“Every woman was born with the ambition to become the King’s favorite,” wrote Primi Visconti, an Italian fortune-teller who lived at Louis XIV’s French court in the mid 17th century. And in this world of glittering ambition and mercurial passions, it seemed he was right. While princesses were bred to be proper and abiding, the mistresses of kings were edified on an entirely different level. Pandering to powerful men who were accustomed to having their egos and nether regions stroked regularly, the chosen lover or maîtresse-en-titre of the king had her work cut out for her. If prostitution was, in fact, the oldest profession in history, maintaining the position as the chief mistress of a monarch must surely have been the second.
Because the king could merrily lift the skirts of basically any woman (or man) in court, the female who captured his attention had to possess more than just beauty—she needed charm, wit, intelligence, grace, and the ability to foresee what her petulant lover might want next. While kings were often out amusing themselves with other women, mistresses were expected to wait quietly in their apartments, embroidering or planning a gala dinner to entertain their roving lover. Unlike the queen whose position was cast in stone, the mistress’s world was made of flimsier stuff—there would be no peace, no rest, if she hoped to maintain her status, wealth, and influence. And given the magnificence of her position, there was very little she wouldn’t do to hold on to the shiny prize of the king’s attention.
When it came to the title of maîtresse-en-titre, there was no one more distinguished than Madame de Pompadour, the chief mistress of Louis XV of France from 1745-1751. She was the perfect example of a woman who suffered steadily through the various unpleasantries of her role—pandering to her impulsive lover in every way and tailoring her very existence to ensure his pleasure. In private, she often claimed to be used “too well” by the king who had a voracious sexual appetite and wanted to roll in the satin sheets several times a day. But while she loved the attention of the court and king, Madame de Pompadour was mostly frigid, often teetering between sickness and health. Her position was demanding physically, emotionally, and mentally, and she was often exhausted by Louis’ expectations.
Hoping to stimulate her own libido so as to keep up with the energetic king, Madame de Pompadour began to eat a steady diet of celery, truffles, and vanilla that only succeeded in making her sick. Her desire to “heat the blood” through less conventional means was common in those days, as many women would do almost anything to remain pleasing in the eyes of their powerful lovers. Unlike many other mistresses who were cast aside once the initial promise of sex and romance faded, Madame de Pompadour was able to transition her relationship with Louis XV into one of friendship and deep confidences.
Louis XV’s 18th-century French court at Versailles was unlike any other in history, teeming with exquisite luxuries and scandalous affairs. Everyone’s attention was centered on the king, and every woman at court had a mind to snare his recognition in any way they could. Madame de Pompadour kept Louis happy during their time together by providing him with an escape from the prying eyes of the court and a place to enjoy his favorite things. She decorated her lavish apartments with delightful fabrics, intoxicating flowers, and the best wine money could buy. She became a student of his moods and could read his every facial expression, including the cadence of his words. And most importantly, she knew when he was hiding anger or frustration behind his mask of royal calmness and precisely how to cajole or soothe him accordingly. In short, she molded herself into his perfect mate, even at the expense of her own joy and comfort.
Her knowledge extended beyond mere bedroom talk—she appreciated architecture, understood botany and the gardens of Versailles, and she even dabbled in the art of gem cutting. Madame de Pompadour knew the value in keeping the king engaged at all time, as boredom was the devil’s playground. Her full-time job was to be fabulous at all cost, and she did it well. She never left her apartments for fear that he would appear and need food, conversation, or sex. She could not show fatigue, illness, anger, or boredom. When her young 10-year-old daughter and her father both died within the same week, she did not allow herself to show pain or mourning in case it might upset the king. Those who observed her said she “was in all likelihood just as unhappy inside as she seemed happy on the outside.”
Despite its glamor and luxury, the French courtesans were surprisingly neglectful of personal grooming, often going for weeks without bathing. Many women of the court suffered from smallpox scars and would cover their ruined complexions and crusty filth with an abundance of velvet, lace, and a strong perfume. Their ornate outfits would often become wildly itchy and uncomfortable, forcing the women to insert head scratchers into their coiffures and bodices to ease the irritation of flea bites and greasy scalps.
One mistress, in particular, Madame du Barry, who followed Madame de Pompadour after her death as Louis VX’s main squeeze, was noted for her particular attention to personal hygiene—something the majority of the king’s women had always overlooked. As was noted by the court, she took a rose-scented bath once a day and would deck herself in outrageously expensive dresses made of a fine white material to accentuate her scrubbed neck and even line her décollage with real diamonds to highlight the beauty of her glowing white breast.
In the year 1542, Diane de Poitiers who was the chief mistress of Henri II of France was often concerned with how to keep herself “fit for a king” both physically and intellectually. The competition for ultimate allure in the French court was paralyzing, and any woman who hoped to enrapture the king had to have a secret beauty regime.
Every morning, Diane would take a bracing three-hour horseback ride to keep her blood and vigor up, all the while wearing a black velvet mask to protect her milky white complexion. She drank a daily mixture containing gold and bathed in donkey’s milk and cold water to keep her skin soft and supple. Terrified of wrinkles, she slept sitting up on silk pillows, never letting her face touch the sheets. And it worked—the king spent every night with her, uninterested in visiting his wife Catherine de Medici’s bed chamber. Catherine was so mystified by the heated passion the couple shared, she drilled two holes in the floor above Diana’s bedroom to observe exactly how they made love. Watching them roll off the bed and exhausting their passion on the floor, she was astonished at the king’s gentleness and told her lady in waiting she had “never been used so well.”
The raven-haired Lola Montez was famous for her liaisons with King Ludwig of Bavaria in the mid 19th century and the way she was able to use that relationship to institute liberal reforms before the Revolution of 1848 in the German states. She was an Irish dancer and actress who did not find the king (who was 34 years her senior) the least bit attractive; however, his wealth and influence were extremely alluring to the working class Montez. King Ludwig fetishized her dancer’s feet and loved to suck on her toes while pleasuring himself, often writing her letters regarding his desire to lick her feet after she had taken a long trip.
While most women would have been repulsed by this strange desire, she was grateful for his preoccupation with her feet given her lack of attraction towards him physically. She was able to keep him satisfied without much physical exertion, a welcome fact especially since he had an unfortunate knob growing in the middle of his forehead. Whenever he did feel the need for more, she would often excuse herself on the grounds of being sick or menstruating. But he didn’t seem to mind so terribly much—he was known to have odd tastes—sometimes asking her to wear a piece of flannel against her nether regions so that he could later take it along with him when they were separated.
Powerful men never let a little thing like marriage or even politics get in the way of their affairs and often took mistresses who already had husbands. In the case of Napoleon Bonaparte, his lover of three years, Maria Walewska, finally assented to his advances because her husband who was a whopping 58 years older than her demanded it. She was a patriotic young woman from Poland who gave into Napoleon’s charms when she realized the powerful monarch would likely liberate them from foreign occupation and re-create Poland as a free and sovereign nation. Quite literally, she did it for her country.
After some time, they fell deeply in love and she left her ambitious older husband who only used her as a pawn in his political game. However, once the fickle Napoleon tired of Maria, he married an 18-year-old Austrian princess and relented on any promise to restore Poland, insisting it would remain in the shadows for the remainder of history.
One royal mistress, who went to the greatest lengths to capture the attention of Louis XIV, was the ravishing and cunning Madame de Montespan. She became determined to have him. The French king, most unfortunately, already had a mistress who made him happy and seemed generally uninterested in her advances. In 1667, hoping to break up the relationship, Madame de Montespan sought the help of a local witch who lived in a dark and crumbling house on the outskirts of Paris.
For a steep fee, she would read palms, speak to the dead, offer lotions for beauty, perform abortions, or cast spells to incapacitate or kill an enemy. Living at the French court, Madame de Montespan would use every opportunity to dine with the king, slipping love potions into his wine and slathering vile concoctions of dead baby’s blood, bones, and intestines on his meat in an effort to woo him. And it worked. He finally fell deeply in love with her and dumped his then-pregnant mistress, Louise de La Vallière.
Because French food was very rich and mistresses often found little exercise outside the bedroom, Madame de Montespan in Louis XIV’s court would have herself rubbed down with pomade for two hours at a time, several days a week, as she lay naked. She would also disappear from court to a health spa where she starved herself before returning to stun the king with her svelte new figure.
The royal mistress, as opposed to the wife, could be dismissed at any time with no financial settlement whatsoever. Although she lived in the lap of luxury while in bed with the king, this was subject to change in accordance with his favor. A mistress’s powerful friends at court supported her as long as she retained power, expecting favors in return. At any moment, she could be sent flying from the zenith of magnificence to the depths of poverty and disgrace in the blink of an eye. A smart mistress began to collect for her retirement as soon as she was in the king’s embrace, ensuring a lavish lifestyle would cushion her inevitable fall. A coveted title—countess, marquise, dutchess—was also a desired part of the bargain.
In the French court, this was always the expectation and result; however, English policies regarding a mistress’s wealth were not so generous. In the case of Charles II, his word was law but his gifts to his royal mistress Lady Castlemaine were often blocked by court officials. According to them, taxpayer’s money did not belong in the lining of a mistress’s lingerie. Lady Castlemaine was not dissuaded by this belief, however, and convinced Charles II to not only give her every Christmas gift he received from courtiers but helped herself to the king’s Jewel House in the Tower of London.
A mistress, while certainly elevated above the status of a common whore, was still often subject to the scrutiny and criticism of those less chaste. Whereas most women conducted their illicit affairs in private, the royal mistress often wore hers as a badge of honor, giving her distinction among the masses. Her reputation was literally based on the knowledge that she was engaged in sex with someone—not her husband. And while it was treasonous to speak out against the king, the same could not be said for his mistress du jour. As a result, the royal mistresses were made of an uncommonly strong material, able to withstand the burning scrutiny of the jealous and the spiteful tongues of the moral. They would do anything—anything—just to remain a few moments longer in heat of the royal spotlight.
And the rest is history.