Just two days after the King’s death, Jeanne was banished to the Abbaye de Pont aux Dames on the orders of the new King. Marie Antoinette wrote to her mother, “Everyone with the name of du Barry has been banished from court.” Even her mother was shocked at her daughter’s behaviour towards an “unfortunate creature who had lost everything and was more in need of pity than anyone else.”1 Upon arrival in the abbey, Jeanne cried out, “How sad it is. Why have they brought me here?”2
The nuns were polite and cold, but they soon warmed up to her. Jeanne stayed with them for two years before she was eventually allowed to move to her beloved Château de Louveciennes. She was glad to be reunited with her sister-in-law Claire, and she had a considerable income. She was surprised by a visit of Marie Antoinette’s brother Joseph II in 1777, who was in France to provide his sister with some marital advice. She showed him the many paintings she had bought but refused the offer of his arm with the words, “Sire, I am not worthy of such an honour.”3 Marie Antoinette was reportedly infuriated that her brother visited her.
During these years, Jeanne fell in love with an Englishman named Henry Seymour, who was married to a French countess, and they became lovers. It all ended rather cruelly when he sent back a miniature of her with the words “Leave me alone” scrawled on it.4 She found another love in the form of the Duke of Brissac, who was proudly calling himself her lover. These were some of the happiest years of her life.
She continued to live an extravagant lifestyle, but she was also quite well known for charitable acts. Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, who came to paint her portrait, wrote, “I still remember the Countess’s righteous indignation on seeing some poor woman in childbirth who lacked every necessity and two whom the servants had omitted to send the linen and provisions she had ordered. I cannot describe the passion with which she reprimanded the housekeeper while putting together a bundle of the necessary lines, which together with soup and claret was to be taken at once to the poor woman’s cottage.”5
Jeanne stayed at Louveciennes as the revolution began to unfold. In October 1789, Jeanne took care of two wounded officers of the Royal Guard who had come knocking on her door. This would earn her the gratitude of Marie Antoinette but would later be seen as an act of treason by the revolutionary tribunal.
In 1792, the Duke of Brissac was arrested, and he was eventually the victim of a massacre of political prisoners. His head was put on a pike, but Jeanne reportedly fainted before she was able to see it. From October 1792 until early March 1793, Jeanne was in London. She was already listed as an émigré, and her homes were being sealed when she decided to return to France. She told people that she had “a debt of honour to be settled in France.”6 She may not have realised it, but she was signing her own death warrant.
She found her precious Louveciennes under guard but was eventually able to gain it back. One of her servants, Zamor, a Bengali slave, was one of the main instigators in the smear campaign against her. On 22 September 1793, Jeanne was arrested and brought to St Pélagie prison. She would spend two months there, some of it in solitary confinement. It is not known what went through her head when she learned of Marie Antoinette’s execution on 16 October.
On 30 October, two members of the Committee came to examine her, and she managed to avoid incriminating her friends. She did admit to squandering money during her years as a royal mistress. She was supposed to be moved to the La Force prison, but it was overcrowded, and so she remained where she was. On 22 November, she was again submitted to an examination. She later wrote, “I never emigrated, I never even intended doing so. I never provided the émigrés with money.”7
At nine in the morning of 6 December 1793, Jeanne appeared in the Great Hall of Liberty for a trial. Several witnesses testified against her, and the jury returned a guilty verdict the following day. She was condemned to die the next morning. Jeanne fainted upon hearing the verdict. The following morning, she asked for a delay so that she could pass information to the Committee of Public Safety. However, even revealing the location of some of her jewellery would not save her. In the afternoon, the executioner came to cut her hair, and he tied her hands behind her back.
Jeanne’s resolve was broken in the face of death, and she struggled as she was put in the tumbrel. It was already getting darker, and many had been waiting hours to see her die. Upon arrival at the Place de La Révolution, she had to be carried by force as she screamed, “You are going to hurt me! Please, don’t hurt me!”8
The guillotine ended her life in seconds, just like it had with Marie Antoinette.