There are tons of really weird things that have happened in history. Most of them are really, really hard to believe. One of those is that four sisters all became mistresses of the same king, Louis XV. They were the de Mailly-Nesle sisters, and before you ask, this story isn’t made up.
Mademoiselle de Monchy
Marie Anne de Mailly-Nesle, the youngest of the five de Mailly-Nesle sisters, was born in 1717. Her mother was Armande Félice de La Porte Mazarin, and if that name sounds familiar, Armande’s grandmother was Hortense Mancini. Armande was a lady-in-waiting to the queen, Marie Leszczyńska. Marie Anne had four sisters: Louise Julie, Pauline Félicité, Diane Adélaïde, and Hortense Félicité. Armande also had an affair with Louis Henri, the Duke of Bourbon, and had a daughter, Henriette de Bourbon, with him. Marie Anne’s father, Louis, Marquis de Nesle et de Mailly, Prince d’Orange, wasn’t that faithful to his wife either, and it was said that he always “wasted his substance on actresses and the capacious requirements of Court life.” Marie Anne was known as Mademoiselle de Monchy growing up.
An interesting fact about Armande: she actually challenged another woman to a duel. Armande was the Duke of Richelieu’s lover, but he was also having an affair with the Vicomtesse de Polignac. Armande challenged the Vicomtesse to a duel, and Armande ended up being injured in her shoulder. The Duke of Richelieu didn’t want to choose between them, so Armande just moved on to her next lover, the Duke of Bourbon. That certainly wasn’t worth the shoulder injury.
In 1732, Marie Anne’s oldest sister, Louise Julie, began an affair with King Louis XV, become his first official mistress in 1738 (after the whole incident with the hood, which you can read about in my article about Louise Julie). Shortly after that, Marie Anne’s next oldest sister, Pauline Félicité, became one of the king’s unofficial mistresses. It’s important to note that Louise Julie truly loved the king, so she was heartbroken, but she was also fiercely loyal to her sisters (even though they were literally never loyal to her), so she was doubly heartbroken when Pauline Félicité died while giving birth to the king’s child.
Pauline Félicité’s remains were displayed so that people could mourn her. People never liked Pauline Félicité, so instead of mourning her, a mob came in and mutilated Pauline Félicité’s body. Being the king’s mistress isn’t always great.
While all this stuff was going on with her older sisters, Marie Anne was getting married and getting widowed. She married Jean Baptiste Louis, marquis de La Tournelle, and then he dropped dead six years later, leaving Marie Anne a widow in her early twenties. When Pauline Félicité had asked Louise Julie (still official mistress) to invite her to court, Louise Julie had agreed, so Marie Anne decided to ask her sister to introduce her at court. Louise Julie agreed without hesitation: she’d just lost one sister, it would be great to have another one of her sisters near her.
Marie Anne had no plans to follow in either of her sisters’ footsteps and become the king’s mistress when she came to court. Everyone at court loved Marie Anne, even if she didn’t feel like becoming the king’s new mistress. And this couldn’t have been a worse time for Marie Anne to come to court.
Marie Anne’s oldest sister, Louise Julie, had become mistress with the support of Cardinal Fleury, who didn’t want the queen having any influence over the king so that he could pretty much rule France himself. People were getting tired of Cardinal Fleury’s pacifist ways, and they really wanted some good ol’ war. Louise Julie had no influence over the king, mainly because she had no interest in politics, so people wanted a new royal mistress.
At a masked ball, the Duke of Richelieu (not the one Louise’s mother, Armande, had had an affair with) introduced Marie Anne to King Louis. And King Louis XV fell in love with yet another one of the de Mailly-Nesle sisters. But Marie Anne wasn’t so happy about that. She had just taken a lover, the duc d’Agénois, whom she had no intention of giving up just to become the king’s mistress.
So, Marie Anne originally didn’t want to give up her current lover, but the king was so in love with her that he had to get rid of Marie Anne’s lover. The Duke of Richelieu and the king plotted to get the duc d’Agénois out of the way, and by the way, Richelieu was the duc d’Agénois’s uncle, and this is just one instance of family backstabbing in this story. They had the duc d’Agénois sent off to fight in Italy, but then he was wounded and everyone loved him for getting hurt for the sake of his country, so Richelieu had to think of something else. He had his nephew sent to Languedoc, where a woman had been told to seduce him. And it worked. They sent love letters to each other, which were shown to Richelieu, who showed them to Marie Anne. She was livid, and decided that yes, maybe she wanted to be the king’s mistress.
Let The Scheming Begin
There was a position open for lady-in-waiting to the Queen, which Louise Julie easily got. But Marie Anne didn’t want Louise Julie to have a position like that since even if the king did get bored of her, Louise Julie could remain at court, so she could always become his mistress again. Marie Anne needed to completely destroy her sister. She convinced Louise Julie to give up her position of lady-in-waiting for their sister, Hortense Félicité.
Cardinal Fleury, who really needed Louise Julie to stay in her position so that he could continue being the de facto ruler of France, tried to convince her that her sisters were literally plotting against her, but Louise just didn’t think that her sisters would do anything to hurt her, so she didn’t listen to him. She just wanted to be nice to Hortense Félicité. Louise Julie was once warned: “Madame, you do not know your sister, de la Tournelle; when you hand over your office to her, you may expect your dismissal from Court.”
The Queen had helped out a little with this whole scheme, but once she realized that Marie Anne was plotting to become the next maitresse-en-titre, the Queen tried to undo the whole letting Louise Julie resign as lady-in-waiting thing, but that didn’t happen. Marie Anne had a list of requirements for becoming the king’s mistress that included: her sister leaving court, the title of duchess, a splendid house, a huge income, the legitimization of any children they might have, and the title of maitresse-en-titre.
The king didn’t want to meet her demands at first, but was so desperate for Marie Anne that he eventually agreed. He tried to make Louise Julie leave court, but she literally wept every time (read more about that here), so he kept allowing her more time. He moved all the furniture out of her rooms to try and make her leave, but she still didn’t go. Richelieu eventually told her to just go, and she agreed to, but she wanted to have one last dinner with the king (she’d been his mistress for literally ten years, why wouldn’t she want to talk to him one last time?).
At their dinner, Louise Julie broke down crying, and Louis XV promised to come visit her once she left. But Marie Anne forced him not to go, and Louise Julie, tired of waiting, lived the rest of her life in a convent. And Marie Anne was now King Louis’s official mistress. She was made the duchesse de Châteauroux, and was given an income of 80,000 lives yearly.
Unlike her sister, Marie Anne was very much involved in politics, and the king would even seek her advice and turned a blind eye to the fact that yes, Marie Anne was literally running the country by getting the king to be obsessed with her. And he was. According to one source, he would even watch her bathe. The queen had been fine with Louise Julie as a person, but didn’t like the fact that she was her husband’s mistress. This time, though, the queen despised Marie Anne as a person, and was probably a little less hurt at the fact that Marie Anne was her husband’s mistress.
Marie Anne was able to convince the king to join the War of Austrian Succession, which he did. Marie Anne and her sister, Diane Adélaïde, visited the king while he was away, but he soon fell gravely ill and things were starting to look bad for Marie Anne. The king decided to send Marie Anne and Diane Adélaïde away and have his wife come to him instead so that he could say sorry to her for his adultery. On their trip back to Paris, Diane Adélaïde and Marie Anne were constantly bothered by mobs (because everyone hated Marie Anne).
The king, against all odds, recovered from his illness, and Marie Anne was invited back to court. Only like a week after that, though, Marie Anne herself fell ill. She believed she’d been poisoned, and died on December 8th, 1744. She was buried without ceremony a few days later, maybe because the king was scared that some mob would do the same thing to Marie Anne’s corpse that they did to Pauline Félicité.
Without skipping a beat, the king had a short affair with Diane Adélaïde, then moved on to Madame de Pompadour. In fact, the only sister who never became a mistress of Louis XV was Hortense Félicité, who lived until 1799 and died in her eighties. Moral of the story: don’t betray your sister to become maitress-en-titre.