Women in History: Mistresses of the French Court and Political Power

It’s time for a new Celebrating Women Series for 2017. March is Women in History month and so I’m featuring writers and authors who sent in guest articles surrouding women  In fact, it will extend way past March. You can find a main page for this with explanation and link to all articles here. I’ll add the article as I schedule or post them.

Next up is historical author Sally Christie who writes of mistresses of the French court in her novels. Here she writes how the best way for women to gain power in 18th century France was through the bed sheets. Without further ado, here is article #2 in the series.


Marquise de Pompadour, one of Louis XV Official Mistresses

Bedchamber Politics: Women and Political Power in 18th Century France

by Sally Christie, historical fiction author

For women, the path to political power in 18th century France was most definitely via the bedchamberand the back staircase.Louis XV, king for most of the 18th century (from 1715 to 1774), was perhaps the French king most ruled by his mistresses and his passions, and so it was a century where women wielded enormous (albeit unofficial) influence on the country and the course of history.

In the 18th century France was still an absolute monarchy, with none of the parliamentary checks and balances that were gradually coming to define life in other European courts. The king was the state, the state was the king, and his will was law. In order to influence that will, access was the main prerequisite for power – to have the king’s ear, you needed to be physically at his side. At Versailles, the “entrées” – literally, privileges to enter certain rooms, with the greatest entrées being the right to enter the king’s bedchamber – were hotly contested prerogatives of the high nobility. Much time and effort was spent in vying for improved access, or jealously guarding, for yourself and your descendants, access already attained.

With their daily access to the Queen, her ladies-in-waiting were in an important position and these were the highest official (paid and with an apartment in the palace) posts that could be obtained by women. In 1725, as soon as the king’s wife had been decided on, the next great question on everyone’s mind was who would be the new Queen’s attendants? These (typically) 12 women would be the Queen’s constant companions (generally serving one week a month), and each appointment was a political move; they were selected to carefully balance power in the Court, especially the rival families of the Bourbons and the Orléans. Behind each of the lucky 12 ladies selected was a whole army of family followers placing heavy expectations on the chosen protégées.

But the woman with the greatest access and therefore the greatest influence was of course the king’s main mistress, known as the Official Favorite (in many ways it was a real title, as well as an acknowledgement of her position and power). The Official Favorite was expected to be one of the main conduits for influence with the king, and was expected to participate in charity and patronage and style setting, etc. No matter her background, she was the most powerful woman at Court.

For women more than men, rank and influence were often separated. In precedence, the wife and daughters of the king were highest in rank, but often lowest in influence. This was especially true of Louis XV’s Polish wife: despite some initial devotion, Marie Leszcynskawas quickly sidelined politically, and then socially when the king ceased to share her bed after about 10 years of marriage.

The estrangement of the royal couple was an interesting and important inflection point in Louis’ life. The Cardinal Fleury was Louis’ chief advisor, and he would have been very aware that his young charge was rather malleable and weak-willed. Once the king’s eyes and thoughts started to stray from his wife, Fleury had a potential crisis on his hands: it was imperative to keep Louis in friendly hands, and not in the hands (literally!) of a female representative of an opposing faction.

The selection of Louise de Mailly Nesle as a malleable young mistress for the king really did happen the way I describe it in The Sisters of Versailles – Louise was selected because she was docile, shy, not terribly clever, and mostly uninterested in politics.


Or so they thought; they could not have foreseen the floodgates that her selection would open and the damage his eventual affairs with three of her sisters, over the course of the next decade, would have on the reputation of the monarchy.

In the wake of the departure of the last Mailly Nesle sister from the king’s bed there was a literal frenzy, with families pushing forward their daughters (and wives!) in the hopes of catching the king’s eye. Within hardly more than a month,Jeanne de Poisson, the future Marquise de Pompadour, who had essentially been groomed for the role since she was a little girl, was in the king’s bed, and kept her hands firmly on the reins of power for the next 20 years.

Later historians, writing about the largely disastrous reign of Louis XV, blame Pompadour for many of France’s missteps during the 18th century – accumulating debt, disastrous wars and lost colonies – and even Nancy Mitford writing from the 1950s, accused Pompadour of being as ineffective as most women are in politics! However, in a political system built off of patronage, nepotism and inherited key posts, most ministers were ineffectual and incompetent and mostly interested in their own advancement over the needs of the state. Jeanne at least was shrewd and intelligent, and it was she who recognized and supported the Duc de Choiseul, one of the only competent menin government.

The King’s last mistress, the Comtesse du Barry, was completely uninterested in politics, but she became a pawn for the power faction opposing the Duc de Choiseul, and sadly she was instrumental in his departure. With his departure the last statesman with any positive impact left the Court, with disastrous consequences for king and country.

After Louis’ death, the “era of the mistress” came to an end with the (shocking for the time) faithful Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. For the first time in almost seven decades, the queen was first in precedence, but also first in political and social influence. Arriving as a young girl of 14, Marie Antoinette got off to a bad start with the old guard of Versailles, and once constraints on her behavior were lifted when she became queen at 19, she surrounded herself withfriends she liked, some of whom were not from the senior nobility, and elevated them and their families above high aristocracy. Mistresses were perhaps expected to act like that, but a Queen was expected in appearance be neutral and spread favors (acknowledgements, inclusion) evenly amongst the old families with their jealously guarded entrées.

Marie Antoinette took to hiding out at her little retreats in the ground of Versailles, where the palace entrées were meaningless. The high nobility were cut off from this channel of influence and came toresent the Queen; they hated Marie Antoinette almost as much as everyone else seemed to do! What they didn’t realize, and what I think is a really interesting point, is that by complaining about her and undermining her, they were actually helping to undermine the royal family in general.

It all ended badly for Marie Antoinette,and after the revolution, with Napoleon and then with the Restoration, queens and / or mistresses gradually lost much of their power as the monarchy ceased to be absolute and parliamentary checks and balances were solidified. It would not be until our own era that women would once again have the impact and influence they did in the 18th century.

Sally Christie, Biography

03_Sally Christie_AuthorSally Christie is the author of The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, about the many (!) mistresses of King Louis XV of France: The Sisters of Versailles, about the Mailly Nesle sisters; The Rivals of Versailles, about Madame de Pompadour; and The Enemies of Versailles, about the Comtesse du Barry. She was born in England and grew up around the world, attending eight schools in three different languages. She spent most of her career working in international development, and currently lives in Toronto. A life-long history buff, she wishes time travel was a reality: she’d be off to the 18th century in a flash!

Visit SallyChristieAuthor.com to find out more about Sally and the Mistresses of Versailles trilogy. You can also find her on FacebookGoodreads, and Amazon.

02_The Enemies of VersaillesThe Enemies of Versailles by Sally Christie

Publication Date: March 21, 2017
Atria Books
eBook & Paperback; 416 Pages

Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: The Mistresses of Versailles, Book Three

In the final installment of Sally Christie’s “tantalizing” (New York Daily News) Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, Jeanne Becu, a woman of astounding beauty but humble birth, works her way from the grimy back streets of Paris to the palace of Versailles, where the aging King Louis XV has become a jaded and bitter old philanderer. Jeanne bursts into his life and, as the Comtesse du Barry, quickly becomes his official mistress.

“That beastly bourgeois Pompadour was one thing; a common prostitute is quite another kettle of fish.”

After decades of suffering the King’s endless stream of Royal Favorites, the princesses of the Court have reached a breaking point. Horrified that he would bring the lowborn Comtesse du Barry into the hallowed halls of Versailles, Louis XV’s daughters, led by the indomitable Madame Adelaide, vow eternal enmity and enlist the young dauphiness Marie Antoinette in their fight against the new mistress. But as tensions rise and the French Revolution draws closer, a prostitute in the palace soon becomes the least of the nobility’s concerns.

Told in Christie’s witty and engaging style, the final book in The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy will delight and entrance fans as it once again brings to life the sumptuous and cruel world of eighteenth century Versailles, and France as it approaches irrevocable change.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Kobo

Praise for The Sisters of Versailles (book one)

“Such an extraordinary tale makes for compelling reading and, as the lead book in a planned trilogy, will draw in readers who are interested in royal lives before the French Revolution….historical fiction fans, unfamiliar with the history of the Nesle sisters, will be intrigued.” (Library Journal)

“Sally Christie’s The Sisters of Versailles is an intriguing romp through Louis XV’s France. Filled with lush backdrops, rich detail, and colorful characters, fans of historical fiction will enjoy this glimpse into the lost golden era of the French monarchy.” (Allison Pataki, author of THE ACCIDENTAL EMPRESS )


Thank you for joining us for this series!

Women in History

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