In Sex with Kings: Five Hundred Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge, Eleanor Herman pens quite a romp through some of history’s most scandalizing pages. Divided into twelve chapters, the book explores the history of royal mistresses and details the art of pleasing a king (er…beyond the bedchamber), rivalry, jealous husbands, royal bastards, and more.

Herman clearly enjoyed writing this book (who wouldn’t?). Witty and well-researched, it’s equally entertaining and enlightening. Has historical writing ever been so titillating? I would read anything Herman writes.

Readers might be surprised to learn that beauty was just one of a mistress’s valuable assets. In fact, sometimes it didn’t matter at all. Inner beauty and maintaining a cheerful disposition through numerous tasks and expectations were of greater importance.

A royal mistress’s duties went beyond the bedroom. She played a significant role in promoting art in all its forms, from theater to architecture. The most famous example of such a mistress is Jeanne-Antoinette d’Etioles, otherwise known as Madame de Pompadour, beloved mistress of Louis XV. To compensate for her frigidity, an unfortunate disadvantage for a mistress, she entertained Louis in other ways and became a dear friend and confidant. She furnished her rooms to be a comfortable retreat for the king and entertained him with theatrical performances. Conversation was among her greatest arts. Herman writes:

“Louis must have climbed the secret spiral staircase leading from his apartments to hers with great anticipation. What would she discuss with him that evening? Building, perhaps. Madame de Pompadour had a mania for building palaces and asked the king’s advice on architecture, improvements, and decorations. Perhaps she would have architectural plans laid out for his approval. Or maybe the subject would be botany.”

She was always ready to lend an ear, even if that meant hearing the same story over and over again. In sum, Madame de Pompadour always put his needs above her own. And here we come to a significant point Herman makes about the lives of royal mistresses: their lives weren’t really all that covetable:

“Reading about royal mistresses, we modern women might sigh over the lost beauty of their gilded world. The jewels and gowns! The music! The candlelight! On a tour of Versailles today, we see only the glorious rooms. We don’t feel the itch of head lice nor smell the pungent aroma of body odor wafting through silks and satins. Neither do we hear the cries of women dying in childbirth, succumbing to smallpox, or suffering the slow excruciating torment of breast or ovarian cancer.”

It’s all too easy to romanticize the past. But beyond the drawbacks of historical hygiene, or lack thereof, what disgusts me the most is how much a mistress had to neglect her personal needs in service to the king. Apparently Louis XV had little tolerance for sickness. One evening Madame de Pompadour was suffering from a migraine and didn’t attend dinner. When Louis heard she did not have a fever, he demanded her attendance. She also frequently got sick from having to accompany him on hunting trips.

Madame de Pompadour is not the only example, of course. The text is full of many colorful characters. In fact, I felt like I was reading history’s version of Entertainment Weekly or People, so immersed in royal dirty laundry. Herman makes this point as well:

“Throughout time, royal mistresses were envied, worshipped, and slavishly imitated. Their time has gone, and society now envies, worships, and imitates pop stars. And because history is doomed to repeat itself, many modern music divas have much in common with kingly courtesans of centuries past.”

However, unlike today, women had only so many doors open to them. Subjected to the animosity of court and the fragility of her position (how long would it take before a king grew bored and favored another?), a mistress’s life was not without challenges. Whether through beauty, grace, wit, kindness, or other assets, if a lady could mount such a coveted position and receive great riches and financial stability (though short-lived), who could blame her? These royal mistresses did what they had to do to get ahead, even at the sacrifice of sin.

 

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