Maintenon, Françoise d'Aubigné, Marquise de (1635–1719)
Maintenon, Françoise d'Aubigné, Marquise de (1635–1719)
French noblewoman who was the second wife of Louis XIV and established an influential school for girls . Name variations: Madame or Mlle Maintenon. Born on November 27, 1635, in Niort Prison, Poitou, France; died on April 15, 1719, at St. Cyr; interred at St. Cyr; daughter of Constant d'Aubigné and Jeanne de Cardilhac; married poet Paul Scarron (d. 1660), in 1652; married Louis XIV (1638–1715), king of France (r. 1643–1715), on June 12, 1683 or 1684; no children.
Born Catholic but educated by Protestant aunt until age seven; moved with family to French West Indies (1645); returned to France (1647); returned to Catholicism; became nurse and governess of Louis XIV's illegitimate children (1667); made a marquise (1675); appointed lady-in-waiting to the Dauphine (1679); became Louis' mistress (1680); was secretly married to the king (1683); set up school for girls at St. Cyr (1686); retired to St. Cyr after death of Louis (1715).
Françoise d'Aubigné, marquise de Maintenon, Lettres.
It is doubtful that anyone in the 17th century could have predicted that a girl who was born in extraordinary and somewhat shameful surroundings would become the wife of the most powerful king in Europe. Indeed, the birth of Françoise d'Aubigné on November 27, 1635, was far from auspicious. Her father Constant d'Aubigné was a member of the lower aristocracy who had gambled away the majority of his inherited income. More seriously, in 1627 he was arrested for treason and imprisoned at Niort, in Poitou. While in prison, however, his charms soon won over the governor's daughter, Jeanne de Cardilhac , and they were married shortly thereafter. All of their children, two sons and one daughter, were born within the prison walls. Fortunately, shortly after she was born Françoise was removed to live with her aunt, Louise-Arthémise d'Aubigné .
Although she was born into the Catholic faith, for the first seven years of her life Françoise was brought up in a Protestant household. Her aunt was a Calvinist, or Huguenot, and had inherited a strong sense of religious piety from Françoise's grandfather, Agrippa d'Aubigné. While not much is known of Françoise's early childhood years, she remarked later in life that this was one of the happiest periods of her life. When her father was released from prison in 1642, Françoise was reunited with her family.
For the next three years, she lived with her family in Paris. In 1645, however, at age ten, Françoise left France when her father was promised a government post in the French West Indies. Unfortunately, the position was already filled when the d'Aubigné family arrived in Martinique, and Constant, in contrast to his name, returned alone to France. Françoise was now left in a foreign land where she lived for two years with her mother and two elder brothers. It appears that this experience did not have a great impact upon the young girl as she rarely referred to it in later life. What is known is that she was a very pretty and intelligent child who had an aptitude for learning but was unusually reserved for her age.
When the family returned to France in 1647, Françoise's mother was unable to care for her, and, consequently, the 12-year-old was given into the care of another aunt, Madame de Neuillant . Unlike Louise-Arthémise, however, Mme de Neuillant was a strict Catholic, and Françoise was immediately sent to an Ursuline convent where she was to be educated and indoctrinated into the Catholic faith. Although Françoise did not initially like the convent, she gradually came to accept it and would remain a strong and pious Catholic for the rest of her life.
For much of her early life, Françoise was sheltered from political events in France. When Louis XIII died in 1643, he was succeeded by a boy who was not yet five years old. Fortunately, the government was in the capable hands of the late king's widow, Anne of Austria , who ruled France for nine years until her son, Louis XIV, was old enough to govern independently. Once he turned 13, which was the age of legal majority in France, Louis XIV began ruling in his own name, and he quickly brought an end to the civil war, known as the Fronde, which had racked France for five years.
In Madame de Maintenon the king found a woman who was always modest, always mistress of herself, always reasonable, and who in addition to such rare qualities was also witty and a good conversationalist.
—Madame de Caylus
Many of these events remained far removed from Françoise's life while she lived behind convent walls. The situation changed, however, in 1651 when she was removed from the nunnery and sent to live with her aunt in Paris. The house she lived in was next door to one of France's most famous lyric poets, Paul Scarron. Although he was originally intended for the priesthood, Scarron's life in holy orders was abandoned abruptly at the age of 26, when he developed a mysterious and incurable disease, which was probably acute rheumatoid arthritis. While his financial situation was precarious, his charm, wit, and literary skills soon brought him attention from the royal court. After the death of Louis XIII, Scarron received a pension from Anne of Austria and from that point on held nightly banquets and entertainments in his apartments.
In 1651, 16-year-old Françoise d'Aubigné met 42-year-old Paul Scarron; they took an instant liking to one another. This was partly based upon mutual feelings of sympathy since both of them were lonely people who felt unloved and unwanted. Within months after their first meeting, Scarron proposed marriage. Françoise accepted, and they were married on April 4, 1652. The eight years of her marriage to Scarron were happy ones. Their house was visited daily by witty and intelligent aristocratic women and men who attended her husband's literary salon. Scarron was at the height of his popularity, and his wife was blossoming into a beautiful young woman. Françoise, however, maintained her reserved manner and said later: "I was not interested in being rich, I was a hundred degrees above self-interest, but I wanted to be respected."
Her desire not to be rich was realized when Scarron died on October 6, 1660. He had left no will, and, after paying off his debts, Françoise had little to live on. Fortunately, her husband's reputation enabled her to continue to receive the royal pension from Anne of Austria. Shortly after Scarron's death, Françoise moved into a convent, where she lived a quiet, though far from isolated, life. Devoted to her women friends, she was a popular guest at their salons, where she counseled and advised them on various household matters. She had no desire to remarry, and her continued aspiration was to be liked and esteemed. For the next eight years, Françoise lived content. Her life changed forever, however, when she was called upon to look after King Louis XIV's illegitimate children.
Louis XIV had married Maria Teresa of Spain , the daughter of Philip IV, king of Spain, in 1660. Like most royal marriages, however, it was based upon neither mutual love nor attraction but was instead the final component of a peace treaty with Spain. Consequently, Louis did not take his marriage vows seriously and continued to have a series of sexual liaisons with other women. One woman, Madame de Montespan , managed to keep the king's interest and remained his mistress for 13 years. After the birth of Montespan's first child in 1669, Françoise d'Aubigné, the widow Scarron, was appointed to act as nurse and governess for the royal children. Madame de Montespan eventually gave birth to seven illegitimate children, all of whom were cared for with great love and affection by Françoise.
This appointment brought Françoise her first opportunity to meet the king of France. Tall, handsome and intense, Louis XIV took his office seriously. Believing that he was God's divine representative on earth, Louis left no aspect of his government alone and followed a strict daily work routine. Having experienced civil warfare and upheaval during the early years of his reign, he was determined to unite the country and ensure that no further opportunities for rebellion would arise. As a result, Louis created an administrative apparatus which included not only an elaborate system of spies but also the largest army in Europe. At the palace of Versailles, a ritualized court life was established in order to keep
the nobility close by where they could be observed. More important, attendance at court kept them far away from their provincial lands where secret plots could be hatched. Finally, the king engaged in a series of foreign wars in an attempt to expand the borders of France.
All of these policies were not readily apparent to Françoise when the king, who was a devoted father, visited his children. This situation changed in 1674 when Louis had the royal children moved to the palace of St. Germain. Not only did the king begin to pay more attention to his children's governess, but Françoise was now exposed to court life. To someone so reserved and pious, the ritual, luxury, extravagance and intrigue of Louis XIV's court was not only shocking but difficult to live with. According to some historians, when Françoise attempted to leave her post and retire quietly to a convent, she was persuaded to stay at St. Germain not only by her confessor but, more significantly, by several high-ranking members of the Catholic Church. Noticing that Louis was becoming increasingly interested in the 39-year-old widow, they encouraged her to continue living at court in the hopes that she would have a positive moral influence on the king. For whatever reasons, Françoise decided to remain at court, and, after she received a pension and the marquisate of Maintenon from the king, she was forever after known as Madame de Maintenon.
For the next several years, Madame de Maintenon's life at court revolved around teaching and caring for the king's children. Although she had been friends with Madame de Montespan, now that they were in closer proximity to one another, the differences of opinion they held regarding the upbringing of Louis' children surfaced. They openly disagreed and fought, often to the point of tears. Madame de Montespan was under additional pressure due to the church's remonstrances to the king that he give her up. The Montespan-Louis XIV relationship showed signs of stress from 1674 although it did not end until 1680. Rumors circulating at the time placed the blame for Louis' coolness towards his mistress on his new-found affection for Madame de Maintenon. There is no evidence to suggest that Françoise was the king's mistress before 1680, but it became clear that he was attracted to her.
Of Madame de Maintenon's feelings towards the king, even less is known. Although she left over 4,000 surviving letters, only two of them were from Louis XIV; she destroyed the rest he wrote to her. Even though it is well-known that she began corresponding with the king in 1674, the contents of those letters will never be known.
By 1680, the king's infatuation with Madame de Montespan came to an end. Now wholly devoted to Madame de Maintenon, he spent at least two hours every afternoon in her presence, and when he appointed her as lady-inwaiting to his son's wife, the Dauphine (Maria Anna of Bavaria ), Françoise's position was secured. She was now no longer responsible for the king's illegitimate children but held a more prestigious and important role at court. Sometime after this appointment, she finally became Louis' mistress. Under her influence, the king's behavior changed. He began to pay more attention to his estranged wife, whom he had ignored for the past 20 years. More significantly, he never took another mistress and remained faithful to Madame de Maintenon for the next 35 years.
When Queen Maria Teresa died of blood poisoning in July 1683, Louis proposed marriage to Françoise shortly after. In most instances, a widowed king normally chose another royal princess for his second wife. Louis, however, was so deeply in love with Madame de Maintenon that he refused to consider any other possibilities. His respect for her was evident in the fact that he married her, rather than keeping her on as his mistress, as he had done with so many other women. To solve the problem of their difference in rank, they made a morganatic marriage. This allowed a man of superior rank to take a woman of inferior birth as his lawful wife, because neither she nor her children could inherit his rank or possessions. Since Françoise was 48 years old and past childbearing age, the problem that additional heirs to the throne would have created was avoided. Similarly, this kind of marriage was more acceptable to the church and nobility of France.
The date when Françoise, Marquise de Maintenon, married King Louis XIV of France is not known. It was probably around October 1683. What is known is that while the marriage was kept a secret for as long as possible, and she was never crowned queen of France, Françoise's life as the wife of the most powerful man in Europe was a happy one. Life at court continued to be busy. After taking care of governmental affairs in the morning, Louis usually went out hunting for several hours each day. In the evenings, there was always some form of entertainment. Françoise's positive influence on the king was observed by the court, and she was soon accepted by most of his family as well as his legitimate children.
At the beginning of their marriage, Louis did not often consult Françoise on military or governmental matters. This included one of the most influential decisions he made in his reign. In 1685, in an attempt to establish religious unity, Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes. This legislation, which had been passed over 85 years before by King Henry IV, gave the Protestant minority in France freedom of conscience and worship in designated provinces and towns. Louis' Revocation not only initiated a massive emigration of thousands of talented and wealthy middle-class French Huguenots to Protestant countries in Western Europe, but launched a series of violent confrontations between French Catholics and Protestants. While Huguenot pamphlet writers blamed Madame de Maintenon for the Revocation, there is no historical proof that she made that fateful decision. She certainly did not condone violence, although she did agree with Louis' desire for religious unity.
Françoise's main concern even before she married the king was to improve the education of girls. From 1680, she formulated plans to set up a school for girls from impoverished aristocratic families, and, when Louis gave her a large pension in 1685, she drew up building plans. In July 1686, the Maison Royale de Saint Louis at St. Cyr was completed. It housed approximately 300 staff and students and was intended to act as a counterweight to the decadence and degeneracy of life at Versailles. Madame de Maintenon believed that the role of education was to make women more virtuous and, hence, the curriculum emphasized modesty, frugality, and domesticity. Girls at St. Cyr were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, needlework, sewing and moral and religious theater. In 1689, Racine, the famous French dramatist, wrote a play for the school entitled Esther that was performed in front of the king. As well as engendering religious piety, an additional goal of the school was to provide a new identity for aristocratic women. Instead of living their lives as idle social butterflies, women, Madame de Maintenon argued, should learn to be virtuous wives, devoted mothers, and knowledgeable homemakers. The school at St. Cyr was admired and became the model for similar institutions throughout Europe.
Françoise provided daily and personal input into the school, and it was there that she escaped from the endless string of petitioners, visitors, and courtiers who continually plagued her at court. Life at Versailles was becoming increasingly difficult for her, though she looked upon her days there as a mission from God. She knew that Louis would be lost without her presence and realized that he could only truly relax and be himself while he was in her company. By 1696, Louis' reliance on his reserved and pious wife was becoming more evident. He began to hold conferences with his ministers in her rooms and was increasingly relying on her advice in governmental matters.
In 1700, when Louis was faced with an important decision, it was Madame de Maintenon who cast the deciding vote. In that year, the king of Spain died childless, having named Louis' grandson Philippe as his successor. Knowing that accepting the throne of Spain would lead to certain war, Louis, nonetheless, sent his grandson off to Spain to become Philip V. This decision, which launched the War of the Spanish Succession, was made against the advice of his ministers but with the assent of his wife. It brought not only 13 years of war, but severe economic hardship to France. By the end of Louis' reign, the French government was close to bankruptcy as a result of almost continual warfare and Louis' elaborate building schemes.
While she had counseled the king to accept the Spanish throne for his grandson, Madame de Maintenon hated the resulting war. "How cruel is war," she said to a friend, "and the mutual persecution of one another by these princes one has to witness, with the destruction of so many lives! I am extremely unhappy and can only see the horror of it." In addition to the devastation that war brought to the country, the king faced a series of personal tragedies within the royal family. In a short number of years, Louis' brother, son, and grandson died. Fortunately, in 1710 another grandson, the future Louis XV, was born, thus ensuring the succession. The king, while overwhelmed by sorrow, maintained his kingly dignity in public. It was only in his private moments with Françoise that he gave vent to his true feelings.
The war with Spain was finally concluded in 1713 and from that point on Louis' strength began to falter. By August 1715, he was seriously ill. Madame de Maintenon remained at his side both day and night, and it was during his last days that she burned all of the letters that he had written to her except two. On September 1, 1715, the man to whom she had devoted her life for 35 years was dead. Françoise was nearly 80 years old when she became a widow for the second time. After his death, she noted to a friend that "although my sorrow is very great, I feel calm and peaceful. I shall often weep for him but they will be tears of affection, for in my heart I feel great joy that he died like a true Christian."
After Louis' death, Madame de Maintenon retired to the school at St. Cyr. Although she was rich, she gave most of her money and clothes away to charity. Her rooms at St. Cyr were the only reminders of the opulence she had once been surrounded with. They were elaborately furnished and contained several portraits, both small and large, of Louis XIV. Françoise's life at St. Cyr was relatively quiet aside from periodic visits, including one from Peter the Great of Russia in 1717. Knowing that her remaining time on earth was limited, Françoise drew up her will early in 1719. On April 15, at age 84, Madame de Maintenon died peacefully in her sleep. Her death was ignored by most of the royal family, and she was buried, by request, at St. Cyr.
Barnard, H.C. Madame de Maintenon and Saint-Cyr. London: Black, 1934.
Cruttwell, M. Madame de Maintenon. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1930.
Haldane, Charlotte. Madame de Maintenon: Uncrowned Queen of France. London: Constable, 1970.
Erlanger, Philippe. Louis XIV. NY: Praeger, 1970.
Wolf, John B. Louis XIV. NY: W.W. Norton, 1968.
Margaret McIntyre , Instructor in Women's History, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
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