The amorous Sun King: Louis XIV and his love of many, many women
To say that King Louis XIV of France was a ladies’ man understates the facts. He was the Sun King, the medieval monarch who issued the famously egotistical proclamation “I am the state.” He was also a man around whom revolved a galaxy of beautiful and often intelligent women. Not only did Louis do his best to love them all, but by the standards of his times, he displayed a degree of consideration and even compassion in dealing with a formidable array of mistresses of widely varying personality.
WhatperhapsmakesMs.Fraser’s portrait of Louis most intriguing is her theory that the king liked the company of women. He liked them as friends as well as lovers. Of course, being king, he rarely failed in his amorous pursuits and he did notpermitaffectiontointerferewith politically important alliances. He wascapableofbeingquitecallousin his use of princesses to advance national interests, whether they liked it or not.
That the dynasty came first in the mind of the king was brutally demonstrated in the case of Louis’ niece, the unhappy Princess Marie Louise, whom he married off to the “cruel and cretinous” King Carlo of Spaindespiteobjectionsthatledher to fling herself at the royal feet in a plea not to be condemned to such a fate. With what Ms. Fraser terms “true indifference,” Louis told the princess, “Goodbye. Forever.”
Yet he was, according to his biographer, genuinely fond of his niece: “He simply put duty as he saw it — her duty to uphold the interests of France in Spain — above human feelings. And expected others to do so.”
Argues Ms. Fraser: “Louis XIV was a philanderer but he was not a monster . . . He disliked disobedience but he did not like cruelty and humiliation either.” He was the son of Anne of Austria, childless for 22 years before giving birth to Louis, and she instilled in him not only her Catholic piety but a concept of absolute power. Even as he entered middleage,leavingthegoldenyears, he retained the essence of the majestytowhichhehadbeenraised.
“If he no longer astonished onlookers with his godlike beauty, his sheer presence commanded them . . . And then there was his voice, the unmistakable voice of a King, seldom raised, expecting always to be obeyed.”
He was the center of a heavily female world, and he reveled in it. When he wed the Spanish Infanta, Maria Teresa, he promised on their weddingdaythathewouldbeinher bed every night. And he was, even if he didn’t get there until he left the arms of another lover at dawn.
Perhaps the queen should have complained more, as Louis, sublimely self-confident, could be indulgent with temperamental women.Hisepitaphforhislongsuffering and faithful wife was steeped in irony. After she died the agonizing death that accompanied illness in the Middle Ages, the king said of the “shy, unhappy, dull but ever dutiful” woman to whom he had been married for more than 20 years, “This is the first trouble she has ever given me.”
The same could not be said of his mistresses.LouisedelaVallierewas considered his romantic love, seducing him at 16, bearing him numerouschildrenandultimatelyfleeingtoaconvent.Buthisrealpassion was for the voluptuous and tempestuous Athenais de Montespan who, accordingtoMs.Fraser,maintained her power through “sexual thrall.” Accordingtotherecordsofthetime, even the all powerful Sun King threw up his hands over the demandsofAthenais,tellinghiscourt, “She must have whatever she wants.”
And whatever she wanted was spectacular. She lived in elaborate apartments at court, was showered withjewels,hadherownlittle“pleasure house” and was nicknamed “TheTorrent”or“Quanto,”meaning “how much?”
Yet it illustrates Louis’ pragmatism about women that the shrewdly intelligent Francoise de Maintenon, once a governess to the myriad royal bastards, became the king’s best friend, and ultimately his morganatic wife after the death of the queen.
Their marriage was never formally announced, but her position at court was made clear by the king’s behavior toward her. And the last love of the monarch’s life — a platonic obsession — was with Adelaide of Savoy, the child bride of Louis’ grandson who was precociously intelligent enough to endear herself to de Maintenon as well as her powerful grandfather figure of the king.
The book vividly portrays the extravaganceoflifeattheFrenchcourt in the 17th century, especially in a descriptionofthe“vagabondcourt” whichrolledtowar.That“greatcaravan” included thousands of soldiers but within its ranks were playwrights like Moliere and historians like Racine, as well as the king and queen,nottomentiontheroyalmistresses, scrabbling for seniority.
For all of Louis’ silver furniture and silver-potted orange trees at Versaille, the mindless hedonism of theagecouldnotcompensateforthe lack of medical knowledge because livescouldrarelybesavedandeven Louissufferedagoniesfromatreatment that did prove successful. It wasprovedrepeatedlythatnoteven the Sun King could countermand the great leveler of death.
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.