Friday, July 3, 2015

Lettres de Cachet

Lettres de cachet (French “letter of the sign [or signet]”, pronunciation: lɛtʁ də kaʃɛ) were letters signed by the king of France and countersigned one of his ministers, and closed with the royal seal or cachet. They contained orders directly from the king, often to enforce arbitrary actions and judgments that could not be appealed.

State lettres de cachet were sent by the government in the interests of society, either to maintain public order or to assure the proper functioning of institutions. In the first case, a public authority (in Paris the lieutenant general of police) might obtain from the king the orders for someone’s detention for a limited period of time, or a public prosecutor would demand a lettre de cachet for the arrest of an accused person before trial. In the second case, the king might use a lettre de cachet to summon political bodies (such as the Estates-General), to order them to discuss a particular matter or to exclude from their meetings some person or persons considered undesirable. Lettres de cachet were also used to arrest suspect foreigners or spies. They were also granted to private persons for action on another individual. Couched in very brief, direct terms, a lettre de cachet simply commanded the recipient to obey the orders therein without delay, giving no explanation.

The best-known lettres de cachet, however, were penal, by which a subject was sentenced without trial and without an opportunity of defense to imprisonment in a state prison or an ordinary jail, confinement in a convent or a hospital, transportation to the colonies, or expulsion to another part of the realm, or from the realm altogether. While serving the government as a silent weapon against political adversaries or dangerous writers and as a means of punishing culprits of high birth without the scandal of a lawsuit, the lettres de cachet had many other uses.

Obviously, a device such as the lettre de cachet could be used quite arbitrarily, but research has discounted the common 18th-century belief that lettres de cachet were sometimes delivered blank, though duly signed and countersigned, so that the recipient had only to fill in the name of a personal enemy in order to be rid of him. It was also mistakenly believed that there was an illicit trade in blank lettres de cachet. On the contrary, research has shown that lettres de cachet were delivered only in accordance with a well-defined procedure and after a serious inquiry had been conducted into the grounds of the demand, especially when the demand was made by private persons.

The effect of a lettre de cachet was to initiate and enforce the imprisonment of an individual in a state fortress, particularly the Bastille, or in a convent or hospital. That the duration of the imprisonment was not necessarily specified in the lettre de cachet served to aggravate the arbitrary character of the measure taken. Nor was there any legal mechanism for appeal against a lettre de cachet; release, no less than detention, depended entirely upon the king’s pleasure. In the law of the ancien régime, the lettre de cachet was thus an expression of that exercise of justice that the king reserved to himself, independently of the law courts and their processes, just as he reserved the right to grant lettres de grâce, or pardons, to persons who had been convicted by the courts.

Lettres were employed by the police in dealing with prostitutes, and on their authority lunatics were shut up in hospitals and sometimes in prisons. The wealthy sometimes bought such lettres to dispose of unwanted individuals. They were often used by heads of families as a means of correction, for example, for protecting the family honour from the disorderly or criminal conduct of sons. Wives, too, took advantage of them to curb the profligacy of husbands and vice versa. In reality, the secretary of state issued them in a completely arbitrary fashion, and in most cases the king was unaware of their issue.

In this respect, the lettres de cachet were a prominent symbol of the abuses of the monarcy. Protests against the lettres de cachet were made continually by the parlement of Paris and by the provincial parlements, and often also by the Estates-General.

Legal Justification

Lettre de cachet ordering Jean-François Marmontel's detention at the Bastille, signed by Louis XV in 1759

The power to issue lettres de cachet was a royal privilege recognized by the French monarchic civil law that developed during the 13th century, as the Capetian monarchy overcame its initial distrust of Roman law. The principle can be traced to a maxim which furnished a text of the Pandects of Justinian: in their Latin version, "Rex solutus est a legibus", or "The king is released from the laws." "The French legal scholars interpreted the imperial office of the Justinian code in a generic way and arrived at the conclusion that every 'king is an emperor in his own kingdom,' that is, he possesses the prerogatives of legal absolutism that the Corpus Juris Civilisattributes to the Roman emperor." This meant that when the king intervened directly, he could decide without heeding the laws, and even contrary to the laws. This was an early conception, and in early times the order in question was simply verbal; some letters patent of Henry III of France in 1576 state that François de Montmorency was "prisoner in our castle of the Bastille in Paris by verbal command" of the late king Charles IX.

In the 14th century the principle was introduced that the order should be written, and hence arose the lettre de cachet. The lettre de cachet belonged to the class of lettres closes, as opposed to lettres patentes, which contained the expression of the legal and permanent will of the king, and had to be furnished with the seal of state affixed by the chancellor. The lettres de cachet, on the contrary, were signed simply by a secretary of state for the king; they bore merely the imprint of the king's privy seal, from which circumstance they were often called, in the 14th and 15th centuries, lettres de petit signet or lettres de petit cachet, and were entirely exempt from the control of the chancellor.

Victims of Lettre de cachet

One example from the reign of Louis XIV are the letters de cachet regarding Marie Marguerite Monvoisin and the other members of the famous Poison Affair who were incarcerated for life by lettre de cachet. Marguerite (b. 1658), was the daughter of La Voisin and a main witness in the Poison Affair. It was her statement, made after the execution of her mother, that implicated the royal mistress Madame de Montespan in the process, causing Louis XIV to eventually disrupt the whole investigation and classify it as secret. In Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, d'Artagnan escapes prosecution for the death of Milady by means of an ambiguously worded lettre de cachet given to Milady for her own use by the Cardinal de Richelieu.


Use in the Game

Gamemasters may find it more interesting to follow Dumas and the prevailing thought of his times and include blank lettres de cachet in their setting. Such lettres, already sealed by the king and countersigned, only awaiting a name to be filled in before execution of the letter, would make an excellent plot device or McGuffin. Similarly stopping or taking control of an illicit trade in blank lettres de cachet may be a worthy goal in a historically based campaign.


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