The real three musketeers: the historical Athos, Porthos and Aramis (and d’Artagnan) revealed
The musketeers, made famous by Alexandre Dumas and the many films his stories inspired, are the most well-known of the regiments of ancien regime France. Moreover, the heroes of Dumas’s stories – d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis – have real historical counterparts too. Historian Dr Josephine Wilkinson separates their lives from legend
The origins of the musketeers can be traced to 1600, when Henri IV formed the carabins, a unit of light cavalry armed with long guns called arquebuses, who became known for their marksmanship. In 1615, during the regency of Louis XIII, the carabins were disbursed among other light cavalry units, where their skills suited them for reconnaissance missions.
But then in 1622, the same Louis, wanting his own special regiment, reformed the unit in readiness for an expedition against the Huguenots. He replaced the arquebuses with muskets, creating the King’s Musketeers.
The real musketeers
From the beginning, the musketeers were an elite regiment. Almost all recruits were nobility, although military prowess remained the main requirement. They were largely a young regiment, with men joining at the age of 16 or 17.
Recruits were predominantly Gascons or, more specifically, Béarnais, who were renowned for their bravery, but also perhaps preferred in honour of Henri IV, who also hailed from that region. Initially, they had their own captain, but Louis XIII was so proud of them that, in 1634, he appointed himself captain and created the post of captain-lieutenant, who managed the day-to-day running of the regiment.
The musketeers, who comprised both infantry and cavalry, were skilled in swordsmanship and firearms. How they served varied according to whether France was at peace or at war. During peacetime, they served as escort for the king and staged mock battles as court entertainment. Louis XIV particularly loved to show them off in military reviews. They accompanied the king to the front during wartime, led assaults at sieges, performed dangerous manoeuvres and served as sentries at the king’s door.
The musketeers were based in Paris near the Louvre, but in 1682 Louis XIV moved his court to the Palace of Versailles. Here, a detachment of musketeers stood ready to fulfil any orders he might have. These included carrying out sensitive tasks, such as arresting important persons.
The musketeers’ real rivalry with Cardinal Richelieu’s guard
Cardinal Richelieu, first minister to Louis XIII, had his own guard. His policy was to deny the nobility higher office, thereby curbing their power and making them reliant upon the king for position and favour. Since most musketeers were noblemen, this caused much resentment, which spilled into rivalry between the two regiments.
Duels, or ‘meetings’ were infamous and looked upon as sport by the king and his minister. When Cardinal Mazarin replaced Richelieu, he maintained this policy. However, Mazarin also attempted to place his infant nephew, Philippe Jules Mancini, the future duc de Nevers, in command of the musketeers. This was seen as outrageous, and one of those who opposed him in this was the current captain-lieutenant, Troisvilles (the real-life equivalent of Monsieur de Tréville from Dumas’ novels). Mazarin solved the problem in 1646 by simply disbanding the regiment, stating that it was not required while the king, Louis XIV, was a minor.
The musketeers had, by now achieved almost legendary status, and, in 1657, they were reinstated with Louis XIV as captain and the 15-year-old Nevers as captain-lieutenant. It soon became obvious that a senior man should have the command, and the post of sub-lieutenant was created, which would eventually be filled by the real-life d’Artagnan.
Meanwhile, Mazarin had formed his own guard, which he relinquished to Louis XIV in 1660. Three years later, this became the second company of musketeers, also captained by the king, with Nevers as captain-lieutenant. In time, there would be little difference between the two companies, who were mainly distinguishable by the colour of their horses: grey for the first company, black for the second.
The musketeers participated in many battles, most notably the siege of La Rochelle (1627–28), the storming of Rouvroi (1632), the battle of the Dunes (1658) and the siege of Candia (1669). They were deployed during the Nine Years’ War (1688–97) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14).
Their last battle would be at the battle of Fontenoy in 1745, during the War of the Austrian Succession. Thereafter, Louis XV (1710–74) used them for ceremonial duties only; his successor Louis XVI (1754–93) disbanded them in 1776, although Louis XVIII reinstated them for 18 months in 1814–15 upon his accession during Napoleon’s exile.
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The regiment had, nevertheless, caught the public’s imagination and their memory would be revived in the most vivid way when Alexandre Dumas published Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844) as a serial in the newspaper Le Siècle.
Who were the three musketeers?
Dumas had found his heroes in the pseudo-memoir Mémoire de Monsieur d’Artagnan by Gatien Courtilz de Sandras, but he made them his own. He also made them several years older than Courtiltz’s characters, so that they would be able participate in the thrilling siege of La Rochelle and the ‘affair of the queen’s diamonds’.
What Dumas may not have known was that d’Artagnan and his companions were real people.
The real d’Artagnan: Charles de Batz de Castelmore
Charles de Batz de Castelmore was born c1613/15 at Château Castelmore, near Lupiac in southwestern France, as a younger son of a recently ennobled but relatively poor family. He joined the Gardes, an elite regiment belonging to the king's household, where he served under the command of François de Guillon Des Essarts in 1635, using his mother’s family name, d’Artagnan, as his nom de guerre.
D’Artagnan saw action at several of the sieges that took place in the 1640s. In 1641, he accompanied the Comte d’Harcourt on a mission to England, returning after the death of Louis XIII. He entered the musketeers in 1644, and, after the regiment was disbanded, served Mazarin. In this role he undertook several secret missions, including liaising between Mazarin and his supporters when the minister was exiled during the Fronde. He was later entrusted with the arrest of the superintendent of finances, Foucquet, and the courtier, Lauzun.
He became part of the royal household, holding captaincies of the royal aviary and the deer hounds. He also accompanied Louis XIV as he travelled to Saint-Jean-de-Luz to marry María-Teresa, Infanta of Spain.
In 1659, D’Artagnan married the widowed Charlotte-Anne de Chanlecy, with whom he had two sons. The marriage broke down in 1665, probably due to the strain of separation when d’Artagnan served as Foucquet’s gaoler.
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He was, however, foremost a soldier, and he became captain of the Gardes in 1656. Two years later, he was appointed sub-lieutenant of the newly reinstated musketeers and would become captain-lieutenant of that regiment and brigadier of the cavalry in 1667. After a brief stint as governor of Lille, d’Artagnan would take part in the siege of Maastricht in 1673, where he was killed in action on 25 June of that year.
The real Athos: Armand de Sillègue d’Athos d’Auteville
Dumas’s Athos was the eldest of the group, the ideal of nobility, worldly-wise and bitter, hiding a devastating secret in the bottom of a glass.
The historical Athos was Armand de Sillègue d’Athos d’Auteville, who was born c1615, the younger of two sons. All that is known about him is that he joined the musketeers in 1640 or 1641 and that he died in Paris on 21 December 1643.
The record of his death and burial is kept in the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris:
Procession, service and burial of the late Armand Athos dautuviele [sic], musketeer of the king’s guard, gentleman of Béarn, taken close to the market at the Pré-aux-Clercs.
The word ‘taken’ suggests a violent death, leading historians to believe that Athos died as a result of a duel. The grassland of Pré-aux-Clercs was a popular spot for this activity.
The real Porthos: Isaac de Porteau
The historical figure behind loyal, vain and lovable Porthos was Isaac de Porteau. Born to a Huguenot family at Pau c.1617, he made his appearance on the world stage in the early 1640s as a Garde serving under Des Essarts.
While it is assumed that he later joined the musketeers, no proof of this exists. Porteau had returned to his native Béarn by 1650, where is found serving as a subaltern of the munitions guard at Navarrenx, working alongside his brother, Jean, who also held a military post in the town.
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Porteau’s life after that is a mystery, although local tradition has it that he died a man of some standing in 1670. Porthos was Dumas’s favourite among his musketeers. In creating him, he was inspired by his own much-loved father, a man of larger-than-life character and a highly successful soldier.
The real Aramis: Henri d’Aramitz
For Dumas, Aramis is a young man who was studying for the priesthood before he joined the musketeers. Mired in political intrigue, he is the only one of the four to remain alive as the Musketeers trilogy ends.
Aramis is arguably the most complex of Dumas’s musketeers. His historical counterpart is Henri d’Aramitz, born c1620 at Aramitz in Béarn. His was a very old aristocratic family, who first entered the historical record in 1376, and who were recently converted Huguenots.
Aramitz was abbé laïque, or lay-abbot, of the abbey at Aramitz – although he did not manage the abbey, he collected its revenues and tithes. The religious connection was unknown to Dumas, who took Aramis’s piety from Rotondis, a character he had found in Courtiltz de Sandras, and who was about to enter the church.
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Aramitz joined the musketeers in the summer of 1640, serving under Troisvilles. He would remain for several years, but it is unknown what rank he achieved. He had returned to Béarn by February 1650, where he married Jeanne de Béarn-Bonasse. The couple had two sons and two daughters, the youngest of whom was born after Aramitz’s return Paris in 1654. Aramitz is last seen in February 1657, where he and his wife witnessed the marriage contract of his sister-in-law. He died prior to September 1681, when his second son, Clément, inherited the family property after the elder son, Armand, died without issue.
The real Monsieur de Tréville: Jean-Arnaud du Peyrer de Troisvilles
Dumas’s musketeers served under Tréville, whose historical counterpart was Jean-Arnaud du Peyrer de Troisvilles. Born in 1598 at Oloron-Sainte-Marie in Béarn, Troisvilles became a cadet in a regiment of the Gardes in 1616 and joined the musketeers in 1625. He saw action at the siege of La Rochelle before being promoted to captain-lieutenant in 1634. He would hold this post until the musketeers were disbanded 12 years later.
Troisvilles was also a courtier, holding the post of gentleman of the king’s bedchamber. He and his brother-in-law, Des Essarts, as noblemen, disapproved of Richelieu’s policies and saw him as an enemy. They were briefly exiled from court following a plot against the cardinal.
Upon the reinstatement of the musketeers, Troisvilles conceded his former post to Nevers. He was now more interested in looking after his estates in Béarn. He died in 1672.
The Three Musketeers: not inseparable, but related
Dumas described Athos, Porthos and Aramis as the 'Three Inseparables': that may not be the case, but certainly, they and Troisvilles were related.
Troisvilles’ mother was Marie d’Aramitz, making him first cousin to Henri d’Aramitz. Porteau’s cousin, Anne d’Arrac, married Gédéon de Rague, to whose family Aramitz’s mother belonged. This, in turn, brought Porteau into kinship with Troisvilles. Athos’s mother was also related to Troisvilles’ family; although the connection is not precisely known, Athos is sometimes described as first cousin once removed to Troisvilles.
It is possible that Troisvilles assisted the young men as they embarked on their military careers. D’Artagnan had no connection to the others, although he and his captain-lieutenant were naturally acquainted. There is, however, nothing to suggest that any of them were friends.
Courtilz stated that they were brothers, but this is clearly incorrect. Nevertheless, that he felt he could describe a close relationship might suggest an enduring tradition of friendship.
Dr Josephine Wilkinson is a historian with a particular interest in 17th-century France, Her books include Louis XIV: The Real King of Versailles (Amberley, 2019) and The Man in the Iron Mask: The Truth about Europe's Most Famous Prisoner (Amberley, 2021)