As anybody with a sister can attest, there is no relationship in the world that includes so much love and so much loathing. Seriously though, it’s some complicated ish. And no set of sisters quite embody this weird relationship as the de Mailly sisters.
Growing up in 18th century France, the five sisters were beautiful, noble-born and all set to become good wives…but they didn’t. Instead, four of the five sisters would all go on to become mistress to the same man: King, Louis XV of France.
In their positions as mistresses, Louise, Pauline, Diane and Marie de Mailly wielded unprecedented power. Their lives would be risked, and sisterly bonds would be built and broken. They’d know fame and famine alike, and by the end, all but two would be dead.
Side note: The middle sister, Hortense, didn’t go into mistress-ing. A valid career choice, but it means that for the reminder of this article, we’re gonna wave goodbye to Hortense and focus on the other four.
LOUISE DE MAILLEY
Sweet, witty, but very clumsy, Louise was the eldest of the sisters. She was newly unhappily married to her cousin (yay for history and its never ending parade of gross marriages) and dreamed that her life would become more than just a long stream of extremely related babies. At 19, she got what she wanted…thanks to her mother dying. Yeah, less than ideal.
Still, as the eldest daughter, it was Louise’s duty to take up her late mother’s role as a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of France. And Just like that, Louise was shipped off to Versailles. A mourning teenager dumped into the snakepit that was royal court…it could have gone tits-up so easily!
Yet Louise remained strong. Though her clumsiness meant she was far from elegant, she let her intellect and wit take center stage. Soon enough, she was a court favorite. And it wasn’t just the court that was infatuated — Louise caught the eye of the king.
The king could be as in love with Louise as he liked…she wasn’t biting. Louise took her marriage vows seriously, and it would take a lot more than a royal crush for her to break them. This was incredibly unusual; the general rule was that if a king wanted to have sex with you…then, like, you should probably start making your way to his bedroom. But Louise stood her ground — and she made Louis work.
It took Louis over a year to even get a kiss…but that kiss opened the floodgates to a whole lot more. *wink.* Pretty soon, Louise and Louis were official. (Plus, their names match, so it was clearly meant to be.)
Louis and Louise weren’t a flash in the pan. She was in love and soon she was Louis’s official main mistress. But as all big sisters know…the minute you get something good, your younger sister is immediately there, wanting a piece of it.
The second eldest of the sisters, Pauline wrote to Louise, begging to be brought to court. As a good big sister, Louise let Pauline come stay (while probably also reminding Pauline not to embarrass her in front of her cool new courtier mates).
The bright lights of Versailles suited Pauline to a T. She was loud, funny, and the life of the party. More than this, though, Pauline was unashamedly ambitious. She wanted to squeeze her sister's new position for everything she could get.
And boy, did she do that. Like Louise before her, Pauline quickly caught King Louis’s eye. Unlike Louise, Pauline was happy to pursue the king...
King Louis may have loved Louise (#L+L 4ever) but he also reeeeally liked her sister. It was all kinds of dicky and icky, but the King's penis wants what it wants. And so, though Louise got to remain top mistress, Pauline joined the ranks of official mistresses.
Pauline LOVED her new role, and, unlike Louise, she used her position as mistress for everything she could. She created political sway for herself, bagged a rich husband with a title (who’d have to remain cool with her extra-marital duties), and snagged herself countless expensive gifts…including an actual castle!
Needless to say, the rest of court was somewhat jealous of this new upstart. They began to loathe Pauline. But Pauline didn’t care. She had power, riches, and now she was pregnant with the King’s kid — meaning nothing could topple her…right?
Nope! Turns out giving birth before decent medicine and pain relief was a killer....literally.
Except don’t…because the likelihood of survival during this era, well, it's not exactly Vegas odds. Though Pauline delivered a healthy baby boy, she died in childbirth.
Both King Louis and Louise were grief-stricken. It was arranged for Pauline’s body to be placed in state, to allow for mourners to pay their respects…but then, something truly horrific happened. A mob broke into the chapel housing Pauline's body. Seeking to exact punishment on the woman they saw as a "whore," they mutilated her body. Louise was devastated. Her little sister was not only dead, her body was defiled, too. Louise sunk into a pit of despair, turning to religious rituals as a way of offering penance.
Louise wasn’t the only one mourning Pauline’s death. Political heavyweights were just as bereft. Without Pauline, there was no woman with the ear of the king who was happy to push political plans.
See, Louise was in love (#L+LAlways), and therefore uninterested in using her relationship for power. But the politicians weren’t out of luck. Another de Mailly sister had Pauline’s ambitious streak:
The youngest of the sisters, Marie Anne had a serious case of last-born syndrome — meaning that she felt she had something to prove. That, mixed with her devastating looks, smarts, and endless ambition, made her the perfect political mistress. So she was brought to court with the intention that she would take Pauline’s place.
Slight issue…Marie Anne didn’t want to become the king's mistress. She already had a lover and she didn’t want to drop him to become the king's sloppy seconds (well, thirds). King Louis had other ideas. He was now desperate to bag Marie Anne as his latest conquest…and so he sent her lover off to war (as you do). Sadly for the king, Marie Anne’s lover came back from war alive, intact, and a war hero.
But it wasn’t quite game over! The king’s friends were desperate to get the king a mistress who would play their political games…so they arranged for another woman to seduce Marie Anne’s lover. Then they sent the pair's illicit love letters to Marie Anne, who was understandably heartbroken. So she broke up with her lover and fell into the king's bed to spite him.
French court — officially more of a bitchy headfuck than high school!
But Marie Anne refused to be a pawn. She wanted three things:
1. A more powerful king than the one she had.
2. Power and wealth of her own.
3. To be the top mistress.
Luckily, one and two were pretty easy to tick off. Marie Anne persuaded the King to secure his power by not only going to war, but actually joining the battle as a true military leader. In return, King Louis gave Marie the title of duchess, which meant a HUGE pension.
Becoming the top mistress would be a little more difficult. After all, the woman in charge was Louise, Marie Anne’s own sister. But Marie Anne was resolute that she would kick her sister out of the top spot.
Things weren’t looking great for Louise. After Pauline’s death, she’d been down and had drifted away from the king. She was still very much in love with him (#L+LForLife). But when faced with not only her sister, but the king's friends desparate for her removal, would love be enough? What made things even worse for Louise (if that was possible) was that she refused to believe that Marie Anne would plot against her. After all, they were sisters.
And…Marie Anne used this against Louise. She convinced Louise to resign her post as one of the Queens ladies…meaning Louise now had no official reason to be at court.
Every day, the king was falling more and more for his new squeeze Marie Anne. He spent his evenings with Louise proclaiming how desperate his was to get off with Marie Anne…which for some reason, made Louise burst into tears! And so, King Louis grew less and less fond on his old — now very emotional — mistress. The only thing he wanted her for now was to please Marie by ditching her.
So he had all of Louise’s furniture removed from her apartments and told her she was to leave Versailles. Louise didn’t take this well, falling to her feet and begging to stay…but it was no use. Louise was out and Marie Anne was in.
But Marie Anne wasn’t taking any chances. Just to be sure that Louise couldn’t return her lost love, she ensured that Louise was sent to live out the rest of her days in a convent.
Now top mistress, Marie Anne enjoyed all the influence and power that was now at her disposal. She was in early twenties, a newly minted duchess, and rich beyond her wildest dreams. I was time to pay it back. Enter:
Diane, Marie Anne's favorite sister, came to join Marie Anne in court, where Marie Anne hooked Diane up with a fancy new husband and a new gig as (you guessed it!) one of the king's mistresses...with Marie Anne remaining top dog, naturally. Together, Diane and Marie Anne travelled with King Louis to the battlefield during the war of the Austrian Succesion, where, on Marie Anne’s advice, King Louis once more joined the fray as a true military leader. What could possibly go wrong?
Yeeeeeah, King Louis fell ill…like horrifying-battlefield-full-of-nasty-diseases-and-no-sanitation-ill.
Injured and sick, the King took to his deathbed surrounded by his mistresses. He realized things weren’t looking good for his immortal soul.
So he decided to denounced his main mistress Marie Anne, beg repentance for ever having been associated with her and her kin, and had her sent packing (you know, I’m starting to think this guy might be an asshat). On the road home, Dianne and Marie Anne’s carriage was met by an angry mob (sound familiar?). These women had put the King’s soul in danger, and now they were going to pay.
The mob threw urine and rocks at the sisters. They threatened to lynch them, and the pair barely got away. The ordeal didn’t end there. Marie Anne almost immediately fell ill — and she suspected poison.
Miraculously, King Louis survived his illness…but Marie Anne would not be so lucky. She was summoned back to court, but whatever had caused her sickness had wrecked her immune system. Almost as soon as Marie Anne returned to Versailles…she was dead.
With two sisters dead and one locked in a convent…things weren’t exactly peachy for the de Mailly sisters. Diane managed to survive as a mistress for a few months longer before King Louis tired of her.
History has been rough on the de Mailly sisters. Remembered as "wanton whores," or just not remembered at all, I kinda feel like these ladies got the short shrift. Sure, they aren’t winning any best sister prizes soon (or ever), but they were ambitious. They created power, wealth and forms of independence for themselves. They had faults (okay, maaaaany faults), but these ladies are way too interesting to be slut-shamed out of history!
This was interesting, where can I find out more? There aren’t that many solid non-fiction books on the ladies, BUT there is a good historical fiction book. The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie is a fun popcorn read; kinda like The Other Boleyn Girl, but in Versailles.
This post originally appeared on F Yeah History and is reprinted here with permission.
More from BUST
Written by Natasha Tidd, Sara Westrop, and Helen Antrobus, F Yeah History is dedicated to unearthing history that's just too good for history class. From historic hangover cures to unsung historic heroes, all told with a healthy does of gifs and somewhat terrible jokes, it's history...just not as you know it. Follow F Yeah History on FYeahHistory.com and on Twitter @F_yeah_history.