Saturday, 24 October 2015

Marie Antoinette and Madame du Barry

One of the most infamous rivalries of Versailles is undoubtedly that of the then Dauphine Marie Antoinette and the King's maitresse-en-titre Madame du Barry.

The rivalry was brought on due to several circumstances. When Marie Antoinette arrived at Versailles she had no knowledge of how common it was for Kings and Emperors to take mistresses. Her own father had had several but she never saw or heard of them so she left Austria without any idea of that sort of relationship. Once established at Versailles it is easy to understand why the first shock at the favourite's actual relationship with the King was strengthened. Eager to please her husband Marie Antoinette immediately caught on to Louis Auguste's immense dislike of Madame du Barry; a dislike shared by his aunts whom Marie Antoinette saw every day.
From Madame du Barry's point of view pride certainly had the lion's share of her side in the conflict. Also, though eagerly engaged in politics Madame du Barry seemed to be unable to understand that the woman she was so openly against would one day become Queen.

Marie Antoinette at the time of her wedding -
this portrait was actually sent to Louis XV for
his approval of her as Dauphine 

In the days following the wedding of Marie Antoinette and Louis Auguste several theatrical performances had been ordered by Louis XV. As the King's undisputed favourite Madame du Barry was guaranteed some of the best seats for her and her attendants. However, when the Comtesse arrived a couple of ladies-in-waiting - including the Duchesse de Grammont who happened to be the sister of the Duc de Choiseul - to the Dauphine had taken their seats and refused to budge. As if this was not bad enough the ladies insulted the royal favourite as well. Understandably upset at such a treatment Madame du Barry went straight to the King who - for once - took action and exiled the Duchesse de Grammont.
Whether Marie Antoinette knew of the particulars concerning her lady-in-waiting's disgrace is unknown but she was aware that it was Madame du Barry who had cost her a companion. This hardly improved their relationship.

This triumph of Madame du Barry was soon turned into one of Marie Antoinette. When that same Duchesse's health deteriorated rapidly it soon became clear that she needed the expertise of the Parisian doctors. However, Madame du Barry was unable to let go of the grudge she held towards the Duchesse and would have prevented her receiving the necessary treatment if she could. But Marie Antoinette cleverly appealed to Louis XV's sentiments when she remarked that besides the injustice and unkindness such a situation would create it would be a great unhappiness to herself if one of her household was to die while still in disgrace with the King. That did the trick and the Duchesse de Grammont returned to Paris.

Letter of Marie Antoinette to her mother Empress Maria Theresia
of 9 July 1770 in which Marie Antoinette describes Madame du
Barry as the stupidest creature she ever met

Some time later the faction which Madame du Barry was a fervent supporter of (the d'Aiguillon faction) finally succeeded in having the Duc de Choiseul dismissed. Marie Antoinette was devastated. It had been the Duc de Choiseul who had brought about the union between France and Austria and to the young (and lonely) Marie Antoinette he was the only political friend she had. Madame du Barry made no attempt at hiding that she had indeed been instrumental in bringing about the minister's fall.

As it was quickly apparent to Madame du Barry that she would not become a friend of the Dauphine she apparently decided to simply stop trying. Despite her otherwise calm nature Madame du Barry was often heard mocking and insulting the Dauphine even in the presence of the King. These cutting remarks might have been ignored by the Dauphine - who due to the utter lack of secrecy at court knew all about them - had they not touched a nerve. Madame du Barry often commented on the unconsummated state of the Dauphine's marriage which struck at the heart of Marie Antoinette's personal problems.

Detail of Marie Antoinette playing the harp during one of those balls that
Madame du Barry was barred from

So far Marie Antoinette had excluded the royal favourite from her private balls. Since these soirées were not only socially delightful but an honour Madame du Barry soon complained to the King. Louis XV approached the Dauphine who delicately said that she could hardly invite the Comtesse since the King's daughters (Mesdames Tantes) were always invited. Everyone knew of Mesdames Tantes' strong dislike of their father's newest mistress and since Louis was ever frightful of creating embarrassment he agreed with the Dauphine.

A rather scandalous episode occurred one afternoon while Marie Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe was taking the air in one of the inner courtyards. The two ladies narrowly avoided being hit by the contents of a chamberpot being emptied from the attic-apartment of Madame du Barry. While there can be little doubt that Madame du Barry herself did not do it and that the serving girl who did probably did not see the two, it still made plenty of good gossip.

Madame du Barry
Empress Maria Theresia of Austria was very well aware of her daughter's feud with the King's mistress and she was not pleased. Since Marie Antoinette's marriage was still unconsummated the young Dauphine was in a dangerous position; non-consummation was a valid reason to annul a marriage. To the Empress it was vital that Marie Antoinette did not make her position worse by insulting the King and she continuously demanded that Marie Antoinette ended her silent treatment. With the formidable letters from her mother as well as the constant pressure from the Austrian ambassador Marie Antoinette finally caved in.
On 1 January 1772 she made the following remark to the Comtesse:
"There are a lot of people today at Versailles"

This remark was short enough in itself but it was all that was needed. Being made in full public it was a triumph for the Comtesse who was not allowed to address the Dauphine herself. Ambassador Mercy-Argenteau was quick to praise Marie Antoinette but she made it very clear that she would never talk to her again.
Nonetheless, the King was pleased and for a short while Marie Antoinette received a short break in the stinging letters from her mother.

The rivalry officially came to a close in 1774 when Louis Auguste became Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette became Queen. One of the first acts of Louis XVI was to exile the former favourite from court and ordered her to spend time in a nunnery. Madame du Barry was never allowed back to court.

In a stroke of tragic irony both Marie Antoinette and Madame du Barry would end their lives by the guillotine.

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