The court of Versailles was plunged into mourning with the death of Queen Marie on 24 June 1768. Although King Louis XV apparently showed genuine remorse for her death, he was quickly roused from his sorrows by Jeanne. However, she could not be officially introduced at court, and reportedly, Louis was shocked to learn how low-born Jeanne truly was. Her former lover, Jean-Baptiste du Barry, was already married, so he arranged for his brother Guillaume to marry her. They did not meet until the morning of their wedding on 1 September 1768.
King Louis became increasingly dependent on her, but as she had not yet been presented at court, she could not appear with him in public. Meanwhile, Jean-Baptise dispatched his sister Claire to teach Jeanne even more protocol and etiquette. They would become great friends. And although rumours had begun to spread at court that the King was spending most of his time with Jeanne, many did not believe she would actually become his official mistress. Nevertheless, the King brought her back to Versailles to have her officially presented.
She spent a few lonely months at Versailles before someone could be found to present her. The elderly Duchess of Aiguillon, who wanted to have her son back in favour with the King and who just needed some debt paid, was eventually found willing, and she produced the Countess of Béarn to do the deed. On 22 April 1769, Jeanne was officially presented at court. The King had gifted her a court dress and diamonds worth a hundred thousand livres. Even Marie Antoinette’s future husband, the Dauphin, was sufficiently impressed by the radiant and graceful Jeanne that he mentioned it in his diary.
The following day, Jeanne took her place as the King’s official mistress. She was installed in an apartment that the King had direct access to via a staircase. This was the same apartment where Maria Josepha of Saxony, the current Dauphin’s mother, had lived and died, and the move was much criticised by the court. Even being transformed into “Madame du Barry” did not mean she would readily be accepted, and even after her success in conquering the King, many looked down on her.
In the spring of 1770, Jeanne came face to face with Marie Antoinette for the first time. As the Austrian Archduchess travelled to France to marry the Dauphin, Jeanne was invited to the royal supper party at La Muette on 15 May. Dressed in the finest gown she could find, Jeanne spent the evening with most of the royal family as they welcomed Marie Antoinette. Marie Antoinette asked the Countess of Noailles who she was; the Countess responded that she was there to give the King pleasure. Marie Antoinette then innocently replied, “Oh, then I shall be her rival because I too wish to give pleasure to the King.”1
It wasn’t long before Marie Antoinette learned who Jeanne really was and why she was everywhere at court. Just a few weeks after the wedding, she wrote to her mother, “The King could not be kinder and more full of attentions. I love him dearly, but it is pathetic to see how weak he is with Madame du Barry, who is the silliest and most impertinent creature imaginable. She played cards with us every evening at Marly. Twice she sat beside me, but she never spoke to me, and I made no attempt to speak to her, though when necessary, I have done so.”2 Nevertheless, she received no formal acknowledgement from Marie Antoinette.
The King was initially delighted with the new Dauphine, and soon Marie Antoinette was seen as the one to get rid of the King’s “whore.”3 Nevertheless, Jeanne had a portrait of Marie Antoinette installed in her apartment. The issue of the formal acknowledgement, or lack thereof, grew as Marie Antoinette’s marriage turned out not to be as successful as hoped. Without the proper consummation, Marie Antoinette was in danger of losing the King’s favour. And thus, even her mother urged her to formally acknowledge Jeanne.
Marie Antoinette held out until New Year’s Day 1772. In front of a crowd of courtiers, Marie Antoinette remarked in the general direction of Jeanne, “There are a lot of people here today at Versailles.”4 Afterwards, she vowed never to speak another word to Jeanne. However, during a second encounter, Marie Antoinette once more made conversation in Jeanne’s general direction, much to the King’s delight. Later that evening, Marie Antoinette was showered with the King’s attention.
For the next two years, Jeanne reigned supreme at Versailles, and it was probably for her that King Louis ordered a grand diamond necklace that would later greatly damage Marie Antoinette’s reputation. At the end of April 1774, King Louis began to feel unwell. He was soon transferred back to Versailles, and he wasn’t even fully settled in before he asked for Jeanne to come. As his condition worsened, his daughters cared for him by day, while Jeanne tended to him at night. Soon the first signs of smallpox appeared. Jeanne, who had never had smallpox, stayed by his side, as did his daughters. She even kissed his scarred hands.
Around midnight on 4 May, he told her, “If I had known before what I know now, you would never have been allowed to come to me. From now on, I owe myself to God and to my people. Tomorrow you must leave.[…]You will not be forgotten. Everything that is possible will be done for you.”5 Jeanne knew better than to protest, and she quietly tried to leave the room. However, she fainted on the threshold and had to be carried out. She cried in her room and was brought to the Duke of Aiguillon’s home, where she waited to hear news. King Louis XV of France died on 10 May 1774, making Marie Antoinette and her husband, Louis Auguste, the new King and Queen of France.