When it comes to royal mistresses, few lived the absolute roller-coaster ride that Jeanne Bécu, AKA Madame du Barry, did. From her bitter rivalry with Marie Antoinette to the scandal that nearly destroyed her to her brutal and dark end, Madame du Barry’s lurid story is like something out of a twisted period drama—yet so few people know the dirty details.
1. She Had An Outrageous Start
Fittingly, Madame du Barry was born into scandal. Born Jeanne Bécu, she was the illegitimate daughter of provincial French seamstress Anne Bécu and a mystery gentleman. Although her father’s identity is still unconfirmed, he may have been the naughty friar Jean Jacques Gomard. Yeah, if I was the unholy friar, I guess I’d want to keep my love child a secret too.
Of course, this scandalous birth became something of an omen for what was to come.
2. She Learned From Those Around Her
It makes sense that little Jeanne became a mistress to a powerful man. After all, that was what she knew growing up. Her mother had a brief fling with a man named Monsieur Dumonceaux, who took them to Paris and then put Jeanne to work in his mistress Francesca’s household. Francesca doted on little Jeanne and even sent her to study at a convent. But then, right when Jeanne needed her, Francesca turned on her.
3. She Was Out In The Cold
If you believe one version of events, Francesca’s adoration of Jeanne had a disturbing dark side. Almost as soon as Jeanne turned 15 and left the convent, Francesca threw both her and her mother out on the street. Some historians believe that the Italian mistress had grown too jealous of Jeanne’s blossoming looks. Others, however, believe an even darker story. Monsieur Dumonceaux may have turned his attentions back to Anne, enraging Francesca.
As you can imagine, this wouldn’t be the last time that this kind of jealousy threatened to ruin Jeanne’s life…
4. She May Have Had A Lovechild
Next, Jeanne took on odd jobs around Paris. But far too often, she mixed business with pleasure. She worked with a hairdresser, and the two became lovers—even sparking a rumor that she had a secret child with him. The relationship dissolved—but I wouldn’t necessarily say that Jeanne learned to set boundaries with her employers after the experience.
5. She Was Too Provocative For Her Own Good
After a few other jobs, the future Madame du Barry became a companion to an elderly widow. Once again, her scandalous side got the better of her. The family fired her after the situation between Jeanne and the widow’s two married sons became a little too…complicated. Soon, tales of her great (and apparently tempestuous) beauty began to precede her…and it garnered the attention of more and more powerful men.
6. She Found A New Career
As Jeanne’s looks started to kick into high gear, people started to notice—including the renowned high-class “procurer” Jean-Baptiste du Barry. He sought out, er, talent to present to aristocrats looking for a good time…not a long time. In addition to recruiting Jeanne as a luxury escort, he also took her as his mistress. What did we say about mixing business and pleasure, Jeanne…
7. She Was The Hottest Thing In Town
Du Barry’s career as a high-class courtesan was phenomenally successful. In no time at all, she became the talk of Parisian drawing rooms, at least after midnight. Many of her lovers were powerful nobles and ministers—perhaps the most powerful being the aging Marechal de Richelieu, who had ties directly to the royal palace of Versailles…and of course, the extravagant king himself, Louis XV.
It was only a matter of time before she came within his orbit.
8. She Was Already Making Enemies
In 1768, the king laid eyes on Jeanne for the first time. The Duc de Choiseul had brought her to Versailles for this express purpose—but Jeanne didn’t know she had an enemy in her midst. His sister was also vying for the position of chief mistress to the king. While de Choiseul did his best to downplay Jeanne’s presence, it was a moment that King Louis XV wouldn’t soon forget.
Still, Jeanne was going to have to face a lot of hurdles before she reached the king’s bedchamber.
9. There Were Rules To Follow
Following her success on the courtesan circuit, both Jeanne and Jean-Baptiste du Barry set their sights even higher. She didn’t just want to bed the king—she wanted to be his chief royal mistress, or maitresse-en-titre. There was just one problem. Any chief mistress to the King simply had to have a title, and, good looks or not, Jeanne was a commoner.
But the thing is—the king simply had to have Jeanne.
10. He Fell For Her
Jeanne wasn’t the only one with a relationship to a “procurer.” Louis XV had one as well. He tracked down Jeanne and before too long, she was making special visits to his chambers at night. Louis XV was no stranger to these types of visits—alongside his chief mistress, he usually had a handful of other mistresses on the roster.
But as the king’s demands for time with Jeanne intensified, they realized they had a problem on their hands.
11. He Didn’t Know About Her Past
Both of the “procurers” involved in the situation had been keeping a dirty little secret from the king. Neither had told him about Jeanne’s low-born status. However, as the frequency of their trysts grew, they had no choice but to tell him. His reaction wasn’t quite what they expected. Instead of simply pushing her aside for another woman—and there were plenty—he demanded that they figure out a way to keep her around.
12. They Had A Plan
Jeanne’s pimp Jean-Baptiste came up with a solution to their royal mistress issue—albeit an unconventional one. His brother Guillaume just so happened to be a count. So, despite the fact that Jean-Baptiste was sleeping with Jeanne, he arranged for her to marry his brother. Not exactly the fairy tale that every little girl dreams of…
13. She Tied The Knot
Accordingly, Jeanne and Guillaume wed on September 1, 1768, in a loveless ceremony. The low-born Jeanne Bécu was now Madame du Barry. However, Jean-Baptiste didn’t stop there. To make sure that she fulfilled all the criteria for royal mistress, he also created a false birth certificate for Jeanne that shaved three years off her age and claimed she had noble blood.
However, just because she had the documentation didn’t mean that their problems were over.
14. She Had To Jump Through Hoops
For all of the illicit affairs rollicking behind bedroom doors, 18th-century France sure had a lot of rules. Madame du Barry may have already been sleeping with the king, but she needed an official introduction—and that necessitated a female sponsor. There was just one problem.
No one wanted the job, at least not for cheap. After going through several pricy possibilities, du Barry finally settled on a Madame de Bearn…who had massive gambling debts and couldn’t really say no.
15. She Was Lonely
Jeanne’s first months at Versailles were absolutely miserable. Sure, she was “entertaining” the king, but the other high-born courtiers refused to even talk to the tawdry upstart—and that wasn’t even the worst part. Because Madame du Barry hadn’t earned a formal introduction to the King, she couldn’t go into public with him. Poor Jeanne had to spend most of her days alone indoors—and that wasn’t her only problem.
16. They Hated Her
Du Barry might not have been able to show her face around court that much, but she’d still found the time to make enemies. Ever since Louis XV’s chief mistress Madame de Pompadour had died in 1764, others had been vying to take her place—among them, the Duchesse de Gramont. And when the Duchesse first heard whispers du Barry, she knew that the upstart was a threat.
17. She Victimized Her
Needless to say, the Duchesse de Gramont did not take well to the enterprising du Barry, and she went to desperate lengths to ruin her. Gramont began by slandering Madame du Barry in the gutter pamphlets of Paris. Then, when that didn’t work, she also involved the king’s name, trying to turn public opinion against their relationship.
While the noble class was already familiar with stories about du Barry, this scandalous introduction to the rest of France would, as we’ll see, eventually have brutal consequences.
18. She Had Terrible Luck
Finally, it came time for Madame du Barry’s formal introduction to King Louis XV—and it was an absolute disaster. During the first attempt, Madame de Bearn choked and couldn’t go through with it, faking a sprained ankle instead. On the second try, the king himself got injured and the meeting couldn’t take place.
Madame du Barry had been a courtesan for five years and Louis XV’s unofficial mistress for nearly a year—but it looked like she’d have to wait a little longer.
19. The Third Time Was The Charm
By the time Madame du Barry actually managed to make her official introduction to the king on April 22, 1769, it was the event of the season. Despite the formalities, everyone was well aware of what it all meant and what her relationship to the king was. Crowds of gossiping courtiers stood in the Hall of Mirrors while a mob of commoners gathered outside the gates of Versailles, all to see the King’s sidepiece make it official.
20. She Dressed To Impress
Madame du Barry made sure that she came correct to her first official meeting with the king. She wore a silver-white hoop dress embroidered with gold, the likes of which even the well-to-do courtiers had never seen before—but then she took it to the next level.
Just to add to the absurdity, she also wore a heap of jewels the king sent to her the night before…forgetting that the whole conceit of the thing was that they were supposed to still be strangers. Well, you can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse—and occasionally, du Barry’s dark past slipped out.
21. She Had Talent
Louis XV’s bedpost may have been covered in notches by the time he met the low-born Madame du Barry, but she was shockingly rough and tumble compared to the rest of his mistresses. According to one story, the king once confided to his friend the Duc de Noailles that du Barry had shown him astonishing pleasures. “Sire,” the duke responded, “That’s because your Majesty has never been in a brothel.”
But not everyone appreciated her unique set of skills…
22. She Made An Enemy
When du Barry began her relationship with King Louis XV, he was an aging man, and his grandson Louis XVI was about to marry the most notorious woman in French history: Marie Antoinette. Antoinette and du Barry first met on the eve of the royal wedding—and it was hate at first sight. Marie Antoinette was an innocent 14-year-old, and when she found out du Barry was an immoral courtesan, she despised her immediately.
23. They Ignored Each Other
The feud between Marie Antoinette and Madame du Barry soon turned into something of a cold war. The young and easily-manipulated Marie Antoinette asked her husband’s aunts what to do, and they told her to give du Barry the silent treatment. Since du Barry had some sway over the king, Marie Antoinette’s choice was thought to damage any chances of advancing Austrian interests in the court.
24. She Didn’t Know Who She Was Up Against
When a teenaged Marie Antoinette first asked who Madame du Barry was, a courtier replied that she “gave pleasure to the king.” The green Marie’s response was mortifying. Not realizing what this “pleasure” meant, the little girl responded with a disturbing reply. She said, “Oh, then I shall be her rival, because I too wish to give pleasure to the King.”
Her guffawing companion had to inform her that she’d better not give the old king that kind of pleasure.
25. She Lived In The Lap Of Luxury
Now that she had taken the role of chief mistress, Madame du Barry adopted a lifestyle to match. A typical day at Versailles for her would make our modern eyes pop. Her lavish rooms were conveniently located above King Louis XV’s official quarters. In them, du Barry breakfasted on liquid chocolate, chose her wardrobe from an arsenal of exquisite gowns, and had two separate hairdressers on retainer for different court occasions.
But money can’t buy you everything…or can it?
26. She Had A Clique
It isn’t easy being the hottest girl in the room. As the king’s official mistress, Madame du Barry had very few real friends. Some, like Claire Francoise, tutored her in courtly manners out of the goodness of their hearts. But most of du Barry’s other “friends” were keeping a dark secret. They were accepting bribes to be part of her coterie.
Of course, as we’ll see, when your gal pals are the friendship equivalent of mercenaries, you need to watch your own back.
27. It Was Expensive To Be Her
While the revered former chief mistress Madame de Pompadour was active in court politics, Madame du Barry had earthier tastes. Though King Louis did allow her to participate in state councils, du Barry much preferred to spend her time trying on pretty dresses and examining bigger and bigger baubles and jewels. Of course, this would eventually present its own problems.
28. She Lived Large
History often blames Marie Antoinette’s reckless spending for the French Revolution—but the blame may actually lie more with her rival Madame du Barry. Even though King Louis XV gave his sweetums an astonishing allowance of three hundred livres a month, she somehow always managed to be in debt. This girl could spend—but considering her climb to the top, who could blame her?
29. She Cared About Others
Though Madame du Barry had expensive tastes, she also had a good heart. When her distant acquaintances the Comte and Comtesse de Lousene found themselves facing execution, du Barry begged the king to spare their lives. Though advisors warned her that she wouldn’t like his reaction, they were all in for a big surprise.
30. She Went For It
When Madame du Barry knelt before the king, she asked him to pardon her friends and told him she wouldn’t get up until it was a done deal. His reaction was unexpected. Her words touched Louis. He agreed, saying, “Madame, I am delighted that the first favor you should ask of me should be an act of mercy!”
Du Barry was beginning to flex a little more of her power at court—but she wouldn’t necessarily have long to do it.
31. She Squashed Some Beef
Marie Antoinette loathed du Barry so much that for years, she point blank refused to speak to her for any reason. On a New Year’s Day ball, their feud thawed ever so slightly when Marie deigned to toss “There are many people at Versailles today” du Barry’s way, giving the mistress a chance to respond.
That’s right, their feud was so icy that even just that one sentence was considered the 18th-century version of a major peace treaty.
32. She Kept An Eye On Her Enemies
Remember the Duc de Choiseul, the noble who first reluctantly brought Madame du Barry to Versailles? The one whose sister got dumped by the king after du Barry arrived? Well, he stuck around, and he definitely did not let his vendetta against du Barry go. He collaborated with another man to replace her as the chief mistress—and his choice was an interesting one.
33. She Won Out
There was only one woman that the Duc de Choiseul trusted to supplant Madame du Barry—his own lover, Madame Pater. While the king did give into her womanly charms, de Choiseul’s attempt to encourage a secret marriage between the two failed. Louis XV may have had a wandering eye—but his heart was with Madame du Barry.
Of course, du Barry didn’t take this attack well.
34. She Got Revenge
Madame du Barry had won out over the Duc’s plans against her—and now, it was time for her to get revenge. When Du Barry and her ex-pimp/brother-in-law found info that he’d gone against the king’s wishes, they were all too happy to bring it to the king.
On Christmas Eve in 1771, the king dismissed the duke, eventually exiling him. Happy holidays!
35. It Was A Recipe For Disaster
Yes, the king really loved Madame du Barry—but their relationship had a twisted dark side. As mentioned, she loved to spend, often going way over her monthly allowance. He loved her so much that he couldn’t say no to her. As the public began to realize that Louis XV’s extravagance came off the backs of their hardship, scrutiny and criticism of both the king and his chief mistress increased.
They were playing a dangerous game—and it was only a matter of time until it came back to haunt them.
36. He Was A Different Person
As the years went on, a dark change came over Louis XV. He became more concerned with the topic of death—and less concerned with his young chief mistress. His visits to her chambers were less frequent. The difference in their ages—he in his mid-60s and du Barry having just hit 30—became more apparent.
Still, when Louis XV was with du Barry, he was just as devoted. Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come.
37. They Had A Health Scare
During one of the king’s visits to Madame du Barry, he began to exhibit frightening symptoms. His doctors rushed him back to the palace with du Barry in tow. She stayed with him and they struggled to figure out what was wrong with him—and then they made a disturbing discovery. He had symptoms of smallpox. He sent away his heir and Marie Antoinette, but du Barry remained at his side.
38. She Said Goodbye
Louis XV and his doctors believed that he’d already survived smallpox, so they weren’t too worried—but then, his symptoms worsened. The king realized that the end was near, and he didn’t want to court scandal by having du Barry at his side when it happened, so he made a heartbreaking choice. He sent her away. Within days, he was dead—and now, du Barry’s fate hung in the balance.
39. She Was Out
With Louis XV gone, his grandson Louis XVI became king—and du Barry’s former enemy Marie Antoinette became queen. Though it may have seemed like they’d healed their feud, nothing could be further from the truth. One of Queen Marie Antoinette’s first acts was to banish Madame du Barry to a convent.
Considering her past, it was really the last place she belonged…
40. They Imprisoned Her
Du Barry’s reputation preceded her—but in due time, she became quite popular at the convent. This was no vacation, however. It took her a year to get permission to leave the grounds, and even after that, they forbade her from going anywhere near Versailles. Though the charming du Barry eventually negotiated her way out of her holy prison at the convent, she never again set foot within a ten-mile radius of her beloved Versailles.
And that wasn’t the only way that her old life came back to haunt her…
41. He’d Wanted To Treat Her
Just before his death, King Louis XV had commissioned a massively expensive necklace for du Barry. Still in the throes of passion, he had gone way overboard—cursing those who survived him to pay the price for it. Louis XV loved du Barry so much that he asked the jewelers to create the most extravagant diamond necklace they could, at a cost of 2 million livres (or $15.1 million today).
There was just one problem—he died before they could finish it.
42. She Was Involved In A Deadly Scandal
The jewelers really did their best to live up to the king’s expectations. They finally finished it years later, but there was no way that du Barry had enough money to take it off their hands. They first offered it to Louis XVI for his wife, but she refused…probably because she saw it as du Barry’s sloppy seconds. As a result, Antoinette’s actions triggered the infamous and utterly scandalous Affair of the Diamond Necklace.
43. It Was Bad PR For Them
During the affair, a con woman posing as a now-approving Marie Antoinette procured the necklace from the desperate jewelers and promptly sold it off on the black market. Despite the fact that the queen hadn’t been involved, the scandal ruined her already fragile reputation.
Voila, she had yet another reason to hate Madame du Barry. Unfortunately for both, their fates were already intertwined.
44. The People Turned On Them
By 1789, all of Madame du Barry and Marie Antoinette’s royal infighting meant nothing. The French Revolution had begun. Sure, it was Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who were really in the hot seat, but the people of France hadn’t forgotten Madame du Barry, Louis XV’s most expensive mistress. The tide of public opinion had turned on her, and she became a symbol of and scapegoat for France’s many problems.
Both women spent the next four years trying to stay alive in a world that absolutely detested them.
45. She Still Had It
Even in the middle of her exile from Versailles and an uprising, the still-spry Madame du Barry had her priorities straight. She still managed to find time for bedroom scandals. She was involved in a dramatic love triangle with the French solider Louis Hercule Timoleon de Cosse-Brissac and the British soldier Henry Seymour, managing to string both men along for months.
46. She Got Dumped
Soon enough, one of du Barry’s lovers Henry Seymour got fed up with their tryst. He broke up with her in the most brutal way possible. Seymour sent a painting as a “present” to his unfaithful lover, but it was no innocent gift. Along the bottom of the picture, he wrote a short, vicious message in English: “Leave me alone.”
47. They Turned On Her
Madame du Barry’s lover Louis Hercule knew about her affair with Seymour, but he didn’t care. He loved her—and unfortunately, his devotion had disturbing consequences. One evening, an angry mob showed up at du Barry’s chateau. When she looked out the window, someone saw her and threw a strange package through the glass at her. As she approached the projectile, she felt true fear.
48. They Killed Her Lover
Du Barry saw that the object that had flown through her window was wrapped in a blood-stained cloth. When she opened it, she fainted. It was the severed head of Louis Hercule, preserved as a token especially for his Madame. This was just the first of many horrors that du Barry went through during the French Revolution.
49. It Was A Ticking Time Bomb
During her time at Versailles, one of du Barry’s many “indulgences” was a young Bantu slave named Zamor. While she may have paid for his education, she also loved nothing more than to dress him up and show him off like a doll. Zamor tolerated du Barry’s condescension—but in time, he would have his revenge.
50. He Got His Revenge
Colonial karma’s a witch, and eventually, du Barry’s human toy Zamor dealt her a bitter betrayal. After surviving the first years of the French Revolution, the courtesan found out that Zamor had joined up with the Jacobins, AKA the rebels. She promptly fired him, but no problem: Zamor turned around and denounced her to the powerful, revolutionary Committee of Public Safety.
51. She Tried To Save Herself
Zamor accused du Barry of helping people escape the Revolution. His testimony became the basis for the Council’s decision to hold her for treason. In a last-ditch attempt to get out of the charges, du Barry desperately told the Council where she’d hidden all her gems—but it was too little, too late.
A tribunal eventually convicted Madame du Barry of the charges. Her sentence was beheading by guillotine—the same fate that her rival Marie Antoinette had suffered.
52. She Wanted More Time
On December 8, 1793, the beautiful Madame du Barry went to her dark fate at the guillotine. True to form, she did not go gentle into that good night. Tragically, the terrified girl cried out “You are going to hurt me! Why?!” She begged her executioner for “one more moment.” In fact, these were her very last words: “Monsieur le bourreau, encore un petit moment!”
Her body was buried in the Madeleine Cemetery—not far from her former enemies Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.