17th Century Europe, 17th Century France, Canal +, Early Modern Europe, Louis XIV, Louise de La Valliere, Madame de Maintenon, Madame de Montespan, Maria Theresa of Spain, Versailles
Versailles devotes a good deal of its time to exploring Louis XIV’s rather complicated sex life, so I thought a post on that would be in order.
The show’s first two seasons cover the period from 1667 to 1680, although you’d be forgiven for thinking that it only covered the period from perhaps 1667 to 1670, because none of the characters appear to age significantly. Even Louis’ son Louis the Grand Dauphin, who is perhaps 10 at the end of season 1 doesn’t appear to have aged more than a year or so by the end of season 2, even though 8 years have passed between the events of those two episodes. But Louis’s various relationships are complicated (and fun to read about) so I’m going to survey all the major ones, to give you a good sense of what’s going on. (Those who appear in Versailles have the actress’ name in parentheses.)
The Early Years
When Louis was fourteen years old in 1553, his mother, Anne of Austria decided that it was time for him to lose his virginity. She arranged for one of her ladies in waiting, Catherine Bellier, to spend two years sexually educating him, and then rewarded her by making her the Baroness of Beauvais. (IMDb tells me that Bellier appears in Versailles, but it must have been a very small and passing role, because I didn’t spot her at all.)
In 1654, while he was still sleeping with Belliers, Louis began a relationship with Olympe Mancini, one of the five nieces of Cardinal Mazarin, who, along with Anne, was running the government. That affair lasted until 1657, when she got married to the Comte de Soissons, but they resumed their relationship in 1660 for about a year. Her oldest son was born just six months after her marriage, raising the possibility that he was an unacknowledged bastard of Louis’. Her feelings for Louis seem to have been quite intense, because she repeatedly displayed jealousy toward his later loves.
In 1658, Louis turned his eye toward Marie Mancini, Olympe’s younger sister. He fell deeply in love with her, and gossip began to spread that he might marry her. This upset Anne, who wanted to arrange his marriage to Maria-Theresa of Spain, and it also, somewhat surprisingly, upset Olympe and Marie’s mother. As a result, Marie was sent home to Italy, where she got married in 1661. On her wedding night, her husband remarked that he was surprised to discover she was still a virgin, so apparently Louis’ interest in her somehow never got consummated. In 1658, Louis also had a brief fling with the unnamed daughter of a gardener, who gave birth to a daughter who was never recognized. (Incidentally, Hortense, a third sister of Olympe and Marie, managed to become the mistress of Charles II of England.)
In 1660, Louis married his first wife, Maria-Theresa (Elisa Lasowski). She was his double first cousin (her father was Anne’s brother, while his father was the brother of Maria-Theresa’s mother). He appears to have been faithful to her for about a year, but after that he had both brief flings and long-term affairs for the rest of her life. That didn’t stop him from producing six children with her, although she had the enormous misfortune to outlive all but one of them. Maria-Theresa had little choice except to tolerate her husband’s numerous infidelities, and she even managed to develop friendships with two of his mistresses.
Henrietta and Louise
A year after Louis’ marriage, his brother Philippe married Henrietta of England (Noémie Schmidt), a rather attractive woman who became good friends with Louis. Rumors began to circulate that they were sleeping together. Even by the standards of the French court, this would have been a genuine scandal, because there was a considerable difference between a married man sleeping with an unmarried woman (which was considered simply fornication) and a married man sleeping with a married woman (which was considered adultery); additionally, it would have meant cuckolding his own brother. Since Henrietta was the sister of Charles II of England, a major scandal around her might well have had diplomatic ramifications. So although Versailles shows Louis and Henrietta being deeply involved and him getting her pregnant, most scholars think that this was just a rumor and that their relationship never moved beyond friendship.
To make Louis’ visiting Henrietta more acceptable, they asked Olympe, a close friend of Henrietta’s, to introduce Louis to one of Henrietta’s ladies, Louise de La Valliere (Sarah Winter), so that Louis could visit Henrietta while pretending to court Louise. The naïve Louise, not realizing that she was a pawn in this intrigue, fell in love with Louis and Louis found her sincerity and innocence so charming that he reciprocated her feelings. This relationship was the first of Louis’ affairs to have real legs. It continued until 1667 and produced five children, the last two of whom were eventually acknowledged, the other three dying in infancy. Louis kept the relationship a secret (at least formally) until 1666, when his mother died. At that point, he made the relationship public and Louise became his first maitress en titre, loosely translated as “official mistress”. Soon after Anne’s death, Louis took communion with both Maria-Theresa and Louise alongside him, a clear statement of Louise’ position.
Louise was deeply religious, and while she loved Louis, she felt tremendous shame over what she was doing. She disliked their relationship being so open. At the same time, however, she wanted her position and was jealous of his attention to other women, so she wasn’t quite so unwilling to be his mistress as Versailles presents it. She repeatedly fled to convents, and in 1667, after the birth of their fifth child, Louis essentially terminated the relationship, although he kept her on as maitress en titre. Eventually, in 1674, he permitted Louise to join a Carmelite convent. By this point, she had become good friends with Maria-Theresa, who presented her with her veil during the veiling ceremony at the convent and continued to visit her off and on.
Despite having a wife and a mistress, Louis’ eye still wandered. Olympe Mancini hoped that, if he could be pried away from Louise de La Valliere, Louis might return to her. So she schemed to put one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne-Lucie de Mothe-Houdancourt, in his way, and it worked, at least briefly. Louis became quite infatuated with her. The queen employed Madame de Navailles to supervise the young ladies around them. Navailles went to extreme lengths to keep the young men of the court away from her charges, up to installing iron bars on the windows and chimneys of their rooms. Despite that, Louis climbed down a chimney to see Anne-Marie, and dismissed Madame de Navailles from court. But Anne-Lucie was interested in someone else, and apparently resisted Louis’ attentions. The Queen Mother became worried that Louis’ pursuit of Anne-Lucie would prove embarrassing to Maria-Theresa, so she ultimately dismissed Anne-Lucie from court. Louis consoled himself by briefly taking up with Anne de Conty d’Argencourt, one of his mother’s ladies in waiting. But she was also the lover of the duc de Richelieu, which irritated Louis enough that the affair didn’t last long.
In 1665, Louis got interested in one of his wife’s ladies in waiting, Bonne de Pons. Unlike most members of the court, Bonne’s family was upset about the prospect of their daughter becoming the royal mistress, so they shipped her off to get married. Louis’ court had a very rigid formal hierarchy, based on the degree of biological relationship to the king and the age of one’s lineage. (To simplify, first cousins outranked second cousins and so on.) But there was a second hierarchy that scholars call the Shadow Hierarchy. This hierarchy was much more fluid and dependent on less tangible qualities such as appearance, wit, royal favor, and skill at intrigue. Louis’ mistresses sat very high in the Shadow Hierarchy, with the maitress en titre right at the top. Having the royal ear was a precious commodity at Versailles, because position in the Shadow Hierarchy depended to considerable extent at being able to get the king’s attention. Whichever woman Louis was sleeping with enjoyed the rare privilege of spending time completely alone with him, so women who had Louis’ attention became power-brokers at court, able to perform favors for others by mentioning their concerns to Louis. Additionally, Louis rewarded his mistresses and their families with estates, titles, and offices. So the decision of Bonne’s parents to send her away from court is quite unusual.
By this point, Henrietta of England had gotten thoroughly jealous of Louise de La Valliere, so Henriette threw one of her ladies in waiting at Louis. Charlotte-Catherine de Gramont was already married, but her husband discretely chose to go off and fight in a war. Louis broke off with her a few months later, but she continued having affairs with other members of the court until 1668, when her behavior scandalized the court enough that Louis ordered her to leave (although he let her return in 1672).
Madame de Montespan
In 1666, not long after things with Gramont ended, Françoise-Athenaïs, the Marquise de Montespan (Anna Brewster), began pursuing Louis. She was a married woman, with two children, but also strikingly beautiful, witty, well-read, intelligent, and cultured. She was also the cousin of Bonne de Pons, and the younger sister of Gabrielle de Rochechaurt, who may have briefly occupied Louis’ bed at one point. Quite a number of men were interested in her, but she wanted Louis. She wisely cultivated friendships with Louis the Grand Dauphin, Maria-Theresa, and Louise de La Valliere. When both women became pregnant at the same time, they made the mistake of asking Montespan to help them entertain Louis at private dinners, and that gave her the opening she needed. By the end of 1666, she was rapidly displacing Louise in the king’s affections, much to Louise’ frustration. What must have particularly galled Louise was that the king now used her as cover for his relationship with Montespan, a bit the way he had used her initially to cover his friendship with Henrietta. He moved Montespan into a room connected to Louise’ so that he could visit Montespan while maintaining the appearance of visiting Louise.
In 1667, Montespan became the maitress en titre, a position she held until 1681. Although Versailles shows them having only one child who dies in infancy, in fact she was the mother of seven of his children between 1669 and 1678, all but one of whom lived to adulthood and secured recognition from him. Unlike Louise, who did her best to stay out of the spotlight, Montespan openly vied with the queen as a rival. Although Montespan was legally separated from her husband in 1774, the fact that she was committing adultery led her to become the focus of opposition from the Catholic Church, and in 1774, a priest refused to give her communion at Easter. Despite Louis’ efforts to lean on the priest’s superiors, the Church hierarchy held firm and achieved a brief separation between the two. So the conflict between Bishop Bossuet and Louis in the show has a basis in fact, but Bossuet was not so foolish as to try to orchestrate a grand campaign against Louis, nor was the priest poisoned by one of Montespan’s allies.
Despite Montespan’s considerable attractions, Louis still found time for a fling with Anne de Rohan-Chabot, the wife of the prince of Soubise. Louis met her in 1669 and had a short affair with her. They either resumed the affair in 1673 or else it continued at a low level throughout that period, finally ending in 1675. She had two sons that her husband recognized, although many at the court felt they were both Louis’. In that same period, Louis also had a fling with Lydie de Rochefort-Theobon, one of his wife’s ladies in waiting. He “amused himself“ with her (as one letter to the king of Prussia describes it) off and on from 1670 to 1673. Montespan tried to prevent this by having her transferred to the household of Philippe d’Orleans’ second wife, but Louis may have flung with her as late as 1676.
One of Montespan’s challenges was maintaining Louis’ attention during her numerous pregnancies (given that she had used exactly such an opening to get between him and La Valliere). Between 1670 and 1676, her solution to this problem was to offer him one of her ladies, Claude de Vin des Oeillets, as a substitute whenever she was pregnant. Given her jealousy, this was a surprising strategy, but she seems to have concluded that having Louis involved with a member of her household was less risky than him getting involved with someone she couldn’t supervise. Des Oeillets was low-born, the daughter of two actors, which probably reduced the risk as well. He fathered a daughter on her, whom he never acknowledged.
Montespan’s concern for holding Louis’ attention was well-warranted. In 1675, Louis had an affair with Isabelle de Ludres, yet another of his wife’s ladies in waiting. Like Montespan, she was ambitious and hoped to become the new maitress en titre. But Louis wanted their relationship to stay a secret (perhaps because he didn’t want to quarrel with Montespan). So when Ludres openly stated her intentions of displacing Montespan, Louis dumped her. He took up with Marie-Charlotte de Castelnau, a married woman who was the sister-in-law of Anne de Rohan-Chabot, as well as of the Comte de Guiche, one of Philippe d’Orleans’ paramours. He got bored with Marie-Charlotte quite quickly after Montespan gave birth to their last child. But in 1678, he had a short affair with Elizabeth Hamilton, one of Marie-Charlotte’s sisters-in-law, much to Montespan’s irritation.
By this time, Louis was beginning to tire of Montespan. Unfortunately for her, he became interested in her good friend Françoise de Scarron (Catherine Walker), a down-on-her-luck widow of a minor noble. Montespan asked Scarron to look after her bastard children, which brought Scarron to Louis’ attention, although he initially found her strict religious observances off-putting. But he paid her well for her services as a governess and in 1675 he rewarded her with the title Marquise de Maintenon, as a result of which she’s generally known as Madame de Maintenon. Montespan began to quarrel with her, ostensibly over the way the children were being raised, but quite possibly because she was beginning to get jealous of Maintenon. But Maria-Theresa liked her because she felt that Maintenon was a good influence on Louis, remarking that he was treating her far better than in the past when he was more involved with Montespan (who was deeply hostile to the queen). Nothing seems to have happened between Louis and Maintenon in this period, in part because her religious sentiments led her to oppose fornication, but Louis was clearly attracted to her.
Stiff Competition for Louis’ Attention
Apparently unable to decide between the two women, Louis suddenly took up with Marie-Angelique de Scorailles, who was described as being quite beautiful but “stupid as a basket”. She was a lady in waiting to the duchesse d’Orleans. At first the affair was kept quite secret, but then Louis appeared at court wearing ribbons that matched ones she was wearing; she was noticed wearing a cloak made from the same material as his. He became quite infatuated with her, throwing a string of parties for her and taking her to the ballet frequently. Montespan bitterly commented that Louis had three mistresses: herself in title, Scorailles in bed, and Maintenon in his heart. Montespan took her revenge by having a pair of bears let into Scorailles’ apartments, causing the young woman to flee in terror. Scorailles gave birth to a stillborn boy, and although Louis rewarded her handsomely for “being wounded in his service” by making her the duchess of Fontanges, he had already started to tire of her. She died not long after this, in 1681, at the age of 19, probably because of complications from her labor. But word quickly circulated that she had been poisoned, and Montespan clearly had the motive to do so. This was part of the infamous Affair of the Poisons, a major plotline during season 2 of Versailles, so I’ll do a whole column on it later on. However, if you’ll notice, the show does not include Scorailles as a character all. Montespan was deeply implicated in the Affair, although no solid proof of her involvement has ever surfaced. But it marked the end of her reign as maitress en titre, although Louis allowed her to stay at court until 1691. He does not seem to have believed that she was involved in the Affair. Scorailles was the last woman to be a sustained mistress for Louis. After her, his attentions shifted toward Maintenon and to brief affairs with women who soon bored him.
Despite his infatuation with Scorailles, Louis also had a relationship with Montespan’s older sister Diane-Gabrielle. This doesn’t seem to have amounted to very much. He also had a sporadic relationship with Marie-Madeleine-Agnes de Gontaut Biron, who was rather plain-looking but quite good at court intrigue. She managed to get a good marriage out her relationship with the king, but not much else. He also had a short relationship with Jeanne de Rouvroy, a married woman, in 1681.
The same year, Louis turned his attention toward Marie-Anne de Wurtemberg. He bedded her briefly, but Montespan, who by this point was clutching at straws to revive Louis’ affections, persuaded Louis that Wurtemberg had once been the lover of a monk who was trying to find the philosopher’s stone. Since black magic was part of the Affair of the Poisons, even the hint that Wurtemberg was associated with the Parisian underworld scared Louis and he broke off with her.
Still trying to retain a hold on Louis, in 1681 Montespan pushed another of her ladies at him, Françoise-Therese de Voyer de Dorée. But after Louis slept with her, Montespan became jealous and Maintenon chided Louis for the affair, so he put Françoise-Therese aside. There was also a quick fling with Marie-Antoinette de Rouvroy, but it went nowhere. The next year, there were brief affairs with Marie-Rosalie de Piennes and Madame de Saint-Martin.
In 1683, Louis became interested in Marie-Louise de Montmorency-Laval, who was a lady in waiting to his daughter-in-law. He got her pregnant, which required that she be dismissed from her post. Not wanting to legitimize the child, Louis had her quickly married off to the duc de Roquelaure, who accepted the girl as his daughter, wryly remarking at her birth “welcome, mademoiselle, I did not expect you so soon.”
Julie de Gueméné came from a family whose membership included Anne de Rohan-Chabot and the Chevalier de Rohan, whom I’ll discuss in my next post. The family had been losing its footing at Versailles (perhaps in part due to the Chevalier’s poor choices), so when she was 15, they maneuvered her into Louis’ attention, hoping that she might become his new maitress en titre. He did sleep with her, but nothing more came of the scheme.
Madame de Maintenon Triumphs
Gueméné has the distinction of being Louis’ last mistress. In the middle of 1683, Maria-Theresa fell ill and died. Louis mourned her, remarking that “this is the first chagrin which she has given me.” By this point, he was deeply involved with Madame de Maintenon, but she had probably resisted his efforts to get her into his bed. Montespan was convinced that she was holding out simply as a way to build Louis’ ardor for her, but it is more likely that it was her religious beliefs that motivated her to deny him. But Maria-Theresa’s death cleared the way. Some time between October of 1683 and January of 1684, Louis secretly married her. The marriage was never formally acknowledged, and she did not become queen. But their relationship was obvious. He gave her a lavish suite of rooms across the hallway from his own apartments, and he spent time with her every day from that point on.
Madame de Maintenon became enormously influential at court due to her hold on the king’s ear. He became increasingly religious because of her, and this probably contributed to his choice to cease taking mistresses, which helped consolidate her position. But it is also possible that he simply loved her enough that other women no longer interested him. After all, his marriage to Maria-Theresa was an arranged one and probably not one he found emotionally satisfying, so it is likely that his many affairs were efforts to meet his own emotional needs (as well as the more obvious physical ones). With de La Valliere, Montespan, and Maintenon, he clearly found women who struck a chord with him emotionally, and when Maria-Theresa died, he was finally in a position to build a permanent relationship with a woman he genuinely loved. At that point, he had no further need of mistresses. Or perhaps his libido simply cooled by the time he was in his forties.
By 1700, she was virtually his prime minister, even though she had no official role at court. Over the years, she persuaded him to replace several key ministers. She was very interested in women’s education, founded a girl’s school at Saint-Cyr, and authored a treatise on education that helped inspire a 1724 ordinance establishing compulsory universal primary education (although it didn’t have much effect). After his death in 1715, she retired to Saint-Cyr. She had no children, unlike so many of Louis’ other women, but she seems to have had some real attachment to Madame de Montespan’s children, encouraging Louis to promote them at court.
Versailles shows Louis’ relationship with four women: Maria-Theresa, Louise de La Valliere, Madame de Montespan, and Madame de Maintenon. It also apparently has a brief appearance by Catherine Belliers, and it makes up a mistress, Sister Hermione (Hannah Arteton) whom he runs into years after he ended the relationship and forgot her. It shows us two children, one of whom died in infancy. The actual total for the period covered by the show is more like 18 mistresses of varying durations (not counting his wife) and 21 children born alive. So, as it did with its depiction of Philippe d’Orleans’ relationships, Versailles substantially tones down the degree of Louis’ womanizing. I find it kind of refreshing to get to say “No, actually, it was much more than the show gives us.”
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Want to Know More?
One of the better guides to Louis’ mistresses is Partylike1660.com. It has a page on each of his known mistresses, as well as a host of other details about life at the court of the Sun King.
As with Henry VIII, Louis XIV has attracted the attention of a lot of non-professional historians who write popular history. An easy introduction to Louis’ affairs is Antonia Frazer’s Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King. Frazer is one of the best popular historians, but always read her books with caution. Similarly, Lisa Hilton’s Athenaïs: The Life of Louis XIV’s Mistress, the Real Queen of France is popular rather than academic history, but it’s a good intro to this extremely important and interesting woman.