The King’s Bed (Published 2006) (2023)


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By Megan Marshall

“Love and Louis XIV” is the perfect book to read in bed on a long summer day — or a short winter one. I tried reading it at my desk, but was inexorably drawn to the couch, no doubt by the power of suggestion. This is, after all, a book filled with incidents that take place in the grand bedchambers and appartements des bains of royal palaces like Saint-Germain and Versailles: the offices, in effect, of the Sun King, his wives (one official, the other less so) and mistresses.

Seventeenth-century France was a country, Fraser instructs us at the outset, where a parliamentary executive session was termed a lit de justice, “taking its name from the cushioned bed from which medieval monarchs dispensed justice.” At the same time, sexual intercourse was widely referred to as commerce. Royal bedrooms and bathing quarters were places to conduct business, both private and public, and the collisions and conjunctions of these two spheres form the basis of Fraser’s tale of kingly exuberance.

The story begins in a “wondrous castle” overlooking the Seine at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where Louis’s mother, Anne of Austria, had repaired to the royal birthing bed, accompanied by her physician, the king and his courtiers. The 36-year-old queen, married at 14, had so far “endured 22 years of childless union.” (Numerous miscarriages and lengthy cessations of marital relations had marked the marriage of the “voluptuous” Anne and the sexually “troubled” Louis XIII.) Royal births were, by tradition, public events, but this one required all the more assurance that the child was no last-minute substitute — of boy for girl, or live infant for stillborn. A male heir was imperative since France did not permit female descendants to serve as monarchs. Fate obliged in the person of Louis XIV, a child so physically precocious that he was born with two teeth (quite an inconvenience, Fraser speculates, for his wet-nurses).

In less than five years, Louis’s father was dead, making his son a “child-king” and permitting his widow to serve as queen regent until the boy’s majority, at 13. This period, during which Louis enjoyed the “undiluted love of his mother” and witnessed her mostly able leadership — at her death, he memorialized her as “among the great kings of France” — may have established in him a respect for and comfort with dynamic women that led to his “variegated philanderings.” His wife (and first cousin), the guileless and “somnolent” Spanish infanta, Maria Teresa, was quite different from the intelligent and forceful women to whom the comely king — with his “beautiful, long, curling hair” and a figure “described as tall, free, ample and robust” — was attracted. As king, Louis could freely womanize, and so he did, pursuing one beauty after another, whether married or single, lady’s maid or lady of the court.


It is to Fraser’s credit that she allows readers to keep all these “variegated” alliances straight through her lively descriptions of the features, accomplishments and appetites of the king’s lovers. We learn of Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart’s “thick, corn-colored hair which curled artlessly about her shoulders”; her eyes, “huge, blue and very slightly exophthalmic”; her famously devastating wit; and her “Ceres-like” fecundity. (In the words of a contemporary, “her powder lights very quickly.”) Louis made Athénaïs his primary mistress for most of a decade, providing her with fabulous apartments at Versailles on the same floor as the queen and a chateau of her own at Clagny, where she employed 1,200 gardeners and had 8,000 daffodils planted during a single season. And he used his royal authority to make titled nobles of the children they conceived on the wrong side of the sheets.

Through much of his reign, Louis managed to spend almost every night with his wife (with whom he dutifully conceived potential heirs to the throne), devote several hours to dalliances with his courtesan of the moment and still lead the nation, without the advice of a chief minister. Some impressive logistics were required. Fraser explains that when the king, as intent on achieving military glory as sexual glow, went to war to exert his “territorial adrenaline,” he brought along his entire household, which sometimes amounted to a royal harem. On one triumphal foray to Flanders in 1670, Louis’s “vagabond court” included the queen and two mistresses. Twenty-two years later, gouty and in need of stimulants to light his own tinder, Louis still insisted on bringing “the ladies” along with him to the siege of Namur. Now, however, he preferred the company of the relatively staid Madame de Maintenon, spiritual adviser and one-time tutor to his children by Athénaïs, who became Louis’s second wife through a secret morganatic marriage after the death of Maria Teresa in 1683.

Fraser’s marital — or coital — history of the French court lends an interesting perspective to a century that suffered long and bloody wars on the Continent and changes of command in nearly every country but France, where Louis reigned for more than 60 years. Virtually all of Europe was ruled by a set of intermarried cousins, although family ties failed to prevent them from going to war. Perhaps, on the domestic front, some innate evolutionary imperative, an awareness of the incestuousness of it all, led many of them — not just Louis XIV but also Charles II of England and a number of “princes of the blood” — into compulsive adultery as a means of expanding the gene pool.

“Love and Louis XIV” is short on analysis, however, which may come as no surprise in a book with footnotes that offer teasing asides on Louis’s astrological chart or the presumed size of his “scepter.” (It was small, according to one spurned lover.) Fraser is having fun, and at 74, with a dozen substantial works of history on her shelf, she is certainly entitled. But I wanted to hear more about the women themselves — about the mistresses’ feelings when whisked off to deliver their babies in secret and returned to court duties hours later; about the queens’ reactions to unions forced on them by political expediency, and to their husbands’ seemingly inevitable infidelities. Fraser touches on these, but provides no guiding perspective, as she did so compellingly in The Weaker Vessel,” “The Warrior Queens” and “The Wives of Henry VIII.”

As a writer of history, Fraser has done it all — biographies, group studies, even a chronicle of England’s infamous Gunpowder Plot — and done it superbly. While “Love and Louis XIV” doesn’t quite measure up to the high standards of synthesis and narrative propulsion of her best work, the book is still entertaining and instructive. In our sex- and celebrity-obsessed era, the extramarital activities of the 17th-century French royals and the breathless attention paid to them by the populace seem all too familiar. How long will it be before TV cameras are invited into the birthing rooms of Angelina and Brad or Britney and K-Fed? If the chief virtues of “Love and Louis XIV” are its sparkling vignettes and sharp character sketches — no reader will forget Louis’s grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne, a man who was, as Saint-Simon put it, “born furious” and whose “favorite method of relief was smashing clocks” — we must still be grateful to Antonia Fraser for devising so excellent a companion with which to lie back and think of France.


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