Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchess of Polignac, was Marie Antoinette’s favorite courtier and best friend. She might also have been the reason that the ill-fated Queen of France lost her head. From humble beginnings, the stunning beauty climbed the social ladder right to the top. But there were grave consequences for her ambitions.
1. She Was A Diplomat’s Daughter
Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron—her friends just called her Gabrielle—was born in September 1749 in Paris, France. Her father was at one point the French ambassador to Switzerland. Little did she know then that she would eventually have to flee to Switzerland to save her life. But there was a lot of drama before that.
2. She Came From Royalty
Gabrielle was born into France’s high society, and her family had one of the longest and most illustrious lines of the Ancien Régime, France’s brutal feudal system. Despite her high pedigree, however, she wasn’t exactly living it up, royal style. In fact, before she moved to Versailles and stunned the nation, her lifestyle would have shocked the queen.
3. Her Parents Were Poor
By the time that Gabrielle came around, her family’s name was about all that she had going for her. To say that her family had fallen on hard times would be a pretty drastic understatement. The Polastron family was decidedly poor and severely indebted. It’s fair to say they were living the life of paupers. It led them to a drastic decision.
4. She Lived In A Hovel
Before Gabrielle was even able to walk, her family’s position became so desperate that they couldn’t afford life in the increasingly expensive city of Paris. So, they had to move. They left Paris and went to their ancestral home in Noueilles in the south of France. But their “chateau” was more like a glorified mud hut. But if Gabrielle thought that was bad, she hadn’t seen anything yet.
5. Her Mother Left Her High And Dry
Gabrielle was already living in reduced circumstances. Then suddenly, it got much worse. Tragically and unexpectedly, her mother passed when she was just three years old. Much like Gabrielle’s own demise in the years to come, the cause of her mother’s passing is something of a mystery. One thing is for sure, though: With her mother gone, Gabrielle’s life got turned inside out.
6. She Was Going To Become A Nun
With no mother to take care of her, an aunt took Gabrielle in and did what she could for the down-on-her-luck little girl. After all, there wasn’t much in the way of opportunities for poor noble girls like Gabrielle. All the same, Gabrielle’s aunt managed to arrange for her to receive an education at a convent, which was just about the best that she could have hoped for. But there was a plot twist coming.
7. She Looked Like An Angel
By the time that Gabrielle grew into her own, her appearance was jaw-dropping. With brunette hair and violet-gray eyes, the life of a commoner was certainly beneath her breathtaking looks and her well-bred pedigree. There was absolutely no chance that she was going to hide away at a convent somewhere. She knew she was destined for luxury, and she went out to get it.
8. She Was Supposed To Marry A Prince Charming
At the age of 16, Gabrielle’s father arranged an opportune match for his beautiful baby girl. He betrothed his only daughter to Jules François Armand, Count de Polignac and the Marquis de Mancini, a noble of equally good breeding. It seemed like the perfect match to restore Gabrielle to her rightful position. Finally, things were looking up. And that wasn’t all.
9. She Was A Social Climber
Armand was himself descended from one of the most illustrious and “well-bred” families in all of Europe. As a Mancini, he could trace his noble lineage all the way back to old Roman nobles. In fact, Gabrielle was marrying above her class. But he was far from the prince charming that Gabrielle had hoped for. There was one huge thing wrong.
10. Her Betrothed Was Flat Broke
If Gabrielle and her father had hoped that Armand would be their golden goose, they were sorely mistaken. Much like with her own family, the only thing rich about the Marquis de Mancini was his bloodline. Armand didn’t have much to his name except for, well, his name. They were just a couple of penniless nobles, slumming it with the common folk. Not that this stopped them…
11. She Was A Teenage Bride
Despite the fact that they were of the noblest lineages, Gabrielle and Armand lived humble lives. Nevertheless, Gabrielle knew that she didn’t have much hope of marrying rich, so she married Armand shortly after her 18th birthday. One imagines that the wedding ceremony was quite understated. Only, Gabrielle’s quiet life was nearing an end.
12. She Led A Humble Life
Gabrielle and Armand seemed to be quite happy living on his meager salary and their hand-me-down nobility. Within just a few years of their marriage, Gabrielle and Armand had a daughter, Aglaé de Polignac, and a son, Armand de Polignac. Two more kids would follow. But by then, Gabrielle’s fortunes had changed in a big way.
13. Her Life Is A Mystery
The records of Gabrielle’s whereabouts between 1767 and 1775 are scarce and somewhat conflicting. By some accounts, she had already installed herself in court life at the Chateau de Versailles. By other accounts, she was living very quietly with her husband. But we do know that in 1775, she landed in Versailles with a splash.
14. She Looked Good Enough To Eat
Gabrielle’s beauty hadn’t faded at all in her relative obscurity in southern France. In fact, the warmer weather might even have “ripened” her good looks. After viewing one of her portraits, a historian remarked that Gabrielle looked “like some harvested and luscious fruit”. So when she walked into the center of the French court, the whole of France was about to take a bite.
15. She Was Straight Out Of A Painting
Gabrielle’s amazing looks became a talking point amongst the aristocracy from the moment they saw her. She reportedly had a “freshness of appearance”, so much so that many likened her to one of Raphael’s Madonnas. Her looks were so unusual, so regal, that she could beguile anyone. In fact, there was one very important figure at court who couldn’t look away.
16. She Dazzled The Queen
When Gabrielle’s sister-in-law, Diane de Polignac, presented her to court, it could not have been more dramatic. She introduced the pastoral—if poverty-stricken—beauty to Queen Marie Antoinette herself in Versailles’ famous Hall of Mirrors. With her beauty reflected from all angles, it was just the opportunity that Gabrielle needed…and the queen responded spectacularly.
17. She Was Invited To The Inner Circle
Gabrielle so enraptured Marie Antoinette with her timeless beauty that the Queen of France threw protocol out the window. Despite her low station, Marie Antoinette invited Gabrielle to relocate permanently to the Chateau de Versailles. While Gabrielle felt flattered by her queen’s offer, she didn’t react the way you might expect.
18. She Hit A Snag
Gabrielle thought that life at court in Versailles was exactly befitting someone of her beauty and pedigree. But there was one issue she couldn’t get over. Keeping up appearances at Versailles meant shelling out major cash for dresses, gambling, and all manner of balls and events—cash Gabrielle and her husband simply didn’t have.
As a result, she humbly expressed to Marie Antoinette that, though she appreciated the invitation, she couldn’t afford it. As it turned out, this was actually the perfect move.
19. She Pulled Off A Major Coup
With her confession over, Gabrielle was getting ready to return to her commoner life. But her looks had truly cast a spell over Marie Antoinette, and instead of letting Gabrielle go back to her simple life, the Queen of France agreed to pay off all of her debts. Additionally, she gave Gabrielle’s husband a big, cushy job with a big, cushy salary. And that was just her first favor.
20. She Was “Close” To The Queen
Gabrielle packed up her things—whatever few things she had—and moved into the palace. It started escalating instantly. Marie Antoinette was so obsessed with Gabrielle that she wanted to ensure she was never out of earshot, and Gabrielle took up residence near the queen’s own apartments within the palace. As we’ll see, however, this wasn’t a good thing.
21. She Charmed The Royals
Gabrielle’s charms worked on all members of the royal family, not just the queen. In addition to waltzing her way into Marie Antoinette’s good graces, she caught the attention of other nobles close to her. For one, she became close friends with the Count d’Artois, the brother of the king. And then she really cinched the deal.
22. She Calmed The Queen Down
It wasn’t just Marie Antoinette and the Count d’Artois who were eating out of Gabrielle’s palm. King Louis XVI himself quite liked the unprecedented beauty. He particularly liked her calming influence on Marie Antoinette, and was supportive of their burgeoning friendship…at least at first. Still, Gabrielle made her fair share of enemies, too. Powerful ones.
23. She Made Austrian Enemies
Gabrielle’s charms didn’t work on everyone, and her sudden favor and popularity with the entire royal family made other courtiers at Versailles extremely jealous and wary. In particular, the Austrian ambassador, who represented the interests of Marie Antoinette’s mother, didn’t like the new girl energy Gabrielle brought to the court. In response, he came up with a nasty revenge.
24. Someone Tattled On Her
The Austrian ambassador was so piqued by Gabrielle’s growing influence at court and her closeness with Marie Antoinette that he decided to take matters into his own hands. In a letter to Marie Antoinette’s mother Maria Theresa, he wrote, “It is almost unexampled that in so short a time, the royal favour should have brought such overwhelming advantages to a family”.
In other words: The ambassador smelled a gold digger. And well, Gabrielle’s behavior didn’t help matters.
25. She Ran The Roost
Gabrielle had turned her good looks into good fortune, and she wasn’t stopping now. She used her beauty and charisma to quickly become the leader of Marie Antoinette’s magisterial mean girls. In fact, no one even entered the Queen’s inner circle without her express approval. Yet somehow, Gabrielle managed to pull off an enormous feat while gatekeeping.
26. She Was Elegant
Gabrielle wasn’t your average mean girl. In fact, except for her few detractors at court at this point—as well as the poor commoners of Paris—no one had anything bad to say about her. Her friends and acquaintances considered her to be “elegant, sophisticated, charming, and entertaining”. Gabrielle knew just how to turn this to her advantage.
27. She Received Expensive Gifts
Now that she was in the good graces of Marie Antoinette—and King Louis XVI and his brother—Gabrielle indulged herself. She and her family received many generous gifts from the Queen and lived a luxurious lifestyle in the palace. Gone were the days of pockets filled with lint. However this was a double-edge sword, and Gabrielle would soon pay the ultimate price.
28. She Flaunted Her Riches
While Gabrielle’s fortunes had changed for the better, the people of France were suffering. Gabrielle reacted the exact wrong way. She openly flaunted her particularly lavish and exclusive lifestyle, making her wildly unpopular with the growing French revolutionaries. Even the more liberal-minded aristocrats found her to be too ostentatious…but Gabrielle was on a track she couldn’t get off of.
29. She Upped Her Game
While everyone around her grumbled, Gabrielle continued increasing her position with Marie Antoinette. She wasn’t just satisfied with fancy apartments and a massive salary for her husband. She also received gifts that restored her family’s reputation. In 1780, Marie Antoinette even made Gabrielle’s husband the Duke de Polignac—making her a full-blown Duchess.
Suddenly, many in the court began to wake up from the spell Gabrielle cast…just in time to witness a scandal.
30. She Crossed The Line
In 1782, Gabrielle and Marie Antoinette crossed a line. One that the French working class and aristocracy alike couldn’t forgive. That year, the Governess to the Children of France resigned her post, and—in a shocking break with protocol—the queen appointed Gabrielle to the traditionally hereditary and very prestigious role. It was the beginning of the end.
31. She Got Her Mansion
Gabrielle’s new position as Governess to the Children of France came with some perks—too many perks. Traditionally, the post came with a five-bedroom apartment within the palace, but Gabrielle made off with a whopping 13 rooms in her little abode. It was another shock to the aristocracy and the people of Paris alike, who were struggling to find reasonable housing.
And Gabrielle’s charms were wearing off in other ways, too.
32. She Was Self-Indulgent
Gabrielle’s personality and growing influence rubbed many people the wrong way. Where some thought that she had proper manners, others were now beginning to believe she was cold and unapproachable. Where some thought that she was noble, others now found her to be self-centred and self-indulgent. The tide was turning, and it was coming in fast.
33. She Didn’t Do Low-Key
Gabrielle added to her outrageous compensation as the Governess to the Children of France with yet another unprecedented gift. In addition to her penthouse suites within the Chateau de Versailles, she received a cottage. The quiet, pastoral retreat was within the grounds of Marie Antoinette’s favorite getaway, the Petit Trianon. But behind the scenes, it was far from idyllic.
34. She Sparked A Salacious Rumor
Gabrielle’s marriage to her husband Armand was meant to elevate her position, but it was her friendship with Marie Antoinette that ultimately gave her what she wanted. In fact, there might not have been much, if any, love in between Gabrielle and her husband. At least, not if one believed the salacious court rumors swirling around Gabrielle’s bedchamber…
35. She Might Have Had An Affair
Allegedly, Gabrielle was in love with the rakish Joseph de Rigaud, Count de Vaudreuil, and had gone so far as to carry on a passionate affair with him. The allegations were so intense that some speculated that Gabrielle’s youngest son was Vaudreuil’s and not her husband Armand’s. Yet Vaudreuil was no knight in shining armor.
36. She Kept Dangerous Company
As it happened, Gabrielle’s love interest had a dark past. Vaudreuil was a controversial character, and even Marie Antoinette couldn’t get on board with her BFF’s crush. After all, he was a particularly uncouth social climber and had a terrible temper—he once broke Marie Antoinette’s ivory billiard cue in a fit of rage.
The queen wasn’t going to stand for that, and she let Gabrielle know it in a brutal fashion.
37. The Queen Gave Her An Ultimatum
In what surely wasn’t a coincidence, Gabrielle’s power over Marie Antoinette plummeted during her most intense period with Vaudreuil, with the Queen of France pulling away from her favorite as well as her other ladies in the royal entourage. Well, what was a social climber like Gabrielle supposed to do? The answer is: betray her lover.
38. She Had Help From The King
Once Gabrielle realized how much the queen disliked Vaudreuil, she dropped him faster than you can say “non, merci“. And she didn’t stop there. Additionally, King Louis XVI made a point of visiting with Gabrielle’s youngest son to quash the rumors that he was in any way illegitimate. It didn’t stop the whispers…but there were more damaging ones on the way.
39. She Was The Queen’s “Favorite”
Sometime in the late 1780s, Gabrielle’s popularity with the people of Paris, rich and poor alike, hit an all-time low. And with the hit on her image, dangerous accusations came out. Thousands of racy pamphlets started circulating, depicting Marie Antoinette and her “favorite” in, shall we say, very compromising positions.
Given the proximity of their apartments, it’s not impossible to imagine. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other interpretations of Gabrielle’s reputation.
40. She Was A Penny-Pincher
The horrific rumors against Gabrielle might all have been propaganda, drummed up by pro-revolutionary forces. Historians have noted that in her 14-year stint at Versailles, Gabrielle spent less money than some of the previous royal mistresses had in a single year. Notably, they cite Madame de Pompadour. Even so, the damage was done…and Gabrielle was about to feel it.
41. She Caused The Queen Dissatisfaction
Following all of these scandals, Marie Antoinette felt that she was facing too much backlash over her friendship with Gabrielle. With revolution on everyone’s lips and jealousy in their hearts, the Queen committed a deep betrayal. First, she confided to one of her courtiers that she was “suffering acute dissatisfaction” because of her relationship with Gabrielle.
With the ranks closing in, Gabrielle felt she only had one option open to her.
42. She Raised Rebels
Gabrielle, fearing the worst, knew that it was time to cut and run from her lavish life at Versailles. In order to quell the flaring tempers, the rumors, and the rumbles of revolution, she traveled far away to England, staying with her friend Georgiana, the infamous Duchess of Devonshire. Yet no amount of distance made her safe from the next attack.
43. She Was Set On Fire
Even though she had stepped back from public life in France, the people still despised Gabrielle for her extravagant lifestyle. In 1788, pro-revolution forces even burned effigies of the gorgeous Gabrielle. Marie Antoinette and the King responded with a strict, ultra-monarchist crackdown. But, as history proved, their plan backfired brutally.
44. She Went Into Exile
Hatred for the monarchy and royal courtiers like Gabrielle reached a tipping point with the Storming of the Bastille in 1789. After the infamous riot that sparked the French Revolution, Gabrielle, along with her whole Polignac clan, went into exile in Switzerland. So far removed from her best friend, she could only watch as the horror unfolded.
45. She Went On A Grand Tour
In exile, Gabrielle kept up correspondence with Marie Antoinette as the revolutionary winds picked up. She traveled to places like Vienna, Turin, Venice, and Rome. And lest you think she was settling down into a quieter life, she made an extravagant splash at court in Austria as one of the most elaborately dressed and beautiful attendees. What happened next, however, was downright ugly.
46. Her Best Friend Lost Her Head
In the end, all of these parties and balls were a distraction from the cold, hard truth: There was no way for Gabrielle to stop what was happening in France to her friend Marie Antoinette. She had to watch from the sidelines in October of 1793 when the Queen of France lost her head alongside her husband, King Louis XVI.
Gabrielle was naturally devastated at the loss. Little did she know, her own tragedy was coming.
47. She Was Sickening
For many years by now, Gabrielle had suffered from extremely ill health; while spending time in England, she even earned the nickname “Little Po” for her apparently adorably fragile constitution. Throughout the French Revolution, Gabrielle didn’t seem to heed her body’s warnings, and in December of 1793, only months after Marie Antoinette’s beheading, Gabrielle met her own untimely demise at the age of 44.
48. She Suffered A Broken Heart
When people heard about Gabrielle’s passing, they had a wrenching explanation for her demise. According to people who knew and loved her, the courtier had died of a broken heart, mourning her queen. Even in her final days, accordingly, all the records show that she retained her good looks. The truth, however, is much different.
49. Her Body Betrayed Her
Gabrielle’s friends and family loved to present her as some kind of angel taken too soon after the ravages of revolution. Yet the signs of her tragic and untimely end had been there for so long that historians doubt this reasoning. Instead, it’s far likelier she succumbed to a long struggle with either some form of cancer or, perhaps, tuberculosis.
50. She Was Powerful
Gabrielle exerted more influence over 18th-century Paris than most give her credit for. Her biographer wrote, “Those who were not themselves swept into the whirlpool, stood at the marge contemplating it with astonishment … [as] the Queen’s hand was invisibly guided by the violet-eyed, the lovely, the gentle Polignac”.