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  • Writer's pictureFlora

The Great Women of Louis XV’s Versailles

Versailles has hosted so many fascinating characters from France’s history. Chief among them are the royals that called this lavish palace their home.


Louis XV was one king who certainly enjoyed the Versailles lifestyle. Sometimes referred to as the Secret King, he was known for entertaining many women at the palace.


When we take time to get to know who these women were, we find that they were highly capable. Navigating court life was hard enough, but they also left their mark on French society.


These women championed the arts and even led massive changes in style. They guided charitable giving, ensuring food and housing for many of the poorest in France, and they did all this while fighting their way through often difficult circumstances.


Who Was Louis XV?

Because of the grandeur and vision of Louis XIV, as well as the dramatic end of Louis XVI, it is easy to forget about Louis XV.

But while he lacks the major name of his predecessor or successor, he was actually quite an important king, serving at a turning point in France. Not only that, he also increased the heights of decadence at the Palace of Versailles — making him a very interesting character to get to know.


He reigned over France for 59 years. The only person with a longer reign was Louis XIV. Those many decades on the throne defined the monarchy in the 18th century.


He lived an extravagant lifestyle and spent enormous amounts of money on wars with little to show for it. In fact, many historians believe that he created the conditions that were the underlying cause of the French Revolution, which began 15 years after his death.


Though he may not have been the best king of France, he was the ruler at what could be the country’s height of influence over Europe.


Becoming King Louis XV

As a boy, many would not have expected Louis XV to take the throne. After all, he was the great-grandson of King Louis XIV — and he wasn’t even the eldest son of his father. But illnesses took care of things for the boy.

Louis XIV and his heirs: the Dauphin, the Duke of Burgundy and the Duke of Brittany at the birth of the future Louis XV
Louis XIV and his heirs at the birth of the future Louis XV

First, his grandfather, the Grand Dauphin (the first in line for the throne) was taken by smallpox. 10 months later, his father and mother died of measles in the same week.


Soon after, both of his older brothers died. When Louis XV came down with the measles while still a young child, his caretaker Madame de Ventadour hid him away so the doctors would not treat him with bloodletting. This very likely saved his life.


Louis XIV died in 1715, making Louis XV the king at the tender age of five. His uncle Philippe II ruled in his stead until the boy turned 13, when he finally took the throne.


The Reign of Louis XV

The years of Louis XV’s reign were marked by extreme changes across the continent and in his home country. His rule began with religious tension and the repression of Catholic sects that broke from the Pope. This chaos pushed the still young king toward Cardinal Fleury who provided a sense of security and sage advice in difficult times. Fleury would continue to play a vital role in the government moving forward.


For a time, with Fleury’s steady hand helping the cause, France balanced its budget. It also managed to reform its tax code to make things much more fair to the masses. This seemed to bode well for Louis XV’s reign, showing that he could put together a team capable of stellar executive performance. Expectations, then, were high.


But a war in Poland (to support the father of the Queen of France) and in Austria quickly unwound any control over finances. The fate of these military ventures were middling at best and outright failures at worst.


Another important change was the Diplomatic Revolution. This saw long standing alliances shift dramatically — all focused on who would side in the conflict between France and Britain. Austria turned away from Britain to join France, while Prussia allied with Britain. The Dutch Republic, meanwhile, went neutral.


By the time his reign was over, Louis XV lost France’s colonies in America, plunged his country into a debt crisis it would never truly recover from, cut deep religious wounds in the Catholic majority, and created doubts about the monarchy as an institution. While France was likely at its height of power during his reign, this was mostly due to his predecessor’s success. All Louis XV seemed to do was gradually lose more and more of the country he inherited.


His son had to take power during a situation that was spinning out of control. While Louis XV died in 1774, the French Revolution swept out the Bourbon dynasty in 1789.


Nevertheless, the French culture of this time thrived (giving birth to what we call the Louis XV style), but this was steered not by the king. Instead, the flourishing of intellectual and artistic achievements during Louis XV’s reign comes down to the women of Versailles. And it is to them that we turn next.


The Women Louis XV Loved

Louis XV was known as the lover of many beautiful, young women. It is he, after all, that turned one of the houses on the grounds of Versailles into the apartment of his secret mistresses. Known as Stag Park (or Parc-aux-Cerfs), the small home came to exemplify the romantic exploits of the king.

But three women in particular left their mark on French history by first leaving their mark on the king’s heart.


They built their legacy through a few key roles that women could play in the king’s court.


It is important to remember that the intellectuals and artists of France at the time did not enjoy many freedoms. At any moment, they might run afoul of the ruler. That is why it was so important for powerful people to take them under their wing and support them (both in the court of the king and financially). Louis XV’s wife and mistresses played these roles in French society.


These powerful ladies were also an important source of financing for charitable organizations. Without access to their wealth, many places that served the needs of the growing urban poor would not have been able to operate. For this reason, Queens were especially essential to the nation, as they were often the ones who directed the most charitable giving.


And finally, these ladies also give us examples of how women were forced to maneuver through the society of the 18th century. Their deft decision making is an inspiration.


Though the following list of Louis’s lovers is far from exhaustive, it shows us three examples of strong, capable women who made their way to the top of France.


Marie Leszczyńska

Marie was the first of Louis’s wives. She had the longest reign of any Queen of France, serving for over 42 years.

Together, they had 10 children. But after the tenth birth, Marie was absolutely exhausted from the rigors and dangers of bearing children, so she no longer allowed the king to share the same bed as her. This began Louis’s years of famous infidelity, which the Queen was aware of and tolerated as an unsavory necessity.


When Marie married into the royal family, she found herself facing difficulty at every turn. She was not born into a family with nearly as much power as Louis, and many in the court looked down on her for this. She was mostly kept out of politics, finding it almost impossible to build allies and wield any considerable power.


Living in Versailles meant plenty of ceremonial and social responsibilities for her, all of which she carried out to perfection. Over time, this eventually won her some respect. And gradually, she gained some clout among the court.


Marie proved highly pious, and kept to her Catholic religion with strict adherence. She also spent much of her money on charitable works. And so, while she might not have been overly popular with French nobility, she had a very positive reputation among the poor of France.


Marquise de Pompadour

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson (who the king would make Marquise de Pompadour so that she could take a role in his royal court) served as the official mistress of Louis XV for six years. Through incredible politicking, she used her position to greatly elevate her family and create a strong power base. She also went through pains to keep the Queen on her side.

Because of her frequent participation in court politics, she was sometimes seen as a dishonest or conniving figure. But this is not altogether fair, as Pompadour simply played the system as she found it.


Pompadour managed to become an influential member of the government, even making decisions both foreign and domestic.


In the end, her legacy is secured thanks to her generous patronage of the arts and culture of France. She funded grand architecture, the production of fine porcelain, and even intellectuals of the Enlightenment. The great Voltaire counted Pompadour as his patron. (The Queen kicked Voltaire out of Versailles after he alluded to Pompadour’s romantic relationship to the king in a poem!)


Pompadour’s tastes guided her patronage in the direction of a new style, one featuring excessive curves and organic forms. Called the Rocaille, it reveled in decoration that merged symmetrical designs with the surprises found in the natural world.


The interior design and furniture made in this style are stunning accomplishments. And the innovations in the aesthetic of Rocaille would later inspire the even more gregarious designs of Rococo. It also served as the height of the Louis XV style.


Madame du Barry

Jeanne Bécu, known to history best as Madame du Barry, was the final royal mistress to Louis XV. She was born into poverty without a legitimate father, but she managed to work her way to the top of French society through her charm and wit.


She first made money by selling goods on the street, but her glowing beauty quickly gave her another avenue to make money. Living as a courtesan to Parisian high society, she found herself at Versailles where she met Louis XV. He was quickly won over and found her a husband and titles so that she could become his royal mistress, such were the times.


Her less-than-aristocratic background made her a target of scorn, especially from the young Marie Antoinette. But using what she had, Jeanne ascended from the depths of French society to its heights, becoming one of the most influential and wealthy women in the entire country.


Her tastes were also strikingly different from her predecessors. Rather than the overly ornate Rocaille stylings of Pompadour, Jeanne preferred the simplified and rational aesthetic of Neoclassicism. For an example of this, consider her home at the Château de Louveciennes. Though it was a gift by the king, Jeanne quickly made it her own with adjustments both inside and out.


In this way, she reflects a generational shift going on in France at the time. While finery and organic forms once were the height of class and luxury, the more stoic and spare look of the Neoclassical was becoming the sign of good taste.


Jeanne outlived Louis, seeing the French Revolution destroy the Ancien Régime that he was once the head of. And soon, it would claim her life as well. On December 8, 1793, she was executed by guillotine on charges of treason.


The Many Faces of Versailles

When you walk through the fantasy palace of Versailles, you can almost hear music playing and the voices of nobility chatting about the events of the day. This is a place haunted by countless fascinating people, and the women who Louis XV loved are some of the most interesting among them.


These women are striking figures of history, each leaving a major footprint in French society.


Are you excited to learn more stories about Versailles while taking in its grand rooms and infinite gardens?

Let’s start planning your private tour of Versailles from Paris.

I can’t wait to share this beautiful palace and all its many stories with you.

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