Madame de Maintenon and Louis XIV

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Katie: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert, joined today by Sara Dowdy. How are you Sara?

Sara: I'm great Katie, how are you?

Katie: Good. Today we're going to be talking about the ultimate rags to riches story, so I'm pretty excited.

Sara: Everyone likes a rags to riches story, and today we've got Madame de Maintenon, the mistress - or was it wife? - of Louis XIV. But she wasn't born Madame de Maintenon, she was born Françoise d'Aubigné in November of 1635.

Katie: And at the time her father was actually in a prison. Her mother was the daughter of his prison guard, although Madame do Maintenon, or Françoise at the time, was not actually born in prison. That's a little historical myth that you might hear tossed around.

Sara: We're busting.

Katie: We're busting it, even though I believe it earlier in the day.

Sara: Her father was in prison for conspiracy against Richelieu, but he'd also been accused of abduction and rape, so he's really not a stand-up guy.

Katie: He's kind of a loser, even though his father is a pretty impressive guy.

Sara: A celebrated poet.

Katie: Yeah, Huguenot solider, companion of Henry IV. But those traits were not passed on to his son, apparently.

Sara: Well, and being a Huguenot made them something of an outsider as then France was very Catholic. But her mother was Catholic, so she got a Catholic baptism even though she was raised Protestant, which turned out to be fortunate later in life.

Katie: Yeah, so she's raised with her relatives until about age seven, when the family all ups and moves to the island of Marie-Galante, which is on the other side of the ocean. Her father hoped he was going to get a governorship position. But when they get there, oops, there's no position; it's not vacant. So he heads back to France and leaves them behind - thanks.

Sara: So that wasn't really good fortune for them. And Françoise's childhood at this point had been not so great. When she was living with relatives, she was definitely treated as their poor relation. She wore their castoff clothes and didn't have a fire in her room, so she was well acquainted with what poverty looked like. And in contrast, what a nicer life looked like.

Katie: Definitely. But by the time she's back in France, when she and her mother and brothers finally leave Martinique, she goes back to live with her aunt. But because her aunt is Protestant, another Catholic aunt ends up claiming her and moves her.

Sara: I think a relative of her Godmother, actually. So she takes her to Paris at the age of 16.

Katie: And she's raised pretty sternly by this relative.

Sara: Oh yes, she's not worldly at all at this point, and she goes there and she's very eager to please, and she's pretty if she's a bit too tan for the standards of the time, and she's also very feminine.

Katie: So after her mother dies, her guardian is faced with this orphan - teenage orphan. Decides she's going to try to unload her, try to marry her off. Along comes a satirical writer, Paul Scarron, who was 25 years older than Françoise and also severely crippled.

Sara: By arthritis, right. And he wasn't - again - a real stand-up guy. He was kind of shady judging from what we read.

Katie: No, I keep on seeing his name linked with the word "rascal."

Sara: Which is what you want for a 16 year old girl and her marriage? In 1652, he made her an offer which was, "Marry me, or I'll give you the dowry you need to be in a convent." And Françoise had no interest in being a nun.

Katie: Yeah, she later said, "I preferred to marry him rather than a convent."

Sara: So she chose the marriage, and she wasn't particularly pleased with marriage. She's quoted as saying, "Don't hope for perfect happiness from marriage," to someone else's advice. And no one knows if their marriage was actually consummated. no, once again, he had very bad arthritis, but judging by his rascal behavior, no one's quite sure.

Katie: They think there may have been attempts made at least, but she wasn't interested in sex after that. So I'm assuming it didn't go well for little Françoise.

Sara: But she does end up nursing him and running his salon, where she meets a lot of very influential, important people.

Katie: And she learns to become a very good conversationalist, and even better listener, which again will serve her well, because those were considered great virtues in a woman at the time, as they are now. Who doesn't want to have a good conversation?

Sara: So obviously this teenage girl married to this crippled, satirical writer, presiding over his salon has a lot of offers or flirtations from his visitors, but most people think she resisted that, although she sort of perfected the art of flirtation.

Katie: But she kept her reputation largely intact.

Sara: Which served her well later?

Katie: Again, yes. She was a forward thinker, Françoise d'Aubigné. Well I guess Françoise Scarron at this point. But eight years into their marriage, Paul Scarron dies, and there are some scurrilous rumors that pop up yet again that after his death perhaps she had engaged in a little bit more than flirtation.

Sara: One source said she even considered becoming a courtesan, but ended up taking a room at a convent and sort of becoming a salon lady instead, a respectable, well read woman of culture. She may have had lovers at this point though, although if she did, she was very discrete, and almost considered somewhat of a prude, or at least extremely devout.

Katie: We came to blows about this earlier. That's not entirely true, because I was reading Antonia Frasers, "Love and Louis XIV," which is what I was doing a lot of my research on, and Sara had different sources, and a lot of them disagree. So Sara's going to go ahead and say that she had lovers, and I'm going to maintain that she did not.

Sara: But was discrete. I'll throw that in.

Katie: She's discrete with her lovers, yes. But she was also known for being very virtuous, and she really loved children, which was really unusual at the time, because childhood hadn't been so sentimentalized as it is now. So people didn't think that women should fawn over children; it wasn't really expected. But she really loved being around them and teaching them to read and teaching them their catechism and this is how her next opportunity comes up.

Sara: Yeah, and before we even go into that, she really walked the line quite well between this motherly devout persona and something a little more sensual. She maintained a friendship with the most famous courtesan at the time, and still managed to come out of that with a solid reputation, in part because of this very motherly face she put forward.

Katie: And I loved the detail that she apparently loved fine petticoats and she went to her confessor one day, and he said, "I know you sat you always wear normal things, but I can tell by the rustle you're wearing something nice."

Sara: Could tell through the screen.

Katie: Oh yes, under the dress. So she wasn't immune from vanity.

Sara: So Françoise's great opportunity comes in 1668 when her friend Marie de Montespan, who was the king's favorite mistress at the time, gets pregnant.

Katie: And she was offered the position of taking care of the royal bastards, because they were the king's kids, but they were also supposed to be a bit out of the spotlight. So he ended up buying a house for her to take care of all of them in. And she asked her confessor, the Abbé Gobelin, whether she should do this or not. Do you take the post as governess? And he said yes, that it was her duty or possibly even her holy destiny, again according to the book I was reading.

Sara: And this is where her good reputation and discretion really come into play. Marie de Montespan was married. Obviously the king was married. So these kids were more secret than you might expect. Françoise's role is literally like whisking away these children to their new residence and caring for them.

Katie: And that made for a bit of friction between her and the royal mistress, because it's always hard, I think, child care when someone's with your children all day long and you are not. So they didn't necessarily get along as much as one would have hoped, and apparently Françoise's thought about quitting, or maybe even becoming a nun, and we know how she felt about that. So it must not have been very fun for her.

Sara: No, plus the king is starting to notice the widow Scarron a little more.

Katie: He's making his visits.

Sara: He's visiting his kids, and oh, their lovely governess also happens to be there. So they're starting to get to know each other a bit.

Katie: And she's so different from Marie de Montespan, because she is so very motherly, whereas his mistress is very, very sensual and very sexual.

Sara: And demanding.

Katie: And demanding. Françoise is subservient and motherly and he'd come to see her and she'd have children in her lap.

Sara: She's very serious, intelligent. You can kind of imagine them having a quiet conversation.

Katie: Right, and she wasn't necessarily very funny maybe, or even extremely entertaining, but she was clearly a sweet woman and one who had her head on straight. So in 1674, the king gives Françoise quite a bit of money, and as a reward, she buys land at Maintenon, which is about 25 miles from Versailles, because it reminded her of where she used to live when she was a kid with her relatives. And this is when she gets her title, Madame de Maintenon, which the king gives her permission to use, because you can't just do that on your own. And I like the detail, according to Frasers book, that she insisted her linens be stored with lavender as her fragrance instead of rose petals, which was usually used.

Sara: It sounds lovely.

Katie: It does sound lovely.

Sara: And for people who are wondering if the king promoting her in this way kind of outs the whole secret household of his illegitimate children, he'd actually recognized his illegitimate children the year before, so they were getting titles and more out in the open than they had been.

Katie: And he had quite a few of them.

Sara: He had a lot.

Katie: Miss Montespan was very fertile, and it wasn't just two or three kids in a house. We're talking a lot of kids. And their family tree gets so confusing at this point if you try to go and look at one. But a change comes in the kings relationship with his mistress in the Easter of 1675 when a priest refuses to give absolution to the kings mistress, and he and the mistress end up breaking up, because they both think that they're going to be damned.

Sara: But the king and his mistress were a pretty good couple, and he was still in love with her, and he spent a lot of money on her property, he tried to have other affairs to sort of stay away from her.

Katie: Didn't occur to him to stop having sex, just different people.

Sara: Rebound affairs. But the two end up back together, and they have even more kids, and after those last kids are born though, the sexual relationship stops.

Katie: And Françoise at this point is also very worried about the kings salvation. This had become a nation-wide thing. People in France were talking about the king and whether he was going to hell for having this mistress, because adultery was considered so much worse than fornication. They were both married people.

Sara: Double adultery.

Katie: Exactly. Engaging in a sexual relationship and people truly thought their king was going to hell. So no one knows quite when Françoise and the king became lovers. Originally she tried to be his friend, but she was very concerned with the idea of salvation, and at some point must have realized that unless she was sleeping with the king, someone else was going to be.

Sara: Yeah, there needed to be that extra dimension to their relationship.

Katie: So she stepped up.

Sara: Yeah, even though it's ironic that at the time, she's also persuading the king to sort of rekindle his romance with his wife.

Katie: Which made the Queen Marie-Thérèse very happy? She had very much missed her husband. And that just sort of goes along with Françoise's virtuous thing? She thought it was very important that he was involved with his wife and if she thought she could save him and having sexual relationship with him was necessary, then the means at some point justifies the end. And she wrote to her confessor that maybe her small acts of charity made up for some of the bad things that she was doing.

Sara: So obviously things are winding down with the kings former mistress, Marie de Montespan, and that really comes to a close when she's accused of participating in a Black Mass and buying poison. This was awhile back, and it's very sensationalized and just a lot of rumors flying. But it's further bad press basically to their already stormy relationship.

Katie: And it's so tabloid scandalous it's ridiculous. Like all the poison she bought and her designs upon the king, when it would have made no sense for her to poison the king at all because that's how she had what she had. So why would she even want to do that?

Sara: And at the same time, people in the court are really confused about what's going on with Françoise and the king. What kind of relationship are they actually having?

Katie: Are they even having a sexual relationship, or is she really just -

Sara: Is she that devout? Are they just friends? Is she his spiritual advisor, or is something else going on?

Katie: And she has this weird set of rooms at Versailles that are very tiny, and they aren't well heated. And at this point she's starting to develop arthritis, so it's really not comfortable for her. And this is in contrast to like, his mistress' rooms or the Queen's rooms.

Sara: Which are very sumptuous, well appointed rooms.

Katie: Exactly. Some historians think that 1682 is when her relationship began with the king, because she started kind of freaking out about making her Easter in 1683, because -

Sara: What does that even mean?

Katie: I'm still a little confused about this, I'm not going to lie, but it was very public, and you had to go do your penance and your confession before hand, and then make this public appearance. And say if you were living in sin, you wouldn't want to be doing that.

Sara: So it's a religious rite of sorts?

Katie: Yes.

Sara: Okay.

Katie: But also a very public one. So she was really uncomfortable with that right then. And so we're thinking something had started at that point, and there's a big development in 1683.

Sara: Yes, the poor neglected queen dies, and Louis is actually fairly sad about it. He said dying is the most trouble she ever gave him. But she's out of the picture, and Louis is ready to move on.

Katie: And her last words, just as a side word, I think are so sad. Supposedly she said, "Since I have been Queen, I have had only one happy day."

Sara: That is really sad.

Katie: It is. And I think his is even sadder, that's the only trouble she ever gave him. You should have given him more trouble, Marie-Thérèse.

Sara: So the King isn't super old, and the kingdom wants him to marry again, and he seems like he doesn't want to - or did he? Because he's said to have engaged in a morganatic marriage with Françoise! And if you've never heard of it, it's a marriage that was legal within the church but not the state. So you get married in a chapel with witnesses, but then you don't register it anywhere. So legally it's not recognized, but it is sanctioned by the church.

Katie: It's for two parties who are not social equals.

Sara: Right. In the eyes of God you're married, whereas the eyes of the public would think it was a ridiculous match.

Katie: You should be marrying some princess.

Sara: To over simplify it, right. And your kids wouldn't inherit your title or anything if you had a morganatic marriage. But that wasn't really an issue by then anyway, since Françoise is in her early 50s.

Katie: And she's past the point of having children.

Sara: And we think this might have happened in October of that year, in the old chapel at Versailles, because after this, she had a new status. Françoise could sit down in the presence of royalty and the pope showed her respect and sent her gifts, so he must have known about the relationship or obviously he wouldn't have been doing it. And also she got better rooms in the palace.

Katie: And she also obviously had an ear with the king, and increasingly influenced his religious behavior and the court life that Versailles - it's less like the glorious Versailles sun King Court that you imagine at this point. It's more toned down. But a lot of historians debate how much influence she really had politically. She was sort of demonized after her death just for convincing him to make all these awful mistakes and do all these awful things. But it's pretty likely she didn't have much to do with anything before 1700 at least, and certainly didn't have anything to do with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which denied rights to all the Protestants in France. It was a pretty big deal.

Sara: Well, and she thought - she's recorded as saying something along the lines of, "Well, if you want a better life in this world and the next, maybe you better be Catholic." Because clearly it was in ones best interest in France at the time to convert to Catholicism. So she was fairly practical about that sort of thing. And also, again, her personality was pretty subservient. She was obedient to the king, so it's not like she was going to go requesting favors from him all the time.

Katie: In 1686, she founds a school for impoverished noble women. It's usually just called Saint-Cyr. But she really got to go back to her motherly teaching inclinations here.

Sara: Right, all the things she loved. Taking care of children and raising them. The teachers of the school were known as the dame, and the students were called the demoiselles of Saint-Louis. And this is when the king kind of gets to switch to a patriarchal role instead of his former rather lecherous one, because he was known for how much he loved young women, but there was nothing entured about his relationship with the girls at Saint-Cyr.

Katie: Yeah, and Françoise really cared about every detail of this school. She provided dentistry services to the girls and she was interested in details from everything from their lingerie to their food. And the object of this school was to make them good Christian women, and she told them to be cheerful and to learn to speak French with the correct accent and to study religious texts. But they were also allowed to study theater, because the king was such a big fan.

Sara: And they even have a - Racine writes "Esther" for the school, and they perform it a bunch of times.

Katie: But it's so kind of parallel to the kings life that he has to add a prologue at the end.

Sara: To let you know.

Katie: It's not about the king. This is not actually about the same king. But his health starts to decline quite a bit in 1686. Not that it was all that great to begin with. His idea of dinner was a pheasant, a partridge, four kinds of soup, a large salad, two slices of ham, a mutton with gravy, a plate of sweet cakes, fruit, and hard boiled eggs.

Sara: Something about the eggs at the end of that meal puts it over the edge, I think.

Katie: The final straw.

Sara: Just imagining eating all of that, and then popping a few hard boiled eggs. Oh gosh.

Katie: So by this time he's being purged once a month and given enemas of milk, honey, and almond oil. He has a boil on his thigh, and has a terrible case of gout. He could hardly walk. And gout is incredibly painful if you don't know anything about it.

Sara: Rich food will do it.

Katie: And shellfish and drinking. And then he got an anal fistula, which had to be operated on, and there was no anesthetic, so surgery was painful - more painful than I would even like to imagine.

Sara: Yeah, let's move on from that. So moving on to her health, which is a little less gory, but still very disabling? She suffered from rheumatism. And the King insists on having all the windows open, which is not the most cozy environment for someone with rheumatism.

Katie: No, and the cold especially was really hard for her. But more health troubles hit in 1711 and 1712 when smallpox and measles hit the royal family and killed quite a few members all in a row. And it was absolutely devastating for the King and for everyone else. Sudden, very sad deaths!

Sara: And by the summer of 1715, Louis is starting to look pretty sick, and I was really surprised to learn this, but bookies actually start taking bets on whether he would die. It's like some sort of deathwatch website or something now.

Katie: We have those now, and we had them in the 1700s.

Sara: So he has gout, hardening of the arteries, and his leg has started to get a case of gangrene.

Katie: Which, I mean, all you can do is amputate at that point, once it's gotten that bad, and they didn't want to amputate the King's leg. But he was still participating in festivals in things, or at least trying to oversee them, and he said, "I have lived among the people of my court. I want to die among them. They have followed the whole course of my life; it is right that they should witness the end of it." And he started declining pretty quickly, and told the five year old Duke of Anjou that he would make a good King, and also told him to remain at peace with your neighbor, because Louis XIV had "loved war too much."

Sara: And the king and Françoise have a few interactions in this decline. She comes and visits him from the school. And he was actually worried about her because she didn't really have anything in terms of money.

Katie: No, and he hadn't lavished money on her as she had with some of his other mistresses.

Sara: She didn't ask for it.

Katie: She didn't even want it. With what she did have, a lot of it she donated to charity or put into the school.

Sara: Her house she had given to her niece. She was very generous, but not that demanding herself.

Katie: The King gave her a rosary, and she helped him burn his papers and he carried a miniature of a portrait of her in his waistcoat pocket until he died, which I think is a very sweet detail. And he died September 1st, 1715.

Sara: And as a true marker of her position as the King's wife, if not the Queen, foreign dignitaries end up sending her letters of condolence.

Katie: The type of letters that you would send to the Queen, and mentioning her very special loss and how hard they knew it must be for her. She'd been in his life for a long time.

Sara: 30 plus years.

Katie: So she went on to live at the school, and Peter the Great came to visit her, apparently, and she died at 84. And as a true measure of her standing, her ashes were disinterred during the French Revolution, just like all the other royals, so she got the same scandalous treatment.

Sara: Royal treatment. If you want to hear more about where things went from that point, check out How the French Revolution worked, and if you have any questions, you can email us

Katie: And don't forget to check out the blog and also our homepage at For more on this, and thousands of other topics, visit Let us know what you think. Send an email to and be sure to check out The Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on the How Stuff Works homepage.