Early Modern Europe, Early Modern France, Elisa Lasowski, George Blagden, Louis XIV, Maria Theresa of Spain, The Black Nun of Moret, Versailles
I’m a bit late to the party on this show, but I finally found the time to sit down and watch Versailles, the Canal+ series about the court of Louis XIV. I’d heard that the show was pretty wackadoodle, but as I watched the first episode, I didn’t see anything that I thought was outrageous. Then I got to the end of the episode and, yeah, ok, I see why some people think the show is over the top. There’s a lot for me to talk about in the first season, so you’re gonna get a number of posts on it. Hope you like the series.
The first season is nominally set in 1667, but in reality it covers events from that year down to about 1670 or a little thereafter. Instead of offering a look at Louis (George Blagden) as an somewhat jaded older man, as most film treatments of the subject tend to, it offers us a Louis of only about 30 who is still working to master his kingdom. In the first season he decides to turn Versailles from a hunting lodge into a grand palace (in reality, that project had already begun in 1661), and he offers his court a vision of Versailles as the cultural center of the universe. Naturally, for any story set at Versailles, literal palace intrigue plays a major role in the story.
Incidentally, if you want to know about the show’s visuals, the ladies at Frock Flicks have rendered their verdict on the costuming and it’s not bad, other than the poofy shirts the men frequently sport. I was very skeptical about the hair, since Louis’ reign was famous for men in wigs, but apparently the wigs were more of a fashion statement later in Louis’ reign and the hairstyles in the show are not unreasonable for the 1660s and 70s.
At the start of the show, Louis’ wife Maria Theresa (Elisa Lasowski) is pregnant. She’s presented as a dark-haired Spanish beauty, instead of the rather plain-looking blonde woman she was (like all the Hapsburgs, she had a great deal of German blood). At the end of the episode she goes into labor and much to the surprise of the king and his physician, she gives birth to a black girl. The official word is that the baby was stillborn.
The physician offers the rather improbable sounding theory that Maria’s black dwarf jester Nabo played a joke on her and scared her so badly that it darkened the baby she was carrying. While that theory would be pretty bizarre if a modern obstetrician proposed it, 17thcentury doctors were constantly offering that sort of guess because they believed that a mother’s emotional experiences during pregnancy could have a profound effect on the fetus (a theory that was still circulating at the end of the 19thcentury). (And in fact the comment is based on something that Maria Theresa herself actually said.) Nevertheless, everyone who knows about the black baby assumes that the queen was getting it on with Nabo, and by the end of the second episode, Nabo turns up dead in a fountain.
In the third episode, Louis receives a visit from a Senegalese prince, and since he met the queen once before, it’s broadly hinted that he might be the real father. During the negotiations between Louis and the prince, Louis uses the baby girl as a bargaining chip of sorts, and the episode ends with the prince taking the baby with him.
So is there any truth to it?
Yes. Not much, but a little. First, it has to be said that the show takes liberties with the timeline (I know, shocking that an historical show would do that, right?). There is no way that Maria Theresa had a baby of any kind in the summer of 1667. On January 2nd of that year, she gave birth to the king’s fourth child, Marie-Therese, who was very definitely white. She gave birth to their fifth child, Philippe Charles, on August 5thof 1668. Even if Louis had knocked up his wife immediately after Marie-Therese was born, the baby wouldn’t have been born until October, and Louis would certainly have allowed his wife to recover for a few months before resuming intercourse with her. In 1667 he had two known mistresses, so it’s not like he was having trouble finding a date.
That being said, in 1664, Maria Theresa gave birth about a month prematurely to a baby girl named Marie-Anne, who died about a month later. Maria Theresa had been sick for more than a month before the birth and only recovered in January of 1665. Our best source of information about Marie-Anne was the duchess of Montpensier, a cousin of the king who is today remembered for her memoires, an important source of information about Louis’ court. Montpensier says that Philippe, Louis’ younger brother, told her that the baby was born with a very dark, almost violet complexion. If true, the cause of the baby’s coloration was probably a lack of oxygen. Maria Theresa was devoted to Louis, and also probably quite aware of the danger of cuckolding the king, since that would be treason punishable by death. So it is rather improbable that she had an affair with Nabo, or a visiting African prince, or anyone else. The fact that he remained married to Maria Theresa until her death in 1683 is perhaps the best evidence against the rumor that she had given birth to a black child. But the fact that the queen was quite fond of Nabo may well have helped trigger the rumor that he had fathered a baby with her.
But there’s another complication to the story. The same year that Marie-Anne was born and died, another black girl was born. This girl, Louise Marie-Therese, grew up to join the Benedictine convent of Moret-sur-Loing, and was known as the Black Nun of Moret. Although not a lot is known about her, she clearly had some connection to the royal court. Her portrait was painted by an unknown artist who also painted portraits of 22 French kings including Louis XIV. She is mentioned by at least six different authors with connections to the royal court, including Montpensier; one of Louis’s mistresses; and Louis’ second wife, Madame de Maintenon. The duke of Saint-Simon, another important memoirist about court life at the time, says that Louise once greeted Louis’ son as “my brother”. Louis arranged for a rather handsome pension for her. As a result, some have conjectured that Marie-Anne did not actually die but was smuggled out of court and dropped off at Moret.
However, that scenario is probably untrue, because there’s a much better candidate for her parents. Louis had a Moorish (that is, black African) coachman who had a baby girl. Louis and Maria Theresa acted as godparents for the girl, a not-uncommon gesture for royal servants. After the coachman and his wife died, Madame de Maintenon arranged for the child to be placed in a convent as a favor to the parents. However, that’s not slam-dunk proof, because sometime around 1683, Maintenon secretly married Louis. Her claim that she had given this baby to a convent only dates from the period after the marriage, and it looks like it could be an effort to suppress the rumor that the unusual black nun at Moret could actually have been Marie-Anne. Could Maintenon have lied about the baby in order to help cover up the evidence that Louis was a cuckold?
It’s possible, but like I said, I doubt it. The best evidence points toward Marie-Anne being dark-skinned because she was premature and sickly. But it’s worth noting that what happened to Nabo is unknown. Maybe Louis did have him drowned in some fountain somewhere.
The up-thrust of this is that it’s wildly unlikely that Maria Theresa gave birth to a Senegalese prince’s son. But at least Versailles grounded its rather dramatic story in an actual rumor that was circulating at the time and didn’t just resort to making shit up whole cloth (cough Reign cough).
Want to Know More?
Versailles is available through Amazon.
Louis XIV has been the subject of numerous biographies. Anthony Levi’s Louis XIV is well-regarded.