Authors: Eleanor Herman
One day, while getting into a carriage with his queen and his mistress, Louis got a whiff of Madame de Montespan's strong perfume and angrily remarked that he had repeatedly requested her to wear less, as the scent made him ill. His mistress replied that she was forced to wear perfume because the king never bathed in his life and, frankly, stank. A shouting match ensued as the king and his mistress entered the carriage, the hapless queen following. Courtiers made bets on how long the mistress would last.
Oddly, Madame de Montespan's reign lasted thirteen years. The king must have enjoyed sparring with his imperious mistress. And she sometimes showed the good sportsmanship that most royal mistresses possessed. For instance, in the winter of 1678 she insisted on joining Louis on a tour of his frontiers although she was five months pregnant. She suffered repeated fevers but refused to return to Versailles, bumping over muddy roads with the king, sleeping with him in farmhouses, and never complaining. It was this behavior that bound the king to her, in between her temper tantrums.
Louis's cousin Charles II put up with his beautiful virago, Barbara, Lady Castlemaine, for nearly a dozen years. Barbara had dark auburn hair, a shapely figure, porcelain skin, an oval face, and flashing dark almond-shaped eyes under beautifully arched black brows. There was something delicate about her classical nose and ripe pouting lips, ironically evincing a hint of vulnerability.
Lady Castlemaine badgered, threatened, and intimidated Charles into submission with her unending stream of demands for money, titles, and honors for herself and her children and
sometimes, in a burst of selflessness, for her friends. Her outrageous behavior knew no bounds. In 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed the medieval St. Paul's Cathedral and damaged many of the tombs. The mummified corpse of the fourteenth-century bishop of Londonâ“all tough and dry like a spongified leather”âwas found intact and exhibited to visitors of the ruins.
Lady Castlemaine instructed the keeper to leave her alone with the body for a few moments. When he returned he found that the corpse's penis had been torn off and suspected that the lady had done so with her mouth.
But even the shrewish Lady Castlemaine knew it was her duty to provide the king with a good dinner. Her London house was situated on the banks of the Thames. One evening, when her cook complained that she could not prepare the beef because the river had risen and flooded the kitchen, Lady Castlemaine shrieked, “Zounds, you must set the house on fire but it must be roasted.”
Nearly two centuries after the twin termagants battled their royal lovers on either side of the English Channel, Lola Montez pounced with outstretched claws on Bavaria, combining the worst qualities of both. As greedy as Lady Castlemaine, as arrogant as Madame de Montespan, raven-haired Lola quickly wrapped the aging Ludwig I of Bavaria around her little finger. It was her passion that inflamed him. His long-suffering wife and former court mistresses seemed as dull as sheep compared to Lola's flash and fire. Azure eyes glinting, nostrils flaring, Lola would stamp her foot and threaten violence to herself when things didn't go her way. Lola kept knives and pistols secreted about her person for protection. She got in trouble with the law on several occasions for horsewhipping gentlemen who she felt had insulted her. Poor enslaved Ludwig would likely have kept Lola for years if his own subjects had not thrown her out of Bavaria after only sixteen months as royal mistress.
These three untamed shrews were, however, the exception rather than the rule. Most kings were like Louis XV, demanding cheerful amusement. When his usually complacent Madame du
Barry began throwing jealous scenes about his proposed marriage to a foreign princess, the king stopped coming to visit her. Only when she regained her composure did he return.
In the first decade of the eighteenth century, Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, fell in love at first sight with a certain Mademoiselle Dieskau for her platinum hair, large blue eyes, and “neck of dazzling whiteness.” According to the elector's biographer, Mademoiselle Dieskau “was, her mind excepted, the most accomplished creature nature ever formed.”
But, he continues, “how beautiful soever Mademoiselle Dieskau really was, she could be called no better than a lump of snow. No vivacity could be found in her, she made no other answers than yes and no. The King was charmed with the great beauty of her person, he spoke to herâ¦but was in despair when he found so little life in her.”
But the desires of his body soon overcame the needs of his mind, and Augustus found himself in Mademoiselle Dieskau's arms, having paid a large sum to her mother for the girl's virginity. His physical urges assuaged, he left Mademoiselle Dieskau soon after in search of a woman of greater intelligence.
Likewise, in 1680 Louis XIV was captivated by a new face at court, one Mademoiselle de Fontanges. Courtiers raved about her beauty. One ambassador described her as “an extraordinary blonde beauty, the like of which has not been seen at Versailles in many a year. A form, a daring, an air to astonish and charm even that gallant and sophisticated Court.”
But after the initial wave of enthusiasm over Mademoiselle de Fontanges's beauty died down, the next tide of gossip revolved around her shocking stupidity. The moment the girl opened her mouth, many tender fantasies inspired by her looks were immediately dispelled.
Madame de Caylus wrote, “The King, in truth, was attracted solely by her face. He was actually embarrassed by her foolish
chatterâ¦One grows accustomed to beauty, but not to stupidity.”
One courtier called the new mistress “beautiful as an angel and stupid as a basket.”
Louis quickly tired of his stupid basket.
The most bombastic empty-headed beauty was, without a doubt, nineteen-year-old Virginie di Castiglione, who in 1856 was sent by Italian prime minister Camillo Cavour to seduce Emperor Napoleon III of France, a mission she accomplished with lightning speed. Unburdened by modesty, Virginie called herself the most beautiful woman in the world and later expanded that to “the most beautiful woman of the century.”
Many agreed with Virginie's assessment of her beauty. Princess Metternich described Virginie's face as “a delicious oval, her eyes dark green and velvety, surmounted by brows that could have been traced by a miniaturist's pencil, her small noseâ¦obstinate, yet absolutely regular, her teeth like pearls.”
The courtier Viel Castel recorded in his diary that Virginie “bore the burden of her beauty with insolence, and displayed it with effrontery.”
He, like so many at court, was delighted by the “truly admirable” size of her bosom, and confessed that he tried hard to look under the sheer gauze covering to discern its shape. Virginie refused to wear a corset, that most requisite piece of nineteenth-century female attire, which turned the soft curves of the breasts into an impregnable fortress. She allowed her breasts to dangle freely. Viel Castel remarked that those breasts “seemed to throw out a challenge to all women.”
But what Virginie boasted in the bosom she lacked between the ears. While successful royal mistresses were absorbed in their men, Virginie was absorbed only in herself. Most of her conversation revolved around her own glorious beauty. Napoleon himself confided to his cousin Mathilde that while Virginie was “very beautiful, she bores me to death.”
Virginie's looks could not, in the long run, make up for her stone cold selfishness. She lasted only a year. “I have hardly
commenced my life and my role is already finished,” she lamented bitterly.
When George I left Hanover to claim the British throne in 1714, he brought as his mistresses two of the ugliest women his new subjects had ever seen. The tall, skinny one bore a weighty nameâErmengarda Melusina, countess of Schulenberg. She had lost her hair to smallpox and wore unattractive wigs and dumpy dresses. Her plainness was offset by kindness and loyalty but not by scintillating conversation. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote that while many found King George a dull man, Ermengarda was “duller than himself, and consequently did not find him so.”
The short, fat mistress was Sophia Charlotte Kielmansegge. Though ridiculed for her girth, she had a sparkling personality and a thorough education, and loved sex. As her mother had been mistress to George I's father, there was some speculation that George was having sex with his half sister. While the skeletal countess of Schulenberg was nicknamed “the Hop Pole,” the stout Madame Kielmansegge was tagged “Elephant and Castle.” Horace Walpole described her as having “two fierce black eyes, large and rolling, beneath two lofty arched eyebrows, two acres of cheeks spread with crimson, an ocean of neck that overflowed and was not distinguished from the lower part of her body, and no part restrained by stays.”
Philip Dormer Stanhope, the future Lord Chesterfield, described both mistresses as “two considerable specimens of the King's bad taste and strong stomach.”
Referring to Madame Kielmansegge he added, “The standard of His Majesty's taste as exemplified in his mistresses, makes all ladies who aspire to his favor, and who are near the suitable age, strain and swell themselves, like the frogs in the fable, to rival the bulk and dignity of the ox. Some succeed, others burst.”
Charles II of England once said that his brother, the future
James II, was given his mistresses by his priests as a penance. In a century that worshiped the soft flesh of breasts and hips and rounded arms, James liked extremely slim women. His mistress Arabella Churchill was a “tall creature, pale-faced, and nothing but skin and bone.”
Courtiers cackled at her appearance until she fell off her horse in front of a crowd, displaying her magnificent legs. One awestruck witness marveled that “limbs of such exquisite beauty could belong to Miss Churchill's face.”
Though forced by the fashions of the time to conceal her most comely attributes inside yards of heavy skirts, Arabella often displayed the quick wit and lively intelligence which bound James to her through ten years and four children.
James's next mistress, sixteen-year-old Catherine Sedley, was equally skinny and pale but nearsighted and squint-eyed to boot. Though feisty and intelligent, she was clearly bewildered at having been chosen by James. “It cannot be my beauty for he must see I have none,” she remarked incredulously. “And it cannot be my wit, for he has not enough to know that I have any.”
Louis, dauphin of France, the heir of Louis XIV, enjoyed a shockingly plain mistress for several years until his death. Ungainly, with a thick neck, heavy lips, and a ski-slope nose, Emilie de Choin was described as having the deportment of a barrel. At a court known for its graceful, witty women, Mademoiselle de Choin looked like a pug and seemed to have the brains of one.
Louis XIV's sister-in-law Elizabeth Charlotte wrote that Mademoiselle de Choin had black rotten teeth that stank so much that one could smell them at the other end of the room. But, she added, “She had the hugest bosom I ever saw; those enormous charms of hers were the Dauphin's delight.”
To her horror, Elizabeth Charlotte witnessed the dauphin playing tunes with his fingers on Emilie's breasts as if they were kettledrums.
But good-natured Emilie made a pleasant home life for her royal lover, who had been unhappily married to two foreign princesses. Shrugging off his notorious tightfistedness, uncomplaining Emilie lived on a pension little better than that of a servant. Sometimes Louis would buy his mistress a small gift and then agonize for days over whether to give it to her or return it
and get his money back. Yet rather than face the sacrificial altar a third time, Louis secretly married Emilie, the ugliest girl at court, and enjoyed playing her kettledrums until the day he died.
Perhaps the ruler best known for choosing ugly mistresses was Philippe, duc d'OrlÃ©ans, who became regent of France in 1715. Philippe was the nephew of Louis XIV and son of the formidable Elizabeth Charlotte, who was scandalized by his taste in women. Casting about a court with the most beautiful women in the world, Philippe would always select the ugliest to pleasure him in bed. His mother huffed, “He is not difficult in this regard; as long as they are good-humored, impertinent and have a hearty appetite for food and drink, he does not worry about their looks.”
Never one to mince words, she once told her son that he visited his mistresses as he would his chamber pot and loudly reproached him for their ugliness.
” Philippe quipped, “in the night all cats are gray.”
Never has a woman who loves her husband liked his whore.
QUEEN CATHERINE DE MEDICI
RUSSIA, ADVISING HER
daughter Wilhelmina on a possible marriage to Prince Frederick William of England, remarked that the young man was “a good-natured prince, kind-hearted but very foolish. If you will have sense enough to tolerate his mistresses, you will be able to do what you like with him.”
A princess, trained from birth for the lofty role she would play as queen, understood the likelihood of her future husband's keeping a mistress. She had only to look about her own court to see the mistresses of her father, uncles, and brothers.
And yet the blushing royal bride invariably hoped
husband would be the exception;
husband would disport himself only
in the sacred bower of Hymen, never returning to the sullied bed of Jezebel. Almost as invariably, she was disappointed.
Raised as a hothouse flower, a princess was rudely plucked from her native soil and tossed into a cold foreign land where she would, over time, wilt. Blinded by tears, she boarded the gaily bedecked vessel to take her to her new country, knowing she would probably never see her parents, sisters, brothers, or friends again. Heart pounding with fear, she would disembark in a country where she could barely understand the language. To the jubilant ringing of church bells and the hearty crackling of bonfires, she would be taken to a court with alien customs, fashions, and politics.
Initially, the princess bride, the new queen, was the blazing star of the court. Courtiers bowed and scraped before her, gave her expensive gifts, made pretty compliments, scurried behind her. But when the drum roll of the wedding festivities died down, the church bells were silenced, and the bonfires turned to ash, scheming courtiers usually grouped themselves around the king's dashing mistress rather than his dull foreign queen.
For all her vaunted position, the queen was at the mercy of her husband's whims as much as any woman in the kingdom. The king alone decided whether his wife would enjoy spacious royal apartments at the heart of the palace or cramped cold rooms in a distant wing. The king chose as her ladies-in-waiting either the young and radiant or the old and withered. The king determined whether she would live in luxurious splendor or pinch-fisted penury. The king instructed her either to attend royal eventsâballs, feasts, garden parties, theatrical performancesâor to remain sequestered in her rooms.
Courtiers aped the king's treatment of the queen. If he treated her with respect, so did they. If he ignored and insulted her, so did they. If the queen was to remain a significant presence at court, she required her husband's staunch support.
The king's support for his wife, however, was often conditional, depending on how well the queen treated his mistress.
“He is my lord”
“It is easier to make peace in Europe than between two women,” lamented Louis XIV in the 1670s.
History, before and after the Sun King, proved him correct.
Legend has it that in 1176 fifty-four-year-old Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine poisoned the beautiful young mistress of her husband, Henry II of England. Or stabbed her. Or drowned her in her bath. No one is certain, though the legend probably arose from the obvious hatred Eleanor bore Rosamund de Clifford, who was no mere sex partner, but the queen's rival at court. What is certain is that prickly Eleanor, bristling at her husband's flagrant adulteries, plotted to overthrow Henry. Dressed as a man to escape her husband's wrath, Eleanor was captured fleeing on horseback and spent the last sixteen years of Henry's life in prison.
Life was easier for the queen who could meekly accept her husband's philandering. In the 1440s Queen Marie of France remained on good terms with Agnes Sorel, the mistress of her husband, Charles VII. A Flemish visitor to the court pitied the plain queen, ferret-faced with large, frightened eyes and a long, inquisitive nose. Marie, who had never been close to pretty even at the peak of her youth, endured the golden loveliness of her husband's mistress at her side most of the time. The queen, the visitor wrote, was forced “to see her rival walk beside her and remain near her every day, to have her household in the King's palace, to enjoy the company and all the gatherings of the lords and the nobility, to appear before her, to possess more beautiful bedclothes, better rings and jewels, enjoy a better table and better everything. And with all this she must not only put up, but rather make it seem a pleasure.”
While pious Queen Marie always wore black after four of her fourteen children died, Agnes led the fashions at court. The courtier Jean Juvenal des Ursins was perturbed by what he considered indecency and sniffed that the king should not allow necklines so low that nipples and breasts were exposed. But apparently the king liked this fashion, as he made no move to ban it.
Marie, uncomplaining, devoted herself to her household, her religious duties, and her offspring. “He is my lord, he has authority over all my actions and I over none,” the devoted wife repeated dutifully.
It would be a useful motto for queens in the centuries to come.
On a gentle May morning in 1662, the ship carrying twenty-three-year-old Catherine Braganza, princess of Portugal, entered Portsmouth harbor. Though no great beauty and a Catholic to boot, Catherine had been chosen as the wife of King Charles II for the rich dowry she trailed in her wakeâthe cession of Bombay and Tangier, which would open up India to England.
Standing on the ship's deck, tiny brunette Catherine was all hope and eagerness and fear. Hope that she would be a good queen, a beloved wife, a happy mother. Eagerness to meet her husbandâhandsome, swarthy Charles. Fear of finding herself cast adrift on foreign shores without her family.
But in addition to hope, eagerness, and fear, Catherine came to England armed with steely resolve. She had promised her mother, Portugal's fierce queen regent, that she would never,
tolerate Charles's infamous mistress, Barbara, Lady Castlemaine, at her court. Her mother had lectured Catherine about this auburn-haired hussy who brazenly betrayed a good husband, raped the treasury, had given the king one royal bastard nine months after their liaison began, and was already pregnant again.
Sir John Reresby, who officially welcomed the princess in Portsmouth, announced with some misgivings that Catherine “had nothing visible about her capable to make the King forget his inclinations to the Countess of Castlemaine, the finest woman of her age.”
And indeed, as church bells rang in London to announce the bride's arrival on English soil, Charles remained in London dining with his stunning and very pregnant mistress. As his bride waited in Portsmouth and bonfires were lit
across the country, Charles spent every spare moment with Lady Castlemaine for six days straight.
By the time Charles finally bestirred himself to ride to Portsmouth, poor Catherine, humiliated with waiting, was ill of a fever. When Charles was introduced to his bride, he was shocked less at her buckteeth than at her hairdo, dressed in the Iberian style of corkscrews projecting horizontally from either side of her head and then hanging like sausages down to her shoulders. “At first sight,” Charles told a friend, “I thought they had brought me a bat instead of a woman.”
The king gave her a quick kiss, then went to his own chamber and sank into bed relieved. He was tired from his journey and wrote his sister that he was glad he would not be expected to make love to Catherine that night. Trying to remain optimistic about his bride, the next day Charles told his chancellor, “Her face is not so exact as to be called a beauty, though her eyes are excellent good, and not anything in her face that in the least degree can shock one.”
The day of the royal wedding, in protest Lady Castlemaine ordered her underclothes to be washed and hung out to dry on the palace grounds for all the world to see. The diarist Samuel Pepys, walking in the Privy Garden, “saw the finest smocks and linen petticoats of my Lady Castlemaine's, laced with rich lace at the bottoms that I ever saw, and did me good to look upon them.”
Catherine had immediately fallen deeply in love with her tall, darkly swashbuckling husband, and Charles insisted a bit too often that he, too, was delighted. A sexual athlete, Charles likely found in Catherine a tightly furled bud, a bud that would never unfurl further. We can picture her, shy and chaste, a dutiful wife in bed, while Lady Castlemaine reveled with him in sexual abandon.
Beneath the smile Charles wore when beginning his married life simmered a secret which he knew would devastate his bride. To pacify Lady Castlemaine's wrath at his marriage, he had promised her the honor of becoming a lady of the queen's bedchamber.
Not only would she live at court, but as a lady of the bedchamber Lady Castlemaine would be concerned with the most intimate details of the queen's life, including sexual relations with her husband, bodily functions, menstruation, and pregnancy. The position offered great status, as it was one of the few that could officially be given to a woman directly. It would cement Lady Castlemaine's standing in an envious, backbiting court.
Two months after the king's wedding, the royal mistress gave birth to their second child, and Charles glumly decided it was time to fulfill his promise to her, even at the risk of alienating his bride. He invited Lady Castlemaine to Hampton Court and, taking her by the arm, walked up to the queen to present her. Admiring the beautiful visitor, Catherine stood up smiling and extended her hand as her husband introduced Lady Castlemaine. Upon hearing the name, Catherine's reaction was gut-wrenching. She blanched and sank down visibly upset. Tears fell fast and heavy down her cheeks. Suddenly, blood dripped from her nose and she passed out on the floor. She was carried into an adjoining room, but Charles did not follow. He interpreted his wife's illness as defiance; wrath clouded his dark face as he took his mistress back to her coach.
When he reproached the queen for her insolent behavior, she was intransigent rather than contrite. Charles retaliated by sending home Catherine's retinue of Portuguese ladies and monksâmany of them her childhood friends. Charles further isolated his wife by ignoring her completely. He caroused through the night with friends as the queen lay sleepless in her cold bed.
Charles's faithful lord chancellor, Edward Clarendon, begged him to give up Lady Castlemaine and restore his marriage. This would also quiet any dissent among his people, some of whom had already lost respect for the king's personal life. But Charles indignantly defended Lady Castlemaine. “I have undone this lady,” he said, “and ruined her reputation, which was fair and untainted till her friendship with me, and I am
obliged in conscience and honor to repair her to the utmost of my power.”
Charles was uneasy about becoming “ridiculous to the world” if he did not win this very public debate with his new wife.
He forced poor Lord Clarendon, who despised Lady Castlemaine, to persuade the queen to accept her as a lady of the bedchamber. To this request the queen replied, “The King's insistence upon that particular can proceed from no other ground but his hatred of my person. He wishes to expose me to the contempt of the world. And the world will think me deserving of such an affront if I submitted to it. Before I do that I will put myself on board any little vessel and so be transported to Lisbon.”
Charles stubbornly presented his wife with a list of ladies to be approved for bedchamber positions. At the top of the list was the name of Barbara, Lady Castlemaine. Equally stubborn, Catherine crossed out the name and again threatened to get on the next boat home.
The king moved his mistress to luxurious apartments in Hampton Court, above his own, their suites connected by a secret stair. He sat next to Lady Castlemaine at meals, laughing and talking gaily with her, while the queen sat in mute dejection. No one wanted to be seen talking to the queen, as it might awaken the prejudice of the king and Lady Castlemaine. As soon as Catherine retired, courtiers made insulting jokes about her.
By the end of summer, Catherine broke. Lonely, far from home, she simply couldn't stand the isolation anymore. She apologized to Charles and welcomed his mistress into her inner circle as a friend. The queen and Lady Castlemaine were often crammed into a coach with the king between them. Grateful Charles became an attentive husband. His respect for Catherine became friendship and eventually a kind of love. When Lady Castlemaine demanded that she be the first to ride with the king in a revolutionary new open carriageâand threatened to have a miscarriage on the spot if she was notâCharles selected Catherine for the honor. As the king held the hand of his beaming wife, his mistress was forced to join the procession that followed
on horseback, and dejectedly kept her distance from the boisterous courtiers.