Royal Mistresses in France and England in the Latter Half of the 17th Century

The habit of having publicly acknowledged extra-marital relations, despite the tensions that the situation might cause, could be found among several European sovereigns since at least the 15th century. Usually chosen from within the monarch’s, their spouse’s, or their women relatives’ entourages, mistresses could become more or less long-lastingly installed in the king’s favor and enjoy economic, social and even political advantages. They sometimes became mothers by giving birth to “bastard” children who – being the product of adulterous relationships – were considered illegitimate, but who might also be established at the level of royal affection. While the practice, which was in conflict with religious morals, was not systematic – and certainly not institutionalized – it was nonetheless recurrent, especially in France and England. Two particularly emblematic examples of monarchs whose love affairs were most intensely documented have been chosen to shed light on the subject: one on the French side, Louis XIV (1643-1715), and the other, the English, Charles II (1660-1685).

Gerard Edelinck, after Antoine Benoist, Portrait of Françoise Athenaiste de Rochechouart Marquise de Montespan, engraving, 1666-1707. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-BI-7561. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Gerard Edelinck, after Antoine Benoist, Portrait of Françoise Athenaiste de Rochechouart Marquise de Montespan, engraving, 1666-1707. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-BI-7561. Source : Wikimedia Commons.
Jacob Gole, Portrait of Louise de la Misericorde, cy devant appellée Louise Françoise de La Baume Le Blanc duchesse de La Vallière [...], engraving, 1670-1724. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-1877-A-352.
Jacob Gole, Portrait of Louise de la Misericorde, cy devant appellée Louise Françoise de La Baume Le Blanc duchesse de La Vallière [...], engraving, 1670-1724. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-1877-A-352. Source : Wikimedia Commons.
John Michael Wright, Barbara Palmer, née Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, oil on canvas, circa 1670. London, National Portrait Gallery, NPG 5497.
John Michael Wright, Barbara Palmer, née Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, oil on canvas, circa 1670. London, National Portrait Gallery, NPG 5497. Source : Wikimedia Commons.
Gerard Valck, after Peter Lely, Louise, Dutchess of Portsmouth, etching, 1678. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-H-1106.
Gerard Valck, after Peter Lely, Louise, Dutchess of Portsmouth, etching, 1678. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-H-1106. Source : Wikimedia Commons.
Contents

Enjoying royal favor, women who were chosen by sovereigns were termed mistresses, or, more rarely, favorites – the latter term having originally referred to friendships between two people of the same sex. 

Who Were the Royal Mistresses?

Like queens, mistresses were not chosen randomly, nor even solely on the basis of the sovereign’s whims: most often, they were already part of the royal entourage. Of high noble rank, they were presented at court thanks to their families, which had sometimes been established there for generations. Some also held a position there, usually in the queen’s house, like Françoise de Rochechouart de Mortemart (1640-1707), marquise de Montespan, Louis XIV’s mistress. In addition to coming from a prestigious lineage, she was the dame du palais (lady of the bedchamber, or lady-in-waiting) of Maria Theresa of Spain (1638-1683), the wife of Louis XIV. The entourages of the royal princesses also offered potential encounters.  That was the case for both Louise de La Baume Le Blanc (1644-1710), demoiselle de La Vallière, and Marie-Angélique de Scorailles de Roussille (1661-1681), demoiselle de Fontanges, who successively served two of the king’s sisters-in-law.

During his exile, from 1646 to 1660, Charles II, too, took mistresses from within his entourage, but he favored loyalty over rank. He was as likely to choose women from the gentry – the lower-ranking English, Irish or Welsh nobility – as from the aristocracy, as long as their families or entourage were faithful to him. Lucy Walter (ca. 1630-1658), whom he met in The Hague, remains the most eloquent example of that penchant. Born into a family of small landowners, she consorted with the king despite her humble origins. She even gave him a son, whom he legitimized: the Duke of Monmouth (1649-1685). The English monarch kept the habit after his Restoration, albeit favoring women from his court, like the French king. He also had a liaison with Lady Barbara Palmer (née Villiers, 1640-1709), then with one of his wife’s maids of honor, Winifred Welles. He did not necessarily limit himself to his own subjects. When the opportunity arose, he grew attached to two French ladies. One of the most famous ones was Louise de Keroualle (1649-1734), maid of honor of his sister Henriette, Duchess of Orléans. In that regard, Charles II was unlike Louis XIV: not only did he take foreign mistresses, but also ones with humble origins. Twice he kept actresses he had met in cafés: Moll Davis (ca. 1648-1708) and Nell Gwyn (1650-1687), proving that his royal favor could extend beyond the aulic environment.

Being A Mistress: An Economic and Social Status

While the mistresses’ social backgrounds might vary from one country to another, their paths all followed the same logic, with rank and social goods having been acquired before meeting the king, whose inclination added to them. They received gifts, whether goods or money, whose value fluctuated depending on their status. In France, royal mistresses’ allowances ranged from 4,000 to 80,000 pounds a year. Those favors guaranteed them a comfortable lifestyle, ideally in close proximity to the sovereign. Mistresses who had been appointed to an official position could hope to live directly at the palace. Others, like Nell Gwyn, who had a house at 79 Pall Mall, in London, were quartered in town.

Mistresses from humble backgrounds did not generally receive other graces or honors, unlike those whose families were noble. Thanks to the capital inherited from their families or shared with their spouses, they could rise in both social and economic rank. Françoise d’Aubigné (1635-1719), in France and Barbara Palmer in England, neither of whom had positions in court, obtained them. The former became the second dame d’atours (in charge of a royal woman’s wardrobe) to the wife of the heir apparent, the latter, dame d’honneur (first among the ladies-in-waiting) to Queen Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705), the wife of Charles II. Those who already had a position in the royal entourage were raised to the highest ones, like Madame de Montespan. And others were granted land – or enough money to purchase it – that allowed them to obtain the highest titles. In that regard, Louise de Keroualle was a unique case, because she is the only lady to have been made a duchess both in England (of Portsmouth, in 1673) and in France (of Aubigny, in 1684). 

The wealth thus accumulated, as well as their influence with the monarch, engendered a kind of power, particularly at court. Royal mistresses did their best to establish their friends and relatives, to be patrons to artists and protégés (among the most famous, Boileau, Racine and the harpsichord player Élisabeth Jacquet, all patronized by Madame de Montespan). Sometimes they became involved in government, diplomacy or political appointments – but without written sources, it can be difficult to define the extent of their influence precisely.

Royal Favor, Motherhood, and Families

It was not unusual for those adulterous relationships to lead to the mistresses giving birth: Louis XIV had at least twelve children outside of his marriage, and Charles II, twenty. Both of them adopted a similar attitude towards their so-called “bastard” progeny as they had towards their mistresses, i.e. treating them differently depending on their social status or their affection for them. The sons and daughters of servants or fleeting mistresses would usually be acknowledged as the children of their mothers’ husbands or by stand-ins – although they might still receive discreet support from their royal fathers. That was the case, for example, of Charlotte, who was declared the daughter of Elizabeth Killigrew and her husband, Viscount Shannon. 

Children born out of wedlock to high-ranking noblewomen or long-established mistresses could receive greater honors: officially acknowledged through letters patent of legitimization, they took names and coats-of-arms that evoked their royal lineage, and were granted titles, domains and appointments to high positions. 

The legitimization of their offspring was also significant for the mistresses themselves. Having not only become the mothers of royal offspring, but having had that acknowledged in letters patent, they acquired greater power. They played key roles in educating and establishing their children, future princes and princesses whose estates and property they administered. They also were careful to preserve, or even increase, the holdings they would inherit. In so doing, they formed families at the king’s side that were parallel to the legitimate dynasty.

Motherhood did not necessarily prevent disgrace, however, which could occur years later due to court intrigue, rivalries or royal lassitude. Spurned mistresses were not left to fend for themselves, however: thanks to the goods and property acquired through their relationship with the sovereign, they could retire to their residences, in town or the countryside, and they continued to receive an allowance to live on. Distanced from royal favor, they still depended on it economically, but they also acquired greater autonomy: whether single, separated from their husbands, or widows, they could devote their final years to their descendants, their relatives or to charity, in order to bring honor to their houses and ensure their own salvation. Only one of them chose to renounce the world definitively and take the veil. In 1675, Louise de La Vallière took her vows and became a Carmelite nun in a convent in Paris’s Faubourg Saint Jacques neighborhood.

“There isn’t so much as the youngest son of a privileged line that doesn’t take himself for a peer of Louis XIV; he builds his Versailles, he has his mistresses, he maintains his armies.”  The idea, expressed here in the words of the King of Prussia, Frederic II (1740-1786), was hardly original. Yet the comparison with the English case reveals its limits. Granted, in terms of mores, Charles II was able to adopt some French royal practices, but by adapting them to make them his own.

To quote from this article

Flavie Leroux , Julie Özcan , « Royal Mistresses in France and England in the Latter Half of the 17th Century », Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 15/05/24 , consulted on 20/07/2024. Permalink : https://ehne.fr/en/node/22182

Bibliography

Beauclerk-Dewar Peter de Vere, Powell, Roger, Royal Bastards: Illegitimate Children of the British Royal Family (Cheltenham:The History Press, 2008).

Leroux Flavie, L’autre famille royale. Bâtards et maîtresses d’Henri IV à Louis XVI (Paris: Passés composés, 2022).

Masters Brian, The Mistresses of Charles II (London: Constable & Robinson Limited, 1997).

Suire Romane, De la maîtresse royale à la femme capable. Parcours et actions de Louise de Keroualle (M.Phil. in History, Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2017).

/sites/default/files/styles/opengraph/public/image-opengraph/maitresses.jpg?itok=lYPGx3Et

Don’t miss a single publication! Register now to receive our newsletter in English:

The subscriber's email address.
Manage your newsletter subscriptions
Select the newsletter(s) to which you want to subscribe.