Along with more than 40,000 lives lost, one of the considered most famous victims of the 18th century Reign of Terror in France, which the rival factions, unjust radicalization and believably one of the causes of the French Revolution, was the late Madame Jeanne Becu Du Barry, King Louie XV’s favourite mistress. She was named a royal courtesan in which it means a high-class expensive prostitute that only elite and members of the high society could afford of her service. However, during those times, to be called a royal courtesan makes a woman proud as the term has always come along with wealth, power, fame, glamour, security and position in the palace. The colourful life of Madame Du Barry has included those elements that made her popular in the Parisian society and French history.
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It has often been said that it is the mistress who truly wields the power on the throne. According to the BBC article The King’s Mistress – A Royal Tradition (2005), “…for centuries, kings across Europe have turned to mistresses for sex, advice and conversation” (BBC News, n. pag.). In exchange for the sex and companionship that they provided to their respective paramours, these women were able to obtain “great personal wealth, security and a rare chance of political power” (BBC News, n. pag.) But in the case of Madame du Barry (1743-1793), a king’s mistress can also bring about the end of his regime (BBC News, n. pag.)
Madame Jeanne Becu Comtesse du Barry was born as Marie-Jeanne Becu at Vaucouleurs, Lorraine on August 19, 1743 (Wikipedia, n. pag.). She was the illegitimate daughter of Anne Becu, who was said to have worked either as a seamstress or a cook in Paris (Wikipedia, n. pag.). Marie-Jeanne’s biological father was believed to be Jean Baptiste Gormand de Vaubernier, a friar who went by the name of “Brother Angel” (Wikipedia, n. pag.). However, it was Anne’s lover, Monsieur Billard-Dumonceaux, who paid for her education at the convent of St. Aure (Wikipedia, n. pag.).
Marie-Jeanne left the convent at age 15 and moved to Paris, where she assumed the name Jeanne Rancon (Wikipedia, n. pag.). She held various jobs during her stay in Paris, which included being an assistant to a young hairdresser named Lametz (with whom she was rumoured to have a daughter), a companion to Madame de la Garde (known to be a lonely aristocrat) and a milliner’s assistant in A La Toilette, an enterprise of a certain Monsieur Labille (Wikipedia, n. pag.). In 1763, her beauty caught the eye of well-heeled pimp and casino owner Jean du Barry (Wikipedia, n. pag.). He then proceeded to turn her into his mistress and groomed her career as a courtesan that catered only to the Parisian elite (Wikipedia, n. pag.).
Marie-Jeanne became a courtesan for four years (Marie Antoinette, n. pag.), working under the alias of Mademoiselle Lange (Wikipedia, n. pag.). Although several of her wealthy customers eventually became her benefactors, Du Barry wanted to use her to control King Louis XV (1715-1774) (Wikipedia, n. pag.). Du Barry’s ambition was realized when Marie-Jeanne and his brother, Comte Guillaume du Barry, were married in 1769 (Wikipedia, n. pag.). Marie-Jeanne’s marriage to a noble man qualified her to become Louis XV’s official royal mistress (Wikipedia, n. pag.). On April 2, 1769, Madame du Barry was formally introduced to the family of the king and the French royal court (Wikipedia, n. pag.).
In sharp contrast to Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), another of Louis XV’s mistresses, Du Barry had minimal political clout over the king (Wikipedia, n. pag.). Her only participation in politics was her membership in the faction that deposed Etienne Francois de Choiseul from his position as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1770 (Wikipedia, n. pag.). Du Barry instead spent her time “having new gowns made and ordering jewelry of every shape, size and colour” (Wikipedia, n. pag.). She also took the place of De Pompadour as Louis XV’s favorite mistress (Marie Antoinette, n. pag.).
However, Du Barry’s genteel life in Versailles Palace was not without problems. She had a bitter feud with French Dauphine Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) primarily because of the latter’s support of De Choiseul (Wikipedia, n. pag.). Marie Antoinette also refused to have anything to do with Du Barry due to her disgust with the latter’s personal background (Marie Antoinette, n. pag.).
Furthermore, Louis XV requested prior to his demise in May 1774 that Du Barry be banished to the Abbey of Pont aux-Dames, where her letters and visits were strictly monitored (Marie Antoinette, n. pag.). Historians believed that the king’s relationship with Du Barry might have hindered him from receiving an absolution before his death; hence, his decision to send her away (Wikipedia, n. pag.). Du Barry lived in the convent for two years, before moving to the Chateau de Louveciennes (Wikipedia, n. pag.) in 1776 (Marie Antoinette, n. pag.).
Although Du Barry was noted for her “her good nature and support of artists” (Wikipedia, n. pag.), the French people despised her due to the lavish lifestyle that the king subjected her to (Wikipedia, n. pag.). By the late 1780s, France was in the midst of a severe fiscal crisis (MSN Encarta, n. pag.). Its economy suffered due to the monarchy’s tedious and archaic bookkeeping system (MSN Encarta, n. pag.). Furthermore, the country also did not have a national bank (MSN Encarta, n. pag.).
Even if the majority of France’s nobility and clergy were extremely well-off, they were taxed considerably less than the poor peasants (MSN Encarta, n. pag.). The royalty likewise had to take on crippling debts just to finance the very expensive wars it got itself into – the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and the American Revolution (1775-1783) (MSN Encarta, n. pag.). While the country’s upper classes wallowed in wealth and the monarchy engaged in an expensive hostility after another, ordinary French citizens starved due to skyrocketing prices of bread (MSN Encarta, n. pag.).
The increasing animosity between France’s nobility and bourgeoisie resulted in the French Revolution (1789-1799) (MSN Encarta, n. pag.). Under the Revolution, “France was temporarily transformed from an absolute monarchy, where the king monopolized power, to a republic of theoretically free and equal citizens” (MSN Encarta, n. pag.). Simply put, the French Revolution served as the retribution for all the injustices that the French royalty inflicted upon its people.
At the height of the Revolution, revolutionaries guillotined nobles, their allies and anyone who opposed the uprising (MSN Encarta, n. pag.). Du Barry went to England several times in 1792 to supposedly recover stolen jewelry (MSN Encarta, n. pag.). As a result, she was accused of secretly providing financial assistance to the England-based opponents of the new French republic (Wikipedia, n. pag.). The Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris apprehended Du Barry on treason charges in 1793 (Wikipedia, n. pag.). Following the premeditated trial, she was finally guillotined at the Place de la Concorde on December 8, 1793 (Wikipedia, n. pag.) She was 50 years old then.
Having mistresses in England, France, and German in 15th to 18th century especially for the monarchs and crowned heads was an additional status symbol for them. It looked like they are more secured. They were enjoying these scenarios irregardless of the wealth and time that are being wasted. This made the middle class aggressive and subversive which soon put in a series of mutiny and rebellion.
Du Barry was like a social climber because from humble beginnings, she managed to get sympathetic attention from the king. She used her charisma and unique beauty to attract the Parisian elites, to be able to possess earthly things which she has never inherited from her below-averaged ancestors. A determined and ambitious woman she was. However, her vulnerability to wealth and luxury did not save her to be executed, not even being her association with the king since the time that King Louie XV requested her exile from the royal palace to the convent located far away from his kingdom, for the simple reason that the church could not give absolution to him because of the presence of the mistress in the royal palace. With this, the irony of security that was one of the factors being involved with the king was instantly become useless and ineffective.
Mistresses like Madame du Barry lived lives of wealth, comfort and power. But their affluence and prominence did not come without a tragic price, as they attained these at the expense of so many impoverished citizens. The hedonistic existence of these women sickened their countrymen to the point that they finally rose up and demanded change for their respective countries and governments.
It would be fair to say that mistresses can serve as the ultimate warning to any leader who will use his position to enrich himself and his associates. The people may tolerate corruption for a remarkably long time. But once they take power into their own hands, there is no government on earth that they cannot overthrow.
King Louie XV of France was known for his being a sexually addicted royal personality having so many mistresses, in which Madame Marie Jeanne Becu de Barry happened to be her rumoured favourite mistress and the last one at the same time. Du Barry became his most desired because of her rare beauty and charm. She was also known for being playful yet naïve that attracts most the king. Her history became interesting and most wanted as the subject of researches and studies of historian and scholars worldwide because of its rags-to-riches harmonized story. After two decades of being with the king, Du Barry became the wealthiest mistress in the history of France. Yet, the wealth she tried to keep for herself was also the reason of her tragic and untimely death; thus, a meaningless ending for Madame Du Barry.
- “The King’s Mistress – A Royal Tradition,” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4465399.stm.
- “Madame du Barry,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madame_du_Barry. Ibid.
- “Madame du Barry,” Marie Antoinette, http://www.marie-antoinette.info/Madame_Du_Barry.html.
- Wikipedia, op. cit.
- Marie Antoinette, loc. cit.
- Wikipedia, Ibid.
- Marie Antoinette, Ibid.
- Wikipedia, Ibid.
- Marie Antoinette, Ibid.
- Wikipedia, Ibid.
- “French Revolution,” MSN Encarta, http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761557826/French_Revolution.html.
- “Marie Jeanne Becu du Barry,” MSN Encarta, http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761557120/Du_Barry_Marie_Jeanne_B%C3%A9cu_Comtesse.html
- Wikipedia, Ibid.