This article was written by Holly Sennett.
Françoise d’Aubigné was born on the 27th of November 1635 in France. The daughter of an incarcerated Huguenot, Françoise had a relatively modest upbringing. Young Françoise was educated as a Protestant, despite being baptised in her mother’s Catholic faith. Throughout her childhood and formative years, Françoise’s aunt, Madame de Villette, played a crucial role in the education and upbringing of her niece.
Françoise moved in with her aunt at an early age as her parents struggled to provide for the family. Françoise’s father would temporarily leave the family behind. The Villette residence at Mursay with its extensive fairytale forests would become a paradise for young Françoise. In later life, she would reflect on her time at Mursay with her aunt and cousins with great fondness.1 However, it became known by Françoise’s Godmother, Suzanne de Baudéan, that the Villette’s were intending to raise Françoise as a Protestant and not a Catholic – something which she, and her mother, could not accept. With the interference the pious Queen Mother and Regent, Anne of Austria, Françoise was forced to leave the idyllic Mursay and the loving family she had found there. 2
Shortly after, Françoise was sent to live in a convent. The Niort Convent was part of the Ursuline Order, one which focused on educating young women. Despite initially despising the restrictions that the structured convent life placed on her, young Françoise soon formed a close bond with one nun in particular, Sister Céleste, and eventually settled into convent life. 3 At the age of fifteen Françoise first met the talented poet Paul Scarron, over 20 years her senior and terribly crippled. The beautiful and intelligent Françoise captivated Paul Scarron, and the two soon began exchanging letters. In the winter of 1651-52 Scarron proposed marriage. For a woman with few options, marriage provided Françoise with status and a household while it would in turn offer Scarron, a nurse for his last years. After some consideration, she accepted.
Marriage to Scarron allowed Françoise freedom and some degree of comfort. However, the new Madame Scarron knew that due to the declining health of her husband, the comfort wouldn’t last long. The marriage appears to have been a happy one, leaving Françoise much grieved by the death of her husband just eight years later in 1660. For the following six years Madame Scarron would live in relatively comfortable circumstances with a generous pension provided by the Queen Mother. 4
Anne of Austria died in 1666, and the pension was suspended. Françoise now had a choice; to either remain in France relying on the charity of her friends or to make a new life abroad. Fortunately, during her period as a widow, Madame Scarron met and befriended a noblewoman named Madame de Montespan. This friendship would transform her future.
Marquise de Maintenon
By 1670, Françoise had accepted a role raising the illegitimate children of the French King Louis XIV and his mistress, Françoise’s close friend, Madame de Montespan. The household established by Françoise was a comfortable and loving one in which she played a key maternal role. Among her charges, Françoise became extremely attached to Louis Auguste, the eldest of the children. 5. It would be this nurturing and maternal nature that would soon attract the King to the lowly widow.
After a while, Françoise caught the King’s attention and his constant visits to Françoise, and his illegitimate children away from court caused his mistress, Madame de Montespan, to become desperate and suspicious. 6 Attempting to restore peace, the King purchased a beautiful Chateau on the Maintenon estate for Françoise. Through this estate. Madame Scarron would become known to history as Madame de Maintenon. Her former ally Montespan would eventually fall from favour after the notorious Affair of the Poisons in which she was a participant. Eventually, in 1691 Montespan would retire to a convent. By this time Louis had already secretly married to Madame de Maintenon.
Françoise saw it as her duty to save the King’s soul, and her impact would be extensive. In 1683, Louis’ long-suffering wife, Queen Marie Therese died paving the way for Louis to marry Maintenon. The couple secretly married on a disputed date in either late 1683 or early 1684 with few witnesses. The morganatic nature of the marriage meant that Françoise could never become Queen or be formally recognised as Louis’ lawful wife.
Wife of the Sun King
Françoise was not popular with everyone at court. Most notably the Duchess of Orléans, known to many as Liselotte, the wife of King Louis’ younger brother Philippe held a strong dislike for Maintenon. Despite this, Françoise would be a great comfort to the King as those closest to him died. Louis’ younger brother Philippe died in 1701 shortly after a furious quarrel with the King. 7 In 1711, Louis would suffer another profound loss, the death of his only legitimate son, The Grand Dauphin. After the death of his son, The Sun King became a shadow of his former self.
By August 1715, Louis was nearing death. By the end of August, it became clear that any day could be the King’s last. During the last days that Louis and Françoise spent together sheaves of paper, mainly letters exchanged between husband and wife were burned. 8 On the 30th of August, shortly after five o’clock, Madame de Maintenon departed Versailles after being assured by her confessor that her dying husband no longer needed her. 9 Louis XIV, King of France, died on the 1st of September 1715, leaving Françoise a widow once again.
After the King’s death, Françoise retired to Saint-Cyr. Life at Saint-Cyr would be one of quiet happiness and reflection. In 1717, Peter the Great visited France. While in France Peter paid a visit to the ageing and weary Madame de Maintenon. When the Russian royal asked Françoise what illness she was suffering from, Françoise replied “great age and a weak constitution” 10
Françoise d’Aubigné, Madame de Maintenon died on the 15th April 1719. Françoise was buried inside the chapel at Saint-Cyr with no members of the court present at her funeral. In death, as in life, Madame de Maintenon could not formally be recognised as the wife of Louis XIV.
- ‘Madame de Maintenon – The Secret Wife of Louis XIV’ Veronica Buckley p15
- ^ (p48)
- ^ (p59)
- ^ (p102)
- ‘Love and Louis XIV’ Antonia Fraser (p196)
- ‘The Sun King and His Loves’ – Lucy Norton (p81)
- ‘Brother to the Sun King – Philippe, Duke of Orleans’ Nancy Nichols Baker (p230)
- ‘Louis XIV’ Joanna Richardson (p209)
- ‘Louis XIV’ Joanna Richardson (p210)
- ‘Madame de Maintenon’ Veronica Buckley (p376)