Louise was born in Tours, France in 1644 as the daughter of a royal officer. She was raised in station when her mother later married the Marquis de Saint-Rémy which took the family to the court of Gaston, Duke d’Orléans. Louise was raised alongside the three Orléans princesses and so received a fine education and learned the ways of royalty. The young princesses spent their time learning court dances and hoping to secure a marriage to Louis XIV, who was their cousin; this must have had a lasting impression on Louise.
Louise was from a family of minor nobility, but like many noblewomen in this era, she came from a family with little money, so she would struggle to find a marriage without a dowry. Lack of money for a dowry meant either life in a convent or spending some time in service at a royal court, which would usually lead the woman into an advantageous marriage with her dower provided by the court. Despite being deeply religious and much more suited to convent life, Louise ended up with the life at court, and in 1661 she became a maid of honour for Henriette-Anne, the new Duchess d’Orléans. Henriette was the sister of Charles II of England and had just married Philippe, the brother of Louis XIV of France.
Louise had not been at French court for long when she became the mistress of King Louis. It is not known how this union came about, but it is likely that Louise was plucked by the king from Henriette’s ‘flower garden’; her staff of beautiful young women. Louise was not the typical mistress type, she was shy, quiet, and virtuous, and she did not seek the king’s favour to advance herself at court. Louise fell in love with Louis as a normal man and not as the king of France; she was overheard saying to another lady at court that ‘the crown adds nothing to the charm of his person’. The king had countless mistresses during his reign, but Louise was the only one to show him love in this way. Louise kept her distance from Louis for a while as she did not want to enter a sexual relationship; unlike Barbara Villiers, mistress to Charles II in England, Louise was not a mistress to be put on show; she wanted to keep her privacy and her dignity.
In 1662, court life and the pressures of being the king’s mistress all became too much for Louise. She fled to a convent at Chaillot, after a hearing the news that ‘La Vallière has taken the veil’, Louis followed after her on his horse, and after a tearful reunion he persuaded her to return back to court. Although she returned to court, Louise lived with a constant feeling of guilt and would often spend hours weeping over her sins, becoming more religious than ever before.
Despite the protestations of Louis’ mother and his wife Marie-Thérèse, the couple continued with their relationship and Louise gave birth to the king’s child, a son she named Charles in 1663. In order to hide the pregnancy, Louise was taken out of Henriette’s service and housed in Paris away from prying eyes. The baby was immediately placed in the care of servants and Louise came back to court as though nothing had happened, but the news got out, and Louise was disgraced at church on Christmas Eve. Four more children followed by 1667, Charles and his next two brothers did not survive infancy, but Marie-Anne and Louis were both legitimised by the king. The children were deemed legitimate by Louis when Anne of Austria had died. The king finally acknowledged Louise as his Maîtresse en-titre; which was a semi-official role at the French court, as head mistress Louise would have been highly respected at court. At this point, Louise was also given the title the Duchesse de Vajours and was seen more often at public functions and even stood beside the queen at mass.
Having just given Louise a title and legitimising their children, King Louis soon found himself again enamoured of another woman Françoise-Athénaïs, Marquise de Montespan. Athénaïs was the opposite of Louise; she was a sexual woman, confident and knew how to get what she wanted. She had decided that she would become Louis’ mistress and befriended Louise to get close to the king. After dancing with her at a ball, Louis fell madly in love with Athénaïs. Louise was not removed as Maîtresse en-titre at this stage, partly due to the kings continued love and high regard for her, but mostly because the new mistress Athénaïs was married. Many husbands were bribed by kings to ignore such affairs, but her husband did not submit to the king’s will, making the dalliance all the more scandalous. Louis decided to hide the affair with Athénaïs; he even placed her in a room which joined onto Louise’s so that he could pretend to be visiting Louise when he was really visiting his new mistress.
In 1674 after living with Louis, the queen and Madame de Montespan for many years, Louise finally went to live in a convent, somewhat pushed into her decision by Bishop Bossuet. Before leaving for St Jacques in Paris, Louise went to visit the queen, throwing herself to the ground; she begged the queen’s forgiveness and Marie-Thérèse, in floods of tears, granted it. All of the court turned out to see her off. Louise became a Carmelite nun for the remaining thirty-six years of her life. She spent her time in constant prayer, wearing course itchy clothing, and she would impose harsh acts of penance upon herself to make up for past actions. Louise never saw her two children again, and even when she heard of her son’s death at the age of sixteen, her only reaction was that she wept over his birth and not his death.
King Louis only wrote to Louise once during the whole time she was at the convent, in order to gain her approval for their daughter’s marriage. Louise heard from the queen and also Madame de Montespan more frequently, and the queen herself presented Louise with the black veil when she took her final vows.
On the 7th June 1710, after almost four decades in the convent, the sixty-five-year-old
Sister Louise de la Miséricorde died, leaving as her legacy her religious tract ‘Reflections on the Mercy of God’ and remembered as if she were a Saint by the people of Paris.1