There was no one in 16th-century France who was more powerful—or more scandalous—than Gabrielle d’Estrees. An official royal mistress to one of the most notorious kings of France, Gabrielle more than earned her nickname “The Duchess of Filth.” Only, when it comes to “La Belle Gabrielle,” that’s really just the beginning.
1. She Had A Golden Pedigree
Gabrielle d’Estrées’ beginnings hid clues to her meteoric rise. Born in Coeuvres, France in 1573, her parents were well-to-do courtiers who ran in the fringes of the royal inner circle. Her father, Antoine d’Estrées, was a Marquis, while her mother Françoise was a famous beauty and coquette who once served as a maid of honor to Mary, Queen of Scots. Before long, Gabrielle took all this pedigree and ran.
2. She Was A Sin
Gabrielle’s family was large, with 11 children in total and seven daughters. The women in the brood all started to get a bit of a reputation around town, leading the French writer the Marquise de Sévigné to give the gaggle of girls the moniker “The Seven Deadly Sins.” Yet Gabrielle’s exploits would blow her sisters’ right out of the water.
3. She Was Stunning
As Gabrielle grew up, it was clear she took after her mother in the looks department. Later nicknamed “La Belle Gabrielle,” or “The Beautiful Gabrielle,” she had light, brown-blonde hair, clear pale skin, and a knowing look. By the time she was just 17 years old, she also took full control over the feminine arts, and she quickly attracted a very powerful—and dangerous—suitor.
4. She Had A Scandalous Meet-Cute
Around 1590, Gabrielle met King Henry of Navarre, the nominal King of France. While some say that one of her other lovers introduced her to Henry, it was obvious that sparks flew between the two immediately. Even so, Gabrielle reportedly resisted the monarch’s advances for six long months—and she had a very good reason to hesitate.
5. She Liked Bad Boys
Gabrielle knew she needed to watch out, because Henry was the 16th-century bad boy. Raised Protestant, he refused to convert to France’s traditional Catholicism when he took the throne, pitting him against the country’s powerful Catholic League and embroiling him in a mighty battle for the crown that he was still fighting for when they met. Except that was just his public rebellion—his bedroom life was downright dirty.
6. She Was Into Older, Married Men
First off, when Gabrielle met and started flirting with Henry, he was a whopping 37 years old while she was, need I remind you, still 17. And that wasn’t even the grossest part. See, Henry was also very much married to Margaret of Valois at the time, and had been since before the teenage Gabrielle was even born. Ew. Only, guess what? That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
7. Her Crush Was Naughty
As you might be able to guess from the 37-year-old man who starts hitting on the fresh meat in the room, Henry was a primo scuzzbucket. His libido was notorious, and when he wasn’t starting religious feuds, he was usually seeking out yet more mistresses or, better yet, risqué “encounters” with strangers. And now, he set his sights right on Gabrielle.
8. She Fell Into Bed With A King
Infamous for his blunt, no-nonsense attitude, King Henry once joked that he ruled with “weapon in hand and arse in the saddle”—and after their extremely brief period of flirtation was over, he came right out and seduced Gabrielle into his bed. She was certainly not his first conquest, and she definitely wouldn’t be his last…but something about this time was different.
9. She Made Sure She Was Number One
See, while Henry loved bedding women, he also loved plucking certain girls out from his bevy of mistresses, putting them on a pedestal above all others, and lavishing them with gifts and attention. Gabrielle, with her significant charms and mega-gorgeous looks, became his latest obsession. Still, while this sounds like a good thing—it wasn’t.
10. She Flaunted Her Affair
Soon, Gabrielle and Henry were so into each other, they didn’t even bother to hide their illicit dalliance in public. This boldness came back to haunt the young girl with a vengeance. Her father, before now an upstanding and respectable man, feared the infamy his daughter’s actions would bring their family, and he came up with a swift (and très ill-advised) plan.
11. Her Father Forced Her To Marry
Not exactly thinking outside of the 16th-century box, Gabrielle’s father decided the only thing that could save his little girl’s reputation now was to marry her off to a man she barely knew and definitely didn’t care about. So, in 1592, he arranged her union with Nicholas d’Amerval, a French aristocrat from a traditional family. Yeah, bad idea.
12. Her Marriage Was A Disaster
Gabrielle had tasted the kinky delights of royal life with Henry, and there was no way she was shutting herself back up into a provincial existence with her lawfully wedded lord. Indeed, some even say that it was Henry who orchestrated the union to keep her (mostly) to himself. Either way, her marriage to Nicholas was a resounding failure—and Gabrielle’s next act shocked her nearest and dearest.
13. She Was A Runaway Bride
While Gabrielle was playing housewife, Henry was trying to win his throne by force, waging war on the Catholic League in order to strong-arm them into making him the uncontested ruler of France. But here’s the kicker. Without batting an eyelash, Gabrielle abandoned her marriage to join Henry on his campaigns. Then it got truly juicy.
14. She Could Get Down And Dirty
While out in the muck and mud with Henry, Gabrielle evolved into a full-grown woman. Utterly loyal to her royal sugar daddy, she braved living in his tent right on the battlefield, even washing the blood and guts out of his torn clothing, not to mention making sure he got a good meal when he came back from his hard days slaying Catholics. Oh, and I forgot to mention one thing…
15. She Had A Lovechild
As Gabrielle was scrubbing brain matter out of Henry’s shirtsleeves every night, she was also heavily pregnant with the king’s lovechild. Yep, uh-oh. Obviously, her physical state wasn’t going to help her estranged marriage to Nicholas d’Amerval, but Gabrielle didn’t much care about that—after all, she had Henry, and she knew just how to keep him around.
16. She Was Cunning
Gabrielle wasn’t just a pretty face; she also had a sharp, practical brain behind all that beauty. Henry knew it too: After watching her unflinchingly manage life as a war aide, the king began to trust her more than any other woman in the kingdom, and kept in constant correspondence with her even when he made long-distance trips. So when the time came to change history, Gabrielle was ready.
17. She Disagreed With Her Lover In A Huge Way
Gabrielle had supported Henry’s bloodthirsty battles without comment, but she was hiding a huge secret. Born Catholic, she never quite understood his commitment to Protestantism when a simple religious conversion would get the Catholic League back on his side and put an end to all his problems. Still, she couldn’t hold back forever—and before long, she hatched a cunning plan.
18. She Convinced The King To Convert
Over the long months on campaign, Gabrielle slowly and expertly convinced Henry that he should let go of his pride and convert to Catholicism for the sake of his country and his crown. Thanks to her efforts, Henry famously announced in the summer of 1593 that “Paris is well worth a Mass” and gave up Protestantism. With this, the floodgates opened.
19. The King Repaid Her Kindness
If Gabrielle had been powerful before, she was now influential beyond her wildest dreams. Henry became the official King of France in early 1594—and the new monarch thanked his mistress in a scandalous way. Almost as soon as he had the crown on his head, Henry began proceedings to annul Gabrielle’s marriage…and just in time.
20. She Became The Most Powerful Woman In France
In June of 1594, Gabrielle finally gave birth to her illegitimate son with Henry, Cesar de Bourbon. But this was no backwater love child; less than a year later, Henry recognized Cesar as his son in a court document and he also lauded Gabrielle as “the subject the most worthy of our friendship.”—all but making her status as his sidepiece official.
Gabrielle had now risen to heights she could have only imagined before—but the bigger they become, the harder they fall.
21. She Earned A Filthy Nickname
Catholics aren’t famous for their tolerance of dirty desires, and Gabrielle’s relationship with King Henry rankled some of his primmest subjects. After Henry promoted Gabrielle to the rank of the Duchess of Beaufort, scornful pamphlets came out blaming her for many of the country’s problems, re-naming her as “The Duchess of Filth.” And still, the fire raged higher.
22. She Put Her Lover In Grave Danger
During this time, the most devoted Gabrielle haters were some of the holiest men in France, and priests among the Jesuits and Capuchins particularly detested her as an upstart hussy. One day, it came to a chilling climax. Henry was about to visit his mistress in her swanky apartments at the Louvre when a Jesuit named Jean Chastel brutally attacked the king, slashing his face and breaking one of his teeth.
The King survived the scuffle, but it was a dire warning to both him and Gabrielle. Not that she listened…
23. She Was Super Smug
Gabrielle might have risen far above her station, but she was still only human—and she could be very smug. One courtier remembered her at a dinner sitting next to the king, where “Gabrielle took what she most liked with one hand, and gave her other to be kissed by the king, who was near her.” Get it girl. Then again, being Henry’s mistress wasn’t all bon-bons and jewels.
24. Her Lover Was Unfaithful
Don’t get it twisted: Henry may have loved Gabrielle in his way, but he was still loving a whole lot of other women in a whole lot of other ways, too. He had entire separate houses devoted to his nighttime activities, and once nearly perished from a bladder infection (wonder how he got that) and then from an attack of gonorrhoea (don’t need to wonder how he got that). Throughout it all, though Gabrielle stood by her man. For a time, it paid off.
25. She Was A Diplomatic Star
With the birth of her son Cesar, Gabrielle gained unprecedented influence over the court. After all, Henry’s marriage to Margaret of Valois was still childless, and the royal couple lived completely separate lives. Gabrielle filled the vacuum with gusto, acting as a de facto queen by hosting some of the most important diplomatic meetings of Henry’s reign. And that wasn’t the only way she wedged herself closer to the throne.
26. She Wanted Her Son To Become King
Since King Henry IV still couldn’t extricate himself from his loveless, childless marriage, the French people began whispering that he would do something drastic and name Gabrielle’s son Cesar as his successor. When she heard about the rumors about her little boy becoming king, Gabrielle probably felt pleased as punch…but this was a very dangerous game.
27. The Country Hated Her
All of France had an aneurysm at the mere thought of Gabrielle’s progeny becoming royalty. After all, naming a lovechild as the next King of France would almost certainly start a war of succession, and the country had literally just been through that when they put Henry on the throne. With the tension rising higher, Gabrielle eventually backed off—though as we’ll see, she was really just biding her time.
28. She Knew How To Wield Influence
After this setback, Gabrielle developed a brilliant new tactic. Determined to make herself indispensable to Henry, she began turning up her political influence, leaning into her womanly circles and stabilizing Henry’s Catholic allies through her “wives and mothers” network. This being Gabrielle freaking d’Estrées, it worked so well that Henry rewarded her in a very decadent way.
29. Henry Gave Her An Expensive Gift
By 1596, Gabrielle had done so much for France, Henry gave both her and her sister Catherine a set of solid gold keys. These were no mere baubles, either; they allowed the women to sit on his council, which didn’t happen every day in 16th-century France. Take note, men: Girls don’t just want gold, they want gold and power. And Gabrielle wasn’t stopping now.
30. She Was A Show-Off
In classic Gabrielle d’Estrées fashion, the mistress couldn’t help but flaunt her shiny new keys just a little. Okay, a lot. She was so proud of them that she often took to wearing them on a necklace, just in case anyone had any questions about exactly how much influence she wielded. As if that weren’t enough of a mic drop, Gabrielle then one-upped herself.
31. She Was A Mastermind
In 1598, Gabrielle helped organize the famous Edict of Nantes, which granted some tolerance to France’s Protestant population. It’s hard to underestimate just how influential the edict was, or how impressed Gabrielle’s work made Henry. As he noted, “My mistress has become an orator of unequaled brilliance, so fiercely does she argue the cause of the new Edict.”
Yet as much as Gabrielle was turning it on in the boardroom, she also turned it on in the bedroom.
32. She Was Extremely Fertile
With an appetite as insatiable as King Henry IV’s, one of Gabrielle’s biggest duties as mistress was keeping the ruler, er, satisfied. Unsurprisingly, then, she managed to pop out two more children with Henry in just two years, birthing a girl named Catherine in 1596, and another boy, Alexandre, in 1598. If you’re keeping track, that’s three children for Gabrielle and a big zero for Henry’s Queen Margaret. Well, something finally gave.
33. She Was An “Almost Queen”
In 1599, after years of trying, King Henry IV finally made some progress in gaining an annulment from his wife Margaret, who was probably just as happy as him about that. But the real winner in all of this was definitely Gabrielle herself: She now had three children, immense power, and a(n almost) free man. So it wasn’t long before she sealed the final deal.
34. The King Proposed To Her
On Mardi Gras that year, the king asked Gabrielle d’Estrees a scandalous question. Well, scandalous in the eyes of France: He asked her to marry him. In true dramatic fashion, the king proposed with the ring from his coronation, AKA the one he had “married” France with. At this point, Gabrielle couldn’t possibly get any more powerful…so how did it all go so wrong, so fast?
35. She Had A Powerful Rival
The first hurdle in Gabrielle’s ascent was Henry’s soon-to-be ex-wife, Queen Margaret of Valois herself. See, since Henry needed Margaret to agree to the terms of the annulment, she now had a lot of power in her hands—and she did not hold back. Besides demanding cartloads of money from the king, Margaret also insisted on having veto power for the next bride he chose. I’m sensing some drama coming…
36. The Queen Despised Her
Obviously Margaret and Gabrielle had never been bosom buddies, so unsurprisingly, Margaret decided that Henry could re-marry anyone but d’Estrées. But it was how she said it that was truly cruel. Margaret announced that she simply couldn’t stand the king replacing her with “a woman of such low extraction and of so impure a life.” OUCH.
Except there was one thing Margaret was forgetting…
37. She Had A Secret Weapon
During this time, Gabrielle was pregnant again with Henry’s child, who would be an addition to their two young boys and little girl. At 46 years old, the whole “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” adage went tenfold when it came to King Henry IV, and he simply couldn’t resist the idea of a gaggle of healthy, already-existing successors. So, he pushed on to marry Gabrielle anyway, and moved closer toward a twisted fate.
38. She Thought She Was Lucky
Gabrielle d’Estrees didn’t give a darn about Margaret of Valois’ objections either. She spent the next month or so after Henry’s proposal nest-making, cooking a bun in her oven, and being rather smug on the whole. She was so certain a crown was coming, she once crowed, “Only God or the king’s death could put an end to my good luck.” Days later, however, that luck came to a brutal end.
39. She Suffered An Immense Tragedy
On April 9, 1599, Gabrielle suffered a horrific attack. Something in her pregnancy shifted, and in a haze of pain, she gave birth to a stillborn boy. This must have been tragedy enough, but then attendants realized Gabrielle herself was pale and ill. Afraid for her life, they sent for King Henry IV, who was away from Paris at the Château de Fontainebleau. But as the night wore on, their fears turned to terror.
40. Her Symptoms Were Gruelling
According to attendants who saw Gabrielle as she lay sick in bed, her face turned nearly black from the illness that was ravaging her body, and it made her face so deformed that she was barely recognizable. Indeed, reports indicate that Henry’s entourage, learning of Gabrielle’s state, stopped on the road to delay the king and prevent him from seeing her this way.
It worked: by the time Henry did arrive, it was too late.
41. She Met A Lonely End
After fighting for her life through the night of April 9th, Gabrielle d’Estrées perished on the 10th, before King Henry was able to give her one final goodbye. France’s most powerful royal mistress was only 26—at the very most—at the time of her passing, and she left behind a grief stricken royal lover. Don’t worry, though, Henry made sure Gabrielle went out with a bang.
42. She Got A Queen’s Burial
In order to pay Gabrielle the due she never got in her life, King Henry IV set up a funeral procession literally worthy of a queen, with princesses, princes, and a slew of other nobles transporting her coffin to the Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois church in Paris, where the clergy then gave a full requiem mass. Yet for all this pomp and circumstance, the sharp, sudden nature of Gabrielle’s demise also left behind dark whispers…
43. People Suspected A Dark Plot
Almost no one except Gabrielle and King Henry IV rooted for their relationship, let alone for her to become queen. After all, the king’s terrified advisors still worried that legitimizing her children would plunge France into bottomless conflicts. Because of this, some began to believe Gabrielle’s death wasn’t senseless at all, but that she had been poisoned. The real story, however, was much more painful than all that.
44. She Might Have Lived
In truth, Gabrielle d’Estrées passed from an illness that’s still common among pregnant women today: Eclampsia, a series of seizures and convulsions that came from maternal hypertension. Although it isn’t nearly so fatal in our modern times, Gabrielle barely stood a chance. Yet even without a poison plot, she still had to suffer a series of final, stunning betrayals.
45. The King Believed That God Ordained Her Fate
Although King Henry IV did grieve Gabrielle, he also saw the “bright side” of her demise insultingly fast. With his mistress gone, the king realized that his plot to legitimize his sons with her had been extremely rash. More than that, Henry started to believe Gabrielle’s end was God’s way of saying, “Don’t do it, bud.” Gee, thanks. Only, Henry had more insults in him.
46. Her Lover Desecrated Her Memory
Appropriately consoled by this whole “God’s Plan” thing, Henry spent his mourning period for Gabrielle cavorting around and living it up in his own private brothel. Indeed, it was around this time that he met the woman who would become his next big mistress, the teenaged Henriette d’Entragues. Almost instantly, Henriette tried to ruin Gabrielle’s memory.
47. She Got A Replacement
If Gabrielle was ambitious, her successor Henriette was darn near starving for power. The upstart girl, who came from a long line of royal mistresses, usurped Gabrielle’s best-laid plans and tried to install herself as the Queen of France, all before Gabrielle’s body was cold in the ground. Henriette even obtained a WRITTEN PROMISE from the king to marry her the minute he was over his ex.
Did Henry do it? No, but he didn’t respect Gabrielle’s legacy either…
48. The King Married Another Woman
Gabrielle passed in early 1599, and before the year was out, Henry already had a new bride in mind, casting off both his late mistress and his new girl to start courting the fabulously wealthy Marie de’ Medici. Although Henry was explicitly only in it for the money, that didn’t stop him from signing a marriage contract with Marie almost a year to the day that Gabrielle died.
49. Her Lover Genuinely Mourned Her
Now, I think it’s clear by now that Gabrielle d’Estrées was way, way too good for the philandering King Henry IV, but he did have one saving grace when it came to properly mourning his lost love. After her passing, Henry wore black as a token of his grief, becoming the first French king to ever do so. Okay, I’ll give you that one thing, Henry.
50. She Had A Bad Mother
Naughty broads ran in Gabrielle’s family—and you need only look as far as her mother Françoise. See, Mommie Dearest took her own lover while still married to Gabrielle’s father, and then abandoned her family to help her boy toy govern the region of Auvergne. Unfortunately, the illicit pair was extremely unpopular with their citizens. So in 1592, in a dramatic exit worthy of her own daughter, Françoise’s own people executed her.
51. She’s In A Famous Painting
Before she passed, Gabrielle got a very risqué portrait made of herself: Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses sœurs by François Clouet, which now sits in the Louvre museum in Paris. In the painting, Gabrielle and her sister sit undressed in a bath. Gabrielle holds Henry’s coronation ring in one hand while her sister…pinches Gabrielle’s nipple.
If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it’s an extremely famous—and famously bizarre—painting. I mean, is there any better legacy than this?