She was ready to converse gaily with him when she was tired, make love until all hours when she was ill, and cater to his every whim. Wearing a mask of beaming delight over any and all discomforts, she was never to be exhausted, complaining, or grief-stricken.
Some kings allowed their mistresses to exercise unlimited political power. But for all its grandeur, a royal court was a scorpion's nest of insatiable greed, unquenchable lust, and vicious ambition. Hundreds of beautiful women vied to unseat the royal mistress. Many would suffer the slings and arrows of negative public opinion, some met with tragic ends and were pensioned off to make room for younger women.
But the royal mistress often had the last laugh, as she lived well and richly off the fruits of her "sins. From the dawn of time, power has been a mighty aphrodisiac. With diaries, personal letters, and diplomatic dispatches, Eleanor Herman's trailblazing research reveals the dynamics of sex and power, rivalry and revenge, at the most brilliant courts of Europe.
Wickedly witty and endlessly entertaining, Sex with Kings is a chapter of women's history that has remained unwritten -- until now. When we imagine the finest mistress of all—she who is fit for a king—we see a hazy, shimmering image of a woman whose hands caress and mold history. She stands, for the most part, in the shadows of a world where the spotlight shines solely on men bludgeoning history into shape. Now and then we hear the rustling of a silk skirt, or hear her musical laughter echoing from behind the throne.
The rise of the royal mistress in European courts was sudden, springing up from departing medieval mists. For a thousand years after the fall of Rome, royal sin was hidden in the thick hangings of a four-poster bed and then lamented in the stuffy darkness of the confessional. The powerful Catholic Church cast a jaded eye on adultery, and the jezebels of the court were kept firmly in the background. Numerous royal bastards, acknowledged by kings, seemed to sprout from thin air, and we can only assume they had mothers.
This near-total lack of information of royal love affairs derived not only from church demands for discretion. Illiteracy reigned just as surely as the monarchs themselves, monarchs who were for the most part unable to sign their names. It is only because of her avarice that we know anything about the English medieval mistress Alice Perrers.
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A scandalized Parliament confiscated her estates in seventeen counties, her jewels including 21, pearls , and other gifts from the king. Litigious Alice spent the rest of her life in court trying to get them back, as attested by treasury records, parliamentary decrees, and lawsuits. Where the English were clumsy, the French were nimble. Some seventy years after the embarrassing Alice Perrers, the prototypical royal mistress rose in golden glory like a phoenix from the ashes of dark centuries.
Ably wielding political influence over country and king, Agnes Sorel was—naturally—a Frenchwoman at the French court. Graceful Agnes succeeded in rousing Charles VII — from his debilitating apathy to rally his troops and drive English invaders from French soil. Charles, a sad clown-faced, knock-kneed little man lost in his thickly padded tunics, made a poor king before Agnes, and returned to being a poor king after her.
The earliest surviving portrait of a royal mistress is of Agnes, painted in , a time when secular portraits were not yet common, and many of the rich and famous still bribed church artists to paint their faces on saints.
Oddly enough, Agnes was painted as the Virgin Mary in a two-part church panel. In her panel, now in the Koninklijk Museum of Antwerp, Agnes, wearing a crown and an ermine cape, reveals a ripe plump breast to the baby Jesus, who seems completely uninterested and looks away.
The other panel, however, now in the Staatliche Museum of Berlin, shows a good friend of hers, Etienne Chevalier, on his knees in worshipful devotion. It is probably no coincidence that shortly after the painting was completed, the powers of heaven sent the Grim Reaper to harvest Agnes.
Perhaps she was looking back from a grander place when she saw her vanquished body and said softly, It is a little thing and soiled and smelling of our frailty. The grief-stricken king made her a posthumous duchess and buried her in splendor. Our knowledge of royal mistresses increases exponentially with the advent of the sixteenth century.
The flowering of thought known as the Renaissance brought fresh air to a stultified Europe. Suddenly ships sailed the seven seas, bringing back undreamed-of riches. Monasteries were searched for moldering manuscripts bearing the wisdom of ancient pagan sages. Societies which had worshiped at the feet of a stone Virgin for a thousand years suddenly frolicked before a curvaceous statue of Venus. In this process the Vatican lost its key to the lockbox of all knowledge; its ironclad grip over morals and manners was substantially weakened—even in nations that remained Catholic after the Reformation.
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The invention of the printing press triggered an explosion of literacy among the nobility. Letter writing became a favorite pastime for courtiers eager to indulge rustic relatives with juicy court gossip. Madame de Maintenon, the final favorite and morganatic wife of Louis XIV — , wrote more than ninety thousand letters in her lifetime. Some of the personal correspondence of kings and their mistresses themselves has survived fire, flood, worms, and deliberate destruction, and a portion of it deals with the romantic side of life.
Additionally, ambassadorial reports provide detailed views into court life.
Louis XIV, knowing that the many mistresses of Charles II — had great influence over him, instructed his ambassadors to England to send "detailed reports of all that goes on in the Court of Great Britain and particularly in the privy part. Diaries became the fashion, giving eyewitness accounts of royal intrigues. He reported seeing them in the park and at the theater, compared their beauty, described their clothing, and made love to them in his dreams. Memoirs became popular, though they must be read with care and compared with other documents of the period.
Written with an aim of publication, many memoirs had the dual purpose of self-vindication and finger-pointing. The vengeful duc de Saint-Simon, who left Versailles a disappointed courtier in , stubbornly scratched his quill across forty volumes of memoirs, his ink mixed with hearty doses of venom. Contemporary biographies started popping up, but even they must be scrutinized. The French court of the sixteenth century began accepting the idea that women were just as intelligent and capable as men, but infinitely more attractive.
Almost overnight, royal mistresses became admired, imitated, and lauded. In the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the position of royal mistress was almost as official as that of prime minister. The mistress was expected to perform certain duties—sexual and otherwise—in return for titles, pensions, honors, and an influential place at court. She encouraged the arts—theater, literature, music, architecture, and philosophy. She wielded her charm as a weapon against foreign ambassadors.
She calmed the king when he was angry, buoyed him up when he was despondent, encouraged him to greatness when he was weak. She attended religious services daily, gave alms to the poor, and turned in her jewels to the treasury in times of war. He enjoyed several mistresses in succession with great aplomb.
By the second half of the sixteenth century, French mistresses wielded more power than any others in Europe would for nearly two hundred years. Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II — , became a member of the French council, an exclusive assembly convened for deliberating governmental matters.
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Diane made laws and imposed taxes, and she signed official decrees with the king in a joint signature, HenriDiane. Over in England, Henry VIII — made a muddle of things by insisting on marrying two women he lusted after and subsequently chopping off their heads. The following century Charles II lost no time mounting a mistress the very day he mounted the throne.
On his coronation day in he bedded the auburn-haired Barbara Palmer, who nine months later gave him a daughter. As a reward he created her the countess of Castlemaine. Charles explained that he was no atheist but he could not think God would make a man miserable for taking a little pleasure out of the way. Unburdened by fidelity—even to his mistress—Charles was one of the few monarchs who had several principal mistresses at his court at one time.
He could never quite match the French for aplomb, and his harem closely resembled a squawking hen-house. The week of his death in , the king was surrounded by all his hens, as described by the scandalized diarist John Evelyn, who lamented the inexpressible luxury and profaneness, gaming and all dissoluteness he witnessed.
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King Charles was sitting and toying with his concubines Portsmouth, Cleveland, and Mazarin, etc. Both added to the glory of their respective nations, all the while looting the treasury, and both were sorely missed when they were replaced by less colorful substitutes. By the late seventeenth century, the role of royal mistress at a great court was considered so indispensable that even the stuffy German kingdoms followed suit. Frederick III, elector of Brandenburg — , an uxorious prince who despised infidelity, appointed a beautiful court lady as his official mistress and loaded her down with jewels, even though he never touched her—his wife would have killed him.
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