If you have any interest in learning more about the lives of royal mistresses, then you must read “Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge” by Eleanor Herman. She also has a book called “Sex with the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers, and Passionate Politics” for those who want to know more about the lovers Queens took. I found this book so fascinating that I plan to eventually read “Sex with the Queen” as well. I read this book over a few sessions to give myself time to absorb all the information. This book is well written without the dry, stuffy text that some non-fiction books suffer from.
The only historical royal mistress I could name before reading this book was Anne Boleyn, who is in fact mentioned in the book. This book taught me everything I hoped to learn and then some. It focuses on a handful of mistresses, like Madame de Pompadour who was the official chief mistress of Louis XV from 1745 to 1751. However, Lesser known mistresses are also mentioned, including a few that last a year or less along with what we know about them. But a few like Madame Pompadour are repeatedly mentioned throughout, so they are the ones that stuck with me due to how much information was known about them and how fascinating their lives and the end of their reign as mistress was.
Historical writers love to write about Anne Boleyn, but she isn’t the best example of how life for royal mistresses typically played out. For starters only a handful ever became queen. Life as the official mistress was a hard one because not only did a woman lucky enough to get the spot have to keep the king’s attention from wandering too much, but she also often played a political role. Thanks to Anne Boleyn I often pictured the royal mistress as someone aspiring to become queen, and while a handful did, the role of mistress sometimes meant getting better treatment from the king than the queen did. While queens were chosen for political reasons, kings chose their mistresses for their own reasons, sometimes falling in love with them while ignoring their queen. In those cases the mistress would be spoiled with lavish gowns and jewelry and even better palace apartments than the queen, who had no choice but to accept her fate.
While a handful of mistresses retained their position for years and outlived their king, most got to see themselves replaced and often by a younger, prettier woman. Madame Montespan, mistress to Charles Louis XIV, replaced her friend Louise de La Vallière as official mistress. Louise then had to dress and serve Montespan by orders of the king, knowing her friend had betrayed her and now had the king’s attention while Louise’s time was over. Even worse, she lived in rooms connected to Montespan’s so that the king could visit both of them if he desired, but really it helped cover up who his current mistress was. While some mistresses returned to their husbands after their reign ended or struggled to accept that their best years were behind them, Louise left court to become a nun, switching from lavish opulence to simple living and coarse clothing while Montespan spent many years as the royal mistress.
Many other topics are covered ranging from how the king treated his bastard children to what gifts and benefits mistresses received from their position, what political roles they played, and how the position of mistress changed over the years. The reaction of their husbands are even discussed along with other topics. If anyone is interested in the lives of royal mistresses, and especially if you plan to write about one, this book is a fantastic resource.