“Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves” was Annie Lennox’s battle cry for female empowerment. Back in 18th century France, however, the Mailly-Nesle sisters were all too happy to step all over each other. Each one would easily throw their own sibling under the bus just to get close to royalty, with one exception. Louise Julie de Mailly-Nesle was the eldest, sweetest, and most trusting: so she, for sure, got the worst of it. Read on about Louise Julie’s sad fate at the hands of her four conniving sisters.
Louise Julie was born in 1710 in Southern France. Before long, her parents certainly had their hands full. They followed the birth of Louise Julie with four more daughters in quick succession. Being the oldest, perhaps Louise Julie had to pitch in with the parenting—certainly, the girls’ actual parents weren’t up for the job.
Louise Julie’s father was the Marquis of Mailly but mostly had a thing for actresses—which took up a lot of his time and money. Mom was Armande Félice de La Porte Mazarin, who was famous for a bizarre reason. She had once challenged another woman to a duel. The fight had been over a man, and in the end, Armande Felice took an injury to the shoulder.
You could say that, for her daughters, the stage was set for high drama.
In 1726, when Louise Julie was 16 years old, she married her cousin Louis Alexandre de Mailly. This was certainly not Louise Julie’s first choice—or even her second, third or tenth. Her parents forced her into the marriage, and it was an unhappy one. Luckily for her, things were about to change.
To the surprise of the family, Louise Julie’s mother Armande Felice suddenly died in 1729. The thing was: Louise Julie’s mother had a (sort of job). She was one of the ladies-in-waiting for Queen Marie—wife of King Louis XV. So, when her mother passed, Louise Julie’s father expected her to step up to the task and fill her shoes.
Louise Julie’s job was assisting Queen Marie, but there was also Louis XV to take care of. Apparently, Louis XV had a problem with restlessness and needed constant entertainment. His wife had given up keeping him occupied, so the role of entertainer to the king went to Louise Julie. She did her job well, some might say, a little too well.
While trying to think of ways to occupy Louis XV’s many hours of idle time, something scandalous happened. Louise Julie started to feel something for the king. Before long she had fallen head over heels in love with the attention-deficit monarch. Of course, both she and the king had their own spouses, and nothing could happen between them. But that didn't even matter: the king saw her more as a babysitter than someone romantic. At least…at first.
Supposedly, Louis XV had no interest in Louise Julie. That’s a little hard to swallow, because descriptions of her include words like sensuous and provocative. She was also fashionable, witty, and entertaining. If that didn’t get the king interested, maybe this fact would: she even designed her own sexy lingerie. There was, however, one aspect of Louise Julie that was lacking.
In contrast to all the praise that Louis Julie inspired, there was one point of criticism: she was not graceful. In fact, she was a full-on klutz. Could this have been the reason Louis XV wouldn't give her the time of day? Certainly, it was a minor point. This setback didn’t stop Louise Julie though. She actively started to flirt with the king—even though she was working for his wife.
The object of Louise Julie’s affection, King Louis XV, wasn’t that into being the ruler of the land. In actual fact, it was Cardinal Fleury that did most of the leg work. Louis was more fond of the job’s perks. Fleury knew that as long as the king stayed the king, he would continue to have his power over the land. But Fleury had an enemy he had to watch out for.
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Cardinal Fleury kept his friend, Louis XV, close. But his enemy? Well, she was technically Louise Julie’s boss: Queen Marie. Fleury wanted to limit how much influence the queen had over her husband Louis XV. He didn’t, after all, want Marie getting in the way of his plans for the country. The Cardinal was more perceptive than Louis, and quickly noticed Louise Julie’s attempts at flirtation. This gave Fleury an idea.
To make sure he’d stay in power, Cardinal Fleury’s came up with a devious plot—and made Louise Julie his pawn. He became determined to make her the king’s mistress. He thought Louise Julie was perfect because she didn’t seem to have any political leanings. Probably Fleury imagined with the king occupied by this young empty-headed lady-in-waiting, he’d keep Marie at bay and continue to rule the country himself.
Now, all Fleury had to do was convince the king that Louise Julie was the one.
In 1732, King Louis XV finally took note of Louise Julie’s charms —a full three years after his wife had first employed her. That’s a whole lot of prancing around the castle in skimpy lingerie trying to get him to see her for what she was: regal mistress material. But wait a second, didn’t Louise Julie already have a husband to worry about?
Being the mistress of Louis XV wasn’t something that was easy to hide—especially to one’s husband. Eventually, Louise Julie had to come clean to her husband and tell him the truth. Maybe she even phrased it as a good news/bad news situation. The good news was that she would be well taken care of. The bad news may not have gone over so well.
There are few things as difficult as confessing a secret affair to your spouse, and Louise Julie must have been incredibly nervous. His reaction was completely unexpected. See, it was a different time and people had a different set of values. Not only was Louise Julie’s husband not angry, he actually gave her relationship with the king his seal of approval.
Even though Louise Julie’s husband was okay with the affair, Louis XV and Cardinal Fleury wanted to keep her identity a secret. The word was out that the king had taken a mistress, it just wasn’t let out who she was. To do this they had Louise Julie enter the king’s apartments late at night. They also gave her a cute pet name: The Fair Unknown.
Everyone was becoming obsessed over the identity of Fair Unknown—especially Louis XV’s wife Marie. She was not onboard with her husband having a lover, and her identity being a secret was making Marie even more angry. She made it her personal mission to unveil the woman who was, in her opinion, the not-so Fair Unknown. The queen would stop at nothing to bring her identity to the light of day.
Queen Marie had a certain amount of power around the court, and she was going to use it to find out who her husband’s mistress was. This meant that Louise Julie and Louis XV had to be even more secretive. Marie was starting to play detective, and push her weight around the castle to expose the identity of the secret lover. That was when she came across someone with even more power than her.
Remember, Cardinal Fleury was all for the secret matching of Louise Julie and King Louis. She would keep the king distracted, and not put any crazy ideas into his head. He blocked Marie’s attempts at revealing Louise Julie’s identity and eventually Marie just had to live with it. But it turned out that Marie had other troubles on her mind besides The Fair Unknown.
Louise Julie was still, at this time, a lady-in-waiting for Marie and also sneaking around as her husband’s mistress. Then, in 1737, a tragedy struck the court. Marie had an-almost fatal childbirth. Fearful for her life, Marie cut off any further baby-making activities with Louis XV. And what did this mean for Louise Julie?
If Marie and Louis XV were no longer canoodling, Marie would lose her influence over the king. The influence would then go to the secret mistress: Louise Marie.
The pursuit of the true identity of The Fair Unknown was now in overdrive. Besides Cardinal Fleury, she would have the most influence over Louis XV. As the saying goes: where there’s influence, there’s power. The court couldn’t stand not knowing who was going to be influencing the king. Finally, in 1738, Gabriel Bichner plotted a scheme that would unveil Louise Julie’s identity to everyone.
At this point in her relationship with Louis XV, Louise Julie had taken to wearing a hood to conceal her face when she went to the king’s rooms. Bichner’s scheme was simple: catch The Fair Unknown in the corridor and knock her hood off. Bichner planted two ladies-in-waiting in the hallway to witness the unveiling. Their job was to spread the word around as soon as they knew the identity.
That night, Bichner set his scheme in motion. Waiting in the dark, he peered to look for the mysterious hooded mistress—and then, he caught her. He revealed The Fair Unknown’s identity, and the ladies-in-waiting immediately spread the word throughout the court. They had finally exposed Louise Julie as the Fair Unknown: the king’s secret mistress. But now that everyone knew, what would the king do with Louise Julie now?
The entire court now knew that Louis XV’s secret lover was none other than his wife’s lady-in-waiting, Louise Julie. So, Louis had to do something to make it public. One July 14, 1738, the king had a dinner prepared for him and his court at the Chateau de Compiegne. Tensions must have been running high, as everyone knew the secret—but officially, it was still just a rumor.
That was when courtiers opened a door and ushered a special guest into the dining room.
Louise Julie entered the dining room, and took her spot at the table beside Louis XV. The court had a collective jaw drop, and then ate their dinners. The king didn’t actually say anything about his relationship with Louise Julie, but having her at his side during dinner said it all. She was now the official maitresse-en-titre of the king. So, what did this actually mean for Louise Julie?
Where before Louise Julie had to sneak through corridors wearing a hood just to see her king, now she had rooms right next to Louis XV’s apartments. She also had a role as hostess of parties the king gave at royal castles. Louise Julie was now walking in the daylight for the first time—it must have felt great. But could their relationship survive the strain of the public eye?
The court mostly celebrated the announcement of Louise Julie as Louis XV’s mistress. But there was also some backlash. There were some whisperings that Louise Julie wasn’t pretty enough for the king. This seemed to hurt the king’s feelings more than it hurt Louise Julie’s. And what about behind closed doors? How was the happy couple doing in their private life?
Now, Louise Julie and Louis XV’s relationship was in grave danger. After all, love affairs born in secrecy often don’t survive the transition into legitimacy. Now that her status was official, Louise Julie started to become jealous that maybe he had yet another secret mistress. You know what they say: once a cheater, always a cheater.
The two argued frequently, even over banal activities like playing cards. Not a great sign…
One day Louise Julie showed a letter to Louis XV that she’d received from one Monsieur de Luc. The letter was a business proposition, and the Monsieur had hoped Louise Julie would use her influence—and her beautiful mouth—to push the business through. The king threw a fit. He was angry at both the Monsieur and Louise Julie: he refused to let Louise Julie have any influence over political issues.
Louise Julie had to accept the fact that she would have little influence on political issues, so she focused her energy on matters to do with the court. Louise Julie started by accepting a request from her sister Pauline Félicité. Pauline Félicité wanted Louise Julie to set her up in the social order. Louise Julie did this simply because she loved her family—especially her four sisters. It could be, however, that this sisterly love wasn’t all that mutual.
In 1739, Louise Julie brought her sister Pauline Félicité to court and introduced her to Louis XV. It was a dire mistake. Pauline Félicité took one look at Louis XV and concocted a plan. She would take the king away from her sister, and replace her as his number one mistress. But surely, Louise Julie and the king had a bond that wouldn’t be so easily broken by a younger and naive sister…or did they?
Apparently, their bond wasn’t that strong after all. Louis XV fell quite madly in love with Pauline Félicité and she quite easily took the king from Louise Julie. Louise Julie was still the official mistress, but her sister took away all the romantic duties. Louis XV was in a bind. He still had Louise Julie housed in rooms next to his. So, what would he do with her sister Pauline Félicité?
Louis XV was now juggling two mistresses—who were also sisters. He decided to keep Pauline Félicité in court by marrying her off to a Marquis and then gifting them with a castle. Louise Julie would stay on at the main house, and maybe they’d all just get along. It might have worked—until something scandalous disrupted the peace.
Louise Julie’s sister got pregnant, and it went the way many pregnancies went back then: badly. A few days after giving birth to a boy, Pauline Félicité began to suffer from convulsions brought on by the delivery. Sadly, Louise Julie’s closest sister—and rival for the king’s affections—did not survive the birth of her son. Even though Pauline-Francis had taken the king from her, Louise Julie took the news badly.
Even though Pauline Félicité was not the official mistress to Louis XV, her body was still given royal status. This meant that her remains were displayed for public mourning. The people finally had their chance to tell the king and Louise Julie what they thought of this second mistress and the mother of his illegitimate son. And what they had to say wasn’t pretty.
Even though Louise Julie wasn’t happy to have lost her love to Pauline Félicité, she still wanted to mourn the passing of her closest sister. Sadly, she’d never get the chance. The body was lying in Versailles when a mob there, noticing the guards had left to drink, decided to show their displeasure. The gang of angry subjects broke in, and did something unthinkable.
They mutilated her body. Louise Julie was inconsolable and needed a way to grieve.
Louise Julie couldn’t believe what had happened to her sister’s body. The gruesome act weighed heavy on her, and she looked to religion to help her. She soon learned of a Catholic rite that could help her make sense of the senseless tragedy. Louise Julie went out to the common people, got down on her knees, and washed the feet of the poor. Only then could she move on.
Remember, Cardinal Fleury had always been pro-Louise Julie because she didn’t involve herself with politics. But this didn’t mean that everyone was as happy with her. The court nobility wanted a mistress that could influence Louis XV, mostly because they were through with the Cardinal’s pacifist reign. They wanted the kingdom to rage battles and wanted to find a mistress who could plead their case.
The person they saw most fit for the job, however, was quite a blow to Louise Julie.
The court nobility, mostly headed by the Duc de Richelieu, was looking for a more politically inclined mistress for Louis XV, and the selection process began to focus on one extremely scandalous possibility. They wanted Louise Julie’s youngest sister Marie Anne. But Richelieu couldn’t just push Marie Anne at the king—he had to wait for just the right moment.
The moment came on Shrove Tuesday 1742. This was when Louise Julie’s sister Marie Anne made her first impression on Louis XV. It was at a masked ball and Louise Julie must have been grinding her teeth as she saw her young sister and the king together. She was still the official mistress, her other sister had given her life as mistress of Louis XV, and here was another of her sisters flirting with the king.
It took some coaxing, but eventually, a second sister of Louise Julie’s came around to Louis XV’s charms. Richelieu had gotten his way and now had someone near the king to influence him in political matters. Poor Louise Julie had been cast aside yet again. But what did this mean for her future in court? In short, it didn’t mean anything good.
Sadly, Louise Julie was becoming less and less useful to either Louis XV or the court. Her level of influence over the king, which had always been negligible, was now next to nothing. She was no longer the official mistress of the king, and her role as lady-in-waiting was now tenuous at best. If she lost her connection to nobility, Louise Julie might be facing the worst-case scenario: having to leave court forever.
As it turned out, there was a new vacancy as a lady-in-waiting and Louise Julie would do anything to get it. After all, it meant she could continue the fine living you get at court. Unfortunately, there was competition for the job, and the competition was someone familiar to Louise Julie: the same young sister who was now with Louis XV.
It seemed that Louise Julie’s sister would stop at nothing to humiliate her—and there was still more to come.
Louise Julie was expediently being ousted by her own sister, Marie Anne. But Marie Anne had other plans. She convinced Louise Julie to resign her position as lady-in-waiting so yet another sister could have it. This time it was Hortense Félicité—the fourth of the Mailly-Nesle sisters. The all-too-trusting Louise Julie was soon writing up her letter of resignation.
Cardinal Fleury took one look at Louise Julie’s letter of resignation and saw a rat. He was sure that Louise Julie’s sisters were plotting against her and wanted to kick her out of court. Fleury told Louise Julie what he suspected, but Louise Julie couldn't imagine that her own flesh and blood would try and cheat her out of her place in court.
Louise Julie went ahead with the resignation, but as protection, she asked for a different placement with the next dauphine.
On September 19, 1742, Louise Julie and her two sisters, Marie Anne and Hortense Félicité, approached Louis XV and Queen Marie to say thank you for their various posts. Things didn’t go quite as planned. Marie Anne and Hortense Felicite both went ahead in their new positions. To probably no one’s surprise but Louise Julie’s, she lost hers. Her sisters had won. They were safely ensconced in court and Louise Julie was out. So much for sisterly love.
Even though Louise Julie was not actually part of the court, she continued to live there for as long as they would have her. She even continued to eat meals with Louis XV. The only difference now was the conversations they had. Apparently, the king could talk of nothing else but his plans to seduce Marie Anne—Louise Julie’s sister. Maybe eating in silence would have been a better choice.
Eventually, Louis XV could see no use in keeping Louise Julie in court. To Louise Julie’s horror, he asked her to leave. Her reaction was devastating. Louise Julie fell on her knees and cried at his feet. She begged him to let her stay. Louis was a bit of a softy and granted her an extension of her stay—but only a few more days. When Marie Anne found out that her sister was staying, she took matters into her own diabolical hands.
Marie Anne was playing a much slier game with Louis XV than Louise Julie had. Marie Anne made demands of the king before she consented to go to bed with him. One of her demands was removing her own sister from the court. Louis, even though he was dying to go horizontal with Marie Anne, was too kind to just kick Louise Julie out. So, he just removed her furniture from her rooms. That’ll send the message…
Louise Julie de Mailly-Nesle seemed destined to never leave court, but she was quickly becoming an embarrassment. Even one of her closest allies turned on her. Cardinal Fleury, who’d usually had her back, had the gall to suggest that she leave. He told her to do it for respect for Louis XV and for her own dignity. Louise Julie eventually acquiesced.
When Louis heard about this, he immediately set up a romantic date with Marie Anne. he was finally going to get his lusty reward.
Even though Louise Julie de Mailly-Nesle had agreed to leave…she didn’t. Louis XV granted Louise Julie one last dinner—and therefore had to wait another night to be in the arms of Marie Anne. At the last dinner, the inevitable happened: Louise Julie begged and pleaded to see the king a few days after her departure from court. Reluctantly, the king agreed.
Louise Julie de Mailly-Nesle was staying with a friend and waiting to hear from Louis XV, but a message never got to her—and the reason why was gut-wrenching. Louise Julie’s diabolical sister had demanded that the king break off his final date with Louise Julie. She couldn’t stand the idea of Louis granting her sister yet another chance to return to court.
This really was Louise Julie’s last and final chance. Marie Anne had won. She was in, and Louise Julie was officially out.
With all her hopes dashed, Louise Julie de Mailly-Nesle had to come up with a plan. She was just 32 years old, but back then even women at that age had few options. Louise Julie eventually turned to religion and entered a convent. She apparently became quite religious, and lived there until her death in 1751 at the age of 41. But what was the fate of her sisters?
The Mailly-Nesle sisters left a scandalous legacy. A 1765 painting by Carle van Loo that depicts three naked women prancing by a lake is rumored to portray the notorious siblings. Remarkably, four of the five Mailly-Nesle sisters had at one time become the mistress of King Louis XV. Every more steamy? There were rumors that Louis had shared two sisters at the same time—Marie Anne and Diane Adélaïde—which only served to further tarnish the Mailly-Nesle name.
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