She was born in jail, where her father was a prisoner and her mother was a jail keeper’s daughter. To make matters worse, her father was a Huguenot (Protestant) and her mother was a Catholic, in a century when these religious differences were taken very seriously. Although her grandfather was a prominent Huguenot military officer and poet, her father was nothing but a petty crook who was in jail for murder, kidnapping, treason, and debt.
When her father was released from prison he took the family on a horrific 60-day sea voyage to the island of Martinique, in the Caribbean Sea, where he thought he was going to be made governor of an island. Three years later Françoise and her mother were back in France, as destitute as ever, and Françoise was shunted around to various relatives and two different convent schools. When she was twelve she had to beg in the streets (and at a monastery’s soup kitchen) to support herself and her mother and brothers.
When she was sixteen, in 1652, she had the choice of taking vows in a convent or getting married to a much older man, a poet named Paul Scarron (1610-1660). She chose the marriage, because she knew and respected Scarron, even though he was chronically ill, paralyzed and probably impotent.
After they were married Françoise became the hostess at Scarron’s literary salon at their Hôtel de l’Impécuniosité in the Marais district of Paris, where she met some of the leading authors and intellectuals of the day. This turned out to be an ideal role for her, since she was witty, intelligent, well-read and exotically beautiful – the exotic touch being somehow a result of her three years in Martinique. Her male admirers, whom she politely but firmly kept at arm’s length, referred to her as La belle Indienne, the beautiful Indian.
She was twenty-five when her husband died, leaving her nothing but debts. But by now she had influential friends who were able to arrange some financial support from the royal family. When she was thirty-four she was asked to take on the delicate task of serving as governess for the illegitimate children of Louis XIV and his mistress, Madame de Montespan. This had to be done in great secrecy, since the whereabouts and even the existence of these children was not supposed to become known. But a few years later the king relented, legitimized the children and brought them to live at his court (which had not yet moved to Versailles), bringing their governess with them.
To his own surprise, the king found himself becoming very fond of his children’s calm, competent, discreet and highly intelligent governess. She used her growing influence to bring about a reconciliation between the king and his estranged wife, Queen Consort Marie-Thérèse.
In 1674, when Françoise d’Aubigné was thirty-nine, Louis XIV gave her the money to buy the chateau of Maintenon, which happened to be up for sale. Along with the chateau she acquired a title, or the king granted it to her, in any case she was known henceforth as the Marquise of Maintenon.
The Queen Consort, Marie-Thérèse, died in 1683. Exactly three months later Louis XIV re-married in a secret ceremony conducted by the Archbishop of Paris in the presence of several high-ranking witnesses. The reason for the secrecy was that this time he married for love, not for dynastic reasons. His new wife was none other than Françoise d’Aubigné, the Marquise of Maintenon, who unfortunately was nowhere near being ‘Of Royal Blood’. Their marriage lasted for thirty-two years, until the king’s death in 1715.
Their marriage was a ‘morganatic’ one, meaning that she was his lawfully wedded wife but not his queen consort. Their children, if they had had any, would not have been in line for succession to the throne. Nearly everyone at the court in Versailles knew (or assumed, or argued about whether) they were married, but the rest of the country was never informed.
- Jean-Paul Desprat, Madame de Maintenon (biography), Paris 2015
- Françoise Chandernagor, L’allée du Roi (novel with extensive notes), Paris 2006
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2017.