Claude Catherine de Clermont

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Claude Catherine de Clermont

Claude Catherine de Clermont (1543-1603) was born in Paris, France. She was the Baroness of Retz before becoming the wife of Albert de Gondi who was the son of Guidobaldo de Gondi, the first of the Gondi Family to settle permanently in France. Like her mother-in-law Marie Catherine de Pierrevive she assisted in the rise to power of the Gondi Family in France by her own skills and intelligence, and also by bringing the "Retz" title into the Gondi family

Claude Catherine and Albert de Gondi

Claude Catherine de Clermont1, later Dame de Vivonne and Dampierre, Baronness then Duchess of Retz, Dame de Machecoul2 , Maréchale de Retz and pair de France, was born in 1543 in Paris, France. She was the only child of Claude de Clermont-Tonnerre and of Jeanne de Vivonne. In 1561 at 18 years of age she married Jean d’Annebaut, Baron of Retz and Gentleman of the Chamber to Charles IX, but found herself widowed soon after when her husband was killed in the Battle of Dreux3 in north western France in 1562. The couple had no children. In 1565, Claude Catherine married Albert de Gondi4 , the second son of Antonio de Gondi and Marie Catherine de Pierrevive. Claude Catherine was made a lady-in-waiting to Marie de Medici, the Queen Mother and, like her mother in law (Marie Catherine de Pierrevive) before her, was appointed Governess of the Royal Children (Gouvernante des Enfants de France). Albert had been in service in the court of Henry II since 1547 and was made Gentleman of the Chamber and Master of the Wardrobe to Charles IX and Henry III. In 1573, Albert was named a Maréchal de France. Claude Catherine and Albert de Gondi had ten children – Charles, Claude-Marguérite, Françoise, Gabrielle, Hipployte, Henri, Louise, Madeleine, Philippe-Emmanuel and Jean-François. Albert de Gondi died in 1602 and Claude Catherine on February 18, 1603.

"Dame Savante"

Claude Catherine de Clermont was regarded as wealthy5, beautiful and courtly, and she acquired a great reputation as an intellectual, becoming known as the "10th Muse" and the "4th Grace". The Croix du Maine wrote that "she deserved to be in the first rank of those learned and well-versed in poetry, oratory, philosophy, mathematics, history and other sciences"6. She spoke Latin, Greek and several foreign languages, including Italian, and her skills were in demand for translation with visitors to the court.7 In 1573, when ambassadors from Poland came to see the duke of Anjou, (the future Henry III) to invite him formally to become King of Poland, she publicly replied to them in Latin on behalf of the queen-mother (Catherine de Medici) and her speech challenged those of René de Birague and the Comte de Cheverny, who replied on behalf of Charles IX and the duke of Anjou.8

Claude Catherine was a patroness of the arts, supporting the foundation of Jean-Antoine de Baïf's Académie de musique et de poésie in 1570.9 After 1573 she regularly attended the sittings of the Académie du Palais (set up by Henry III) where moral and philosophical matters were discussed.

She hosted a “salon”, a place where courtly, learned women, as well as male poets and scholars of note, mingled.10 She encouraged the writing of positive querelle11 rhetoric in the form of Petrarchan, Neoplatonic, encomiastic12 poetry to buttress her reputation and that of her female friends.13 She was interested in moral philosophy, singing and music, and was a great collector of books and art. Her salon was known as the “Salon Vert” (Green Salon), and the “Salon Dictynne”. The group attending the salon had an infatuation with the elements of the so called pastoral tradition. Women were referred to as nymphs, muses and goddesses from classical antiquity. The women, in this case, the female friends of Claude Catherine from the nobility and royalty, were placed on pedestals that provided some distance from misogynistic allegations about their personal lives and literary endeavours. In Cretan mythology, Dictynna was a nymph who served the goddess Diana. Assuming the “persona” of Dictynna allowed Claude Catherine to create a genteel, pastoral world for her salon guests who were seen, in the literature they created, as mythological nymphs and goddesses.14

Her gatherings were held in her Hôtel de Dampierre, located in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris. There she received the poets Philippe Desportes, Pierre de Ronsard, Amadis Jamyn and Brantôme, as well as “femmes savantes” of the Court, including Henriette de Nevers and Marguérite de Valois. Sometimes, the gatherings of acquaintances of Claude Catherine and Albert met at what was then known as Noisy, outside Paris, where the Gondi Family had a seigniory.15

In spite of Claude Catherine’s interest and influence in the areas of literature, music and the arts, it would seem that there is no record of her having had any of her own personal work published. She mainly circulated her work in manuscripts.16 However, there is, in the Département des Manuscrits of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, at Tolbiac, Paris, a printed copy and manuscript of a collection of works made by Claude Catherine with the title “Album de poesies”.17 Among the works in this collection may well be some compositions of Claude Catherine herself. It is only since 1930, and especially since the study by Enea Balmas of the manuscript referred to above and recently edited (2004), that Claude Catherine’s contribution has found a place in university critiquing.18

Beyond the Salon

Claude Catherine had a life outside the salon, and she exercised an influential role at Court. She had been placed among the ladies-in-wating at Court at an early age, and was familiar with Court behaviour.8 Her relationships with Jacques de La Fin and with Charles de Balzac d'Entragues were worth, for her, the many occasions when she was the target of pamphlets, given that she was closely involved in political life for the last thirty years of the sixteenth century. In the spring of 1574, she took part with her friends Marguérite de Valois and Henriette de Nevers in the plots of some of those discontented with royal authority. 20

When, in Albert de Gondi’s absence, some plotters tried to take control of the family estates and fomented rebellion among the vassals of Henry IV, Claude Catherine gathered soldiers, defeated the rebels, and visited the vassals of the king to dissuade them from actions they would soon regret.21 Henry IV appreciated her courage and loyalty and plied her with wealth and honours until her death. 22

The “Retz” Title

As Baronness of Retz, it was Claude Catherine de Clermont who brought the title of “Retz” (pronounced Ré) into the Gondi Family. She had inherited the title from her first husband Jean d’Annebaut who was the Baron of Retz. The title came from the Pays de Retz, an historical region of north-west France which in early modern Europe formed the southern tip of the Duchy of Brittany. It covered a region west of Nantes and south of the Loire estuary, with its western border as the Bay of Bourgneuf on the Atlantic coast. After their marriage in 1565, with Claude Catherine as Baroness of Retz, Albert her husband was recognised as Baron of Retz.

In 1581, Albert de Gondi was able to perform a a particular favour for Henry III and his mother, Catherine de Medici, by extricating them both from a difficult financial situation. As a result, the Barony of Retz was raised to the status of a Duchy, with Claude Catherine and Albert as the first Duchess and Duke of Retz.

The title continued with Henri, (grandson of Albert and Claude Catherine) as the second Duke of Retz. Henri’s daughter Catherine de Gondi then married Pierre de Gondi, grandson of Albert and Claude Catherine, and Pierre and Catherine became the third Duke and Duchess of Retz. The title was passed on to their daughter Paule Marguérite Françoise de Gondi who held the title of Duchess de Retz from 1676-1716. In 1675, she had married François Emmanuel de Blanchefort-Créquy (1645-1681), who became the next Duke of Retz. Their one child, Jean François, died at the age of twenty-five. Both Jean François and his father pre-deceased Paule Marguérite. At her death in 1716, the Retz title passed to Nicolas VI de Neufville-Villeroy, a great grandson of Henri de Gondi (the son of Charles de Gondi and grandson of Albert de Gondi). In 1778, the Duchy of Retz was sold out of the Neufville-Villeroy family to the House of Brie-Serrant, the members of which were not related to the House of de Gondi. Between 1780 and 1782, Alexandre de Brie-Serrant had the Duchy of Retz broken up into a number of fiefs and sold, keeping for himself the title of Baron of Retz. In 1790, at the time of the French Revolution, Alexandre de Brie-Serrant was dispossessed of his property, and it was absorbed into a new Département, Loire-Inférieure. In 1957, this Département became known Loire-Atlantique. The Pays de Retz thus became a cultural and historical memory.

The name “Retz” was also taken by Henri de Gondi, the first Cardinal de Retz, son of Albert and Claude Catherine, as well as by Jean Paul François de Gondi, second (and notorious) Cardinal de Retz and son of Philippe Emmanuel de Gondi and Marguérite de Silly.

Gondi and Clermont-Tonnerre Arms

The Arms of the House of Gondi are described in the Vincentian Encyclopedia in the article Gondi Family as: On a background of gold two battle maces, black in colour, saltire (set in the form of a St. Andrew's Cross) and tied with red. The Arms of Clermont-Tonnerre, those of Claude Catherine de Clermont’s father’s family can be described as follows: On a background of red, two silver keys saltire (placed in the form of a St Andrew’s Cross). The silver keys represent Papal Authority. Tradition has it that the Arms of Clermont were probably granted by Papal authority in 1120. The Arms of Albert and Claude Catherine de Gondi shown at left incorporate both family’s sets of Arms. These Arms are now the Arms of the town near Versailles in France, which, since the time of Louis XIV has been known as Noisy le Roi. The First Duchess of Retz and the first Duke of Retz are still remembered there where they had the Seignory of Noisy, a Seignory which included the village of Noisy itself, and a Chateau. 23


1. Claude Catherine de Clermont was also known as Catherine de Clermont, Claudine Catherine de Clermont, Claude Catherine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Dame de Clermont, and Catherine de Gondi, as well as Baronne, Duchesse, and Maréchale de Retz,

2. Machecoul was the principal or capital city in the Pays de Retz up till the French Revolution. Previous capitals were Rezé and Pornic.

3. The first of a number of large battles between Catholics and Hugenots in France which became known as the Wars of Religion.

4. See also Gondi Family, Vincentian Encyclopedia, New York.

5. Retz, Claude-Catherine de Clermont, maréchale et duchesse de (1545-1603), Dictionnaire de la SIEFAR, François Rouget, 2004. Internet accessed August 17, 2010, through the link SIEFAR .

6. Catherine de Clermont, Wikipedia. Internet accessed August 17, 2010 at:

7. Jones, David E., Women Warriors , Brassey’s, Dulles Virginia USA, 1997. p180. Internet accessed August 17, 2010 through link Claude Catherine de Clermont.

8. Catherine de Clermont, Wikipedia. Internet accessed August 17, 2010 at:

9. Ibid.

10. Campbell, Julie, Literary Circles And Gender in Early Modern Europe: A Cross-cultural Approach, Ashgate Publishing Co. Burlington Vt USA, 2006, p 76.

11. The “querelle” was the ongoing discussion and debate, sometimes acrimonious, as to the roles of women in society.

12. Containing elements of praise or flattery about the subject of the poetry.

13. Campbell, Julie, pp 73ff.

14. Campbell, Julie, pp 77, 78.

15. Retz, Claude-Catherine de Clermont, maréchale et duchesse de (1545-1603), Dictionnaire de la SIEFAR, François Rouget, 2004. Internet accessed August 17, 2010, through the link SIEFAR

16. Campbell, Julie, p 75.

17. Retz, Catherine de Clermont (1543-1603),duchesse de, Album de poésies [Texte imprimé] : manuscrit français 25455 de la BnF, éd. critique de Colette H. Winn et François Rouget, Paris : H. Champion, 2004.

18. Retz, Claude-Catherine de Clermont, maréchale et duchesse de (1545-1603), Dictionnaire de la SIEFAR, François Rouget, 2004. Internet accessed August 17, 2010, through the link SIEFAR .

19. Campbell, Julie, p 80.

20. Retz, Claude-Catherine de Clermont, maréchale et duchesse de (1545-1603), Dictionnaire de la SIEFAR, François Rouget, 2004. Internet accessed August 17, 2010, through the link SIEFAR .

21. Claude Catherine de Clermont, Wikipedia, Internet accessed August 17, 2101 through link

22. Jones, David E.,p180. Internet accessed August 17, 2010 through link Claude Catherine de Clermont.

23. See Gondi Family, “Memories of the Gondi in France”, Vincentian Encyclopedia.


Gondi Family, Vincentian Encyclopedia, October 2006

Liste des seigneurs de Retz, Wikipedia (French), April, 2011

Marie Catherine de Pierrevive, Vincentian Encyclopedia, August 2010

Françoise Marguérite de Silly, Vincentian Encyclopedia, September 2010