In 1714, a man named Daniel O’Murphy and a woman named Marguerite Iquy were married in the town of Rouen, France. The pair both came from Irish families who had followed King James II into exile in France when he had lost his throne to his daughter Mary II and her husband William III. The followers of the King, the Jacobites, were often unable to return to their home countries and many permanently settled overseas, in the case of Marguerite and Daniel’s families, they settled in France.
Daniel and Marguerite were a poor couple who were often in trouble with the police and did not have the best reputation. Marguerite had been accused of theft and prostitution, while Daniel was tangled up in blackmail and espionage scams. Daniel had even been accused of holding letters which mentioned plans for the restoration of James Francis Edward Stuart (the Old Pretender) to the throne of England. For undermining the French government, Daniel was held in the Bastille for seven months, and after that, he and his family were closely watched.
It was just after this that the couple welcomed their twelfth child Marie-Louise on 21 October 1737. Though Marie-Louise was the twelfth child born into a poor family, she was cherished and was a welcome addition, as the first five of the couple’s children had been lost to smallpox. This left seven children; two boys and five girls. Supposedly, Marguerite had become drawn into superstition, folk rituals and religion after the deaths of the five children and so she named each of her daughters in honour of the Virgin Mary.
Little is known of Marie-Louise’s childhood, it is doubtful that she received an education and her parents struggled to make ends meet for the family. It is clear that Daniel and Marguerite often turned to crime to try to support their brood of seven children; both were accused of theft regularly, and Marguerite was a known prostitute. It is noted that as time went by, the older girls became involved in sex work too. We know this from the diary of a police inspector named Jean Meunier, who worked on cases of prostitution. In 1753, Jean wrote about the older girls Marguerite and Marie-Madeleine mentioning them following the French army to ‘their campaigns in Flanders’ obviously alluding to sex work. Similar was written about Marie-Victoire and Marie-Brigitte who was deemed an ugly woman, but the inspector believed she too was involved in the family trade. In this entry, we do not hear of the younger sister Marie-Louise.
It is in the diary of the Marquis d’Argenson that an account of Marie-Louise first appears in April 1753 which said ‘the King has a new mistress – she belonged to a family of prostitutes and thieves.’ Months later, Daniel O’Murphy died, and Marguerite moved to Paris with the children, this was probably to follow Marie-Louise who was by this point rumoured to be involved with the King, but it was also due to the fact that Daniel O’Murphy had been banned from living in Paris and now the family had a chance to move there.
The rumours of a relationship between Marie-Louise and King Louis XV of France turned out to be true, and the impoverished girl from a downtrodden family suddenly found herself in a very different social circle.
King Louis XV had many mistresses; his maîtresse-en-titre, the famous Madame de Pompadour was officially recognised and lived at court and influenced the King’s political sphere and household appointments. However, there were many more flings and Petite maîtresses, and if these relationships lasted a while, the woman would reside in a house in the Parc-aux-Cerfs which was in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. These women were often young virgins who were recruited by the King’s valet and sometimes overseen by Madame de Pompadour who made sure none of them came to threaten her own position at court.
How Marie-Louise came to the Parc-aux-Cerfs was slightly different to this usual process, as she was actually spotted in an erotic painting which she modelled for when she was around the age of thirteen. The story is that the famed adventurer and womaniser Giacomo Casanova saw Marie-Louise at her sister’s house and described her as a ‘pretty, ragged, dirty, little creature’. Casanova then supposedly had a nude of the young girl painted by François Boucher and inscribed the picture with a play on words between Marie-Louise’s surname and the Greek for the word beautiful ‘O-Morphi’. The painting somehow ended up in the hands of the brother of Madame de Pompadour and was subsequently seen by the King himself who wished to see the model in the flesh.
Before meeting the King, Marie-Louise would have been visited by the King’s personal valet, and her mother was probably consulted and bargained with for the girl’s virginity. Marie-Louise would have then been cleaned up and dressed by a dress-maker in the King’s employ and brought to the Parc-aux-Cerfs. Though Versailles and the lavish parties the palace held are often glamorised today, we should reflect on the fact that this was probably a frightening experience for the young Marie-Louise who would have had little choice but to comply in order to create opportunities and earn money for her family.
Not much is known of the relationship between Marie-Louise and the King, but we know that Marie-Louise was a Petite maîtresse from early 1753 to late 1755. After a few months, Marie-Louise had a miscarriage aged around fifteen; this nearly cost Marie-Louise her life which seemed to make the King oddly happy as he thought this proved Marie-Louise’s affection and devotion. The following year, a daughter was born to the pair, the baby was named Agathe-Louise de Saint-Antoine de Saint-André and was registered as a child of a fictional couple and immediately sent away to a wet nurse. Children of the Petite maîtresses were not officially recognised, and so Agathe would have lived her life under a guardian with a pension provided by the King.
By November 1755, Marie-Louise had grown in confidence, and her relationship with the King was going well. The young girl then began stepping on the toes of Madame de Pompadour and rumours began to spread that O-Morphi was planning to overthrow Pompadour completely and aimed to become the next maîtresse-en-titre.