Friday, March 04, 2005

Sex with Kings

Right now I'm reading a very interesting book called "Sex with Kings," about mistresses and lovers to royalty. What is it about royalty that we love to read about them? Maybe because royalty is so foreign to us since we got rid of the Royal Family in the Revolution. Many will argue that we replaced them with actors in the 19th Century, and film stars in the 20th and 21st. Even politicians and their foibles fascinate us. Perhaps we live vicariously through them. We may not want their lives (apart from the perks), but we enjoy feeling superior to them. We imagine that they live impossibly glamorous lives.

Well, one myth that Sex with Kings dispels is the notion that being a royal mistress was a great thing. Yes, you had the love of the king, ministers would court you for favors, and if you played your cards right you ended with titles, estates, royal bastards, and money. But the price of being a royal mistress was high.

Eleanor Herman effectively demonstrates that being a Royal Mistress meant that you had to constantly be on your guard against younger rivals, enemies who would like nothing more to take you down, and put a more malleable mistress in your place. Madame de Pompadour is one the best example of a woman who wanted nothing more than to maitress en titre but then ended up in an early grave from the toll that it took on her life. Not only was a mistress at a kings beck and call, but her life was not her own. She couldn't show grief, fear, or illness. Madame de Pompadour wasn't even allowed to grieve the death of her only child or her mother for fear of displeasing the king. She ignored health problems because the king disliked illness of any kind. She couldn't leave the king alone to retire to her estates for fear of being supplanted. She lost her looks from the ordeal. Dying was literally her only way of freeing herself from the prison that she created.

Other mistresses fared less well. Dorothy Jordan, during the twenty years she spent as mistress of the Duke of Clarence, exhausted herself bearing him ten children, and keeping constantly on the road to support them and him since his allowance barely provided for himself. Her reward was to be summarily dropped by the Duke, when it was deemed necessary for him to make an advantageous marriage. Nor did he lift a finger when she had to flee England to escape her creditors.

The only mistresses who seemed to have emerged unscathed relatively from her relations with royalty were Diane de Poitiers and Nell Gwynn. Diane de Poitiers knew her duty, the king must have an heir, so she would arouse the king, and then send him off to make love to his wife to beget an heir, earning the undying enmity of Catherine de Medici who had a long memory. While Henri II was alive, Diane was literarlly the Queen of France in everything but name. She was on the Privy Council, she signed documents, she made appointments. Henri gave her the magnificent chateau of Chenonceaux which was decorated with their initials. After his death, however, Catherine seized the chateau and banished Diane from court. Still she had the knowledge that she was the one true love of Henri II's life.

Nell Gwynn had no illusions about who she was or her position. A low-born orange girl at Druty Lane who rose to be an actress, her position as mistress was far from perfect. Unlike other well born mistresses, Nell had to fight for titles for her children and their just due, which she did fiercely, but she also entertained the King, and made him laugh which was no easy thing. Legend has it that when Charles II was on his deathbed one of his last thoughts was for poor Nell Gwynn.

Eleanor Herman does a remarkable job of detailing the lives of these women from Agnes Sorel down to Camilla Parker Bowles. The book is a must for everyone who likes a little gossip with their history.

I particularly love the picture of the author in costume on the back inside flap.

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