While the Sun King Louis XIV and his multiple mistresses were living it up in Versailles, there was one woman who quietly watched and wrote it all down—Princess Elisabeth Charlotte, also called Princess Palatine. But just because she was an unassuming observer didn’t mean that she didn’t see her fair share of scandal in her own life.
From her turbulent childhood to a marriage that concealed a number of dark secrets, Elisabeth Charlotte’s life was filled with tension and tragedy. Meet Elisabeth Charlotte, the woman who knew every one of the French royal family’s secrets.
If there’s one thing we could say about Princess Elisabeth Charlotte, it’s that she absolutely lived to gossip. She lives on in history because of the detailed letters she wrote to her close confidantes about life in King Louis XIV’s court—but unlike our idea of some dry old account, the Princess' scandalous notes are anything but a history text book.
Life in the royal French court involved constant fights for power. While Princess Elisabeth Charlotte had a sharp tongue to help her get by, she wasn't always victorious. In one of history's darkest episodes, King Louis XIV used her claim to a noble title in an utterly demented scheme: Through Elisabeth Charlotte, Louis started the brutal Nine Years’ War.
As if the name "Princess Elisabeth Charlotte" wasn’t elaborate enough, she was also known as Madame Palatine. This version of her name came from the County Palatine of the Rhine, a territory within the Holy Roman Empire. Through her noble ancestry, Elisabeth Charlotte had a hereditary claim to the territory of the Palatine which, as we just saw, got used against her in a big and very bloody way.
One of the spicier passages in Elisabeth Charlotte's letters still has the ability to make modern readers blush. When the Princess visited magnificent Fontainebleau, she didn't have great things to say for one dirty reason: Apparently, for all its luxury and splendor, the castle had no toilets! Elisabeth Charlotte goes into great detail about going number two on the palace grounds...as men, women, and children walked by.
Elisabeth Charlotte's parents, Charles Louis and Charlotte, had a turbulent marriage from the very beginning. Her mother Charlotte had a bad temper, but even so, Charles Louis fell hard upon seeing her for the first time. He became absolutely obsessed with her, and was so jealous that he tried to make her stop horseback riding and gambling, two of her favorite activities. It’s said that Heidelberg Castle was filled with the sounds of the young couple arguing and—ahem—loudly making up.
Princess Elisabeth Charlotte had two siblings, although only one survived infancy. There was her brother Charles, who became Charles, Elector Palantine. Then, her mother Charlotte was pregnant another time, but after her husband forced her to take a long trip, tragedy struck. Charlotte gave birth, but the baby only lived for a few hours, and the mother was dangerously ill for weeks afterward.
When Princess Elisabeth Charlotte was just a toddler, her paternal uncle Prince Rupert came to visit and quickly fell for one of her mother Charlotte’s ladies-in-waiting—but he wasn’t the only one. Awkwardly, Charles Louis had also fallen for the girl, Marie Luise Von Degenfeld. When Charlotte realized, she didn’t take the betrayal sitting down.
Allegedly, Charlotte found Charles Louis and Marie in bed together, and attacked her romantic rival, almost biting off one of the girl’s fingers in the process—but she didn’t stop there. When Charles Louis installed Marie in an apartment above his, with a secret passage connecting them, Charlotte attempted to break into the apartment with a knife.
Sadly, her temper wasn’t just the result of romantic jealousy—Charlotte was also known to regularly lash out violently at her servants.
While it was hardly a big deal for a ruler to have dalliances outside marriage, Charles Louis took it one step too far. He unilaterally divorced Charlotte and married Marie Luise in 1658. Many doubted the validity of the “divorce,” but Charles Louis didn’t care. He went on to give his mistress the title of “Raugravine,” and had 13 children with her.
Yeah, you read that right: 13. Those two spent a lot of time in the bedroom.
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With her father spending all his time making whoopee with his “wife” and her mother essentially locked in her apartments, it wasn’t really a great place for a five-year-old to grow up. She was sent to live with her aunt on her father’s side, Sophia of Hanover. Compared to her early turbulent years at home with her parents, she got a happy and calm childhood with her aunt.
Sadly, the idyllic situation couldn’t last forever.
Growing up, Princess Elisabeth Charlotte went by the nickname “Lieselotte”—a blend of her two names. She was likely named Charlotte for her mother, and Elizabeth either for her grandmother or aunt.
When she was 11 years old, Princess Elisabeth Charlotte left her aunt’s care to return to her family home—and it was very different from when she’d departed years earlier. Her mother was gone, so she lived with her brother, father, stepmother, and 13 half-siblings. Luckily, she didn’t have as strong a vengeful streak as her mother, and she began lifelong friendships with many of her half-sisters.
Under the guidance of her father Charles Louis, the Electorate of the Palatinate wasn’t doing so hot. Unfortunately for Elisabeth Charlotte, that meant that the territory's fate fell on her young shoulders. She would have to marry well and make nice with another kingdom to keep the Palatinate going. Even worse, Elisabeth Charlotte and her father had entirely different ideas about who her ideal match would be.
As a teen, Princess Elisabeth Charlotte had a big honking teen girl crush on William of Orange, her cousin. Listen, it was a different time. However, her father wanted her to marry someone else. He couldn’t have known, but letting her fulfill her desires would’ve changed history for the Palatinate. At the time, they were in quite a bit of trouble with England—and William III later became King of England with his wife Mary.
Yeah, that William and Mary. Thanks dad!
Well, if you can’t marry your hot English cousin, who’s the other big power you can sidle up to? France, of course. Charles Louis’s cousin married the brother of the King of France, but she died unexpectedly died in 1670. When this happened, Charles Louis and his sister-in-law came up with a genius idea. They offered his 18-year-old daughter Princess Elisabeth Charlotte to the widower Philippe, Duke of Orléans.
Philippe’s brother was Louis XIV, the famous “Sun King.” Keep this in mind, it'll come into play in a big way.
Charles Louis and his sister-in-law were desperate for the match to work—and they went to great lengths to ensure that the marriage would happen. Although Princess Elisabeth Charlotte was born Protestant, she began converting to Roman Catholicism to please her fiancé. She began preparing in advance of the wedding, with her conversion announced at the ceremony—even though she wasn’t present for it....wait, what?
What do we mean? Well, Princess Elisabeth Charlotte didn’t actually make it to France for her wedding ceremony to Philippe. She was married by proxy on November 16, 1671 in Metz, France. Sounds about as romantic as an arranged marriage between a girl and her dead cousin's ex-husband should sound, to be honest. Elisabeth Charlotte made her way to the royal court shortly after.
As we mentioned earlier, the match between Elisabeth Charlotte and her beau Philippe seemed to suit everyone involved, especially Elisabeth Charlotte’s father—but was he putting his daughter in danger? After all, he was ignoring the fact that her predecessor, the Duke of Orléans' previous wife, Henrietta of England, had met an incredibly sinister end.
Henrietta first began experiencing pain and undiagnosed gastrointestinal issues in her early 20s. By 1670, it was so bad that she couldn’t eat. One day that summer, she experienced such intense pain after drinking a glass of chicory water that she exclaimed that she must have been poisoned. Within hours, she was dead. She was just 26 years old.
Soon, sinister rumors began to spread throughout the French court. People whispered that Henrietta hadn't just fallen ill, but in fact been poisoned. Two men, the Chevalier de Lorraine and the Marquis d'Effiat, were said to be responsible for the actual poisoning—but if the story was true, then just who exactly were these men working for?
Philippe, Duke of Orléans, commonly went by Monsieur at the royal court. When he wed Princess Elisabeth Charlotte, she went by Madame. Of course, that was more informal—in the marriage contract, she was given the title “the Electoral Princess Palatine of the Rhine.” Honestly, these royal people and their endless lists of names and titles...
After all the rumors about Henrietta's mysterious death, an autopsy showed that she died of peritonitis caused by a perforated ulcer. Despite this, Elisabeth Charlotte believed that Henrietta had been assassinated by the Chevalier de Lorraine and the Marquis d'Effiat, like many others in the court. Did she worry that the same fate would befall her?
When Elisabeth Charlotte arrived at the French court, she was in for an absolutely brutal surprise. Not only was her husband alleged to have remarked “How will I ever be able to sleep with her?” when he saw her for the first time, he was also keeping a dark secret. Philippe was carrying on a number of romantic affairs with other men.
One of his partners in particular may have been hiding some dark secrets of his own.
One of Philippe’s most enduring dalliances was with the Chevalier de Lorraine—yes, the very one who was suspected of having had a hand in his first wife Henrietta’s alleged assassination. But that wasn't the only suspicious factor: on top of that, Henrietta was said to have hated the Chevalier, and to have demanded that he be imprisoned just six months before her death. Philippe had compromised by banishing the Chevalier to Rome, but he returned to France just one month later.
Elisabeth Charlotte had walked into quite the mess, but she handled it with grace and aplomb. After all, she’d come from a dysfunctional family of her own. Though she was just 19, she quickly became known for her direct, outspoken nature and her integrity. She quickly endeared herself to Philippe’s children with Henrietta, and was very popular with the French courtiers.
Elisabeth Charlotte was known for her prolific correspondence, and more than 90,000 of her letters were preserved after her death. She wrote to her stepdaughters, her aunt Sophia, her half-siblings, and even to those she’d never met but was peripherally acquainted with. Her letters paint a complete picture of what life was like during the reign of Louis XIV and the Regency era that followed. She's a major source for historians...and as we mentioned, her frank comments about early modern hygiene still amuse.
As the in-laws to the King, Elisabeth Charlotte and Philippe had apartments at Versailles and could use the Palais Royale in Paris. However, their primary residence was a palace called the Château de Saint-Cloud. Sounds romantic, right? Um, maybe think again. In 1699, their household numbered over 1,000 people. The grand majority were male courtiers who "served" Philippe.
Despite the fact that her husband’s homosexuality was an open secret in the court, Elisabeth Charlotte and Philippe enjoyed a somewhat functional intimate life—at least at first. He must have found a way around the emotions that had colored his previous rude comments about her, because she became pregnant and gave birth to a boy named Alexandre Louis d'Orléans in 1673.
Within a year of Alexandre’s birth, Elisabeth Charlotte was pregnant again. She gave birth to another son, Philippe d'Orléans, in 1674. In 1676 she became pregnant again, but tragedy lurked in the shadows.
In March of 1676, Elisabeth Charlotte and Philippe’s first son Alexandre passed away just months shy of his third birthday—all for a sinister reason. The doctors who were in charge of his care had used a horrific "cure" to treat the toddler. They were practicing bloodletting on little Alexandre. The fault for the weakened boy's death laid squarely at their feat.
Following her son's death, Elisabeth Charlotte showed her suspicious side. She said that the title they’d given him, Duke of Valois, must be cursed—after all, the House of Valois had gone extinct a century before.
Elisabeth Charlotte was three months pregnant when her first son passed away, and she fell into a deep depression over the loss. She also grew incredibly anxious about her current pregnancy. It was an incredibly rough time for the Princess, both physically and emotionally, but after a few challenging months, she gave birth to a health baby girl who took the name Élisabeth Charlotte d'Orléans.
The death of Elisabeth Charlotte and Philippe's son, plus the anxiety over Elisabeth Charlotte's difficult pregnancy took a big toll on the royal couple's marriage. They agreed to no longer share a bed or produce any more children. While Philippe went back to his usual dalliances with his courtiers, Elisabeth Charlotte had a lot of time on her hands. She got really into the saucy letter writing that would cement her place in history.
Oh, to have the leisure time of a king’s brother and sister-in-law.
While Elisabeth Charlotte may have agreed to this change to the boundaries of her unique relationship with Philippe, it didn’t stop her from complaining about her husband in her letters. She griped about his “friendships” with his male courtiers, saying that she’d been fine if he lost money gambling, but him giving it away to his “special friends” was too far.
She continually worried that they’d be forced to “live entirely on the King’s charity,” instead of just…partially. Princess problems!
As the brother and sister-in-law of the king, Philippe and Elisabeth Charlotte had it good at the French royal court. They outranked nearly everyone—but one particular exception really irked Elisabeth Charlotte. She was outranked by Louis XIV’s maitresse-en-titre, AKA his #1 mistress. For many years, this was a woman named Madame de Montespan, with whom the Sun King had seven children.
It’s no wonder that she was irritated by Montespan’s presence. Montespan had nearly twice as many rooms at Versailles as the king’s wife, plus an entourage of 50 people.
Elisabeth Charlotte must have been thrilled when Montespan began to fall out of favor with the king—but if she thought she was out of the woods when it came to scheming mistresses, she was very, very wrong. After Montespan was exiled, Louis XIV took up with a woman named Madame de Maintenon—and Maintenon was more than a formidable opponent for Elisabeth Charlotte.
One of Madame de Maintenon’s devious plans to consolidate power would not only enrage Elisabeth Charlotte, it would throw the whole royal court into a scandal. In 1692, Maintenon arranged for one of her predecessor’s illegitimate children with Louis XIV to marry a shocking suitor: Elisabeth Charlotte’s son Philippe d'Orléans.
Many found it absolutely outrageous that a blood royal would marry an illegitimate child, even if she was the king’s daughter, but none were as furious as Elisabeth Charlotte—and she made sure everyone knew it.
Maintenon had worked her charms on Louis XIV to get him to agree to the marriage. He, in turn, pressured his nephew into it, and when Elisabeth Charlotte found out that her son had agreed, she flew into a rage. She slapped him in front of the whole court, and when the king then greeted her, she turned her back on him. While generally an even-tempered woman, it turned out that Elisabeth Charlotte had a little bit of her mother’s famous temper in her.
The relationship between Elisabeth Charlotte and Madame de Maintenon was forever tainted—and Elisabeth Charlotte did not shy away from telling people what she really thought of her enemy. In her letters, she called Maintenon the “King’s old drab,” and an “old witch,” among other choice nicknames.
For the rest of her life, Elisabeth Charlotte was frosty with her daughter-in-law Françoise Marie and her grandchildren. While she had lost the battle over who her son would wed, she still held high hopes for her daughter Élisabeth Charlotte—but there was a dark side to her interest in the matter. Elisabeth Charlotte wanted her daughter to marry King William III of England.
Yup, the very same one she’d had an interest in when she was a teenager. There’s really something deeply icky about that.
Although Elisabeth Charlotte was known for antagonizing his mistresses, Louis XIV kept her close at hand in the royal court, all for a devious reason. He knew that it was only a matter of time before her last male relative died, which would leave an opportunity to claim the Palatinate in her name—and that’s just what he did, in the bloodiest way possible.
Louis XIV was basically the most powerful ruler in England, but even that wasn’t enough for him. When Elisabeth Charlotte’s last brother died, he went up against an alliance of other European countries for control of the Palatinate (among other things). This brutal conflict became known as the Nine Years’ War—and it had absolutely disastrous results.
Desperate to keep England and its allies from advancing into the Rhineland, Louis XIV adopted a scorched earth policy that would decimate Elisabeth Charlotte’s homeland, but that wasn’t even the worst part. In the end, Louis XIV didn’t even get to keep the Palatinate, giving it over to King William III of England (Elisabeth Charlotte’s former crush) in the Treaty of Ryswick.
Thanks a lot, bro.
Through both her ancestors and her issue, Elisabeth Charlotte was related to some of the most well-known figures in European history. Her great-great grandmother was Mary, Queen of Scots and her great-grandfather was James I of England. She was also the great-grandmother of Marie Antoinette, the doomed French queen.
In 1701, Elisabeth Charlotte’s husband passed away suddenly of a stroke at just 60 years old. While they hadn’t exactly been a romantic match, the loss nevertheless quickly thrust her into an utter nightmare of a situation. In the marriage contract, there was a condition that said Elisabeth Charlotte had to move to a convent if her husband died before her—but in a surprising twist, it was her habit of gossiping in her many letters that saved her.
As mentioned earlier, Elisabeth Charlotte was known for her prolific correspondence, and many—and we’re talking very many—of her letters included complaints about Louis XIV’s mistress, Madame de Maintenon. It could’ve come back to bite her in the you-know-what, but she got nothing more than a slap on the wrist, all because of an ingenious deal she made with the king.
Elisabeth Charlotte agreed to destroy the letters about her husband's affairs with men after his death. Because of this somewhat-begrudged altruism to her deceased husband, and by extension the king, she was able to keep her apartments at Versailles and her rank. She also received generous allowances from her husband’s estate, his brother Louis XIV, and her son.
When Louis XIV passed away in 1715, he decreed that one of his illegitimate sons should become regent until his son Louis XV was old enough to rule on his own. However, Elisabeth Charlotte and her allies challenged this and installed her son, Philippe II, as regent instead. Elisabeth Charlotte no longer had to deal with Madame de Maintenon as she finally outranked her daughter-in-law, which pleased her to no end.
Of course, like a good gossip, Elisabeth Charlotte continued to complain about Maintenon in dozens of letters.
Elisabeth Charlotte passed away in 1722, shortly before the regency of her son over Louis XV came to an end. Many of her 90,000 letters were collected. They were published as a memoir documenting court life during the Regency period. Both Elisabeth Charlotte and her husband were buried at the Basilica of Saint-Denis.
Princess Elisabeth Charlotte had a lot of dark days, but nothing compared to the death of her son. In a letter, she described her feelings about "the terrible blow." She wrote, "I do not think that grief can kill" because if it could, she would "have died before now." Pass the tissues please.
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