At eight o’clock one morning, the Comte de Maurepas, Louis XVth’s Minister of the Navy, was called from his bed to receive a Royal messenger. Maurepas did not even bother to read the letter handed to him. Its timing, and the Royal seal on the back, could mean only one thing. His long-running battle with the Marquise de Pompadour, the King’s official mistress, was over. Maurepas dressed, gave directions to his servants, and then set off to begin his rustic exile far, far away from Versailles. Such was the definite and unyielding power of the Marquise.
It says something about the two countries, that in Britain we admire our ruling Queens while in France they celebrate their royal mistresses. It was the French, after all, who invented the word chauvinism. Indeed, the idea of legitimate female power never crossed the Channel. There was no legal provision for a daughter to inherit the throne. And, as for royal consorts, they were foreigners and therefore deeply under suspicion. Nevertheless, what was officially denied to the Kings’ wives was unofficially granted in abundance to the women who held the post of ‘maitresse en titre’. Of this select group, the most dazzling was Madame de Pompadour. It is no wonder that she is the inspiration behind two museum exhibitions, at the Wallace Collection and the National Gallery. During her twenty year tenure, the very best of French culture either flowed out of her largesse or came to her door.
The Marquise was not unique in her encouragement for the arts. Of the seven great mistresses of Versailles, only one was profoundly if not stubbornly middlebrow. This was Madame du Barry, the last maitresse en titre of France, who escaped to England before the Revolution only to return at its height and, not surprisingly, end up on the guillotine. The others all took great pride in their role as benefactors of the arts. Racine and Moliere, the finest playwrights of the seventeenth century, were just two of the many who owed their success not to Louis XIV but to his mistresses. And, while it is true that a number of second-rate artists also received encouragement it must be remembered that the mistresses belonged to a class which considered itself above such bourgeois things as expertise.
Mme de Pompadour, however, was an unusual woman in this respect. Although she had conquered the aristocracy, she did not belong to it. There was no disguising the fact, and nor did she try, that her family was middle class. Her upbringing, therefore, was different from her peers. She knew many writers and intellectuals before her elevation to maitresse, and among her best friends was the philosopher Voltaire. She supported and promoted him, even though he infuriated the King by doing things that no Courtier would dare, such as grabbing his arm or interrupting his conversation.
But it was de Pompadour’s mastery of her position rather than her salon which impressed Versailles. The maitresse en titre was expected fulfill a set of clearly defined duties. Every waking hour had a purpose. When she was not amusing the King, there were hundreds of requests to answer, plans to execute, and scores to be settled. Although most tourists came away thinking that life at Court was simply about pleasure, its one thousand occupants knew better. The palace had not changed since the Sun King, Louis XVth’s great-grandfather had made it the primary residence of the Court. Under his baleful eye, Versailles evolved into a terrifying, competitive place where honesty and kindness were rare and exotic qualities. The aristocracy only put up with Versailles’s miserable accommodation because the alternative meant being an outcast. They were little better than serfs in silk and, behind the bows and curtsies, was a deadly struggle for the King’s favour.
Since real power, meaning access to the King, lay not with the Queen but with the maitresse en titre, the whole of Versailles buzzed around the Royal Mistress like bees in a hive. During her tenure she was the focus of attention, constantly flattered, constantly importuned, and constantly in danger from her enemies. The rules governing Versailles were solipsistic and arcane. Like all closed societies, it thrived on nuances which are second nature to the initiated and hidden traps for the unwary. It was the height of bad manners, for example, to use the familiar ‘tu’ instead of the formal ‘vous’ in front of the King. Husbands and wives, siblings, old friends all had to address each other as if for the first time. Royal etiquette was so complicated that Mme de Pompadour’s presentation at Court required several months of preparation. The dress, the walk, the curtsey, even her choice of words: on every minute action teetered a lifetime of ridicule. Knowing this, she went to the country and practiced until she was ready.
However, it was not enough that the Maitresse know how to behave herself, it was vital that she understood Versailles’s pecking order and act accordingly. One of de Pompadour’s predecessors, Madame de Montespan, the most flamboyant of Louis XIVth’s mistresses, side stepped the problem entirely by treating all of Versailles as beneath her. While successful in its way, it had the affect of uniting all her enemies. They waited for her to become vulnerable and were rewarded by a sordid scandal involving witchcraft and rumours of poison. De Montespan was implicated – apparently she had tried to buy a potion which would make the Queen infertile – and the King was forced to dismiss her from Court.
Mme de Pompadour was not afraid to imitate de Montespan, although she exhibited a little more tact than her fiery predecessor. Instead of insisting that guests stand in her presence, for example, which was a custom reserved only for the King and Queen, she simply removed all the chairs. Just once did someone call her bluff. The Marquis de Souvré perched himself on the arm of her chair, remarking, ‘all the chairs appear to be missing.’ However, people forgave her these little displays of pomposity because she was the most good-natured and generous hearted mistresses Versailles had ever known. Even the Queen was fond of her. It took a great deal to make the Marquise show her claws. The banished Maurepas had tortured her for years before she finally executed swift revenge.
Where historians fault Mme de Pompadour is over her meddling in political affairs. It is said that she convinced Louis XVth to shift France’s alliance from Prussia to Austria, which precipitated the Seven Years’ war. While the shift was her idea, none will ever know quite where her persuasion ended and the King’s own sentiments began. The royal mistresses have always been credited with either too much influence or none at all. For a long time Madame de Maintenon, the only maitresse en titre who switched roles and became Louis XIVth’s wife, was accused of encouraging him to revoke the Edict of Nantes in 1685. This ending of official toleration of Protestantism led to a mass exodus of Huguenots to Britain. However, the truth is that de Maintenon, who was herself born a Protestant, was guilty of quiescence rather than instigation. But what is not in dispute is that she had a system whereby the Ministers always visited her before they saw the King. Thus she could let them know her wishes so that the names or choices presented to Louis were already predetermined. The King had no idea and simply thought how fortunate he was to have a companion who agreed with him on every issue.
This sort of political interference was simply unknown in Britain. Two events, the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, had radically curtailed the power of the monarchy. Therefore there was little opportunity for a royal mistress to shine like her French counterparts. During the roughly one hundred and thirty years when Versailles was in its splendour and its maitresses at their peak, there is only one British royal mistress who is remembered today – Nell Gwynne.
The rest have left behind their portraits and some dukedoms, but little else. In general, they were either beautiful and greedy, like Charles II’s Louise de Keroualle and Barbara Villiers, or devoted and somewhat downtrodden like George II’s Countess of Suffolk. Some, either through circumstance or character were incapable of making their mark on British cultural life. George I’s mistresses, for example, known as the Elephant and Maypole because one was fat and the other was skinny, never learned to speak English properly. While dear Nell Gwynne, who did succeed in establishing the Chelsea Pensioners, was far too removed from the King’s world to have any influence on his ministers. The only woman who consciously tried to imitate the miatresse system was Louise de Keroualle, who engineered the downfall of the King’s favourite, the Duke of Buckingham. She also attempted to persuade Charles II to become a Catholic. However, once she realised that her influence went only so far, Louise concentrated on amassing a huge fortune instead. By the time Charles II had grown tired of her, Louise had accumulated a nest-egg of over £9 million in today’s money.
Although Napoleon restored the monarchy after the Revolution, the glorious era of the maitresse en titre never returned. While Britain’s royal mistresses arguably became more interesting in the 19th and 20th centuries, France’s declined into obscurity. Madame de Pompadour and her colleagues achieved extraordinary power at time when a single individual controlled the destiny of millions. They are proof of the old adage, that behind every great man, there is indeed a great woman.
Copyright© Amanda Foreman