Foreshades of Grey (6)

or, The Royal Stag

The king’s promiscuity was an affair of state. It made government vulnerable to abuse from the wrong kind of woman pushed on him by a court faction, with domestic or foreign policy agendas, a scenario as familiar to modern republics as autocracies of any time. He was very lucky to find the rational, loyal and responsible Madame de Pompadour, or rather, that she introduced herself to him.

louis XV

Nattier, Portrait of Louis XV of France, 1745. Oil on canvas The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
He was known as the handsomest man at Versailles; he was also the most libidinous and depressed. Here, portrayed in the year he moved his new mistress Madame d’Étioles, into Versailles, he looks disconcertingly like a chubby Dan Stevens, but Ryan Gosling would be better casting to convey his enigmatic emotional isolation.

Details of his sexual proclivities, especially his liking for young girls, later provided propaganda for the Revolutionaries in his grandson’s reign. He needed but was not obsessed with sex; he spent far more time gambling and hunting, anything to distract him from l’acédie. Unlike a lot of world leaders in the modern era, and the Marquis de Sade in Louis XV’s own time, there was no open suggestion during his reign even from his greatest enemies that the king abused or assaulted women, or that his tastes were perverted or paedophiliac; but there’s no doubt that he slept with a lot of young teenage girls.

How young is still disputed; the ones history is sure about were aged about fifteen or sixteen. This was considered just old enough for aristocratic and wealthy virgins to start sexual activity in arranged marriages with often much older men, but very early by the contemporary standards of poorer, working class girls, unless they were already prostitutes. The average age of marriage among peasant or working class women in the mid 18th century was as surprisingly, and sensibly, late as 26, suggesting they had much more power of choice than their more pampered upper class counterparts, pawns in mummies and daddies’ powergames.

Madame de Pompadour was essential to the king’s happiness, and she lived to make him happy. After their relationship became platonic, neither she nor the king, let alone his wife and daughters who preferred the Marquise as his official mistress to anyone else, wanted their harmonious ménage disrupted by some arrogant aristocrat or pushy parvenue whose abuse of patronage and mindless extravagance would cause national scandal. Flash-forward to the sad years after La Pompadour’s death, and cue slutty Madame du Barry moving in to Versailles.

The brain-teaser while Madame de Pompadour was alive was that the king was not expected, except by the Church, to suppress his sexual urges, and he had to be protected from infection and political intrigue. A rational way of regulating the king’s sex life had to be found which would secure everybody’s interests.

Illustration by Marguerite Gérard of Letter 96 ‘Valmont entrant dans la chambre de Cécile endormie’ for 1796 edition of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Image source: Wikipedia

The solution was that most of Louis XV’s casual sexual partners were specially recruited young girls, bought by his agents from bourgeois families outside the court, who were groomed for sex with the king in a house on the outskirts of Versailles in the quartier known as The Deer Park, only a short carriage drive to the royal apartments where they were taken when required.

It was all quick and discreet; the king was always polite, however bored he was. After use, they continued to be well-looked after and were respectably married off. Royal bastards were acknowledged and provided for.

It was intended as a safe, hygienic, pragmatic solution to royal necessity, a matter of state handled discreetly by sophisticated people, hurting no-one, including the girls themselves, but the house in le Parc aux Cerfs became an emblem of the sleazy excesses of the ancien regime.

Le Parc aux Cerfs represented the worst most contemporaries in France knew about their king’s sexual proclivities; if his taste extended to even younger girls, which is a possibility, it was kept secret.


Carle van Loo, ‘Sultane’, Madame de Pompadour in Turkish dress, 1747. Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Image source: Wikipedia
In the early years of their relationship, La Pompadour celebrated her sexual power over the king in imagery evoking the harem.

It is difficult adjusting our moral spectacles when viewing the sexual exploitation of women in the long distant past. All daughters and wives were men’s chattels anyway, with no economic or political rights of their own; marriage itself can be perceived as legalized prostitution into which women were often sold against their will, hardly knowing the man they were about to sleep with, and sometimes so repelled by him at first sight that conjugal duties resembled institutionalized rape.

Some of the girls sold by their parents to le Parc aux Cerfs – and let’s hope some dared refuse to sell – were being rescued from far worse. Being the handsome king’s mistress was an aspiration, not a disgrace, a chance to be Cendrillon, or Cinderella, safer than being a child prostitute on the streets.

Fairy tales get less and less innocent the older you get.


Gustave Doré, illustration for ‘Cendrillon’  (Cinderella) in 1862 edition of Charles Perrault’s collection of fairy tales (1697). Image: Wikipedia

The closest equivalent we have is probably a luxury trailer in Hollywood where a cast of young starlets waits to be called one by one to the set of ‘Versailles’, the biggest budget movie ever made about politics and sex, all of it built on a swamp, just like the Sun King’s palace itself, the absolutist dream factory turned nightmare.

Nobody calls it pornography, because it’s a mainstream movie, with powerful backers and distributors, and enough big star names and reputable actors willing to strip naked and simulate sex scenes to sell it as art house.

operahouse versailles

The theatre within a theatre: Gabriel, Elevation Drawing of the Stage, Versailles Opera House 1760s Pen and ink wash. One of Madame de Pompadour’s most passionate interests was theatre, in all its aspects – acting, dancing, singing, supervising set design and direction – and she staged spectacular entertainments on temporary stages in Versailles. The economic disasters of The Seven Years War delayed her and Louis XV’s plans of building a permanent theatre and she died before building work began. The Opera House was completed in 1770
Archives Nationales, Paris. Image source: WGA

12 comments on “Foreshades of Grey (6)

  1. PJR says:

    M. Ribeiro, thank you for reading my post. I don’t think you’ve read no 8 in this series – and I don’t blame you as there’s too much blogging generally.
    I think there is a problem in communication and emphasis in a blte-sized blog chunk, and a distinction to be made between gossip, titillation and propaganda on the one hand, and indisputable fact on the other. Bedroom facts are hard to come by; we can’t trust any of the memoirists. Too much history is gossip with footnotes.
    The prevalence of paedophilia among powerful castes today makes it highly likely it was common at the notoriously lax French court, led by a screwed-up king; it is just as likely his excesses were exaggerated for political propaganda.
    It is surprising that the revolutionaries of the next reign did not exploit the rumours of paedophilia even more.
    Think of the preposterous incest charges against Marie Antoinette. (The lesbian charges are more complex. Romantic relationships among educated privileged women were idealized and fashionable at the time. Her “lesbianism” might have been real, though probably not physical – but either way an innocent expression of feminine emotion and sexuality was turned into something perverted by her enemies.)
    Women were exploited by the ancien regime, and suppressed by the following regimes of Revolution, Empire and Restoration.
    My interest in regurgitating ancien regime sex was stimulated by trying to see what the women were getting out of it, how they were being empowered or abused. Le Parc aux Cerfs, and LXV’s predilection for underage girls, has been played up and played down by historians – I came down in the middle to save space on a blog (a dubious thing at best), not to defend him. I’d be very careful before I declared what was truth or not.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Later, in secular society, the same feelings of boredom and hopelessness were caused by the dull repetition of tasks at work or at home, whichever you were chained to, and by excessive pleasures and luxury of choice among the leisured classes. […]


  3. erickeyswriter says:

    –>Fairy tales get less and less innocent the older you get.

    Indeed. Sometimes I look back and wonder how I was not warped by them. Oh, wait… Maybe I was.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. PJR says:

    Thank you, Erik. Most instructive of aspects of American historical biography of which I am shamefully ignorant. You’ve put Franklin back in perspective for me – his brilliant diplomacy was of course constructed on his profound understanding of the internal power structure of the ancien regime, in all its technical, cultural and psychological aspects. He was, after all, a scientist.

    There’s another connection I should have made in another post in this series – the clock one – between Louis XV’s genuine interest in science and Franklin’s later appointment, and dazzling success, as ambassador to France, at the beginning of the next reign, partly because he had been a celebrated international figure at court and the salons, for over 20 years, ever since LXV had read/seen the Experiments…on Electricity book in translation, and promoted further experiments in France in 1752 to test Franklin’s theory.


  5. Too many thoughts to relay in soundbites. Benjamin Franklin’s relationship with Parisian ladies was not quite so predatory, it might be more accurate to call him a world-class flirt. You might enjoy that he once said something like, “The noblemen politely reject my suggestions, until I make the rounds of the salons and present the case to their wives, and then, they approach me to say they have reconsidered.” If you are interested, that book, above, would be a good start.

    Regarding a gay Lincoln, the evidence I have seen is equivocal and not 100% persuasive. That said, the evidence supporting a gay President James Buchanan (Lincoln’s predecessor) was far more compelling and, I think, some of the most prominent historians endorse the idea. Personally, I do not think it matters.

    America – in many ways like Europe – is a large and diverse place. Some areas are very liberal and some, deeply conservative. Various governments on both sides of the Atlantic have staked out positions of every stripe. You may be interested to know, however, that my home State of Vermont adopted civil unions, an early version of gay marraige, (virtually) before any other place at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. PJR says:

    Fascinating insight, Erik, thank you. Never knew about BF’s European love life – only had British historiography’s bowdlerized view of the Founding Fathers in my head – naively thought that Revolution & Electricity were only purpose of his salon small-talk

    It’s odd what seeps through into received ideas and what doesn’t – I’m intrigued by the current controversy over claims that Lincoln was gay, because somehow I had the impression it was already presumed. Why does it still rock American foundations so much? Some of Europe’s greatest statesmen/warriors were known to be gay/bisexual in their lifetimes, and their effectiveness to rule was uncompromised.


  7. Great writing. Great Artwork. Have you ever considered a post about Benjamin Franklin and his significant others (he was working the salons of France during the 1770’s)?. If so, I would recommend Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris, by Claude-Anne Lopez.


  8. vinnieh says:

    I always laugh when I hear people say how quaint and respectful life was back then. People still had desires for one another.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. PJR says:

    And the same thing had gone on at Henry VIII’s court with all those English wives being dangled in front of him by rival factions – how little love had to do with it, and how much more was pure, unadulterated party politics. Possibly Charles II manipulated the situation of having multiple mistresses to his advantage, because he was conning everyone, all the time, anyway? Nancy Mitford elegantly summed up Du Barry’s entree to court on the grounds that Louis XV was lonely. There is no other rational explanation for the rise of such a mediocrity – bedroom skills were not usually sufficient for the job. Madame de Pompadour had raised the bar, and her employer/lover let it down again, a betrayal still familiar to a lot of professional women, married or single.


  10. Emily Crouch Research says:

    Being an official mistress to the King certainly came with its share of privileges at court. Many who opposed Madame du Barry tried to prevent her official introduction at court.


  11. beetleypete says:

    (I had to look up Dan Stevens, but I recalled him as Crawley in ‘Downton’.)

    I can well understand how the prospect of being a well-maintained mistress of the King was an attractive prospect back then. Life for women had little going for it, so they were correct to take advantage of any opportunities.
    Another episode relished!
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

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