The amorous Sun King: Louis XIV and his love of many, many women

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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