by Janet Ritch
Until March 2012, every scholar addressing the life of Samuel de Champlain has had to confront the ambiguity of his origins. Scholars have been forced to make educated guesses about the year of his birth, ranging from 1567 to 1580, and the religion he was born into, Catholic or Protestant. When Conrad Heidenreich and I wrote Samuel de Champlain before 1604, published by the Champlain Society in 2010, circumstantial evidence of his early career, associated with King Henri IV’s army in Brittany, led us to the conclusion that he was likely born in the mid-1570s. Now, thanks to Jean-Marie Germe of Pont l’Abbé d’Arnoult, France, and to a society named Les Amitiés Généalogiques Canadiennes-Françaises, we know that our hunch was correct. There is no longer any doubt that Samuel de Champlain was baptised on August 13, 1574, and moreover as a Protestant. Jean-Marie Germe discovered the following baptismal certificate in a register from the Temple Saint-Yon which was active in La Rochelle at the time of Champlain’s birth. Here is a diplomatic transcription of the original French document with italics for the missing letters in the expanded abbreviations, followed by a fully edited English translation:
FRENCH: BM Saint-Yon 1573-1575, f. 49v: Le vandredy treziesme jour daougst mil cinq centz soysente et quatorze a este baptize Samuel filz de anthoynne chapeleau et de margerite Le Roy parrain estienne paris mayrenne marye Rousseau Denors N. Girault.
ENGLISH: On Friday the thirteenth day of August, 1574, Samuel, the son of Anthoine Chapeleau and Marguerite Le Roy, was baptized. Godfather: Étienne Paris. Godmother: Marie Rousseau. [Witness:] Denors N. Girault.
When the news of this discovery arrived over a year ago, we were happy to see the confirmation of what we had always suspected because of his first name, Samuel, that Champlain had begun his life as a Protestant, even if he ended it as a Catholic. In the Wars of Religion during that period, many men went back and forth between the Catholic and the Reformed Churches, notably the king of France himself, Henri IV (1553-1610). We had also debunked Jean Liebel’s suggested birth date of 1580, since Champlain would have been 15 years old in 1595 when he was working personally for Henri IV as a fourrier with a few secret missions (as a spy?; cf, H & R, 29, 166-67) during the religious wars in Brittany. Our evidence demonstrates that 15 was generally too young to be entrusted with such responsibilities.
There are two main problems to consider with respect to Samuel de Champlain’s identity in order to be confident this is his baptismal certificate. They are: 1) his surname and 2) the location of the baptism at La Rochelle, as Champlain wrote on a number of occasions that he was from Brouage and never identified himself with La Rochelle. We can’t resolve these problems definitively in the present state of our research, but we can once again propose some reasonable hypotheses.
One notices immediately that Champlain’s father’s name is unstable in comparison with that of his mother, which is always Marguerite Le Roy on those rare occasions when she is cited in official documents. She must have been born in Brouage where Champlain inherited her house with his first cousin, Marie Camaret, before 1619. Marie Camaret was the daughter of Françoise Le Roy, the sister of Marguerite. Conversely, Guillemette Gousse, the wife of Guillaume Allène, Champlain’s uncle, cannot be identified with an aunt of Champlain through the Le Roy family, even if a gift by Allène to Champlain at Cádiz in 1601 (really a codicil to Allène’s will) states: “yo Guillermo Elena, de nascion marselles, natural que soy de la ciudad de Marsella […] digo que yo tengo mucho amor y voluntad a Samuel Zamplen, franses, natural del bruaze en la provincia que llaman santonze que esta pressente por muchas y buenas obras que me a hecho […] y tambien por el amor que le tengo por aver sido yo casado con una tia del suso dicho hermana de su madre…” (I, Guillermo Elena, Marseillise by birth, native as I am of the city of Marseille […], say that I have much love and good will towards Samuel Zamplen, Frenchman and native of Bruaze in the province they call Santonze, who is here present, for the many good works that he has done for me […] and also for the love that I bear him, on account of having been married to an aunt of the aforesaid, a sister of his mother…; H & R, 178-79, emphasis added).
If there was another Le Roy sister, apart from Marguerite and Françoise, she remains totally unknown. Guillaume Allène must have married her after (or before?) Guillemette Gousse (married to Allène in La Rochelle, November 17, 1563). This would be another marriage for which we as yet have no documented proof. If Allène was living with his wife Guillemette in La Rochelle at the time of Samuel’s birth in 1574, it remains completely likely that Champlain was born in Brouage, just as Guillaume Allène was born, according to the above-mentioned gift, in Marseille. The Spanish word natural applies equally to both men in the above-cited document, when unlike in Champlain’s case, no doubts have been raised about the circumstances of Allène’s birth. Furthermore, Champlain often described himself as “de Brouage”.
As for the father of Champlain, the spelling of his name in the baptismal certificate is clearly Anthoynne Chapeleau in comparison with Rousseau, the surname of the stated godmother. His name also appears in Champlain’s marriage contract, of which there are two versions dated December 27, 1610: the notarized original which the notary Loïs Arragon had kept, and the official transcription. Only the latter was known until Emmanuel de Cathelineau published the original in 1930. There we find variants between “Samuel de Champlain… filz de feu Anthoine de Champlain” in the original, and “de feu Anthoine de Camplain” in the transcription. Again, the variant “Complain” arises in the transcription of the acquittal which witnesses to the receipt of part of the dowry that Champlain received on December 29, 1619. Thus the two variants “Camplain” and “Complain”, which Éric Thierry pointed out in 2012, may be considered transcription errors.
In contrast, the baptismal certificate discovered by Jean-Marie Germe is the original and not a copy. Consequently, it is unlikely that “Chapeleau” would be the result of a faulty transcription. We even find it repeated with another small orthographic variant, “Chapuleau”, in the Table of Contents of the same register. On the one hand, it is not simply a case of orthography, since –eau represents a rather distinct pronunciation; on the other hand, Champlain’s identity is not called into question, thanks to “Samuel”, his father’s first name and the full name of his mother, Marguerite Le Roy. Still, “Chapeleau” remains eccentric, as if the notary were slightly deaf!
The variants “Champlain” (of which there are several ways of spelling it, including Zamplen which reflects the Spanish pronunciation) and “Champellain” or “Champelain” are well attested up until after the death of the “Défunt Samuel de Champelain” in 1648 (H & R, 446). Again two notarized documents witness to these variants, where they are found interchangeably side-by-side one after the other on the same page. These documents, which record the sales of two of Champlain’s houses in Brouage, reveal that on that same day, September 27 1630, Champlain signed himself “Champlain” as witness to the sale of the larger house (£ 1,150) and “Champelain” to that of the smaller one at £ 700 (Delafosse, 571-78). Obviously, these orthographic variations did not trouble the legal authorities of the time.
Apart from this sole witness to “Champelain”, Champlain always signed himself simply “Champlain” without variation. The first extant example of his signature, that attached to the above-mentioned Gift of 1601,
is remarkable for its clarity in block letters and its extraordinary size, at least two times bigger than the surrounding signatures. “Champlain” alone suffices up until his death, or a little before when he had the last version of his will drawn up. One notes the absence of his first name Samuel and of the particule “de” in this signature. It is possible that Champlain wished to avoid the religious controversies of a Protestant name, as much as any pretention associated with the particule, by limiting himself to his preferred name.
The surname Champlain is unknown in France. Conversely, the “Chappelain” who sold a boat in Brouage named Jeanne on 23 December 1573 is generally thought to be Champlain’s father (Le Blant & Baudry, 1:10-11). The surname Chappelain is a common derivative of cappellanus (Latin for priest), which became chapelain (chaplain) around the twelfth century (Wartburg, 2: 286-87). The nasalized m and disappearance of the medial e in Champlain do not represent a drastic change in pronunciation.
Now we know that Champlain was 21 years old when he earned significant income in the service of King Henri IV from March 1 to April 30, 1595. In the accounts of the Brittany Estates, they name him consistently “Samuel de Champlain”, or the “sieur de Champlain” (Rennes: Archives régionales de Bretagne, C2914, ff. 194v, 229v, 524v, 526v). It was not Champlain who chose to add the particule, but Gabriel Hus, the treasurer of the Brittany Estates on behalf of the marshal Jean d’Aumont and then François d’Espinay de Saint-Luc, governour of Brouage and Saintonge. We see a similar phenomenon in Champlain’s first book, Des Sauvages (1603-4), where he signs himself “S. Champlain” at the end of his dedicatory epistle to Charles de Montmorency, whereas the laudatory poem which follows this dedication provides the response of an unknown author (signed De la Franchise) to the report of “Sieur de Champlain”. Moreover, “S. Champlain” is reflected in the main title: Des Sauvages, ou, Voyage de Samuel Champlain. Yet again, it is not Champlain who awards himself the particule, but another, an anonymous author in this case. In any case, there were more significant signs of nobility at the time, such as squire (escuyer, escuier; now écuyer), a title by which Champlain would be designated from 1613 onwards (H & R, 443-45).
In comparison with “Chapeleau”, the baptismal location in La Rochelle seems much less problematic. Since the Le Roy family, at least, was living in Brouage and the family of Guillaume Allène, still Protestant (he too must have become Catholic), was living in La Rochelle, why couldn’t the former have travelled from Brouage to La Rochelle for the baptism of Samuel? Even if Allène was not married to one of Samuel’s aunts at the time, that does not prevent friendship between the two families, especially when the two pater familias were naval pilots associated with marine affairs. If Antoine Chapelain (or Chapeleau) truly sold his portion of a boat on December 23, 1573, when he was living in Brouage, why would he have quit the city before the birth of his son Samuel in August of 1574? At a time when Brouage was still a great maritime port, animated by a prosperous salt trade, Champlain’s father could have taken his wife and his newborn to the baptism in La Rochelle by boat. The distance is around 40 km.
When the future King Henri IV returned to La Rochelle as a Protestant in 1570, Calvin’s rule predominated (Garrison, 46). Henri would be sent there again in July of 1573, but ostensibly as a Catholic. They called the city the Protestant capital of France at that time. In Strasbourg, Calvin had already drawn up his psalter of 1540 (this first edition has been lost) entitled La manyere de faire prieres aux eglises Francoyses, which contains his baptismal rite, as repeated in a slightly shorter version in his Genevan Psalter of 1542. We should note that Calvin would generally have preferred to celebrate baptism on the Sunday morning following the birth, so that the infant might be received by the entire community of the church. Yet given the high infant mortality rates at the time, the Huguenot families, no less than the Catholics, did not want to risk the salvation of their newborns by waiting any longer than necessary (Oliphant Old, 172-73). Thus one sees that Samuel was baptised on the Friday (August 13), instead of waiting two more days for the Sunday.
We also note that this Protestant baptismal rite was, and still is, essentially Catholic. The Reformed Church, in opposition to the Anabaptists, accepted infant baptism as a sacrament. But since the children were not yet able to choose their faith for themselves, the godparents played the same role as guides as in the Roman Catholic Church. Since the fourteenth century, baptism was required within the eight days that follow the birth (Oliphant Old, 25). Consequently, Samuel de Champlain must have been born between August 8 and 12, 1574. Otherwise, he would have been baptised the preceding Sunday on August 8. The trip to La Rochelle at least assured him a reception into a greater Protestant community, including close family friends like Guillaume Allène, than could have been found around the pastor Nicolas Folion in Brouage, where there was as yet no Protestant Temple.
This article was first published in French in Les amitiés généalogiques canadiennes-françaises: Bulletin de l’amicale des familles d’alliance canadienne-française 36 (2013), 20-23. A few additions and modifications have been introduced for clarity.
About the author: Janet Ritch received her doctorate from the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto, in 1995, and taught for two years at the Université de Paris – La Sorbonne in Paris, France, before returning to lecture at both the Toronto School of Theology (T.S.T.), in the University of Toronto, and York University. Most of her writings and research involve Canada’s First Nations in contact with French explorers
Cathelineau, Emmanuel de. “La minute notariée du contrat de mariage de Champlain”, Nova Francia 5 (1930) 142-55.
Delafosse, Marcel. “Séjour de Champlain à Brouage en 1630”, Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française 9 (1956) 571-78.
Garrison, Janine. Henry IV. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1984.
Heidenreich, Conrad E., and K. Janet Ritch. Samuel de Champlain before 1604: Des Sauvages and Other Documents Relating to the Period. Toronto et al.: The Champlain Society-McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010. See H & R above.
Le Blant, Robert, and René Baudry, eds. Nouveaux documents sur Champlain et son époque, vol. 1 (1560-1622), no.15. Ottawa: Public Archives of Canada, 1967.
Liebel, Jean. “On a vieilli Champlain”, Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française” 32.2 (1978) 229-237.
Oliphant Old, Hughes. The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1992.
Thierry, Éric. “L’acte de baptême de Samuel de Champlain n’a pas été retrouvé”, Bulletin no 35 (décembre, 2012): www.cfqlmc.org/bulletin-memoires-vives/derniere-parution/4…
Wartburg, Walter von. Franzözisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch. Basel: Zbinden Druck und Verlag AG. Vol. 2 of 25, 1940.