"A cheap whore that got lucky": that’s the general historic consensus on Jeanne Bécu; more commonly known as Madame Du Barry, rival of Marie Antoinette and scandalous mistress of Louis XV.
BUT I’D ARGUE THERE’S WAY MORE TO THIS LADY THAN JUST BEING THE SIDE JOKE OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.
See, the tale of Madame Du Barry is Mean Girls in Versailles, with a smattering of Showgirls AND an underdog story built around scandal, rivalry and determination.
Its got love, sex and one hell of a leading lady – oh, and at the end the entire cast is beheaded…
The illegitimate daughter of a seamstress and a father rumoured to be a local friar, Jeanne Bécu was quite literally born into scandal. Yet despite her salacious birth, Jeanne had a pretty plush upbringing.
See, her mum was under the employ of a very fancy gent (who was also handily her former lover…) His household absolutely LOVED Jeanne. She was adorable and precocious. The boss's mistress took particular notice, showering the little girl with gifts.
But sadly, Jeanne’s luxe life was not meant to be. And after her mum married (a much poorer guy than her previous beau) Jeanne was shipped off to a super dull and drab convent.
BY 15, JEANNE WAS OUT OF THE CONVENT AND ONTO THE STREETS OF PARIS.
She worked flogging busted trinkets in the cities dingy side streets, in addition to a ton of other short-lived jobs and even shorter-lived affairs. It was hard, but Jeanne remembered her small taste of opulence. She was determined to get that life back, and she was happy to work her arse off to get it.
Finally, her hard graft paid off. Through her many odd jobs, Jeanne caught people's attention. Soon the back streets of Paris were abuzz about the beautiful and charismatic Jeanne (because gossiping about a hot random passed as prime time entertainment then).
Jean-Baptiste du Barry had heard all about Jeannes beauty, and he decided he wanted her (which is not at all creepy….) A "procurer" of high-class mistresses (read, pimp), Du Barry thought Jeanne would be his crowning jewel and was desperate for her to join his merry band of mistresses.
JEANNE WAS TOTALLY DOWN WITH THIS!
Being a mistress would allow her to maintain a level of independence while earning more money than she could dream of. Finally, Jeannes’ ship had come in… even if it was driven by Captain Creep.
Despite Captain Creep being at the wheel, Jeanne took Paris by storm. Becoming the mistress to political power players and influential courtiers…as well as your basic rich bellends.
She was the IT girl and everyone wanted a piece of her…including the King of France. See, after Jeanne took a quick trip to Versailles (to see one of her many lovers), King Louis XV met Jeanne and was immediately entranced.
THE KING ANNOUNCED HE WANTED JEANNE AS HIS MAIN MISTRESS.
Slight snag: Only titled, married, noblewomen could become the King's mistress, and Jeanne was a lass from the streets of Paris with literally no ounce of noble blood…
BUT NO MATTER! THIS WAS LOVE!!
And so in a very real Cinderella story, the king's men searched all the brothels of Paris for the creepy pimp that could make their dreams come true.
And they found him!
The king's men had Jeanne married to her former pimp Jean-Baptiste du Barry’s brother. He was then paid to fuck off, making Jeanne technically married. The king then invented a fictional noble lineage for Jeanne before transforming her old clothes into a fabulous gown and lavishing her with one of the most ornate wigs French court had ever seen.
Jeanne was now Madame Du Barry, and she was ready for her official debut as royal mistress extraordinaire.
Sadly, the French court didn’t get the whole "Cinderella story" memo.
To them, Jeanne was a "whore"; sure, she’d been cleaned up, but she was nothing more than a guttersnipe from the back streets of Paris. Women literally had to be bribed or straight up paid off to become friends with Jeanne. Others, irate that this cheap strumpet had been chosen as mistress over noble-born ladies, started spreading gossip filled bitchy pamphlets about Jeanne.
Jeanne had the entire French Court pushing for her failure. But she didn’t buckle. Instead she took classes in manners and etiquette to help own her new role.
Not only that, but her first favour from the King wasn’t a request for money, political power or jewels…it was for mercy. Jeanne was known for saving people from execution, falling to her knees and refusing to get up until the King agreed to spare lives. She notably saved a debt-ridden couple from beheading and a young woman who was due to be hung after not reporting her stillborn child as dead.
In 1770, Marie Antionette married the king's grandson (and heir) and joined French court. Upon seeing Jeanne, Marie asked what she did and was told that Jeanne gave the King "pleasure."
To which Marie Antionette said: "OH, THEN I SHALL BE HER RIVAL, BECAUSE I TOO WISH TO GIVE PLEASURE TO THE KING.”
Yeeeah… Marie Antionette was very green.
But sadly, if Jeanne thought that sweet (and VERY naive) Marie was going to be her first real friend at Court, she was all kinds of wrong. She had in fact just met her very own Regina George (in sheep's clothing).
When Marie Antoinette discovered what Jeanne's job actually was, she was disgusted. She felt Jeannes mere presence to be degrading.
Not only that, but Marie Antoinette was weeks into her marriage and still struggling to have sex with her hubby and consummate the damn thing. Now this openly sexual woman was being thrust in her face constantly.
She was already pissed off, and so, egged on by the court, Marie Antoinette did what any young woman does when faced with someone they hate….
SHE FROZE THE BITCH OUT.
Marie Antoinette allowed her entourage to indulge in mammoth bitch sessions about Jeanne and developed a fun habit of throwing lavish parties…where she just accidentally always forgetting to invite the King's mistress.
NOT ONLY THAT, BUT MARIE ANTOINETTE REFUSED TO ACKNOWLEDGE JEANNE IN PUBLIC.
Now this was a HUGE deal. It broke all kinds of court etiquette and appeared to send a message that Marie Antoinette was questioning the King's decision-making. It’s the historic equivalent of you striding across the office, punching your boss's PA in the face and calling them a bitch.
NOW DON’T GET ME WRONG; SHOTS HAD BEEN FIRED BY BOTH SIDES IN THIS BATTLE.
Jeanne both orchestrated the removal of one of Marie Antoinette's favourite courtiers and loved nothing more than openly chatting about Marie Antoinette's bedroom issues with her hubby. BUT Marie Antoinette icing out Jeanne had taken things too far…it was now actually threatening Austrian-French relations!
So on New Year's Day 1772, Marie Antoinette ended the feud in style. She cooly walked over to Jeanne in one of Versailles packer corridors, stared her down and said, “THERE ARE A LOT OF PEOPLE TODAY AT VERSAILLES.”
With the feud between Marie Antoinette and Jeanne now at an end, you’d be forgiven for thinking things would chill out for Jeanne.
See, in April 1774 King Louis XV caught smallpox. By May he was dead. Marie Antoinette and her husband were now ruling France…and with Jeanne's rival now queen, that could only mean one thing.
JEANNE WAS OUT ON HER ARSE.
And so, once more Jeanne found herself stuck in a convent.
But she didn’t stay their for long. See, her mistress-ing work meant that she’d been able to get herself a fancy house out in the country. So there she lived, hosting salons for France's best artists, doing charity work in her local area, and taking a shit-ton of lovers.
But we all know that this story can’t end in pastoral bliss. Why?
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION!
By the 1790s, the revolution was in full swing. Tons of Jeannes fellow courtiers had already met with the guillotine, and so she was doing her best to keep a low profile out in the country.
BUT THEN IN 1791, A LOAD OF JEANNE'S JEWELS WERE STOLEN IN THE NIGHT.
Desperate to get them back, she launched an investigation, travelling between France and London to look for them.
Unsurprisingly, King Louis XVs mistress running around Europe on a hunt for her missing jewels caught attention…and not the right kind.
Yeah, people were pretty pissed off: turns out the French Revolution is not the climate in which to pull a bougie Carmen Sandiego. In 1793, she was arrested and on December 7th of that year, Jeanne was sentenced to death.
Jeanne was an emotional wreck (wouldn’t you be!?!). She was to die the next day and had no clue how to get out of it.
BUT THEN SHE HAD AN IDEA!
In the morning, when guards arrived to cut off Jeannes hair—in preparation for her execution—she calmly told them that she wanted just a few hours' grace, so she could tell the revolutionaries where a load of her valuable jewels were. Surely these stupidly expensive jewels would result in her freedom.
And so Jeanne spent hours informing the guards of where all her hidden gems were. After she finished, the guards left….and the hairdresser came back to chop off Jeanne's hair in preparation for the guillotine.
It was the Revolution; they weren’t going to play fair.
WHEN JEANNE BOARDED THE WAGON THAT WAS TO TAKE HER AND THE OTHER DOOMED NOBLES TO THE GUILLOTINE, SHE WAS A DAMN WRECK.
The French elite prided themselves on remaining stone-faced; they wouldn’t show a flicker of emotion about their imminent demise.
Jeanne wasn’t playing this game. She screamed, wept and begged onlookers to help her.
This unnerved the gathering crowds. Jeanne was the first person they had ever seen elicit any kind of fear about the whole about to get my head chopped off" thing. Suddenly, this wasn’t such a fun day out…
When the cart arrived at the guillotine, Jeanne was to scared to get out, having to be bundled onto the scaffold "like an animal."
She continued weeping, wailing to the crowd:
"YOU ARE GOING TO HURT ME! WHY?"
Then she saw the executioner and broke down even more.
Rather than enjoying themselves, as usual, the crowd was clearly deeply unnerved by what was about to happen, causing the executioner to work faster than us usual.
He thrust Jeanne onto the guillotine. She turned to him crying:
"ONE MOMENT MORE, PLEASE MONSIEUR, DO NOT HURT ME."
As Jeanne cried for mercy, the blade came down.
And so ends the tale of Jeanne, more commonly known as, Madame Du Barry. A woman who pulled herself out of poverty and into power. Who lived openly as a sexual being and in doing so felt the wrath of around her. Who overcame time after time, only to die at the hands of those she had grown up with.
This was interesting, where do I find out more? It’s weirdly hard to get hold of decent books on Madame Du Barry. A lot seem to have gone out of print/don’t exist in most book shops/online outlets. I fully suggest checking out Madame Du Barry, The Wages of Beauty by Joan Haslip.
This post originally appeared on F Yeah History and is reprinted here with permission.
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.