du Barry, Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse (1743–1793)
du Barry, Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse (1743–1793)
French maîtresse en titre to Louis XV whose life displayed and symbolized the brilliance and decadence of the years before the French Revolution. Name variations: Comtesse du Barry; Madame du Barry; Marie Jeanne Bécu. Pronunciation: JHAN bay-COO, co-TESSE dew-BARR-ee. Born on August 19, 1743, in Vaucouleurs (Meuse), France; guillotined in Paris on December 8, 1793, and was buried in a pit by the Madeleine; daughter of Anne Bécu (1713–1788, a seamstress) and an unknown father but probably a monk, Jean-Baptiste Gomard de Vaubernier; educated at the Convent School of Saint-Aure (Paris); married Guillaume du Barry (1768–1793); children: none legitimate but possibly an illegitimate daughter Marie-Joséphine ("Betsi") Bécu.
Met Jean-Baptiste, Comte du Barry (le Roué, 1763); became Louis XV's mistress and married Guillaume du Barry (1768); presented at court as maîtresse en titre (1769); helped bring about the fall of Choiseul (1770); struggled for recognition by Marie Antoinette (1770–72); confined at the Abbey of Pontaux-Dames after Louis XV died (1774–75); returned to Louveciennes (1776); had affair with Henry Seymour (c. 1779–80); was mistress of the Duc de Cossé-Brissac (c. 1780–92); made three trips to England to recover her stolen jewels (1791); left for England after Cossé-Brissac was lynched (1792); returned and was tried and executed (1793).
The story of Jeanne Bécu's life is a melodrama, relating the rise of an illegitimate child and prostitute to the position of mistress (maîtresse en titre) to the most powerful king in Europe, her Indian summer life as a wealthy and titled lady after his death, and a terrible end on the guillotine during the French Revolution. Until the late 19th century, when research began to uncover a far truer picture, she was the subject of innumerable scandal-mongering stories, pamphlets, books, and obscene songs portraying her as the most corrupt of women, a modern Messalina , a depraved director of foul orgies and queen of a court wallowing in decadence. The truth is colorful enough, given the fetid moral atmosphere of the courts of Europe at that time, but in Madame du Barry's case, at least, it is decidedly less lurid than the tales which have shocked (and titillated) the public since her day.
Jeanne Bécu's maternal grandfather, Fabien Bécu, was a handsome cook in Paris who somehow persuaded a noblewoman, Madame Cantigny, Comtesse de Montdidier , to marry him. She soon ran out of money and died, but he added (illegally) the Cantigny name to his and moved back to Vaucoulers, a small town in Champagne on the Meuse River where Joan of Arc had begun her military career. Jeanne's motherAnne Bécu was one of the seven children he sired in a second marriage, this to Jeanne Humon , a chambermaid working nearby for an exiled mistress of Louis XIV, the Madame Marie de Ludres . These children, to whom he passed on his good looks, mostly became servants in noble households. But Anne Bécu, or Bécu-Cantigny as she presumed to call herself, became a seamstress. A pretty young woman given to casual affairs, she was still unmarried at 30 when she gave birth to daughter Jeanne on August 19, 1743. The father is unknown, but evidence points to a local monk, Frère Ange (Brother Angel), born Jean-Baptiste Gomard de Vaubernier, who was later dismissed from his order but became a popular preacher and confessor at Saint-Eustache in Paris. He appeared on several occasions during Jeanne's life, notably at her marriage; and at various times she called herself Mlle Lange, Mlle Vaubernier, or Mlle Beauvernier.
On February 14, 1747, Anne gave birth to a son, Claude. Perhaps persuaded by a wealthy financier and munitions contractor named Billard-Dumouceaux (or Dumonceaux) who probably had met her in Vaucouleurs on his travels, she moved to Paris, where she lived with her sister Hélène, maid to the wife of the king's librarian, Arnaud-Jerôme Bignon. Claude soon died. Anne then met a servant, Nicolas Rançon, whom she married and whom Billard-Dumouceaux then set up as a munitions storekeeper for Corsica. Billard-Dumouceaux appears to have interested himself in young Jeanne, as did his mistress, a courtesan and actress named Francesca, well known around Paris as Madame Frédérique . It was with Francesca that Jeanne first observed Parisian high society and the life of an expensive mistress. Someone—possibly her supposed father, now attached to Saint-Eustache—decided she needed an education and enrolled her at the school of the Convent of Saint-Aure, which specialized in training deserving girls "in danger of ruin." For eight or nine years, Jeanne lived under Saint-Aure's stern regime while learning reading, writing, drawing, music, and the domestic arts. Her later love of reading and her taste for fine art may have been awakened at the convent school. Her handwriting was elegant, but her spelling and grammar were somewhat precarious—common deficiencies among even the highest nobility in that age. Her religious instruction made an impression, for she remained an observant for the rest of her life, attending mass almost daily and building chapels at her residences. Still, she emerged from school in late 1758 as a beautiful 15-year-old, lively and fun-loving, with lovely blue, roguish
(fripon), slanted, half-closed eyes, and ambitious to have nice things.
Aunt Hélène had her apprenticed to a young hairdresser named Lametz. The incredibly elaborate coiffeurs of that time made hairdressing a well-paying art. Jeanne spent several months learning. She and Lametz soon fell in love, but his mother, alarmed at his spending on her, went to Jeanne's mother threatening legal action against Jeanne. Anne replied with a countersuit for defamation and won. Lametz gave up and left for England. Some evidence, inconclusive, suggests that more than money was involved, that Jeanne was pregnant and gave birth about this time to a girl, Marie-Joséphine ("Betsi") Bécu , whose paternity was then assigned to Nicolas Bécu, Anne's brother. In later years, Betsi, who bore a strong resemblance to Jeanne, often visited her estate, Louveciennes, where she had her own room; and Jeanne played an important role in marrying her off with a large dowry to the Marquis de Boisséson in 1781.
Jeanne next turned up as a maid and then companion to the widow of a wealthy fermiergénéral (tax concessionaire), Mme Delay de la Garde , who lived in the Château de Corneuve near Paris. The widow's two married, middle-aged sons were attracted to her, as was the wife of one of them, the Comtesse de Ligneville . Tensions mounted, and the result was Jeanne's sudden departure early in 1761. Where she went next is unknown, but in 1762, calling herself "Mademoiselle Lange," she became a salesgirl and model at the Maison Labille, a millinery shop patronized by the aristocracy. Labille tried to keep his girls from trouble by locking them up on weeknights, but they were free to circulate on weekends. Jeanne began enjoying the colorful life of the great city, frequenting street fairs and gambling casinos. Her enemies later charged she became a common whore, selling herself on the streets for a few coins, or that she was one of the "girls" at Madame Gourdon 's notorious bordello. No evidence supports these tales; Madame Gourdon denied them, but police reports did mention Jeanne as sharing the company of monied men-about-town.
It is for mortals to adore your image The original was made for the gods.
—Voltaire on Madame du Barry
It was probably in late 1763 that she met and conquered the man who set her on the road to fame and fortune. Jean-Baptiste, Comte du Barry (1723–1794), from an ancient but poor noble family near Toulouse, was for good reason known as le Roué. He was utterly unprincipled, a witty talker, an expert at duping others, and a champion libertine in a society boasting regiments of that ilk. After dissipating a small inheritance, he had left his wife in 1753 to go to Paris. While working with minimal success to forge a diplomatic career, he tried in 1756—with the connivance of Madame de Pompadour , the king's maîtresse en titre but no longer filling the sexual role—to make a beautiful actress named Dorothée the king's mistress. Louis XV (r. 1715–1774), a bored sensualist, was interested until, perhaps fearing disease, he learned of her connection with the unsavory du Barry. The Roué did not give up the dream of making his fortune by finding a "morsel" for the king. When he met Jeanne Beauvarnier, as she was currently calling herself, he concluded he had possibly found his prize. But this time he would go slowly, preparing both her and her introduction into the royal presence.
The Prince de Ligne, who first saw Jeanne at Labille's, described her as "tall [5′5½″ was tall for those days], well made and ravishingly blonde with a wide forehead, lovely eyes with dark lashes, a small oval face with a delicate complexion marked by two little beauty spots, which only made her the more piquant, a [small] mouth to which laughter came easily and a bosom so perfect as to defy comparison." One could add that she had beautiful small white teeth, a splendid bearing, and was very clean—this in an age when regular bathing was still not the rule. Some of her contemporaries nitpicked, mostly out of jealousy or because they opposed her rise, saying she was no true classic beauty, that her features, roguish eye, and manners betrayed her plebeian breeding. However that might be, Jeanne was a woman whose beauty drew instant attention. When yoked with a pleasant, easy-going, open, and kind nature, it made her destiny.
Exactly how the Roué met her is disputed. A plausible version says they met at the "Marquise" Dufresnoy's gambling salon, where she was (supposedly) one of those kept to attract customers. The most convincing version is more complicated. Supplying the troops in Corsica was a large operation. Rançon, Jeanne's stepfather, was in touch with contractors who included Jean-Louis Favier (1711–1784), a political writer and secret agent for the king to whom the Comte du Barry was attached as a dealer in army contracts. Hence, Jeanne probably met du Barry at her home. In a rather sordid exchange, the Rançons allowed Jeanne (legally a minor) to live with the Roué in return for some nice furniture.
She did more than live with him. The Roué was in business, using money made in his army contracts to invest in girls (grisettes) and young women, buying them elaborate wardrobes, teaching them high society graces, and then pimping them to nobles and monied commoners, who paid well for his services. In his stable, Jeanne became the star. She spent most of her nights with him; jaded though he was, he did not tire of her. The rest of her time was largely occupied by the men he procured for her. By the end of 1764, she was being called the Comtesse du Barry (although his wife still lived) and was much seen in public in lavish clothes and an expensive carriage. A train of prominent men frequented the splendid salon the Roué set up (July, 1, 1766) at 16, rue de Jussienne—among them the Duc de Nivernais, the Comte de Guibert, the duc de Duras, the comte de Fitz-James, both the marquis and the comte de La Tour du Pin, writers and poets Marin, La Morlière, Moncrif, Collé, Cailhava, and the Abbé Arnaud. A police agent noted drily, the demoiselle's "health is not vigorous enough to bear such heavy labor. … [B]eneath the surface she has a very tired air."
Jeanne's first tryst with Louis XV occurred some time early in the summer of 1768. Several versions exist. The simplest says that Lebel, the king's valet and procurer of women, tried her out at the Roué's invitation and reported to the king. Another, corresponding to the king's memory, says he saw her in a crowd while passing down a hall at Versailles (where the public had free access) and asked Lebel to find her. It appears likely, however, that the Roué had carefully set up that seemingly casual sighting but employed roundabout means because he was persona non grata in the king's circle. He had assigned to Jeanne monies from a contract to supply Corsica. The king's chief minister, the Duc de Choiseul (1719–1785), had begun to attack the notorious contract abuses, so at the Roué's bidding Jeanne twice went to see him to try to get the contract continued. These unusual (and documented) visits probably were set up through Lebel so as to come at times when the king was likely to be passing near Choiseul's office. The key to the plot, the man who did the arranging with Lebel, was one of the Roué's most important customers, the old Maréchal-Duc de Richelieu (1696–1788), immensely rich, one of the century's most famous libertines, and a close friend of the king. The scheme worked. The king saw Jeanne, took instant interest, and Lebel arranged the tryst after Richelieu provided him a story that she was a married woman, free of disease, whose only dalliance had been with Sainte-Foÿ.
In no time, Louis was thoroughly smitten. He told the witty Duc d'Ayen that she gave him "an enjoyment of a kind altogether new to me." "That, Sire," replied the duke slyly, "is because you have never been to a brothel." (Both knew this was not precisely true because for years the king had maintained a personal brothel, called the Deer Park, at a discreet house on the outskirts of the town of Versailles which Lebel kept supplied.) When Richelieu asked him what he found in her, Louis responded soberly, "Only this, that she is the only woman in France who makes me forget that I soon will be sixty." The king's old friend the Duc de Croÿ later observed, "At sixty years of age the King was more in love than he had ever been. He seemed rejuvenated, and I had never seen him in better spirits: in extremely good humor and far more outgoing than he had ever been."
Lebel, who expected Jeanne to be just another passing fancy (passade), took alarm at his master's continuing trysts and told him what he had since learned about her. Louis, angered at the deception but now utterly infatuated, raged at Lebel, possibly hastening the latter's death several weeks later on August 17. By that time the Roué and Richelieu had taken steps to ensure that Jeanne could become—as Louis soon wished her to be—the maîtresse en titre. To be presented at court she had to be married and show noble ancestry from before 1400. Marriage to the Roué would have meant bigamy, something even he flinched at. The solution they found was to marry her to the Roué's short, plump brother Guillaume (1732–1811), a beached naval officer vegetating in the country near Toulouse, and to fix up Jeanne's and the du Barrys' credentials. A royal dispensation cleared the 1400 obstacle, and the marriage occurred on September 1, 1768. The Roué had outdone himself. Probably with Richelieu's help, he pasted together documents "proving" the du Barrys' connections with Italian (Bari) and Irish (Barrymore) nobility. Jeanne was passed off as the daughter of "the late Sieur Jean-Jacques Gomard de Vaubernier," Madame Rançon's "first husband." The Rançons were now titled "M. and Mme. de Montrabé," while Jeanne's probable father attended as her "uncle" and was styled "Chaplain to the King." The wedding, at the little church of Saint-Laurent, was held at 5 am. The bridal pair parted at the door. Guillaume returned to Toulouse with a 5,000 livre pension and his promise (unkept) that he would be seen no more.
The court presentation was delayed for months. Louis, timid, insecure, and given to bouts of depression, was a procrastinator and hated to make changes, give unwelcome news, or face opposition. The prospect of the parvenu Comtesse du Barry as maîtresse en titre aroused deep opposition. Choiseul, who had hoped to have his sister, the Duchesse de Gramont , become the mistress and thus secure his long reign (since 1758) as chief minister, took a violent dislike to Jeanne du Barry and hired writers to deluge the public with pamphlets and ribald ditties ridiculing her. There were others, too, who had cherished similar hopes since the death of Madame de Pompadour in 1764 only to see them dashed. The stakes were high. A maîtresse en titre required a huge financial outlay to support her as queen in all but title. (There was no queen, in fact, for on June 24, at the beginning of this affair, the real queen, Marie Leczinska , had died at age 65.) Others, thus, would not get this money. Moreover, the mistress would be entitled to her own place in church and at the king's table and all court functions, an apartment in every royal château, and the possibility of being present when the king's ministers consulted with him—an unrivaled opportunity to exert influence. Yet all of this in its own way pleased Louis, for it appears he thought his ability to impose a mistress gave proof of his authority.
The ladies of court went on "strike," none willing to play the role of presenter. Eventually the Duchesse d'Aiguillon of the Richelieu clan, who wanted to get her son back into favor, found a needy relative, the Comtesse de Béarn , who agreed to do it for promotions for her two sons in the army and navy and 100,000 livres to pay her debts. The date was fixed for January 25, 1769, but at the last moment Béarn faltered and claimed she had sprained an ankle, so the affair was postponed. More delay followed when Louis badly hurt an arm in a fall from a horse while hunting. Meanwhile, in a most helpful move, the Roué had sent his witty sister Françoise, called "Chon" (1726–1809), to keep Jeanne du Barry company through months of snubs and slander and the rigid etiquette requiring her and the king to be often apart and very discreet when together; Chon remained her closest friend for many years. In time, Chon's sister "Pischi" (Jeanne, 1727–1801) joined Jeanne's intimate circle.
The day came at last on April 22, 1769, easily one of the most remarked-upon court events of the century. Du Barry kept the glittering assemblage waiting so long that Louis nearly called it off. But at the last moment she glided in, dazzling in a white gown dripping with 200,000 livres worth of diamonds, made the three required curtsies, was introduced to the king by the Comtesse de Béarn, and then flawlessly executed the three retreating curtsies, which required a deft foot to push aside her heavy train—a maneuver she had practiced a thousand times since it frequently sent ladies toppling over backward to the snickers of the crowd. Louis beamed like a young lover beholding his new bride. Despite its hostility, the court agreed she had met the test in grand style.
Henceforth, until Louis' death in May 1774, du Barry's life merged into the political, social, and artistic currents in France at the highest level. Many members of the court drifted to her side or became neutral, but her enemies remained numerous. Her hold on the king stayed strong to the end. There was even talk in 1772 and 1773 of a morganatic marriage, but, if nothing else, an annulment of du Barry's marriage promised too much trouble with the church. (Jeanne obtained a legal separation in 1772.) A semi-serious project broached in 1769–70 to marry Louis to the Archduchess Elizabeth of Austria (b. 1743), an older sister (by 12 years) of Marie Antoinette , posed no real threat. As much as anything, the social complications this match would have created at Versailles defeated it. Whether Louis remained entirely faithful to Jeanne is disputed; candidates for passades included the Princesse de Monaco , a Miss Smith, Mme d'Armeval, Mme Bèche, Mlle Raucourt , and the Baronne de Nieuwerkerke . It is certain, however, that he sold the Deer Park in May 1771—a reasonably clear sign that du Barry had won.
Broadly speaking, until early 1772 Jeanne was consolidating her position and hence involved in political matters, more so than later. Two intertwined affairs dominated this period: 1) the fall of Choiseul, and 2) Jeanne's struggle to win Marie Antoinette's recognition of her position. In both cases, du Barry espoused no political agenda as such. Unlike Pompadour, she had no interest in or head for high policy. She simply wanted to be accepted socially and to enjoy the fruits of her dizzying ascent.
It would be easy to overestimate or underestimate du Barry's influence on the king in policy matters. In the case of Choiseul's fall, she probably hastened an event that would have occurred anyhow. Choiseul had been in power for a long time and thus had accumulated many enemies. He was a diplomat, highly competent, dedicated to duty, but insufferably vain. He was identified with the unpopular Austro-French alliance, which evoked memories of France's humiliation in the Seven Years' War (1756–63). He had expelled the Jesuit order, alienating the dévots. Most dangerously, he tended to side with the parlements—13 regional high courts of justice and administration—which were increasingly pushing their constitutional claims against the king's prerogative.
As noted, Choiseul violently opposed du Barry's ascent, probably fearing, mistakenly, that she would be another Pompadour and destroy his political influence. Also, he saw, rightly, that she was supported by his old enemy Richelieu and the duke's nephew, the Duc d'Aiguillon (1720–1788), who assiduously courted Chon. Choiseul's scurrilous press campaign against du Barry drove her finally to complain to Louis, who in turn assured Choiseul of his confidence but advised him to back off. Nothing availed. The climax came in 1770 when a long war between the parlement in Brittany and the Duc d'Aiguillon boiled over into a direct confrontation between Louis and the parlements. The degree to which Louis backed d'Aiguillon because of du Barry's persuasion cannot be known. She had secured for him the plum appointment as colonel-in-chief of the Light Horse and captain of the Royal Bodyguard against one of Choiseul's relatives and was undoubtedly interested in his advancement. But the political stakes for Louis and the monarchy far surpassed questions about d'Aiguillon. In a dramatic lit de justice (a formal meeting in the king's presence) on December 3, 1770, with du Barry attending, Louis ordered the Parlement of Paris to close all proceedings against d'Aiguillon, and he forbade all the parlements to take joint actions or make joint claims against his authority. When the parlements replied by going on strike, Louis, in the most dramatic act of his reign in domestic policy, had the members arrested and exiled to other locales (January 19–20), and on April 13 he announced a new system of courts to replace the parlements. Louis XV's dismissal of the parlements and Louis XVI's later restoration of them were momentous acts, for opposition by the parlements was critical in forcing Louis XVI to convoke the Estates-General, the deed that opened the way to the Revolution.
Meanwhile, Choiseul shared their fate. Louis had plainly told him he did not want war. Desperately trying to save his position, Choiseul went to the brink of war with England in order to support Spain in their quarrel over claims to the Falkland Islands. He apparently calculated that Louis would need his abilities and that the parlements would respond to his appeals for the needed money, not the appeals of the finance minister, the Abbé Terray, or of Chancellor (chief of justice) Maupeou, recent appointees who were now currying du Barry's favor. Choiseul's fate was sealed when, according to a famous but not altogether reliable story in Tallyrand's memoirs, the Roué and Favier told du Barry of a high official in the Foreign Ministry who knew of Choiseul's deceptions. She tipped off Louis, who interviewed the official and then confronted Choiseul. When he admitted ordering military movements, Louis exploded. The next day, December 24, 1770, Choiseul received a terse lettre de cachet ending his career and exiling him to his estate. In a postscript, on June 5, 1771, Louis yielded to du Barry's prodding and named d'Aiguillon minister of foreign affairs.
In the first months after her presentation, du Barry had won public acclaim for persuading the king to save from execution a soldier who had temporarily deserted, a woman convicted of infanticide on highly technical grounds, and an impoverished elderly noble couple who had killed two policemen while resisting handing over their château for debt. But the dismissals of Choiseul and the parlements were highly unpopular acts, and the public angrily charged she was manipulating the king at the behest of Richelieu, d'Aiguillon, and her rapacious in-laws. Ironically, when Choiseul later pleaded for money to avoid ruin, she laid siege to Louis until he grudgingly granted her defeated foe a generous settlement. Choiseul refused to thank her, likely feeling she was subtly rubbing it in.
The other grand affair, the struggle with Marie Antoinette, was on the surface a petty tale of snubs and snide remarks between a king's mistress and a spoiled, teenaged princess. It is a measure of the importance of protocol and personal relations in the courts of Europe's absolute monarchies that this homeric drawing-room brawl bore grave diplomatic implications, for at stake was the solidity of the Austro-French alliance and, thus, the balance of power.
Noailles, Anne Claude Laurence, duchesse de (d. 1793)
French duchess. Died by guillotine in 1793.
While on staff at Versailles, Anne Claude Laurence, the duchesse de Noailles, was put in charge of training the young Marie Antoinette on her arrival in France. Marie called the rigid, punctilious Noailles, "Madame Etiquette." Once while learning to ride a donkey, Marie fell off. When friends leaned down to help her up, she replied: "Leave me on the ground. We must wait for Madame Etiquette. She will show us the right way to pick up a Dauphine who has tumbled off a donkey." Eventually, the Duchesse de Noailles would follow her former young charge to the guillotine.
Marie Antoinette, aged 15, daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria , arrived in May 1770 to shore up the alliance by marrying the dauphin, Louis-Auguste (the future Louis XVI). To general surprise, du Barry was invited to the most exclusive events surrounding the wedding. When Marie Antoinette naively asked what du Barry's function was, the Duchesse de Noailles archly replied that it was "to amuse His Majesty." Marie soon learned the truth, was shocked, and began to avoid Jeanne, writing to her mother that the comtesse was "the most stupid and impertinent creature imaginable." For her part, du Barry was heard to make remarks about "that little redhead." Into this situation stepped Louis' three scheming unmarried daughters—Sophie (1734–1782), Victoire (1733–1799), and the leader Adelaide (1732–1800), collectively called "Mesdames." (The youngest, Louise Marie , had become a nun to pray for her father's salvation when du Barry had come on the scene.) They despised Jeanne, and after getting Marie Antoinette under their wings, they tirelessly fed her dislike. The preliminary bouts ended in the summer of 1770 with an incident at the theater at Choisy when du Barry and several friends arrived to find their seats occupied by members of Marie Antoinette's circle led by Choiseul's sister, the Duchesse de Gramont. They refused to leave, and du Barry's party had to find other places. Jeanne complained to Louis, who banished Gramont from court. The war was now on, to the intense interest of the court and the foreign offices of Europe. All du Barry wanted was for Marie Antoinette to speak to her just once and thus acknowledge her right to be present at meals and social functions. This the headstrong, proud, spoiled—and politically naïve—princess refused to do.
Whole chapters in biographies of Madame du Barry and Marie Antoinette recount the engagements of this struggle. Suffice it to say that the fall of Choiseul in December 1770 was a blow to the pro-Austrian camp, for he was the strongest guarantee that Louis would not become so irritated by the affair that he would drop the marriage alliance. Louis in fact found himself in a hard place. He genuinely liked Marie Antoinette, which made it all the more embarrassing to go so far as to order her to accept his mistress. But her petulant defiance and du Barry's tearful complaints of her humiliation—much relished by her legions of foes—grated badly on his nerves. Most important, the discourtesy defied his authority. Maria Theresa, who had prostitutes in her own lands whipped, was increasingly worried by the implications of a possible French failure to support her in the crisis over Poland involving Prussia and Russia. Her duty to Austria came first, so she weighed in with pleas to her daughter to heed Austria's needs and speak to "the creature." At length, Louis and the Austrian ambassador agreed that at a reception on July 11, 1771, Marie Antoinette would speak to du Barry. At the critical moment, however, just as she was about to do so, Adelaide told her it was time to leave, and she retreated in confusion. The fiasco set Europe's courts buzzing. Maria Theresa, appalled, scolded her daughter roundly. At last, at the New Years' reception in the Hall of Mirrors on January 1, 1772, the deed was done. Marie Antoinette casually turned to Jeanne and said, "Il y a bien du monde à Versailles aujourd'hui." ("There are a lot of people at Versailles today.") Du Barry beamed, Louis embraced the princess, and fast couriers instantly rode off to carry the news to every crowned head.
Marie Antoinette would say no more, and the snubbing went on. But she listened much less now to Mesdames, and in August 1772, with the Polish situation at a crisis, she did say a kind word to one of du Barry's friends. Also, the dauphin promised to attend suppers for du Barry and the king and by the end of the year was unusually gracious to her. In an awkward move in January 1774, du Barry tried to win over Marie Antoinette with an offer of some vastly expensive earrings, but she received no reply. The "casual" remark on January 1, 1772, however, had turned the key. Those utterly mundane words assured Maria Theresa that she could keep the balance in Eastern Europe by asking now for her share of Poland, confident that Prussia and Russia would have to let her in since she had the support of France. Thus began the partitions (1772, 1793, 1795) that wiped Poland from the map until it was reborn—in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles—in 1919.
Notwithstanding the snubs, vicious libels, mocking songs, and her nagging worry that the fickle king would become bored and drop her if she could not find some new amusement, du Barry lived for five years in a dream world of luxury beyond imagining. She had an exquisitely decorated small apartment joined to the king's rooms below by a private staircase. In July 1769, he gave her the château of Louveciennes overlooking the Seine by the Marly waterlifters about four miles from Versailles. She refurbished this residence and added the stunning Pavilion—an entertainment-residence hall and one of the earliest examples of the neoclassical style. Later, she bought a mansion in the town of Versailles as a more sumptuous place for gatherings than her apartment. She received a monthly income of 200,000 livres which rose in time to 300,000 to keep pace with her spending. Her jewelry alone, for which she had a passion, was valued at over 2 million, one of history's major private collections. Altogether she received about 15 million livres from 1769 to 1774 plus gifts of jewels and art from the king, yet at his death she was over one million in debt. To these outlays one should probably add the hundreds of thousands in pensions and properties du Barry wheedled from an annoyed Louis for the insatiable Roué (who could subtly blackmail her) and his ever-needy relations.
Her suppliers comprised a roll of the premier artists of the day: architects Gabriel and Ledoux; sculptors Feullet, Metivier, Gois, and Pajou; painters Drouais, Vernet, Vien, Boucher, Greuze, Fragonard, and Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun ; jewelers Aubert, Demay, Gaillard, Drais, and Rouën; goldsmiths Roettiers & August; furniture-makers Delanois, Guichard, and Carlin; engravers and gilders Beauvarlet, Cagny, and Gobert; tableware designed by Saint-Aubin; fashions designed by Mlle Pagalle and Rose Bertin ; hats by Chardon, lingerie by Venot, dresses by Mmes Sigly, Montier, and Pompée, and tailoring by Carlier; porcelains by Sèvres, and tapestries by the Gobelins and the Savonnerie. Remarkably, given her humble origins, she showed excellent taste, if not quite all the refined sophistication of Pompadour. Her style, a transitional mode, combined a less ornate Louis Quinze rococo with the plainer Louis Seize neoclassical style to come.
Du Barry's star at court began to pale during the winter of 1773–74 as the king visibly aged. The event she feared began on April 26 when Louis fell sick while at Louveciennes. On the 28th, his physician ordered him to Versailles. Louis had contracted smallpox, which was ravaging the region. He had long lived in dread of dying without the sacraments. To receive them, he had to confess his sins and dismiss du Barry, who had remained at his bedside every night. Louis sent her away on May 4. After a night of tears, she was taken by d'Aiguillon to his estate at Rueil. Louis, wanting to see her once more, asked where she was. "She has gone to Rueil, Sire," was the reply. "Already? Gone as we must all go," he murmured as a tear coursed down his cheek.
On May 10, Louis died. Two days later, du Barry arrived at the grim Abbey of Pont-aux-Dames (Seine-et-Marne) to be confined pursuant to a lettre de cachet he had ordered on the 9th. Why? To assure Cardinal de la Roche-Aymon of his sincere repentance—and perhaps also to spare her a worse fate at the hands of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. (Another lettre ordered the Roué to the Vincennes dungeon, but he fled for a time to Lausanne.) Du Barry behaved perfectly and soon made the nuns her friends. To pay pressing debts, she sold some jewelry, including a necklace worth 450,000 livres. After he refused requests in August and November, Louis XVI released her in March 1775 on condition she stay ten leagues (about 30 miles) from the court, thus ruling out a return to Louveciennes. On April 9, she purchased the Château de Saint-Vrain with a loan from d'Aiguillon and lived there quietly until, in October 1776, the king—advised by his chief minister Maurepas, a distant relative of d'Aiguillon—consented to her return to Louveciennes. He also allowed her to keep the 40,000 livres-per-year concession she had on shop stalls at Nantes and her 105,000 in annuities (rentes) issued by Paris. She promptly sold Saint-Vrain and her Versailles mansion, repaid d'Aiguillon, and bought her mother and stepfather a comfortable manor house. In November 1776, she moved back to Louveciennes.
From then until her last months, du Barry lived a pleasant existence at Louveciennes, gardening, playing Lady Bountiful in the village, and entertaining a flow of court acquaintances who, now that she was no longer an object of jealousy and political machinations, felt free to enjoy the glow of her charm and hospitality. She put on a little matronly weight but remained a beautiful woman to the end, taking meticulous care of health and appearance. In May 1777, Emperor Joseph II of Austria, probably from curiosity and to spite his mother Maria Theresa and sister, Marie Antoinette, pretended to stray onto her grounds and met her. She also visited Voltaire (who liked her) on February 21, 1778, in Paris shortly before his death. She even became reconciled (to some imprecise degree) with Marie Antoinette, who was learning what it was like to be a target of slander and hatred. The finance minister Calonne quietly agreed in 1784 to convert her 50,000 livre annual pension (granted by Louis XV in 1769) to 1,250,000 livres in capital. Du Barry also helped the queen acquire Saint-Cloud. And in 1789, with the Revolution in full swing, she spontaneously offered Louveciennes and all she had should the royal family need it.
During these years, she had two affairs of the heart. One, a short, tempestuous relationship in late 1779 or 1780, was with Henry Seymour (1729–1805), nephew of the 8th duke of Somerset, who had settled nearby at the Château de Prunay with his young second wife Louise de Ponthon (d. 1821). Du Barry was quite in love with him, but the affair ended either because he had become jealous of her friend the Duc de Cossé-Brissac or because his wife objected. Almost immediately, she began her longest affair and perhaps, her only grande passion. Of the bluest blood and fabulously wealthy, Louis-Hercule-Timoléon de Cossé, Duc de Brissac (1734–1792) was married, but his wife—as was almost the rule in the aristocracy, where marriage was essentially a property arrangement—took no open offense. On July 4, 1782, du Barry made her first public appearance (at a review of a regiment just back from America) since her fall in 1774 and her first with Cossé-Brissac. They were a passionately devoted couple, spending time at Louveciennes, his Paris mansion, and his several chateaux. He was an admirable man, courageous, honest, and a liberal idealist who dreamed of a reformed monarchy ensuring a better life for all in a new age of liberty. Into this idyll burst the French Revolution.
Three deaths in 1788 ushered in the Revolution years for du Barry. On August 8, the Duc de Richelieu died; on September 1, d'Aiguillon; and on October 20, her mother. Strangely, Anne left nothing to du Barry, to whom she owed everything, giving all to Betsi, her niece (or possibly granddaughter). Du Barry kindly provided her stepfather with a small pension.
Her first close contact with the Revolution came when she sheltered two soldiers who had escaped from the mob at Versailles during the Women's March on October 5–6, 1789. In November, she sold 133,000 livres in diamonds in Amsterdam via her Paris bankers, the Vandenyvers. While living quietly at Louveciennes through 1790, she sold more jewelry abroad, probably creating a nest egg in case she had to flee. Imprudently, however, she continued to entertain noble guests, correspond with some who had become émigrés, and even asked the local government for a tax refund of 389 livres.
Then, on January 10, 1791, she returned from a party and overnight stay at Cossé-Brissac's Paris home to discover that a huge quantity of her jewels—at least 1.5 million livres' worth—had been stolen. After consulting her jeweler Rouën, she had handbills distributed describing the missing gems in detail, an understandable but foolish act, for it instantly made her a target of hatred and suspicion. On February 15, she received sudden word from one Nathaniel Parker Forth that her jewels had been recovered in London when the five burglars (three German, one French, one English) had tried to sell them to a noted diamond dealer. Besides some of the odd features of the burglary itself, there was Forth, an Irish adventurer, a dealer in horses, paintings, and information, and widely known to be an English agent. From now on du Barry had an excuse to travel to and from England and thus could be a conduit for letters and money between French and English royalists. She was later accused of arranging the theft, which seems most unlikely, but Forth's role has always aroused suspicion.
Three times in 1791 she visited London, escorted by Forth. The legal case became predictably tangled because of the absence of an extradition agreement between France and England. Meanwhile, du Barry's jewels were put under seal, but she was able to get loans on their security which financed her expensive living and entertaining in London, where she consorted with the Calonnes and other leading émigrés and British aristocrats. Her actions were closely watched by a French agent, Blache.
The political situation in France gravely deteriorated in the winter of 1791–92. Cossé-Brissac, governor of Paris, bravely accepted appointment as chief of the king's bodyguard. As events rolled toward the fall of the throne, the guard was disbanded on May 30, and on June 10 Cossé-Brissac was arrested for "treason" and imprisoned at Orléans. Du Barry, showing great courage, traveled there to visit him. When the king was overthrown on August 10, she sheltered one of Cossé-Brissac's aides at Louveciennes, but a crowd hunted him down on August 19; he died horribly in the September 2–5 prison massacres. Much worse followed. On September 9, Cossé-Brissac and 52 other prisoners were lynched in Versailles on their way to Paris. Some of the mob then marched to Louveciennes, broke in, and rolled his severed head across the floor to his swooning lover. (Many years later, a carefully preserved head was dug up on the grounds.)
Shortly afterward, on October 14, du Barry left for England on a six-week passport obtained only after she promised the president of the Convention (the government now) that she would return when her legal business was concluded. Again she socialized with the cream of the émigrés and British society, e.g., being presented to George III and Prime Minister William Pitt (the Younger). In actions which proved especially damaging to her later, she gave the cardinalarchbishop of Rouen 200,000 livres for needy émigré priests and 200,000 more to Louis-Antoine-Auguste, Duc de Rohan-Chabot (d. 1807), a friend of Cossé-Brissac and soon to be involved in the Vendée uprising against the Convention in March 1793. A single letter dating from September 1793 indicates she had an affair with Rohan-Chabot some time during late 1792 or 1793, but details are totally lacking.
Du Barry's banker urged her in November to return, but she did not. On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was executed, and on February 1 England declared war on France. At last, on March 1, du Barry left, arriving back at Louveciennes on the 19th after difficulties due to her expired passport. To the day of her death, she seems never to have fully grasped the danger she was in, confident always that things would turn out all right.
She found Louveciennes under seal due to a complaint lodged by George Grieve (1748–1809), now spelling his name Greive. This English radical who had spent the years 1780–83 in the American colonies during the Revolution and then come to France, had settled in the village of Louveciennes in the winter of 1792–93. He started a revolutionary club and conceived an obsessive hatred of the Comtesse du Barry. Among his informants were Salanave, one of du Barry's cooks, and her black Bengali page, Louis-Benoît Zamor, whom she had employed since his childhood from the days at Versailles and who was perhaps venting a long suppressed rage at the patronizing treatment he had received over the years as her fashionable "blackamoor" servant. A tense struggle ensued. Du Barry persuaded the departmental authorities of confined at the Abbey of Seine-et-Oise to let her reoccupy her home. Greive tried to get her arrested in June, but again the department, where du Barry had an influential friend in one Lavallery, thwarted him. On July 3, he presented her case to the Convention, which ordered house arrest and an investigation. Some 59 humble citizens of Louveciennes petitioned for her release, which, with Lavallery's help, was effected on August 13. Greive, undeterred, published a pamphlet detailing her "crimes" and describing himself as the friend of Franklin and Marat and "a disorganizer of despotism in the two hemispheres for twenty years." After passage of the drastic Law of Suspects (September 17), which sent the Reign of Terror (1793–4) into high gear, he went to the Committee of General Security on September 21; it gave him an arrest warrant which he executed on the 22nd. (Coincidentally, the Roué was arrested the same day in Toulouse.) He then conveyed her to the Saint-Pélagie prison in Paris to await trial. There is some evidence that on the way he raped her, or tried to.
While Greive, ensconced in her rooms in Louveciennes, worked up an overwhelming 15-count indictment from her papers and verbal evidence, du Barry was questioned on October 30 and November 22. According to a fairly reliable story, she was approached in prison by an Irish priest in disguise who said he could get her, but not two people, out through bribery; giving up her chance, she arranged for money that effected the escape from Calais to England of Cossé-Brissac's daughter. On December 4, she was transferred to the Conciergerie, "antechamber to the guillotine." She and the three Vandenyvers were tried on December 6 and 7. Greive testified, of course, as did Blache, Salanave, Zamor, and others. Du Barry, very composed (she gave her age as 42), steadily denied she had engaged in treason and rested her case on the fact that she had always returned to France and thus was no émigré. But she had to make a devastating admission: "I cannot say how much I spent in London and gave to émigrés." Greive's bill of particulars supplied the prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville, far more than enough to convict her given the current climate. The money for Rohan-Chabot proved particularly deadly. The jury returned the verdict in an hour at 11 pm: guilty on all counts. She was sentenced to die in the morning.
Seized now—at long last—by real fear, du Barry convinced the authorities the next morning (December 8) to delay so she could provide more information. Thinking she could now earn her release, she proceeded to recall in astounding detail the locations and exact nature of every jewel and art object she had carefully hidden on the grounds of Louveciennes. It was near 4 pm when she finished and, to her shock, the officials promptly tied her hands and took her to the tumbrel where the Vandenyvers and a Convention deputy (sentenced on unrelated charges) had been waiting in the cold. Du Barry collapsed in terror. As the cart made its long trip across the city to the former Place Louis XV, rebaptized as the Place de la Révolution (now the Concorde), she struggled and cried out to people to save her. At the scaffold, set on the spot where her royal lover's statue had once stood, she had to be wrestled up the steps. It was nearly dark and the waiting crowd had diminished. As she was strapped to the board and swung down into place, she began a terrible, animal-like screaming that ceased only when the heavy blade sliced through her throat. The crowd, usually boisterous, seemed subdued, even shaken. Her corpse, with her head between the legs, was trundled to the pit by the Madeleine, where it was heaved in to join the remains of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and many others. On January 17, 1794, in Toulouse, the Roué went to his death still in character, with a joke and a disdainful smile on his lips.
Louis XV, orphaned at two and king at five, was "the handsomest man in France," intelligent, informed, gracious, and courteous. He also was timid, insecure, distrustful of his own judgment, lazy, bored, and in time obsessed by sex and a dread of death. Jeanne du Barry's ability to combine the roles of caring maternal figure, good-natured companion, and mistress proved irresistible to him. To all appearances, she loved him in return, and never spoke ill of him during or after his lifetime. She made his last five years his happiest and arguably his most personally effective as king. She spent his money lavishly but came nowhere near "ruining" the monarchy financially, as some later charged. (For that matter, most of her spending was on tangible goods of real value—art, furniture, jewels.) Expensive as the court was, money for wars past, present, and future plus interest on the debt ate up most of the budget. She could have contented herself with being the king's mistress behind the scenes, but she craved the acceptance and perquisites of a maîtresse en titre. She won the title, enjoyed its fruits, but inevitably, in view of her past, was the object of the vilest slanders.
Du Barry was blessed with beauty and sold it for gold and pleasures. In a more charitable assessment, her contemporary Choderlos de Laclon, author of Les Liasons dangereuses, wrote that "her only fault was her birth and in those who had debauched and debased her." By any account, she was impulsive, frivolous, and unheeding—fatally so. Yet she was also kind, genuine, and generous. She employed her influence to gain recognition, found allies where she could, and asked Louis' help for them. But she never used her power (as she could well have done) to harm others, to imprison, or to kill. She rejuvenated the king, however briefly, stimulating him to try to refurbish the crown's authority. Unfortunately for her and her royal lover, in the eyes of the masses she symbolized his decadence; consequently, she bears a heavy responsibility in the decline of the monarchy's credit to a level from which it never fully recovered. Child of the people though she was, she never understood the depths of the hatred they had come to bear toward her, her aristocratic friends, and the glittering world of unearned privilege they inhabited. For all her pleasures, they at last made her pay the price in blood.
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David S. Newhall , Professor Emeritus of History, Centre College, Danville, Kentucky
"du Barry, Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse (1743–1793)." Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/du-barry-jeanne-becu-comtesse-1743-1793
"du Barry, Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse (1743–1793)." Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. . Retrieved January 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/du-barry-jeanne-becu-comtesse-1743-1793