Read Sex with Kings Online

Authors: Eleanor Herman

Sex with Kings

BOOK: Sex with Kings
11.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Eleanor Herman


To my mother, Louise, in Heaven


When the destiny of a nation is in a woman's bedroom, the best place for the historian is in the antechamber.


the finer art of being a mistress must be the second oldest.

When we imagine the finest mistress of all—she who is fit for a king—we see a hazy, shimmering image of a woman whose hands caress and mold history. She stands, for the most part, in the shadows of a world where the spotlight shines solely on men bludgeoning history into shape. Now and then we hear the rustling of a silk skirt, or hear her musical laughter echoing from behind the throne.

The rise of the royal mistress in European courts was sudden, springing up from departing medieval mists. For a thousand years after the fall of Rome, royal sin was hidden in the thick hangings of a four-poster bed and then lamented in the stuffy
darkness of the confessional. The powerful Catholic Church cast a jaded eye on adultery, and the jezebels of the court were kept firmly in the background.

Sometimes a woman's first name was linked to a feudal monarch, a Maude or a Blanche, and nothing else is known. Numerous royal bastards, acknowledged by kings, seemed to sprout from thin air, and we can only assume they had mothers. This near-total lack of information of royal love affairs derived not only from church demands for discretion. Illiteracy reigned just as surely as the monarchs themselves, monarchs who were for the most part unable to sign their names.

It is only because of her avarice that we know anything about the English medieval mistress Alice Perrers. The courtesan of Edward III (1312–1377), greedy Alice used her position during the last decade of the old king's life to rape the treasury, becoming one of the largest landowners in England. Deftly exploiting Edward's senility, she convinced him to buy her the same jewels over and over again, each time pocketing the cash he gave her to procure them. As if this weren't enough, sitting at her royal lover's deathbed, Alice pried valuable rings from his stiffening fingers and ran off with them. A scandalized Parliament confiscated her estates in seventeen counties, her jewels (including 21,868 pearls), and other gifts from the king. Litigious Alice spent the rest of her life in court trying to get them back, as attested by treasury records, parliamentary decrees, and lawsuits.

Where the English were clumsy, the French were nimble. Some seventy years after the embarrassing Alice Perrers, the prototypical royal mistress rose in golden glory like a phoenix from the ashes of dark centuries. Ably wielding political influence over country and king, Agnes Sorel was—naturally—a Frenchwoman at the French court. Graceful Agnes succeeded in rousing Charles VII (1403–1461) from his debilitating apathy to rally his troops and drive English invaders from French soil. Charles, a sad clown-faced, knock-kneed little man lost in his thickly padded tunics, made a poor king before Agnes, and returned to being a poor king after her.

The earliest surviving portrait of a royal mistress is of Agnes,
painted in 1449, a time when secular portraits were not yet common, and many of the rich and famous still bribed church artists to paint their faces on saints. Oddly enough, Agnes was painted as the Virgin Mary in a two-part church panel. In her panel, now in the Koninklijk Museum of Antwerp, Agnes, wearing a crown and an ermine cape, reveals a ripe plump breast to the baby Jesus, who seems completely uninterested and looks away. The other panel, however, now in the Staatliche Museum of Berlin, shows a good friend of hers, Etienne Chevalier, on his knees in worshipful devotion. This diptych of the king's mistress, mother of his illegitimate children, depicted as the Mother of God must have shocked the devout, their shock compounded by the vision of her friend worshiping her exposed breast.

It is probably no coincidence that shortly after the painting was completed, the powers of heaven sent the Grim Reaper to harvest Agnes. At the age of about forty, after fifteen years as the king's lover, friend, and counselor, Agnes lay dying in childbirth. Perhaps she was looking back from a grander place when she saw her vanquished body and said softly, “It is a little thing and soiled and smelling of our frailty.”
She closed her eyes. The grief-stricken king made her a posthumous duchess and buried her in splendor.

Our knowledge of royal mistresses increases exponentially with the advent of the sixteenth century. The flowering of thought known as the Renaissance brought fresh air to a stultified Europe. Suddenly ships sailed the seven seas, bringing back undreamed-of riches. Monasteries were searched for moldering manuscripts bearing the wisdom of ancient pagan sages. Societies which had worshiped at the feet of a stone Virgin for a thousand years suddenly frolicked before a curvaceous statue of Venus. In this process the Vatican lost its key to the lockbox of all knowledge; its ironclad grip over morals and manners was substantially weakened—even in nations that remained Catholic after the Reformation.

The invention of the printing press triggered an explosion of literacy among the nobility. Letter writing became a favorite
pastime for courtiers eager to indulge rustic relatives with juicy court gossip. From them we hear of the queen's tears, the mistress's temper tantrums, and the king's insatiable lust. Madame de Maintenon, the final favorite and morganatic wife of Louis XIV (1638–1715), wrote more than ninety thousand letters in her lifetime. Louis's sister-in-law Elizabeth Charlotte, duchesse d'Orléans, wrote sixty thousand letters about life at the court of Versailles over a fifty-year period. Madame de Sévigné, who knew Louis XIV's mistresses personally, wrote three times a week for twenty-five years to her beloved daughter tucked away in Provence. Some of the personal correspondence of kings and their mistresses themselves has survived fire, flood, worms, and deliberate destruction, and a portion of it deals with the romantic side of life.

Additionally, ambassadorial reports provide detailed views into court life. In an era when a king's whim meant peace or war, feast or famine, no royal detail was considered insignificant. Some official dispatches discussed the king's bowel movements. Louis XIV, knowing that the many mistresses of Charles II (1630–1685) had great influence over him, instructed his ambassadors to England to send “detailed reports of all that goes on in the Court of Great Britain and particularly
in the privy part
Many of these titillating dispatches have survived.

Diaries became the fashion, giving eyewitness accounts of royal intrigues. One of the best-known diarists was Samuel Pepys, who worked in a high-level position in the English Naval Office in the 1660s and had a lascivious fascination with Charles II's mistresses. He reported seeing them in the park and at the theater, compared their beauty, described their clothing, and made love to them in his dreams. He gleefully wrote that he had kissed Nell Gwynn after her play, and that the sight of Lady Castlemaine's rich undergarments hanging on a clothesline proved very beneficial indeed.

Memoirs became popular, though they must be read with care and compared with other documents of the period. Written with an aim of publication, many memoirs had the dual purpose of self-vindication and finger-pointing. Shortly before her death
in 1615, Queen Marguerite of France wrote her memoirs to provide herself with a virtue as crisply white as parchment, throwing in numerous stories of her husband's unseemly behavior with mistresses, though leaving out her own unseemly behavior with lovers. The vengeful duc de Saint-Simon, who left Versailles a disappointed courtier in 1722, stubbornly scratched his quill across forty volumes of memoirs, his ink mixed with hearty doses of venom.

Contemporary biographies started popping up, but even they must be scrutinized. Count Karl von Pöllnitz traveled the courts of Europe starting in 1710 and in 1740 became Frederick the Great's master of ceremonies. Fascinated by the amorous adventures of Augustus the Strong of Saxony (1670–1733), who reputedly fathered more than three hundred illegitimate children, Count von Pöllnitz published a biography in 1734, the year after the king's death. While the basic facts of the king's love affairs were true, we can imagine that the count polished up the conversations he reported, for comic effect.

Along with literacy came a new appreciation of women's valuable civilizing influence on society. The French court of the sixteenth century began accepting the idea that women were just as intelligent and capable as men, but infinitely more attractive. Almost overnight, royal mistresses became admired, imitated, and lauded.

In the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the position of royal mistress was almost as official as that of prime minister. The mistress was expected to perform certain duties—sexual and otherwise—in return for titles, pensions, honors, and an influential place at court. She encouraged the arts—theater, literature, music, architecture, and philosophy. She wielded her charm as a weapon against foreign ambassadors. She calmed the king when he was angry, buoyed him up when he was despondent, encouraged him to greatness when he was weak. She attended religious services daily, gave alms to the poor, and turned in her jewels to the treasury in times of war.

François I of France (1494–1547) was the first king to give the title
—official royal mistress—to his favorite. He
enjoyed several mistresses in succession with great aplomb. By the second half of the sixteenth century, French mistresses wielded more power than any others in Europe would for nearly two hundred years. Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II (1519–1559), became a member of the French council, an exclusive assembly convened for deliberating governmental matters. Diane made laws and imposed taxes, and she signed official decrees with the king in a joint signature, HenriDiane. Gabrielle d'Estrées, mistress of Henri IV (1553–1610), also joined the council, made laws, received ambassadors, and assisted greatly in ending the religious civil war.

Over in England, Henry VIII (1491–1547) made a muddle of things by insisting on marrying two women he lusted after and subsequently chopping off their heads. The following century Charles II lost no time mounting a mistress the very day he mounted the throne. On his coronation day in 1660 he bedded the auburn-haired Barbara Palmer, who nine months later gave him a daughter. As a reward he created her the countess of Castlemaine. Charles explained that “he was no atheist but he could not think God would make a man miserable for taking a little pleasure out of the way.”

Unburdened by fidelity—even to his mistress—Charles was one of the few monarchs who had several principal mistresses at his court at one time. He could never quite match the French for aplomb, and his harem closely resembled a squawking hen-house. The week of his death in 1685, the king was surrounded by all his hens, as described by the scandalized diarist John Evelyn, who lamented “the inexpressible luxury and profaneness, gaming and all dissoluteness” he witnessed. King Charles was “sitting and toying with his concubines Portsmouth, Cleveland, and Mazarin, etc., a French boy singing love songs in that glorious gallery, whilst about twenty of the great courtiers and other dissolute persons were at basset [a card game] round a large table, a bank of at least 2000 in gold before them.”

Charles's first cousin Louis XIV of France ornamented his court with a string of fragrant mistresses. Athénaïs de Montespan—who boasted a tenure of thirteen years—was in many ways a clone
of her English counterpart Barbara, Lady Castlemaine, who held sway for a dozen years. Both were beautiful, grasping, hard, and glittering, though Athénaïs was to her contemporaries perhaps the more palatable, her rough edges smoothed over by a healthy smearing of French panache. Both added to the glory of their respective nations, all the while looting the treasury, and both were sorely missed when they were replaced by less colorful substitutes.

Even as French fashion, architecture, music, and art were replicated in paler versions throughout Europe, so was the French concept of the
. By the late seventeenth century, the role of royal mistress at a great court was considered so indispensable that even the stuffy German kingdoms followed suit. Frederick III, elector of Brandenburg (1657–1713), an uxorious prince who despised infidelity, appointed a beautiful court lady as his official mistress and loaded her down with jewels, even though he never touched her—his wife would have killed him.

Augustus the Strong of Saxony was chosen king of Poland in 1697 and suddenly found himself ruling two nations. He had a mistress of nine years' standing in Saxony, and his minister advised him to choose a Polish woman for the same honor in Warsaw. According to Count von Pöllnitz, the king was advised as follows: “For, as your Majesty has two Courts, one in Saxony, and the other at Warsaw, you ought to be a complete monarch, and in justice, keep a mistress at each Court. This will conduce undoubtedly to the satisfaction of both nations. At present the Polanders except against your keeping a Saxon mistress. If you forsake her, to be enamored with a Polish lady, the Saxons will find equal reason to complain. Whereas by being amorous six months in Poland, and the other six months in Saxony, both nations will be satisfied.”

While the seventeenth-century kings of France, England, and Germany were kicking up their heels with well-rewarded mistresses, the royal court of Spain remained an oasis of suffocating medieval Catholicism. The land that spawned the Inquisition was more pious than the Vatican, where rollicking cardinals indulged
in lively orgies. Genetically unsound, the desiccated Spanish kings ruled over a somber court where the mass burning of heretics constituted the favorite spectator sport.

The Spanish royal mistress had no recognized position, certainly no hope of acquiring power at court, and very little in the way of financial reward. Her life after dismissal was even more dismal—she was banished to a convent. The king being only one step away from God, no ordinary mortal could hope to touch a woman who had been sanctified by the monarch's embraces.

BOOK: Sex with Kings
11.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Lair of Killers by Will Molinar
Cherry by Lindsey Rosin
Wyoming Nights by Gaines, Olivia
Lessons in French by Laura Kinsale
Wanted: White Russian by Marteeka Karland
Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows