Baron de Rullecourt

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Baron de Rullecourt

DeRullecourt 1780.jpg

The name of the leader of the French invasion of Jersey in January 1781 which ended ignominiously with defeat in the Battle of Jersey has gone down in history as Baron de Rullecourt, but this was a title he appears to have assumed.
And some say he was not French, either

So who was the commander of the French army?

Richard Mayne's book The Battle of Jersey (1981), which is viewed as the definitive history of the Battle of Jersey, says that he was born near Lille on 9 July 1744, making him 36 years old at the time of the battle.

"His father was a secretary to the King of France, but was unable to keep his son on the straight and narrow path, and at a very early age the latter was arrested by the parliament of the province. He then fled to Spain, becoming one of the bodyguards of His Catholic Majesty in a Flemish company, and in 1767 he became a Captain of Infantry. He later left for Poland and took command of the Regiment of Massalsky. After leaving Poland with a price on his head, he returned to France and served in the Regiment of the Hussars of Nassau."

Mayne records that de Rullecourt was second in command of the Prince of Nassau's abortive raid on Jersey in 1779.

However, an article headlined The face of defeat, by Rob Shipley in the Jersey Evening Post of 5 January 2007, marking the 226th anniversary of the battle, says that de Rullecourt was actually a Belgian by the name of Philippe Charles Felix Macquart, described in today's terms as a 'mercenary', or a 'soldier of fortune' as they were known in the 18th century.

"For a start, he wasn't French, although he was happy to lead French troops if the price was right. His full name was Philippe-Charles-Felix Macquart and he was born in an area of Flanders once confusingly known as the Austrian Netherlands. Quite where the title Baron de Rullecourt came from is not clear, although a French website that provides a biographical detail or two says that we are dealing with un aventurier qui avait pris le titre de Baron de Rullecourt. That avait pris - 'had taken' - suggests that the title was assumed rather than conferred as any sort of honour." [1]

A Popular History of Jersey, written by the Rev Alban E Ragg and published in 1896, says that the 'Baron' was aged between 40 and 50 when he led the 1781 invasion force, and was connected to 'many Spanish families of distinction' and had 'acquired the rudiments of military art in Spain'.

In 1779 he sailed as second-in-command with the Prince of Nassau on an expedition to capture Jersey. The attempted invasion was a complete failure. Although a landing was attempted in St Ouen's Bay, none of the attacking force even set foot on Island soil. The 'Baron' tried again two years later, landing at La Rocque, marching on St Helier and losing to Peirson in the battle in the Royal Square.

Extraordinary courage

According to the Rev Ragg, de Rullecourt was a man of 'extraordinary courage, mendaciousness and audacity, fierce and violent in temper, impulsive, deficient in prudence, and mingling giddiness of spirit with morose sullennness'. He also says that de Rullecourt was capable of great cruelty. On the way to Jersey, storms held up the invasion force for many days in the shelter of Chausey. During the wait for the weather to clear, he split the skull of one of his soldiers who complained about the harsh conditions. Allegedly, another man was chained to a low-water rock to be drowned by the incoming tide because he had complained about the poor quality of the rations.

General Charles François da Périer Dumouriez, who was appointed Commandant of Cherbourg and was behind the 1779 and 1781 French expeditions to take Jersey, describes the man he appointed to lead the second attack in quite disparaging terms:

"A roué in every sense of the word, head over ears in debt, who pays his creditors with sword-thrusts and then puts himself at the head of those light-fingered gentry, the Luxembourg Volunteers, who pillaged Normandy from end to end as the marched along."

He added:

"De Rullecourt would have succeeded had he been in command of a troop of regulars and possessed more experience and less confidence."

Family background

The foregoing is all that has been published in recent times about de Rullecourt/Macquart, but much more is actually known about him and his family, and although he might not actually have been the 'Baron' he claimed to be, it is unlikely that he would have risen through the ranks as an officer without an aristocratic family background. And there seems little doubt that he actually was French, born of a family which originated in Orléans, related to Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc).

A younger son established a branch of the family, from which de Rullecourt was descended, in the Artois area of Flanders (Flandres) in the early 17th century, but this area, which has changed hands many times, was part of France then, and still was at the time when de Rullecourt was born. Belgium did not exist as an independent country until 1830.

The family appears in Volume 12 of Francois-Alexandre Aubert de la Chesnaye des Bois' Dictionnaire de la noblesse, published in Paris in 1778, three years before the Battle of Jersey, under the heading 'de Rullecourt'.

Although French genealogist Bruno Bernarde-Michel reveals in a 2010 web blog that the major research into the Macquart family was carried out by Philippe Charles Felix himself, there is no reason to doubt the basic ancestry in the Dictionnaire de la noblesse. Bernarde-Michel reveals that Macquart/de Rullecourt submitted a petition to the Chambre des Comptes in 1776 to obtain the registration of documents proving his direct descendance from Raoul de Macquart, a nobleman in 1317, and that a copy of this petition is in the archives of Ulry de l'Escale (Bar-le-Duc).

What the Dictionnaire de la noblesse reveals is that Philippe Charles Felix Macquart seems to have upgraded his status from that of Seigneur de Rullecourt, en Artois which is the title accorded to his father, Charles Felix Macquart, to that of 'Baron'. He describes Philippe as 'dit' - 'called' - le Baron de Rullecourt, Chevalier, Seigneur de Dainville, la Gendronnierre, les Poissonnieres Saint-Colme, etc, and gives his date of birth as 9 July 1744, which agrees with Richard Mayne and would make him only 36 at the time of the Battle of Jersey.

Interestingly, in the 1776 petition to the Chambre des Comptes in Paris by Philippe and his relation Philippe Joseph Massiet, he describes himself as Philippe Charles Félix Macquart, chevalier, seigneur de Rullecourt, Dainville, la Gandronnière, Saint-Cosme et autre lieux, which suggests that the self-elevation to 'Baron' must have been brought about by some delusions of grandeur in the lead-up to the two expeditions to Jersey. Perhaps he was anticipating the promotion to General and other honours supposedly promised him by King Louis XVI had he succeeded in his attempt to capture Jersey.

The family tree shows that Philippe, 'Baron' de Rullecourt, was the son of Charles Felix Macquart and Marie Francoise Pélagie Philippo. He had a sister Caroline Pelagie.

The 'Baron' married Marie Félicité du Wissel, daughter of Antoine and Marie d'Allington, and they had two daughters, Marc Félicité and Philippe Adélaide.

A detailed study of the family by French genealogist David Hamelin in 2001-02 calls into question some of the information provided in the 1776 petition, but provides detailed references to primary sources which confirm the basic lineage back to 1317, including the marriage of Philippe Macquart in 1536 to Jeanne du Lys, niece of Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc).


Notes and references

  1. If de Rullecourt was born in Flanders, which is by no means certain, it was not at the time part of Belgium because the country did not exist until 1830, when it seceded from the Netherlands, which also did not exist until 1815. Flanders was French in the mid-18th century
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