You rarely hear of women in history who didn’t give a crap and lived her life however they wanted. Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld did it, but before her, there was the equally amazing Louise Élisabeth of Orléans.
Marie Louise Élisabeth of Orléans was born on August 20th, 1695, at Versailles. She was the daughter of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, and his wife, Francoise-Marie de Bourbon. Yes, her parents were related: Philippe was the son of Louis XIV’s brother, while Francoise was the daughter of Louis XIV with Madame de Montespan, making them cousins. Philippe’s father was Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, whose first wife was Henrietta of England.
Louise was given the title Mademoiselle d’Orléans and was baptized on July 29th, 1696. She was very close to her next two sisters, Louise Adélaïde, the future Abbess of Chelles, and Charlotte Aglaé, the future Duchess of Modena. Philippe II had quite a few more children: Louise had seven siblings, six survived to adulthood, and four half-siblings (the illegitimate children of Philippe that he acknowledged, so Louise may have had a ton more siblings that Philippe didn’t acknowledge as his own).
When Louise was six, she caught a near-fatal illness and her father nursed her himself to save her. She eventually recovered, which not many people were expecting. When she was ten years old, Louise caught smallpox, and, according to her grandmother, Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate, Louise was thought to be dead for more than six hours. Elizabeth Charlotte also wrote that Louise “had entirely her own way, so that it is not surprising she should be like a headstrong horse.”
After almost dying twice, Louise was somehow still alive, so she was married off to Charles, the Duke of Berry. She was just fifteen, while he was a decade older than her. Charles’s father and Louise’s mother were half-siblings, so yes, Louise and Charles were cousins. They married on July 6th, 1710, at Versailles. At least Louise didn’t have to move anywhere. After Louise’s marriage, the title of Mademoiselle d’Orléans was given to her next sister, Louise Adélaïde, who had previously had the title Mademoiselle de Chartres.
Louise’s cousin, Marie Anne de Bourbon, was made her lady-in-waiting. So, Marie Anne and Louise once had dinner with the Duchess of Burgundy, Louise’s father, and a few other important nobles. At that dinner, Louise got so drunk that she had to be carried back to Versailles. Marie Anne did her best to hide this from the king, and she was successful. Eventually, though, Marie Anne resigned because Louise never stopped doing stuff like this.
In 1711, Louise gave birth to her first child, a daughter, at the Château de Fontainebleau. Their daughter only lived for two days. Her grandfather, the king, and her husband were blamed for this. Louise’s doctors had told her to stay either at the Palais-Royal or Versailles while pregnant, but the king and her husband had her travel to Fontainebleau.
Louise obviously told them that she couldn’t go because her doctors had specifically told her to stay at the Palais-Royal or Versailles, but they kept insisting and had her travel to Fontainebleau by barge instead of by carriage since they thought that the journey would go much more smoothly on water.
Much to their surprise, it didn’t. The barge hit a pier and almost sank. Louise, who was pregnant, almost drowned that day too. The doctors said that Louise’s difficult childbirth and her child’s death at only two days was because of the stress of the journey to Fontainebleau.
In 1713, Louise gave birth to another child, a son, whom she named Charles. He was given the title Duke of Alençon, and everyone must have been hoping that the new Duke of Alençon would live long enough to inherit his father’s title and become Duke of Berry. He didn’t. A few months later, after attacks of convulsions, Louise’s son died.
Louise’s son’s body was buried in the Basilica of Saint-Denis, while his heart was taken to a convent. Louise also made sure that her son’s governesses would keep receiving their salary. Everyone, including Louise, was devastated, but her husband was just always finding new ways to make her life worse.
Later in the year of Louise’s son’s birth, rumors reached her that her husband had taken a mistress and that his mistress was one of her servants. She brushed it off like it was nothing, then took her own lover. Of course she’d had affairs before, but she made this one really public, just to humiliate her husband.
When Louise’s husband found out, he was livid and threatened to send Louise off to a convent. Her husband even reportedly kicked her in public because he was so jealous of Louise’s affair. So, she did what anyone named Marie Louise Élisabeth of Orléans, Duchess of Berry, would do. She made a plan to flee France with her lover and go to the Netherlands, but before she could go ahead with her plans, her husband died, leaving her in peace.
The Fruitful Berry
She was pregnant when her husband died, and because everyone knew Louise had taken a lover, it was uncertain who the father of Louise’s third child was. Seven weeks after her husband’s death, Louise gave birth to a daughter at Versailles. Louise’s daughter only lived for a day.
Louise began living at Luxembourg Palace. She closed the Luxembourg Garden to the public, which made her more unpopular. But did she care? She did not. Shortly after her husband’s death, Louis XIV, her grandfather, died (that also made Louise’s father the regent, since the new king, Louis XV, was still a minor). Louise said that she would be in mourning for six months, but became a “merry widow”. She allowed gambling at Luxembourg Palace and just continued living how she wanted to.
A little while later, Louise unexpectedly just confined herself in her palace. She said it was because she had a violent cold, but in reality, it was because she was pregnant again. One tabloid said: “They say the Duchess of Berry gave birth to a daughter who lived only three days. This conduct reminds me of Messalina and of Queen Margot.”
When Louise received Peter the Great at the Luxembourg Palace, the tabloids said that she looked “stout as a tower”, meaning that she was pregnant yet again. The tabloids would never let Louise catch a break. And in 1717, Louise was pregnant yet again. Voltaire was actually detained for ridiculing Louise’s constant state of pregnancy. There was even a song that came up in Christmas of 1717 accusing her of having an affair with her father, the regent, that went:
Very big with child, The fruitful Berry, Said in a humble posture, Very sorry at heart: Lord, I will no longer have such lusty ways, I only want Rions, Sometimes my dad, Here and there, my guards.
Voltaire couldn’t learn from his mistakes, so guess what he did? He wrote a tragedy (that wasn’t really a tragedy) called Oedipus, which was inspired by the rumors that Louise’s father was the father of her child. Louise went to the play with her father **WHILE PREGNANT** on literally opening night, and they went and congratulated Voltaire after the show. Maybe they had no idea that the crowd was probably cackling at them for the whole performance, or they were just trying to say “screw you, I’ll do whatever I want” to everyone else. Louise kept partying and kept getting pregnant. Louise gave birth to a daughter, who may have survived to adulthood and became a nun. That would’ve made this daughter Louise’s only child that survived to adulthood.
While pregnant again in 1719, Louise went to another performance of Oedipus. There was a part of the show that was clearly meant to represent the rumor/maybe but maybe not fact that Louise’s baby’s father was her father, and the entire crowd began applauding it. Louise was so humiliated that she passed out, and the crowd was so excited about that since they really wanted her to give birth right there because then they could witness a scandal firsthand. They all probably sighed in disappointment when a window was opened and Louise was completely fine.
Even while pregnant, Louise drank a lot, so the birth that followed was really no surprise. Louise ended up giving birth to a baby girl in a very long and difficult birth that took four days. Louise almost died, and the church refused to give her the sacraments unless she kicked her lover out of the palace. Louise finally gave birth to a stillborn girl. This baby girl would be Louise’s sixth (her third illegitimate child) and last child.
But because she had nearly died and because the church refused to give her the sacraments, this pregnancy caused a scandal that none of the other ones had. Louise married the man who was rumored to be her last child’s father in secret, probably to lessen the scandal a little.
After the horrible childbirth, Louise’s health wasn’t amazing. She caught a chill a little while later, and she was in quite a lot of pain. Her grandmother, Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate, went to see Louise Élisabeth and wrote:
I went to see her last Sunday, the 23rd May, and found her in a sad state, suffering from pains in her toes and the soles of her feet until the tears came to her eyes. I went away because I saw that she refrained from crying out on my account. I thought she was in a bad way. A consultation was held by her three physicians, the result of which was that they determined to bleed her in the feet. They had some difficulty in persuading her to submit to it, because the pain in her feet was so great that she uttered the most piercing screams if the bedclothes only rubbed against them. The bleeding, however, succeeded, and she was in some degree relieved.Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate
Louise Élisabeth died on July 21st, 1719, at the age of 23 (only eight years after her husband, remember him?). An autopsy revealed that Louise was pregnant for the seventh time. I wonder what would’ve happened if poor Louise had ended up living long enough to give birth again. Louise’s body was buried in the Basilica of Saint-Denis, and her heart was interred next to her son’s.