Linda Porter, author of Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II, writes about Hortense Mancini, the beautiful but unconventional niece of Cardinal Mazarin who became the king’s last mistress.
Everyone knows that Charles II was an amorous king. The Restoration court was renowned for glamorous women parading their charms in the latest fashions, vying for the king’s attention. His bed was synonymous with power and prestige.
The moral vacuum that lay at the heart of his reign never troubled this most cynical of monarchs. Even today, the general reader with a passing knowledge of the period still views him as the Merry Monarch, a man with an eye for the ladies, and forgives him his peccadilloes. After all, who could not fail to be delighted by the story of Nell Gwyn, his most famous mistress, who started life as the daughter of an alcoholic brothel-keeper, sold oranges at the theatre and went on to become a successful comedy actress? It was on the stage that she caught the king’s eye.
Yet Nell was only one of many and the others are largely forgotten, which is odd given that she was arguably, if portraits are to be believed, the least attractive and not really interested in exerting political influence. In researching my latest book, Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II, my interest was particularly drawn to the last of Charles’s mistresses, the beautiful, sexually ambiguous Hortense Mancini, whose dramatic life makes Nell’s look rather tame.
Ortensia Mancini was born in Italy, the daughter of minor Roman aristocrats. On her mother’s side, she was a niece of Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the chief minister of France during the long minority of Louis XIV. Handsome, able and charming, Mazarin had left his native Italy years before but had not forgotten his family.
Ortensia was one of ‘five fair sisters’ (there were also two equally good-looking cousins) summoned to France in 1653. Through them Mazarin intended to found his dynasty. They would be educated and trained to become the leading ladies of the French court, where their beauty would dazzle, their manners impress and their marriageability ensure titles and influence. Whether this would increase their personal happiness was not an important factor in their uncle’s considerations.
So Ortensia left Italy at the age of seven to become Hortense in France. She spent eight months in Aix-en-Provence with an elder sister who had already married a duke, learning French and French customs. Early in 1654 she and her sister Marie were deemed to be sufficiently acclimatised to go to Paris.
Having inspected them, Mazarin, who did not want to risk the snobbery of the court, decided they needed to acquire further polish. The sisters spent eighteen months being educated in a convent and forged a bond which remained strong throughout the rest of their turbulent lives.
When they were finally launched in society, Marie caused a sensation. She and the young king fell in love. Though their relationship was probably not sexual, it was his first great romance. But Louis XIV was destined to marry the short, plump and silly Maria Teresa of Spain and Marie submitted to be sent away to marry an Italian nobleman. By now it was 1661 and Mazarin, aware that he was dying, put all his effort into finding a husband for the fifteen-year-old Hortense. His choice would plunge her life into nightmare.
Many young men would have hoped to make Hortense, admired as one of the great beauties of the French court, their wife. As it happened, Charles II had already sought her hand when he was a penniless monarch in exile but his suit was rejected in a withering put-down by Mazarin, who claimed to have told the king ‘that he was paying me too great an honour.’
Mazarin’s eventual choice for Hortense’s husband was not an obvious one. Armand-Charles de la Porte de la Meilleraye had an impressive name but his origins were far from distinguished. There were other things about him that might have set alarm bells ringing. He was considerably older than Hortense and had been infatuated with her since she was nine. Armand was both obsessive and depressive, though just how serious his mental state might become was not yet evident.
The wedding took place on 1 March, 1661. The cardinal died eight days later, having endowed the couple with great wealth and bestowed on them the title of Duke and Duchess Mazarin. This left Hortense, in her own words, ‘the richest heiress and the unhappiest woman in Christendom.’
Living in her uncle’s palace, surrounded by opulence, Hortense felt trapped by Armand’s determination to control her. He was jealous of any contact she had with other men and was developing a religious mania that would grow into something absurd. He feared that milkmaids would find milking cows sexually arousing and he also took a hammer to the genitals of the priceless statuary in the Palais Mazarin.
Dutifully accompanying him on wearying journeys into the provinces, often while pregnant, Hortense bore her husband four children. But when he demanded that she hand over all her jewels and personal possessions, Hortense became desperate. Supported by her brother Philippe, the duke of Nevers, she requested a legal separation.
For a while she took refuge in a Paris convent, where she met the young marquise de Courcelles, confined for alleged adultery. They formed an intense, possibly lesbian, relationship which encouraged Hortense to maintain her defiance. But it became apparent that her only real hope of escape was to flee the country.
She spent several years wandering in Europe, latterly with her sister, Marie, whose own marriage had collapsed. Renowned for their beauty and unconventionality, the Mancini sisters became notorious. Hortense settled for a while in Savoy and wrote her memoirs, hoping, finally, to have found peace.
It did not last. In 1675, the Duke of Savoy, her protector, died. As she pondered her next move, she received a letter from Ralph Montagu, whom she knew when he was ambassador in Paris. It contained an invitation from Charles II to visit England. She accepted without enthusiasm, eventually arriving, after a circuitous journey, a week before Christmas in 1675.
In London, she was the talk of the coffee houses. Everyone wanted to know what she would do and whether she would replace Louise de Kéroualle as Charles’s chief mistress. Politicians mused about whether this would eclipse the power of the Earl of Danby, the king’s close adviser and Louise’s supporter. Perhaps Hortense would be another spy for Louis XIV. The Sun King himself and his advisers seem to have been perplexed by the situation but not to have expected much to come of it. In this, they were correct.
There was an affair, conducted with surprising discretion by both Hortense and Charles II, but it only lasted a year. Charles was fond of Louise and did not want to hurt her. Hortense, meanwhile, had found an unlikely admirer and did not need to rely on the king.
At court she had the support of the Duchess of York, Mary Beatrice d’Este, whose mother was Hortense’s first cousin. Just as importantly, she became the muse of a learned French exile, Charles de Saint-Evremond. Their intense friendship lasted till her death.
Still defiantly flouting convention, Hortense continued to take both male and female lovers, one of whom was the eldest daughter of Charles II’s former mistress, Barbara Palmer. They took fencing lessons together and scandalised London by practising at night wearing only their nightdresses.
Hortense’s later years were characterised by an over-fondness for the bottle. When she died in 1699, she left considerable debts, including a hefty bill for gin. The increasingly deranged Armand eventually recovered his wife’s coffin and dragged it around with him on his travels, ensuring that she could not really leave him, even in death.
Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II by Linda Porter is published on 16 April, 2020.
Linda is the author of four books on the Tudors and Stuarts.
Find out more about Mistresses.
Portrait of Hortense Mancini by Jacob Ferdinand Voet (after 1670): via Wikimedia
Portrait of Three Nieces of Cardinal Mazarin portrayed as goddesses, Venus, Juno and Diana (Olympe, Hortense and Marie): via Wikimedia
Hortense Mancini by Henri Gascar (c1665): via Wikimedia
Hortense Mancini by Pierre Mignard: via Wikimedia
Mary of Modena, Duchess of York, attrib Willem Wissing (after 1673): via Wikimedia