The Rise and Fall of the French Royal Mistress

By Christine Adams and Tracy Adams

When Louis XV of France elevated Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, later the Marquise de Pompadour, to the position of royal mistress in 1745, courtiers were shocked; the Duke of Luynes wrote that she could only be a galanterie (fling), not a mistress. It was inconceivable that a woman from a bourgeois background, “whose mother is named Mme Poisson” (French for fish) could be the next maîtresse déclarée of the king.[1] But while the tradition of choosing the royal mistress from among aristocratic ladies of the court came to an end with Pompadour’s elevation, she stepped into a position that had, by the eighteenth century, a long genealogy. Rulers throughout the world had always had extra-conjugal sexual partners; history is replete with stories of powerful mistresses and concubines.[2] But only in early modern France did the royal mistress become a tradition, a quasi-institutionalized political position, occupied by a woman whose magnificence was a key element of the king’s grandeur.[3] It was a tradition that the revolutionaries of 1789 reviled, and that fueled their determination to end feminine influence over the government.  

Book cover of The Creation of the French Royal Mistress by Tracy Adams and Christine Adams.

The salacious histories of French royal mistresses often refer to these women as “official royal mistresses” (“maîtresse en titre” in French), but the position was never, in fact, “official.” Courtly rank and protocol made it possible for these women to have positions at court, openly as attendant to the queen or governess of the royal children, and, as an open secret, as advisor to the king. This habit of treating the royal mistress as an open secret was part of a larger construction of gender in France: the long-established belief that women were politically as capable as their male counterparts even though they were legally inferior. This conception undergirded feudal law, which sometimes allowed women to wield authority in the absence of a husband, son, or brother. For example, Louis IX of France’s mother, Blanche of Castile, served as regent twice: during his minority, and then again went he went on Crusade in 1248. It was a vision of gender common across Europe. What was unique about France, however, was the vision’s instantiation in the so-called Salic Law, elaborated over the course of the fifteenth century, which prohibited women from succession to the throne as well as succession through the female line. However, for that very reason, French legal guidance, codified in Charles VI’s ordinance of 1403, favored the queen mother as regent when the need arose.[4] Her rule was an open secret premised on the assumption that women were safer than men (lacking the right to rule in their own name), but equally competent. This notion also formed the basis of the role of royal mistress: she was the safest of the king’s advisers because her position depended on his favor. 

Most believe the powerful royal mistress dates back to Agnès Sorel, Charles VII’s lover in the mid-fifteenth century. However, her contemporaries did not recognize that role; rather, in the sixteenth century, Agnès became a kind of posthumous celebrity and role model as powerful women such as Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly, Duchess of Étampes (mistress of François I), Diane de Poitiers (Henri II), and Gabrielle d’Estrées (Henri IV) emerged as key advisers to their lovers. The iconic Melun diptych with the lactating Virgin, believed to be modeled on Agnès’s features, and the myth that she inspired Charles to fight to save France from the English in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) undergirded Agnès’s legend and established a genealogy, offering a model for future mistresses who built on the role and representation of the previous. For example, following the model of Diane de Poitiers, most royal mistresses had themselves painted as the mythological Roman huntress Diana.[5] Resident ambassadors left accounts attesting to the prominent role that women such Madame de Montespan (mistress to Louis XIV) played, both in the increasingly theatrical life of the court and as counselor to the king and conduit to his favor. But this political role, though recognized, was not publicly acknowledged. 

Painting of the Virgin with a child on her lap, surrounded by Angels.
Jean Fouquet, Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels

At least this was the case until the eighteenth century. When Pompadour became Louis XV’s mistress, her lowly status made it impossible to maintain the secret of her position. (The social status of Jeanne Bécu, Madame DuBarry, Louis XV’s last mistress, was even lower than that of Pompadour). Still, by drawing on existing scripts to justify her role at the court, Pompadour established herself as a central player and intermediary between the king and his courtiers, famously entertaining requests for favors at her morning toilette.

While recent historical assessments of Pompadour are mixed, most take her seriously as a political actor.[6] But her too-visible exercise of influence gave a disgruntled public a target for its unhappiness with royal policies, especially the catastrophe of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). The contemporary narrative of the feminization of the French monarchy—a result of Louis’s open reliance on his powerful mistresses—helped to delegitimize the Old Regime government. The Age of Enlightenment demanded a new transparency in the politics of the court and an end to dissimulation. As Lisa Jane Graham suggests, royal mistresses “represented an older politics of secrecy in an age that demanded transparency and accountability from its rulers.”[7]

Louis XVI, France’s last king before the Revolution, did not have a mistress. However, his wife, Marie-Antoinette tried to play the role that previous mistresses had filled in addition to serving as the queen.[8] Louis XV’s mistresses had been deeply unpopular, but at least they were French. Marie-Antoinette was Austrian, and the xenophobia often directed at queens, combined with the hatred for mistresses who meddled in court politics to benefit themselves and their allies and whose greed exhausted government coffers, came together in an explosive outrage directed at the queen.[9]

Painting of Diana with a bow and arrow, and a white dog in the forest.
Diana the Huntress

The French Revolution of 1789 brought an end to the monarchy and the powerful royal mistress; the lives of both Madame DuBarry and Marie-Antoinette ended on the scaffold. The Revolution laid bare the impossible contradictions in the position of the royal mistress. The mistress was the privileged emblem of theatricality and secrecy in politics, which only worked in a polity based on those elements. The new political order rejected secrecy and dissimulation, prizing transparency and “natural” behavior. Revolutionaries were especially determined to end the illegitimate influence of women in politics.[10]

While the monarchy returned to France in 1815, the “official” position of the French royal mistress did not. The politics of the modern age did not allow a woman to occupy the position that royal mistresses had under the Old Regime. However, many French people continued to celebrate the ability of women to exercise surreptitious influence under the cover of charm and beauty.[11] Even today, certain strains of French feminism imagine women and men to be fundamentally different but mutually necessary, living in harmonious complementarity. In this interpretation, French feminism has a “peaceful quality,” different from the Anglo-American feminism that leads to such acrimonious relations between the sexes.[12] What Mona Ozouf has referred to as the “French singularity,” the presumably uniquely French construction of the relationship between the sexes, supposedly allows attractive women a measure of genuine power.[13]This idealized conception of gender has exerted significant influence in France from the Middle Ages until the present; the royal mistress serves as a powerful example.   


Christine Adams is Professor of History at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She is an Andrew W. Mellon fellow at the Newberry Library in Chicago (Spring 2021) and fellow at the American Council of Learned Societies (2020-2021). Her current book project examines the Merveilleuses and their impact on the French social and historical imaginary, 1794–1799 and beyond.

Tracy Adams is Professor of European Languages and Literatures at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She was a Eurias Senior Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies 2011–2012, an Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in the History of Emotions Distinguished International Visiting Fellow in 2014, and Fellow at the Herzog August Bibliothek fellowship in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, in 2016. Her most recent book, The Many Lives of Agnes Sorel (Kalamazoo: ARC Humanities Press) is due out in 2022. 

This essay is based on the authors’ book The Creation of the French Royal Mistress: From Agnès Sorel to Madame DuBarry (Penn State Press, 2020), now out in paperback.

Title Image: Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, by Francois Boucher, 1750.

Further readings:

Adams, Christine and Tracy Adams, eds. Female Beauty Systems: Beauty as Social Capital in Western Europe and the United States, Middle Ages to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015.

Akkerman, Nadine and Birgit Houben, eds. The Politics of Female Households: Ladies-in-Waiting Across Early Modern Europe. Leiden: Brill, 2014. 

Broomhall, Susan, ed. Women and Power at the French Court, 1483-1563. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 2018.

Craveri, Benedetta. Reines et favorites: Le pouvoir des femmes. Trans. Éliane Deschamps-Pria.  Paris: Édition France Loisirs, 2005. 

Harris, Carolyn. Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette. New York: Palgrave, 2016.

Leroux, Flavie. Les maîtresses du roi – De Henri IV à Louis XIV. Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2020.

Offen, Karen. The Woman Question in France 1400-1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Wellman, Kathleen. Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

Endnotes:

[1] Charles-Philippe-Albert de Luynes, Mémoires du duc de Luynes sur la Cour de Louis XV (1735-1758), ed. Louis Dussieux et Eudore Soulié, 17 vols. (Paris: Firmin-Didot frères, 1860-65)6: 354.

[2] For examples, see the essays in Anne Walthall, ed., Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008).

[3] This is the subject of our recent book, The Creation of the French Royal Mistress: From Agnès Sorel to Madame DuBarry (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020).

[4] However, this ordinance did not specifically designate the queen’s role as “regent.” That term was not used until the regency of Marie de Médicis, beginning in 1610.

[5] See Elise Goodman, The Portraits of Madame de Pompadour: Celebrating the Femme Savante (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 13-14.

[6] See reviews of the historical literature on Pompadour, including Clara Campbell Orr, “Rococo Queen,” History Workshop Journal 56 (Autumn 2003): 245-50 and Alden R. Gordon, “Searching for the Elusive Madame de Pompadour,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 37:1 (2003): 91-111.

[7] Lisa Jane Graham, If the King Only Knew: Seditious Speech in the Reign of Louis XIV (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2000), 59.

[8] Marie-Antoinette was, in the words of Chantal Thomas, “[e]xceptional in the history of France … both queen and favorite simultaneously.” The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette, trans. Julie Rose (New York: Zone Books, 1999) 97.

[9] Thomas E. Kaiser, “From the Austrian Committee to the Foreign Plot: Marie-Antoinette, Austrophobia and the Terror,” French Historical Studies 26 (2003): 579-617.

[10] The extensive historiography on women during the Revolution includes Joan B. Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), esp. chap. 4; Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992; and Madelyn Gutwirth, The Twilight of the Goddesses: Women and Representation in the French Revolutionary Era (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

[11] Karen Offen, The Woman Question in France, 1400–1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 31-37.

[12] See Eric Fassin, “The Purloined Gender: American Feminism in a French Mirror,” French Historical Studies22: 1 (Winter 1999): 113-38.

[13] Mona Ozouf, Les Mots des femmes: essai sur la singularité française (Paris: Fayard, 1995). For more on this historical treatment of this topic, see the special issue, “Representations of Women in the French Imaginary: Historicizing the Gallic Singularity” in French Politics, Culture & Society, 38 (Spring 2020).

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