STANDING BY THE STATUE OF D'ARTAGNAN
Imagine you're viewing the towers of Maastricht from the hill of Sint Pieter, on a sunny morning.
You might think for a moment you're in centuries long past. Just stroll downwards along the cornfields, caress a horse
that puts his head out over the barbed wire, and pick a poppy from the grass verge. Walk along the streamlet and the medieval
city walls in the direction of Aldenhof park. It is a relief and a recreation, although, on this very spot, there has
been much clamour of weapons in olden times. A tall statue of cast iron reminds you of this. It represents the famous
musketeer Charles de Batz-Castelmore, seigneur d'Artagnan. He perished during the siege of Maastricht in 1673, in the army
of the French king Louis XIV.
Now close your eyes, and imagine you're a twelve years old schoolboy. There do exist mean criminals in the world, but most people are of good will. Un pour tous, tous pour un, it says on the socle in chiselled letters - One for all, all for one. The bold eyes of the musketeer, who is drawing his sword, speak of firmness. Thus, the statue is a monument to the courage and contempt of death of a noble man who remained true to his king and his comrades.
Seigneur d'Artagnan has become well known all over the world by the nineteenth century novels of Alexandre Dumas.
This flamboyant Paris writer has written voluminous books in a matchless style about the gallant conversations and splendid
sword fights of his hero. The Three Musketeers and its sequels situate the martial exploits of the king's elite troops
in merry ventures that keep carrying the reader along. The coolblooded acts of d'Artagnan contrast sharply with the funky trudging
of his poor servant. Alexandre Dumas found the themes for his stories in a novel by one Courtilz de Sandras from 1701.
The novels of Dumas, in their turn, were a source of inspiration for countless books, plays and movies about d'Artagnan
and his friends Athos, Aramis and Porthos.
But d'Artagnan is not only a myth. In France, every child learns at school that this commander of the king's musketeers was killed in 1673 before the ramparts of Maastricht. The other three musketeers of Dumas did also really exist. However, the genre of the romantic stories with which Dumas had so much success, is not at all suited to give a correct image of history, even though it does provoke curiosity. It doesn't report upon the violent reality of war, with its aftermath of contagious diseases.
In Dumas' books, we don't learn much about the injustice that falls upon the poor farmers
when the passing armies lay them under contributions, quarter rough soldiers on them, or demolish their little houses
whenever they are lying in the field of fire. We don't learn much about the besieged citizens, who are forced to help with
digging the trenches, starve, and are hit by cannon balls that are flying about. And we learn nothing about the beastly
rage of the band of mercenaries, to whom the commanders sometimes would give up a city that surrendered only after a long siege.
Why should he write about the miseries of war? Dumas intended to write books in which the reader could dream away. So, let's forget for a moment the stories of Alexandre Dumas. What did really happen?
The young republic
In 1632, prince Frederik Hendrik of Orange conquered the fortified city of Maastricht from the Catholic Habsburg king of Spain. Ever since, the city was as an outpost in the hands of the Protestant republic of the United Netherlands. The young republic went through its golden age. The Amsterdam owners sent their ships around the world and acquired an enormous riches in a short time. Holland became a refuge for Huguenots and freethinkers of all kinds, and a centre of science and art. Established superpowers like England and France considered this bloom with a mixture of envy and disdain, and tried by turns to trip up the daring Dutchmen. This wasn't easy. During two sea wars against England, the fleet of the admirals Tromp and de Ruyter had remained erect with remarkable ease. But in 1672, the 'year of disaster', the situation became dangerous: there was much discord in Holland about the prominent position of the princes of Orange, which didn't seem to be suited to a republic. Now England, France, Münster and Cologne turned against the Netherlands together.
The Sun King
In those years, the French Sun King, Louis XIV, was building up his baroque palace in Versailles.
He was the soul of the alliance against Holland. Yonder in that little country of frogs by the sea, these princes of Orange
were thinking a great deal of themselves, weren't they? But were they anointed kings like he himself, very Christian majesty by the grace
of God? Were they, like the French kings, standing in a tradition that already began in early medieval times with the
conversion of king Chlodowech? Were they justly laying claim to the Spanish hereditary lands, like he himself, by his
marriage with the Spanish infante Maria Teresia? They were only boors. A country without a king isn't a real country, is it?
France itself, too, couldn't exist without its king: l'Etat, c'est moi.
The French speaking areas in Alsace and Wallonia belonged to the natural territory of France. Louis wished to shift the frontiers of the country to the Rhine. So he declared war on Holland. Fabulist La Fontaine wrote a political fable for his monarch: about the frogs who were ungrateful to the Sun, who was warming them, and revolted against Him. There was, however, one problem: to get to the Rhine, He had to conquer Maastricht. And Maastricht was one of the strongest fortified cities of Europe.
The forty-three years old Sun King, in his very own person, took charge of the siege of Maastricht.
He pitched his tents on the hill of Wolder, next the church. Vauban, a famous fortress engineer, organized the technical
aspects of the siege, like the construction of provisional circumvallations to avert any relief force, and trenches to
approach the city. The English allies were under guidance of the duke of Monmouth, who was a natural son of king Charles II, but born out of
wedlock. D'Artagnan was in control of a company of French shock troops. The attack was to concentrate on the gate of
In 1673, the fort of Sint Pieter, the High and Low Fronts and the Waldeck bastion were not yet existing. But the walls around the city had already been provided with rather large outworks. For instance, north of the gate of Tongeren, there was a seventy metres long and forty metres wide earthen hornwork, perpendicular to the wall, supplied with a brick hiding place. Before the gate, there was lying, among other fortifications, a lunette, revetted with bricks, which was to become known later on as the 'demi-lune des mousquetaires'. South of the gate, next the watergate De Reek, where the Jeker streams into the city, there was another lunette. There were also underground passages to trace and undermine the trenches of approach.
In the night from Saturday the 24-th to Sunday the 25-th of June, the French captured the advanced
lunette before the gate of Tongeren. On Sunday morning, however, the garrison reconquered it with the help of explosives.
The young and unthinking duke of Monmouth now persuaded d'Artagnan, sixty-two years of age, to participate in a
counter attack without sufficient cover. The musketeer had hardly recovered from the fights of the night before. When
he passed a bottleneck, a musket bullet ran through his throat. The duke stepped across his corpse and recaptured the
lunette. After that, the French could make a breach in the city wall within a few days. After a siege that lasted only
thirteen days, the city surrendered.
Not only the musketeers, but also the king himself, loved d'Artagnan. Louis XIV wrote in the evening of that same fatal Sunday in a letter to his wife: "Madame, today I lost d'Artagnan, in whom I had every confidence".
Who was d'Artagnan?
What do we exactly know about this confidant of the Sun King? He was born in 1610 or 1611 in Castelmore castle in Gascogne. He went to the court of Louis XIII in 1627, like many young nobles from Gascogne. He was commander of the 'white' musketeers, thus named after the colour of their horses. In fact, this was the king's lifeguard, which accompanied him everywhere. He accomplished delicate tasks for the use of the crown: like escorting important prisoners and carrying secret messages. He married in 1659, but divorced after a few years from his wife, who had presented him with two sons. In 1672, he became governor of the Flemish city of Lille, which belonged to France since only a couple of years. Here, too, he had to act with tact and authority.
After the capture of Maastricht, the Sun King had a triumphal arc erected in Paris to the
remembrance of this glorious feat of arms: a sculpture on the Porte Saint Denis represents in an allegorical way the
surrender of the city to the king. Furthermore, the king had the siege of Maastricht immortalized on paintings,
he had a scale model built of the city of Maastricht and its surroundings, and he had medals struck.
Yet, the musketeer has in the end become almost as famous as the Sun King. Because the glory of war turned out to be transient: Sic transit gloria mundi. Within five years after the conquering of Maastricht, Louis Quatorze had to abandon the city again, as a concession to the Dutch stadtholder, prince William III of Orange, who married Mary Stuart in 1677 and became king of England later on.
But we erect a statue for the musketeer, like we do for Ivanhoe and Robin Hood. They are symbols for the virtue of fidelity, which every man should maintain inside himself, but which he abandons too often, at least in his own opinion, whenever life asks for compromise.
Reading (in Dutch): d'Artagnan, gevallen voor Maastricht, Stichting Historische Reeks Maastricht, 2003.
(Maastricht, December 2006, H.Reuvers)