We encounter these two women at the same court: Versailles, which, in the 17th century, orbited around the Sun King – Louis XIV. That they existed within the same sphere and that, essentially, they were parallels, is something that I would like to explore a little. Especially, as providence would have it, that whilst Elisabeth Charlotte (wife to Philippe I, Duke of Orléans) was born on the 27th of May, her contemporary, Françoise-Athénaïs (mistress to Louis XIV, King of France) died on this day in history.
Portrait of Princess Palatine Elisabeth Charlotte.
Elisabeth Charlotte (1652-1722) joined the French court in 1671, ushered in through marriage by proxy to the King’s brother and hailing from the seat of her royal family in Germany. She was introduced into the circle of Versailles at a time when Madame de Montespan’s (1640-1707) star was on the rise, burning, at it’s high point, to the auspicious position of Maîtresse-en-titre.
Montespan had ousted Mademoiselle de la Valliere and clawed her way to the top in 1674, when, official fanfare proclaimed her reigning mistress to King Louis XIV. She shared Louis’ bed, his affections and, to a considerable degree, the disdain of others looking upon her (particularly, perhaps, that of poor convent-bound Louise de Valliere)! It’s no wonder really, as Montespan was blessed with the triple threat of being a sparkling conversationalist, beauty of the age and formidable dance partner.
Portrait of Françoise-Athénaïs, marquise de Montespan.
Literary figures of the salon, Madame de Sévigné and diarist Saint-Simon practically penned love-letters in admiration, attesting to Françoise-Athénaïs’s well-placed wit, courting habits and political spiel. A creature of pleasure, Montespan was at the heart of the party for the hedonistic phase at Versailles, televised brilliantly by series two of Versailles, with its intoxicating perfume of sex, scandal and court intrigue.
A stranger at court, La Palatine arrived on the scene primed to be an acute observer of all the goings on behind the heavily gilded, closed doors of Versailles. Rather protestant and provincial by French standards, Elisabeth could well have been a foil for Montespan, the blazing trophy girl and court darling. Liselotte’s letters home read as a weekly gossip column and wouldn’t look at all out of place in a magazine titled the Grand Siècle. The pen can be a rather wonderful tonic for pent up frustration and life in the bedroom for Madame and Monsieur could in no way have shaken the floorboards like brother Louis and Montespan. For lack of sexual prowess, Philippe’s Duchess would have been left somewhat wanting in his preference for golden Adonis, Philippe, the rather racy Chevalier de Lorraine.
Whereas Montespan would never be as royal as her aspirations, the Princess Palatine and Duke d’Orléans did, perhaps by intercession of the Blessed Virgin, seed the European line beneath the shrouded order of the marriage bed (the infamous Marie Antoinette, for example, would have her great-grandparents to thank for their unorthodox, if not dutiful efforts).
Both the King and his brother would part ways with their women. Indeed, Louis XIV has a long line of mistresses, each succeeding the last and spanning his years a proverbial bachelor. Montespan’s candle was snuffed out by the notorious “affair of the poisons” at Versailles, the period between 1677 and 1682 marked by dark dealings, necromancy and slipping poisons. Tongues wagged and Montespan was accused of getting caught up in the era’s penchant for potions, lotions and powders. Such paranoia would eat away at her reputation, accumulating in a new favourite, Françoise d’Aubigné marquise de Maintenon and this woman’s rather sharpish hoisting of the moral tone at court.
As for Elisabeth, in a move of marital diplomacy, her and Philippe opted for a conjugal separation – one where the Duke could go his merry way with boyfriends and she could continue to write thoroughly entertaining sketches of the characters and life at court. There were too, some rather humorous squabbles between Elisabeth and her estranged hubby over his free-spending among lackeys, especially when Philippe melted down the family silver to fund one of his sprees!
Rather ironically, Montespan would live out her final days in the convent of Saint Joseph, having retired from an ever-changing court. Not having been born a princess, at least she had the consolation of raucous years gallivanting with a King – spared Elisabeth’s ties to duty and royal propriety.
Inspired by Versailles? Find out how the court of Louis XIV influenced the culture of display in 17th century Holland here (Dutch Dollhouse Culture, A Written Web Series)
Hilton, Lisa, Anthenais: The Real Queen of France (Little, Brown, 2002).