Authors: Eleanor Herman
The next rival was the beautiful Madame de Ludres, who considered herself Madame de Montespan's replacement and gave
herself airs. She pretended to be pregnant. The great nobles rose when she passed, an honor reserved by court etiquette for princes of the blood and by practice for the king's
. It was this hubbub of nobles rising when Madame de Ludres passed that caused the queen to realize that her husband had yet another one.
Madame de Ludres's pompous airs soon alienated her royal lover, who then promptly fell in love with the very beautiful, very young Marie-AngÃ©lique de Fontanges. Suddenly Madame de Montespan found herself in the unenviable position occupied by Louise de La ValliÃ¨re a decade earlierâcurling the hair and lacing the stays of Louis's new mistress. But fiery AthÃ©naÃ¯s de Montespan did not acquiesce meekly as Louise de La ValliÃ¨re had. The marquis de La Fare reported that “Madame de Montespan was close to bursting with spite, and like another Medea, threatened to tear their children limb from limb before the very eyes of the King.”
Since childhood, the breathtaking blonde Mademoiselle de Fontanges was deemed by her family to be fit for a king. When this scion of the petty nobility turned seventeen, her impoverished relatives contributed a purse to deck the girl out in finery and send her to Versailles with this sole purpose. Her family's investment had paid off handsomelyâshe was created a duchess and given an annual pension of forty thousand ecus.
But AthÃ©naÃ¯s de Montespan's ultimate replacement was not to be the short-lived Mademoiselle de Fontanges. Justice, balancing her scales, would bestow the king on someone AthÃ©naÃ¯s herself had introduced to him. When Madame de Montespan needed to find a nurse and governess for her children with Louis, a woman with whom he might spend a great deal of time, she would never have selected a beautiful young woman. As she cast her long, narrow eyes about, her gaze rested on the pious virgin widow of an invalid poet, the formidable Madame FranÃ§oise Scarron. Rattling with rosaries and crucifixes, Widow Scarron always wore black, relieved by trimmings of silver or gold only because court etiquette demanded it. When the Sun
King, center of beauty, color, art, and scandal, first met the woman his mistress had chosen to look after his children, he was horrified by the bristling batlike apparition. “I do not like your
” he told Madame de Montespan, which must have confirmed her in her choice.
But soon Louis grew to admire this intelligent, kindhearted woman. While his mistress took little notice of her growing clutch of children, it was Madame Scarron who nursed them tirelessly through their illnesses and began their education. She was witty, she was sensible, she was efficient, and her rigid piety appealed to the monarch's suppressed yearning for religion. In gratitude for her efforts, the king gave her the estate of Maintenon, a moated castle and lands, and she took the name Madame de Maintenon.
As Madame de Montespan's jealous temper tantrums and rapacious inroads into the royal treasury increased, the king began to see the greater beauty of his children's governess. “Madame de Maintenon knows how to love,” he once said wistfully. “There would be great pleasure in being loved by her.”
One day the amorous monarch approached this unlikely object of his desires with the offer to make her his mistress and, for what was probably the only time in his life, was refused on religious grounds. Though her piety was genuine, there was perhaps a bit of cunning behind her refusal. “Nothing is so clever as to conduct one's self irreproachably,” Madame de Maintenon wrote a friend.
Her irreproachable conduct merely increased his ardorâas well she knew it wouldâand by the late 1670s he spent every spare moment with Madame de Maintenon in her exquisite rooms in Versailles, talking about politics, religion, economics, heavy subjects that even the brilliant Madame de Montespan could barely discuss.
The king's glamorous mistress was positively baffled by her lover's fascination with such a dry bag of bones as Madame de Maintenon. There were countless stormy scenes between the two former friends, as the once omnipotent mistress felt her power slipping through her perfumed white fingers. One courtier reported hearing Madame de Montespan saying to Madame de
Maintenon, “The King has three mistresses. That young hussy [Mademoiselle de Fontanges] performs the actual functions of a mistress; I hold the title; you, the heart.”
The beginning of the end of Madame de Montespan occurred in 1679, when the Paris police launched an investigation into numerous allegations of poison in the city. Suspects were some of the highest ladies of the land, whoâafter visiting the witch La Voisinâhad become wealthy widows after the sudden demise of disagreeable husbands. Some of the ladies in question fled France immediately rather than face interrogation.
Over the next year, 218 people were interrogatedâsome under tortureâand 36 were executed by sword, rope, or stake. The police investigation was like a giant spiderweb that grew not only wider, but higher. There was one great lady in particular, several of the accused intimated, who was so high and mighty they dared not name her. In 1680 the witch La Voisin went to her death at the stake, categorically denying that any such woman had ever been her client. But shortly afterward her daughter admitted that the lady in question was none other than Madame de Montespan, the king's mistress of thirteen years, the mother of his children.
The girl reported, “Every time something new came up to upset Madame de Montespan, every time she feared a diminution of the King's good graces, she came running to my mother for a remedy, and then my mother would call in one of the priests to celebrate a Mass and then she would send Madame de Montespan the powders which were to be used on the King.”
She described Black Masses in the early years 1666â1668 to win the king's favor, held in abandoned chapels and officiated over by the defrocked abbÃ© de Guiborg, the holy chalice held on Madame de Montespan's groin. “At one of Madame de Montespan's Masses, I saw my mother bring in an infantâ¦obviously prematureâ¦and place it in a basin over which Guiborg slit its throat, draining the blood into the chaliceâ¦where he consecrated the blood and the waferâ¦speaking the names of Madame de Montespan and the Kingâ¦. The body of the infant
was incinerated in the garden oven, and the entrails were taken the next day by my motherâ¦for distillation, along with the blood and the consecrated Hostâ¦all of which was then poured into a glass vial which Madame de Montespan came by, later, to pick up and take awayâ¦”
At another Black Mass, according to the La Voisin girl, Madame de Montespan called on the demons of hell to assist her. “Hail Ashtaroth and Asmodeus, Princes of Friendship,” she reportedly chanted. “I conjure you to accept the sacrifice of this child in return for favors asked of you, that I should have and keep the love of the Kingâ¦that the Queen should become barrenâ¦that the King should leave her bed and board to come to mineâ¦that he should grant whatever I ask of him, for me and mineâ¦that I should be included in the councils of the King, a party to all state businessâ¦and that the King's love for me should wax and flourishâ¦so that he shall abandon and no longer look upon the face of La ValliÃ¨reâ¦so that the Queen shall be repudiatedâ¦so that the King may marry me.”
At this point the child's throat was slit with a knife and its blood drained into the chalice.
Given reports of babies' bones in La Voisin's garden, the police started digging. And digging. And digging. They uncovered the remains of twenty-five hundred infantsâaborted, stillborn, premature, and those who had been sacrificed alive. There was a small oven in the garden pavilion where La Voisin would burn an infant's body if it was too large to bury easily.
Louis finally understood why for thirteen years he had awoken with a headache every morning after having dined with AthÃ©naÃ¯s de Montespan the night before. He was revolted at the quantities of noxious potions he had consumed over the years, but perhaps he was even more disgusted at the behavior of the woman he had loved. There was no question of allowing the police to interrogate Madame de MontespanâLouis would be the laughingstock of Europe if word got out. Witnesses who had even mentioned her name were either executed or locked in solitary confinement in distant fortresses until their deaths. The former favorite remained at Versailles for another decade, throwing
parties and dazzling guests with her brilliant wit. But the king's visits to her were rare and always in the company of others, and he never ate or drank anything she offered him.
The revelation of Madame de Montespan's witchcraft sent the king fleeing to Madame de Maintenon for religious consolation. She advised him to return to his wife's bed, which he did, making the last three years of Queen Marie-ThÃ©rÃ¨se's life the happiest ever. After her death in 1683, he secretly married Madame de Maintenon, who otherwise would never have slept with him. The poor widow, the children's nanny, was now the uncrowned queen of France.
Certain royal mistresses, adept at quietly seeking and destroying potential rivals, were blindsided by their own relatives, often poor young women from the country invited to enjoy the pleasures of court.
Madame de Mailly, the first mistress of Louis XV, won the dubious distinction of being unseated by her three sisters in succession. Born Louise-Julie de Mailly-Nesle, she had married her cousin the comte de Mailly and been appointed lady-in-waiting to the queen. Madame de Mailly was a plain, sweet woman who for seven years in the 1730s helped the young king grow out of his painful shyness. Paradoxically, one of her greatest assets in Louis's eyes was her lack of beauty and grandeurâthe bold advances of countless stunning women at court actually frightened the introverted monarch.
According to a contemporary, Madame de Mailly had “a long face, long noseâ¦a large mouthâ¦. [She was] tall, without grace or presenceâ¦amusing, cheerful, good-tempered, a good friend, generous and kind.”
Her scheming younger sister Pauline-FÃ©licitÃ© was equally plain but not equally kind. Green with envy that her sister was royal mistress while she stewed in the country, Pauline-FÃ©licitÃ© begged for an invitation to Versailles to enjoy court life. As her carriage rattled for days from her country estate over the rutted
dirt roads toward the palace, she had ample time to plot and connive how she would steal the king from her sister.
Taller, louder, wittier than her older sister, Pauline-FÃ©licitÃ© soon sparkled at the king's intimate dinner parties. Her adept intrigue, combined with Madame de Mailly's naÃ¯vetÃ©, secured her the prize, and Louis soon fell head over heels in love with the younger sister. When she became pregnant with his child, he married her to a nobleman, Monsieur de Ventimille, who was immediately sent to the provinces. Madame de Mailly, though still officially the
stood awkwardly by wringing her hands as her sister rose in favor. The king visited Madame de Ventimille daily, leaving his official mistress alone in such penury that courtiers noticed her petticoats had holes in them. While the younger sister was given a beautiful chÃ¢teau furnished in blue and gold, Madame de Mailly was crammed into two small, cold rooms in Versailles.
A few days after Madame de Ventimille gave birth to the king's son she went into convulsions and died. Louis, devastated, returned for solace to Madame de Mailly's arms. For two years she reigned again as undisputed mistress. As naive as ever, Madame de Mailly acceded to another sister's wish to be summoned to Versailles. Marie-Anne, the widowed marquise de La Tournelle, schemed to throw off her widow's weeds and take Versaillesâand the kingâby storm. Armed with a cunning intelligence, she was the most beautiful of all the Mailly-Nesle girls, with wide blue eyes and a ravishing figure.
Madame de La Tournelle used all her wiles to attract Louis away from her sister and soon succeeded. But she would never suffer Madame de Mailly to mope about the palace in her shredded petticoats still clinging to the title of
Before she relinquished her honor to the king, Madame de La Tournelle demanded that he send away the tiresome Madame de Mailly, and he complied. Her second demand was to be created a duchess, and he made her the duchesse de ChÃ¢teauroux. Only then, when the act of love had been prepaid with the cold clanking of coins and the hollow braying of trumpets, did the newly minted duchess welcome the king into her soft white bed.
The cunning Madame de ChÃ¢teauroux brought along yet another sister, Madame de Lauragais, fat and jolly. But she knew that this sister would be no true rival. While the king did sleep with Madame de Lauragais now and then, it was Madame de ChÃ¢teauroux who ruled the roost. Amused at Louis's fascination for the Mailly-Nesle sisters, court pundits asked whether it was inconstancy or fidelity when a man chose all his mistresses from the same family.
Madame de ChÃ¢teauroux's success was as brief as it was spectacular. After only two years at the pinnacle, she succumbed to a sudden fever. Unwilling to cede her position even to death, Madame de ChÃ¢teauroux continued to walk the marble halls of Versailles as a ghost, seen by no less a personage than the queen herself. And poor Madame de Mailly, banished from court, replaced in her lover's bed by all three sisters, wore a hair shirt the rest of her life and haunted cold marble altars on bruised and bleeding knees.
Having run through all four Mailly sisters, Louis suddenly found himself with no royal mistress at all and began actively seeking a suitable replacement. His choice fell on Jeanne-Antoinette d'Etioles, whom he created the marquise de Pompadour. And so Madame de Pompadour had the luck to start off her career as royal mistress by appearing on an empty stage, rather than having to force another leading lady off the boards.