Marie Antoinette & The Duchess of Polignac

duchess of polignac
(public domain)

Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron was born to parents Jean François Gabriel de Polastron and his wife Jeanne Charlotte Hérault on the 8th of September 1749.

Though her first name was Yolande, she went by the name Gabrielle, which I will use throughout the article. Gabrielle was born into an aristocratic family, and her father served as the French ambassador to Switzerland. Though she hailed from a noble family line, by the time Gabrielle was born, the family had lost much of its influence and was amassing large debts.

When Gabrielle was just three years old, her mother passed away. The young Gabrielle left her family Château in Languedoc and was put into a convent school under the guardianship of an aunt. We do not know what happened in Gabrielle’s life until she left the school at sixteen and she became engaged. Her betrothed was Jules François Armand, Count of Polignac. Jules was also from an aristocratic family, and the match was considered a good one, though his family were also struggling financially. When Gabrielle and Jules were married on the 7th of July 1767, he was serving in the military with the regiment of the Royal Dragons. Jules received a good salary for his military role, but he was burdened with his family’s growing debt, and his income was stretched as he and Gabrielle welcomed four children between 1768 and 1781: a daughter named Aglaé and three sons: Armand, Jules and Camille.

In 1775, Gabrielle was invited to attend the court of Versailles by her sister-in-law Diane de Polignac, who was serving as a Lady-in-waiting at the time. Upon arriving at court, Gabrielle was introduced to Queen Marie Antoinette, who liked her instantly. Gabrielle was known to be beautiful and to have a lovely smile, but there were many more beautiful women at Versailles. It was also said that she had “no particular talents or great wit”, nevertheless, the Queen loved her for her charm, modesty and her “soothing influence.”[1] Soon, Marie Antoinette asked her new friend to move to court permanently, as she had few close friends she could trust and talk to since becoming Queen. Gabrielle sadly had to decline as her family’s finances would not allow them to make such a move.

Desperate to keep her companion by her side, Marie Antoinette asked her husband, King Louis XVI, to intervene and to give Jules de Polignac a new position with greater pay. As King Louis was pleased that his wife finally seemed happy, and Jules was given the role of First Equerry to Her Majesty, meaning the king had to remove this role from the Count of Tesse.[2] Other families had also been holding out for this title and were furious at Jules de Polignac’s sudden rise in rank and position and deeply resented Gabrielle.

It soon became difficult for anyone else to get close to the Queen. She and Gabrielle often spent their time away from the confines of court, staying at the Petit Trianon palace, where the atmosphere was carefree and relaxed. Portraits of Marie Antoinette and Gabrielle from the time show them in loose dresses with their hair down during their stays at the Petit Trianon. Gabrielle has been described as “ravishing” or “like ripe and harvested fruit” during these pretty portraits.[3] Even when they were at Versailles, the Queen and Gabrielle were attached at the hip, whether at balls or playing a game of cards. Gabrielle was now the head of the Queen’s circle and held a vast amount of power and influence at court.

In 1780, this power grew even more when Jules de Polignac was made the Duke of Polignac, making Gabrielle a duchess. Certain factions at court were truly astonished, and cruel pamphlets began to be circulated around Paris about the new Duchess of Polignac. These pamphlets focused on Gabrielle’s “extravagant expenditure” while the country was struggling but also published explicit pornographic cartoons depicting Gabrielle and the Queen as if they were involved in a lesbian relationship.[4] We have no evidence to back this rumour up, and even the extent of Gabrielle’s expenses is contested by historians, with some saying she spent far more than any other favourite and others saying this has been exaggerated.

duchess of polignac
(public domain)

If people were annoyed when Gabrielle became a Duchess, they were furious in 1782 when she was given the role of Governess of the Children of France after the resignation of Victoire de Rohan. This position was usually passed down through generations and reserved for the high nobility; Gabrielle had not been born into this rank. In addition to the position and the honour it brought with it, the Duchess was rewarded with a staggering 13-room apartment. Though Versailles is known as one of the world’s most sumptuous palaces, in reality, the palace was overcrowded and lacked basic sanitation. While many other European royal families moved from court to court, allowing time to deep clean while everyone had moved on to another palace, since King Louis XIV, France’s royals were based at Versailles, along with over 10,000 members of government, nobility and military.[5] Even a 5-room apartment was considered absolute luxury, so Gabrielle being given 13 rooms was unheard of.

As time went by, the Queen and Gabrielle had a falling out, as it was rumoured that Gabrielle was caught up in an affair with a man that the Queen did not approve of. Gabrielle decided to leave court for a while to spend time visiting England, where she became close friends with another famous figure of the era, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. By the time she returned to France, her friendship with the Queen was back on track, but this period of happiness was not to last, as the Revolution was underway in France. At this time, Gabrielle and the other Polignacs rallied around the royal family and staunchly defended the monarchy when many other friends began to drift away.

On the 14th of July 1789, the Bastille was stormed by Revolutionaries. After this happened, the King ordered a number of the family’s closest friends and allies into exile for their own safety, and this included the King’s brother, the Count of Artois and the Polignac family. Gabrielle left her home in France with her sister and headed to Switzerland, leaving her post as Governess to the royal children.[6] While in exile, the Duchess wrote to the Queen as often as she could from wherever she was staying at the time. For years, Gabrielle moved around between the Netherlands, Austria, Italy and Switzerland. The Queen wrote back when she could, and in one letter, she said, “Adieu, dearest of friends; the word is awful, but I must say it; I have only strength enough to send you my love.” This emotional quote shows that Marie Antoinette did not believe she would see Gabrielle again.[7] As ever, Gabrielle faced criticism from the public, this time for leaving the Queen, when other friends, such as the Princess of Lamballe, had remained by her side.

While in exile, Gabrielle could do little more than read letters and newspaper reports about the execution and exile of countless dear friends. Soon, Gabrielle came to hear that the Queen herself had died by guillotine, news that the Duchess found too difficult to bear. Gabrielle de Polignac died just 50 days after her beloved friend Marie Antoinette on the 5th of December 1793. At the time, it was said she died of a broken heart, though it now seems she had been suffering from cancer for some years, which resulted in her death aged only 44.

[1] Filia Dolorosa: Memoirs Of Marie Thérèse Charlotte, Duchess Of Angoulême p25-26

[2] Filia Dolorosa p26

[3] Simon Schama: A Chronicle of the French Revolution p181-183

[4] and Antonia Fraser: Marie Antoinette- The journey p131

[5] and

[6] Simon Schama: A Chronicle of the French Revolution p212


Filia Dolorosa: Memoirs Of Marie Thérèse Charlotte, Duchess Of Angoulême
Citizens- A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama
Marie Antoinette- The Journey by Antonia Fraser

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