Madame de Maintenon : The Political Woman – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women

Héloïse : Love
Joan of Arc : Heroic Women
Saint Theresa : Religious Enthusiasm
Madame de Maintenon : The Political Woman
Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
Madame Récamier : The Woman of Society
Madame de Staël : Woman in Literature
Hannah More : Education of Woman
George Eliot : Woman as Novelist

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women
John Lord

Topics Covered
Birth of Madame de Maintenon
Her early life
Marriage with Scarron
Governess of Montespan’s children
Introduction to the King
Her incipient influence over him
Contrast of Maintenon with Montespan
Friendship of the King for Madame de Maintenon
Made mistress of the robes to the Dauphiness
Private marriage with Louis XIV
Reasons for its concealment
Unbounded power of Madame de Maintenon
Grandeur of Versailles
Great men of the court
The King’s love of pomp and ceremony
Sources of his power
His great mistakes
The penalties he reaped
Secret of Madame de Maintenon’s influence
Her mistakes
Religious intolerance
Revocation of the Edict of Nantes
Persecution of the Protestants
Influence of Bossuet
Foundation of the school of St. Cyr
Influence of Madame de Maintenon on education
Influence of Madame de Maintenon on morals
Influence of Madame de Maintenon on the court
Her reign a usurpation
Her greatness of character

Madame de Maintenon : The Political Woman

A. D. 1635-1719.

I present Madame de Maintenon as one of those great women who have exerted a powerful influence on the political destinies of a nation, since she was the life of the French monarchy for more than thirty years during the reign of Louis XIV. In the earlier part of her career she was a queen of society; but her social triumphs pale before the lustre of that power which she exercised as the wife of the greatest monarch of the age,–so far as splendor and magnificence can make a monarch great. No woman in modern times ever rose so high from a humble position, with the exception of Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great. She was not born a duchess, like some of those brilliant women who shed glory around the absolute throne of the proudest monarch of his century, but rose to her magnificent position by pure merit,–her graces, her virtues, and her abilities having won the respect and admiration of the overlauded but sagacious King of France. And yet she was well born, so far as blood is concerned, since the Protestant family of D’Aubigné–to which she belonged–was one of the oldest in the kingdom. Her father, however, was a man of reckless extravagance and infamous habits, and committed follies and crimes which caused him to be imprisoned in Bordeaux. While in prison he compromised the character of the daughter of his jailer, and by her means escaped to America. He returned, and was again arrested. His wife followed him to his cell; and it was in this cell that the subject of this lecture was born (1635). Subsequently her miserable father obtained his release, sailed with his family to Martinique, and died there in extreme poverty. His wife, heart-broken, returned to France, and got her living by her needle, until she too, worn out by poverty and misfortune, died, leaving her daughter to strive, as she had striven, with a cold and heartless world.

This daughter became at first a humble dependent on one of her rich relatives; and “the future wife of Louis XIV. could be seen on a morning assisting the coachmen to groom the horses, or following a flock of turkeys, with her breakfast in a basket.” But she was beautiful and bright, and panted, like most ambitious girls, for an entrance into what is called “society.” Society at that time in France was brilliant, intellectual, and wicked. “There was the blending of calculating interest and religious asceticism,” when women of the world, after having exhausted its pleasures, retired to cloisters, and “sacrificed their natural affections to family pride.” It was an age of intellectual idlers, when men and women, having nothing to do, spent their time in salons, and learned the art of conversation, which was followed by the art of letter-writing.

To reach the salons of semi-literary and semi-fashionable people, where rank and wealth were balanced by wit, became the desire of the young Mademoiselle d’Aubigné. Her entrance into society was effected in a curious way. At that time there lived in Paris (about the year 1650) a man whose house was the centre of gay and literary people,–those who did not like the stiffness of the court or the pedantries of the Hôtel de Rambouillet. His name was Scarron,–a popular and ribald poet, a comic dramatist, a buffoon, a sort of Rabelais, whose inexhaustible wit was the admiration of the city. He belonged to a good family, and originally was a man of means. His uncle had been a bishop and his father a member of the Parliament of Paris. But he had wasted his substance in riotous living, and was reduced to a small pension from the Government. His profession was originally that of a priest, and he continued through life to wear the ecclesiastical garb. He was full of maladies and miseries, and his only relief was in society. In spite of his poverty he contrived to give suppers–they would now be called dinners–which were exceedingly attractive. To his house came the noted characters of the day,–Mademoiselle de Scudéry the novelist, Marigny the songwriter, Hénault the translator of Lucretius, De Grammont the pet of the court, Chatillon, the duchesses de la Salière and De Sévigné, even Ninon de L’Enclos; all bright and fashionable people, whose wit and raillery were the admiration of the city.

It so happened that to a reception of the Abbé Scarron was brought one day the young lady destined to play so important a part in the history of her country. But her dress was too short, which so mortified her in the splendid circle to which she was introduced that she burst into tears, and Scarron was obliged to exert all his tact to comfort her. Yet she made a good impression, since she was beautiful and witty; and a letter which she wrote to a friend soon after, which letter Scarron happened to see, was so remarkable, that the crippled dramatist determined to make her his wife,–she only sixteen, he forty-two; so infirm that he could not walk, and so poor that the guests frequently furnished the dishes for the common entertainments. And with all these physical defects (for his body was bent nearly double), and notwithstanding that he was one of the coarsest and profanest men of that ungodly age, she accepted him. What price will not an aspiring woman pay for social position!–for even a marriage with Scarron was to her a step in the ladder of social elevation.

Did she love this bloated and crippled sensualist, or was she carried away by admiration of his brilliant conversation, or was she actuated by a far-reaching policy? I look upon her as a born female Jesuit, believing in the principle that the end justifies the means. Nor is such Jesuitism incompatible with pleasing manners, amiability of temper, and great intellectual radiance; it equally marked, I can fancy, Jezebel, Cleopatra, and Catherine de Médicis. Moreover, in France it has long been the custom for poor girls to seek eligible matches without reference to love.

It does not seem that this hideous marriage provoked scandal. In fact, it made the fortune of Mademoiselle d’Aubigné. She now presided at entertainments which were the gossip of the city, and to which stupid dukes aspired in vain; for Scarron would never have a dull man at his table, not even if he were loaded with diamonds and could trace his pedigree to the paladins of Charlemagne. But by presiding at parties made up of the élite of the fashionable and cultivated society of Paris, this ambitious woman became acquainted with those who had influence at court; so that when her husband died, and she was cut off from his life-pension and reduced to poverty, she was recommended to Madame de Montespan, the King’s mistress, as the governess of her children. It was a judicious appointment. Madame Scarron was then thirty-four, in the pride of womanly grace and dignity, with rare intellectual gifts and accomplishments. There is no education more effective than that acquired by constant intercourse with learned and witty people. Even the dinner-table is no bad school for one naturally bright and amiable. There is more to be learned from conversation than from books. The living voice is a great educator.

Madame Scarron, on the death of her husband, was already a queen of society. As the governess of Montespan’s children,–which was a great position, since it introduced her to the notice of the King himself, the fountain of all honor and promotion,–her habits of life were somewhat changed. Life became more sombre by the irksome duties of educating unruly children, and the forced retirement to which she was necessarily subjected. She could have lived without this preferment, since the pension of her husband was restored to her, and could have made her salon the resort of the best society. But she had deeper designs. Not to be the queen of a fashionable circle did she now aspire, but to be the leader of a court.

But this aim she was obliged to hide. It could only be compassed by transcendent tact, prudence, patience, and good sense, all of which qualities she possessed in an eminent degree. It was necessary to gain the confidence of an imperious and jealous mistress–which was only to be done by the most humble assiduities–before she could undermine her in the affections of the King. She had also to gain his respect and admiration without allowing any improper intimacy. She had to disarm jealousy and win confidence; to be as humble in address as she was elegant in manners, and win a selfish man from pleasure by the richness of her conversation and the severity of her own morals.

Portrait of Madame de Montespan

Portrait of Madame de Montespan

Little by little she began to exercise a great influence over the mind of the King when he was becoming wearied of the railleries of his exacting favorite, and when some of the delusions of life were beginning to be dispelled. He then found great solace and enjoyment in the society of Madame Scarron, whom he enriched, enabling her to purchase the estate of Maintenon and to assume its name. She soothed his temper, softened his resentments, and directed his attention to a new field of thought and reflection. She was just the opposite of Montespan in almost everything. The former won by the solid attainments of the mind; the latter by her sensual charms. The one talked on literature, art, and religious subjects; the other on fêtes, balls, reviews, and the glories of the court and its innumerable scandals. Maintenon reminded the King of his duties without sermonizing or moralizing, but with the insidious flattery of a devout worshipper of his genius and power; Montespan directed his mind to pleasures which had lost their charm. Maintenon was always amiable and sympathetic; Montespan provoked the King by her resentments, her imperious exactions, her ungovernable fits of temper, her haughty sarcasm. Maintenon was calm, modest, self-possessed, judicious, wise; Montespan was passionate, extravagant, unreasonable. Maintenon always appealed to the higher nature of the King; Montespan to the lower. The one was a sincere friend, dissuading from folly; the other an exacting lover, demanding perpetually new favors, to the injury of the kingdom and the subversion of the King’s dignity of character. The former ruled through the reason; the latter through the passions. Maintenon was irreproachable in her morals, preserved her self-respect, and tolerated no improper advances, having no great temptations to subdue, steadily adhering to that policy which she knew would in time make her society indispensable; Montespan was content to be simply mistress, with no forecast of the future, and with but little regard to the interests or honor of her lord. Maintenon became more attractive every day from the variety of her intellectual gifts and her unwearied efforts to please and instruct; Montespan, although a bright woman, amidst the glories of a dazzling court, at last wearied, disgusted and repelled. And yet the woman who gradually supplanted Madame de Montespan by superior radiance of mind and soul openly remained her friend, through all her waning influence, and pretended to come to her rescue.

The friendship of the King for Madame de Maintenon began as early as 1672; and during the twelve years she was the governess of Montespan’s children she remained discreet and dignified. “I dismiss him,” said she, “always despairing, never repulsed.” What a transcendent actress! What astonishing tact! What shrewdness blended with self-control! She conformed herself to his tastes and notions. At the supper-tables of her palsied husband she had been gay, unstilted, and simple; but with the King she became formal, prudish, ceremonious, fond of etiquette, and pharisaical in her religious life. She discreetly ruled her royal lover in the name of virtue and piety. In 1675 the King created her Marquise de Maintenon.

On the disgrace of Madame de Montespan, when the King was forty-six, Madame de Maintenon still remained at court, having a conspicuous office in the royal household as mistress of the robes to the Dauphiness, so that her nearness to the King created no scandal. She was now a stately woman, with sparkling black eyes, a fine complexion, beautiful teeth, and exceedingly graceful manners. The King could not now live without her, for he needed a counsellor whom he could trust. It must be borne in mind that the great Colbert, on whose shoulders had been laid the burdens of the monarchy, had recently died. On the death of the Queen (1685), Louis made Madame de Maintenon his wife, she being about fifty and he forty-seven.

This private and secret marriage was never openly divulged during the life of the King, although generally surmised. This placed Madame de Maintenon–for she went by this title–in a false position. To say the least, it was humiliating amid all the splendors to which she was raised; for if she were a lawful wife, she was not a queen. Some, perhaps, supposed she was in the position of those favorites whose fate, again and again, has been to fall.

One thing is certain,–the King would have made her his mistress years before; but to this she would never consent. She was too politic, too ambitious, too discreet, to make that immense mistake. Yet after the dismissal of Montespan she seemed to be such, until she had with transcendent art and tact attained her end. It is a flaw in her character that she was willing so long to be aspersed; showing that power was dearer to her than reputation. Bossuet, when consulted by the King as to his intended marriage, approved of it only on the ground that it was better to make a foolish marriage than violate the seventh commandment. La Chaise, the Jesuit confessor, who travelled in a coach and six, recommended it, because Madame de Maintenon was his tool. But Louvois felt the impropriety as well as Fénelon, and advised the King not thus to commit himself. The Dauphin was furious. The Archbishop of Paris simply did his duty in performing the ceremony.

Doubtless reasons of State imperatively demanded that the marriage should not openly be proclaimed, and still more that the widow of Scarron should not be made the Queen of France. Louis was too much of a politician, and too proud a man, to make this concession. Had he raised his unacknowledged wife to the throne, it would have resulted in political complications which would have embarrassed his whole subsequent reign. He dared not do this. He could not thus scandalize all Europe, and defy all the precedents of France. And no one knew this better than Madame de Maintenon herself. She appeared to be satisfied if she could henceforth live in virtuous relations. Her religious scruples are to be respected. It is wonderful that she gained as much as she did in that proud, cynical, and worldly court, and from the proudest monarch in the world. But Louis was not happy without her,–a proof of his respect and love. At the age of forty-seven he needed the counsels of a wife amid his increasing embarrassments. He was already wearied, sickened, and disgusted: he now wanted repose, friendship, and fidelity. He certainly was guilty of no error in marrying one of the most gifted women of his kingdom,–perhaps the most accomplished woman of the age, interesting and even beautiful at fifty. She was then in the perfection of mental and moral fascinations. He made no other sacrifice than of his pride. His fidelity to his wife, and his constant devotion to her until he died, proved the sincerity and depth of his attachment; and her marvellous influence over him was on the whole good, with the exception of her religious intolerance.

As the wife of Louis XIV. the power of Madame de Maintenon became almost unbounded. Her ambition was gratified, and her end was accomplished. She was the dispenser of court favors, the arbiter of fortunes, the real ruler of the land. Her reign was political as well as social. She sat in the cabinet of the King, and gave her opinions on State matters whenever she was asked. Her counsels were so wise that they generally prevailed. No woman before or after her ever exerted so great an influence on the fortunes of a kingdom as did the widow of the poet Scarron. The court which she adorned and ruled was not so brilliant as it had been under Madame de Montespan, but was still magnificent. She made it more decorous, though, probably more dull. She was opposed to all foolish, expenditures. She discouraged the endless fêtes and balls and masquerades which made her predecessor so popular. But still Versailles glittered with unparalleled wonders: the fountains played; grand equipages crowded the park; the courtiers blazed in jewels and velvets and satins; the salons were filled with all who were illustrious in France; princes, nobles, ambassadors, generals, statesmen, and ministers rivalled one another in the gorgeousness of their dresses; women of rank and beauty displayed their graces in the Salon de Venus.

The articles of luxury and taste that were collected in the countless rooms of that vast palace almost exceeded belief. And all these blazing rooms were filled, even to the attic, with aristocratic servitors, who poured out perpetual incense to the object of their united idolatry, who sat on almost an Olympian throne. Never was a monarch served by such idolaters. “Bossuet and Fénelon taught his children; Bourdaloue and Massillon adorned his chapel; La Chaise and Le Tellier directed his conscience; Boileau and Molière sharpened his wit; La Rochefoucauld cultivated his taste; La Fontaine wrote his epigrams; Racine chronicled his wars; De Turenne commanded his armies; Fouquet and Colbert arranged his finances; Molé and D’Aguesseau pronounced his judgments; Louvois laid out his campaigns; Vauban fortified his citadels; Riquet dug his canals; Mansard constructed his palaces; Poussin decorated his chambers; Le Brun painted his ceilings; Le Notre laid out his grounds; Girardon sculptured his fountains; Montespan arranged his fêtes; while La Vallière, La Fayette, and Sévigné–all queens of beauty–displayed their graces in the Salon de Venus.” What an array of great men and brilliant women to reflect the splendors of an absolute throne! Never was there such an éclat about a court; it was one of the wonders of the age.

And Louis never lost his taste for this outward grandeur. He was ceremonious and exacting to the end. He never lost the sense of his own omnipotence. In his latter days he was sad and dejected, but never exhibited his weakness among his worshippers. He was always dignified and self-possessed. He loved pomp as much as Michael Angelo loved art. Even in his bitterest reverses he still maintained the air of the “Grand Monarque.” Says Henri Martin:–

“Etiquette, without accepting the extravagant restraints which the court of France endured, and which French genius would not support, assumed an unknown extension, proportioned to the increase of royal splendor. It was adapted to serve the monarchy at the expense of the aristocracy, and tended to make functions prevail over birth. The great dukes and peers were multiplied in order to reduce their importance, and the King gave the marshals precedence over them. The court was a scientific and complicated machine which Louis guided with sovereign skill. At all hours, in all places, in the most trifling circumstances of life, he was always king. His affability never contradicted itself; he expressed interest and kindliness to all; he showed himself indulgent to errors that could not be repaired; his majesty was tempered by a grave familiarity; and he wholly refrained from those pointed and ironical speeches which so cruelly wound when falling from the lips of a man that none can answer. He taught all, by his example, the most exquisite courtesy to women. Manners acquired unequalled elegance. The fêtes exceeded everything which romance had dreamed, in which the fairy splendors that wearied the eye were blended with the noblest pleasures of the intellect. But whether appearing in mythological ballets, or riding in tournaments in the armor of the heroes of antiquity, or presiding at plays and banquets in his ordinary apparel with his thick flowing hair, his loose surtout blazing with gold and silver, and his profusion of ribbons and plumes, always his air and port had something unique,–always he was the first among all. His whole life was like a work of art; and the rôle was admirably played, because he played it conscientiously.”

The King was not only sacred, but he was supposed to have different blood in his veins from other men. His person was inviolable. He reigned, it was universally supposed, by divine right. He was a divinely commissioned personage, like Saul and David. He did not reign because he was able or powerful or wealthy, because he was a statesman or a general, but because he had a right to reign which no one disputed. This adoration of royalty was not only universal, but it was deeply seated in the minds of men, and marked strongly all the courtiers and generals and bishops and poets who surrounded the throne of Louis,–Bossuet and Fénelon, as well as Colbert and Louvois; Racine and Molière, as well as Condé and Turenne. Especially the nobility of the realm looked up to the king as the source and centre of their own honors and privileges. Even the people were proud to recognize in him a sort of divinity, and all persons stood awe-struck in the presence of royalty. All this reverence was based on ideas which have ever moved the world,–such as sustained popes in the Middle Ages, and emperors in ancient Borne, and patriarchal rule among early Oriental peoples. Religion, as well as law and patriotism, invested monarchs with this sacred and inalienable authority, never greater than when Louis XIV. began to reign.

Reception of the Great Condé by Louis XIV After the painting by J. L. Gérôme

Reception of the Great Condé by Louis XIV After the painting by J. L. Gérôme

But with all his grandeur Louis XIV. did not know how to avail himself of the advantages which fortune and accident placed in his way. He was simply magnificent, like Xerxes,–like a man who had entered into a vast inheritance which he did not know what to do with. He had no profound views of statesmanship, like Augustus or Tiberius. He had no conception of what the true greatness of a country consisted in. Hence his vast treasures were spent in useless wars, silly pomps, and inglorious pleasures. His grand court became the scene of cabals and rivalries, scandals and follies. His wars, from which he expected glory, ended only in shame; his great generals passed away without any to take their place; his people, instead of being enriched by a development of national resources, became poor and discontented; while his persecutions decimated his subjects and sowed the seeds of future calamities. Even the learned men who shed lustre around his throne prostituted their talents to nurse his egotism, and did but little to elevate the national character. Neither Pascal with his intense hostility to spiritual despotism, nor Racine with the severe taste which marked the classic authors of Greece and Rome, nor Fénelon with his patriotic enthusiasm and clear perception of the moral strength of empires, dared to give full scope to his genius, but all were obliged to veil their sentiments in vague panegyrics of ancient heroes. At the close of the seventeenth century the great intellectual lights had disappeared under the withering influences of despotism,–as in ancient Rome under the emperors all manly independence had fled,–and literature went through an eclipse. That absorbing egotism which made Louis XIV. jealous of the fame of Condé and Luxembourg, or fearful of the talents of Louvois and Colbert, or suspicious of the influence of Racine and Fénelon, also led him to degrade his nobility by menial offices, and institute in his court a burdensome formality.

In spite of his great abilities, no monarch ever reaped a severer penalty for his misgovernment than did Louis. Like Solomon, he lived long enough to see the bursting of all the bubbles which had floated before his intoxicated brain. All his delusions were dispelled; he was oppressed with superstitious fears; he was weary of the very pleasures of which he once was fondest; he saw before him a gulf of national disasters; he was obliged to melt up the medallions which commemorated his victories, to furnish bread for starving soldiers; he lost the provinces he had seized; he saw the successive defeat of all his marshals and the annihilation of his veteran armies; he was deprived of his children and grandchildren by the most dreadful malady known to that generation; a feeble infant was the heir of his dominions; he saw nothing before him but national disgrace; he found no counsellors whom he could trust, no friends to whom he could pour out his sorrows; the infirmities of age oppressed his body; the agonies of remorse disturbed his soul; the fear of hell became the foundation of his religion, for he must have felt that he had a fearful reckoning with the King of kings.

Such was the man to whom the best days of Madame de Maintenon were devoted; and she shared his confidence to the last. She did all she could to alleviate his sorrows, for a more miserable man than Louis XIV. during the last twenty years of his life never was seated on a throne. Well might his wife exclaim, “Save those who occupy the highest places, I know of none more unhappy than those who envy them.” This great woman attempted to make her husband a religious man, and succeeded so far as a rigid regard to formalities and technical observances can make a man religious.

It may be asked how this formal and proper woman was enabled to exert upon the King so great an influence; for she was the real ruler of the land. No woman ever ruled with more absolute sway, from Queen Esther to Madame de Pompadour, than did the widow of the profane and crippled Scarron. It cannot be doubted that she exerted this influence by mere moral and intellectual force,–the power of physical beauty retreating before the superior radiance of wisdom and virtue. La Vallière had wearied and Montespan had disgusted even a sensual king, with all their remarkable attractions; but Maintenon, by her prudence, her tact, her wisdom, and her friendship, retained the empire she had won,–thus teaching the immortal lesson that nothing but respect constitutes a sure foundation for love, or can hold the heart of a selfish man amid the changes of life. Whatever the promises made emphatic by passion, whatever the presents or favors given as tokens of everlasting ties, whatever the raptures consecrating the endearments of a plighted troth, whatever the admiration called out by the scintillations of genius, whatever the gratitude arising from benefits bestowed in sympathy, all will vanish in the heart of a man unless confirmed by qualities which extort esteem,–the most impressive truth that can be presented to the mind of woman; her encouragement if good, her sentence to misery if bad, so far as her hopes centre around an earthly idol.

Ministerial Conference of Louis XIV. at the Salon of Madam de Maintenon After the painting by John Gilbert

Ministerial Conference of Louis XIV. at the Salon of Madam de Maintenon After the painting by John Gilbert

Now, Madame de Maintenon, whatever her defects, her pharisaism, her cunning, her ambition, and her narrow religious intolerance, was still, it would seem, always respected, not only by the King himself,–a great discerner of character,–but by the court which she controlled, and even by that gay circle of wits who met around the supper-tables of her first husband. The breath of scandal never tarnished her reputation; she was admired by priests as well as by nobles. From this fact, which is well attested, we infer that she acted with transcendent discretion as the governess of the Duke of Maine, even when brought into the most intimate relations with the King; and that when reigning at the court after the death of the Queen, she must have been supposed to have a right to all the attentions which she received from Louis XIV. And what is very remarkable about this woman is, that she should so easily have supplanted Madame de Montespan in the full blaze of her dazzling beauty, when the King was in the maturity of his power and in all the pride of external circumstance,–she, born a Protestant, converted to Catholicism in her youth under protest, poor, dependent, a governess, the widow of a vulgar buffoon, and with antecedents which must have stung to the quick so proud a man as was Louis XIV. With his severe taste, his experience, his discernment, with all the cynical and hostile influences of a proud and worldly court, and after a long and searching intimacy, it is hard to believe that he could have loved and honored her to his death if she had not been worthy of his esteem. And when we remember that for nearly forty years she escaped the scandals which made those times unique in infamy, we are forced to concede that on the whole she must have been a good woman. To retain such unbounded power for over thirty years is a very remarkable thing to do.

Madame de Maintenon, however, though wise and virtuous, made many grave mistakes, as she had many defects of character. Great as she was, she has to answer for political crimes into which, from her narrow religious prejudices, she led the King.

The most noticeable feature in the influence which Madame de Maintenon exercised on the King was in inciting a spirit of religious intolerance. And this appeared even long before Madame de Montespan had lost her ascendency. For ten years before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes there had been continual persecution of the Protestants in France, on the ground that they were heretics, though not rebels. And the same persecuting spirit was displayed in reference to the Jansenists, who were Catholics, and whose only sin was intellectual boldness. Anybody who thought differently from the monarch incurred the royal displeasure. Intellectual freedom and honesty were the real reasons of the disgrace of Racine and Fénelon. For the King was a bigot in religion as well as a despot on a throne. He fancied that he was very pious. He was regular in all his religious duties. He was an earnest and conscientious adherent to all the doctrines of the Catholic Church. In his judgment, a departure from those doctrines should be severely punished. He was as sincere as Torquemada, or Alva, or Saint Dominic. His wife encouraged this bigotry, and even stimulated his resentments toward those who differed from him.

At last, in 1685, the fatal blow was struck which decimated the subjects of an irresponsible king. The glorious edict which Henry IV. had granted, and which even Richelieu and Mazarin had respected, was repealed. There was no political necessity for the crime. It sprang from unalloyed religious intolerance; and it was as suicidal as it was uncalled for and cruel. It was an immense political blunder, which no enlightened monarch would ever have committed, and which none but a cold and narrow woman would ever have encouraged. There was no excuse or palliation for this abominable persecution any more than there was for the burning of John Huss. It had not even as much to justify it as had the slaughter of St. Bartholomew, for the Huguenots were politically hostile and dangerous. It was an act of wanton cruelty incited by religious bigotry. I wonder how a woman so kind-hearted, so intelligent, and so politic as Madame de Maintenon doubtless was, could have encouraged the King to a measure which undermined his popularity, which cut the sinews of natural strength, and raised up implacable enemies in every Protestant country. I can palliate her detestable bigotry only on the ground that she was the slave of an order of men who have ever proved themselves to be the inveterate foes of human freedom, and who marked their footsteps, wherever they went, by a trail of blood. Louis was equally their blinded tool. The Order–the “Society of Jesus”–was created to extirpate heresy, and in this instance it was carried out to the bitter end. The persecution of the Protestants under Louis XIV. was the most cruel and successful of all known persecutions in ancient or modern times. It annihilated the Protestants, so far as there were any left openly to defend their cause. It drove out of France from two hundred thousand to four hundred thousand of her best people, and executed or confined to the galleys as many more, They died like sheep led to the slaughter; they died not with arms, but Bibles, in their hands. I have already presented some details of that inglorious persecution in my lecture on Louis XIV., and will not repeat what I there said. It was deemed by Madame de Maintenon a means of grace to the King,–for in her way she always sought his conversion. And when the bloody edict went forth for the slaughter of the best people in the land, she wrote that “the King was now beginning to think seriously of his salvation. If God preserve him, there will be no longer but one religion in the kingdom.” This foul stain on her character did not proceed from cruelty of disposition, but from mistaken zeal. What a contrast her conduct was to the policy of Elizabeth! Yet she was no worse than Le Tellier, La Chaise, and other fanatics. Religious intolerance was one of the features of the age and of the Roman Catholic Church.

But religious bigotry is eternally odious to enlightened reason. No matter how interesting a man or woman may be in most respects, if stained with cruel intolerance in religious opinions, he or she will be repulsive. It left an indelible stain on the character of the most brilliant and gifted woman of her times, and makes us forget her many virtues. With all her excellences, she goes down in history as a cold and intolerant woman whom we cannot love. We cannot forget that in a great degree through her influence the Edict of Nantes was repealed.

The persecution of the Protestants, however, partially reveals the narrow intolerance of Madame de Maintenon. She sided but with those whose influence was directed to the support of the recognized dogmas of the Church in their connection with the absolute rule of kings. The interests of Catholic institutions have ever been identical with absolutism. Bossuet, the ablest theologian and churchman which the Catholic Church produced in the seventeenth century, gave the whole force of his vast intellect to uphold an unlimited royal authority. He saw in the bold philosophical speculations of Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza, Leibnitz, and Locke an insidious undermining of the doctrines of the Church, an intellectual freedom whose logical result would be fatal alike to Church and State. His eagle eye penetrated to the core of every system of human thought. He saw the logical and necessary results of every theory which Pantheists, or Rationalists, or Quietists, or Jansenists advanced. Whatever did not support the dogmas of mediaeval and patriotic theologians, such as the Papal Church indorsed, was regarded by him with suspicion and aversion. Every theory or speculation which tended to emancipate the mind, or weaken the authority of the Church, or undermine an absolute throne, was treated by him with dogmatic intolerance and persistent hatred. He made war alike on the philosophers, the Jansenists, and the Quietists, whether they remained in the ranks of the Church or not. It was the dangerous consequences of these speculations pushed to their logical result which he feared and detested, and which no other eye than his was able to perceive.

Bossuet communicated his spirit to Madame de Maintenon and to the King, who were both under his influence as to the treatment of religious or philosophical questions. Louis and his wife were both devout supporters of orthodoxy,–that is, the received doctrines of the Church,–partly from conservative tendencies, and partly from the connection of established religious institutions with absolutism in government. Whatever was established, was supported because it was established. They would suffer no innovation, not even in philosophy. Anything progressive was abhorred as much as anything destructive. When Fénelon said, “I love my family better than myself, my country better than my family, and the human race better than my country,” he gave utterance to a sentiment which was revolutionary in its tendency. When he declared in his “Télémaque” what were the duties of kings,–that they reigned for the benefit of their subjects rather than for themselves,–he undermined the throne which he openly supported. It was the liberal spirit which animated Fénelon, as well as the innovations to which his opinions logically led, which arrayed against him the king who admired him, the woman who had supported him, and the bishop who was jealous of him. Although he charmed everybody with whom he associated by the angelic sweetness of his disposition, his refined courtesies of manner, and his sparkling but inoffensive wit,–a born courtier as well as philosopher, the most interesting and accomplished man of his generation,–still, neither Bossuet nor Madame de Maintenon nor the King could tolerate his teachings, so pregnant were they with innovations; and he was exiled to his bishopric. Madame de Maintenon, who once delighted in Fénelon, learned to detest him as much as Bossuet did, when the logical tendency of his writings was seen. She would rivet the chains of slavery on the human intellect as well as on the devotees of Rome or the courtiers of the King, while Fénelon would have emancipated the race itself in the fervor and sincerity of his boundless love.

This hostility to Fénelon was not caused entirely by the political improvements he would have introduced, but because his all-embracing toleration sought to protect the sentimental pantheism which Madame Guyon inculcated in her maxims of disinterested love and voluntary passivity of the soul towards God, in opposition to that rationalistic pantheism which Spinoza defended, and into which he had inexorably pushed with unexampled logic the deductions of Malebranche. The men who finally overturned the fabric of despotism which Richelieu constructed were the philosophers. The clear but narrow intellect of the King and his wife instinctively saw in them the natural enemies of the throne; and hence they were frowned upon, if not openly persecuted.

We are forced therefore to admit that the intolerance of Madame de Maintenon, repulsive as it was, arose in part, like the intolerance of Bossuet, from zeal to uphold the institutions and opinions on which the Church and the throne were equally based. The Jesuits would call such a woman a nursing mother of the Church, a protector of the cause of orthodoxy, the watchful guardian of the royal interests and those of all established institutions. Any ultra-conservatism, logically carried out, would land any person on the ground where she stood.

But while Madame de Maintenon was a foe to everything like heresy, or opposition to the Catholic Church, or true intellectual freedom, she was the friend of education. She was the founder of the celebrated School of St. Cyr, where three hundred young ladies, daughters of impoverished nobles, were educated gratuitously. She ever took the greatest interest in this school, and devoted to it all the time her numerous engagements would permit. She visited it every day, and was really its president and director. There was never a better school for aristocratic girls in a Catholic country. She directed their studies and superintended their manners, and brought to bear on their culture her own vast experience. If Bossuet was a born priest, she was a born teacher. It was for the amusement of the girls that Racine was induced by her to write one of his best dramas,–“Queen Esther,” a sort of religious tragedy in the severest taste, which was performed by the girls in the presence of the most distinguished people of the court.

Madame de Maintenon exerted her vast influence in favor of morality and learning. She rewarded genius and scholarship. She was the patron of those distinguished men who rendered important services to France, whether statesmen, divines, generals, or scholars. She sought to bring to the royal notice eminent merit in every department of life within the ranks of orthodoxy. A poet, or painter, or orator, who gave remarkable promise, was sure of her kindness; and there were many such. For the world is full at all times of remarkable young men and women, but there are very few remarkable men at the age of fifty.

Portrait of Madame de Maintenon

Portrait of Madame de Maintenon

And her influence on the court was equally good. She discouraged levities, gossip, and dissipation. If the palace was not so gay as during the reign of Madame de Montespan, it was more decorous and more intellectual. It became fashionable to go to church, and to praise good sermons and read books of casuistry. “Tartuffe grew pale before Escobar.” Bossuet and Bourdaloue were equal oracles with Molière and Racine. Great preachers were all the fashion. The court became very decorous, if it was hypocritical. The King interested himself in theological discussions, and became as austere as formerly he was gay and merry. He regretted his wars and his palace-building; for both were discouraged by Madame de Maintenon, who perceived that they impoverished the nation. She undertook the mighty task of reforming the court itself, as well as the morals of the King; and she partially succeeded. The proud Nebuchadnezzar whom she served was at last made to confess that there was a God to whom he was personally responsible; and he was encouraged to bear with dignity those sad reverses which humiliated his pride, and drank without complaint the dregs of that bitter cup which retributive justice held out in mercy before he died. It was his wife who revealed the deceitfulness, the hypocrisy, the treachery, and the heartlessness of that generation of vipers which he had trusted and enriched. She was more than the guardian of his interests; she was his faithful friend, who dissuaded him from follies. So that outwardly Louis XIV. became a religious man, and could perhaps have preached a sermon on the vanity of a worldly life,–that whatever is born in vanity must end in vanity.

It is greatly to the credit of Madame de Maintenon that she was interested in whatever tended to improve the morals of the people or to develop the intellect. She was one of those strong-minded women who are impressible by grand sentiments. She would have admired Madame de Staël or Madame Roland,–not their opinions, but their characters. Politics was perhaps the most interesting subject to her, as it has ever been to very cultivated women in France; and it was with the details of cabinets and military enterprises that she was most familiar. It was this political knowledge which made her so wise a counsellor and so necessary a companion to the King. But her reign was nevertheless a usurpation. She triumphed in consequence of the weakness of her husband more than by her own strength; and the nation never forgave her. She outraged the honor of the King, and detracted from the dignity of the royal station. Louis XIV. certainly had the moral right to marry her, as a nobleman may espouse a servant-girl; but it was a faux-pas which the proud idolaters of rank could not excuse.

And for this usurpation Madame de Maintenon paid no inconsiderable a penalty. She was insulted by the royal family to the day of her death. The Dauphin would not visit her, even when the King led him to the door of her apartments. The courtiers mocked her behind her back. Her rivals thrust upon her their envenomed libels. Even Racine once so far forgot himself as to allude in her presence to the miserable farces of the poet Scarron,–an unpremeditated and careless insult which she never forgot or forgave. Moreover, in all her grandeur she was doomed to the most exhaustive formalities and duties; for the King exacted her constant services, which wearied and disgusted her. She was born for freedom, but was really a slave, although she wore gilded fetters. She was not what one would call an unhappy or disappointed woman, since she attained the end to which she had aspired. But she could not escape humiliations. She was in a false position. Her reputation was aspersed. She was only a wife whose marriage was concealed; she was not a queen. All she gained, she extorted. In rising to the exalted height of ruling the court of France she yet abdicated her throne as an untrammelled queen of society, and became the slave of a pompous, ceremonious, self-conscious, egotistical, selfish, peevish, self-indulgent, tyrannical, exacting, priest-ridden, worn-out, disenchanted old voluptuary. And when he died she was treated as a usurper rather than a wife, and was obliged to leave the palace, where she would have been insulted, and take up her quarters in the convent she had founded. The King did not leave her by his will a large fortune, so that she was obliged to curtail her charities.

Madame de Maintenon lived to be eighty-four, and retained her intellectual faculties to the last, retiring to the Abbey of St. Cyr on the death of the King in 1715, and surviving him but four years. She was beloved and honored by those who knew her intimately. She was the idol of the girls of St. Cyr, who worshipped the ground on which she trod. Yet she made no mark in history after the death of Louis XIV. All her greatness was but the reflection of his glory. Her life, successful as it was, is but a confirmation of the folly of seeking a position which is not legitimate. No position is truly desirable which is a false one, which can be retained only by art, and which subjects one to humiliation and mortifications. I have great admiration for the many excellent qualities of this extraordinary and gifted woman, although I know that she is not a favorite with historians. She is not endeared to the heart of the nation she indirectly ruled. She is positively disliked by a large class, not merely for her narrow religious intolerance, but even for the arts by which she gained so great an influence. Yet, liked or disliked, it would be difficult to find in French history a greater or more successful woman.


Henri Martin’s History of France; Biographic Universelle; Miss Pardoe’s History of the Court of Louis XIV.; Lacretelle’s History of France; St. Simon’s Mémoires; Voltaire’s Siècle de Louis XIV.; Guizot’s History of France; Early Days of Madame de Maintenon, Eclectic Magazine, xxxii. 67; Life and Character of Madame de Maintenon, Quarterly Review, xcvi. 394; Fortnightly Review, xxv. 607; Temple Bar, Iv. 243; Fraser, xxxix. 231; Mémoires of Louis XIV., Quarterly Review, xix. 46; James’s Life and Times of Louis XIV.; James’s Life of Madame de Maintenon; Secret Correspondence of Madame de Maintenon; Taine on the Ancien Régime; Browning’s History of the Huguenots, Edinburgh Review, xcix. 454; Butler’s Lives of Fénelon and Bossuet; Abbé Ledieu’s Mémoire de Bossuet; Bentley, Memoirs de Madame de Montespan, xlviii. 309; De Bausset’s Life of Fénelon.

Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women