Long before Meghan Markle, there was Marie-Louise O’Murphy. The low-born beauty rose from the gutters of France to the highest ranks of the nobility. But O’Murphy did it with her looks—and her body. From scavenging battlefields to usurping courtiers, these are the most licentious facts about Marie-Louise O’Murphy, the petite maîtresse.
1. She Started At The Bottom
If ever there was an opportunistic social climber or enterprising mistress, it was Marie-Louise O’Murphy. She was born to Daniel Morfi and Marguerite Iquy in the town of Rouen in October 1737. Although she would eventually rub shoulders—and bump uglies—with the noblest families of France’s Ancien Regime, her own breeding was anything but noble.
2. Her Family Were Rebels
Marie-Louise came from an impoverished Irish Catholic family who had left Ireland for France following the failed Jacobite uprising. The records aren’t entirely clear but it was either Marie-Louise’s grandfather or father who settled in the region of Normandy. From there, however, historical records paint a clear picture of poverty, depravity, and thievery.
3. Her Father Was A Spook
Marie-Louise’s father, Daniel Morfi, officially worked as an impoverished shoemaker—but he was hiding a twisted secret. He also moonlighted as a rogue international spy. Documents from the infamous Bastille show that Morfi had abandoned his family’s Jacobite allegiances in favor of personal gain. Unfortunately for Morfi, there was no honor among double agents.
4. Her Father Stayed At The Bastille
In late February of 1735, French authorities nabbed Morfi and threw him into a cell in the Bastille for seven months. One of his co-conspirators had sold him out and confessed that Morfi had intercepted diplomatic communications between the deposed Stuarts and the French crown in an effort to extort money. Marie-Louise’s mother was off even worse.
5. Her Mother Was An 18th Century Lot Lizard
Sources alternately refer to Marie-Louise’s mother as Marguerite Iquy or as Peggy Hickey—either way, she had a scandalous side of her own. Hickey was what the polite circles of French nobility referred to as a “camp-follower”—ie a working girl who followed armies from camp to camp. However, selling her body wasn’t even the raciest of her moral infractions.
6. Her Mother Was The Tooth Fairy
Much like her husband, Hickey had a knack for taking things that didn’t belong to her. After a bloody battle, for example, she reasoned that the lifeless bodies on the field no longer had any need for their valuable possessions–or, for that matter, their teeth. You might say that Marie-Louise learned entrepreneurship from the best.
7. Her Parents Were Odd
Marie-Louise was the youngest of 12 children born to her family. And, from the very beginning, her superstitious parents knew that she would accomplish great things. Legend has it that, the moment she was born, her father spat in her face for good luck while her mother walked her up the stairs so she would “rise in the world”.
8. She Was The Lucky One
It might be hard to believe, but Marie-Louise’s parents’ superstitions had a chilling effect. Five of her older siblings didn’t survive past infancy while one of her sisters, Marie-Brigitte, was left scarred by a bout of smallpox. But not Marie-Louise. She was perfect in every way. And soon, the whole of France would know it.
9. Her Father Stood In Her way
Again, sources conflict but in all likelihood, Marie-Louise’s father passed away in 1747 when she was ten years old. Oddly enough, this unexpected tragedy turned out to be just the stroke of luck that Marie-Louise needed. Her father had been exiled from Paris but now that he was gone, the family picked up and moved to the nation’s capital.
10. She Went On Display
You can take the O’Murphys out of the slums, but you can’t take the slums out of the O’Murphys. Once in Paris, Marie-Louise’s mother introduced the girls to the family business. She prepped her daughters for their “grand opening” with “mud facials, makeshift nose jobs, and dimple tools”. Marie-Louise, however, was perfect just as she was.
11. She Attracted The Wrong Attention
With their powdered faces and rouged cheeks, it didn’t take the O’Murphy girls any time to attract attention in Paris—but not the kind they wanted. Jean Meunier, the inspector, made several pages worth of notes in his diary, humorously mocking the O’Murphy girls’ “campaigns in Flanders” as they followed the French Army.
12. She Was Innocent
Thankfully, Meunier spared Marie-Louise from his criticism and scorn, since she was too young for the family business. But he was merciless towards her sister Marie-Brigitte, writing, “she always stayed with her parents and she wasn’t either brilliant or noisy[…]despite her ugliness we are sure that she wasn’t an innocent girl”. Fortunately, Marie-Louise had much better luck.
13. She Wooed A Wooer
While her sisters captured the attention of the authorities in Paris, Marie-Louise captured the imagination of France’s upper crust. By chance, the infamous charmer Giacomo Casanova was visiting with one of Marie-Louise’s sisters. He spotted a then 13-year-old Marie-Louise, “a pretty, ragged, dirty, little creature”…that he couldn’t take his eyes off of.
14. She Struck A Pose
The exact details of what followed are suspect—and sordid. Suffice it to say that Casanova got an eyeful of the 13-year-old beauty. Mesmerized, he ran to his acquaintance, the famed painter Françouis Boucher and ordered a drawing of the girl. And you know what they say: a picture is worth a thousand words—or a king’s ransom.
15. She Was The Girl In The Painting
François Bouchard was so inspired by Marie-Louise’s beauty that he created one of his most enduring paintings, Jeune fille allongée (Reclinig Girl) or l’Odalisque blonde (The Blonde Odalisque). No one knows quite how, but copies of the painting—and Marie-Louise’s exposed posterior—eventually found their way to King Louis XV.
16. She Was Just Beautiful
Casanova was so obsessed with Marie-Louise that he wrote about her painting in his diaries: “The skilled artist had drawn her legs and thighs so that the eye could not wish to see more. There I write below: O-Morphi wasn’t a Homeric or either Greek word. It simply meant ‘beautiful’”. Obviously, King Louis XV felt the same.
17. She Was In Everyone’s Diary
Even though Casanova liked to take credit for “discovering” Marie-Louise, there’s another, even more scandalous version of events. The police inspector Meunier—the very one who investigated Marie-Louise’s sisters—wrote “They say that the youngest Morfi, fourth sister and therefore the youngest, served as a model of the Boucher painting, he painted her [unclothed] and gave or sold the painting to Monsieur de Vandières”. And it attracted some attention…
18. She Was Better In Person
In his diary, Meunier continued, “when the King saw it [the painting of Marie-Louise], became intrigued if the painter hadn’t flattered the model”. As the story goes, he asked to see the youngest sister, and found out that she was the real deal—even better than the artist had painted her. And thus began Marie-Louise’s ascendency into French aristocracy.
19. She Made Enemies Quickly
Meunier’s version of events is far likelier to be true than Casanova’s—and certainly more intriguing. It just so happened that Monsieur de Vandières, who Meunier claimed bought the painting, was the brother of Madame de Pompadour. And Madame de Pompadour was King Louis XV’s primary mistress—and Marie-Louise’s eventual archnemesis.
20. She Still Had Her “V” Card
Determined to make the girl in the painting his mistress, Louis XV sent out his valet to find the girl and, ahem, procure her. As one gossipy courtier recorded, “Lebel was in Paris to bring a new virgin…then he contacted a dressmaker named Fleuret, who provides the lovers with dresses from his shop at Saint Honoré”.
Once the valet found Marie-Louise, the king wasted no time.
21. She Suffered For Love
Their courtship was a whirlwind. By mid-1753, Marie-Louise wasn’t just King Louis XV’s petite maîtresse, she was arguably his favorite. But her position came with a devastating dark side. The young girl had already become pregnant, suffering through a terrible miscarriage that nearly ended her own life. Paradoxically, this only convinced Louis XV of Marie-Louise’s deep devotion to him. And others noticed their intimacy.
22. She Was The Talk Of The Town
The aristocracy of France’s Ancien Regime took note of King Louis XV’s fondness for Mare-Louise. The notorious court gossip Marquis D’Argenson, for example, wrote in his diary, “The King has a new mistress[…]she belonged to a family of [courtesans] and thieves”. Oddly enough, they didn’t hold her humble beginnings against her.
23. She Was Unsophisticated
For the most part, the aristocrats holding court at Versailles found Marie-Louise to be “unsophisticated, unspoiled, and good-humored”. Not all of the aristocracy, however, fell for her innocence and charms. Madame de Pompadour, the real power behind the throne, envied her closeness to King Louis XV. And there was only room for one favorite.
24. She Had To Move Out
Sources differ, but it seems that Louis XV gave Marie-Louise preferential treatment. Where his other petite maîtresses lived in the Parc-aux-Cerfs, she started out in Versailles. That is, until Madame de Pompadour found out how intimate they had become, and exacted revenge.
Jealous, she booted Marie-Louise from the palace to the less glamorous Parc-aux-Cerfs.
25. She Got Milk
Even though her lodgings at Parc-aux-Cerfs were a step down from the palace, it was still far more luxurious than she was accustomed to. Where she once used to wear rags, she now had “a retinue of footmen, hairdressers, maids, and closets of gowns”. Allegedly, she even bathed in milk—presumably to preserve her youthful looks.
26. She Was Contagious
Even though they weren’t under the same roof, Marie-Louise and Louis XV forged a deep connection. Louis XV even took on some of Marie-Louise’s Irish superstitions. For example, he began making the sign of the cross whenever he yawned to “stop the devil from jumping inside”. But there was already a snake in their garden.
27. She Was Fertile Ground—For Scandals
Shortly after her first miscarriage, Marie-Louise became pregnant again. This second time, however, she managed to carry the baby to term and gave birth to Agathe-Louise de Saint-Antoine de Saint-André in June 1754. Even though Louis XV was thrilled to have a child with Marie-Louise, she was illegitimate. And that simply couldn’t stand.
28. She Lost Her Baby
Whether to avoid a scandal of his own making or because Madame de Pompadour forced him, Louis XV made a disturbing choice. He sent his illegitimate daughter away. In fact, Marie-Louise barely had time to look into her daughter’s eyes before Louis XV had her taken away to Couvent de la Présentation, a convent. Hurt and alone, Marie-Louise made some moves of her own.
29. She Made A Big Mistake
Marie-Louise couldn’t be certain, but she suspected that Madame de Pompadour was behind her separation from her daughter. In her childish mind—she was still only 17—Marie-Louise believed that she could replace Madame de Pompadour as the maîtresse-en-titre. But she drastically underestimated her adversary’s grip on power.
30. She Insulted The Boss Lady
One day, presumably after one of their trysts, Marie-Louise played (or overplayed) her hand. “En quels terms en êtes-vous avec la vielle coquette?” she asked Louis XV. Translated to English, she basically asked Louis XV whether or not he was still sleeping with Madame de Pompadour, ie “the old flirt”. Sadly for Marie-Louise, palace walls have ears.
31. She Had A Bad Night’s Sleep
Needless to say, Madame de Pompadour heard about Marie-Louise’s little insult and guessed that she was angling to get rid of her. It was a fatal mistake. The next thing Marie-Louise knew, she was back out on the streets. As Camille Pascal wrote, “The King ordered her to leave at four in the morning to Paris: there she received the unexpected order to marry and she must obey”. And who was in charge of the matchmaking?
32. Her Enemy Hooked Her Up
Jealous as she was, Madame de Pompadour actually took good care to ensure that Marie-Louise landed back on her feet. She was largely responsible for arranging an appropriate match for Marie-Louise on such short notice. Eventually, she decided that Jacques Pelet de Beaufranchet, Seigneur d’Ayat would be the perfect match.
33. She Got A Decent Severance Package
Beaufranchet was handsome and came from a noble family—with no money. But Marie-Louise came with her own fortune. Saddened to see his favorite petite maîtresse married off, Louis XV gave Marie-Louise a sizable gift. As a dowry, he gave her 200,000 livres, masked as a gift from a member of the clergy. He even cleared her family name.
34. She Changed Her Name
In order to make Marie-Louise an even more eligible bachelorette, Louis XV went to great lengths. He expunged her family’s sordid past. He officially changed her last name to Morphy de Boisfailly and even whitewashed her parents’ history. From then on, she wasn’t the daughter of a double-crossing spy and courtesan, but rather a daughter of the nobility.
35. She Had It Made—For A While
In addition to her substantial dowry and new identity, Marie-Louise kept the other perks of her former job. The palace allowed her to keep all of the clothes and jewels that she had amassed as Louis XV’s favorite petite maîtresse. Despite her new riches, however, Marie-Louise’s new life was anything but a bed of roses.
36. She Was A Young Widow
Shortly after marrying Beaufranchet, Marie-Louise became pregnant once again and gave birth to another baby girl. The happy couple’s bliss ended shortly after that. Beaufranchet met the business end of a bayonet at the Battle of Rossbach. Just days after losing her husband, Marie-Louise gave birth to their second child, a son, Louis Charles Antoine Pelet de Beaufranchet.
37. She Was Related To Her Nemesis
Tragically, Marie-Louise’s second daughter passed away at the age of two. But she didn’t spend much time grieving. Less than two weeks later, Marie-Louise married François Nicolas Le Normant, Comte de Flaghac. Funny enough, her newest husband made her a relative of Madame de Pompadour. But that likely wasn’t why she had chosen him.
38. She Had Friends In Rich Places
Marie-Louise’s new marriage brought her close to Abbot Ferray, the Controller-General of Finances (AKA the purse strings). During those years, Marie-Louise employed her family’s spirit of intrepid “entrepreneurship” and greatly enriched herself through the ferme générale. But hard times lay ahead for the new noblewoman.
39. She Was Probably A Cheater
Once again, Marie-Louise became pregnant with a girl. But this time, something was different. There was some question about her parentage. Obviously, Marie-Louise maintained that her youngest daughter belonged to Le Normant. But the Paris gossips believed that the baby girl bore a resemblance to Ferray or, curiously…a certain King Louis XV.
40. She Continued Seeing The King
There’s a great deal of evidence that Marie-Louise’s newest daughter, Marguerite Le Normant, belonged to King Louis XV. For starters, the lovestruck king never got over Marie-Louise. And, more concretely, records show that he sent Marie-Louise massive sums of money around the time of Marguerite’s birth, presumably as child support.
Not that Marie-Louise really needed it.
41. She Became A Widow (Again)
In 1783, Le Normant passed away, making Marie-Louise a widow for the second time. He left her a pension of 12,000 francs but, by that time, her own fortune (enlarged by the public purse) was significantly greater than that. With more money than she could count, there was only one thing to do; it was time to settle old scores.
42. She Got Her Revenge
At the age of 50, Marie-Louise finally got the revenge she wanted on Madame de Pompadour. For an exorbitant sum of money, Marie-Louise purchased the lordship of Soisy-sous-Etiolle, officially joining the ranks of the nobility of the Ancien Regime. Her new lordship just so happened to be right next door to the former residence of the Marquise de Pompadour.
43. She Had To Hide Her Money
Just as Marie-Louise managed to climb to the tippy top of the social ladder, the whole thing came tumbling down. Overnight, the French Revolution upended everything that she had worked her whole life to attain. In an ironic (and somewhat cruel) twist, she had to hide her new riches and return to rags if she intended to keep her head.
44. She Tried To Look Poor
If the legends are true, Marie-Louise did her best to throw off her riches. Allegedly, she hid her money and jewels, “chopped off her hair, dressed in the uniform of a citoyenne” and shouted to anyone who would listen “Je suis Irlandais, Je suis Irlandais!” But no one bought the act. Apparently, you can take the gutter out of the O’Murphy.
45. She Was A Suspect
No one believed Marie-Louise wasn’t part of the nobility—and the consequences were devastating. The revolutionaries nabbed Marie-Louise as a “suspect” and threw her into Sainte-Pélagie Prison. As the days ticked by and the heads of the nobility that she had fought so hard to join continued to roll, Marie-Louise all but lost hope.
That is, until her son and nephew, both loosely associated with the revolution, intervened to save her neck.
46. She Was A Cougar
After the dust settled, Marie-Louise sought the protection of Louis Philippe Dumont and married him in 1795. He was a moderate politician and nearly 30 years Marie-Louise’s junior but he provided protection against suspicion. He also tried to hoodwink her out of her hard-earned fortune so, after three years, she divorced him.
47. She Finished At The Top
In the end, Marie-Louise lived to the ripe old age of 77. She had spent her final years with her daughter Marguerite Le Normant (who may have been a daughter or any one of three men). Despite all that she had accomplished (and survived), however, there was still one thing from her past that she could never truly forget.
48. She Never Saw Her Daughter Again
More than anything, Marie-Louise wanted the daughter that Madame de Pompadour and King Louis XV had taken away from her. Legend has it that she contrived an elaborate plan to reunite with her long-lost daughter. The story goes that when Marguerite was just a girl, she placed her in the same convent as Agathe-Louise and the two half-sisters unwittingly became friends.
49. Her Daughter Figured It All Out
Another version of the story states that Marie-Louise showed up at the convent distraught. The nuns, sympathetic to her plight, introduced Marie-Louise to her daughter without telling the little girl who she really was. Eventually, however, Agathe-Louise figured it out, Louis XV heard about it and ordered the permanent separation of mother and daughter.
50. Her Daughter Was A True Noblewoman
In one final act of kindness to his favorite petite maîtresse, King Louis XV ensured that Agathe-Louise led a comfortable life. Even if she could never see her mother. In 1773, Louis XV granted her letters of Official Recognition of Nobility. In other words, Marie-Louise’s daughter was officially a member of “the oldest nobility”.