HERstory Lesson: Athénaïs de Montespan

Amelia Hart/THE CONCORDIAN @ameliaohart

The crazy life of Louis XIV’s number one mistress

Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart, Marquise of Montespan was born in 1640 from many different royal ancestries. At the age of 20, due to her parents’ status and royalty, she was made maid-of-honor to the king’s sister-in-law, Princess Henrietta Anne of England, and was appointed lady-in-waiting, a female personal assistant, to Queen Maria Theresa of Spain.

In 1663, she married Louis Henri de Pardaillan de Gondrin, Marquis of Montespan. The title of Marquis designates a nobleman of hereditary rank (in Britain, it’s below a duke, but above an earl). Together, they had two children and lived close to the court so that Madame could carry out her duties as lady-in-waiting. 

She had everything going for her: she was beautiful, cultured and politically-aware. She knew her worth. As per her memoir, confidence was not something she lacked: “I was not slow to perceive that there was in my person something slightly superior to the average intelligence — certain qualities of distinction which drew upon me the attention and the sympathy of men of taste.”

In 1666, Madame de Montespan was in her mid-twenties and trying to replace Louise de La Vallière’s as Louis XIV’s main mistress. At the time, it was common for the king to have two wives: the queen for political affairs, and the maîtresse-en-titre that would serve as a social companion. Madame de Montespan got closer to La Vallière and even became her confidant, all while still keeping a close relationship with Queen Maria Theresa.

While both women were pregnant, she cleverly started to entertain the king in private. It is said she purposefully showed him her ankle (big hoe move for the 17th century) while getting out of a carriage. This led to the beginning of their relationship. Apparently, she would mock people in order to make the king laugh and her sarcasm hurt so much that courtiers feared it. It is also said that another way she seduced Louis XIV was by “accidently” dropping her towel while he was spying on her showering.

La Vallière was then reduced to second mistress. She was so humiliated that she retreated to a convent.

Madame de Montespan’s husband, enraged to learn of her infidelity, made a scandal at court and even made a symbolic funeral in front of the children (talk about childhood trauma). He was then imprisoned and exiled. Madame de Montespan became the favourite, but was still not recognized as the official mistress due to her marriage.

Her beauty and new position made her popular with men, but not so much with the church. They didn’t like her adultery and despite the king’s demand to give her absolution, the church did not yield.

They still went on to have seven children, to which Madame de Montespan did not tend. They hired a governess to look after them, named Madame de Maintenon.

Madame de Montespan became more than just a mistress. She had so many means of influencing the mind of the king that many ministers and courtiers submitted to her: her advice was asked for and followed. This also meant she knew a lot of state secrets.

Madame de Montespan became jealous when Louis XIV started an affair with none other than the governess looking over their children, Madame de Maintenon.

It was another affair with yet another mistress that sent Madame de Montespan into a downward spiral. Indeed, Louis XIV also took interest in another noblewoman named Madame de Fontanges, only 17 years old at the start of the affair. She became pregnant with the king’s child quickly, but gave birth prematurely and died not long after.

However, this all unfolded during the infamous Affaire des poisons, a major murder scandal in France near the end of the 17th century where multiple members of the aristocracy were accused and sentenced for charges of poisoning and witchcraft.

Given the general mistrust at the time due to the Affaire, it was not long before suspicion grew that Madame de Montespan’s jealousy could lead her to murder. This is why many believed her to be responsible for the death of Madame de Fontanges by poisoning her, although it was later confirmed she died of eclampsia, a condition where high blood pressure results in seizures during pregnancy.

During the Affaire des poisons, Madame de Montespan’s name was dropped in court by several accused and convicted as being a customer of Madame Catherine Monvoisin, also called Lavoisin, a potion maker. Montespan was accused of giving Louis XIV a love potion and participating in Black Masses with Lavoisin where infants were sacrificed.

It is important to note that Lavoisin allegedly provided midwife services and performed abortions, which at the time was seen as witchcraft was the source of the child sacrifice rumour. 

Despite the state of frenzy at the time of the Affaire, Madame de Montespan was never put on trial or convicted for the accusations. It is believed the king either believed her to be innocent or wanted to avoid the humiliation for his children.

Madame de Montespan later retreated to a convent and died in 1707.

HERstory Lesson is a column presenting all the “bad girls” in history, or the ultimate girlboss summit.


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