Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart, marquise de Montespan (October 5, 1641 – May 27, 1707), better known as Madame de Montespan, was one of the most famous mistresses of Louis XIV of France
Born into one of the oldest noble families in France, the House of Rochechouart, Madame de Montespan was called by some the True Queen of France during her romantic relationship with Louis XIV due to the pervasiveness of her influence at court during that time.
Her so-called reign lasted from around 1667, when she first danced with Louis XIV at a ball hosted by the king's younger brother, Monsieur, at the Louvre, until her alleged involvement in the notorious Affaire des Poisons in the late 1670s to 1680's. She is an ancestor of many royal houses in Europe such as Spain, Italy, Bulgaria and Portugal.
Born on October 5 1641 at the Château of Lussac-les-Châteaux in today's Vienne department, in the Poitou-Charentes region in France, Françoise de Rochechouart de Mortemart (as a précieuse, she later adopted the name "Athénaïs"), Mlle de Tonnay-Charente, possessed the blood of two of the oldest noble families of France through her parents, Gabriel de Rochechouart, duc de Mortemart, prince de Tonnay-Charente, and Diane de Grandseigne.
From her father, she inherited the famous Mortemart esprit. As a young girl, she often travelled with her mother between the family estates and the court at the Louvre in Paris. At the age of twelve, she began her formal education at the Convent of St Mary at Saintes. She entered the convent where her sister Gabrielle had started almost a decade earlier. Her other siblings were:
At the age twenty, Françoise-Athénaïs became a maid-of-honour to the king's sister-in-law, Princess Henrietta-Anne of England, who was known at court by the traditional honorific of Madame. Later, because of the relationship between her mother and the queen dowager, Anne of Austria, Françoise-Athénaïs was appointed to be a lady-in-waiting to the king's wife, Queen Marie-Thérèse d'Autriche.
Beauty was only one of Madame de Montespan's many charms. She was a cultured and amusing conversationalist who won the admiration of such figures as the diarist Saint-Simon and letter-writer Mme de Sévigné. In addition, she kept abreast of political and world events. This had the effect of making her even more appealing to men of intellect and power.
Mme de Montespan astounded the court by openly resenting the position of the queen, Marie-Thérèse d'Autriche, the daughter of the king and queen of Spain, Philip IV and Elisabeth of Bourbon. A scandal arose when the duchesse de Montausier, governess of the Royal children and lady-in-waiting to the queen, was accused of acting as a go-between in order to secure the governorship of the Dauphin for her husband, the duc de Montausier.
By 1666, Mme de Montespan was trying to take the place of Louis XIV's current mistress, the lovely but timid Louise de La Vallière. Using her wit and charm, she sought to ingratiate herself with the king. She became close to the Dauphin as well whose affection for her never wavered.
The first of the seven children that Mme de Montespan bore to the king was born in March 1669. The new-born child, a girl, Louise Françoise de Bourbon (1669-1672), was entrusted to one of Mme de Montespan's friends, Mme Scarron (the future marquise de Maintenon) to raise. The King bought a small house in the village of Vaugirard, on the outskirts of Paris.
In 1673, the couple's three living illegitimate children were legitimatised by Louis XIV without mention of their mother's name for fear that she might claim them.
The eldest, a son, Louis-Auguste de Bourbon, became the duc du Maine; the second child, a son named Louis César de Bourbon, became the comte de Vexin; and the third, a daughter named Louise-Françoise, became Mademoiselle de Nantes. As Mme de Montespan spent the majority of her time immersed within the social whirl of the court, the three had little contact with her and spent most of their childhood with their governess, Mme Scarron.
Later, Mme de Montespan was compelled to retire to Spain, and in 1674 an official separation with her husband was declared by the procureur-general Achille de Harlay, assisted by six judges at the Châtelet. When Louis's affections showed signs of cooling, Mme de Montespan is alleged to have resorted to black magic in order to get him back. Some have supposed that she may have started to consider using poison against potential rivals for the king's affections as early as 1676.
Her adversary turned out to be the Roman Catholic Church. In 1675 the priest Lécuyer refused to give her absolution which was necessary for her to make her Easter communion, a requisite for all Catholics. Father Lécuyer demanded in the confessional,
Is this the Madame that scandalises all France? Go abandon your shocking life and then come throw yourself at the feet of the ministers of Jesus Christ.
The King appealed to the priest's superiors but the Church refused to yield to the King's demands. After a short separation, the King and Mme de Montespan resumed their relationship which resulted in the birth of two more children, Mlle de Blois in 1677 and the comte de Toulouse in 1678, both of whom were to be legitimised in 1681. However, the affair of the poisons, which had burst upon the scene in September 1677, was to be the beginning of the end of the reign of La Montespan.
Louis' intrigue with Angélique de Fontanges and Mme de Montespan's relegation to the position of superintendent of the Queen's household brought matters to a crisis. Mlle de Fontanges died in 1681 and poisoning was suspected by many at the time, although none could prove it. It is now believed that Mlle de Fontanges died from natural causes.
Athénaïs was considered breathtakingly beautiful by the standards of her time. She had thick, curly corn-colored hair that fell in ringlets around her face so beautifully that even the Queen copied her hair style. Her eyes were huge and blue, her lips full and her figure sensuously curvaceous. All of these qualities appealed to the sensibilities of beauty at the time. Her love of mockery, infectious laughter and quick wit were engaging, as were her intelligence and flirtatious interplay. Steeped in sensualism, she is often described as a hedonist with a fondness for music, dancing, the arts, food and love-making.
She had an extravagant and demanding nature and possessed enough charm to usually get what she wanted. She was expensive and glorious, like the Palace of Versailles itself. Her apartments were filled with pet animals and thousands of flowers; she had a private gallery, and costly jewels were showered upon her. She was highly discriminating as regards to the quality of the gems ; returning them if they did not meet her exacting standards. She was given the nickname Quanto ("How much", in Italian). Her love for food and her numerous pregnancies caused her to gain weight in her late thirties until her pleasingly plump figure became undesirably fat
Long assumed to have been involved in the infamous Affaire des Poisons, Mme de Montespan has never been conclusively implicated. Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie, Paris' first Lieutenant General of Police and the chief judge of the court before which the famous poisoning cases were brought, heard testimony that placed Mme de Montespan's first visits to the so-called witch Catherine Monvoisin, known as La Voisin, in 1665. Initially, La Voisin reportedly just gave Mme de Montespan love potions concocted of repulsive ingredients for Louis XIV to take, with the objective of obtaining the king's desire and replacing Louise de La Vallière in the role of maitresse-en-titre.
In 1666, Mme de Montespan supposedly went so far as to allow a priest, Etienne Guibourg, to perform a black mass over her nude body in a blood-soaked ceremony, which was also said to have included infant sacrifice. Whatever the truth in these allegations, in July 1667, Mme de Montespan became the king's new mistress even though Louise was carrying his child, Louis de Bourbon, comte de Vermandois.
In addition to seeking Louis' love, some charged Mme de Montespan with also conspiring to kill him. However, certain inconsistencies in this testimony suggest that the royal mistress was innocent of these charges. However, suspicion was thrown onto Mme de Montespan because the name of her maid, Mlle Desœillets, was frequently mentioned in connection with La Voisin in the evidence brought before the Chambre Ardente.
Indeed, if anyone was attempting to kill the king, it was more likely Mlle Desœillets, who also had an illegitimate child fathered by Louis who did not acknowledged it. Presumably, the maid resented the loss of Louis' attention. Olympia Mancini, Comtesse de Soissons, herself a former mistress of the king as well as a notorious intrigante, was also implicated in the conspiracy . From the end of 1680 onwards, the marquis de Louvois, Jean-Baptiste Colbert and Mme de Maintenon all helped to hush up the affair in order to prevent further scandal about the mother of the king's legitimatised children. Concerning the king's need to avoid shocking scandal, Police Chief La Reynie said:
the enormity of their crimes proved their safeguard
After the scandal had forced Louis XIV and Mme de Montespan apart, the king continued to visit her daily in her rooms at the palace, and apparently her brilliance and charm in conversation mitigated to some extent her reduced status as a discarded mistress. In 1691, no longer in royal favour, Mme de Montespan retired to the Filles de Saint-Joseph convent, in the rue Saint-Dominique in Paris, with a pension of half a million francs. In gratitude for her departure, the king made her father the governor of Paris, her brother, the duc de Vivonne, a marshal of France, and one of her sisters, Gabrielle, whose vows were but four years old, the abbess of the wealthy Fontevraud Abbey.
The last years of her life were given up to a very severe penance. When she died at Bourbon-l'Archambault, the king forbade her children to wear mourning for her. Real sorrow over her death was felt by her three youngest children. She died May 27 1707 at the age of sixty-five while taking the waters at Bourbon-l'Archambault in order to try and heal an illness.
The duchesse de Bourbon, duchesse d'Orléans and the comte de Toulouse all refused to go to any court gatherings as a mark of respect for the death of their beloved mother - who they had grown very close to within her last years. However, her eldest and most disloyal child, the duc du Maine, was hardly able to conceal his joy at the death of his mother. He had always considered Mme de Maintenon to be more of a mother to him.
After hearing of the death of Françoise-Athénaïs, Madame de Maintenon, is said to have run to her privy and wept bitterly. Françoise-Athénaïs had after all helped her get into court and put her in charge of her children, the position that originally allowed Mme. de Maintenon to gain the king's attention.
Louis XIV and Mme de Montespan had seven children, only four of whom survived childhood:
Through three of her children (Louise-Françoise de Bourbon, Françoise-Marie de Bourbon and Louis-Alexandre de Bourbon, comte de Toulouse), Mme de Montespan is an ancestor of the modern House of Orléans and its present head, the comte de Paris.
She is related to the present Portuguese and Brazilian Royal House of Braganza, the House of Este, the House of Austria-Este and the House of Savoy, mainly through her granddaughter by Françoise-Marie de Bourbon, Charlotte Aglaé d'Orléans.
Françoise-Marie's great-great-grandson was Louis-Philippe I, King of the French. Through Louis-Philippe's eldest daughter, Louise-Marie d'Orléans, the wife of King Leopold I of Belgium, Mme de Montespan is an ancestor of the present king of Belgium, Albert II.
Through Louis Philippe's son Ferdinand Philippe Louis Charles Henri Joseph, duc d'Orléans she is also an ancestor of the Spanish Royal Family and its head, King Juan Carlos I of Spain.
Through Louis-Philippe's fourth daughter, Clémentine d'Orléans, the wife of Leopold's nephew, Prince August of Saxe-Coburg-Kohary, she is also the ancestor of the current pretender to the throne of Bulgaria, King Simeon II.
The Château de Clagny in Versailles was built between 1674 and 1680 from the drawings of Jules Hardouin-Mansart, Premier architecte du Roi, (First architect of the King), on land bought by Louis XIV in 1665. Mme de Sévigné wrote that its construction employed 1 200 workers and the cost was no less than two millions "livres. The royal gardener André Le Nôtre created the gardens, which looked west toward the much larger palace of Versailles, of which Clagny was a smaller version. The château de Clagny was also famed for its gallery. In 1685, Louis XIV gave the magnificent castle to Mme de Montespan. At her death, Clagny was inherited by her oldest son, the duc du Maine, who, in turn, passed it on to his son, the prince de Dombes, the last of his line. The château reverted to the French Crown in 1766 and was demolished in 1769.
Louis XIV also had a pleasure pavilion, called the Trianon de porcelaine built for Mme de Montespan, and surrounded by gardens, on the site of the former hamlet of Trianon which he had purchased near the Palace of Versailles. It was meant as a hideaway for the couple. Because of the fragility of the earthenware tiles used in its construction, the Trianon de porcelaine was demolished in 1687 and replaced by the Grand Trianon of pink marble (marbre rose des Pyrénées).
At court, women copied Madame de Montespan's lavish style of dress which was often very loose and unfettered. The looseness allowed her to move more easily during her frequent pregnancies. Queen Marie-Thérèse d'Autriche unsuccessfully copied her coiffure in order to get the king to notice her more. Later, even after her departure from court, Mme de Montespan's favourite fashions were still being copied.
As the king's official mistress, Mme de Montespan frequently joined the rest of the court as it escorted the king as he waged his many wars against the Dutch and Austrians. Below is a picture of one of the court processions. It shows Louis XIV and his wife, Queen Marie-Thérèse, in Arras in 1667 during the War of Devolution.
Mme de Montespan, is said to be the blonde woman at the center of the coach which would have also held the king's sister-in-law Madame, his first cousin La Grande Mademoiselle, the Queen and Mme de Montespan's older sister, the marquise de Thianges. Louis XIV stands behind the coach with his red hat while his younger brother, Monsieur, stands further to the right in blue.