One of the things that really stands out in Versailles is its depiction of Louis’ brother Philippe, the duc d’Orleans (Alexander Vlahos), as blatantly and unrepentantly homosexual. So this post is going to look at how accurate that depiction is.
In the Show
Versailles’ Philippe lets it all hang out, so to speak. In the first episode, he makes out with his boyfriend, Philippe, the Chevalier de Lorraine (Evan Williams) as servants wander by. (To avoid confusion, I’ll refer to this Philippe as the Chevalier.) He openly flaunts the Chevalier in front of his wife Henrietta (Noémie Schmidt) and pretty much everyone else. He has a taste for group sex with men. Most startlingly of all, in one episode he comes to a formal event wearing a dress (well, skirts and a corset without a proper over-dress–thanks, Frock Flicks, for pointing that out!) and when someone sniggers about it, Philippe draws a knife and stabs the man in the eye.
The Chevalier eventually gets entangled in a plot to overthrow the king and gets sent into exile, but early in season 2 he’s back and being fabulous, making grand statements about which color is going be the winter color this year. At the same time, someone poisons Henrietta, who dies in bloody agony.
The show’s depiction of Philippe is broadly accurate. If anything, it tones him down.
Louis and Philippe were the sons of Louis XIII, who had a great deal of trouble with his younger brother Gaston, who was Louis’ presumptive heir until the birth of his nephew Louis in 1638, just four years before the end of Louis XIII’s reign. That fact made Gaston the center of a great deal of intrigue and he twice had to go into exile for plotting against his brother. When the Fronde (a revolt of the nobility against the Crown) broke out, Gaston fought on both sides, and at the end of the revolt, he was sentenced to internal exile at Blois. As a result of this, Louis XIII’s queen, Anne of Austria, was extremely worried that Philippe might grow up to become a problem for her older son.
Anne feared that Philippe might some day challenge Louis or become a center of opposition to him, so she seems to have intentionally tried to cultivate a taste for feminine things in her son as a way to make him less threatening and perhaps even distasteful to the nobility. She referred to him as “my little girl,’ declared that he was “the prettiest child in the whole world,” and dressed him more as a girl than as a boy. That shaped him for life. As an adult, he was always comfortable in women’s clothing, and frequently attended balls dressed as a woman. He was noted for his love of ribbons, perfume, rouge, and high heels, although those things were not necessarily gendered female in the 17thcentury. Both Louis and Philippe was quite short and wore heels to add inches to their stature. So the show could put him in women’s clothing a lot more than it does without distorting the facts. This is a rare case of the media toning down historical excess instead of exaggerating it or making it up.
Anne was probably relieved when Philippe began to show a taste for men. In 1658, when Philippe was 18, rumors began to circulate that the duke of Nevers had “corrupted” Philippe with the “Italian vice”, and it was around that time that he first made contact with the Chevalier, with whom he formed a life-long, though hardly faithful, relationship.
Throughout his life, and regardless of his two wives, Philippe displayed a marked taste for handsome young men, whom he tended to shower attention and money on. He blew them kisses as he walked through Versailles, and much court gossip turned on the question of his favorites. Since Philippe was the king’s brother (and accorded the courtesy appellation of Monsieur, something the show leaves out), he was invariably an important political figure, although after the birth of Louis’ first son, his importance declined slightly. Who he was sleeping with was therefore an issue that could affect politics, especially in the intrigue-filled environment of Versailles.
The Chevalier was, strictly speaking, not French, since Lorraine was outside the royal domain. He was described as being “as beautiful as an angel,” although portraits of him don’t apparently do him justice, at least not by modern standards, He was considered vain, arrogant, greedy, and manipulative, and Philippe was an ideal partner for him. The perception at court was that he could easily manipulate Philippe into doing what the Chevalier wanted, since Philippe loved him deeply.
The result of this was that Philippe’s domestic life was exceptionally complex, even by the standards of a Jerry Springer show. Philippe’s first wife, Henrietta, was understandably jealous of the Chevalier, who lived in the same household with her. Philippe told her that he needed the Chevalier’s permission to sleep with her. In 1670, she persuaded King Louis to first imprison the Chevalier and then exile him. But Philippe prevailed upon his brother to call the Chevalier back after just a few months. When Henrietta died a few months later, there were rumors that the Chevalier had orchestrated her poisoning, although an autopsy determined that she had died of peritonitis. (Note that the show gets both the order of events and the cause of Henrietta’s death wrong.)
In 1682, the Chevalier got in trouble again, this time for introducing Louis’ illegitimate son Louis de Bourbon to part of their circle. Philippe and the Chevalier had established a sort of secret club for men who liked men. This club met at taverns and brothels and had elaborate rules of a somewhat sacrilegious nature. When Bourbon was 15, the Chevalier introduced him to the club and required him to sign an oath of obedience to the club’s rules, an oath signed not in ink but in Bourbon’s semen, which the Chevalier helped him to collect. Eventually rumors of the club’s orgies reached the king, Most of the club’s members were exiled as a result, but Bourbon simply got sent to fight in the Netherlands, where he died the next year..
Back at court a few years later, the Chevalier got in trouble a third time for orchestrating the illicit marriage of Philippe’s son to one of Louis’ illegitimate daughters.
But Phillipe living with his wife and his boyfriend was just the start. He was also involved with another member of his household, Armand, the Comte de Guiche, who like the Chevalier was handsome, vain, and manipulative. Armand was Philippe’s lover, but he is widely thought to have been Henrietta’s lover as well. That apparently wasn’t enough for Guiche, because in 1665 he also tried to romance Louise de La Valliere, who was Louis’ chief mistress at the time. Louis exiled him in 1662 for plotting with Henrietta to break up Louis and Louise.
On top of all that, Philippe also found time for a relationship with Antoine Coiffier, a minor noble who served as his head huntsman (whose father, incidentally, may have been a lover of Louis XIII). He is also rumored to have had a mistress, who might have been the married duchess of Mercoeur, since he flirted with her in public.
That last one demonstrates that Philippe might have been bisexual. He definitely had a complicated relationship with his first wife, with whom he had four children, as well as two miscarriages. When he married his second wife, the German Elizabeth Charlotte, he remarked that her plainness meant it would be hard for him to make love to her, but he still managed to father three children with her, including his only surviving son. So while he clearly had a strong preference for men, he doesn’t seem to have been exclusively homosexual as the show presents it.
Philippe and Louis
The two brothers had a rather complicated relationship, something the show manages to capture. In the show, Philippe says on more than one occasion that he was raised to not be the ‘cloud that covers the sun’, and whether or not the real Philippe ever said that, it certainly does describe the way their childhood played out. Anne expected Louis to be a very studious boy, but discouraged Philippe from book learning and encouraged him to play and be frivolous. The duc de Saint-Simon, whose enormous memoires are our best window into life at court, says that as an adult, Philippe was weak of mind and body, excessively timid, obsequious to his brother, and loved to gossip, often making up rumors just to see what would happen. He was also quarrelsome. But despite that, he was well-loved and a central figure at Versailles. When he died of a stroke in 1701, he was deeply mourned and Saint-Simon says that the court felt lifeless and still.
Louis, perhaps following Anne’s advice, worried that Philippe could have become a threat to him and worked to keep him away from any real power, and generally ordered him to leave when it was time for Louis to conduct business. Despite that, Louis adored his brother, who was his only sibling and probably the only person who could really understand him. We might imagine that Louis envied Philippe a little the freedom that he had. Although Louis seems to have despised homosexuality, which was a capital crime in 17thcentury France, he tolerated Philippe’s taste in men, although he was not willing to extend that tolerance to Philippe’s lovers when their other affairs became public. When Louis’ second wife complained that he needed to stamp out homosexuality at the court, Louis replied “should I start with my own brother?” That may explain why Louis was willing to turn a blind eye to the same-sex shenanigans at his court. He loved his brother too much to punish him, but punishing other examples of homosexuality at court would have made him look too much of a hypocrite.
To add further complexity to their relationship, Philippe was a far better soldier than Louis was. In 1667 he handled himself well during an invasion of the Spanish Netherlands. In 1677, he led the French forces at the Battle of Cassel against William III of Orange. He routed William and won the admiration of the court, but his victory irked Louis, who wished to be seen as a conqueror, and who may have worried that Philippe’s accomplishments were making him a threat. As a result, Louis never allowed his brother to participate in military matters again. What seems to have impressed people the most about Philippe’s victory was his intense bravery during the battle; it was joked that he was more afraid of getting sunburned or blackened from gunsmoke than he was of getting hit by a musket-ball.
So overall, Versailles’ depiction of Philippe and his relationship with his wives, his brother, and the Chevalier all seem pretty reasonable. Although the show tones down some of the luridness of Philippe’s private life, I think it captures something of his complex relationship with Louis and with the Chevalier. Was he actually as frustrated with his situation as the show makes out? I don’t know, but it’s not an unreasonable take on him.
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Want to Know More?
Versailles is available through Amazon.
There’s not a lot available in English about Philippe. Nancy Nichols Barker’s Brother to the Sun King: Philippe Duke of Orleans is probably the best option. But it’s been criticized for a very negative depiction of Philippe’s homosexuality, so read it with care. You might also think about reading Saint-Simon’s Memoires, which are a remarkable and lively account of life at the court of the Sun King. Lucy Norton’s translation has been much praised for its style (although it is not the full text).
If you want to know more about homosexuality in Europe in this period, take a look at The Pursuit of Sodomy, edited by Kent Gerard and Gert Hekma. It has articles on a range of issues.