Obviously, the man Madame Pompadour was interested in was no regular guy in a coffee-shop. He was King Louis XV of France. Who was, delightfully, a really nice guy, and one who I think is wrongly remembered principally for having an enormous sexual appetite. I mean, it’s true that he really loved sex, but he also had a lot of other qualities going for him.
I know this isn’t precisely relevant to her story, but I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Louis the XV. So often when I write these pieces I feel I end up doing a little song and dance of “yes, this dude probably date raped her, but hey, at least he wasn’t imprisoning chambermaids and beating them! It was the Victorian age! He was okay!” So it’s nice that, whatever the era, Louis XV, at least in his personal life, comes off really well.
Of course, you could say he was no Louis XIV. Right. Everyone at the time said that as well. That’s because Louis XIV, Louis XV’s great grandfather, was, legit, a genius. He ended feudalism in France and ushered in an age of art and culture. That said, he also had an exceptionally intelligent council, and a very brilliant mother who served as regent until he was of an age to reign. And he had an IQ estimated to be around 180. Louis XIV was just absurdly smart.
Louis XV, on the other hand, knew he was going to be king at the age of 5 (though he was not officially appointed King until he was 13). His entire family died of diptheria within a week of one another. The rumor is that Louis XV was saved simply because his nurse wouldn’t allow doctors to treat him.If you happen to time travel back to the 18th century, I want to take this opportunity to remind you to tell doctors to wash their hands.
But then, there were rumors that it hadn’t been diptheria at all. In his works, the Marquis de Sade referred to one plant as le poison royal, speculating that many members of Louis XV’s family had died from ingesting it. That’s another reason to let your nurse just lock you in your room.
Though, to be fair, if you learned anything from Quills, other than “censorship is bad” it’s that you can’t really trust the Marquis de Sade. However, it is certainly true that Louis XV’s childhood was filled with people – particularly his uncle, Philippe d’Orleans, duc de Chartres – rumored to be plotting to poison him. Probably most of them weren’t, but, well, it’s actually likely that someone in the court was trying to poison him.
Louis XV was a really quiet kid. Understandably. It is hard to make friends when everyone might be trying to poison you. He spent a lot of time lying in the hall of mirrors at Versailles looking at the ceiling. Visitors would occasionally trip over him as they went in, and people worried that Louis XV was not well adjusted. Have you seen that hall of mirrors, though? Its stunning. The panels tell the story of the early years of Louis XIV’s rule. Here:
At the age of 7, Louis asked to be allowed into Council meetings, and, though he never said a word, he carried with him his pet cat who he referred to as his “colleague” and he became an avid reader and a great student. He was particularly interested in sciences, and advocated for departments of physics and mechanics to be opened at the College of France so that the topics could be studied further.
The fact that, in spite of his work ethic and natural intellect, he could ever live up to his great grandfather really upset Louis XV (this is what happens when the story of your Grandfather’s entire life is surrounded by chandeliers). To that end he decided that he would just work harder than everyone else. He often subsisted on five hours of sleep a night, and rose at dawn to go to work, lighting his own fire so he didn’t have to wake any of his servants. Then, as the protocol of Versailles dictated, later in the day he would go back to bed, and pretend to be asleep so that the Princes of realm could greet him. The protocol for this rising ceremony is one of the only genuinely funny moments in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. In it, Marie Antoinette,who would marry Louis XV’s grandson, Louis XVI, remarks “this is ridiculous” as a princess hands her a nightgown, to which a princess replies “madame, this is Versailles.” I can’t find the clip, but if you go 23 minutes in, you can watch it here.
That said, if you’re going to watch Marie Antoinette, know that Louis XV is only going to get portrayed as someone who is all sex with Madame du Barry, all the time. Which… well, that came later.
Despite rumors that still persist about his enormous sexual appetite – and it was true that he would spend a lot of nights in whorehouses – Louis remained a very shy man, and one who believed greatly in chivalry. After he won the War of Austrian Succession, he returned all of the land and properties to his defeated enemies, saying “I’m the king of France, not a shopkeeper.”
His favorite recreational activity though, was hunting. And that is how Madame Pompadour caught him.