Wednesday, 8 February 2012

An imperceptible touch of rouge

"I believe that the histories that will be written about this court after we are 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 think they are just fairy tales."

Thus Lieselotte of Palatine, the second wife of Phillipe, Duc d'Orleans wrote of her peculiar political marriage and her impressions of the Royal Court of France.
"You may say of this country as the Holy Scriptures have it: ‘All flesh has been inverted.’ I dread that with fashion the vice too will be brought from here into our country. For when the French see a pretty German, they follow him as long as they can, to get him. I know many who did not let themselves be talked into it and escaped honorably — while others have become worse than the French and led such a blasphemous life that one is dumbfounded… Those who take to this vice but believe in the Holy Scriptures think that it was only a sin when there were just a few human beings on earth and what they did could harm mankind by hindering it from multiplying. But now, with the whole world being populated, they consider the thing a permitted digression, though they keep it secret as far as they can to avoid annoying the common man. But persons of rank speak of it openly. They regard it as elegant, also they say that since Sodom and Gomorrha the Lord God has no longer punished anyone for it. You will find me erudite in this text — indeed I have heard of it often since I have been in France… "
Philippe, Duc d'Orleans ("Monsieur"), the brother of King Louis XIV of France, was particularly keen on "this vice".

Having been subject to a politically expedient marriage, the couple did their duty: by 1676, Liselotte had borne three children, of whom two survived, the required male heir and a daughter. However according to none other than Nancy Mitford, who wrote a biography of the couple, Philippe only managed to "keep his pecker up" (as it were) by hanging medals of the Virgin Mary on it! Once duty was done, Philippe turned exclusively to his male lovers; Liselotte turned to her correspondence. Neither was particularly bothered by the separation of bedchambers.

The scandals that surrounded Monsieur throughout his life were numerous and tangled. He was described as having only feminine inclinations, he loved to clean, was anxious about his complexion and loved all female jobs and ceremonies. At a very early age, it was said that Cardinal Mazarin (who oversaw the young Louis' early reign as joint Regent with the boy-king's mother) engineered Phillippe's first homosexual encounters, and placed him in the care of the cross-dressing Abbé de Choisy, in order to "soften him up" and alleviate any potential threat to the throne.

Remarkably, of the two brothers, it was to be the effeminate Monsieur who led his armies to victory - even if the soldiers used to say that he was "more afraid of being sun-burnt and of the blackness of the powder than of the musket-balls".

Courtier and prolific writer Saint Simon talked of Monsieur's appearance in a most disparaging way: "He was always covered with rings, bracelets, jewels, and wore a long black wide spread curly wig. He also had ribbons wherever he could put them; wore all kinds of perfumes, and was a fine model of cleanliness. He was accused of putting on an imperceptible touch of rouge." Liselotte wrote:
Never were two brothers more totally different in their appearance than the King and Monsieur. The King was tall, with light hair ; his mien was good and his deportment manly. Monsieur, without having a vulgar air, was very small ; his hair and eye-brows were quite black, his eyes were dark, his face long and narrow, his nose large, his mouth small, and his teeth very bad ; he was fond of play, of holding drawing-rooms, of eating, dancing, and dress ; in short, of all that women are fond of. The King loved the chase, music, and the theatre ; my husband rather affected large parties and masquerades : his brother was a man of great gallantry, and I do not believe my husband was ever in love during his life. He danced well, but in a feminine manner ; he could not dance like a man because his shoes were too high-heeled."
Saint Simon also wrote of Monsieur's long-lasting affair with the Chevalier de Lorraine. He described Philippe as smitten by the chevalier's good looks and as a result he showered him with money and benefices, while being 'ruled' by him. Phillippe's first wife Henrietta of England did not appreciate this however, and had the king banish the Chevalier de Lorraine. This banishment made Monsieur burst into tears and beg the king to recall him, but that was to no avail. Henrietta died only a little later. According to gossip spread by Saint Simon she was poisoned by two of Lorraine's minions, but according to the official autopsy she died of peritonitis caused by a perforated ulcer.

There were also affairs with the Comte de Guiche and the Marquis d'Effiat, the scandalous deflowering of the teenage Duc de Bourbon, and numerous other "lads" entered the "inner circle" throughout Philippe's life. He lavished his time and his affections - and indeed fortunes - on them, and many remained close to him to the end.

Given the nature of the court of the Roi Soleil at Versailles, there were many suspicions and whispers about the goings-on at Monsieur's residence the Château de Saint Cloud - but remarkably these were more to do with a fear of a "rival court" and of Lieselotte's birthright in Protestant Palatine than genuine outrage at the gay shenanigans. As history would have it, it was the Orleans dynasty that won in the end, as Monsieur's successors went on to form the backbone of the royal houses of Italy, Belgium and France.

Liselotte remained faithful to her husband to the end: When Philippe died suddenly in 1701, his wife immediately burned his lovers’ letters so that others could not see them:

"If people could know in the next world what goes on in this one, Monsieur would be most pleased with me, for I looked out all the letters written to him by his minions and burned them without reading them, so that they would not fall into the hands of others."

In all, the life of Monsieur is enthrallingly camp stuff.

Secret memoirs of the court of Louis XIV by Elizabeth Charlotte (Lieselotte), Duchess of Orleans


  1. It is indeed ironic that it was his descendants that prevailed.
    Would loved to have seen him in action back then.
    Liselotte's letters are fun to read, she pulls no punches. She was quite a character herself.


Please leave a message - I value your comments!