Sex with Kings by Eleanor Herman and a Little of Catherine I
Sex With Kings by Eleanor Herman and a Little of Catherine I
So what do you do for the man who has it all? Peter the Great slept with everyone during his marriage. As one of his contemporaries said he was a good man whose one weakness was women. But he loved a Latvian all his life who was described as beautiful at one time. By the age of thirty she was said by a German ambassador to be graceful but without a trace of her former looks. Yet they had children long after her beauty faded. He loved her though he slept with others as he chose. As he said "No one compares with thee."
In the well written book Sex with Kings, Eleanor Herman explains that mistresses were not necessarily good looking. The two mistresses of George I were horrifying. One was tall with no hair and the other short, fat and was very fond of sex. Neither could speak English. The tall one and scars from smallpox. Also she was so boring that it was said she was the only person in England more boring than the King himself. Charles II said the mistresses of his brother James II were so ugly that they must have been penances from priests. The last mistress of Louis XIV was plain. Even he thought she was ugly, when she was introduced to him as the governess of his children with his mistress Madame de Montespan. He also said he did not like her. Edward VIII loved Wallis Simpson enough to abdicate for her and she was described by Herman as having a face like a shovel.
It was not sexual prowess that raised a woman to the status of mistress either. A King could have sex with a prostitute or maid. Neither of these could hope to be mistresses. Catherine was said to have protected some of the maids from the unwanted attentions of her husband. A King could also go to bed with any woman in his court, married or not, though for an aristocratic family he would have to pay in patronage. For this reason often families encouraged the relationship because it would elevate their status. Many, though not all husbands would encourage their wives to flirt with the King and to sleep with him, in order to get promotions. Even in cases where husbands resented losing their wives to the lust of a King, if a family was at the court, the feelings of a husband made no difference.
There were two things that Peter appreciated about Catherine. One, that she had no grasping family to demand jobs like his first mistress. Her family of merchants gave Anna Mons no choice about the relationship, which she did not relish, and were willing to do anything including witchcraft to keep it going. The second was the lack of a husband who wanted to be promoted. At least two of his mistresses, Maria Matveyeva and Avdotya Chernysheva were married and had willing husbands.
Sometimes mistresses and their Kings were compatible as sex partners. Peter the Great told the Danish ambassador that he had saved a fortune on prostitutes when he married Catherine. But mistresses were not necessarily good companions in bed. The mistress of Louis XV for 19 years was the famous Madame Pompadour. She hated sex though she ate every food imaginable to arouse her passion, and finally sent the King to a whorehouse. However he had enough faith in her that she ran France for almost two decades until her death. He loved her in spite of her lack of interest in sex and so did her husband who came close to suicide when she left him for the King.
According to Herman, mistresses were those women that the King wanted to be around. A good mistress would study the King in order to become indispensable. That was a difficult job, and it was just that, a job. Some mistresses loved the King, but that made no difference. Visits to see him in exile and bearing his children were irrelevant. She was to be the perfect companion, and depending on the taste of the man, that did not mean she was physically extraordinary. It was what he wanted. Her job was first and foremost was to be his friend and to make him happy.
The women who were head mistresses were those extremely good at making themselves invaluable. Catherine did it well. Peter called her house “that heavenly place.” The mistress of Franz-Josef was a comedian who was 33 when they met and not at all a beauty. He said she made him laugh. Louis XIV wanted a staid and dependable wife at the end of his life and morganatically married the plain and religious Madame de Maintenon.
They all knew how to manipulate powerful men. Madam Pompadour never discussed the recent death of her daughter who was only ten years of age because the King would have found it tiresome. Later she said it was the most difficult period of her life. Catherine I hid her brother on the estate of Menshikov for three years until Peter died.
A mistress could be replaced in a minute. But her power was immense and so was her competition. There were hundreds or thousands of women who wanted to be the headmistress for each one who succeeded. What this meant was that a mistress had to be vigilant, deceptive and she lived with constant stress and insecurity. Madame Pompadour had spies who were paid to start rumors of a greedy family or venereal disease to discourage the King when his interest wandered. But despite the best efforts of a mistress a King might grow to like a plain woman like the governess of Madame de Montespan.
Then they also had pressure because they were disliked by the jealous wives in most cases. Catherine I threw Marie Cantemir out of the Palace after Peter died. Catherine d'Medici did the same to Diane de Poitiers who was the lover of her husband.
There were also many benefits to the job which is why is was sought after. In a period when there were few opportunities for anyone who was not aristocratic to rise in status, a common woman could become very powerful. Madame Pompadour was from the middle class. Catherine I was from a peasant family. Madame du Barry was illegitimate and her mother was a seamstress.
The Kings they slept with gave them status, money and estates. Most mistresses would have quarters that rivaled the Queen's and in some instances were better. They also received more money from the tenants on their estates.The royal quarters themselves were property of the next favorite but estates were not. Foreign diplomats often gave them money in the form of bribes. Usually they could not interfere in politics, there were notable exceptions, but the court often asked them to say if the King was in a receptive state. For this service they were given money also.
They could also charge for positions in the government and pardons for rich criminals. Many mistresses made money in this fashion. However it was corrupt and when Peter found out Catherine I was doing this he was furious. They did not speak for three months. He executed her partner in crime William Mons and put his head in a jar on her dresser. By then it had been 13 years since he had married her.
Catherine told him that the money had all been sent to Amsterdam under another name. She had only needed the money should he die and all her funds be frozen. In that case she wanted a secret fund to be able to escape from Russia with his children. In the end he forgave her.
The children, by the King were often declared legitimate and given very lucrative situations or stipends. The illegitimate daughter of Peter who was the daughter of the later wed Catherine I, was to rule Russia 15 years later. Usually they could not inherit the throne, or marry to form foreign alliances, But they were often married into the best families who were wanting to establish alliances with the King. An illegitimate son of Peter the Great also named Peter, became a general and married into the Golitsyn family.
Nevertheless the down sides were considerable. The expenses of lavishly entertaining, keeping a household of servants with the latest carriage and dressing in such a way as to impress everyone were very high. Often a large allowance was insufficient. The common people generally hated mistresses. Though no one could say a bad thing about the King or Queen, anyone could talk about the royal mistress saying she was living well at the expense of the common people etc.
The Queen often hated her and forbade her to be at the deathbed or funeral of the King. Catherine d' Medici did this to Diane de Poitiers, even though her husband was calling out for his mistress at the end. Then sometimes they were arrested as Catherine feared would happen to her, and thereafter would die in poverty often forgotten even by her own children. Often if they were lucky, without a King they were banished to estates far from the court, as in the case of Diane Poitiers, and Anne Sophie Reventlow of Denmark, though they were allowed to live.
Catherine I was accepted by the people although she was a woman and a foreigner. In addition when Peter married her, and he did not have to, they were both still married. She never divorced a Swedish soldier. He had a living wife in a monastery.
But she was very good at public relations and careful to build a relationship with the military. She marched with her husband on his military campaigns, and listened to the ordinary soldiers problems in groups of five men each. She gave them money, went to baptisms and served the soldiers vodka with her own hands after a victory. When Peter died she offered them all back wages. a limited term of service and a degree of autonomy for the cossacks. With her grace and perhaps staged humility she gained a reputation as the defender of the common man.
If a mistress was not deposed by the other women sleeping with the King, and she lasted until his death, she was in a difficult position. Without a King to protect her suddenly a mistress found herself deserted and powerless. She would have to appeal to the new King. They were never treated as well as the King would have wanted. Then according to Herman, they would age, lose their looks and pass into obscurity.
But for a period they had done the impossible. They wielded power even though they were women. They rose in status when that was almost unheard of. They had been at the top of a field of competitors who wanted to please the King and they had won.