Madame du Barry: Louis XV’s Favorite Mistress
It has often been said that it is the mistress who truly wields the power on the throne. According to the BBC article The King’s Mistress – A Royal Tradition (2005), “… for centuries, kings across Europe have turned to mistresses for sex, advice and conversation” (BBC News, n. pag. ). In exchange for the sex and companionship that they provided to their respective paramours, these women were able to obtain “great personal wealth, security and a rare chance of political power” (BBC News, n. pag.). But in the case of Madame du Barry (1743-1793), a king’s mistress can also bring about the end of his regime (BBC News, n. pag. ).
Madame Jeanne Becu Comtesse du Barry was born as Marie-Jeanne Becu at Vaucouleurs, Lorraine on August 19, 1743 (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). She was the illigitimate daughter of Anne Becu, who was said to have worked either as a seamstress or a cook in Paris (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). Marie-Jeanne’s biological father was believed to be Jean Baptiste Gormand de Vaubernier, a friar who went by the name of “Brother Angel” (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). However, it was Anne’s lover, Monsieur Billard-Dumonceaux, who paid for her education at the convent of St. Aure (Wikipedia, n. pag. ).
Marie-Jeanne left the convent at age 15 and moved to Paris, where she assumed the name Jeanne Rancon (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). She held various jobs during her stay in Paris, which included being an assistant to a young hairdresser named Lametz (with whom she was rumored to have a daughter), a companion to Madame de la Garde (known to be a lonely aristocrat) and a miliner’s assistant in A La Toilette, an enterprise of a certain Monsieur Labille (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). In 1763, her beauty caught the eye of well-heeled pimp and casino owner Jean du Barry (Wikipedia, n. pag. ).
He then proceeded to turn her into his mistress and groomed her career as a courtesan that catered only to the Parisian elite (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). Marie-Jeanne became a courtesan for four years (Marie Antoinette, n. pag. ), working under the alias of Mademoiselle Lange (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). Although several of her wealthy customers eventually became her benefactors, Du Barry wanted to use her to control King Louis XV (1715-1774) (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). Du Barry’s ambition was realized when Marie-Jeanne and his brother, Comte Guillaume du Barry, were married in 1769 (Wikipedia, n. pag. ).
Marie-Jeanne’s marriage to a nobleman qualified her to become Louis XV’s official royal mistress (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). On April 2, 1769, Madame du Barry was formally intoroduced to the family of the king and the French royal court (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). In sharp contrast to Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), another of Louis XV’s mistresses, Du Barry had minimal political clout over the king (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). Her only participation in politcs was her membership in the faction that deposed Etienne Francois de Choiseul from his position as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1770 (Wikipedia, n. pag. ).
Du Barry instead spent her time “having new gowns made and ordering jewelry of every shape, size and colour” (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). She also took the place of De Pompadour as Louis XV’s favorite mistress (Marie Antoinette, n. pag. ). However, Du Barry’s genteel life in Versailles Palace was not without problems. She had a bitter feud with French Dauphine Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) primarily because of the latter’s support of De Choiseul (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). Marie Antoinette also refused to have anything to do with Du Barry due to her disgust with the latter’s personal background (Marie Antoinette, n. pag. ).
Furthermore, Louis XV requested prior to his demise in May 1774 that Du Barry be banished to the Abbey of Pont aux-Dames, where her letters and visits were strictly monitored (Marie Antoinette, n. pag. ). Historians believed that the king’s relationship with Du Barry might have hindered him from receiving an absolution before his death; hence, his decision to send her away (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). Du Barry lived in the convent for two years, before moving to the Chateau de Louveciennes (Wikipedia, n. pag. ) in 1776 (Marie Antoinette, n. pag. ).
Although Du Barry was noted for her “her good nature and support of artists” (Wikipedia, n. pag. ), the French people despised her due to the lavish lifestyle that the king subjected her to (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). By the late 1780s, France was in the midst of a severe fiscal crisis (MSN Encarta, n. pag. ). Its economy suffered due to the monarchy’s tedious and archaic bookkeeping system (MSN Encarta, n. pag. ). Furthermore, the country also did not have a national bank (MSN Encarta, n. pag. ). Even if the majority of France’s nobility and clergy were extremely well-off, they were taxed considerably less than the poor peasants (MSN Encarta, n. pag. ).
The royalty likewise had to take on crippling debts just to finance the very expensive wars it got itself into – the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and the American Revolution (1775-1783) (MSN Encarta, n. pag. ). While the country’s upper classes wallowed in wealth and the monarchy engaged in one expensive hostility after another, ordinary French citizens starved due to skyrocketing prices of bread (MSN Encarta, n. pag. ).
The increasing animosity between France’s nobility and bourgeoisie resulted in the French Revolution (1789-1799) (MSN Encarta, n. pag. ). Under the Revolution, “France was temporarily transformed from an absolute monarchy, where the king monopolized power, to a republic of theoretically free and equal citizens” (MSN Encarta, n. pag. ). Simply put, the French Revolution served as the retribution for all the injustices that the French royalty inflicted upon its people. At the height of the Revolution, revolutionaries guillotined nobles, their allies and anyone who opposed the uprising (MSN Encarta, n. pag. ). Du Barry went to England several times in 1792 to supposedly recover stolen jewelry (MSN Encarta, n. pag. ).
As a result, she was accused of secretly providing financial assistance to the England-based opponents of the new French republic (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). The Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris apprehended Du Barry on treason charges in 1793 (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). Following a premeditated trial, she was finally guillotined at the Place de la Concorde on December 8, 1793 (Wikipedia, n. pag. ). Mistresses like Madame du Barry lived lives of wealth, comfort and power. But their affluence and prominence did not come without a tragic price, as they attained these at the expense of so many impoverished citizens.
The hedonistic existence of these women sickened their countrymen to the point that they finally rose up and demanded change for their resepctive countries and governments. It would be fair to say that mistresses can serve as the ultimate warning to any leader who will use his position to enrich himself and his associates. The people may tolerate corruption for a remarkably long time. But once they take power into their own hands, there is no government on earth that they cannot overthrow.
- “French Revolution. ” 2007. MSN Encarta.
- 22 April 2008 <http://encarta. msn. com/encyclopedia_761557826/French_Revolution. html>.
- “Madame du Barry. ” 2008. Marie Antoinette. 22 April 2008 <http://www. marie-antoinette. info/Madame_Du_Barry. html>.
- “Madame du Barry. ” 9 April 2008. Wikipedia. 22 April 2008 <http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Madame_du_Barry>. “Marie Jeanne Becu du Barry. ” 2007.
- MSN Encarta. 22 April 2008 <http://encarta. msn. com/encyclopedia_761557120/Du_Barry_Marie_Jeanne_B %C3%A9cu_Comtesse. html>. “The King’s Mistress – A Royal Tradition. ” 27 April 2005.
- BBC News. 22 April 2008 <http://news. bbc. co. uk/2/hi/uk_news/4465399. stm>.