Few could have predicted the rise of Françoise d’Aubigné, better known as Madame de Maintenon. Born into a fallen family, her tumultuous beginnings meant her prospects for a bright future were bleak. Yet, she defied all the odds when she stepped out of the shadows and became the most powerful woman in France.
1. Her Birth Was Scandalous
Françoise d’Aubigné was born on November 27, 1635, to Constant d’Aubigné and Jeanne de Cardilhac in Niort, France—and the circumstances surrounding her birth were scandalous. Some suggest she was born in the local prison, where her father was serving time and where her grandfather was the prison director. In a twisted way, prisons turned out to play a crucial disturbing role in Françoise's life, even before her birth.
2. She Had A Shocking Backstory
Françoise’s parents’ relationship had a sordid backstory. Her father likely seduced her mother while in prison. Three months after he arrived at the prison, he married Françoise's mother. To make matters worse, they had different religions: Constant was a Huguenot, while Jeanne was a staunch Catholic. But when it came to drama within the d'Aubigné family, this was only the tip of the iceberg.
3. She Had A Horrible Father
Although Françoise hailed from a distinguished Huguenot family, her father's unruly behavior had a chilling effect on her own life. Constant was ruthlessly disinherited for his numerous betrayals and roguish ways. This unrest trickled drown and infected Françoise's relationship with her parents. But even greater horrors lay in wait.
4. She Had A Dysfunctional Family
In 1643, Françoise's father received a pardon, but the long-awaited reunion wasn’t a happy one. Years of separation had damaged the familial bonds beyond repair. Her father continued with his old, bad habits, while she and her mother clashed over religion. However, life seemed to take an optimistic turn when her family was given the chance to start anew.
It didn't take long, however, for their hopes to be dashed upon the rocks.
5. She Started A New Life
Françoise’s father seized upon a risky, yet lucrative opportunity. After learning of fortunes built in the Caribbean, Constant acquired some land from the Compagnie des îles d’Amérique, which aimed to colonize the region. In 1644, Françoise and her family left France in hopes of building a new life on that land by cultivating indigo or bananas.
However, their journey was far from smooth sailing.
6. She Was A Fighter
The journey to the Caribbean was a perilous one. On board, Françoise caught a fever so severe—her parents thought she wouldn't make it. But that wasn't the most horrifying part. Just as they were about to cast her body into the sea, her mother realized she was still alive. Luckily, after being rubbed with alcohol, Françoise made a full recovery.
But this was only the beginning of the nightmare.
7. She Was No Island Girl
For Françoise, life in the Caribbean was no fairy tale. Her father’s plans to start a plantation didn’t come to fruition. While he chased his ventures, the family dealt with hostile Irish settlers, a housefire, and many moves. Eventually, Constant returned to France, leaving his family behind. After receiving no word of him for a year, they also decided to return to France...but this journey was even more dangerous than the last.
8. She Faced Danger In The High Seas
It seems the sea was a dangerous place for Françoise. During the return journey, she faced a formidable threat—pirates, a common menace in those times. To prepare Françoise to confront the worst with dignity, her mother dressed her in her best clothes and gave her a wooden rosary for protection. Against all odds, however, Françoise came out unscathed and finished the journey.
However, she wasn't out of the woods yet.
9. She Lost Him
Françoise and her family made it to France safely, but there was to be no second family reunion. Her father vanished, and no one knew of his whereabouts. Unbeknownst to the family, Constant was already long gone and buried in the town of Orange. There was much speculation about his demise, and Françoise’s mother only learned about it two and a half years later.
Without the protection of her father, Françoise’s situation became quite desperate.
10. She Had A Hard-Knock Life
Françoise bore the crushing consequences of her parents' sins. Her paternal Protestant relatives feared taking her family in due to Constant’s wrongs and reputation. Her mother had been estranged from her side of the family for years. To survive, Françoise and her older brother, Charles, went to drastic lengths. They took to the streets to beg for food and money.
Fortunately, there was a silver lining on the horizon.
11. She Received A Christmas Gift
Françoise’s family received much-needed salvation. Her beloved Aunt Louise and Uncle Benjamin, Louise’s husband, finally accepted them into their homes. Much to her happiness, Françoise spent Christmas in their home in Mursay and learned that she was to live with them again. Although her life was finally stable, Françoise’s family soon suffered another heartbreak.
12. A Tragedy Rocked Her Family
Françoise's eldest brother, also named Constant, felt the reverberations of his family's dysfunction deeply. Unlike his younger siblings, the younger Constant suffered from melancholy, which grew worse over the years. Finally, in the early days of 1648, Constant drowned in the moat of Louise’s chateau, apparently by his own hands.
Françoise, on the other hand, forged onward, through the pain.
13. Her Bad Luck Took A Turn
Despite the tragic passing of her brother, Françoise carried on with her fabulous new life. She even had a maid, whom she taught to read and write. Ironically, Françoise helped her aunt with charitable duties, such as giving out food to the poor—a familiar situation she'd escaped not long before. But it was never meant to last. Françoise’s happy life in Niort was about to be horribly disrupted.
14. Her Religion Endangered Her
Françoise didn’t remain untouched by religious and political undercurrents. The de Neuillants, the staunchly Catholic family of her godmother, Suzanne, learned about her new heretic home and received permission from the Queen Mother to remove her from there. In November 1648, most likely with the blessing of Françoise’s mother, Madame de Neuillant arrived at Louise’s home and whisked the young girl away.
15. She Served A Purpose
Life with the de Neuillant Family was pure torment for the now-teenage Françoise. It turned out the family had an ulterior motive for taking her in. Madame de Neuillant, who was also Jeanne’s friend, used Françoise’s rescue to project herself as a Catholic savior. It also gave Françoise’s godmother, Suzanne, the chance to marry a French duke.
No longer of use, Françoise found herself in a precarious situation.
16. She Was A Rebel
Françoise’s defiance became a source of contention. While living with the de Neuillants, she refused to participate in any Catholic ceremonies or rituals. But, throwing her out would have been a declaration of failure in reforming her. So, they did the next best thing. They unceremoniously dumped her at a convenient place for poor, young Catholic ladies—the convent.
17. She Hated The Convent
Françoise struggled to adapt to the convent's structured environment. She also had to dodge the nuns and a priest, who tried to persuade her to receive her first Communion. During these discussions, Françoise’s knowledge of the biblical scriptures allowed her to challenge them. Miserable in her new home, she could have never foreseen the surprise in store for her.
18. She Met A Kindred Spirit
Her time in the convent had a rocky start, but soon, her life took a shocking turn. After a few weeks, Françoise fell ill. A kind nun named Sister Celeste, who became a mother figure to the lonely girl, nursed her back to health. Françoise finally received the tender love she'd yearned for. This show of kindness changed her, warming her up to convent life and Catholic principles.
But once again, history repeated itself.
19. She Was Too Expensive
Three months after Françoise arrived at the convent, the expense of her education became an issue. Instead of footing the bill, Madame de Neuillant passed it onto Françoise’s Aunt Louise. A devout Protestant, Louise refused to pay for it. After making great attempts to find a sponsor for her, the nuns failed to find one. Sadly, Françoise had no choice but to return to Niort to live with de Neuillants.
It seemed like every time she captured a sliver of happiness, fate pulled the rug out from under her.
20. She Went Back To Square One
Françoise reluctantly returned to the home of de Neuillants. As the poor relation, she had to do many household chores, such as putting hay in the stables. She also looked the part, wearing shabby clothes and shoes. But that was all about to change. Despite her hardship, over a period of 18 months, Françoise developed into a pretty, young woman.
Of course, her stunning transformation didn't go unnoticed.
21. She Wasn't A Catch
Madame de Neuillant became aware of Françoise’s growing beauty. Now of marriageable age but without a dowry, her chances of marrying well were next to nothing. As a result, Madame de Neuillant betrayed Françoise again—and sent her to a Parisian convent. Betrayed and helpless, Françoise showed resistance but soon admitted defeat.
That's when she came up with an unpredictable strategy.
22. She Was A Burden
Françoise submitted herself to the nuns—and her tactic worked. Less than one month after she received her first Communion, she moved into the Parisian home of the Baron de Saint-Hermant, Madame de Neuillant’s brother. Looking to rid herself of the teenager as quickly as possible, Madame de Neuillant brought Françoise to a salon, where France’s high society and leading personalities met.
She hoped Françoise would catch the eye of a suitor and eventually marry and leave her charge. There, Françoise met the man who would change the course of her life forever.
23. Her Life Changed
In her first visit to the salon, Françoise met the owner—crippled writer Paul Scarron. Although she came in an old, ill-fitted dress, Françoise made enough of an impression on Scarron, who was a whopping 25 years older than her. The two shared a letter correspondence for months before Scarron finally proposed marriage. He may not have been the Prince Charming of her dreams, but Françoise didn't really have a choice.
With few options favoring her future, she accepted. Little did she know, this was her stepping stone to a whole new world.
24. Her Marriage Opened Doors
Sixteen-year-old Françoise’s new position as the wife of Scarron allowed her to enter a world that normally excluded girls of her background. Through him, she mingled with France’s elite, from writers to government officials. With little formal education, Francoise quietly immersed herself in the discussions that took place in the salon. She also built important connections.
In the years to come, her exposure to France’s literary society would draw her farther away from her impoverished past.
25. Her Marriage Invited Gossip
Scarron’s physical condition and Françoise’s youth had people talking. People speculated about their marriage, particularly their bedchamber relations. They wondered if the sickly Scarron could even hope to satisfy his beautiful, young wife—or more importantly—father an heir. Scarron and his friends joked about having a special arrangement for Françoise.
But this was the dark truth: Many were willing to offer their "services".
26. She Attracted Attention
Françoise’s coy demeanor and beauty attracted many admirers and rumors of potential lovers. Despite the gossip, Françoise maintained a public image of quiet piety and modesty, with no confirmation of an extramarital affair. But no amount of good behavior could save her from her next chapter—one of heartache and uncertainty.
27. She Was Vulnerable
After eight years of marriage, Françoise became a widow, but she was, once again, in a bad situation. Scarron left behind many debts. Also, without a son, she couldn’t receive Scarron’s pension. She moved into a modest room in a convent. However, that's when her guardian angels came to her rescue. Her influential friends from the salon approached the Queen Mother, who agreed to help.
She increased the annual payment to 2,000 livres, allowing Françoise to maintain her social standing...for the time being.
28. Her Good Times Didn’t Last
In 1666, the Queen Mother left this world, and Françoise’s pension payments went with her. King Louis XIV canceled it, leaving her with no income. Until then, she'd enjoyed a comfortable life of social events and rented a Parisian house. After living on the generosity of her friends, she decided to go to Lisbon to serve as a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Portugal.
But fate had other plans.
29. She Met Her Savior
Just as Françoise was about to leave for Portugal, she made an important social connection that would eventually change her life. The woman was Madame de Montespan, the king’s mistress. Françoise impressed Montespan, who had the king restore Françoise's pension. This generosity allowed her to remain in Paris—and that's where her role became more significant than ever before.
30. She Held Multiple Positions
In 1669, Françoise became a confidante of Montespan when the latter gave birth to her second child, a boy named Louis-Cesar, with the king. Due to Montespan’s married status and the king’s desire to avoid a scandal, Françoise became the child’s governess and the trusted overseer of the home where he lived. She also ensured the privacy of the home by concealing the identity of her charge.
Her vital role led to a meeting with the most powerful man in France.
31. She Made A Poor Impression
In February 1671, Françoise finally met King Louis XIV, the King of France who'd initially removed her pension only a few years before. The king summoned her to testify against a good friend of hers who spread gossip about Montespan and him. In their first meeting, Françoise didn’t make a good impression. The decadent king found her strong will, intelligence, and religious piety to be major turn-offs.
But he wouldn't always feel this way about the pretty governess.
32. She Changed His Mind
Françoise took some time to build a good rapport with the king. After Montespan bore the king a third child, he paid more attention to his children with her. Through his observations of Françoise’s affectionate interactions with his children, his feelings about her changed. He said, "It would be something to be loved by a woman like that".
And just like that, Françoise's romantic life opened up once more.
33. She Reaped The Benefits
In recognition of Françoise’s devotion to his children, Louis XIV rewarded her generously. After she and the children moved to Château de Saint-Germain, she became the royal governess. She also received 200,000 livres, which she used to purchase a property in Maintenon. The next year, the king went a step further and gave her the title of Marquise de Maintenon.
Of course, the king’s fondness for Françoise had its risks.
34. Her Status Stirred Up Trouble
Although Montespan didn’t care much for her children with the king, she cared enough about the king’s admiration for Françoise. The king’s favoritism towards the lovely governess drew the ire of Montespan, who began to argue with her over the care of the children. Soon, their relationship deteriorated. The king noticed and proceeded to stir up drama.
He made the marquise the second lady-in-waiting to the dauphin’s wife so that she could avoid being in Montespan’s presence.
35. She Had Her Moment In The Sun
Eventually, Françoise’s rise came with Montespan’s downfall. The latter became implicated in a scandal called the Affair of the Poisons, during which others accused her of using witchcraft to maintain her position as the king’s mistress. In the scandal’s aftermath, the king dismissed Montespan, and Françoise rose to the very top.
She became an influential person, using her new power for good.
36. Her Influence Rubbed Off
Since the beginning of his marriage to Queen Marie Thérèse, Louise XIV treated his wife poorly until Françoise intervened. Unlike her former friend, Montespan, the Marquise de Maintenon surprised the queen: She showed her respect. Her behavior influenced the king to change his demeanor towards his homely queen, who publicly proclaimed she had previously never received such high regard.
Over time, the king’s feelings towards Maintenon only grew stronger.
37. She Grew Close To The King
It seems Maintenon may have put the proverbial spell over Louise XIV. The king may have asked her to become his mistress, but she asserted that she never caved into his advances. Whatever the nature of their relationship, the king apparently spent a lot of his leisure time with her, conversing about politics, economics, and religion. It was only a matter of time before this intimacy reached a head.
38. She Reached The Greatest Heights
Within months queen's passing, Françoise became the king’s new wife. By October 1683, she married Louis in a private ceremony in the presence of the king’s confessor and valet, and the Archbishop of Paris, who conducted the wedding. However, it wasn't exactly a happily ever after. Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t translate into a social promotion for Maintenon.
Louis may have put a ring on it, but it didn’t mean things were official.
39. Her Marriage Invited Speculation
Françoise’s marriage to the King of France made her queen in all ways but in name. Due to the differences in their social status, the law barred Louis from publicly acknowledging the marriage and disallowed Françoise from becoming queen. In fact, there is no official record of the marriage, despite the witnesses. But this marital nightmare wasn't the only problem.
Despite Louis’ affection for her, others had different opinions of his new "wife".
40. She Became A Scapegoat
Not everyone liked Françoise. Her enemies dubbed her "la Scarron", in reference to her first marriage. Many blamed her for the mistakes made during the reign of Louis XIV. As Françoise was the unofficial queen, many considered her to have great influence over him. However, she most likely didn’t get involved in any political matters before 1700.
41. Her Mixed Parentage Haunted Her
Françoise’s dual religious background created internal conflicts. Due to her reputation as a pious Catholic woman, others blamed her for the withdrawal of the Edict of Nantes, which protected the rights of Protestants in France. However, the truth was that she was against the attacks. She confessed that she feared her Huguenot heritage would have been used against her if she pleaded for tolerance.
42. She Helped Others
Françoise didn’t misuse her position. In fact, she often used it for the benefit of others. A devoted sister, she often bailed out her never-do-well brother, Charles, in his times of need. She also ensured that the king elevated his children by Madame de Montespan to the high levels of position at court. But her generosity spread beyond her personal relationships.
43. She Never Forgot
Françoise never forgot about her humble beginnings. In 1684, she established a school named the Maison royale de Saint-Louis. The school provided education for girls from poor noble backgrounds. It also played a crucial role in the development of education for girls under the Ancien Regime. Françoise’s ideas regarding education had a wider impact on French society.
44. Her School Inspired Others
Françoise’s philosophy on education inspired others to follow her example. Local officials and philanthropists founded local primary schools for young, impoverished females. Her legacy included an enduring influence on the first French feminist movement, which aspired to close the educational gap between males and females as a means of empowering lower-class women and enriching French society.
But that's not all.
45. She Made Exceptions
On occasion, Françoise took liberties with her power. During the Quietism affair, an incident in which noted French citizens became accused of believing in ideas condemned by the Catholic Church, she and Jacques-Bénigne Lignel Bossuet worked together to go after Françoise Fénelon, who was the tutor of the king’s grandson.
Because of her efforts, Fenelon lost his post as the royal tutor.
46. She Fell Ill
In 1715, the grim reaper separated Françoise and King Louis XIV forever. She became a widow once again, but this time she had the riches to show for it. Françoise went to live in Saint-Cyr and received a pension of 48,000 livres. But she wouldn't get to enjoy her luxuries for long. Sadly, soon after Louis' passing, she fell sick herself.
47. She Had A Special Guest
At her residence, important people, such as Peter the Great, visited Françoise, even when she fell ill. The words that he spoke to her on her deathbed perfectly illustrate how important the king's mistress truly was. As she lay there ailing, the tsar looked at her and said, "I came to see everything worthy of note that France contains".
48. She Didn't Make It
Françoise only outlived Louis XIV by four years. Aged 83, she succumbed to her illness on April 15, 1719. In her will, she requested her body be laid to rest in the choir at Saint-Cyr. Afterward, her only niece inherited her property at Maintenon. In tribute to her, the French named an island close to Canada after her. However, Françoise’s impact didn’t end with her life.
49. She Left A Mixed Legacy
Even years after her passing, Madame de Maintenon still intrigues people. Many people have had polarized views of her, ranging from absolute adoration to complete hatred. Even now, textbooks portray her as money-grubbing and wicked. Despite the mixture of emotions her name summons, both sides can agree that Françoise rose up from the dark to leave an indelible mark upon the world.