The French royal mistresses who made it about more than sex
The women who shared the beds of French kings, often with the queens fully aware, could achieve titles and a place at court. But, as Estelle Paranque explores through the lives of official royal mistresses, it was not only their beauty and seduction that saw them rise to the top…
When, in 1444, Agnès Sorel was officially made royal mistress to the 40-year-old king Charles VII of France, the line between lover and political player became thinner. Never before had a monarch’s sexual partner received such recognition. Known as the ‘Dame de Beauté’ (Lady of Beauty), Sorel had been praised for her perfect characteristics: blonde hair, blue eyes and voluptuous figure. Surely, however, one needed more than attractive physical attributes to entice a man – let alone a king – and rise at court.
The humanist scholar Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, who would later become Pope Pius II, noted that Charles “fell so much in love with her that he could not even spend an hour without her. Whether at table, in bed, at council, she was always by his side.”
Sorel’s influence exceeded their passionate and enamoured relationship. More importantly, she set a precedent, a goal for any woman who would seduce a king. It was possible, after all, for women to climb the political ladder at court, but they were going to need much more than sex appeal to do so.
Soon enough, other women would follow in Agnès Sorel’s footsteps and become political and diplomatic agents in their own right. Here are three other French mistresses who worked their way to the top…
Diane de Poitiers: the shadow queen of Henry II
In many ways, Diane de Poitiers (1499–1566) is a more accomplished version of Agnès Sorel. The widow of the Seigneur d’Anet and Comte de Maulevrier, Louis de Brézé, she moved on from her husband’s death by taking a lover 20 years younger than her. And what a choice for a lover: the prince Henry.
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They had met when Diane was lady-in-waiting to Henry’s grandmother, and from the time that she became his mistress in 1534, when he was 15 years old, her effect on the young prince was strong. He fell utterly in love with her. By the time he became King Henry II of France in 1547, Diane had become his shadow, always to be found by his side.
It is believed that she taught him all she knew about love, sexuality and pleasure. Henry had been married to Catherine de Medici since 1533, but he continued to favour his mistress with patronage and, as king, made her the official royal favourite. Diane was also made a permanent member of the privy council – much to the chagrin of Catherine, who had no say in the matter.
It is not surprising that Catherine, who wielded next to no political influence, suffered a great deal from Henry’s relationship with Diane; it was clear to everyone that she was the 'third wheel'. Devoted to her husband, she never complained – at least not in public – and even tolerated their exuberant declarations of love.
Then when the king and queen failed to have a child and heir, she was left with no choice but to accept Diane’s help to secure the dynastic line. Diane would encourage Henry to go to his wife’s bedchamber, where she advised and assisted during the royal couple’s intimate moments. This proved to be fruitful as they had 10 children together, but these moments were humiliating for Catherine.
Henry had other mistresses and other children. Janet Stewart, the illegitimate daughter of James IV of Scotland, gave him Henri d’Angoulême, who would be legitimised. Yet no one was able to achieve the closeness that Diane managed. While she and the king did not have children together, she was involved in all his children’s education, royal and non-royal.
Many recognised Diane’s incredible and indescribable influence over the French king, who always displayed her colours during tournaments and festivities. Their relationship went beyond lust; Diane was the love of Henry’s life and was treated as such.
His constant favouring of her meant that she developed a strong political network, and courtiers – domestic and foreign – often sought her patronage and support. Undeniably, while she never sought the title for herself, Diane was queen in all but name, and used all her agency to protect her own interests, as well as those of the ones she favoured.
Gabrielle d’Estrées: the ‘almost queen’
It was in the midst of the eighth religious civil war that the new king, Henry IV, met and fell in love with the sublime Gabrielle d’Estrées (1573–99). Little did he know that this love story would lead to a real partnership.
From a family of notorious femmes fatales, Gabrielle and her sisters were praised for their beauty and charm all around France. However, Gabrielle showed no interest in power – at least at first.
When Henry met Gabrielle in 1590, he was absolutely infatuated, but she was enamoured with another: Roger de Saint-Lary, Duke of Bellegarde, a well-built, elegant man who had proved his military prowess time after time. It took months for Henry’s advances to seduce the young woman.
While the relationship seemed mostly torrid, little by little Gabrielle became an important figure at court. Despite her father marrying her off to Nicholas d’Amerval, Seigneur de Liancourt, her relationship with the king was widely known and she remained at his side even when he was on campaign.
As his fervent supporter, she convinced him to convert to Catholicism, which he did in July 1593, and the following year, when Henry made his triumphal entry into Paris, Gabrielle made her first appearance as a clear member of the king’s entourage. She was de facto royalty.
The couple sired three children: César, Catherine-Henriette and Alexandre. While Gabrielle’s status gave her many enemies, she pursued her own political and diplomatic network in order to make herself a perfect candidate for a consort position. Indeed, Henry and his first wife, Margaret of Valois, had not been seen together in years and it was just a matter of time before they would be granted an annulment or divorce.
By 1595, Gabrielle was clearly the royal favourite with the title maîtresse en titre (Titular Mistress). Once Henry and Margaret’s annulment had been granted, a path became available to her – and she took it.
While many would never have expected someone from such a scandalous family to reach such a high rank of nobility, especially to the point of royalty, Gabrielle managed to succeed. All their children were legitimated, and discussions regarding a marriage were making progress.
Gabrielle was made the king’s deputy to Beaufort and Étampes, and when their infant son, César, was made Duke of Vendome and governor of Vendôme, she ruled on his behalf. Her influence surpassed whatever she could have hoped for, and while she certainly had her detractors, she also had great supporters among the nobility.
A marriage was finally decided on when Gabrielle became pregnant with their fourth child. In the year 1599, everything was prepared for an Easter Sunday wedding. Tragically, Gabrielle, who was suffering from complications due to the pregnancy, died in agony on the Holy Saturday.
Henry was devastated and mourned the love of his life deeply. But, like any womaniser, his love life did not end with Gabrielle’s death. Another woman, who looked very similar to Gabrielle, was about to make her own impression on the king.
Henriette d’Entragues: the ambitious pursuer of Henry IV’s throne
Despite his obvious grief, Henry IV bounced back from the tragedy of losing Gabrielle and, only three months later, he had met the teenager Henriette d’Entragues (1579–1633) in Paris. Soon, he was claiming: “This heart dreams only of your charms; you are my only love.”
Unfortunately for Henry, members of his council, the pope and anyone else advising the French crown pushed him to marry Marie de Medici instead to secure a good diplomatic alliance.
Henriette knew how powerful the position of royal favourite could be. Her mother, Marie Touchet, had been the sole favourite of Charles IX and had given birth to a son, Charles d’Angoulême. Henriette was also well aware of how Gabrielle d’Estrées had been close to becoming queen of France, and she saw this as an opportunity to fulfil her mother’s dreams as well as her own.
Henry lavished her with gifts, notably an “expensive and beautiful necklace” and “a diamond ring”, but for the young woman, there was nothing more valuable than the crown of France, and the respect and power that came with it. Besotted and infatuated with Henriette, who was becoming more and more ambitious by the day, Henry promised her in writing that if she bore him a son, he would marry her. So when she swiftly announced that she was pregnant, her hopes of becoming queen grew exponentially.
Fate decided otherwise. One summer night, a powerful storm erupted and lightning struck her room, and Henriette suffered a miscarriage. The child, who was indeed a boy, died in her arms. While, in the eyes of Henry, this awful event meant he was released from his promise to marry her, for Henriette this was not the case.
The couple were still lovers and, despite the fact that he went ahead and married Marie de Medici in 1600, Henriette never accepted their union. Instead, she decided to scheme against her lover.
On 27 October 1601, Henriette finally gave birth to a healthy baby boy: Gaston Henri de Bourbon-Verneuil. Titles and lands were given to Henriette, but she wanted the king to annul his marriage, repudiate his firstborn with his queen (the future Louis XIII), and marry her. She would then be proclaimed queen and their son as heir. Due to these actions, many saw Henriette as delusional.
Thanks to her time at court, she developed strong political and diplomatic networks, making her demands a genuine threat to the stability and prosperity of the realm. Henry was adamant and firm: this would not happen. Henriette continued to scheme against her lover, trying to further the alliances that could help her son gain rights to the throne. All were without great success.
Despite her failure to achieve this goal, Henriette’s relentless pursuit of the crown shows the extent to which royal favourites could wield significant political power to the point where they could even pose a risk to the king’s position.
In other words, it wasn’t just about sex. Love, intimacy, trust and distrust, and the thirst for power, were all very much intertwined in the relationships between these kings and their royal mistresses.
Dr Estelle Paranque is a historian in queenship, royal and diplomatic studies, and assistant professor in early modern history at New College of the Humanities at Northeastern University. Her new book is Blood, Fire and Gold: The Story of Elizabeth I and Catherine de Medici (Ebury Press, 2022)