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Authors: Eleanor Herman

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BOOK: Sex with Kings
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And so, permitted but unwanted, Alice slipped into the death room, sat next to the dying monarch, and stroked his hand. Alexandra looked out the window, turning her slender royal back on this touching scene between her husband and his mistress. Edward whispered hoarsely to his wife, “You must kiss her. You must kiss Alice.”
We can imagine the revulsion with which the queen presented her marble lips. Such revulsion, in fact, that she later denied the kiss had been bestowed.

When Edward lapsed into a coma, Alexandra took aside Sir Francis Laking, the king's friend, and instructed him, “Get that woman away.” Alice grew hysterical and refused to leave her lover's side. As she was being dragged from the room she cried, “I never did any harm. There was nothing wrong between us. What is to become of me?”

With the door safely shut, in the presence of her husband's corpse, Alexandra finally vented to Sir Francis the feelings she had sealed in for nearly five decades. “I would not have kissed her, if he had not bade me,” the queen cried. “But I would have done anything he asked of me. Twelve years ago, when I was so angry about Lady Warwick, and the King expostulated with me and said I should get him into the divorce court, I told him once for all that he might have all the women he wished, and I would not say a word; and I have done everything since that he desired me to do about them. He was the whole of my life and, now he is dead, nothing matters.”

Having composed herself, Alice returned home and reported to all her friends that Queen Alexandra had not only kissed her but had assured her that the royal family would look after her, a statement denied by all other deathbed witnesses. Alice went in full mourning to Edward's funeral, swathed in floor-length black veils and plumed with black ostrich feathers like his widow, but slipped into the chapel by a side door. After the period of mourning, Alice decided that her disappearance might be appreciated by the new king. With her ill-gotten gains, Alice took her husband and children on a two-year tour of India and China. When they returned to England, the family entertained lavishly.

In 1936, sixty-seven-year-old Alice was lunching at the Ritz in London when an announcement was made that King Edward VIII was abdicating to marry his mistress, Wallis Warfield Simpson. She winced. “Things were done much better in
day,” she sniffed loudly.

The End of a Brilliant
Career and Beyond

Decay's effacing fingers have swept the lines where beauty lingers.


Death slipped past the king's chamber and glided on to another, where he visited a mistress. The dead royal mistress was scooped up still warm, thrown in a grave, and promptly forgotten by courtiers, who focused immediately on her replacement.

Most mistresses, however, were not fated to die tragically young or suffer dramatic punishment after the death of their royal lovers. Most were destined for a more mundane fate—they lived to despise their mirrors, were dismissed and replaced by younger, prettier faces. In centuries past the cruel hand of time swooped down earlier to wreak its ravages on female beauty. Louis XIV's beautiful blonde Louise de La Vallière immured her fading looks in a convent at the ripe old age of twenty-nine.
Samuel Pepys described one of Charles II's mistresses, a venerable twenty-three, as beginning to “decay.”

One day when Lady Castlemaine ran into her enemy the duke of Ormonde at court, she vociferously wished him disfigurement, dismemberment, and a last gasp at the end of the hangman's rope. The duke looked coolly at the twenty-nine year old and replied, “I am not in so much haste to put an end to your days, Madam, for all I wish is that I may live to see you old.”

What happened to rejected mistresses as they aged? Many continued active lives away from court, marrying, bearing children, visiting friends, enjoying their ill-gotten gains in lovely country homes filled with fine furnishings.

In their later years, many former royal mistresses found in religion the antidote to their youthful sins. And while most surrendered their beauty wearily to that most puissant enemy, time, a few battled bravely until the last.

Death Takes a Mistress

It is not surprising that Death took many royal mistresses at the peak of their youth and beauty. Their doleful end was often presaged months earlier in the happy news of a longed-for pregnancy, a tangible tie to the king forever.

Death must have laughed as he looked for Gabrielle d'Estrées, for he timed his visit with exquisite irony—only hours before she was to wed her lover Henri IV, becoming queen of France and clearing the way for her son César to inherit the throne. By March 1599 Gabrielle was five months pregnant. She had sailed through her three previous pregnancies in glowing health. This one was markedly different, however. She was peevish, fretful, depressed. She complained often of feeling unwell, feared some impending disaster. She spent many sleepless nights and suffered horrible nightmares when she did sleep.

Three days before the wedding, which was to take place on Easter Sunday, Gabrielle traveled to Paris by barge to prepare for the ceremony while Henri remained at the palace of Fontainebleau. When Henri bid her farewell on the bank of the
river, she burst into tears and clung to him. The king thought Gabrielle was suffering from nerves; but perhaps in some secret part of her soul she knew it was the last time she would ever see Henri, feel his flesh warm and solid against hers.

Landing in Paris, Gabrielle ate at the house of her friend the banker Zamet, where dinner included a lemon. Feeling unwell, Gabrielle canceled her appearance at several gala events. By the next afternoon she was in labor—four months early. Her birth pangs were keener than they had ever been. She twisted in agony as doctors dismembered the dead child inside her and drew it out. Despite the presence of two surgeons, three apothecaries, and a priest, Gabrielle died on Easter Saturday, the day before she was to have become queen of France.

The timing of Gabrielle's death was so strange that—naturally—rumors swept France that she had been poisoned. The likely culprits were the Vatican or the House of Medici, which had been violently opposed to Henri's marriage to Gabrielle, hoping he would marry Tuscan duchess Marie de Medici instead. The doctors—baffled despite a careful autopsy—concluded she had been killed by a “corrupt” lemon.
Modern doctors, reading reports of Gabrielle's symptoms and suffering, believe she died of a septic pregnancy. Whatever the cause of Gabrielle's death, many Catholics thought God had struck her down in the nick of time, saving them the indignity of having a whore as queen.

Hearing of her sudden grave illness, Henri raced to see her but was stopped on the way with the news of her death. Devastated, he went into mourning, immediately donning black instead of the traditional white or violet, something which French monarchs had never done before. His love had been deep; initially his grief was extreme. During a long life of philandering, Henri was faithful to only one woman, and that woman was Gabrielle.

The royal mistress who had found such honor in life received strange indignities in death. Household servants stole valuable rings from her dead fingers. Upon hearing the news of her death, Gabrielle's father harnessed his horses and carted off from storage the royal furniture she had ordered for her queenly apartments.
Gabrielle had grimaced so in agony that her mouth twisted around toward the back of her head and, at her death, stuck there as if in concrete; neither the doctor nor her attendants could push it back into its proper place. Her mangled body, exhibiting no traces of her former beauty, was in no condition to view. Nailed in a coffin, it was pushed under the bed in her Paris town house while mourners visited her wax effigy, propped up on the bed, offering it food according to custom. Henri—prevented from holding her funeral at Notre Dame, as Gabrielle had not been royal—was forced to settle for a lesser church.

After the funeral, Gabrielle's effigy was placed in a small chamber in the king's private apartments in the Louvre and dressed in a new gown daily. Henri wrote, “The root of my love is dead; it will not spring up again.”
He visited the figure for many years, even after he had caved in to the pope's wishes and married Marie de Medici and—perhaps as a protest—taken a nubile young mistress. Despite the king's genuine sadness at the loss of Gabrielle, the root of his love continued to spring up until his dying day.

The gloriously beautiful Mademoiselle de Fontanges also died as a result of a pregnancy. In 1680 she gave birth to Louis XIV's child, who died shortly thereafter. While she survived the delivery, her bleeding did not stop. After several weeks the wan, weakened woman left Versailles to recuperate in a convent. The king had little patience with illness, and his mistress hoped to vanquish his heart once again by returning bursting with health and beauty.

Madame de Sévigné described the touching contrast between Mademoiselle de Fontange's rich emoluments and her deadly illness. “Mademoiselle de Fontanges has left for Chelles,” she wrote. “She had four carriages, drawn by six horses, each, her own carriage drawn by eight, and all her sisters with her, but all so sad that it was pitiful to see—that great beauty losing all her blood, pale, changed, overwhelmed with sorrow, despising the 40,000
annual pension and the
which she has, and wishing for her health and the heart of the King which she has lost.”

The former favorite bled to death slowly, each day losing a bit more strength, a bit more color, until a year later Mademoiselle de Fontanges was dead at the age of twenty-two. There is a story in which Louis visited in her final hours and sat crying at her bed. “Having seen tears in the eyes of my King,” she is supposed to have said, “I can die happy.”
But this story was deemed untrue by many at Versailles because the king had, in fact, already forgotten her.

In 1743 Louis XV's mistress Madame de Ventimille gave him a healthy son and a few days later suffered sudden fatal convulsions. The body of the unpopular “king's whore” was laid out in a house in the town of Versailles watched over by guards. When they left their posts to drink, an enraged mob broke in and insulted the corpse.

Louis's next mistress, Madame de Châteauroux, also died young. A few weeks before her sudden demise, the king had nearly died from fever while on campaign and had submitted to his priests' demands to send Madame de Châteauroux away in disgrace, stripping her of all her titles and privileges. As he recovered, Madame de Châteauroux waited on tenterhooks for her summons to return to court. Finally the summons came. Triumphant, the favorite packed her bags ready to race back to her lavish apartments in the palace and take up where she had left off. She eagerly planned suitable punishments for those who had gloated over her downfall.

But before she could enter her carriage, she was struck with a blinding headache and took to her bed. Impatient at the delay of her victorious return, she waited for the headache to disappear. Then fever set in. She went into convulsions, sending soul-wrenching shrieks through her house. Her burning ambitions, which had enflamed the entire court, dwindled to a tiny spark, then to a cold ash.

The king was devastated. The marquis d'Argenson wrote, “Our poor Master has a look which makes one tremble for his life.”

Louis had lost two mistresses in two years. He was to lose his next and best-loved mistress to death as well. For nineteen years,
Madame de Pompadour had reigned supreme over a king and a nation. But in 1763, her health rapidly deteriorating, she confided her long years of suffering to her old friend Madame de La Ferté-Imbault. “I have never heard a finer sermon on the nemesis of ambition,” the friend wrote. “She seemed so wretched, so proud, so violently shaken and so suffocated by her own enormous power that I came away after an hour's talk feeling that death was the only refuge left to her.”

At the age of forty-one, probably suffering from tuberculosis and congestive heart failure, Madame de Pompadour had such difficulty climbing steps that a mechanical chair was installed on the staircase in Versailles. By early 1764 it was clear to all that the royal mistress was a dying woman. In February of that year she suffered a lung hemorrhage, followed by chills and fever. The king visited her every day. By April, the cold wet spring in the drafty palace had exacerbated her illness. In her last days, she rouged her deathly pale cheeks, put on a brocade dressing gown over white taffeta petticoats, and had her hair combed. When the king visited her, she, knowing he hated sickness, refused to talk about her illness and pretended she was actually quite well. Dying, she listened to his boring stories and injected the witty remark at just the right moment.

On April 13, the king, having spoken with Madame de Pompadour's doctors, broke the news to her that she had days, perhaps hours, left. She asked him if he wished her to see a priest, and he nodded. She was not eager to do so, because she knew that once a priest arrived Louis would have to leave, given the sinful nature of their early relationship, and she would never see him again. Catholic mistresses were doomed to die without their lovers by their side.

As if an ordinary mortal's death would pollute the ambrosial atmosphere of the gods, it was not permitted for anyone but a member of the royal family to die at Versailles. But Louis insisted that Madame de Pompadour stay there unmolested, in as much comfort as possible.

Slipping from life, she made her will, leaving many bequests
to faithful friends and servants. That last night she slept sitting up in a chair because her rotting lungs could inhale a bit of air only in that position. The following afternoon the dauphin wrote, “She is dying with a courage rare in either sex. Every time she draws a breath, she thinks it is her last. It is one of the saddest and most cruel endings one can imagine…. The King has not seen her since yesterday.”

At the very end, Madame de Pompadour soiled her linen. When her maids wanted to shift her to change it she replied, “I know you are very skillful, but I am so feeble that you could not help hurting me, and it is not worth it for the little time I have left.”

As her priest rose to go, she gave one last, shining smile and said, “One moment, Monsieur le Curé, and we will go away together.”
Her lungs—never strong, now utterly defeated—rattled out the last breath of air. And then there was the awful silence.

When the king was informed that his mistress had died, he shut himself up in his apartments with some of her best friends. Meanwhile, the duchesse de Praslin, looking out her window, saw the corpse of a woman, “covered only with a sheet wrapped so tightly that the shape of the head, the breasts, the stomach and legs were distinctly outlined.”
Moments after Madame de Pompadour's death, her body had been whisked away.

The day of her funeral, a cold wind howled around Versailles. As the solemn procession passed in front of the palace, the king—who was forbidden by etiquette to attend the ceremony—stood on his balcony in the rain without a hat or coat, tears rolling down his face. “They are the only tribute I can offer her,” he said to his servant.

When her friend Voltaire heard of her passing, he wrote, “I am greatly afflicted by the death of Madame de Pompadour; I weep when I think of it. It is very absurd that an old scribbler like myself should be still alive, and that a beautiful woman should have been cut off at forty in the midst of the most brilliant career in the world. Perhaps if she had tasted the repose which I enjoy, she would be living now.”

A few days after the funeral the queen said, “Finally there is no more talk here of her who is no longer than if she had never existed. Such is the way of the world; it is very hard to love it.”

The Business of Life

Not all royal mistresses suffered tragic endings. Most of them aged, were ousted, and went about the business of daily life, pockets stuffed with the wages of sin.

Early in the reign of George I of England, three ancient royal mistresses of dead kings ran into each other at the English court. The duchesses of Portsmouth, Dorchester, and Orkney, mistresses of Charles II, James II, and William III, respectively, had beaten the odds and lived into a healthy old age. Like a trio of barnacled old scows bobbing in the harbor, the elderly dames looked at each other. Suddenly the plucky duchess of Orkney crowed, “Who would have thought that we three old whores would meet here?”

BOOK: Sex with Kings
2.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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