It’s my birthday today - 5th October - which I share with two infamous women from the 17th Century… as well as Kate Winslet.
Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart, Marquise de Montespan 1640 to 1707
Athenais was born into one of the oldest and most noble families in France. Her mother was a lady in waiting to Anne of Austria (queen of Louis XIII and mother of Louis XIV). Athenais received a convent education and aged 20, became a maid of honour to Henrietta Anne, Duchess of Orleans – sister of King Charles II of England and wife of the French king’s younger brother. Later, she was promoted to one of the ladies in waiting to Queen Marie Therese, Louis XIV’s first wife.
In 1663 Athenais married Louis Henri de Pardaillan de Gondrin, Marquis of Montespan, Athenais becoming his marquise. She soon presented her husband with two children.
Athenais continued to perform her duties at the royal court, appearing in several entertainments such as ballets. With her large blue eyes, blonde hair and voluptuous figure, Athenais was considered the ‘reigning beauty of the court’, but was also known for her intelligence, charm and wit, and found herself surrounded by admirers – both male and female.
By 1666 Athenais had attracted the attention of King Louis. When Louis’s mistress Louise de la Valliere realised she had a rival for the king’s affection, she tactfully withdrew from court life, retiring to a convent.
Athenais, Marquise de Montespan, bore King Louis seven children, whom their father had legitimised in 1673 and given the royal surname de Bourbon. Athenais was officially separated from her husband in 1674, which caused a scandal within the Catholic church, and Athenais was refused holy communion at Easter. The king’s appeals had no effect, and he and his mistress separated for a short time. But the relationship was soon back on again, resulting in two more children.
In 1677 Athenais became embroiled in the Affair of the Poisons. The Marquise was accused of causing the death of the king’s new mistress the Duchesse de Fontages by poison and black magic. Stories abounded that Montespan had visited a witch with whom she concocted a special potion and prayed to the devil to make the king love her. Athenais is even supposed to have taken part in black masses involving the sacrifice of human babies. No proof was ever found that Athenais had taken part in such crimes, although the witch who is supposed to have assisted her, Catherine Monvoisin – aka La Voision – was tried, convicted of witchcraft and executed by being burnt at the stake. After this, the affair was quietly hushed up by the king.
Athenais’s reputation, however, never recovered from the rumours of evil doing, and she retired to a convent in 1691, the king having lost interest in her as a lover. In 1704, she moved to the Chateau d’Oiron, where she filled her time with charitable works and acts of penitence. Athenais, Marquise de Montespan died in 1707, at the age of 67. Her former lover, King Louis XIV, forbade their children from wearing mourning in honour of her.
Mary of Modena 1658 to 1718
Maria Beatrice Eleonora Anna Margherita Isabella d'Este was the oldest surviving child of Alfonso IV d'Este, Duke of Modena, in Italy. Young Maria received an excellent education, and was especially proficient in languages, speaking Italian and French fluently, understood Latin and would go on to master English.
In 1673 Maria married James, Duke of York, younger brother of King Charles II of England. The bride was only 15, the groom 39. Maria’s mother had initially wanted her daughter to marry Charles II of Spain, but reluctantly agreed to the English match.
Mary, when Duchess of York
When Mary, now the Duchess of York arrived in England, she was met with a cool reception. Mary was James’s second wife and a catholic, England being a Protestant nation. James had secretly converted to Catholicism back in 1668. The English Parliament threatened to have the marriage annulled, forcing Charles II to suspend parliament so the union could be honoured. When Mary first met her husband, she disliked him, and she burst into tears every time she saw him. However, she soon warmed to him. James had two daughters from his previous marriage to the commoner Anne Hyde – Mary and Anne, who would both reign as queens of England in their turn. Mary was fond of her new stepmother, and the older Mary even travelled in disguise to the Hague in Holland to visit the younger woman after she married William of Orange in 1677. Young Anne was less taken with her father’s new wife, and Mary worked hard to win her affection.
Mary, Duchess of York gave birth to her first child, a daughter, in 1675. All of Mary’s earlier pregnancies either ended in stillbirth or the child died in infancy. Mary suffered great mental and emotional anguish because of the deaths of her young children.
In 1678, Mary became indirectly involved in events surrounding the fictious Popish Plot, leading some members of Parliament to call for the exclusion of the Duke of York from the succession to the English throne – on account of his Catholic faith. James and Mary were forced into exile in Brussels. The couple returned to England after hearing news that the king was ill. Charles II survived his illness but soon packed his brother and his wife off to Edinburgh. The Yorks were recalled to London in 1680, only to be sent back later in the year, where James officially acted as ‘the King’s Commissioner in Scotland’.
The Duke and Duchess of York returned south again in 1682. The couple found themselves in high favour after the discovery of the ‘Rye House Plot’ – a plan to kill both Charles II and the Duke of York and place Charles’s illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth on the throne.
James succeeded to the English throne in 1685 with Mary as his queen. In 1687 Mary fell pregnant again. England’s catholic subjects rejoiced, sensing that the birth of a male catholic heir to the throne would return England back to Rome, whilst the protestant part of the country – the majority - were concerned. Fears were confirmed when Mary gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Rumours soon circulated that the child was a changeling, a healthy baby being brought into the palace in a warming pan to replace another stillborn infant. The stories were compounded by the fact that most of the officials who witnessed the birth were either catholic or foreign.
Religious paranoia was such at the time that the English Parliament invited the king’s oldest daughter Mary, and her Dutch (and protestant) husband to take the throne. Thus ensued the Glorious Revolution of 1688. When William of Orange landed on the English coast with 15,000 troops, James and Mary decided to flee into exile. Mary took the tiny Prince of Wales over to France, where she was welcomed by King Louis XIV. Her husband followed a few weeks later.
Although in exile, James still considered himself to be the true King of England, as he ruled by divine right, as only God could decide who would sit on the throne – not parliaments. James was supported in this view by his cousin Louis XIV, who gave James and Mary the use of the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where they established a rival English court.
James, supported by Irish catholics, made a half-hearted attempt to win back his throne, but was defeated in 1689 at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland. Mary supported her husband’s efforts, even selling some of her jewellery to help finance the expedition.
Mary was popular at the French court at Versailles, where she was famed for her distinguished bearing and quick wit. As there was no official queen at court (Louis had in fact married Madame de Maintenon in secret in 1683, but she was never acknowledged as Queen of France), Mary took precedence at court as the highest ranking lady. Her husband James however, rarely visited Versailles, as the French courtiers found him boring. Mary gave birth to her final child, a daughter, in 1692.
The former James II of England died of a stroke in 1701. Louis XIV declared James and Mary’s son, James Francis Edward, King James III of England. Mary acted as regent for her young son, until he reached the age of 16.
Mary had expressed a wish in her youth to become a nun, and in later life withdrew to a convent for most of the summer months. In 1711, following the Treaty of Utrecht, James Francis Edward lost Louis XIV’s formal recognition as King of England and was forced to flee from France. The following year Mary’s daughter died from smallpox. Mary, one time Queen of England, lived out her final lonely years in relative poverty, being unable to afford to travel of her own accord, as all her horses had died. Mary died of cancer in 1718, many who had known her declaring her as a saint.