La M?re Royaume (1540?-1605?)

18 February 2008
La M?re Royaume (1540?-1605?)

At the origin of the famous marmites full of chocolate vegetables sold during the Escalade each December in Geneva is La M?re Royaume. The Escalade celebrates the events of the night of 11/12 December 1602 when the citizens of Geneva repulsed the attempt by the soldiers of Charles-Emmanuel I, the Duke of Savoy, to seize the city. The story as it is now told states that, from her window above the Passage de la Monnaie (i.e. a street within the city), Cath?rine Royaume threw a cauldron of hot soup over a Savoyard intent on opening the city gates. The aggressor was killed.

There is no way nowadays of knowing exactly what happened and disentangling myth from historical reality-as you will see. What we do know is that Cath?rine Cheynel was born in Lyon some time between 1540 and 1545. Her father, Claude Cheynel, was a manufacturer of pewter pots.

Before the year 1563, Cath?rine Cheynel had married Pierre Royaume, another manufacturer of pewter pots, who also came from Lyon. He was her second husband, for she had previously been married to a ma?tre d’armes or fencing master. Like many respectable businessmen, Pierre Royaume favoured the reformed form of the Christian religion. In France, reformers were known as Huguenots and suffered from religious persecution on the part of the Catholics. In 1569, the Royaume family had first sought refuge in Geneva, but soon returned to Lyon. Finally, on 24 August 1572 the St Bartholomew Massacre took place in Paris when the Catholic members of the French court attempted to annihilate the Huguenots. The massacre movement spread to other towns and it became too dangerous to live in Lyon. Three weeks later, on 16 September 1572, Pierre Royaume and his family sought asylum in Geneva.

Here, Pierre Royaume became a money engraver. For this reason, the family had an official residence above the Porte de la Monnaie at the lower end of the Rue de la Corraterie. It would seem that the Royaume family had fourteen children, many of whom did not survive childhood. They were granted citizenship of Geneva in 1598.

Legend has it that Dame Royaume was preparing a rice and vegetable stew in a cauldron on the night of 11/12 December 1602. (In the old Julian calendar used in those days, this was the longest night of the year.) A cooking cauldron is known nowadays in French as une marmite. This immediately presents a difficulty because we are assured that the cauldron was made of pewter. Pewter is a metal that has been used throughout history for kitchen utensils-but it cannot be used for cooking because its melting point is too low! Thus, the idea of a pewter cauldron containing a hot rice and vegetable stew is impossible. A more plausible explanation is that she did indeed throw a pewter pot at an adversary from the window, not one that was being used for cooking but rather an empty one that her husband had made.

On the evening of Saturday, 11 December 1602, some 2,000 troops approached Geneva on foot and horseback from the towns of Bonne and La Roche. They had brought with them short lengths of ladder wrapped in cloth to deaden the sound. These would be assembled together to scale the city walls. Several Savoyard soldiers succeeded in climbing the city wall without being observed. They killed one of the watchmen, Francois Bousezel. Once inside, they made their way towards the city gates with the intention of opening them to let in the soldiers waiting outside. However, before they were able to do so someone fired a shot which raised the alarm. Dame Royaume was one of the people to see the Savoyards approaching the Porte de la Monnaie-from within the city. Another gate, the Porte Neuve, was going to be blown open with explosives, but the guard, Isaac Mercier, reacted quickly by dropping the iron portcullis. The troops waiting outside quickly realized that the alarm had been given, the situation was hopeless and retreated, but the Savoyards inside the city wall were now trapped.

Lanterns were lit and church bells rung. There was great commotion as the entire population turned out to fight the intruders. The next morning fifty-four enemy bodies were counted and eighteen Genevans had lost their lives. Thirteen prisoners, many of them from the Savoyard aristocracy, were tried, found guilty and hanged that same day.
Cath?rine Royaume was not the only householder to take action against the invaders, for many people threw tables, chairs and tableware onto the attackers in the city’s streets that night. Nor was she the only heroine of this cold December night for another lady, Jeanne Piaget, threw a key from her window to the city’s defenders allowing them to open a door to an alleyway and attack the assailants from the rear. Nevertheless, it is Dame Royaume who became famous.

It is therefore perplexing that the earliest existing text about the Escalade makes no mention of the Porte de la Monnaie, or Dame Royaume or a pewter pot. It does say that a woman threw some stones and a barrel from her window. Written some time later, the twenty-ninth verse of the song recounting the Escalade, C? qu’? lain? [That which is above, i.e. God] tells us that someone threw a cauldron without mentioning Dame Royaume, as follows:

A Savoyard round about La Monnaie
Was killed by a great blow from a cooking pot
Thrown from an upstairs window.
He fell stone dead, stretched out.

Nevertheless, in his will of 1676, the grandson of Cath?rine and Pierre Royaume-also known as Pierre-left to his descendants in his will various objects, including "the pot named after the Escalade […] made of pewter and engraved in the manner of Pierre Royaume, my ancestor". This pot was then kept at the Arsenal in Geneva for a number of years, but disappeared during the French occupation of Geneva in 1798.



For over a hundred years before 1602 there had been an alliance between the Swiss cantons (led by Berne) and the French kings. Under the terms of this alliance, Berne and France had gradually extended their influence at the expense of the Duchies of Burgundy and Savoy. Geneva lay at the extreme northern limit of the Duchy of Savoy. In 1526 Geneva declared itself a republic independent of the Duchy of Savoy and signed an alliance of mutual support with Berne and Fribourg. Berne had adopted the new reformed religion and, to reinforce its independence from the Dukes of Savoy, so had Geneva. But in 1559, the Duke Emmanuel-Philibert of Savoy married the King of France’s sister and regained much of his prestige and his territory. Rivalry between Geneva and Savoy became more intense. Then, in 1589 a mercenary army paid for by Geneva and Berne laid waste large parts of the Chablais, including the burning of the Chateau of Ripaille near Thonon, the symbolic seat of the Duchy of Savoy. Duke Charles-Emmanuel I, the son of Emmanuel-Philibert, was determined to have his revenge. He signed a treaty of neutrality with France to make sure it would not interfere and then, on the night of 11/12 December 1602, he sent his troops to take Geneva. They were repulsed. On 21 July 1603 Geneva and Savoy signed a treaty that guaranteed the long-term independence of the city. Celebrating the Escalade every year came to embody the independence of Geneva.