Whilst reading Antonia Fraser's magnificent biography on Marie Antoinette, one of the things for which Marie Antoinette attracted condemnation for was the fact that her husband, Louis XVI, did not take a mistress. From a modern perspective that this was the cause of some of the hostility against Marie Antoinette mystified me to say the least. Reading Eleanor Herman’s Sex with Kings, which examines the recent (well, 500 years or so) history, role and status of the royal mistress in the European courts, helps to place this oddity in context. For in the European courts, the royal mistress, most especially she that held the coveted title of maitresse-en-titre (the official royal mistress), was in a uniquely powerful position.
The marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton last year was clearly a love match, in centuries past however marriage for members of the royal family was instead undertaken as a way of forging diplomatic alliances between two powerful families and generally between two powerful countries too. Therefore a marriage with a King was a way of creating or re-affirming these bonds, as well as to produce legitimate heirs. If a mutual respect, affection and, in some rare cases, love found their way into these diplomatic marriages, then all for the best. If not, then the King could always find what was lacking with a mistress.
As a companion chosen specifically by the King, compared to a wife chosen for the good of the country, courtiers at court vied with each other to gain the favour and patronage of the reigning maitresse-en-titre. They would bestow gifts, bribes and praise upon her hoping that a well chosen word to her royal lover would result in titles, sought after court or political positions, pensions, titles, gifts and the favour of the King. The fortunes of a family could be greatly influenced by whether one of their own was chosen as a mistress to the King, or if the mistress belonged to a different court fraction. As such, Louis XVI’s lack of a maitresse-en-titre created a political imbalance to what was perceived as being the influence of Marie Antoinette and her faction on the King. That Marie Antoinette, especially in the early years of her marriage, lacked any real influence over the King, especially in in political matters, was not understood.
|Diane de Poitiers|
If her family or faction could come to benefit from her position as maitresse-en-titre, the woman herself also had much to gain (as well as her husband if he conventionality looked the other way). Many royal mistresses acquired untold wealth through their association with a monarch. Jewels, sumptuous and richly decorated gowns, gold and silver plate, carriages, horses, and titles (with the associated residence, land and the income from the tenants and the sale of the produce of the land) were amongst many of the gifts bestowed upon their heads by their lovers. Mistresses such as Barbara Villiers and Louise de Kerouaille even received annuities from the Treasury that equated to millions of pounds in contemporary money during their periods as official mistress to Charles II, and they were also given the money collected from various imposed taxes, such as the taxes on beer and ale and the taxes paid by the clergy. Whilst most mistress were only able to exert political influence, some even gained real political power in their own right, for instance Diane de Poitiers who as mistress to Henri II of France was a member of the council, made laws, imposed taxes and signed official decrees.
A mistress’s position the maitresse-en-titre however was a precarious one to say the least. She could be the focus of court intrigues by jealous courtiers, women keen to replace her as the favourite of the King and the snubbed wife of the King, all happy to bring about her fall from grace. Her position was also more importantly based solely upon the favour of the King, and she could quickly find herself discarded if she no longer pleased him, her annuities and sometimes the other gifts accrued during her reign as official mistress forfeited. A neglected mistress was of no use to a fickle court and she would be left out in the cold by the very same courtiers who competed her attentions whilst her star was in the ascent, her place quickly taken by another willing woman. Therefore if she was lucky enough to provide the King was an illegitimate child, who was generally also granted gifts and titles, this could provide her with some security when her days as maitresse-en-titre were over.
|Madame de Pompadour|
A fun romp of a book, Herman's Sex with Kings is an engrossing introduction to the fascinating world of the royal mistresses of the European courts over the past 500 year. I am intrigued to see that she has also written a companion book called Sex with the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers and Passionate Politics.