The bride was 22, the groom 15, and the King of France.
In 1725 Louis XV married Polish Princess Marie Leszczyńska. It was an arranged marriage of course, and the bride was chosen due to her family’s notable fecundity.
She would go on to produce 10 children in as many years. Complaining little, she was often heard to sigh,”…always in bed, always pregnant, always giving birth…”
She wasn’t pretty, she wasn’t smart, she wasn’t chic, and she wasn’t witty.
But she was fertile.
At sea in the glittering court of France, her own father referred to her as one of the two dullest queens in Europe.
Her mother was the other one.
For the first eight years of the marriage, her husband defied both custom and his ministers and rarely looked at other women.
He had grown into a handsome man, physically fit, a strong jaw, and the aquiline nose so prized by the French Royals.
Marie was happy that in spite of her dullness and Louis’ brilliance, he remained faithful…for a while.
Her world began to crumble when he took his first mistress, one of her ladies in waiting.
Madame de Mailly was not the usual mistress. Most were cloying, gold-digging, polished courtesans. de Mailly was content to parade around the palace in last year’s fashions rather than ask the king for cash.
de Maily didn’t last and neither did her two sisters who followed in her bed. There were others as well, until at last Louis met Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, better known as Madame de Pompadour.
Poisson wasn’t a haughty noblewoman; she was a common Frenchwoman, a member of the bourgeoise.
Sadly, her social status was more shocking to the court than her new position as mistresse-en-titre, so she quickly became a Marquise thanks to Louis’ largesse.
And of course she had to be presented at court. The French, being etiquette obsessed, had two presentations; first to the King and then to the Queen.
Wearing a dress weighing forty pounds, hauling a train of enormous length, the fragile commoner passed muster with His Majesty quickly and quietly. The presentation room was nearly empty, everyone was next door waiting for the show to start in the Queen’s chamber.
The Queen, realizing the terror of her young replacement, made it easy for the newly minted Marquise. She asked about a mutual friend, and courtiers were amazed that the two women spoke twelve sentences to one another.
Poisson was reported to whisper, “I have a profound desire to please you, Madame.”
Shortly, the King, who was staying at his chateau, became ill and his Queen requested permission to visit him. Generally, he would have denied the request, but to the surprise of all, he welcomed her in.
Showing her around the retreat, he treated her with great respect.
The Queen, proving herself not so dull, realized that her husband’s kindnesses were at the instigation of his new mistress.
The mistress, proving herself wiser than her predecessors, sent the Queen her favorite flowers, gifts, and reports of his majesty’s health, and convinced the King to pay his wife’s debts.
Pompadour was also the King’s most politically savvy mistress. France was defeated and diminished after the Seven Years War (French and Indian War to us) and Madame de Pompadour supported great ministers like Bertin and Machaut. These brilliant men introduced important fiscal and economic reforms such as trade, infrastructure, income taxes, which made France the richest nation in the world.
But, she was just a mistress.
Though any wife would be hurt by her husband’s infidelities, the Queen said more than once, “Since there has to be one, better her than another.”
Madame de Pompadour never fell from favor, there were younger, lesser mistresses-some of whom she arranged, but she and the king remained friends until her death of tuberculosis at the age of 42.
Yes, better her than another.