Monday, 19 August 2013

"One moment more": Jeanne du Barry

Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse du Barry (Vaucouleurs, France, 19th August 1743 - Paris, France, 8th December 1793)


Portrait of Madame du Barry by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1789
 Jeanne du Barry by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1789

Today we're back in France in the presence of a very charming lady. She was one of the most celebrated beauties of Versailles who rose from illegitimacy to become the mistress of a King, her passionate life ending in violence at the height of the  Reign of Terror.

The woman who has become known to history as Madame du Barry was born far from the royal palaces, the illegitimate daughter of a seamstress. The identity of her father remains unknown though scholars have identified a likely candidate in the shape of the friar, Jean Baptiste Gormand de Vaubernie. The liaison between the beautiful Anne Bécu and the monk known as frère Ange must have been the cause of some scandal but Anne soon moved on and became close friends with a gentleman named Billard-Dumonceaux. It is possible that this friendship bore yet further fruit in the shape of Jeanne's younger half-brother, Claude, who died before he was even a year old. The gentleman offered Anne the chance to leave her home in Lorraine and took her and young Jeanne to Paris, where Anne was made a cook in the home of Billard-Dumonceaux's Italian mistress, Francesca. Jeanne charmed all who knew her and wanted for nothing as she grew up, her life with Francesca instilling in the child a love of opulence that would never leave her.

However, luxury was in short supply when Jeanne was sent to the convent of Saint-Aure to begin her education and the austere surroundings were home until she reached the age of fifteen. With the relationship between Anne and Monsieur Billard-Dumonceaux cooling, the woman left Francesca's employ and married Nicolas Rançon, a man of more limited financial means. With the pampered life of childhood behind her Jeanne initially became a street vendor and then assistant to a hairdresser. Later she moved on to life as a companion to a widow, Madame de la Garde, but this role was curtailed when the woman's married sons took a little too much of an interest in her!


Portrait of Madame du Barry by Francois-Hubert Drouais
 Jeanne du Barry by Francois-Hubert Drouais

Embarking on a new career as a milliner's assistant, Jeanne turned her beauty to her advantage when she caught the eye of Jean-Baptiste du Barry, a man who specialised in procuring mistresses for the upper classes. He took the twenty year old woman as his own mistress and gave her the professional name of Mademoiselle Lange. The life of a shop girl or milliner's assistant was finally behind her and Mademoiselle Lange soon became the toast of Paris, serving as a courtesan to some of the most illustrious names in the city. The influential courtier, Maréchal de Richelieu, was particularly taken with the young woman and du Barry encouraged the infatuation, seeing at last the chance to gain a real foothold in the court of Louis XV.

In 1768 Jeanne travelled to Versailles for a liaison with the duc de Choiseul. Although the Duke was unimpressed by the famed courtesan, the King took an instant shine to her and declared his intention to make her maîtresse-en-titre. This position was only open to a titled, married woman so Jeanne was quickly married to du Barry's brother, comte Guillaume du Barry. A fake birth certificate shaved a few years off Jeanne's real age and even gave her an entirely fraudulent noble lineage!

Jeanne was prepared for her official presentation to the court by Madame de Béarn and on 22nd April 1769. she made a spectacular entrance into her formal role at Versailles, wearing one of the most fabulous gowns and elaborate hairstyles that the court had ever seen. As maîtresse déclarée to Louis XV she was adored by some and loathed by others but the King was besotted with his new lover, lavishing attention and gifts on her. Although she adored the opulence of life at Versailles Jeanne had a reputation for a light nature and generosity, using her influence with the King for charitable ends much to his surprise and delight. Her presence particularly attracted the ire of the duc de Choiseul who was furious that Jeanne had become the King's mistress, a role he had earmarked for his own sister. Marie Antoinette shared his disdain for the low-born Jeanne but despite the future Queen's friendship, the Duke eventually left Versailles as a result of Maupeou's efforts to discredit him.


Portrait of Madame du Barry by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1781
 Jeanne du Barry by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1781

In 1772 Louis XV commissioned an extravagant gift for Jeanne from Boehmer & Bassenge; they were asked to create a necklace that would outclass every other item of jewellery in existence, with no expense spared on the creation. This same necklace would later see Marie Antoinette implicated in a scandalous trial that became grist for the Parisian rumour mill, though that is a tale for another time!

When Louis began to show to symptoms of smallpox Jeanne nursed him tirelessly until he asked her to leave, fearing that she too might become infected. She left for Rueil and when the King died in 1774, Jeanne was sent to the Abbaye du Pont-aux-Dames, far from her former life at Versailles. She remained there for two years before taking up residence in the Château de Louveciennes, where she resumed her scandalous personal affairs taking two notable lovers in the shape of Louis Hercule Timolon de Cossé, duc de Brissac, and Henry Seymour. Although her affair with Seymour ended bitterly, Brissac was devoted to her until he fell victim to a revolutionary mob in Paris. The last Jeanne would see of her lover was when the crowd gathered at her home and threw Brissac's severed head at the distraught women.


Illustration of Madame du Barry being taken to the guillotine
Madame du Barry being taken to the guillotine
In 1793 Jeanne was arrested on suspicion of financing escapees from the Revolution. The Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris found her guilty of treason and sentenced her to death; terrified, she offered a fortune in gems to the Tribunal but they would not be swayed. In the depths of winter and almost incoherent with terror, the hysterical woman was taken to the Place de la Révolution, fruitlessly begging the crowd for mercy. She prayed until the last someone might somehow ride to her rescue but that longed-for happy ending was never to come and she went to the guillotine on 8th December 1793. With her last breath she begged her executioner for, "One moment more [...] just one moment", the famed beauty of Versailles one more victim of the Reign of Terror.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.


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23 comments:

  1. She's one of my favorite people. Few know of her history during the Revolution; that she became a secret friend to the monarchs -- especially after her testy relationship with Marie Antoinette when MA first came to court as dauphine and duBarry was the king's mistress. It's a wonderful story.

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    1. She strikes me as being reduced to footnote status rather too often, so I thought I would make her the leading lady for once!

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  2. My goodness! What a scandalous affair, even with a bit of charitable work thrown in. I cant help wondering whether that was genuine or purely to impress Louis! And the thought of seeing your lover's severed head at your feet doesn't bear entertaining, especially when she shared the same fate!

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    1. I can't imagine how horrifying it must have been...

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  3. Just out of curiosity, why was she sent to an abbey after the king died if she was married? Or was the marriage just on paper so she could be the king's mistress?

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    1. It was a paper marriage really an very much a case of a new broom sweeping clean!

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    2. Also, I bet, to make sure she wasn't pregnant with the King's kid. Or got pregnant and pretended it was his.

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  4. Wasn't there a cruel rumour that Jeanne was discovered by the first of her "protectors / sugar daddies" working in an officers' brothel in Paris?

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    1. You know, i think there might have been!

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  5. Eleanor Herman goes into a fair amount of detail on Du Barry in her book 'Sex with Kings' Interesting piece, thank you.

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  6. Great article! But poor thing, she sounds so terrified at the end there. :( And I have to agree with Matt, 'Sex with Kings' is a fascinating read if you're ever interested. Also the statue in Madame Tussaud's of Du Barry is so beautiful! The fact that it's the oldest wax figure still on display (sculpted in 1763 I think I read) makes it that much more special to me. :)

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    1. I've now ordered 'Sex With Kings', how could I resist with a title like that? The waxwork is absolutely beautiful, I do hope it's a faithful representation.

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  7. Wasn't Mme Tussaud reprieved from the guillotine herself specifically to make wax models of the severed heads of her former clients ?

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    1. Yes; she got as far as having her hair cut in preparation for the blade.

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  8. As Rachel mentioned, she sounded very frightened at the end. I l always wondered how anyone could keep cool as they approached death-especially the guillotine!
    Such an interesting character! Thanks for sharing!
    -Alison Sierras

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    1. I agree; I admire those who faced the guillotine with fortitude but I equally understand how some dissolved into panic, it must have been terrifying!

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    2. I heard that her visible emotions were what snapped people out of their blood-lust.

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    3. It must have been horrifying to witness!

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  9. As a retired European History teacher I can only say, well done. A nice read.

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  10. Great post!!! Thank you Catherine!!!!! Madame Gilflurt !!! <3

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