Madame du Barry (1743-1793) was born the illegitimate daughter of a dressmaker. An acknowledged beauty, her face was her fortune. She started her courtesan career at the tender age of 15 when she seduced her employer and went on to sleep her way to the top.

She eventually arrived at the French Royal Court at Versailles after her marriage to the debauched Count Jean du Barry. The aging King Louis XV signaled his interest in acquiring another mistress by sending her a bouquet of flowers tied with a string of diamonds. He showered her with jewelry and other extravagances at a time when the French treasury was virtually bankrupt. His favouritism was deeply resented.

Not only was she lovely to look at, she made sure she dazzled with gowns made with gold or silver thread or embroidered with seed pearls or fine diamonds. She loved gems and even started a new fashion of mixing different colored gems together. Before her time, rubies and emeralds for example were never set together.

After Louis XV's death in 1774, she retired to her country estate near Sceaux, banished in part by Marie Antoinette, the new King's wife,who hated her and thought her common. The visiting English Duchess of Northumberland concurred. She described Madame du Barry as having a "wanton look" and considered her "vulgar, her voice loud, her language rough and indelicate." But at least she was clean. Madam du Barry bathed often in rose scented water in a time when personal hygiene meant people used perfume to cover up their stench.

She was missed by treasure hungry Revolutionaries back in 1789 at the start of the French Revolution but her activities and prior association with the old King eventually caught up with her. She was not content to just live quietly, taking on new lovers but in her naivety, she also made many trips to England in 1792 to recover stolen jewelry or so she said. In reality, she was transferring her treasures there. She should have stayed in England. She was eventually suspected of aiding French emigres fleeing the Reign of Terror and apprehended.

Shortly before her arrest, she buried her money and jewels around her chateau. Afterwards, she offered up their hiding places one by one in order to buy herself one more night of life. All save the location of her most important jewels and gold coin cache. But by then, they were through bargaining with her. Perhaps they believed they already had all her treasures but more likely, they just wanted to see the former King's mistress' head roll.

Marie Antoinette and particularly her husband, Louis XVI faced their executions with courage. Unlike them, Madame du Barry was hysterical when she was brought to the guillotine in 1793, screaming and begging for mercy in front of a hostile mob, right to the end. Her famous last words were "Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau, un petit moment" ("Just a moment, executioner, just a brief moment").

The jewels she smuggled to England were eventually sold at auction and the money went back to France. The rest have not been found. Are they still hidden or were they already looted some 200 years ago?

Picture source

Related Post : The Last Queen of France's Pearls

Wikipedia : Madame du Barry
Tim Haydock (1986). Treasure Trove : Where to find the Great Lost Treasures of the World. Henry Holt and Co.
Robert Charroux (1962). Treasures of the World. Frederick Muller Ltd.
Mariane Fowler (2002). Hope: Adventures of a Diamond, Random House.

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