Home Language & Literature Families, Status and Dynasties: 1600-2000
Mistresses: Love Outside Marriage
Erik XIV, Peter I and James II were very exceptional in marrying their mistresses of humble origin. A plethora of other mistresses were not elevated to royal status by marriage. The keeping of mistresses by kings may seem like a bypath in this book that is concerned with the relationship between status and family, but it is not. The subject is vital to understanding the nature of the authority of marriage.
It is best to start by pointing out that adultery was strictly forbidden by law (Brundage 1990, 517-19; Aalto 1996; Kuper 2009). Offenders could be sentenced to death in Sweden and hence in Finland as well, where the death penalty was rarely executed. The death penalty was also in place in England, but no executions were carried out. Penalties were reduced and the law did not apply to kings, who took full advantage of their liberty. One king with a whole string of mistresses was Philip IV of Spain (r. 1619-65), who had 30-odd bastards borne by several mistresses (Ingrao
Erik XIV of Sweden in turn was deposed and imprisoned a few months after his marriage to Katarina (Rangstrom 2010, 71).
King Louis XlV’s (r. 1643-1715) numerous mistresses are well- documented, at least those who were noblewomen. Kings’ mistresses often came from a noble background, creating another, somewhat more dubious link between the nobility and the monarch. Significant in this respect were those who were employed at court, among them young noblewomen who were recruited to serve the queen, the dowager and the king’s sisters as their maids-of-honour and ladies-in-waiting. Their role was to keep company with the queen and other female royals in their private gatherings, but also in numerous social entertainments and feasts arranged in the court in the presence of the king and his entourage. There were picnics, moonlight expeditions, ballet and theatre performances, concerts, masquerades, balls, banquets, games of cards, jousts, torch-light processions, May Day frolics and so on, whatever imagination might improvise. Actually, these people were thrown together almost every day in the midst of pleasures and entertainments. On these occasions it seems as though the king was free to strip away his political mask and surrender to the passions of his natural body, taking no notice of the fact that his mistresses were in his wife’s service. Mistresses were commonly kept by kings in European courts between 1500 and 1800, and Catholic and Protestant monarchies were no different in this respect (Black 2004; Fraser 2007; Clark 2007; Hutchinson 2009; Rangstrom 2010; Tremlett 2011; Farquhar 2014; Sutter Fichtner 2014; Beauclerk- Dewar and Powell 2014).
Entering into a love affair with a king was radically different from the way the queen consort was attached to the king by a nuptial contract. No bargains were undertaken when mistresses were chosen. These relationships were arranged personally, between the two of them. Based on numerous accounts it is easy to conclude that love affairs were driven by libido or eros: this is how many of King Louis XlV’s love affairs with noblewomen, for instance, are narrated (Fraser 2007, 81, 124, 124-6, 130, 172, 202). The King ‘fell gently, happily in love’ with his cousin and sister-in-law Henriette-Anne, bearing ‘true, deep affection’ for him. This love relationship was short-lived and perhaps without full consummation. Louise de La Valliere, on the other hand, was his mistress, a minor noblewoman, a ‘mere’ maid-of-honour of the said Henriette-Anne. Louise ‘continued to assure the king of her devotion, which left her asking for nothing more than his love’. But King Louis XIV’s interest began to fall upon Athenais de Rochechouart de Mortemart, who came from an ancient lineage, because she was ‘astonishingly beautiful’. Athenais’s real power consisted ‘in the sexual thrall, which she exerted over the king’. After her, the king fell in love with the 18-year-old Angelique, who was a maid-of-honour at court. The falling in love was ‘sheer infatuation with her youth’; the king became ‘a fool for love’, devoting himself to a girl who was of the same age as his son and 20 years younger than his mal- tresse en titre, Athenai's. And Angelique fell ‘madly in love’ with the king. Her duty was no more than to divert the king. In these accounts love appears as pure and sheer love, stripped of all external constraints, status included.
But no matter how passionately a love affair might have started between the king and his mistress, it did not last ‘till death departed them’. It seems as if the endings of these affairs were natural concomitants of passionate love, as attested by a plethora of kings’ successive love affairs. It merely happened that mistresses fell from the king’s favour, one after the other. For example, Louis XIV’s mistress, the said Louise de La Valliere, though pregnant with the fourth child by the king, could do nothing to prevent herself from falling from the king’s favour, because the king only had eyes for his next lover. When it was time to depart, mistresses normally disappeared from the court to retire to a mansion bestowed on them by the king, or to a convent (Fraser 2007, 208). Kings often provided generous cover for their unmarried mistresses, for example, by marrying them off to noblemen after the affair had ended (Fraser 2007, 105).
The contrast between kings’ love affairs and their legally sanctioned marriages was sharp, since the marriages were meant to last. It is true, of course, that divorce was prohibited, but courts did grant separation and nullity on certain grounds (Brundage 1990, 510-13), which could be applied to monarchs as well. Besides, why not assume that just as kings easily got dispensation to marry their cousins and committed outlawed adultery, they could easily have terminated their marriages by will power. However, this happened very rarely. The monarchs of Spain, Austria and Sweden did not take a single divorce between
1500 and 1800, and in the remaining monarchies of my data set, there were just ten divorces and other terminations of marriages, as many as four of which fell upon one single monarch, Henry VIII of England (r. 1509-47). He annulled two of his marriages and got rid of two of his wives by execution. The remaining six royal divorces were scattered individual cases in England, France, Prussia and Russia. In Denmark, two kings dissolved their marriages. So divorces were rare in royalty, but slightly more common in Protestant than Catholic monarchies, where marriage remained a sacrament.
The constancy of legal marriages in royalty was in fact dependent on something other than the canons, namely, the authority of marriage, which conferred a highly privileged status upon the queen. Queens were part of the state corps, albeit through mere marriage, whereas mistresses were in a different position. Sheer love or sexual desire could not provide mistresses with a genuine status, even though their lover was a monarch, because ranking was derived from the hierarchically ordered state. It did not matter even if one was an official mistress, the highest rank in the hierarchy of mistresses. In a way, mistresses remained in-between statuses. In his book on the ritual process, Turner (2011, 157-64) offers an analytical insight into the difference between the queen consorts and kings’ mistresses. His idea of the fundamental distinction between structure and anti-structure is worthy of consideration. Kings’ lives were normally highly structured, and their queen consorts were an integral part of this structure. As formulated by Agamben (1998, 101), this structure corresponds to the king’s political body, which is extremely difficult for him to strip himself of. Yet occasionally, the force of the royal structure— or the king’s political body—is impaired, giving way to anti-structure, the king’s natural body. Turner develops his view on the contradiction between structure and anti-structure in his analysis of rituals, but his idea is also applicable to many other kinds of social phenomena, as he shows with many examples, one of which concerns the divide between licit, marital love and divine and faintly illicit love. Marital love is bound to the structures of marriage, those created by marriage itself and those that structure marriages from the outside, among them status hierarchies. Turner’s example is property, which in fact comes very close to status. Illicit love dwells outside marriage, where it is free from the constraints set by any structure. In this light it was the status of royalty that made monarchs’ marriages structurally moulded, compelling monarchs to obey the imperative of status equivalence and keep their marriages intact. Love outside marriage was exempt from such constraints.
Anti-structure was the enemy of structure among royalty, and therefore a multitude of restraints was needed to prevent structure from falling into a permanent state of chaotic anti-structure. Kings could not take their mistresses from their own rank, say, by seducing a princess from another royal house into a love affair. Royal princesses were fatally segregated into their own royal world, the reservoir of marriageable women for sovereigns and their sons. Kings’ mistresses came from lower ranks; they were noblewomen and commoners who were excluded from the royal marriage market. Anti-structure was thus for the lower rather than the highest rank, which was more tightly tied to the terms of the structure. Moreover, it was important to lessen the effects of anti-structure by reducing the social distance between the king and his mistress. This was done by ennobling mistresses in their own right, a very exceptional honour for women at the time. Titles gave mistresses rewards, which associated them with the ranks of nobility, an elevation they were entirely content with because a royal title was out of their reach. In most cases the title of countess seemed appropriate, but many mistresses were upgraded to duchesses (Black 2004, 75, 107, 207; Clark 2007, 268). Contemporaries were strongly opposed to such radical elevations, because duchess was considered too high a title for a ‘mere’ mistress, particularly if she happened to be of non-noble origin, as Madame Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress, was (Black 2004, 130-3). It was also normal that the whole family benefited from their family member’s being the king’s mistress, particularly her father and brothers, but if a mistress was married, her husband too could benefit from his wife’s entry into the king’s favour (Montgomery-Massingberd 2004, 20; Fraser 2007, 101, 130). Formal elevations set mistresses free from their interstitial state and granted them a clearer standing, which was finalized by marriage to a nobleman. There was, however, one further step that was needed to get a mistress closer to the king, namely, secret marriage: this was the dream of many mistresses, at least those whose relationship with the king had lasted longer. Secret marriage, an imitation of formal marriage, was a recompense, which in sharp contrast to formal marriage became the ultimate proof of great love.
Ruling queens were sometimes quite similar to kings in their propensity to keep lovers, although they were mostly unmarried or widowed. Only scant knowledge is available about Queen Elizabeth I’s (r. 1558-1603) lovers, but it is clear that she was not at all as lavish in this respect as Tsarina Elisabeth of Russia (r. 1741-62) (Farquhar 2014, 71-2, 78-9). Tsarina Catherine II of Russia (r. 1762-96), who was widowed soon after having seized the crown from her husband Peter III, was famous for her string of lovers, many of them much younger than her and mostly from minor noble clans (Hughes 2008, 102, 105-9; Massie 2012). Sundberg’s (2004, 111-16) book, which minutely records the lovers of Swedish monarchs, does not mention Queen Kristina of Sweden (r. 1632-54) as having had any lovers. Married queens regnant seemed to refrain from keeping lovers. Queen Maria Theresa of Austria (r. 1740-80) and Queen Ulrika Eleonora of Sweden (r. 1718-20) are good examples: even though their husbands kept mistresses, they themselves did not have love affairs (Sundberg 2004, 143-54). These husbands were not, however, mere prince consorts, but co-rulers, in other words, equal to queens regnant.
If queen consorts did enter into a love affair, they could suffer a catastrophic fate. Henry VIII of England (r. 1509-47) is famous for sentencing two of his wives to death for adultery (Loades 2009, 126-8, 143-52). Infidelity was regarded as treason against the king and the state, and therefore the death sentence was considered justified. Later on, however, queen consorts were not executed but rigorously punished. For example, when George I of England (r. 1714-27) took lovers, his wife Sophia Dorothea did the same. This had fatal consequences for her, but none whatsoever for the king. The queen’s lover was murdered and the queen herself detained, the marriage dissolved, remarriage denied and the queen’s children placed in the king’s custody (Black 2004, 57-8). On the other hand, King Frederick William II of Prussia (r. 1786-97) divorced his first wife after infidelities on both sides, but no other consequences are mentioned (Clark 2007, 267-8). There are also stories— often mentioned as rumours—of queen consorts embarking upon a love affair with a nobleman. Marie-Antoinette, King Louis XVI’s (r. 1774-92) wife and daughter of Maria Theresa of Austria, is said to have been such a queen. Her lover was Count Axel von Fersen from Sweden. Their love affair has been deduced from diaries and letters (Beckman 2010).
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