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Land of the Musketeers

Alexandre Dumas was a  Hollywood scriptwriter far ahead of his time: more than fifty films of one kind or another have been made about The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask, two books that brought him a fortune almost as large as that of his other famous hero, The Count of Monte Cristo. But while the Count never lived, d’Artagnan, Athos, Aramis and Porthos were all very much flesh and blood.

As was the Musketeers’ captain, Tréville: like the Three Musketeers, he was Béarnais, not just a delicious sauce but once a real independent country just north of the Pyrénées. When Henry IV, himself a Béarnais, became king of France, the little kingdom prospered. Its merchant class bought their way into the French nobility, among them Tréville’s father, Jean-Armand de Peyrer, who came from Oloron, situated high on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the rivers Ossau and Aspe. In 1607 he became seigneur of Trois-Villes, west of Oloron, although the grand-sounding three towns were in fact three tiny villages. It was his son, Tréville, who made his name by some prodigious feats of bravery in the French army, and was appointed Captain of the King’s Musketeers.  Tréville’s exquisite château at Trois-Villes can be visited, and his full-length portrait, the work of the Court painters, the Le Nain brothers, takes pride of place.

At Saucède, north-west of Oloron,  the water mill still survives where  the Peyrer family first sold their  corn in less prosperous times;  while at Pau, opposite the Château,  stands the Hôtel Peyré, an  imposing building they put up in  their heyday. Pau, the former  capital of Béarn, was the birthplace  of Porthos in 1617. His father,  Isaac de Portau, was a man of  some substance, Notary General of  the provincial parliament. He purchased the hamlet of Porteu,  upstream on the River Vert and in  the shadow of the Pyrénées; it has  long since disappeared, after giving the Musketeer his name. However,  the house where Porthos is supposed to have grown up, complete with a fairy-tale tower, survives in the village of Ogenne- Camptort, north of Saucède.

Tréville’s mother, Marie d’Aramitz, was the middle of three children of Pierre d’Aramitz, a Hugenot army captain and noted swashbuckler. Pierre had acquired, in murky circumstances, the Château of Labadie, near the village of Aramits, south-west of Oloron, also on the River Vert. His son Charles, Marie’s brother, became abbé laïque of Aramits, after the village’s abbey, even then no longer an ecclesiastic manor but still a noble title. Charles married a local beauty, Catherine de Rague and their son, Henri d’Aramitz, was Aramis the Musketeer. The abbey, alas, was pulled down in 1980 after a disastrous fire and all that remains of Aramis’s home is its grandiose stone gateway.

Soon after his marriage to Marie d’Aramitz in October 1597, Jean du Peyrer employed his pretty niece, Nicole du Peyrer, in his business. Nicole caught the eye of the wealthy Adrien de Sillègue, whose family owned the village of Athos, north-west of Oloron. Their younger son, called Armand, became Athos the Musketeer. Athos, too, once had its château, but it has long since vanished and the space is occupied by a herd of languid-looking cows.

Tréville and Aramis were first cousins, while Athos was Tréville’s first cousin once removed. Porthos had family connections with Aramis, another of whose first cousins, Gédéon de Rague, was married to Anne d’Arracq, Porthos’s second cousin. The future Musketeers all moved in the same circle of bourgeoisie and would have long vanished into obscurity had not Tréville, knowing of their skills as duellists, summoned them to Paris in 1640. Like gunslingers in the old west, they were brought in to settle a turf war – in this case, against the guards of French Prime Minister, Cardinal Richelieu. And entirely by coincidence, who should arrive in Paris just before their multiple duel and share in their triumph but the seventeen-year-old Charles de Batz, better known as d’Artagnan. 

Like Tréville, d’Artagnan was descended from an unpretentious bourgeois family, ennobled through the purchase of land and titles, but he was from Gascony, north of Béarn. His great-uncle, Arnaud de Batz, bought the family home of Château Castelmore, near Lupiac, in the mid-sixteenth century. It is now owned by a regional French politican, who does not welcome visitors; but the outside is worth seeing, together with the plaque announcing this to be d’Artagnan’s birthplace. He was the youngest son of Françoise Montesquiou- Artagnan, from one of the noblest families in France, and borrowed part of her name although he was not entitled to do so.

Athos was killed in a duel in Paris in 1643 and soon afterwards the Musketeers were disbanded.  D’Artagnan entered the service of Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin, and under Louis XIV would become Captain of the reformed Musketeers.

Aramis and Porthos returned to their native Béarn. In February 1650 Aramis married a local young heiress, Jeanne de Béarn- Bonasse, at Oloron. Jeanne duly gave birth to two sons and a daughter, but Aramis was not cut out for domesticity. Even though his wife was expecting their fourth child, in 1654 Aramis decided to return to Paris to rejoin the army.  However, he was suddenly taken ill. A notary was summoned urgently to his house in Aramits, where the second of the Three Musketeers died shortly after dictating his will.

The third and last of the trio, Porthos, fell on hard times and took on the dangerous role in charge of munitions at the local fortress of Navarrenx. It lies east of Ogenne- Camptort, dominating the Gave d’Oloron, and has many interesting old cannons. In  1658, through Tréville’s persistence, Porthos was given the seigneurie of Lanne-de- Barétous, south-west of Oloron, as a reward for services rendered.  The little manor’s tax-free income was sufficient for Porthos, aged forty-one, to propose marriage to a much younger woman. He lived to be ninety-five, an exceptional age for the time, expiring at Pau from an apoplectic stroke in 1712.  Somehow, you cannot imagine Porthos dying calmly in his bed. 


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© Collection Tourisme Gers CDT32A. Franceschin

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