Gaspard de Clermont-Tonnere was born in 1688 during the bellicose reign of King Louis XIV.
He was the son of Charles-Henri II and Elisabeth de Massol, and the last direct male descendent of the oldest branch of the Clermonte-Tonnerre family.
Gaspard was known for his brawn rather than his brains.
He became a soldier at 15, was commanding a cavalry regiment by the age of 21, and by the end of his military career had been decorated with numerous military honours. These included commander of the order of Saint-Louis, lieutenant general, and Field Marshal of the cavalry.
Gaspard lived under the rule of three French rulers – King Louis XIV (1638-1715), King Louis XV (1715-1774) and King Louis XVI (1774-1792). Senior soldiers like Gaspard were central figures in all these reigns.
In 1740, a bitter dispute over the succession of a woman – Maria Theresa – to the throne of the Habsburg Empire drew French forces into an eight-year war, the War of Austrian Succession. The war pitted French and Prussian forces together against the incumbent Habsburg family. It was fought in theatres across Europe.
Here his side’s forces defeated those of the Austrian Francis Stephen, husband of Maria Theresa, by laying siege to the Habsburg seat of power in Prague.
Gaspard also took part in the defence of Alsace in 1743. The region had been invaded by the Austrian Prince Charles De Lorraine.
Two years later, fighting now under the command of Maurice de Saxe, he fought with particular distinction at the battle of Fontenoy (1745).
Historical records show that Gaspard was present at the climax at this battle, the capture of the town of Tournai, in the Wallone region of modern Belgium.
On the final day of combat, he was said to have fought at the head of a cavalry unit, protecting his side’s infantry for four hours whilst it fought under terrifying canon fire. Then, after saving the lives of many French soldiers, he led an inspired charge against an enemy cavalry, comprehensively routing the Habsburg loyalists.
It was as a result of Gaspard’s valour in these battles that he was made a Maréchal of France, on 17 September 1747.
The conclusion of the War of Austrian Succession, the peace of Aix-la-Chappelle was signed a few months later.
Leading figure of French nobility
From this point on, Gaspard was destined to be a leading figure of French nobility. But it was a role he took to uneasily.
He was 87 at this point, and doubtless frail despite what the royal scholars wrote about him, but when the king moved from Paris to Versailles Gaspard was duty-bound to follow him. (The French kings of the era disliked Paris for its unruly and rebellious people).
He bought the lordship of Saintry, near to Corbeil, to be close to the young King. But its 54,000 livre price-tag emptied his coffers and he was forced to rely on gifts to live a life befitting of his stature.
In June 1775, he was elevated once more. The King declared his wish “to add to the many glories and honours to which he already so merited, by elevating his much loved Gaspard de Clermont-Tonnerre to the title and dignity of Duke and peer of France.”
But it was a mixed blessing. Though a Dukedom cemented Gaspard’s position among the top tier of French nobles, it also deepened his financial woes.
As a Duke he was duty-bound to offer significant tributes. Whilst other nobles dealt easily with these obligations by organising their demesnes and taxing their own subjects, Gaspard had been at war, neglecting his territory; and he was forced to scramble for funds.
All told, the Duke of Clermont-Tonnerre’s immediate dues to the king amounted to some 3,326 lives. When he had paid the sum he retired to a château in Champlatreux, slightly further from Versailles.
The property was not his own but his wife’s. Antoinette Potier de Novion, daughter of the president of the Parlement de Paris, had taken it as part of her dowry. But it too needed investment – significant structural repairs to the building, and cultivation of its expansive garden.
The garden was completed, as was a picturesque terrace overlooking the Seine. But Gaspard could pay for them only by going into substantial debt.
He became increasingly morose as a result of his financial woes. He died at home in 1781 at the age of 83. He had been a Duke for only six years.