Charlotte Elizabeth of Bavaria (1652–1722)

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Charlotte Elizabeth of Bavaria (1652–1722)

Duchess of Orleans. Name variations: Elisabeth Charlotte of Orleans; Elizabeth Charlotte of Bohemia; Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate; Elizabeth-Charlotte of Bourbon Orleans. Born in Heidelberg, Baden, on May 27, 1652; died in St. Cloud, France, on December 8, 1722 (some sources cite 1712); daughter of Charlotte of Hesse (1627–1687) and Charles I, Elector Palatine; became second wife of Philip (1540–1701), duke of Orléans (r. 1660–1701, brother of King Louis XIV of France), on November 16 or 21, 1671, at Metz; children: Alexander (b. 1673); Philip or Philippe (b. 1674), 2nd duke of Orleans; Elizabeth-Charlotte (1676–1744, who married Leopold, duke of Lorraine, and was the mother of Emperor Francis I).

The daughter of a minor German prince and the intended bride of Louis XIV's homosexual brother Philip, duke of Orléans, Charlotte Elizabeth, princess of the Palatinate, had much to overcome as she entered the court of Versailles in 1671. Ungainly and plain in appearance, with a brash and assertive manner, she initially appeared to have only political expediency in her favor. (Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, was eager to annex large parts of the Palatinate and had his eye on the electoral vote he might obtain should Philip become the elector through a Palatinate marriage.) The groom-to-be had already rid himself of his first wife Henrietta Anne of England, who died under mysterious circumstances, and aside from his aversion to women in general, he had a particular dislike of his intended bride. "Am I supposed to sleep with that?," he wailed upon first setting eyes on her. Charlotte Elizabeth, who had hoped to marry a German prince if she married at all, had her own misgivings. A sense of duty on the part of both participants prevailed, however, and a marriage contract was signed on November 16, 1671, following Charlotte Elizabeth's secret conversion to Catholicism.

Regally known as Madame after her marriage, Charlotte Elizabeth became a formidable force in court life, largely because of her flourishing relationship with the king, whom she came to call the "Great Man." Louis, for his part, respected her keen intelligence and appreciated her sincerity and lack of pretense. Charlotte also developed a surprisingly good relationship with her husband, although she detested two of his scheming confidants, the Chevalier de Lorraine and the Marquis d'Effiat. She dutifully gave birth to three children, after which she and Philip agreed to live separate lives. While he occupied himself with his wardrobe and his social calendar, she tended the family, which included his two daughters from a previous marriage—Marie Louise d'Orleans (1662–1689) and Anne-Marie d'Bourbon-Orleans (1669–1728). Motherhood became Charlotte's overriding concern, and she approached it with an unconventional, and quite modern, combination of love and discipline. The children, in turn, remained devoted to her for as long as she lived.

In addition to her status as one of the bestread members of court, Charlotte distinguished herself as one of the most prolific letter writers of all time. Indeed, as she grew older, she often spent 10-to-12 hours a day writing letters that sometimes stretched to 30 pages in length. Witty and candid, she detailed day-to-day life at court, as well as observations on the relatives and courtiers of Louis XIV. As historian Nis A. Petersen points out, Charlotte's correspondence is not only engaging and informative but has the particular edge of an outsider, or, "a very square peg in a round hole. … It was this sense of detachment," he writes, "that give Madame's observations their special flavour—that make them of interest to the casual reader and historian alike."

Charlotte used her correspondence to criticize many of the prevailing practices of the day. She mistrusted doctors and had no faith in the frequent use of purging and bloodletting, which she avoided until shortly before her death. She treated her own illnesses "in the German manner," with a wholesome diet, fresh air, and exercise. She avoided the vast quantities of greasy, overcooked, over spicy foods consumed by the royal family and also eschewed chocolate, coffee, tea, and tobacco, delicacies of the time. She particularly detested the use of snuff by the court ladies, proclaiming that their dirty noses looked as though "they had poked them in dung." She was equally outspoken about the lack of personal hygiene of a certain member of court and described in detail the slovenly habits of the Princess d'Harcourt , a great lady of the court, and Madame de Montespan , the king's former mistress. Charlotte was meticulous about her own regimen which was simple and practical. She wore no make-up or perfume, refused to don a wig, and limited her wardrobe to three principal items: a state robe for formal functions; a riding habit, tailored like a man's but with a long, flowing skirt; and a night shift. These were augmented with a few pieces designed for comfort, like a quilted dressing robe and otter-skin stockings to ward off the winter chill. Once, when she wound an old fur around her neck for additional warmth, she was dumbfounded when the ladies of the court began sporting fur pieces of their own. (To this day, a fur tippet worn over the shoulders is known as a "Palatine.")

Perhaps the most interesting of Charlotte's voluminous correspondence are the letters devoted to the discussion of court morals. Although she abided by a strict code of ethics and felt that others might do well to emulate her, she was tolerant of others. Regarding her husband's homosexuality, or the "Italian Vice," as it was then termed, she was resigned. She found homosexuality to be common at court, and, according to Petersen, surmised that "if the King were really to punish all those guilty he would decimate all the great houses of France and would also have to close the College of Jesuits." She was not so tolerant of actual vices such as gambling, drinking, and adultery, the latter of which she found particularly repugnant among the royal family because of the embarrassing offspring it produced. Referring to them as "mousedroppings among the pepper," she was intensely disturbed by the arranged marriage of Louis' illegitimate daughter Françoise-Marie de Bourbon , comtesse de Blois, the product of his liaison with Madame de Montespan, to her son Philip.

It was Madame's view that rather than seeking hedonistic diversions, royalty should seek to do good, administer justice, and spare their subjects the burdens of excessive taxation. She also believed that religion had no place in politics and was appalled at the persecution of the Huguenots during the close of Louis' reign. Blaming the king's actions on his lack of information (unlike her, he hated to read), and the influence of his last mistress and second wife Madame de Maintenon , Charlotte was frustrated by his behavior. "I must own," she wrote, "that when I hear the Great Man praised in a sermon for his persecution of the reformed, I am always impatient. I cannot hear bad actions being praised."

Charlotte, who had hoped to outlive her tormentors, also survived her admirers, including her husband, whom she lost in 1701, and the king, who died in 1715. The death in 1714, of her beloved aunt, Sophia, Electress of Hanover , to whom she wrote many of her most scathing letters, was particularly devastating. Though broken in spirit during her later years, Charlotte faced her own death with her usual good sense and courage, saying that it was "only the last absurdity we are capable of committing, so we put it off as long as possible." In 1722, she attended the coronation of Louis XV, agreeing against her better judgment to be bled and purged before making the trip from Paris to Reims. She died soon after, on December 8, 1722. Just before she slipped away, one of her ladies-in-waiting sought to kiss her hand. "You may kiss me properly on the lips," Charlotte was said to have whispered. "I am going to the land where all are equal."


Petersen, Nis A. "Madame: Elisabeth Charlotte of Orleans," in History Today. Vol. XXVII, no. 2. February 1977.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Charlotte Elizabeth of Bavaria (1652–1722)

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Charlotte Elizabeth of Bavaria (1652–1722)