Olive de Lestonnac, La Premiere Dame de Margaux.
Chateau Margaux is owned and run by Corinne Mentzelopoulos and has been since the death of her father in 1980, but she is not the first woman to be at the head of this prestigious vineyard.
In 1652, Olive de Lestonnac, 1er President de Bordeaux and the richest woman in Bordeaux at the time, died at the ripe old age of 80 in her property, Château Margaux. She is most well known for the religious donations she made both during her lifetime and upon her death. It is her father, Pierre, who is credited with creating Chateau Margaux, but it is his daughter, Olive that we have to thank for what is perhaps the first ‘Bordeaux wine Chateau’.
Where did her money and influence come from? She was widowed three times, so it’s tempting to think that a series of advantageous marriages lead to her ending up a rich widow. What is so extraordinary, for the time, is that she seems to have not only kept control of her own, inherited, wealth but made it grow as well as simultaneously making the not inconsiderable wealth of her spouses prosper.
The de Lestonnac family started as merchants, moving into the law and quickly climbing up the ladder of influence and noblesse with every generation.
Her grandfather, Arnaud de Lestonnac, was a successful merchant with an eye for good terroir. He started purchasing plots of land in Margaux and in the Graves. In 1540, he bought land and starting planting vines at what would eventually become La Mission Haut Brion. In the same year he married Marie de Pontac, the only sister of Jean de Pontac (creator of Haut Brion).
Olive’s father, Pierre, was the 4th son of Arnaud, so not entitled to a great inheritance, but it seems he did inherit his father’s acumen for business; continuing his father’s merchant activities, trading in wine but also pastel (woad – an important commodity at the time) and corn. In 1572 he started building wine-making facilities on the family land in the Graves, became a ‘jurat de Bordeaux’ a first step to nobility, and his daughter Olive was born.
The family land around Lamothe-Margaux had been left to his eldest brother. Pierre bought the plots off him and from 1568 to 1596, added other plots to them.
In 1592, at 20 years of age, Olive married the influential Pierre de Thermes. The union was short lived as he died soon after. In 1600, she married again to Louis de Gentils, Baron of Cadillac en Fronsadais, another advantageous marriage but in 1613, still childless, she was once again widowed.
Her father died in 1607. As his only child, she inherited his considerable estate upon his death and as early as 1609 Olive continued buying plots of land in the Médoc.
It is Olive who bought the ‘Maison Noble’ of Lamothe Margaux in 1610, the house that became the heart of Chateau Margaux and which she owned until herdeath. It is the purchase of this ‘noble house’ that brought the whole estate together and created what can be considered the first wine Château of Bordeaux.
She was very involved with the Margaux estate. In the early 1600s documents show her buying agricultural supplies, barrels, etc. for the property but also investing in building her ‘home’. Unusually for the time, she built a property in the country as grand as her town residence, creating a garden à la française including a fountain, adding receptions rooms and a chapel.
In 1617, at 45 years old she married again. Her third husband was Marc-Antoine de Gourgues, Premier Président de la Cour, hence her title 1er Présidente de Bordeaux. She was widowed for the last time in 1627 at 55years old.
Today Margaux seems to be the jewel in the crown of this substantial fortune, but it was just part of the business interests and considerable property Olive managed. Despite being a wife to three husbands, she kept her financial independence throughout her life.
This may sound unusual for the time but a minority of ‘noble’ or ‘bourgeois’ women did exercise power in their own right, playing an important role in managing the fortunes of their families. Not only domestic matters but also dealing with land purchases and rentals, whilst their husbands more concerned with political influence and the law rather than business.
We can only imagine that her father’s example as a successful merchant must have influenced her. The successful management of property meant she made money; she was a woman of means. Her great wealth allowed her to act as a banker to the great and the good of Bordeaux, for financial return but also political influence for her and her husbands. She also lent money to farmers in and around Margaux, calling in loans when it suited her to help further consolidate the estate.
From 1584 until her death in 1652 Her name appears on many sales documents buying, selling and swapping land in Margaux to constitute a single, coherent estate enabling her to rationalise agricultural practices.
Upon her death, she was at the head of one of the largest fortunes in Bordeaux, records show almost 200 different outstanding debts due to her. In her will she left the immense amount of ‘200 000 livres’ to religious causes and other donations to family members.
In 1650, before her death she had already donated to religious orders, donations overseen by her stepdaughter, Catherine de Mullet daughter of her last husband. Amongst these was the rent for the vineyard in the Graves, which lead it to becoming the property of the Lazaristes community in 1682. Theybuilt the Notre Dame d’Aubrion Chapel there and the property became La Mission Haut Brion.
‘La Dame de Margaux’ died at Château Margaux in the autumn of 1652, perhaps she was there for the harvest?
Upon her death her body was transported by boat to the Chartrons where she was buried, with great pomp, alongside her last husband in the Couvent des Carmélites, the convent that she had founded earlier in her life.
It is interesting that she is remembered more for her philanthropic work and gifts to the church than for her influence at Margaux, a creation often credited to her father rather than her. This may be because of her famous aunt, Sainte Jeanne de Lestonnac. Sainte Jeanne lived at the same time as Olive. Also widowed, she founded The Sisters of the Company of Mary Our Lady in 1607, the first religious order of women-teachers approved by the Church. She also died at a great age, 84 and was canonised in 1949.
Her niece was probably among the many Bordeaux elite who supported the cause. It may well have been considered more fitting for a woman of the time to be remembered as a pious contributor to religious causes rather than a hard-hitting businesswoman. In Olive de Lestonnac’s case, the two were not mutually exclusive.
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With thanks to Caroline LE MAOM CF HDR Histoire Moderne
Université de Bordeaux Montaigne, CEMMC – IUF
You can read her research in French: Une redoutable femme d’affaires : la première présidente Olive de Lestonnac (1572-1652). In: Annales du Midi : revue archéologique, historique et philologique de la France méridionale, Tome 118, N°253, 2006. femmes d’affaire. pp. 11-29.
and “La formation d’un grand vignoble. Nouvelles perspectives sur le château Margaux” in Caroline Le Mao et Corinne Marache, Les élites et la terre, Paris A. Colin, 2010, p. 149-157