The Shadow Queen: Who Was the Mistress Behind the Throne at Versailles? | History Hit

The Shadow Queen: Who Was the Mistress Behind the Throne at Versailles?

Madame de Pompadour in her Study. Purchased by Paillet and sent to the Special Museum of the French School in Versailles, 1804
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC

The Renaissance Royal Mistresses on Dan Snow’s History Hit Podcast reveals the surprising secret to what made Madame de Pompadour the most successful royal mistress of them all – her mind.

Described variously as ‘the prime minister’ and ‘the old trout’, Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour was the most successful royal ‘maîtresse-en-titre’ of her time. Notable predecessors such as Moll Davis and Nell Gwynn were known for their fashion, wit, and beauty. Madame de Pompadour, however, was known for her political acumen that was fit for, and even surpassed the abilities of, a queen.

Mistress or Minister?

In 17th century Europe, the position of the royal mistress was increasingly being formalised as a role in court. Certain powerful mistresses could expect to serve as an auxiliary to the king’s power as diplomatic negotiators who were more integrated into court politics than the queen. Most crucially, as was the case with Madame de Pompadour, they could control who had access to the king. 

It paid off: as a ‘Shadow Queen’, Pompadour was one of the first ports of call for ambassadors and diplomats, and understood the intricate workings of factions at court in a way that the actual Queen likely couldn’t. Indeed, she was so influential that many royal courtiers fruitlessly tried to have her removed – a fellow mistress who referred to her as ‘the old trout’ was swiftly ejected – and popular folk songs on the streets of Paris linked her health and power to that of the whole of France.

An Enduring Legacy

You’d be forgiven for thinking that surviving portraits of Madame de Pompadour are that of a real queen: dressed in fine silks and surrounded by books, she looks every inch the royal lady. By the end of her life, she had not only managed to maintain her position at court without being usurped, but had transcended the title of mistress into one of closest confidant, clever negotiator, and, most unusually, one who Louis XV chose using both his head and heart.

Learn more in Renaissance Royal Mistresses on Dan Snow’s History Hit, in which Dan chats to early modern France expert Linda Kiernan Knowles (@lindapkiernan) about the remarkable influence of some of history’s most prominent royal mistresses.

The role of the royal mistress may, on the face of it, seem a simple position but in reality, there was a lot more to being a royal mistress than it might seem. Throughout the courts of Europe, the role of the royal mistress was often a semi formalised one and gave these women extraordinary influence and power. Joining Dan to discuss the importance of the mistress is Dr Linda Kiernan Knowles Adjunct Assistant Professor in History at Trinity College Dublin. They look particularly at the courts of Charles II and Louis XIV and how their respective mistresses controlled access to power, took part in political intrigue and caused great controversy both inside and outside of court.
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Lucy Davidson