Jean François de La Rocque, Sieur de Roberval, also called the “Élu de Poix,” lieutenant-general of Canada between 1541 and 1543 (born c. 1495 in Carcassonne, France; died 1560 in Paris, France). The Sieur de Roberval was the son of an unknown mother and Bernard de La Rocque, soldier and former governor of Carcassonne.

Origins, Family and Career

The origins of the Sieur de Roberval and his family are complex because his father travelled extensively and had three known marriages. His father’s first marriage (1482–87) produced no descendants. The Sieur de Roberval was the son of a second wife (between 1487 and 1499) who died when he was a child. A third marriage (c. 1500) to Isabeau de Popincourt (bringing the Roberval possessions into the family) produced three half-sisters and a half-brother: Marquise, Charlotte, Marie and Jean. Roberval himself had one or more spouses, but no children.

Roberval inherited considerable wealth. In addition to the land and properties acquired through his father’s marriages, Roberval also inherited from relatives who died childless. His lands and seigneuries were located in three regions of the Kingdom of France. There were properties in Languedoc, near Carcassonne, where the La Rocque family was from; other properties from his father’s first marriage were located in the Rethélois area near Reims. The best-known estates were located in Roberval — in the Valois region between Compiègne and Senlis — the town from which Roberval acquired his commonly known title.

From adolescence, Roberval worked under the orders of Robert de La Mark-Fleurange, marshal of France and commander of Francis I’s armies. Roberval thus continued the family tradition of working for a French marshal. Though he travelled as a soldier, he spent most of his time at his home in the Rethélois area, where his garrison was stationed. He became a member of the King’s general staff with La Marck and participated in most of the conflicts of that period. He particularly distinguished himself at the siege of Péronne in 1536, which blocked a Spanish force en route to Paris. He returned from the Italian War of 1536–38 a hero. However, he was traumatized by the death of his superior, Robert de La Marck (1536), and by the deaths of half of his colleagues at the hands of the Spanish in 1537.

Expedition to Canada

Roberval likely heard about the plan to colonize Canada when he returned to court in 1538. According to sources, he focused on rebuilding his old regiment with the help of Robert de La Marck’s young son. Until 1540, Francis I rejected any plan that might jeopardize political negotiations with Charles V of Spain. However, when such negotiations ceased in the fall of 1540, the French king decided to increase the size of the original expedition and empty his overcrowded prisons. France’s first colony was thus comprised of settlers and craftsmen, as well as soldiers whose job it was to protect the colony from Aboriginal and Spanish attacks and to supervise prisoners condemned to forced labour. Since he had failed to carry out the mission in its entirety, Jacques Cartier handed it over to a lieutenant-general chosen from among the King’s military officers. Roberval was chosen for the useful qualities and skills he possessed, each beneficial to the future colony: he was a nobleman and military leader who did not retreat before the enemy, but he was also a fortifications engineer and mining supervisor.

The preparations were already well underway under Cartier and, although they needed to be adjusted on a regular basis, they progressed quickly. However, Roberval’s military equipment from his garrison in Champagne had not yet arrived, and the wait threatened to delay the entire mission. Roberval therefore decided to send Cartier to Canada right away with more than half of the fleet so that the colony would be settled by the time he arrived. While Cartier was at sea, tensions rose between France and Spain after the Spanish assassinated two French ambassadors in Italy. The threat of war prompted Roberval to stay behind in France to fight. In the end, Francis I did not go to war, but by then it was too late to set sail for Canada. Roberval decided to spend the winter on the tip of Brittany and orchestrate a retaliatory trade blockade of Spain by stopping and inspecting ships and goods from that country. He left for Canada, from La Rochelle, the following spring, not knowing that Spanish ships were in the Atlantic hunting for him and his ships.

Meanwhile, Cartier founded the colony of Charlesbourg-Royal a few kilometres upstream from Stadacona (Québec City), in Cap-Rouge. As previously planned, two forts were built: one near the Cap-Rouge River and another on the cliff to protect the colony against attacks coming from the St. Lawrence River. During construction, Cartier went to Hochelaga (Montréal), but on his return, a dispute arose between the settlers and the Stadaconans. In order to avenge the members of their community who had been killed or wounded by the French, the Aboriginal residents killed 35 settlers. After a winter-long siege and with no sign of Roberval, Cartier decided to pack his bags along with a few barrels full of stones and minerals that he believed were valuable. When he stopped in St. John’s, Newfoundland, he met Roberval’s ships on their way to the colony. Cartier explained his difficulties with the residents of Stadacona and showed Roberval the stones and minerals (see Diamonds of Canada), but Roberval was not interested and ordered Cartier and those with him to return to the colony. Instead, they took to the sea under the cover of darkness, disobeying official orders. Cartier would pay dearly for this act of defiance.

Taking over the colony abandoned by Cartier and his team, Roberval re-established ties with the Aboriginal people of Stadacona, who gave the French colony supplies during the winter. Even so, about 50 settlers died of scurvy — clear evidence that neither Cartier nor the residents of Stadacona had taught them the recipe for aneda (Thuja occidentalis), a remedy for scurvy. In the spring, Roberval took advantage of the good weather to sail up the St. Lawrence with 70 soldiers and settlers in eight boats to see the mythical place the people of Hochelaga called the Saguenay. Once there, Roberval’s men carried the boats on their shoulders up the falls to study the waterway upstream. On the way back down, one boat capsized and eight people drowned. Returning to the colony, Roberval and his men found that ships had arrived from France with fresh supplies but also with letters from Francis I announcing the outbreak of war and demanding their return to France.

Return to France, Death and Legacy

When Roberval returned to France in the fall of 1543, he learned that the British and the Spanish were marching toward Paris from the east and the north. The following spring, the King assigned him to Senlis, the last stronghold north of the capital, where the fortifications needed repair. Roberval put everyone in the area to work, along with many men who had returned with him from Canada. Running out of resources, Charles V decided to sue for peace with Francis I in September 1544. Two days later, however, the English seized the stronghold of Boulogne-sur-Mer and continued to march toward the capital. Francis I finally repelled the invaders by sending an armada of 150 ships to wreak destruction along the English coast. Roberval and his regiment took part in this attack under the orders of Admiral d’Annebault.

As a member of the general staff, Roberval was involved in all subsequent conflicts until the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1558. He died just before the outbreak of the French Wars of Religion (1562–98), one month after the Amboise Conspiracy (17 March 1560). He died in an unknown location, but probably on the occasion of the burial of a colleague at the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery in Paris on 18 April 1560. Roberval, who lived on military pensions and was under royal protection from his civil creditors, left the family’s holdings to his sisters. The only possession not officially bequeathed, the Château de Roberval, was seized and auctioned off to settle debts incurred by the family about forty years earlier. His nephew was the eventual buyer. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this seigneurial property was owned by rich and noble families with ties to the La Marck family, to whom Roberval had remained loyal. In 1784, the Davène family acquired the seigneury along with the chateau and its archives. Their descendants still own the property today. In spite of the reputation he earned during military service and his participation in the expedition to Canada, Roberval was not recognized as one of the great explorers and colonizers of the 16th century. This was mainly due to his Protestant faith. During the French Wars of Religion, his contribution was seldom recognized and his reputation was even tarnished. Only in the 19th century did his name resurface, albeit to a limited extent, in historiographical works. It was not until after the 1960s that he was referenced in popular historical literature.