morning of 13 March.

In doing so they caught Condé’s second in command, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, napping and he sent an urgent message to the Bourbon prince in Jarnac calling for help. Clearly annoyed to have been wrong-footed Condé is said to have resigned himself to battle with the words: “The wine is drawn, we must drink it.”

Gathering up his cavalry he raced to Coligny’s aid.

What followed was not a large battle, a skirmish really, and it was rare in that almost the entire action was between mounted troops; the vanguards of both armies.

It was a short, sharp fight The Protestant cavalry charged but without conviction (“flabbily” in one French account) and the Catholics were quickly reinforced by the household troops of the Duke of Anjou.

Attacked in the flank, Condé’s squadron was cut off and the prince, one arm in a sling after falling from his mount a few days before and with a nasty leg injury having been kicked by a horse just before the battle, was unhorsed and captured.

Having given his parole and surrendered his sword Condé was accosted by a certain Captain Montesquiou of the Duke of Anjou’s guard who asked who he was.

When the captain found out he was talking to Condé he supposedly exclaimed, “Then I shall kill you by God!” and shot the defenceless man through the head with his pistol.3  In another version, Condé is in the act of surrendering to two Catholic gentlemen he knew when Montesquiou gallops up and shouting, “kill him by God!”, shoots him from behind.

“I remember it well,” wrote Raleigh later, “that, when the prince of Condé was slain after the battle of Jarnac, the Protestants did greatly bewail the loss of the said prince.”

So died the first Condé but his death was neither the end of the wars nor the end of this story.

The Jarnac flask and Louis XIII

The design for the bottle of Louis XIII Cognac (bottom right) was based on a flask found on the old battlefield of Jarnac. The shape of the bottle shows a clear inheritance from the leather and metal flasks (left and top right) which were common items throughout the 16th century. The examples here are quite plain but many were elaborately decorated.

Jarnac was not decisive. It was a severe blow for the Huguenot cause to lose such a stalwart general but the bulk of the Protestant army was not engaged and Coligny recovered and beat the Catholics a month later at La Roche l’Abeille.

A new figurehead for French Protestantism, he was subsequently murdered during the appalling St Bartholemew’s Day massacre of August 1572; an event that sparked further massacres throughout France and with them the resumption of the wars.

During this ‘fourth war’ an important event was the siege of Sancerre (which had become an important Protestant base) from January to August 1573, which quickly became a Protestant cause célèbre throughout Europe.

As would later happen with the Thirty Years War, as the French religious wars went on they became increasingly political and eventually a succession crisis overtook some of the more straightforward inter-religious hatreds.

The Duke of Anjou succeeded his brother as Henry III in 1574 but he soon fell out with the premier Catholic nobleman, Henry of Lorraine the Duke of Guise, who likely fancied himself a contender for the throne. Tired of the over-weening Guise and the power of his Spanish-backed Catholic League, Henry III had the duke assassinated, along with the duke’s brother who was a cardinal (no less!), in 1588.

The act shocked France and turned much of the Catholic population against the king. In desperation he formed an alliance with the latest Protestant figurehead, Henry, King of Navarre – the next legitimate male heir to the throne (Henry III had no children) and the nephew of Louis de Bourbon Prince of Condé.

Henry III was himself assassinated by a fanatical Dominican friar in 1589 and was succeeded by Henry of Navarre as Henry IV – ‘le bon’ (‘the good’) as he has become known to history and the first Bourbon king of France.

Although he converted to Catholicism in order to become king, Henry IV passed the Edict of Nantes in 1589, which granted at least limited state recognition and toleration of Huguenots and brought the Wars of Religion to an end – although he would still have to fight to secure his throne against militant Catholic nobles and the Spanish and Papal forces ranged against him into 1599.

After two failed attempts, ‘Good’ Henry was also assassinated in 1610 (stabbed to death in his coach by François Ravaillac) and, after a regency, his son, Louis, followed him to the throne as Louis XIII.

In the 19th century a farmer ploughing his fields near Jarnac turned up a long-buried object. It was a flask, made of metal and decorated with fleur-de-lis.

The flask, identified as a relic of the battle nearly 300 years before, was acquired by Paul-Émile Rémy Martin in 1850 and, it would seem, it set him to thinking

Twenty-four years later in 1874 on the occasion of Rémy Martin’s 150th anniversary, the house released a new Cognac in a decanter based on the flask found at Jarnac.

In time the Cognac would become known as Louis XIII, because he is regarded as being the first king to recognise ‘Cognac’ as being distinct from just ‘brandy’; giving it its own tax bracket (always a sign of official favour) in 1640.

Both the Houses of Valois-Orléans and Bourbon, as ‘princes of the blood’, used the royal fleur-de-lis as part of their coat of arms.

But what of the flask, who did it belong to? Sadly, the original flask is long gone and no drawings or photographs, if any were made, are also no more. So quite what it looked like or what it was for will remain forever a mystery.

Was it a water or a gunpowder flask (for priming a pistol or arquebus)? Who might it have belonged to? The fact it was decorated with fleur-de-lis is interesting but also frustrating.

On its website for Louis XIII Rémy Martin simply states the first decanter took its inspiration from a “royal flask”. But there’s no way of knowing to which side the former owner of the flask belonged as the two main protagonists were both prince du sang, ‘princes of the blood’, connected to the French royal family. As part of the House of Valois-Orléans, the Duke of Anjou sported three lilies on his coat of arms and his household ‘gentlemen’ may have done likewise too.

Yet Condé, from the House of Bourbon, had the three ‘royal’ flowers as his badge as well.

So to which royal house do we suppose the flask belonged? If it were still with us more modern appraisal might be able to assess its quality and, therefore, if it were carried by a nobleman and if so of what standing. Its decoration, as evidenced by the design of the decanter, certainly seems rather rich – though Remy Martin may have added a few flourishes of his own.

Perhaps, if one lets one’s imagination run wild, one can see how it might have even belonged to Condé himself. He was unhorsed in the mêlée. Could his flask have come loose in the chaos of trampling hooves and whirling of the fray? It’s a flight of fancy of course, we will never know.

But, considering the Cognac bears the name of his great-nephew, it’s tantalising to think the flask was once Condé’s or at least one his men’s and those are indeed Bourbon lilies after all.




1 The titles of Condé and Conti were hereditary titles in the House of Condé, a cadet branch of the House of Bourbon-Vendôme, the senior branch of which went on to become kings of France and Navarre. The title, Prince of Condé, was granted to the eldest son and Prince of Conti to the next. Louis de Bourbon’s second son, François, was the first Prince of Conti but he died without heirs in 1614. The title then fell into abeyance until the birth of Armand de Bourbon in 1629, the second son of Henry II, Prince of Condé, who’s eldest son, Louis, would go on to be known as ‘le Grand Condé’, one of Louis XIV’s great generals and victor of Rocroi in 1643 which broke the hegemony of Habsburg Spain and set France in its place as Europe’s leading superpower for the next century and a half.

2 In his memoirs Raleigh never says he was at the battle, merely that he remembers the “great wailing” and despair among the Huguenots after it is learned that Condé has been killed. It is the sense of the immediacy he suggests in his writing that has created the assumption he may have at least watched the battle unfold if not actively participated.

3 There is a close parallel between the death of Louis and another Protestant champion, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden who was effectively executed on the field of Lützen in 1632 with a pistol shot to the head.

One Response to “Strange tales: Condé, Cognac and Bourbon lilies”

  1. EBGB says:

    Love these historical articles. Thank you.

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