From bedding kings to fleeing countries dressed as a pistol-wielding man; to duelling her lovers; to drinking, dancing, and above all, fighting for her independence, the life of Hortense Mancini was, to be blunt, fucking insane…so let's get to it:
Born into nobility on the June 6, 1646 in Rome, Hortense Mancini was the fourth of five sisters. Their mother a great beauty, their father an aristocrat who practiced black magic (specializing in necromancy), and their uncle was Cardinal Mazarin, both Cardinal and Chief Minister to Louis XIV (the real power behind the French throne) – it’s safe to say the sisters had a somewhat eclectic background.
But things didn’t stay nattily rosy for long; in 1650, tragedy struck when Hortense’s father died suddenly. Fortunately, the situation was far from as black as it could have been, and Hortense’s mother made the canny choice of leaning on Uncle Cardinal Mazarin in the family's hour of need.
Uncle Cardinal had a soft spot for his nieces, in particular the wild and witty Hortense, and he soon invited them to stay at the French court, where he would see what he could do for the girls.
The Mancini sisters took the streets of Paris by storm — very much the 17th century Kardashians — they were olive skinned, beautiful, and very scandalous. They even had their own name, "The Mazarinettes" (that’s some top 17th century branding there, Kris Jenner would be proud).
With the attention of French society gossip mills focused on the Mazarinettes, it’s hardly surprising that when Uncle Cardinal announced his plans to arrange fabulously powerful and rich marriages for his nieces, the Mazarinettes became hot property. Now the most eligable prospects in the European marriage market, everyone wanted a piece of Laure, Olympe, Marie, Hortense, and Marie Anne.
The Mazarinettes had their pick of European nobility; Marie even became the lover of Louis XIV! Then, Charles ll, party lover extraordinaire and future King of England, rocked up at French court. Currently in exile from England, Charles quickly fell for fun-loving Hortense. The pair seemed like two halves of one hedonistic whole; Charles proposed and promised to make the teenage Hortense England’s Queen (should his exile end…).
But Uncle Cardinal was having none of it. He was not about to set up his favourite niece with a galavanting, eccentric Englishman with no fortune and only a title to his name (a title, btw, that was both now worthless and liable to one day get him killed), so Charles was sent packing.
Soon, the Mancini sisters started to be married off to princes, generals and dukes, but Uncle Cardinal wanted something extra special for his favorite niece. In fact, this would be his dying wish, and on his deathbed Cardinal Mazarin left Hortense his fortune and finalized her marriage to the richest man in Europe.
At the age of 15, Hortense was now one of Europe's wealthiest women.
This all sounds great. Until you realise that the richest man in Europe was the literal worst.
Hortense’s husband to be, Armand-Charles de La Porte, Duc de La Meilleraye (say that three times fast) was a religious nut, which is bad, but this guy took zealous dickery to a whole new level. He worried that the sight of milkmaids milking cows would be so lustful and sinful to passing men that he ordered that any milkmaids in his service have thier teeth knocked out, so their smiles would no longer pose the threat of starting some kind of dairy-based sexual riot.
Upon marrying Armand-Charles de La Porte, Duc de La Meilleraye — from now on just Armand, because I’m not typing that all out again — 15-year-old Hortense quickly realised that he was a monumental bell end. Aside from his zealous nature, he was jealous and prone to angry and violent outbursts. He covered any nude paintings of men in the house so Hortense wouldn’t be tempted by lustful thoughts, burst into her room at night to check for hidden lovers, and forced her to spend days praying away her sins.
This wasn't Hortense's style.
If her husband wouldn’t let her be around men, then that was fine; she could be flexible. So, soon into her marriage, Hortense starting seeing another young woman, Sidonie de Courcelles.
Unsurprisingly, Armand wasn’t happy when he discovered the affair. And so he packed the two girls off to a convent. That’s right. He sent them away. Far away. Together. This man is a genius.
Continuing their affair, the girls weren’t overly fussed about their punishment. They spent their days at the convent playing pranks on the nuns, pouring ink in the holy water, and attempting escape by fleeing up the chimney. It was basically St. Trinian's, but with more sex and pissed off nuns (actually, how has this not been made into a film?) Soon, the nuns had enough and sent the pair back to Armand, and the affair fizzled out.
Somehow in their seven years of tumultuous marriage, Hortense and Armand had four children (no, I don’t know, either). But the children weren’t enough to keep Hortense tied to Armand. She decided to leave her husband, which in the 17th century meant that she would lose her children. The price of Hortense's freedom was high, but one she would be willing to pay if it meant escaping Armand for good.
After several foiled attempts (which led to Armand imprisoning her in the family home), Hortense left her husband on June 13, 1668. She rode out of the gates on horseback, dressed as a man, and quickly fled France for the safety of her sister Marie’s home in Rome.
Sadly, Marie’s place wasn’t the safe house Hortense was hoping for, as Marie was deathly afraid her husband was trying to poison her (I’m not saying that Uncle Cardinal was shit at picking spouses, but…), so the sisters fled to France, where Marie’s former lover Louis XIV announced that both women were now under his protection.
Things were looking up. Louis XIV gave Hortense a hefty pension, which allowed her the unusual freedom of becoming an independent woman. She set up house in France and transformed her new home into a haven for artists, philosophers, and great minds of the time. Hortense also picked up a lover, The Duke of Savoy, who helped Hortense fight off her husbands many demands for her return.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end; the Duke died and Armand finally managed to get his hands on Hortense's assets, freezing all her finances (including her pension from Louis XIV) until she agreed to come back to him.
But Hortense wasn't going to back down that easily.
She headed to England, agreeing to work with England’s ambassador to France, Ralph Montagu, on his plan to deseat one of the English King's mistresses, Louise de Kerouaille.
That's right, after turning down his proposal, Hortense was now travelling to England to become Charles ll’s new mistress. You can’t deny Hortense had moxy.
Hortense battled treacherous roads, icy weather, and a near shipwreck on her journey from France to England. But she refused to give in and return to her husband, set on forging her own path and getting back the independence she had lost in France.
Hortense arrived at English court in 1675, dressed as a pistol-wielding man (naturally), and Charles ll fell for his old love once more. Hortense became a royal mistress.
Her partying, drinking and general debauchery rivalled Charles', and her love of swordfighting and horse-riding helped ensure this her lifestyle didn’t have too much of an effect on her appearances. Naturally, the other women in Charles' life started to grow concerned about Hortense; she could be a real threat to their positions.
But Hortense didn’t want to be like his other mistresses. She wasn’t a Nell Gwynn; she couldn’t dedicate her whole life to Charles. That’s what she’d escaped, and she refused to go back to it (even if this man was way less mad than Armand). Hortense wanted to live as she choose, to drink, dance, and take as many lovers as she could.
And so she did. She lived independently yet remained a mistress. Charles loved Hortense for who she was, and so he turned a blind eye to her refusal to call him "your majesty" and made an exception for her long list of lovers; that is, until Hortense pushed things too far by sleeping with both Charles and his daughter.
Anne, Countess of Sussex was Charles' daughter with one of his first mistresses, Barbara Castlemaine. Anne was 15 and unhappily married when she met Hortense (now in her early 30s) the two became firm friends, which quickly progressed to much more (wink).
The women attempted to keep the affair relatively quiet, but the court rumor mill's interest peaked. Then, things really hit the front page when Hortense and Anne publicly duelled in St. James' Park, in their nightgowns, with a group of men looking on.
Anne’s husband was furious, and she was sent away from court where, desperate and lovelorn, she took to her bed for days, a miniature of Hortense pressed close to her chest.
Charles ll wasn’t best pleased with Hortense, but with the affair over, he cooled down. Until Hortense took on another lover, this one the Prince de Monaco. Sleeping with his daughter was one thing, but sleeping with another royal was a step too far for Charles. He put a stop to their affair and stripped Hortense of her royal pension for several days. That's right, days, I know, I don’t know how she coped, either.
Still, Charles and Hortense remained friends. With her pension back in place, Hortense lived more than comfortably in Chelsea, her home a salon once more for artists, poets ,and great minds.
Then, in 1685, Charles ll died suddenly. Hortense maintained her place at court, remaining good friends with England’s new King, James ll. But with her protector now gone, there was nothing stopping Armand from forcing his errant wife home.
And so in 1689 Armand took his case to court. The law was on his side and demanded that Hortense return to Italy and Armand. But she refused.
This time though, Hortense’s fighting spirit failed her. With the stress of Armand’s continued efforts to force her back, as well as her years of drinking and gambling starting to take effect, Hortense found herself in spiralling debt. She maintained her refusal though, retiring to the English countryside, where she died in 1699.
But that's not the end of Hortense's story...Armand was still alive.
That’s right, Armand had plans for Hortense, even in death.
Armand traveled to England, where he bought Hortense’s body from her creditors. He then proceeded to take Hortense with him wherever he went, with her body propped up in his carriage.
BECAUSE ARMAND WAS (AND WILL ALWAYS BE) THE LITERAL WORST.
This post originally appeared on FYeahHistory.com and is reprinted here with permission.
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