Louis XIV’s Saving ‘Solidity’

Historians have much reason to be grateful to the memorialists of the 17th and 18th centuries. Given that Antonia Fraser has made "love and Louis XIV" the subject of her latest work, she is certainly indebted to the Princess Elizabeth Charlotte (Liselotte) of Bavaria, sister-in-law of the Sun King, whom Fraser calls her favorite among all the abundant female sources of that period so rich in scandal and adventure.

Antonia Fraser, Nan A. Talese, $32.50 416 pages
 
Historians have much reason to be grateful to the memorialists of the 17th and 18th centuries. Given that Antonia Fraser has made "love and Louis XIV" the subject of her latest work, she is certainly indebted to the Princess Elizabeth Charlotte (Liselotte) of Bavaria, sister-in-law of the Sun King, whom Fraser calls her favorite among all the abundant female sources of that period so rich in scandal and adventure.
 
In her introduction, Fraser quotes Liselotte, who wrote with distinct prescience: "I believe that the histories which will be written about this court after we are all gone will be better and more entertaining than any novel, and I am afraid that those who come after us will not be able to believe them and will think that they are just fairy tales." Reading Fraser’s account of that age, one may well find the stories of court life more entertaining than many a novel.
 
On the whole, Fraser judges Louis XIV as generally having treated his women well and generously. She devotes most attention to three principal women in his life apart from his mother. His first real love was with the virginal Louise de la Vallière, lady-in-waiting to his sister-in-law Henrietta. Louise bore the king four children who were legitimized. When his interest eventually moved on to an ambitious fellow lady-in-waiting, the Marquise de Montespan, Louise took the veil, spending the rest of her life in a Carmelite convent. Fraser notes that Marie Magdalene was a much-esteemed saint in that age.
 
Montespan in turn bore Louis seven children, all declared legitimate by the king and ennobled. During all this time, Louis was married to his queen, Marie-Thérèse, a niece of Anne of Austria, who bore him four sons. Louis treated her with all proper respect, even if more out of a sense of duty than from any real affection.
 
Religion had begun to assume an ever more prominent role in court life. Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin of course played a dominant role in determining the power that France was to assume in European affairs, but celebrated churchmen like Bossuet and Bourdaloue exercised perhaps more influence on the morality of court life. Fraser tells of the king’s two mistresses — Montespan and the lovely Angélique de Fontanges, a relatively short-lived affair — both in the process of falling out of royal favor, praying hard on their knees and "jangling their rosaries," with Montespan and her children on the right and Angélique on the left. As Primi Visconti, one of the memorialists of the period, commented, "Truly, court life provides the funniest scenes imaginable."
 
The woman who would perhaps have the greatest influence on Louis XIV was of fairly humble birth. Françoise de Maintenon had gotten to know Louis during the time she was governess of Montespan’s brood of royal children. She seems to have been a naturally motherly sort of woman (although she never had any children of her own) who was also well-educated, an excellent conversationalist, intelligent, and entertaining. Louis found himself genuinely enjoying her company, perhaps for the first time having an actual congenial relationship with a woman. With the death of his Spanish queen, he eventually married Madame de Maintenon in a quasi-secret wedding.
 
The papacy clearly accepted the new marriage (although it was not officially announced in France), sending Madame de Maintenon a lapis lazuli crown for a statue of the Virgin and a gold medal as tokens of papal approval. Fraser observes that Louis, whose sexual energies were by now likely waning, could focus on introducing a new puritanism at court. By Easter 1684, the king was sternly criticizing those courtiers who had not performed their religious duties.
 
Madame de Maintenon had an interest in helping young women of gentle birth but with no money for a dowry. Louis still enjoyed the company of young women, but by this time took more of a patriarchal interest in their future, rather than considering them as potential mistresses. The result was the foundation of Saint-Louis at Saint-Cyr, a school for impoverished noblewomen, in 1686. Louis was particularly pleased that daughters of soldiers who had fallen in war — in royal service — should be looked after by the foundation.
 
As the years passed, Madame de Maintenon remained perhaps the best and most loyal friend Louis had. As she told a friend, "When the King returns from hunting, he comes to my room; the door is shut and nobody is allowed to enter." Alone with him, she listened to ”all his cares and woes, staunching the tears he sometimes could not control." As Louis put it to her on occasion, "Kings have majesty and popes have sanctity, but you have solidity." He sometimes addressed her as such in the presence of his ministers when he would enquire what "Your Solidity" might think on a particular subject. Of all his many loves, it was perhaps her solidity that would endure the longest.
 


Cynthia Grenier writes the Mag Trade column for the
Washington Times.

Benjamin D. Wiker

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Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His newest book is The Reformation 500 Years Later: 12 Things You Need To Know. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com, and you can follow him on Facebook.

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