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HistoryCourt characters

Madame de Maintenon

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The secret wife of Louis XIV (1635-1719)

Madame de Maintenon, the last great female figure in the reign of Louis XIV, first played the role of governess. Recommended by the Marquise de Montespan, then the mistress of Louis XIV, she looked after their children far from the court. But Madame de Maintenon soon rivalled the Marquise in the king’s affections and moved into the Château de Versailles where order and strictness henceforth reigned.

Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon, appeared at the Court of Versailles in the 1680s. She was born in 1635 in Niort prison where her parents were being held on suspicion of working for the enemy English. Orphaned in 1647, she first married the writer Paul Scarron, celebrated for his burlesque comedies. When he died a few years later he left her only debts and the name “Scarron’s widow”. On the advice of the Marquise de Montespan, the official mistress of Louis XIV whom she had met a few years before, in 1669 she became the governess of their children. An excellent opportunity to meet the King in person when he visited his offspring. But the story goes that he found her “unbearable”.

However, the situation changed. In 1675, again on the advice of the Marquise de Montespan, Louis XIV granted her the title of “Marquise de Maintenon”. In 1682, she was given the title of “dame d’atour” (lady-in-waiting) of the Dauphine. A clever strategist, she subsequently took advantage of the disgrace of the Marquise and the death of the Queen Maria Theresa of Austria to secretly marry the King in 1683.

Madame de Maintenon had great influence over Louis XIV who came to see her every day in a new apartment looking out on the royal courtyard of the Château. Here he worked, received his ministers and enjoyed some moments of peace and quiet chatting with his wife. But it is difficult to gauge what role she played in the king’s political decisions. Was she involved in the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685? But Madame de Maintenon certainly maintained order at the Court of Versailles which earned her little affection there. For most of the courtiers she was a shadowy figure.

A few days before the death of Louis XIV in 1715, she retired to Saint-Cyr, a house of education for girls and site of the future school, where she was buried in 1719. Regarded as a queen by the revolutionaries, her body was dug up in 1793. Her remains, found during the Second World War in the ruins of the bombed school, were placed in the royal chapel of the Château de Versailles before being replaced in Saint-Cyr in 1969.

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