The Real d’Artagnan

The Real d’Artagnan

The portrait Dumas paints of d’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers is iconic: a penniless young Gascon who sets off for Paris on a horse that has seen better days, armed with his father’s sword, an ointment his mother made that “miraculously heals any wound that doesn’t reach the heart”, and a letter of recommendation to M. de Trèville, captain of the King’s Musketeers.  From such humble beginnings are heroes made.  But, how accurate a portrait is it?

For The Three Musketeers (1843-44) and its sequels, Dumas drew upon the work – some call it scurrilous – of Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras (1644-c.1712), a pamphleteer and man of letters who may have personally known the historical d’Artagnan, Charles de Batz-Castelmore.  Courtilz’s Mèmoires de Monsieur d’Artagnan first saw publication in Cologne, in about 1700; it was a bestseller in its day, running into three editions.  Amid its rumor and gossip, under its skin of story-teller’s tricks, was a skeleton of fact – much of which one can easily verify through the records of the day, and by letters and dispatches archived in places such as the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Charles de Batz-Castelmore was, indeed, a Gascon – born near the village of Lupiac sometime around 1620[1] – and while not a child of wealth, he was far from penniless.  He was one of eight children born to Bertrand de Batz-Castelmore and Françoise de Montesquiou d’Artagnan (she was from a markedly more noble family than her husband).  Interestingly enough, the sons of Bertrand de Batz-Castelmore were not entitled to use the name d’Artagnan, which belonged to their mother’s family, though at least three of them did use it to improve their social standing after arriving in Paris.

While the father of Dumas’ intrepid d’Artagnan lived long enough to give his son precious advice on the eve of his departure, Charles’ father died a few years before he set off to find his fortunes; nor would anyone have needed to draft a letter on introduction on the young man’s behalf to M. de Troisvilles (the Trèville of Dumas): two of Charles’ older brothers and his maternal uncle had already served as Musketeers under the command of de Troisvilles.  Thus, in 1640, and with grand prospects, Charles de Batz-Castelmore – who quickly adopted the name “Charles d’Artagnan” – left the well-known confines of Lupiac for the glittering squalor of Paris . . .


The historical d’Artagnan would have been keenly aware of a simple fact that seems to have escaped Dumas’ character: one did not simply join the Musketeers.  First, a potential candidate had to prove himself worthy by serving with distinction in one of the other regiments of the army.  With de Troisvilles’ assistance, d’Artagnan enrolled as a gentleman-cadet in the Gardes Française, in the company commanded by M. des Essarts (who was M. de Troisvilles’ brother-in-law).  Gentlemen-cadets were volunteers who drew no pay, nor were their names inscribed on the regiment’s official rolls; the position served as a training ground for young men interested in a military career.  If a gentleman-cadet found life under arms less than congenial he could demand his discharge at any time.  Most, however, hoped for a glorious career.

Between 1640-44, first as a cadet and then as a full-fledged soldier, d’Artagnan took part in last stages of the Thirty Years’ War, in the sieges and campaigns of Arras, Collioure, Perpignan, La Bajette, La Capelle, Saint-Folquin, Saint-Philippe, Gravelines, the Aa River, and Steenvoorde.  In all probability, d’Artagnan received his formal induction into the Gardes Française after the siege of Arras; during this period he must have made the acquaintance of a fellow soldier of the regiment, one Isaac de Portau – forever immortalized as “Porthos” from The Three Musketeers.  The second son of a Béarnais bureaucrat, de Portau served his time in the Gardes alongside young d’Artagnan until 1643, when he left to take his place in the ranks of the Musketeers; after that, Isaac de Portau fades from the annals of history.

This same stage of d’Artagnan’s life saw three deaths of note: that of France’s Prime Minister, Cardinal Richelieu, in 1642; that of King Louis XIII in 1643; and on December 21, 1643, at a place called Prè aux Clercs (the site of many a famous duel), the death of one particular Musketeer, by name Arnaud de Sillègue d’Athos – the “Athos” of Dumas.  Though d’Artagnan may have been aware of him, it’s highly suspect if the two men ever met formally.


In 1644, bravery and conspicuous service in the Gardes Française earned d’Artagnan a long-sought honor: the mantle of a Musketeer.  With Isaac de Portau, the young Gascon served alongside Henri d’Aramitz, the son of a veteran Musketeer and cousin to their capitaine-lieutenant, de Troisvilles – and the final member of the legendary “Insèparables”, the ever-pious “Aramis”.  Records indicate that d’Artagnan spent the following year taking part in the bloody siege of Bourbourg, in the taking of Cassel, Mardik, Linck, and several other campaigns, to boot.  It had all the hallmarks of a promising career . . . 


It was no secret that Richelieu’s hand-picked successor, Cardinal Mazarin, embraced and carried on his old mentor’s hatred of M. de Troisvilles; complicating this ongoing feud was the common knowledge that Mazarin desired the position of capitaine-lieutenant of the Musketeers for his own nephew, Philippe Mancini, the Duc de Nevers.  Things came to a head in early 1646 when Queen Anne, acting as regent for her young son, Louis XIV, issued the order to disband the Musketeers, citing a need to “eliminate unnecessary expenditures.”  It was understood, too, that when the time was ripe, Mazarin would resurrect the company under the auspices of the Duc de Nevers.


For the time being, however, the soldiers of the Musketeers – M. de Troisvilles included – found themselves cut adrift, forced to survive as best they could.  All save two.  Two men who possessed nothing but the clothes on their backs and a propensity for unswerving loyalty were offered the opportunity to enter the Cardinal’s personal service.  One was François de Montlezun, the future governor of the Bastille (a man Dumas’ source, Courtilz de Sandras, was acutely familiar with); the other was Charles d’Artagnan.

For the better part of the next decade (1646-54), d’Artagnan served the Cardinal as a confidential courier, traveling the length and breadth of the kingdom – often incognito and sometimes disguised as a Jesuit – bearing documents, packets of orders, and intelligence between Mazarin and France’s marshals.  Though the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, d’Artagnan still undertook missions to England and Germany; in 1649, during riots in Paris caused by the Fronde rebellion, d’Artagnan saw to the safety of the Royal family when the Court fled to Rueil.  He even endured a brief exile at Mazarin’s side when the powerful Duc d’Orleans invoked a 30-year old decree barring foreigners from French governmental posts (Cardinal Mazarin – born Giulio Mazarini – was Italian).  By autumn of 1652, King Louis XIV had crushed the Fronde and rescinded Mazarin’s exile, summoning him back to Court to resume his duties as Prime Minister.

D’Artagnan continued in Mazarin’s service another two years before the Cardinal bestowed upon him a just reward for his steadfast loyalty: a lieutenant’s commission in his old regiment, the Gardes Française.  Charles d’Artagnan was returning to the business of war . . .


Between 1654 and 1658, d’Artagnan took part in campaigns against the Spanish[2], who had as their ally the indefatigable rebel Prince de Condè.  In 1655, d’Artagnan received the rank of captain in the Gardes Française; he was wounded at Stenay, lost a close friend at Valenciennes, witnessed the razing of Mothe-du-Bois, and infiltrated Ardres – if Courtilz is to be believed – disguised as a tobacco merchant.  And in the spring of 1658, while encamped at the siege of Dunquerque, d’Artagnan at long last had from Mazarin proper payment for his seven years of faithful service: a commission to sous-lieutenant[3] in the recently re-established King’s Musketeers.

A year earlier, Mazarin had fulfilled his plan to reconstitute the Musketeers, now known as the Grand Musketeers, under the command of his nephew, the Duc de Nevers, with an old Gascon warhorse, Isaac de Baas, as his sous-lieutenant.  The Musketeers joined the Gardes Française at Dunquerque, but a recurring illness forced de Baas to resign his commission.  On May 26, 1658, d’Artagnan took de Baas’ place.  What’s more, he became their de facto commander – the King did not actually participate in the day-to-day command of his Musketeers and the Duc de Nevers was an empty uniform.  Nor did d’Artagnan wait to ease into his new position.  He led the Musketeers at the Battle of the Dunes against the forces of Don Juan of Austria, Prince de Condè, and the young Duke of Gloucester.  The French victory sealed the fate of Dunquerque and paved the way for the Peace of the Pyrenees, which brought the Franco-Spanish War to an end. 

D’Artagnan returned to Paris with the King and in 1659 – no doubt following His Majesty’s lead – he married Charlotte-Anne de Chanlecy, Dame de Saint-Croix.  Though perhaps not loveless, it was every inch a marriage of convenience: she would become wife to a man who had the King’s ear and the Cardinal’s confidence; he would become husband to a woman of unimpeachable nobility.  Two sons[4] were born of their union (in 1660 and 1661).  Yet, it was not a good marriage. 

1661 also saw the death of d’Artagnan’s old patron, Cardinal Mazarin.  One can imagine the loyal Gascon was at his side when he gave up the ghost.  Like Richelieu before him, Mazarin hand-picked his successor, Jean Baptiste Colbert, and advised the twenty-three year old King to take up the reins of government himself. 

To a man accustomed to action, as d’Artagnan assuredly was, times of peace could prove more trying than the harshest campaign.  In the autumn after Mazarin’s death, our redoubtable Musketeer found himself in the curious position of jailer to disgraced finance minister Nicholas Fouquet.  Fouquet was a man with two outstanding flaws: conspicuous consumption and arrogance – never a good mix when dealing with a suspicious monarch.  Suspected of funneling state money into the construction of a lavish villa, Vaux-le-Vicomte, Colbert engineered Fouquet’s arrest; the King would only entrust the deed to d’Artagnan, who saw it done at Nantes on September 5, 1661.  For the next four years it was d’Artagnan’s duty to escort Fouquet from prison to prison and watch over him during his trial at the Bastille; finally, on January 16, 1665, d’Artagnan discharged his duty by delivering Fouquet to the fortress of Pignerol in the Alps – the dreary prison where the former finance minister would spend the balance of his life . . . 

Paris in the springtime is no doubt a lovers’ delight.  For d’Artagnan, however, the spring of 1665 illuminated perhaps his greatest failure – that of a husband and family man.  Embittered by his long absences, by his rising debt (he paid out-of-pocket to make sure his Musketeers looked as splendid as possible), Mme. de Chanlecy renounced their common property and retired to the convent of Saint-Croix to raise their sons.  No record remains describing d’Artagnan’s thoughts on the matter, nor his actions, but one might surmise he felt the lifting of a weight.  Now, he could concentrate solely upon his brothers-in-arms, the Musketeers. 

And by 1667, d’Artagnan’s de facto command of the King’s Grand Musketeers became official when Louis XIV officially invested him as capitaine-lieutenant, replacing the Duc de Nevers.  That same year, on campaign in Flanders, he attained the rank of Cavalry Brigadier, and soon after was ennobled with the title of Comte d’Artagnan.  His men truly became his family.  He presided over their marriages and christenings, fretted over them and made sure they had the proper accoutrements, paying from his own purse if the situation demanded it.  When needed, he dispensed justice that was harsh but fair.  All the while, d’Artagnan kept the King’s best interests in the forefront of his mind. 

For his part, Louis XIV trusted d’Artagnan implicitly.  When a courtier dared argue with His Majesty, it was d’Artagnan who handled the offender’s arrest, with “a certain tact and consideration”[5] that earned him the respect of friend and foe, alike.  And, in 1672, when the town of Lille needed a governor, it was d’Artagnan whom the King dispatched. 

The governorship of Lille was a low point in d’Artagnan’s life – and the only failure to tarnish an otherwise exemplary record.  Taken by the French in 1667 and badly damaged, the Flemish bastion of Lille was in the process of getting new ramparts when d’Artagnan took it over from the former governor, Maréchal d’Humières, who had fallen afoul of the King.  By nature courteous, though blunt, d’Artagnan nevertheless lost his temper over what he perceived as the civilian engineers’ lack of respect for his office – in reality, they felt it a bother to report their every action to the governor.  Nor did they appreciate d’Artagnan’s constant inspections of their work.  Letters flew between Lille and the Court, revealing a side of d’Artagnan heretofore unseen: a penchant for argumentative bickering and a preoccupation with minutiae.  Still, the King and his minister of war, M. Louvois, sided most often with the aging Musketeer, and even when he was markedly in the wrong they couched their rebukes in praise.  But, with war in Holland eminent, the King thought it best to settle business of Lille once and for all.  He reinstated Maréchal d’Humières as governor and recalled d’Artagnan to take command of the Grand Musketeers, on campaign with the King in the Spanish Low Countries . . . 

Maastricht.  Bisected by the Meuse River, it was a Dutch city protected by formidable ramparts, bastions, and demilunes, well-provisioned and well-manned.  Its commander, M. de Fariaux, the Baron de Mande, was an expatriate Frenchman who had fought Maréchal Turenne[6] to a standstill some seventeen years earlier.  Maastricht was one of the best-fortified towns in Europe, and it was the key to Louis XIV’s campaign against Holland. 

The siege of Maastricht commenced on June 10th, 1673, organized by the brilliant military engineer, Sébastien Vauban.  Under the watchful eyes of the King, himself, the French dug trenches, parallels and contravallations meant to deny the Dutch the ability to launch sorties in retaliation.  By the 24th of June, Vauban had ringed Maastricht with forty thousand men and more than fifty cannon. 

The Grand Musketeers took their place before a great demilune protecting the Gate of Tongres; at ten o’clock on the night of the 24th, French cannon began a bombardment in concert with an infantry attack led by the young Duke of Monmouth.  It was a determined assault, desperate and bloody, but the French succeeded in gaining a foothold in the Gate; by dawn, d’Artagnan was seen rallying his surviving Musketeers as reinforcements hurried to relieve them.  The Dutch, however, did not remain idle.  During a lull in the fighting, M. de Fariaux ordered his sappers to mine the Tongres Gate.  He would blow the enemy off the demilune.  An explosion ripped through the French position, though it failed to displace them – in their haste, the Dutch had not filled the tunnels with enough powder.  But, the blast sowed disorder in the French ranks, disorder that the Dutch tried to capitalize on.

Frantic, Monmouth sent word to d’Artagnan.  And though he was exhausted from the previous night’s fighting, the capitaine-lieutenant of the Musketeers led his men back into battle.  On June 25th, 1673, amid the ferocious crash of cannon and muskets, surrounded by a scrum of writhing bodies splashed with blood and soot, Charles de Batz-Castelmore, Comte d’Artagnan died with a musket ball in his throat.  Four of his beloved Musketeers were killed carrying his body back to the French lines . . . 

All of France mourned the loss of d’Artagnan, a man of singularly noble virtue who put the demands of King and Country over those of his person.  In the years to come, men of letters – men like Courtilz and Dumas – would recount his tale, often embellishing it, adding a wholly unneeded gloss in the process.  Millions more would learn of his exploits thanks to the movies.  Still, the most profound epitaph appears on the base of a statue of a Musketeer, near the spot where d’Artagnan died at Maastricht.  It reads:

Un Pour Tous, Tous Pour Un

“One For All, All For One” 


*   *   *



[1] Different dates are given: as early as 1610 and as late as 1623.
[2] The Franco-Spanish War.
[3] Sub-lieutenant, the third-in-command after the King and the capitaine-lieutenant.  Though seemingly a demotion from captain in the Gardes, the position in the Musketeers was a huge step up the social ladder, as Musketeer officers had virtually unrestricted access to the King.
[4] Both, somewhat unimaginatively, named Louis.
[5] Hall, Geoffrey, D’Artagnan: The Ultimate Musketeer (Boston 1964)
[6] Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne (1611-1675); his action during the campaigns of 1644-47 helped bring an end to the Thirty Years’ War.

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James Enge

This is a great piece of work, full of interesting detail.

Ever looked at the other famous Gascon, the historical Cyrano de Bergerac? I got interested in his space-voyage stuff, but I don’t know too much about the guy himself.

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