The Kings’ Mistresses, by Elizabeth C Goldsmith, is a fascinating story of the lives of Marie Mancini and her sister Hortense during the time of the seventeenth century in Europe. As such , it gives a valuable insight into of the history and politics of the time in France, Italy, Spain and England.
The author refers to correspondence and letters to tell a compelling story of two sisters who decided to challenge the expected norms of society of the time.
And what a story it is!
The stars of both these sisters shone brightly.
Brought to the court of France by their uncle Cardinal Mazarin, from Italy, they lived a privileged life and were feted by the court, enjoying its many entertainments and activities.
Louis XIV wished to marry Marie Mancini. It is poignant that six days after his marriage to the Infanta of Spain, Marie- Therese, Louis XIV wished to leave his travelling party at La Rochelle and pay a solitary visit to Brouage where he had last seen Marie Mancini. Of course he would have known that Marie was not there and Cardinal Mazarin was alarmed when he heard of this detour of the young Louis XIV.
Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin had done everything to try and separate Marie Mancini and Louis XIV. Marie had been recalled to Paris by this time.
It is also poignant that Marie Mancini during all of her life retained a string of pearls which the king had given her a year before his marriage to Marie-Therese.
Charles II of England had wished to marry Hortense, who was a bright spark, vivacious and beautiful. Cardinal Mazarin did not wish for his niece to marry Charles II at the time as he was a king without a throne. Charles II had been displaced by Oliver Cromwell and it would be after many years of poverty and travelling in Europe before he would be restored to the throne of England in 1660. Cardinal Mazarin raised the issue of his marriage to Hortense at the time with Charles II but Charles II’s ministers advised him to forget Hortense and have a more ambitious marriage with Katherine of Braganza.
Cardinal Mazarin, being in ill health by 1661 was determined to arrange fortuitous marriages for his nieces as he had arranged marriages for Laure Mancini, a sister of Marie and Hortense, to Louis de Bourbon-Vendome, Duc de Mercoeur, and also the marriage of a cousin of Marie and Hortense, Anne-Marie Martinozzi, to Armand de Bourbon -Conde, Prince de Conti.
The story of Marie’s life in Rome is fascinating to read of the account of the arts, theatre, processions and general sociability of the times as she brought something new to Rome which was not previously acceptable by the standards of the day. She did seem to have more freedom than the Roman noblewoman of the time. Marie did a lot for the arts in Rome, building a theatre at the Colonna palazzo and also becoming involved with the carnival in Venice when she was married to Prince Colonna.
Marie was also the author of two books of astrology.
She was learned and cultured. Louis XIV had developed a love and passion for the Italian arts and poetry from spending many hours in the company of Marie and also from the influences of Cardinal Mazarin who had a fine art collection.
Hortense was married to Duc Mazarin in 1661.
The story culminates in the adventures of these two sisters who decided to live their lives differently.
It is a poignant and stark tale but also has great merit describing the fascinating encounters in London of Hortense and Saint-Evremond, who had been exiled many years previously by Cardinal Mazarin. They became great friends and Saint-Evremond, knowing that Hortense enjoyed romance novels would describe himself in his correspondence to her as the sad-faced knight and Hortense would often sign herself to him as his “Dulcinea to Don Quixote” from Don Quixote.
Hortense hosted a salon of visiting artists writers and travellers to London which people enjoyed for the lively and interesting conversations.
This book is well recommended.
It is enjoyable and gives many insights into the seventeenth century modes of conduct, law and outcomes. It gives the reader an understanding of the culture and attitudes of society of the time. The vibrant and engaging personalities of the sisters, their travels and adventures give a sense of wonder to the book set in a time not so distant and yet so different from today.