This is a guest article by Kate Braithwaite.
Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart, the famously beautiful and witty maîtresse-en-titre of the Sun King Louis XIV, was born in Lussac in 1640. She was the third child of the Duc and Duchesse de Mortemart, one of France’s most noble families.
Athénaïs (as she chose to be called) was presented at court aged twenty and became a maid of honour in the royal household. An accomplished dancer, she quickly made her name performing in a ballet with the twenty-two-year-old King Louis and was acknowledged as a great beauty as well as a young lady of great wit and intelligence. In her early days in Paris, she frequented intellectual salons, and her friends there included a young widow, Françoise Scarron, who would later become governess to Athénaïs and Louis’ children, and later still, the wife of King Louis XIV.
After two years at court, Athénaïs became engaged to a nobleman called Louis-Alexandre de La Trémoile, but the planned marriage did not take place. Louis-Alexandre was part of a group involved in an illegal duel in which one young man died. Athénaïs’ fiancé was forced to go abroad or be arrested, leaving Athénaïs to rebound into a hasty courtship with the dead nobleman’s brother, the Marquis de Montespan. In early 1663, they were married, and their first child was born that November. The following September she and Montespan had a second child, but Athénaïs was back at court two weeks after the birth dancing in a court ballet. The marriage was rocky from the start. Athénaïs needed large amounts of money to keep up appearances at court, but Montespan was a gambler, squandering what funds he could muster through a career in the military. The relationship soured, and Athénaïs turned her eyes and ambitions elsewhere.
Since 1661, Louis XIV’s long-term mistress had been Louise de La Vallière, and their private passion became much more public after the death of Louis’ mother Anne of Austria in 1666. The role of the King’s mistress was suddenly an attractive one, bringing status and preferment for the King’s favourite and her family. Historians are not clear on who seduced whom, but most agree that by the middle of 1667, the King and Athenais were lovers.
Montespan did not take this rejection lying down. He attacked Athenais’ friends and publicly announced his intention of sleeping with prostitutes in order to contract syphilis and then rape his wife in order to pass the disease on to the King. Before too long, Montespan was arrested and forced to retire to his property in Gascony where he hung horns at his gates to show he was a cuckold and forced his young children to attend a mock funeral for his wife.
Louise de la Vallière, on the other hand, was made to continue to appear to be the King’s mistress with the King entering her bed-chamber only to pass through it to the adjoining apartments of his new love. It was one thing for a married man, and a King, to take a young mademoiselle as his mistress, but double adultery, where both parties were married, was viewed much less leniently by society and the Catholic Church. Notwithstanding this opposition, Athenais and Louis XIV were lovers for more than a decade.
In the hey-day of their love affair, Athénaïs and Louis appeared to be the perfect match in wit, beauty and creativity. They both adored ballet and theatre and loved to perform themselves, as well as support artists like Racine and Molière. It was during this period that Versailles was developed as the centre of Louis’ court and Athénaïs was involved in the design of the buildings, fountains and gardens of the Versailles estate. The couple made love and bathed in the Appartement des Bains, held gondola parties, built fountains, inspired playwrights and poets and filled Versailles with the baroque paintings and sculptures for which it is famous. Athénaïs introduced new fashions, loved to cook, to garden and to gamble. In 1676, her suite at Versailles comprised of twenty rooms on the second floor, right next to the King’s. The Queen, in comparison, only had eleven rooms. And between 1669 and 1678, Athénaïs gave birth to seven of Louis’ children. In the early years, these children were cared for away from the court for by Athénaïs old friend, Françoise, although they differed over their ideas of child-rearing and education and Athénaïs had a habit of arriving in a flurry of gifts and animals, disrupting Françoise’s careful routines.
However, maintaining the attention of the King through seven pregnancies was not an easy task. Louis had notable affairs with other women including the Princesse de Soubise (until she fell and knocked out her tooth) and Isabelle La Ludres who may have faked a pregnancy to try to prologue her affair with Louis. For years, Athénaïs faced all challengers but, in 1678, a beautiful young woman called Angélique de Fontanges arrived at Versailles and Louis, aged 40, was instantly smitten with her.
Although the King continued to visit Athénaïs, it was clear that her reign was over. At the same time, a major scandal was breaking in Paris. An underworld of fortune-tellers, renegade priests, magicians and alchemists was exposed and hundreds arrested. Accusations that high ranking courtiers and bourgeois ladies were buying poison to rid themselves of tiresome husbands or relying on aphrodisiacs and black masses to attract new lovers were circling. When Louis’ new love, Angelique died shortly after a miscarriage, it was whispered that Athénaïs had poisoned her. And although much of the evidence was covered up, several high-profile prisoners claimed that Athénaïs had used love potions to attract the King and even participated in black masses and infanticide to try and maintain her position as his mistress.
Formal charges were never made against Athénaïs, and she was promoted to the post of Superintendent to the Queen’s household, a high honour, but also a position Louis had a track record of offering to discarded mistresses. After the Queen died, she remained at court, but in 1691, in a fit of temper, Athénaïs asked for permission to retire. Before she could change her mind, her apartments at Versailles were re-allocated. She spent the next sixteen years travelling and doing charitable works, until her death in 1707.