The self-proclaimed Sun King, Louis XIV ruled over the most glorious and extravagant court in seventeenth-century Europe. Now, Antonia Fraser goes behind the well-known tales of Louis’s accomplishments and follies, exploring in riveting detail his intimate relationships with women.
The king’s mother, Anne of Austria, had been in a childless marriage for twenty-two years before she gave birth to Louis XIV. A devout Catholic, she instilled in her son a strong sense of piety and fought successfully for his right to absolute power. In 1660, Louis married his first cousin, Marie-Thérèse, in a political arrangement. While unfailingly kind to the official "Queen of Versailles," Louis sought others to satisfy his romantic and sexual desires. After a flirtation with his sister-in-law, his first important mistress was Louise de La Vallière, who bore him several children before being replaced by the tempestuous and brilliant Athénaïs, marquise de Montespan. Later, when Athénaïs’s reputation was tarnished, the king continued to support her publicly until Athénaïs left court for a life of repentance. Meanwhile her children’s governess, the intelligent and seemingly puritanical Françoise de Maintenon, had already won the king’s affections; in a relationship in complete contrast to his physical obsession with Athénaïs, Louis XIV lived happily with Madame de Maintenon for the rest of his life, very probably marrying her in secret. When his grandson’s child bride, the enchanting Adelaide of Savoy, came to Versaille she lightened the king’s last years—until tragedy struck.
With consummate skill, Antonia Fraser weaves insights into the nature of women’s religious lives—as well as such practical matters as contraception—into her magnificent, sweeping portrait of the king, his court, and his ladies.
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Since 1969 ANTONIA FRASER has written many acclaimed historical works that have been international bestsellers. She is the recipient of many literary awards, including the Wolfson Prize for History, the Saint Louis Literary Award, and the 2000 Norton Medlicott Medal of Britain’s Historical Association. Her works include the biographies Mary Queen of Scots, Cromwell, the Lord Protector and Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration. Four highly praised books focus on women in history: The Weaker Vessel, The Warrior Queens, The Six Wives of Henry VIII and, most recently, Marie Antoinette: The Journey. She is editor of the book The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England. Antonia Fraser is married to Harold Pinter and lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Gift from Heaven
They saw in the arms of this princess whom they had watched suffer great persecutions with so much staunchness, their child-King, like a gift given by Heaven in answer to their prayers.
—Madame de Motteville, Mémoires
The first woman in the life of Louis XIV — and probably the most important — was his mother, Anne of Austria. When Louis, her first child, was born on 5 September 1638 the Spanish-born Queen of France was just short of her thirty-seventh birthday. This was an age at which a royal princess might well expect to be a grandmother (Anne herself had been married at fourteen). The Queen had on the contrary endured twenty-two years of childless union. Anne, as she told a confidante, had even feared the annulment of her marriage, since childlessness was one possible ground for repudiation according to the Catholic Church. In which case the former Spanish Princess, daughter of Philip III, would either have been returned to her native country or possibly dispatched to govern the so-called ‘Spanish’ Netherlands (approximately modern Belgium), as other princesses of her royal house had done, most recently her pious aunt, Isabella Clara Eugenia.
The birth of a child, and that child a son — females could not inherit in France under the fourteenth-century Salic Law — meant that the whole position of his royal mother was transformed. It was not only the obvious delight of a woman confronted with ‘a marvel when it was least expected’, as the official newspaper Gazette de France put it. It was also the traditionally strong position of any Queen of France who had produced a Dauphin, an interesting paradox in the land of the Salic Law. This strength derived from the claim of such a Queen to act as Regent should her husband die during the minority of her son; a rule which had applied to Louis XIII’s mother when Henri IV had died, and the dominating Catherine de Médicis in the previous century.
It was a situation that had already been envisaged at the time of Anne of Austria’s betrothal in 1612. In poetical language the future Queen was described as the moon to her husband’s sun: ‘Just as the moon borrows its light from the sun . . .’ the monarch’s death means that ‘the setting sun gives way to the moon and confers on it the power of shedding light in its absence’. (The potential bride and bridegroom were then both ten years old.) A quarter of a century later, the reality was less poetical. Louis XIII was not in good health and a Regency in the next thirteen years — the age at which a French King reached his majority — was more likely than not. How long would it be before Anne, like Catherine de Médicis, was promoting herself as an image of revered maternality at the heart of government?
Furthermore the dynastic map of Europe was transformed. The heir presumptive to the throne of France, the King’s younger brother Gaston Duc d’Orléans, on being shown ‘physical proofs’ of the baby’s masculinity, had to accept that his rising hopes of accession had been fatally dashed. But Gaston himself had only daughters. Next in line were the French Princes of the Blood, notably the Prince de Condé and his two sons the Duc d’Enghien and the Prince de Conti; their hopes were similarly blighted.
On the other hand the birth of a prince not only cut off hopes but also instigated ambitious thoughts of his eventual marriage to a princess. Gaston’s daughter by his first marriage, Anne-Marie-Louise de Montpensier, was the richest heiress in France from the fortune of her mother who had died at her birth. She did not allow an eleven-year gap in age to prevent her dallying with thoughts of the Dauphin as ‘my little husband’. Even more significant for the future was another equally august birth in Spain. Five days after the ecstatic Queen Anne gave birth to Louis, her sister-in-law, wife of Philip IV, gave birth to a princess.
These two high-born babies were in fact double first cousins (with identical grandparents), since a brother and a sister of France had married a brother and a sister of Spain. Unlike France, however, Spain allowed females to succeed: Anne of Austria had had to renounce her own rights on her marriage. There was at least a theoretical possibility that the Infanta Maria Teresa would one day succeed to the throne of Spain — or her children would. Another theoretical possibility, always present in the mind of Queen Anne, was that Maria Teresa might one day make a bride for Louis.
Under the circumstances, it is easy to understand how the infant Louis was described as ‘Dieudonné’ or ‘Deodatus’: Godgiven. And even as the years passed, the apparently miraculous nature of his conception and birth was never forgotten. One German diplomat would refer to the King’s ‘quite extraordinary birth’ over forty years after the event.
How miraculous was this birth, so unexpected and so awe-inspiring for the mother? Certainly a great deal of prayer had been applied to the subject as the years passed. There were pilgrimages to shrines, as befitted a Queen who throughout her life liked nothing so much as to visit convents and holy places. Saint Leonard was invoked against sterility; a hermit who was believed to have founded a monastery near Limoges in the sixth century, his intercession was held responsible for many miracles. (He was otherwise the patron saint of prisoners — and after all the Queen was in the prison of her infertility.)
The Queen was fast approaching the age at which child-bearing itself was felt to be unlikely. This was a period when women were generally held to age faster than men, losing their bloom early — ‘no woman is beautiful after twenty-two’ was a popular saying — going further downhill after thirty. Certainly, by the time of the Queen’s thirty-sixth birthday on 22 September 1637 — and thirty-five was often seen as a cut-off point — her relationship with her husband, and also with her adopted country of France, had already had a long and troubled history.
The marriage of the two royal teenagers took place on the feast of St Catherine — 25 November — 1615. It was, it seems, consummated immediately, and after that there was a gap of more than three years. The twenty-fifth of January 1619 was the auspicious date on which the further completion of the royal union was announced in the gazette Mercure Français (it was after all a matter of state, just as the marriage had been). There were certainly rumours of royal pregnancies throughout the 1620s, and Louis XIII himself told the Venetian Ambassador later that his Queen had had four ‘wretched miscarriages’.
If the marriage was not egregiously unhappy by royal standards — notoriously low — it was certainly unhappy enough. Anne was an extremely attractive, even beautiful woman with her full, voluptuous figure, her thick bright chestnut hair, her luminous pale skin and her dark eyes with the green glints which gave them a special sparkle. She had her share of feminine vanity and was especially proud of her much-admired white hands, which seemed made ‘to hold a sceptre’. As for her character, that was made up of contradictions. Anne was certainly pleasure-loving — she adored the theatre and gambling — but at the same time she was extremely pious.
Her piety did not stop Queen Anne from being a romantic, and it was not difficult for men to fall in love with her: ‘her smile won a thousand hearts,’ wrote Madame de Motteville, her lady-in-waiting. She was also galante in the crucial French term of the time which shimmers with different meanings throughout this period. In the case of the Queen, it meant flirtatious in the courtly, essentially innocent manner of the well-chaperoned Spanish Infanta she had once been. When the handsome Duke of Buckingham, who was gallant in every sense of the word, had ‘the audacity’ to court her in a famous scene in a garden, the Queen recoiled in horror. Nevertheless, in the opinion of Madame de Motteville, an important source for Anne’s intimate feelings because she understood the Spanish world, ‘if a respectable woman could love a man other than her husband, it would have been Buckingham who appealed to her’. The Princesse de Conti had a more cynical view: she would vouch for the Queen’s virtue from the waist down, but not from the waist up.
The sexuality of the husband of this romantic and unfulfilled woman was what would now be called troubled. Louis XIII formed lugubrious attachments to both men and women: late in his life, the Marquis de Cinq-Mars became his favourite. But at one point
Louis fell yearningly in love with Marie d’Hautefort (his conjugal visits to Anne were said to have increased in consequence). However, when his friend the Duc de Saint-Simon offered to act as a go-between, the King was shocked: ‘the more my rank as king gives me the facility to satisfy myself,’ he said, ‘the more I must guard against sin and scandal.’ Low-spirited and willingly dominated by his great minister Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII was one half of an incompatible pair.
Furthermore, if the marriage did not provide a Bourbon—Habsburg heir, it did not bring about peace between Bourbon and Habsburg kingdoms either. Not long after Anne came to France, the slow strangulation of Europe in that long and complicated conflict known later as the Thirty Years War began. In this conflict, at the instigation of Cardinal Richelieu, the French and Spanish found themselves on different sides. Anne rejected the idea that she remained at heart a Spanish princess. Her tastes might be Spanish, from a predilection for late hours to a yearning for Spanish iced drinks and Spanish chocolate, but s...
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