Saturday, 6 April 2013

Jeanne Bécu, Madame du Barry

Jeanne's blond hair and
almond-shaped blue eyes
made her an infamous beauty
Madame du Barry was born as Jeanne Bécu at Vaucoleurs in Lorraine. Jeanne's mother was a gorgeous seamstress named Anne Bécu and her father - which caused quite a scandal - is widely believed to have been the friar Jean Baptiste Gormand de Vaubernier. Jeanne and her mother was taken to Paris when Anne Bécu became involved with Monsieur Billard-Dumonceaux who possibly fathered Jeanne's younger brother who died in infancy. Anne Bécu became a chef in the household of Monsieur Billard-Dumonceaux's mistress Francesca. Francesca adores Jeanne and introduced her to a world of luxury - Jeanne would cling to her love of luxuries through her entire life.

Jeanne had lived in a convent to be brought up but left when she turned fifteen. Her mother had married Nicolas Rancon and no longer lived with Francesca. Life was more difficult than before and Jeanne had to work to earn an income. But the young girl had inherited her mother's beauty and opportunities soon arrived. Her first job was at a hairdresser named Lametz and when this ended she was employed as a companion of an elderly widow, Madame de la Garde. However, scandal ended this employment - Jeanne was sent away after both sons of Madame de la Garde began to notice her beauty which disturbed their marriages! Soon Jeanne was employed by a grisette Madame Labille in a shop owned by her husband.

The obvious beauty of Jeanne caught the attention of Jean-Baptiste du Barry who was known for his less refined job of procuring beautiful young women as mistresses of men in power. They met in 1763 and Jeanne introduced herself not as Jeanne Bécu but as Jeanne Vaubernier. Jean-Baptiste du Barry was immediately fascinated with this young woman and installed her in his household as his mistress. Through du Barry Jeanne would become a courtesan for the highest circles of Parisian society (given the new name of Mademoiselle Lange) which meant that several aristocratic men would enjoy a short-lived affair with her.

In 1768 she was sent on an errand at the court of Versailles - this would change her life completely. While she was there she caught the eye of none other than the King himself. But she could not become Louis XV's maitresse-en-tître without a title and an official presentation at court - and that could not happen unless she was married. Jean-Baptiste du Barry (who had already spotted the potential in this young beauty) quickly solved the problem by marrying Jeanne to his brother Guillaume du Barry who happened to be a Comte. Jean-Baptiste also procured a new - and false - birth certificate for Jeanne making her three years younger and suddenly with noble roots.
Until her presentation at court she was not able to see the King and lived rather lonely. But all this would change when the King finally managed to find an aristocratic lady who could be persuaded into presenting the new favourite: Madame de Béarn. Consequently Jeanne was introduced on April 22 1769; she dazzled the entire court with her beauty combined with a silver gown brocaded in gold and embroidered with jewels (procured by one of her previous lovers Richelieu) - her elaborate hairstyle caused her to be late.

The new favourite took Versailles by storm. Jeanne's taste for luxury returned immediately and she was soon wearing the most extravagant dresses which caused another drain on the already over-burdened royal treasury. She was now openly the King's maîtresse déclarée which meant that the King had publicly acknowledged her as his mistress - a status underlined by the diamond jewellery hanging from her ears and neck. But a position so close to the King inevitably brought her enemies as well as new friends. Many courtiers found it despicable that the King had found yet another mistress among the bourgeois.
Jeanne's fiercest enemy at the time was the Duchesse de Grammont who herself had wanted to become the new favourite - she also happened to be the sister of Choiseul.
Claire Francoise was brought in from Languedoc to provide company for the lonely mistress - she would become one of Jeanne's closest friends and go by the nick-name "Chon".

Depiction of Madame du Barry
with Louis XV
The Comtesse du Barry (Jeanne's official court title) was given a Bengalese servant named Zamor whom
Jeanne loved to dress in expensive clothes. Together with her fraction she managed to bring down Choiseul but had no real interest in politics. Instead she loved her gowns, jewellery combined with a loved for building and redecorating. But these were expensive hobbies and her lavish spending led to unpopularity among the people and court - not even her monthly allowance of 300.000 livres could cover her large expenses. The new Dauphine Marie Antoinette was immediately opposed to the King's favourite mainly due to the fact that it was Choiseul that had arranged the Dauphin and Dauphine's marriage. Also, the young Dauphine had never witnessed the open flirtation and vulgar behaviour that the King's mistress exhibited.
The famous necklace that triggered the infamous Affair of the Diamond Necklace was originally ordered for Madame du Barry.

Louis XV caught smallpox and it became clear that the ageing King would not survive. Since the King could not receive communion while having a mistress, Madame du Barry was sent away from court - for good. When the King finally died she was sent into exile at the Abbaye du Pont-aux-Dames which was a convent. It was not until 1777 that Louis XVI (who had always despised her) allowed the favourite to move to her château de Louveciennes. During her years here she involved in a liaison with the English aristocrat Henry Seymour which ended badly - Henry Seymour got tired of the apparently endless amount of love that Jeanne was willing to throw at his feet and he ignored her until she no longer attempted to contact him. But Jeanne was still beautiful and the Duc de Brissac had always been attracted to the former favourite and they indulged in an affair of mutual affection.

Revolutionary clouds were gathering over France and not even Louveciennes was safe from the troubles lying ahead. Jeanne herself came face to face with the horrors of the French revolution when she was awakened by the sound of a drunken mob of revolutionaries. They had caught the Duc de Brissac on his way to Paris and killed him. Now they were waving his head on a spike outside his mistress' windows.
Drawing of Madame du Barry
being taken from her cell
to the scaffold
Madame du Barry was arrested in 1793 for assisting aristocrats in fleeing the country and the former royal favourite was placed before the Revolutionary Tribunal. There she was found guilty and sentenced to death. Despite being aware of her sentence she spent the last days of her imprisonment convinced that she would be rescued by one of the few nobles still in France - but that was not to happen.

It was not until Jeanne was dragged out of her cell that she finally realized what was happening. While she was being carried to the guillotine she cried out "You are going to hurt me! Why?!". She continued to cry and beg for mercy but to no effect. Jeanne Bécu, Madame du Barry was beheaded by guillotine on December 8 1793.

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