Louis was not a rake. We must always remember, in the case of kings even to our own century, that custom required them to sacrifice their personal preferences in order to contract marriages of some political utility to the state. Consequently society—and often the Church—winked an eye when a king sought the exhilaration of sex and the romance of love outside the marriage bond. If Louis had had his way he would have begun with a marriage of love. He was deeply moved by the beauty and charm of Marie Mancini, a niece of Mazarin; he begged his mother and the Cardinal to let him marry her (1658); Anne of Austria reproved him for allowing passion to interfere with politics; and Mazarin regretfully sent Marie off to marry a Colonna. Then for a year the subtle minister pulled wires to get as Louis’ bride María Teresa, daughter of Philip IV. What if, by some failure of the male line in the Spanish kings, this Infanta should bring all Spain as her dowry to the King of France? So in 1660, with all the costly splendor that mesmerized the taxpayers, Louis married María, both of them twenty-two years old.

Marie Thérèse was a proud woman, pious and virtuous; her example and influence helped to improve the morals of the court, at least in her entourage. But a severe discipline had made her somber and dull, and her great appetite was amplifying her, just when the beauties of Paris were ogling her handsome mate. She gave him six children, of whom only one, the Dauphin, survived infancy.* It was her misfortune that in the very year of their marriage Louis had discovered in his sister-in-law Henrietta Anne all the charms of young womanhood.

Henrietta Anne was the daughter of England’s Charles I. Her mother, Henrietta Maria (daughter of Henry IV of France), had shared with her husband the tragedy of the Civil War. When the Parliament army approached Charles’s headquarters at Oxford, the English Queen fled to Exeter, and there, so ill that she expected death, she gave birth (1644) to “a lovely little princess.” Pursued by Parliamentary agents, the ailing mother fled again, and made her way clandestinely to the coast, where a Dutch vessel, narrowly escaping English guns, took her to France. The child, left behind with Lady Anne Dalkeith, lived through two years of concealment in England before she too could be safely gotten across the Channel. Soon she had to experience the vicissitudes of the Fronde; in January, 1649, she joined her mother and Anne of Austria in the flight from barricaded Paris to St.-Germain. In that month the news came—doubtless kept from her for a time—that her father had been beheaded by the victorious Roundheads. After the Fronde subsided, Princess Henrietta was brought up in comfort and piety by her mother, and both lived to see Charles II restored to the English throne (1660). A year later, aged sixteen, she married the brother of Louis XIV, “Monsieur” Philippe Duc d’Orléans, and became “Madame.”

Monsieur was a little round-bellied man on high-heeled shoes, who loved feminine adornments and masculine forms; as brave as any knight in battle, but as painted, perfumed, beribboned, and begemmed as the vainest woman in this vainest land. It was a grief and a shame to Henrietta that her husband preferred the company of the Chevaliers de Lorraine and de Châtillon to her own. Almost everybody else fell in love with her, not so much for her frail beauty—though she was considered the fairest creature at the court103—as for her gentle and kindly spirit, her almost childlike vivacity and gaiety, the fresh vernal breeze that she brought wherever she went. Racine—one of the many authors whom she inspired and helped—called her “the arbiter of all that is beautiful.” 104

At first Louis XIV found her too weak and slender for his vigor and taste; but as he came to feel the douceur et lumière, “sweetness and light,” 105 of her character, he found increasing pleasure in her presence, delighted to dance with her, frolic with her, plan games with her, go walking in the park at Fontainebleau or boating on the canal with her, until all Paris assumed that she had become his mistress, and thought it a just revenge on the “King of Sodom.” 106 But probably Paris misjudged. Louis loved her this side of adultery, and she, who spent her devotion in love for her brothers Charles and James, accepted the King as another brother, and took it as her mission to bind all three in alliance or amity.

In 1670, at Louis’ request, she crossed to England to persuade Charles to join France against Holland, even to urge him to proclaim his Catholic faith. Charles so promised in the secret Treaty of Dover (June 1, 1670), and Henrietta returned to France loaded with gifts and victory. A few days after reaching her palace at St.-Cloud she fell violently ill. She thought she had been poisoned, and so all Paris believed. The King and his Queen hurried to her bedside, along with the penitent Monsieur, and Condé, Turenne, Mme. de La Fayette, and Mademoiselle de Montpensier; and Bossuet came to pray with her. At last, on June 30, her suffering ended. A post-mortem examination revealed that she had died not of poison but of peritonitis. 107 Louis gave her such a funeral as was usually reserved for crowned heads, and over her remains in St.-Denis Bossuet preached a funeral sermon that has reverberated through the centuries.

It was Henrietta who gave the King the first of his more public mistresses. Born at Tours in 1644, Louise de La Vallière received with unquestioning faith the religious education given her by her mother and her priestly uncle, the future bishop of Nantes. She had barely reached the age of First Communion when her father died. Her mother remarried; the new husband, maître d’hôtel for Gaston, Duc d’Orléans, secured a place for Louise as lady in waiting to the daughters of the Duke; and when, after Gaston’s death, his nephew and successor Philippe married, he took Louise with him as a maid of honor to Henrietta (1661). In that capacity she frequently saw the King. She was dazzled by his splendor, power, and personal fascination. Like a hundred other women she fell in love with him, but hardly dreamed of speaking to him.

Her beauty was more of character than of form. She was delicate in health, limped a bit, and “had no bosom to speak of,” said a critic; and she was alarmingly thin. But her frailty was itself a charm, for it engendered in her a modesty and gentleness that disarmed even women. Henrietta, to discourage the gossip that she herself was the royal mistress, had the King’s attention drawn to Louise. The scheme worked too well; Louis was attracted by this timid girl of seventeen, so different from the proud and aggressive ladies who surrounded him at the court. One day, finding her alone in the gardens at Fontainebleau, he offered himself to her, with no very honorable intentions. She surprised him by confessing that she loved him, but she long resisted his importunities. She pleaded with him not to make her betray both Henrietta and the Queen. Nevertheless, by August, 1661, she was his mistress. Everything seemed good if it was the King’s will.

Then the King in turn fell in love, and was never so happy as with this diffident fledgling. They picnicked like children, danced at balls, and pranced in ballets; by his side in the hunt she lost her timidity and rode so impetuously that, said the Due d’Enghien, “not even the men can keep up with her.” 108 She took no advantage of her triumph; she refused to accept gifts or to join in intrigues; she remained modest in adultery. She was ashamed of her position, and suffered when the King introduced her to the Queen. She bore him several children; two died early; a third and a fourth, legitimized by royal decree, became the Conte de Vermandois and the very beautiful Mlle, de Blois. During these maternal crises she saw prettier faces than hers drawing the eyes of the King; by 1667 he was enamored of Mme. de Montespan; and Louise began to think of expiating her sins by spending the remainder of her life in a nunnery.

Sensing this mood, Louis gave her many signs of lingering affection, and thought to keep her in his world by making her a duchess. But between Montespan and war he found less and less time for her, and at the court she cared for no one but him. In 1671 she renounced her worldly possessions, put on the simplest dress she could find, slipped out of the palace on a winter morning, and fled to the convent of Ste.-Marie-de-Chaillot. Louis sent after her, protesting his love and anguish; and she, still a maid in mind, consented to return to the court. She stayed there three years more, torn between her love for the faithless King and her longing for religious cleansing and peace; already, in secret, she practiced in the palace the austerities of conventual life. Finally she persuaded the King to release her. She joined the barefoot Carmelite nuns in the Rue d’Enfer (1674), became Sister Louise de la Miséricorde, and lived there in ascetic penitence for her remaining thirty-six years. “My soul is so content, so tranquil,” she said, “that I worship the goodness of God.” 109

Her successor in the King’s favor has not won such universal forgiveness. Françoise Athénaïs Rochechouart came to the court in 1661, served the Queen as a maid of honor, and married the Marquis de Montespan (1663). According to Voltaire she was one of the three most beautiful women in France, and the other two were her sisters. 110 Her pearl-studded blond curls, her languorous proud eyes, her sensuous lips and laughing mouth, her caressing hands, her skin with the color and texture of lilies—so her contemporaries breathlessly described her, and so Henri Gascard painted her in a famous portrait. She was pious, she fasted strictly on fast days, and attended church devoutly and frequently. She had a bad temper and a cutting wit, but that was at first a challenge.

Michelet quoted her as having said she had come up to Paris resolved to capture the King; 111 but Saint-Simon reports that when she saw that she was quickening the royal pulse, she begged her husband to take her back at once to Poitou. 112 He refused, confident of his hold on her, and loving the aura of the court. One night at Compiègne she went to sleep in a room usually assigned to the King. For a while he tried to sleep in an adjoining room; he found it difficult; at last he took possession of his room and her (1667). The Marquis, hearing of it, put on widower’s garb, draped his carriage in black, and adorned its corners with horns. Louis with his own hand wrote the bill of divorcement between the Marquis and the Marquise, sent him 100,000 écus, and bade him leave Paris. The court, quite shorn of morals, smiled.

For seventeen years Mme. de Montespan was mistress of the royal bed. She gave Louis what La Vallière could not give him—intelligent conversation and stimulating vivacity. She boasted that she and dullness could never be in the same place at the same time; and it was so. She bore six children to the King. He loved them, and was grateful to her; but he could not resist the opportunity to sleep, now and then, with Mme. de Soubise or the young Mlle, de Scorraille de Roussilles, whom he made the Duchesse de Fontanges. Such aberrations led Mme. de Montespan to consult sorceresses for magic potions or other means to keep the King’s love; but the story that she planned to poison him or her rivals was probably a legend spread by her enemies. 113

Her children were her undoing. She needed someone to take care of them; Mme. Scarron was recommended, and was engaged; Louis, going frequently to see his brood, observed that the governess was beautiful. Mme. Scarron, nee Françoise d’ Aubigné, was the granddaughter of Théodore Agrippa d’Aubigné, Huguenot aide to Henry IV. Born in a prison at Niort in Poitou, where her father was serving one of many sentences for a variety of crimes, she was baptized a Catholic, and was brought up amid the disorder and poverty of a divided family. Some Protestants took pity on her, fed her, and made her so firm in the Reformed faith that she turned her back upon Catholic altars. When she was nine her parents took her to Martinique, where she nearly died under the harsh discipline of her mother. The father dying a year later (1645), the widow and her three children returned to France. In 1649 Françoise, aged fourteen, again a Catholic, was placed in a convent, and earned her bread with menial tasks. Probably we should never have heard of her had she not married Paul Scarron.

He was a famous writer, a brilliant wit, an almost complete cripple, hideously deformed. The son of a lawyer of note, he had expected a prosperous career, but his widowed father married again, the new wife rejected Paul, the father sent him off with a small pension, just enough to entertain Marion Delorme and other ladies of a night. He contracted syphilis, surrendered himself to a quack, and imbibed strong drugs that ruined his nervous system. At last he was so paralyzed that he could move hardly anything but his hands. He described himself:

Reader, . . . I am going to tell you as nearly as possible what I am like. My figure was well made, though small. My malady has shortened it by a good foot. My head is rather large for my body. My face is full, while my body is that of a skeleton. My sight is fairly good, but my eyes protrude, and one of them is lower than the other. . . . My legs and thighs formed at first an obtuse, next a right, and finally an acute, angle; my thighs and body form another; and with my head bent down on my stomach I resemble not badly the letter Z. My arms have shrunk as well as my legs, and my fingers as well as my arms. To sum up, I am a condensation of human misery. 114

He solaced his misery by writing a picaresque Roman comique (1649), which had considerable success, and by staging farces hilarious in their humor and scandalous in their wit. Paris honored him for keeping his gaiety amid his pains; Mazarin and Anne of Austria gave him pensions, which he forfeited by supporting the Fronde. He earned much, spent more, and was repeatedly in debt. Propped up in a box from which his head and arms emerged, he presided with zest and erudition over one of the famous salons of Paris. As his debts multiplied, he made his guests pay for their dinner. Still they came.

Who would marry such a man? In 1652 Françoise d’Aubigné, now sixteen, was living with a miserly female relative, who so grudged her keep that she resolved to send Françoise back to a convent. A friend introduced the girl to Scarron, who received her with painful grace. He offered to pay her board and lodging in the convent, so exempting her from taking the vows; she refused. Finally he proposed marriage to her, making it clear that he could not claim a husband’s rights. She accepted him, served him as nurse and secretary, and played hostess at his salon, pretending not to hear the double-entendres of the guests. When she joined in the conversation they were surprised by her intelligence. She gave to Scarron’s gatherings a degree of respectability sufficient to attract Mlle, de Scudéry, and, now and then, Mme. de Sévigné; Ninon, Gramont, and Saint-Évremond were already habitués. There is a hint in Ninon’s letters that Mme. Scarron alleviated this sexless marriage with a liaison; but Ninon also reported that she “was virtuous from weakmindedness. I wanted to cure her, but she feared God too much.” 115 Her devotion to Scarron was the talk of a Paris that unconsciously hungered for instances of decency. As his paralysis increased, even his fingers stiffened immovably; he could not turn a page or hold a pen. She read to him, wrote at his dictation, and ministered to all his wants. Before his death (1660) he composed his epitaph:

Celui qui ici maintenant dort

He who lies here

Fit plus de pitié que d’envie,

Awoke more pity than envy,

Et suffrit mille fois la mort

And suffered death a thousand times

Avant que perdre la vie.

Before losing life.

Passant, ne fais ici de bruit,

Passing, make here no noise,

Garde bien que tu ne l’éveille;

Take care not to wake him;

Car voici la première nuit

For this is the first night

Que le pauvre Scarron sommeille. 116

That poor Scarron sleeps.

He left nothing but creditors. The “Widow Scarron,” still a young woman of twenty-five, was again thrown destitute upon the world. She appealed to the Queen Mother to renew the canceled pension; Anne settled upon her two thousand livres annually. Françoise took a room in a convent, lived and dressed modestly, and accepted various minor employments in good homes. 117 In 1667 Mme. de Montespan, about to give birth, sent an emissary to ask her to receive and bring up the expected child. Françoise refused, but when Louis himself seconded the request she consented, and for several years thereafter she received the royal infants as they emerged.

She learned to love these children, and they looked up to her as a mother. The King, who at first had laughed at her as a prude, came to admire her, and was moved by the grief she showed when one of the children, despite her constant care, died. “She knows how to love,” he said; “it would be a pleasure to be loved by her.” 118 In 1673 he legitimized the children; Mme. Scarron had no longer to practice secrecy; she was admitted to the court as a lady in waiting to Mme. de Montespan. The King gave her a present of 200,000 livres to maintain her new status. She used them to buy an estate at Maintenon, near Chartres. She never lived there, but it gave her a new name; she became the Marquise de Maintenon.

It was a dizzy rise for one so lately destitute, and perhaps it turned her head for a time. She took upon herself to advise Mme. de Montespan to end her life of sin; Montespan resented the counsel, and thought that Maintenon was scheming to replace her. And indeed, by 1675, Louis was becoming more impatient with Montespan’s tantrums, and was finding pleasure in talking with the new Marquise. Perhaps with the King’s connivance Bishop Bossuet warned him that the Easter Sacrament would be refused him unless he dismissed his concubine. He bade her leave the court. She did; Louis received Communion, and remained continent for a while. Mme. de Maintenon approved his course, apparently without selfish intent, 119 for soon she left with the sickly Duc de Maine (one of Montespan’s children) to seek the boy’s cure in the sulphur baths of Barèges in the Pyrenees. Louis went off to the wars. Returning famished, he repulsed Bossuet, and invited Montespan to reoccupy her apartment in Versailles. There he fell into her waiting arms, and she conceived again.

Maintenon, returning with the cured Duke from the Pyrenees, was welcomed by the King and his mistress, but was alarmed to see him in the full swing of several simultaneous liaisons. In 1679 he ended his adulteries with Montespan by appointing hersurintendante of the Queen’s household—one of the many indelicacies to which he subjected Marie Thérèse. Montespan raged and wept, but was comforted by great gifts. A year later Maintenon received a similar post—lady of the bedchamber to the Dauphine, the wife of Louis’ one surviving legitimate child. The King now frequently visited the Dauphine, to converse with Maintenon. There seems no doubt that he wished to make the Marquise his mistress, and that she refused. On the contrary, she urged him to abandon his irregularities and return penitent to the Queen. 120 He yielded to her and Bossuet, and in 1681, after twenty years of philandering, he became a model husband. The Queen, who had long since reconciled herself to his infidelities, and even to his mistresses, enjoyed the royal favor for only two years, dying in 1683.

Louis thought that Maintenon would now consent to be his mistress, but he found in her a politic restraint: it must be marriage or nothing. 121 At some date not precisely known, but probably in 1684, he married her, he forty-seven, she fifty. It was a morganatic union, whereby the mate of lower status acquired no new rank, and no hereditary rights. The King’s councilors had difficulty in dissuading him from giving his wife full rights, and crowning her as queen; they pointed out how discontent the royal family and the court would be to find themselves curtsying to a governess. So the marriage was not made public, and there are some who think it never took place. Saint-Simon, always a stickler for caste, thought it “a frightful marriage”; 122 but it was the King’s best and happiest union, the only one whose vows he appears to have kept. It had taken him almost half a century to discover that to be loved is worth monogamy.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!