St Maximin: The Bonapartes and The Boyer Foyer

Juliet Young (November 2006)

Whilst helping research the excursion this month I uncovered an interesting story surrounding the St Maximin Boyer family. It spotlights St Maximin at the height of revolutionary fervour: a fascinating microcosm of what was happening throughout France, swept even further into the bloodthirsty fray by the ambition of a certain Lucien Bonaparte...

Lucien, probably the least known Bonaparte brother, was born in 1775, 6 years after Napoleon. He was educated, like his brothers, in military schools in France before returning to Corsica to become a rising star in the radical Jacobin party in 1789, the year the Bastille was stormed. Everything, then, was unstable, and so it’s not surprising that just 4 years later - whilst Napoleon was serving in Italy and the Parisian guillotines were running with royal blood - Corsica turned on the Bonaparte family who fled, virtually destitute, to Toulon.

Lucien badly needed a job, so, in the first of many dodgy deals, he falsified his birth certificate backwards 2 years, and got a job guarding the armoury at St Maximin – below his status and ability in his opinion - but it brought in a welcome 100 francs a month.

St Maximin then was a largish market town with 4000 inhabitants, all of whom had suffered considerably over the previous few years, and whose peasants were seriously revolting. The winter of 88/89 had been the worst ever in the region, and all crops had failed; starvation led to violence, and the embers sizzling in Paris flared up into a mighty conflagration amongst the hungry St Maximinois. Religious houses were being closed down and in St Maximin this had considerable impact – the cult of Mary Magdelene was definitely over and money from rich pilgrims had stopped flowing in. Now the basilique had been requisitioned as a storehouse: hay in the choir, flour in the nave, dried fruit in the chapels and in the apse a gunpowder furnace was burning, like everything else in the town, to the point of combustion.

It was not even called Saint Maximin any more. On 25 vendémaire, Year I, (16 October 1793) the law was passed banning “Saint” prefixes. St Maximin became “Marathon”. (Interestingly, I also discovered that Saint Nazaire became Sanary, but obviously never changed back.)

This was the world that 19 year-old Lucien entered, when he booked himself in at the inn where the daughter of the house, 23 year-old Christine, soon fell under his charm. He must have had a lot of it, too, because he was not much to look at, it seems. Contemporaries describe him as having arms too long, a body too short, a sneering mouth and small, peering, piggy eyes which blinked all the time. He could talk the hind legs of a donkey, though. Christine wasn’t exactly Miss Revolution, either – illiterate, brown and freckled with a big flat nose. However she had a soft smile and was “bonne comme une ange”.

Lucien knew his family would reject this marriage, so he re-brandished his altered birth certificate, and married Christine on 15 floréal, Year II (4 May 1794) without their permission. He was right, Napoleon was furious when he found out, and, swearing he’d never meet his sister-in-law, broke relations with his brother. (They always had a rocky “je t’aime, moi non plus” sort of relationship.)

Meanwhile Lucien had been wowing the St Maximin Jacobins with his oratory. He became powerful in the community – taking over decisions about the fate of the continual stream of political prisoners, locked up in the monks’ cells in the Couvent, awaiting either release (rare) or transport to the scaffolds of Orange. Mistral credits him with so much influence that he stopped the potential ecological disaster of harvesting the Ste Baume forest for firewood that winter. He is most famous for having saved the famous basilica organ from being melted down to make more cannons, by cunningly arranging for the Marseillais to be played on it whilst senior revolutionaries were inspecting the sacristy - a rumour almost certainly started by him…

But power breeds enemies. He was fired, and after trying to steal another local plum job from a much more suitable man, was driven out of town, and had to settle for another guard position, this time at the arsenal at St-Chamas (see Restaurant Review!) A warrant was issued for his arrest, and he was locked up in Aix prison (recently the scene of mob slaughter, the walls thick with still-congealing, stinking blood) for 6 weeks until his brother had him released.

Christine joined him in Paris, where he rapidly rose to become President of the Council, and the chief and pivotal plotter in the dramatic coup which placed the imperial crown on Napoleon’s brow, thus completely reversing the revolution.

His triumph lasted only a few months. In 1800, Christine died in childbirth. He wrote: “Immense douleur de ma vie, Christine Boyer, ma femme, vient de mourir à 24 ans…Ame douce et pure.” (Actually even here he was lying - she was 29!)

He went on to have all sorts of adventures, including being imprisoned in England, reforming and becoming a member of the Académie Française, remarrying yet another wife Napoleon disapproved of, being made an Italian Prince by the Pope for siding with him against Napoleon, and then going over again to his brother’s cause on his return from Elba.

“From little acorns”… St Maximin served as Lucien’s early learning centre and the first proper political stepping stone for his rise to power, leading, ultimately, to the extraordinary crowning of the emperor, and the subsequent changing face of Europe.

He always kept contact with the place, through André Boyer, his brother-in-law, who worked as his secretary, as did other members of the family, right until Lucien’s death in Italy, in 1840.

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