Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, duchesse de Polignac (8 September 1749–9 December 1793) was a French aristocrat and the favourite of Marie Antoinette, whom she first met when she was presented at the Palace of Versailles in 1775, the year after Marie Antoinette became the Queen of France.
She was born in Paris, but moved to Languedoc. The Polignac family were of ancient lineage and well-respected, but encumbered by many debts. Her maternal grandfather was René Hérault, who had served as Lieutenant General of Police of Paris (i.e. head of the Paris Police) between 1725 and 1739.
She lost her mother, Jeanne Charlotte Hérault, at the age of three and went to her aunt, who put her in a convent - a common practice for the education of young aristocratic girls. When she was eighteen, her marriage to Jules, comte de Polignac, captain in the French army, was arranged.
When Diane de Polignac, her sister-in-law, called her to Court, she came with her husband and was presented at a formal reception in 1775. Queen Marie-Antoinette became instantly attached to her and agreed to settle the family's many outstanding debts; Gabrielle also won the friendship of the king's younger brother the comte d'Artois and the approval of King Louis XVI himself, who was grateful for her calming influence on his wife, encouraging their friendship. She was, however, resented by other members of the royal entourage, particularly the queen's confessor and her political adviser, the Austrian ambassador.
Charismatic and beautiful, Gabrielle became the undisputed leader of the queen's exclusive circle, ensuring that few entered without her approval. The entire Polignac family benefited enormously from the queen's considerable generosity, but their increasing wealth outraged many aristocratic families, who resented their dominance at Court. Ultimately, the queen's favouritism towards Gabrielle and her family was one of the many causes which fueled Marie-Antoinette's unpopularity with some of her subjects (especially Parisians) and members of the politically-liberal nobility.
By the late 1780s, thousands of hostile, pornographic pamphlets alleged that Gabrielle was the queen's lesbian lover, and although there was no evidence to back up these accusations they did immeasurable damage to the prestige of the monarchy, especially given the deep-rooted suspicion of homosexuality held by the bourgeoisie and urban working-classes at the time.
Gabrielle was eventually appointed Governess to the Royal Children, including the future Louis XVII of France and Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte of France. At the time, her appointment generated further outrage at Court, where it was felt Gabrielle was unsuitable for the post. Her husband was later promoted through two rungs of the aristocratic ladder, thus making him a duc and Gabrielle a duchesse - a further source of irritation to the courtiers at Versailles.
She also secured a thirteen-room apartment for herself in the palace, at a time when other courtiers were grateful for a garret because of its proximity to the royal family. She was also given her own cottage in Marie-Antoinette's private village, built within the palace complex in the 1780s. Gabrielle's position of importance to the ruling family only increased when her beautiful sister-in-law, Louise, became the life-long mistress of the comte d'Artois (later King Charles X).
Gabrielle's own marriage was cordial, if not successful; in other words, it was typical of aristocratic arranged marriages. For many years, Gabrielle was passionately in love with the captain of the Royal Guard, Joseph Hyacinth Francois de Paule de Rigaud, Comte de Vaudreuil (1740-1817), although it was felt by many of her friends that Vaudreuil was too domineering . It was rumored at Versailles that Gabrielle's youngest child was actually fathered by Vaudreuil. The exact nature of her relationship with Vaudreuil has, however, been questioned by some historians, who feel it may not actually have been a sexual liaison - this theory has recently been resurrected by Catholic novellist and commentator, Elena Maria Vidal.
Gabrielle's influence over Marie-Antoinette temporarily waned after 1785, when the queen's second son was born. The queen was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the ambition of her favourites, especially when they championed a politician whom the queen herself despised. She confided to another lady-in-waiting, Henriette Campan, that she was "suffering acute dissatisfaction" over the Polignacs - "Her Majesty observed to me that when a sovereign raises up favourites in her court she raises up despots against herself". Eventually, Gabrielle felt Marie-Antoinette's displeasure and decided to visit friends in England, particularly Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who was the leader of London high society and one of Gabrielle's closest confidantes.
The months leading up to the outbreak of the French Revolution in July 1789 saw the queen and the duchesse de Polignac set became close once more. Politically, Gabrielle and her friends supported the ultra-monarchist movement in Versailles, with Gabrielle becoming increasingly important in royalist intrigues as the summer progressed.
The marquis de Bombelles remembered her ceaseless work to promote hardline responses against the emergent revolution. Together with Bombelles' godfather, the ex-diplomat and politician baron de Breteuil, and the comte d'Artois, they persuaded Marie-Antoinette to help depose the king's liberal chief minister, Jacques Necker. However, without the necessary military support to crush the insurrection, Necker's dismissal fuelled the already-serious violence in Paris, culminating in the attack on the Bastille Fortress.
After the fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, and with Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette under effective house arrest, several members of the Polignac Set decided to emigrate. The comte d'Artois left on Louis XVI's express orders, as did Breteuil. Gabrielle and her family escaped to Switzerland, where they kept in contact with the Queen through letters. After she had left, the care of the royal children was entrusted to the Marquise de Tourzel.
Gabrielle developed cancer while living in Switzerland, although she had arguably been in poor health for several years. She died in December 1793, shortly after hearing of the execution of Marie-Antoinette. Her family simply announced that she had died as a result of heartbreak and suffering. Contradictory royalist reports of her death suggested consumption as an alternative cause of death, but no specific mention of her disease was made in the various allegorical pamphlets which showed the Angel of Death descending to take the soul of the still-beautiful duchesse de Polignac. Her beauty and early death became metaphors for the demise of the old regime, at least in early pamphlets.
Gabrielle was the mother of Jules, prince de Polignac, who became Prime Minister for Charles X (the former comte d'Artois) in 1829. She was also the mother of Aglaïé de Polignac, duchesse de Guiche, called in the family "Guichette", who died in 1803 in an accidental fire. Two of her grandsons were Camille Armand Jules Marie, Prince de Polignac and Prince Edmond de Polignac. Descendants of her can be found in France and in Russia, where her granddaughter, daughter of "Guichette", married a noble, Aleksandr Lvovich Davydov.
Gabrielle de Polastron has left her mark in history and it can be seen in history books, novels, movies and other kinds of media. In 1979, she was one of the major characters (albeit a scheming one) in "The Rose of Versailles", a shōujo manga/anime created by Riyoko Ikeda. More recently she has been portrayed by Rose Byrne in the recent film Marie Antoinette
Her critics among historians have argued that the duchesse de Polignac typified the aristocratic hangers-on at the court of Versailles before the French Revolution and that she embodied the exclusivity, the obliviousness and the selfish extravagance of the ruling class. However, more sympathetic historians, such as Pierre de Nolhac and the marquis de Ségur, agree that that most of the problems originated with her entourage.
Assessments of her character aside, it is generally agreed that she was one of the key figures in the ultra-monarchist movement throughout the early summer of 1789, acting under the influence of her friend, the comte d'Artois.
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