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Of all the royal mistresses in history, arguably the most powerful and ablest was Madame de Pompadour. She was the maîtresse en titre (official mistress) of Louis XV of France and the power behind the throne for 19 years. Heaven smiled when she was born for Jeanne Antoinette Poisson grew up to be beautiful, clever, witty, refined and multi-talented - she could sing, dance act, play the clavichord and was artistically inclined. One courtier said, "Everything about her was rounded, including all her gestures." No wonder she captivated Louis.

She was from a humble background. Her mother believed a fortune teller who told her when Jeanne was 9, that her daughter would one day be the mistress of a king. It was to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. She groomed Jeanne to be skilled in social accomplishments - 'to be a morsel fit for a king.' One contemporary who had a dim view of her mothering skills remarked acidly, "She (Jeanne) has been taught everything but morals, which would have stood in her way."

Married at 19 to a wealthy young man who adored her, Jeanne was not content so she plotted for her future. As a commoner, Jeanne would never have met royalty. So she learnt how to drive a phaeton and made sure she "accidentally" got in the way of Louis' hunting parties. Then they finally met when she managed to get an invitation to a costume ball and prettily dropped her lace hanky in front of the king. Jeanne came just in time as he had run out of mistresses. To his credit, he remained faithful to his plain queen until she got tired of being constantly pregnant. The queen started to use various Saint's days as excuses to avoid her conjugal duties. Louis just about lost it when she started to dredge up really obscure saints. Then he cotton on to 4 ugly Mailly-Nesle sisters, one after the other until he ran out of sisters. So Jeanne saved this lazy man the hassle of looking for another mistress.

Louis was besotted with Jeanne. He was putty in her hands for the rest of her life - granting her a title Marquise de Pompadour, riches, her every wish to vanquish jealous rivals and even the behind the scenes control of the country. Louis was handsome but timid and indecisive. He needed her because he couldn't cope with ruling any nation much less one already in deep financial trouble. Frederick the Great of Prussia described Louis as "a good man whose only fault was that he was king." Louis needed constant distractions so Jeanne arranged all manner of entertainment for him, spending oodles of money in the process.

She learnt to read his every mood, planned plays, organised social events, bought chateaus one after another and decorated them with her favored style we now call Rococo. Her shop till you drop habits included porcelains which were her lifelong favorites. Some of the whims to humor Louis were extremely extravagant. She once filled the garden beds of one of her chateaus with porcelain flowers because she couldn't get real blooms in December. No wonder the overtaxed and starving French peasantry grew bitterly resentful.

She and Louis spent many happy hours planning the interior decor of her chateaus and "playing" with the many famous gemstones in the royal collection. Unlike her successor, (see my past post on Madam Du Barry's Missing Jewelry), Madame de Pompadour was not really fond of jewels for herself. She owned fine pieces including a necklace laden with 547 diamonds but twice gave all her baubles to the French treasury to help out during war time. But she did encourage Louis to design a special insignia of his own, the Order of the Golden Fleece. It featured a huge spinel carved into a dragon and the legendary Hope Diamond (shown here in its modern setting).



The Palace of Versailles was a snake pit of intrigue. Her power over the king meant Madame de Pompadour had many enemies. She could not afford to let down her guard not for one moment. That meant an iron control over her own needs and emotions. When her only surviving child from her first marriage died, followed soon after by her father, she hid her heartbreak and was still all smiles and gaiety for Louis. She made sure there was never a dull or unhappy moment for Louis.

Palace Of Versailles Opens Doors For Night Time Art Show

She always screened his visitors and appointments which greatly angered many people- from foreign kings to ambitious courtiers. She even ran the army during the disastrous (for France) Seven Years' War with Britain and took the blame for the country's loss of colonial power in North America. This was why Canada came under British control.

It's no wonder she was frequently lampooned with "poisonnades", vicious (and anonymous) little poems which mocked her humble origins and her family name Poisson (fish in French). The "Fisher's daughter" managed to ignore most but the one which greatly upset her was the poissonade which revealed her terrible secret. She suffered from a bad case of leukorrhea, a purulent vaginal discharge sometimes called "whites" most likely due to infection after the delivery of her daughter.

Privately, the servants whispered, "The royal stallion and his fairy sprite were badly mismatched." For all her talents, she was actually a failure in bed, a disastrous consequence for a mistress. She was frigid so she resorted to strange aphrodisiac diets living on celery, truffles and vanilla at one point. She was also physically fragile but she struggled through crippling migraines, insomnia, a weak heart and later tuberculosis to make sure she kept her place. Eventually the "whites" and her poor health put an end to her bed duty.

There is a lot to be said for her clever hold on Louis because she remained his friend and confidante long after she stopped being a lover. She even went on to pimp for him by setting up a royal brothel.

She once told a friend "It's a terrible life I lead. I've scarcely a moment to myself." You've got to wonder if it was really all worth it. Realising her ambition to be a king's mistress ultimately drove her to an early grave. Stricken with tuberculosis, she grew very thin but bore her final illness with great courage.

She died when she was just 42. In her will, she left her carved gemstone collection to Louis. There was very little money left for unlike her contemporaries, she always paid artisans and contractors on time. Louis mourned his loss deeply. He was forbidden by etiquette to attend her funeral. So he stood outside on a balcony to watch the funeral procession go by and wept. It was raining yet he had no coat or hat on. He said, with tears streaming down his face "They are the only tribute I can offer her" - the only person who kept the world at bay for him.

Hope Diamond picture source

Related Posts
Madam du Barry's Missing Jewelry
The Duchess of Windsor's Jewelry
The Hollywood Actress, the Newspaper Baron and Jewels

References
Marian Fowler (2002). Hope : Adventures of a Diamond. Ballantine Books.
Eleanor Herman (2004). Sex with Kings : 500 years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge. Harper Collins.
J.J.Mangan (1991) The King's Favour : 3 18th century monarchs and the favorites who ruled them. Alan Sutton Publishing.

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3 comments:

  1. Boy you sure come up with ALL the details!! The whites? Poor lady to be known for THAT in perpetuity! :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. this is one of the most interesting articles that i have read recently.with all those beautiful details,you must have spent so much time researching, which is a stimulating and pleasurable experience itself,apart of it's being jewelry related, which makes it more intriguing.
    we all need to be grateful for your endless generousity in providing so much information for all of us to enjoy and educate ourselves too.thank you again.
    haifa shawwa
    jewelry designer
    http://haifashawwajewelry.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you for taking the time to tell me how much you enjoyed the post. It's a pleasure to write these occasional jewelry biographies. One reason why I never watch soap operas is because real people in history are so much more interesting.

    But history and especially long boring historical books are off-putting for most so I like to "sketch in words" the essence of these fascinating people and their jewels in a way to entertain all my readers.

    ReplyDelete

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