Authors: Eleanor Herman
Madame de Montespan was an extremely wealthy woman, boasting castles, manors, and a fashionable house in Paris. But the beating heart of French society was with the king, usually at his favorite palace of Versailles. Gone for her were the colorful festivities, the need for jewels and satin gowns, the power and honor, the obeisance of the whole world.
Though she was refused permission to attend her children's Versailles weddings, she was allowed to visit them periodically at court. Madame de Caylus wrote that she “wandered like a lost soul, doomed to return again and again to the scene of a former life in expiation of former sins.”
During these few visits to Versailles, her haughty arrogance and imperious temper were deflated. Unsure of herself, hoping to be accepted, invited, the formerly imperious royal mistress became a ghost of the marble halls, wandering about ignored where for decades she had reigned. During her brief court visits, she caught glimpses of the king, though always in the company of many others.
Madame de Montespan purchased a chÃ¢teau in the forest of Fontainebleau, where the king periodically went hunting. When she heard the royal trumpets blow, she went outside and strained for a glimpse of him galloping in the distance. The restless exile bought another chÃ¢teau, Oiron, in her native land of Poitou, turning it into a shrine to the king, portraits and statues of him adorning every room. Portraits of Louis on a white horse, tapestries representing his conquests, a silver bust of Louis with solid gold hair. Her bedchamber alone boasted four images of her former lover.
Madame de Montespan even fitted up a special room designated the King's Chamber, as if expecting the monarch to visit. It had an impressive canopied bed capped with a crown, hung with black velvet embroidered with gold and silver, set behind the traditional low gilded railing used by royalty. There was indeed some speculation at court that, particularly after Madame de Montespan's husband died in 1701, Louis would recall her, possibly even marry her. Some hoped that Madame de Maintenon would obligingly clear the way by dying, and then, with Madame de Montespan back at court, they could all have fun
again. But Louis never visited his King's Chamber at Oiron. And Madame de Maintenon would outlive the king by three years.
Gradually, Madame de Montespan accepted that she would never be invited to live at court again. Her last years saw a religious transformationâperhaps all the more heartfelt to expiate her youthful dealings in black magic to win the king. She built a hospital where a hundred aged men and women would be cared for at her expense. Whereas she had always been generous to the poor, she now sewed clothes for them with her own hands every day and gave them most of her possessions. The woman who had feasted herself to fatness at Versailles now fasted routinely. She would often leave her last little pleasureâcard games with visitorsâto go to her oratory to pray.
In a gesture reminiscent of Louise de La ValliÃ¨re more than thirty years earlier, she took to mortifying the flesh with rough shirts and sheets. The duc de Saint-Simon wrote, “She always wore a belt and wrist-and ankle-bands of iron with spikes, which frequently chafed her skin into ugly sores.”
In the greatest irony, Madame de Montespan would periodically visit Louise de La ValliÃ¨re in her convent. The royal mistress who had found repentance early and had willingly fled the glories of the court was truly happy. The other royal mistress, however, found repentance only when she had been forced from her earthly position biting and kicking. Aging and disgraced, there was no other place for her to go except an altar. She wanted to learn how Louise could accept the loss of earthly position and joyously replace it with the love of God. Forgiving the cruel treachery of the past, Louise gladly counseled her former friend in the mysteries of divine grace. But unlike Louise, whose penance and good works were done behind cloister walls, Madame de Montespan publicized her piety with as much ostentatious fanfare as she had formerly trumpeted her sins.
While Madame de Montespan's religious epiphany had blunted the qualities of lechery, greed, and gluttony, her pride remained more pointed than ever. The duc de Saint-Simon reported that in her retirement she was as haughty as she had been
while reigning over Versailles, still grasping the trappings of royalty she had insisted upon during her glory days. She received visitors sitting in an armchair while they were forced to stand. A few select members of the royal family were brought chairs, but even then she would not rise to welcome them or accompany them to the door. Many of them stopped coming. But court women were eager for their daughters to introduce themselves to the former mistress, to look on the face that had enchanted a king and defined an era.
Terrified of dying alone, Madame de Montespan hired women to read and play cards in her room as she slept at night. She kept her bed curtains open and numerous candles lighting the chamber. Perhaps she felt Death silently padding through her castle, looking for her.
When he found her, she was ready for him. No more fear. On her deathbed, according to the duc de Saint-Simon, “she summoned her entire domestic staff, down to the humblest, and made public confession of her publicly sinned sins, asked pardon for the long and open scandal of her life. The terror of death which had so long obsessed her was suddenly dissipatedâ¦. She gave thanks to God that He had permitted her to die far removed from her children, the fruits of her adultery.”
Madame de Montespan's bodyâthe one which had delighted a king, propelled her to riches and power, and been daily massaged with oilsânow received ghoulish insults. An apprentice surgeon botched the autopsy. Only the lowliest servants said prayers over the corpse, the rest having disappeared. Her body was dumped outside her door while various priests argued about possession of it. The parish church won the argument; the coffin was placed there and seemingly forgotten for some two months. Finally, a funeral procession “remarkable for its shameful parsimony” set out for Poitiers, where her remains were placed in her family crypt, under a black marble stone.
Meanwhile, according to custom, her entrails were placed in an urn to be buried separately. A porter was hired to take the urn to a convent, but, smelling something rotten, he peered inside the poorly sealed vessel. The man was so revolted by what he
saw that he threw the contents into the gutter, where a herd of pigs stumbling by promptly ate them. When this story was told at Versailles to great guffaws of laughter, one noblewoman remarked, “Her entrails? Really? Did she ever have any?”
Madame de Montespan's bastard son the duc du Maine “could not conceal his joy” at his mother's death. Her only legitimate child, the duc d'Antin, rejoiced, “Here I am at lastâthawed out!”âperhaps alluding to basking in the Sun King's rays without his mother's shadow blocking them.
Surprisingly, Madame de Maintenon, who had been quite cold to Madame de Montespan in her final years, was so upset to learn of her death that she locked herself in her toilet. Nor was anyone less astonished at the king's utter indifference to the death of his longtime lover who had borne him seven children. When the king's beloved granddaughter-in-law found the nerve to ask him why he did not grieve, he replied coldly “that when he parted from Madame de Montespan he never expected to see her again and so far as he was concerned she had been dead from that day.”
The most surprising penitent of all was the impetuous Lola Montezâwhorish, selfish, deceitful Lola who had broken old King Ludwig's heart and lost him his kingdom. After her 1848 banishment from Bavaria and his abdication, Ludwig prayed that she would one day realize the error of her ways and sincerely repent.
He was not disappointed, though it took Lola several years to comply. Lola had a unique talent for reinventing herself. After her exile from Bavaria she moved to the United States, where crowds rushed to see the former royal mistress dance. In her thirties, when the physical demands of dancing became more difficult, she launched an acting career. She starred in a successful play about herself called
Lola Montez in Bavaria,
in which she was portrayed as a virtuous proponent of constitutional freedom, a political adviser to the king, andâin the ultimate ironyâa great friend of his wife, Queen Therese, who had heartily detested her.
Ever the romantic, Lola remarried twice, though neither
marriage was legal, since her first husband was still alive. In 1853 Lola settled down in the California mining town of Grass Valley and seemed well suited for the Wild West. She raised a bear in her backyard, invested in a mine, and was known to tour the mine shafts chomping on a cigar. During her two-year stay in Grass Valley, she had only one major fracas, hunting down a journalist in a saloon and horsewhipping him for bandying her name about unkindly in his newspaper. Otherwise Lola was known for her charitable works and, surprisingly, Bible study.
In 1857, at the age of 37, Lola began to lecture in numerous American cities. In her most popular lecture, “Beautiful Women,” she described the attributes of Europe's most celebrated beauties, many of whom she had never seen but claimed as good friends. Lola amused her American audiences with lectures on European habits and character, and then went to Europe to lecture on American habits and character. In many cities the lecturer was decried in the press for her immorality, which resulted in even greater attendance. Lectures earned Lola substantial fees and simultaneously whitewashed her reputation. Her audience was surprised at the straitlaced piety of this former fallen woman.
In June 1860, Lola suffered a paralyzing stroke. She was not expected to live, and many European newspapers reported the death of the famous dancer. With characteristic determination, Lola fought hard to regain her health. Looked after by old friends, by December she could walk and talk again. But during an airing in an open carriage Lola caught pneumonia, and she died on January 17, 1861, at the age of forty. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. A European paper ran the headline “Lola Montez Is DeadâReally Dead This Time.”
Despite her success as a lecturer, Lola left only $1,247 because she had already given much of her earnings to charity. In her will, Lola left $300 to the Magdalen Society for reformed prostitutes.
After Lola's death, a friend wrote seventy-four-year-old Ludwig in Munich that Lola “often spoke to me of your Majesty and of your kindness and benevolence, which she deeply feltâand
wished me to tell you she had changed her life and companionsâ¦. She wished me to let you know she retained a sincere regard for your great kindness to the end of her life. She died a true penitent, relying on her Savior for pardon and acceptance, triumphing only in His merit.”
The former king replied, “With great satisfaction I was hearing the repentance of L.M. of her former behaviorâ¦. It is a great consolation to hear her dying as a Christian.”
In his last years, Ludwig's increasing deafness isolated him from society. He lived to see many of his children die, including his son and successor, Maximilian II. He saw Bavaria's defeat against the Prussians in 1866. He saw his insane teenage grandson Ludwig II generate his own political rumblings.
In retirement, Ludwig wrote a poem about his love affair with Lola Montez:
Through you I lost the crown
But I do not rage against you for that
For you were born to be my misfortune,
You were such a blinding, scorching light!
Be happy! So my soul calls after you,
Into the ever-receding distance;
Now at last choose the path of salvation;
Vice brings only ruin and shame.
The best friend you ever had,
You thrust faithlessly away,
The gates of happiness were closed against you,
You simply followed your lascivious longings.
For life we remain divided,
And never again will meet face to face,
Leave me my heart's so painfully won peace,
Without it life is such a burden.
The destructive hands of time often deal more kindly with women wrenched mud-ugly into this world than with those who
slipped effortlessly from the womb with preternatural beauty. There is less contrast between the glories of youth and the ravages of age.
The sister-in-law of Louis XIV, the hefty German princess Elizabeth Charlotte, often quipped that as she had never been beautiful even when young, she had no vanished beauty to bewail with the passing years. Thrilled to see age leveling the playing field, Elizabeth Charlotte wrote, “I see that those whom I used to see when they were so beautiful are now as ugly as I am. Madame de La ValliÃ¨re no one in the world would know any more, and Madame de Montespan's skin looks like paper when children do tricks with it, seeing who can fold it into the smallest piece, for her whole face is closely covered with tiny little wrinkles, quite amazing. Her lovely hair is white as snow and her face is red, so her beauty is quite gone.”
Charles II's mistress, the peerless Hortense Mancini of sparkling black eyes and raven curls, was another mistress whose beauty faded rapidly. After the king's death, Hortense plied herself with alcohol, ravaging her looks and her health. Feeling unwell, she retired to a country house in the hopes that the air would improve her health. It didn't. She died in 1699 at the age of fifty-three. Having successfully avoided her insane husband for thirty-three years, Hortense fell into his hands again after death.
The duc de Mazarin had always been insanely jealous of Hortense's inclinations for other men, so much so that he had personally lopped off all the private parts of his collection of ancient Roman statues. His insanity knew no bounds. One day he announced to his shocked servants that he was a tulip; he planted his feet in the ground and ordered them to water him, which they did. It was this gentleman, then, who bought his wife's corpse from her creditors. He took it to France and carted it around with him from place to place. The jealous duke finally knew where she was and had her in his complete control for the first time since she had escaped from the convent in which he had imprisoned her thirty-three years earlier. He eventually laid her to rest in the tomb, happy in the knowledge that she would never be unfaithful to him again.