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The Royal Mistress: Often the Most Powerful Person in a King’s Court

May 3, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

Diplomats who wanted to get to the King Louis XV in the mid-18th century had to go through ).

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Barbara Palmer.

Most members of a king’s court would’ve known who his mistress was, and likely been jealous and suspicious of her influence. Yet members of the court could also advance their own interests by winning a mistress’s favor. In the 17th century, Barbara Palmer helped men like Henry Bennet, 1st Earl of Arlington, gain political access to her companion Charles II, King of England. She also helped secure official titles for some of her illegitimate children with the king.

Depending on the country and time period, regular people outside of the court might know who the king’s mistress was, too. Kathleen A. Wellman, author of Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France, says it was common for the king to travel around France in the 15th and 16th centuries and present himself to the people in public ceremonies with his mistress instead of his wife.

There were different reasons why the king might do this. “The queen might be pregnant, or the mistress might be more attractive or it might be easier to suggest certain things about the king by using the mistress,” Wellman says. What kind of things? Well, “kings liked to present themselves…as allegories, suggesting that they are like other famous people, whether those people are saints or Greek and Roman gods.”


Diane de Poitiers visiting sculptor Jean Goujon.

As an example, she points to Henry II, who was the King of France in the mid-16th century. Henry II’s mistress was named Diane de Poitiers, and he often presented her in a way that suggested she was the Roman goddess Diana and he was a god beside her. If this sounds a little too abstract, just think about how Jackie Kennedy framed JFK’s presidency in a Life magazine profile after his death: “There will be great presidents again, but there will never be another Camelot.”

In fact, Wellman says presidential first ladies offer an apt analogy for the role that royal mistresses played. “Think about the influence that first ladies have in shaping perceptions of presidencies,” she says. “And think about all the people who had to go through Nancy Reagan to get to Ronald Reagan.”

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Source: HISTORY

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