Authors: Eleanor Herman
Marie-ThÃ©rÃ¨se often waited up quite late for her husband, who, out of courtesy to her, never failed to come to her bed, even if the sun was rising. When he finally did come, still warm
from his mistress's embrace, his wife greeted him with a smile. She was grateful that the king showed the court his respect for her so clearly. As one courtier remarked, “The King renders her the full honors of her position. He eats and sleeps with herâ¦converses with her as gallantly as if there were no mistresses in his lifeâ¦and fulfills his connubial dutiesâ¦. He usually has commerce with her about twice a month.”
At some point the queen stopped resisting the tide of beautiful nubile women rushing toward her husband. Perhaps time healed the first, ragged wounds into thick, strong scars. She even took to wearing Madame de Montespan's signature hairstyleâcurls on the brow and each side of the head to just below the ear, and a braid coiled on the back of the head, entwined with ribbons and pearls. One day, noticing they were both wearing the same coiffeur, the queen explained, “I've cut my hair like this because the King likes it, not to steal your hair style.”
In 1725 fifteen-year-old Louis XV married a dowdy twenty-two-year-old Polish princess for her family's proven fertility. Boring, religious, and intellectually limited, Marie Leczinska was called one of the two dullest queens in Europe by her own father, the other dull queen being his wife. Marie preferred to pray away her mornings in church, and wile away her afternoons in needlework and cards. Like all eighteenth-century ladies, she had studied music and painting. But her paintings never rose above the level of childish cartoons, and nothing horrified her ladies-in-waiting more than the queen's announcement that she would play the piano for them.
Marie was adrift in the dazzling French court, which boasted the most attractive, witty, and sophisticated men and women in Europe. She did, however, fulfill her promise of fecundity, launching no fewer than ten royal children into the world in as many years. Her frequent lament was, “What, always in bed, always pregnant, always giving birth!”
For eight years, Louis was a royal anomaly in terms of his
punctilious fidelity to his wife. The promising lad grew into an extremely handsome man, with a well-formed physique, strong jaw, high cheekbones, and aquiline nose. Marie must have been pleased that despite her dullness and Louis's brilliance, Louis rarely looked at other women. She was devastated when Louis took one of her ladies-in-waiting, Madame de Mailly, as his mistress. Madame de Mailly was plain, kind, and content to walk around Versailles in torn petticoats rather than ask her royal lover for money. The king's next two mistressesâboth sisters of his firstâwere not so generous. Insolent and grasping, they went out of their way to insult the queen publicly, to flaunt their beauty against her plainness, their wit against her dullness. His third mistress, Madame de ChÃ¢teauroux, even had holes bored into the walls of the queen's apartments so that her friends could spy for her. When the king chose a new mistress, a Parisian bourgeoise rather than a haughty noblewoman, Marie must have hoped for better treatment.
To take up the position of
and live at Versailles, Louis's mistress had to be given a title and officially presented at court. The title was easyâthe king granted twenty-four-year-old Jeanne-Antoinette d'Etioles the marquessate of Pompadour. But the presentation was nerve-racking. The freshly minted marchioness had to be presented to the king and queen in two separate chambers before the eyes of the entire court. The candidate could not afford to make the least mistake. Her presentation involved walking forward in an enormous skirt extending three feet on either side and weighing more than forty pounds. She would curtsy to the monarchs, listening to the few words they deigned to say, then walk backward, curtsying, all the while kicking her long train out of her way. The entire procedure needed to appear effortless. Tripping over the train or, heaven forbid, falling, would ensure a lifetime of ridicule at court.
When Madame de Pompadour was presented to him, the king was stiffly nervous and muttered only a few words to his mistress. His presentation room had only a moderate attendance, as most of the courtiers had crammed themselves into the next room, eager to see the more interesting face-off between
the mistress and the wife. It was an evening presentation, and the plump middle-aged queen, loaded down with ribbons, bows, laces, and sequins, stood silently in the flickering candles' glow as the fresh-faced young woman approached her. Perhaps she felt Madame de Pompadour's palpable terror so carefully hidden beneath her impregnable poise and exquisite gown. The worst thing the queen could sayâindicating complete disdain of the person presentedâwas a little remark on the outfit the person was wearing. Breathless, the spectators leaned forward.
Queen Marie smiled and asked after a mutual acquaintance. The mistress, no doubt greatly relieved at the queen's very public gesture of kindness, whispered, “I have a profound desire to please you, Madame.”
The two spoke an astonishing twelve sentencesâcourtiers countedâwhich ensured Madame de Pompadour's welcome at court. It was a kindness that would never be forgotten, and one that would serve the queen well for years to come.
Within a few weeks the king suffered a brief attack of jaundice, and Marie requested permission to visit him at his chÃ¢teau of Choisy. Louisâwho ordinarily would have rebuffed herâreplied with unusual enthusiasm. When Marie arrived, he personally showed her the new decorations. At dinner, attended by both the queen and Madame de Pompadour, Louis treated his wife with great respect, and she “showed no desire to leave, but spoke graciously to Madame de Pompadour, who was respectful and not at all forward.”
The queen knew her husband was kinder to her at the instigation of Madame de Pompadour. The prince de Croy remarked that the mistress was “on good terms with the Queen, having persuaded the King to be nicer to her.”
Natural kindness aside, Madame de Pompadour knew that the queen's friendship would be helpful in the snake pit of Versailles. Her respectful consideration of the queen won her the approbation of fair-minded courtiers. The mistress routinely sent Marie bouquets of her favorite flowers, and convinced Louis that he should pay his wife's debtsâmost of which were to charities. More
astounding, while the court was at Fontainebleau, artists were busy redecorating the queen's apartments at Versailles. When Marie returned, she found that her dusty old rooms had been transformed into the latest style, replete with regilded mirrors and walls, furniture upholstered in white satin, and a new bed with rich red damask hangings. Even more to the queen's liking, the walls had been hung with tapestries illustrating biblical scenes. Marie recognized Madame de Pompadour's exquisite taste behind the new decorations.
The queen was further shocked to receive an expensive New Year's gift from her husbandâthe first in years. It was a magnificent snuffbox of enamel and gold, with a small watch mounted on the lid. Fortunately, the queen did not know that Louis had originally ordered the gift for Madame de Pompadour's motherâwho had just died.
But all wives are hurt when their husbands take mistresses. The queen would still have preferred to have Louis all to herself. Sighing, she often said, “Since there has to be one, better she than another.”
Like many kings, Henri IV of France believed a queen's duty was to oblige her husband in all things, follow his every command, and never complain. This duty included accepting his mistresses, even welcoming them. Henri had the misfortune to marry two women who were less than delighted at such a request.
In the early years of his marriage with Princess Marguerite, Henri, then only king of Navarre, fell in and out of love with a variety of ladies-in-waiting. Ravishing dark-haired Margueriteâwho had numerous lovers herselfâaverted her eyes. She had never wanted to marry Henri, a bandy-legged petty prince with a nose larger than his kingdom, as wits said, and such an aversion to bathing that he smelled like a goat. And then her husband fell in love with FranÃ§oise de Montmorency, daughter of the baron de Fosseuse, and known as Fosseuse herself. As Marguerite wrote in her memoirs, “He was fond of the society of ladies, and,
moreover, was at that time greatly enamoured with Fosseuseâ¦. Fosseuse did me no ill offices, so that the King my husband and I continued to live on very good terms, especially as he perceived me unwilling to oppose his inclinations.”
But in 1581 the fifteen-year-old Fosseuse became pregnant and bruited about that Henri had promised to divorce Marguerite and marry her if she gave him a son. Marguerite, who remained childless, felt threatened. She tried to send the girl from court, but Henri, furious, insisted she remain. Henri became “cold and indifferent” to his wife, Marguerite wrote.
As the girl's belly expanded, both Fosseuse and the king swore to Marguerite that she was not pregnant.
One morning the royal physician entered the bedchamber and announced to an embarrassed Henri that Fosseuse was in labor. Marguerite awoke to find her shame-faced husband poking his long nose between her bed curtains. “My dear,” he said, peering at her uneasily, “â¦will you oblige me so far as to rise and go to Fosseuse, who is taken very ill?â¦You know how dearly I love her, and I hope you will comply with my request.”
To which the complacent wife replied “that I had too great a respect for him to be offended at anything he should do, and that I would go to her immediately, and do as much for her as if she were a child of my own.”
Marguerite advised Henri to go hunting, drawing away a large part of the court with him, while she took the girl to a distant part of the palace where no one would hear her cries. When the king returned that evening, he learned that his mistress had produced a stillborn daughter. Crushed at the news, he asked his wife to return to his mistress and console her in her grief. But Marguerite's wifely patience ended here. She remembered how in previous months Fosseuse had flaunted the king's attentions, boasting that he would dump Marguerite and marry her if she gave him a son. Exhausted from the day's exertions, Marguerite flatly refused Henri's request, pointing out that she had been with the girl throughout her travails and could do no more. Henri was furious at her refusal. “He seemed to be greatly displeased at what I said,” Marguerite wrote, “which vexed me the
more as I thought I did not deserve such treatment after what I had done at his request in the morning.”
The marriage continued to deteriorate. After Marguerite tried to raise a rebellion against her husband, he exiled her to a remote castle. When Marguerite's brother Henri III died with no sons, Henri of Navarre, a cousin, became king of France, and he eventually divorced Marguerite, who had taken to strong drink, gluttonous eating, and sex with gardeners and stable boys.
After the death in 1599 of his mistress Gabrielle d'EstrÃ©es, whom he had planned to marry, the forty-six-year-old king started casting about for a suitable princess bride. His choice fell on Marie de Medici, niece of the grand duke of Tuscany. The lucky bride was selected more for her rivals' unsavoriness than for her own recommendations. The Spanish infanta was a repulsive antiquity, the German princesses were fat and awkward, and the attractive princess de Guise had been raised in the scorpions' nest of the king's most implacable enemies. Plus, Henri had borrowed heavily from Marie's uncle and hoped that the debt would be forgiven if he made her queen of France.
During his marriage negotiations, the king fell in love with the twenty-two-year-old noblewoman Henriette-Catherine de Balzac d'Entragues. The ultimate courtesan, Henriette offered the king far more than beautyâshe possessed a grace, a charm, a cutting wit, and demanding and impetuous passions that excited him. She was lithe, supple, sinuous, the cold cogs of her mind grasping quickly any word or action that could feed her insatiable ambition. And her one ambition was to become queen of France.
Before Henriette had sex with the king, she demanded the outrageous sum of one hundred thousand crowns, to which the love-starved monarch readily assented. His minister the duc de Sully, who called Henriette “that malignant wasp,” was compelled to fork over the money from the treasury.
In protest the duke had the sum brought in silver pieces rather than gold, and spread them out far and wide across the floor of the king's cabinet room to show Henri how much money he was wasting on the
cried the king, stepping into the room. “That's a pleasure dearly paid for.”
“Yes,” Sully replied icily. “The merchandise is certainly a bit dear.”
Having pocketed the cash, Henriette now declared that before the king consummated his passion for her, he must furnish written proof that he intended to marry her when possible. An outrageous propositionâespecially in light of his ongoing negotiations with the House of Tuscanyâbut Henri so burned with desire for Henriette that he wrote with his own hand, “We, Henri IVâ¦promise and swear on our faith and word as a kingâ¦that should the said Henriette-Catherine de Balzac within six months, beginning from this day, become pregnant and should she bear a son, then at that time we shall solemnize the marriage publicly in holy church according to the required customary ritual.”
Before sending it, Henri showed his promise to the duc de Sully and asked his opinion of it. The duke grabbed the missive and ripped it to shreds. The king, aghast, asked his adviser if he was mad. To which the duke replied he wished that he were “the only madman in France!”
Undeterred, the king had a secretary write out an identical promise and sent it to his lady love.