Madame de Montespan An influential mistress (1640-1707)

Before becoming the official mistress of Louis XIV in 1667, the Marquise de Montespan succeeded in making her way in the court thanks to the good graces of Anne of Austria. A woman of outstanding beauty, she was much feared by her fellow courtiers on account of the famous ‘Montemart’ wit for which her family was renowned, and held great sway over the royal court. A passionate lover of the arts, she enjoyed the king’s protection and a grand apartment near to his own – until she was superseded by Maintenon in around 1680. She finally left Versailles for good in 1691.

In the eternal chess game played by the king’s mistresses, becoming royal favourite meant deposing the current occupant of that role. As a member of the queen’s household, Françoise Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart (1640-1707), Marquise de Montespan, first met the king in the early 1660s, but it seems that it was not until around 1666-1667 that Louis XIV fell under her spell. In 1674, she definitively ousted Mademoiselle de la Vallière to become the king’s official mistress. Louis set her up in an apartment adjoining his own, complete with private entrance. They had seven children together, entrusting their education to the widow of poet Paul Scarron, the future Mme de Maintenon. Six of these children were legitimated by the king from 1673 onwards.

The Marquise de Montespan soon came to play a prominent role in life at the palace. Her social circle “became the epicentre of the court, its pleasures and its fortunes, a source of both hope and terror for ministers and generals,” as Saint-Simon put it in his Memoirs. A great lover of both luxury and the arts, she covered her walls with paintings and transformed her apartments into the court’s “witty heart.” She afforded her protection to illustrious artists such as Molière,  La Fontaine and Philippe Quinault.

But after many years in the spotlight, the Marquise de Montespan struggled to maintain the upper hand over her rivals and ultimately alienated the king with her unpredictable temper. Louis XIV gradually excluded her from his private chambers and from life at court. The wily Mme de Maintenon seized the opportunity to step in. The Marquise, caught up in the vast Affair of the Poisons and neglected by the king, finally retired from the court in 1691 and moved to the convent of Saint-Joseph in Paris. She died in 1707.