Seven Scandalous Love Affairs of French Queens
Behind the opulent facade of French queens' lives lie captivating tales of forbidden love and clandestine affairs that have echoed through the annals of history. From the alluring intrigue of Queen Catherine de Medici to the romantic entanglements of Empress Joséphine, the affairs of French queens left an indelible mark on French history. These stories transport us to a realm of passion, power, and scandal, shedding light on the complexities of royal marriages and the human desires that transcended the confines of regal obligations.
1. Queen Catherine de' Medici - the Royal Love Triangle
The love life of Queen Catherine de’ Medici, wife of King Henry II of France, was anything but simple. She was surrounded by rumors and speculations about her alleged affairs. During both her time as queen consort of France from 1547 to 1559 and her time as queen mother from 1559 to 1589, she was accused of having various affairs. Unfortunately, there’s no definitive evidence to suggest she had an affair with any specific individual. How dull.
That doesn’t mean her marriage was without scandal though. One of the most prominent figures linked to her was Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of King Henry II. Catherine's relationship with Diane became a subject of intense rivalry and intrigue.
Diane was renowned for her beauty and charm and held a powerful sway over King Henry II. She was quite a bit older than the king and used her position to gain influence at court. Catherine, on the other hand, struggled to show her authority as queen and faced constant challenges in securing her husband’s affection, especially in the early years of their marriage.
This created a kind of Royal love triangle where Catherine's role as queen was overshadowed by Diane's influence over the king. Diane's control extended to matters of state, and she even received valuable properties as gifts from the king. The relationship between the two women is said to have been fraught with tension and competition.
Despite the tension, Catherine recognized that Diane's relationship with the king was politically advantageous. She strategically maintained a semblance of cordiality with Diane, even gifting her properties and granting her privileges. However, their relationship remained marked by underlying rivalry and resentment.
After the death of her husband, Catherine became a prominent figure in French politics and played a significant role in the reigns of her sons, Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III. Diane’s influence on the other hand waned. Catherine took this opportunity to reverse some of Diane's privileges and positions of power, finally gaining the upper hand in their decades-old romantic rivalry.
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2. Queen Marie Antoinette and the Swedish Count
History has not been kind to Marie Antoinette, and this can, in part, be put down to the various rumors that plagued her during her life and death. Wife to King Louis XVI, she was known for her opulent lifestyle and lavish spending, things which made her a target for public scrutiny.
Human nature being what it is, it didn’t take long for rumors surrounding Marie’s love life to begin swirling. One of the most infamous involved her alleged affair with Count Axel von Fersen. Von Fersen was a Swedish diplomat and soldier who most likely first met the queen when he was sent to Paris by King Gustav III as part of Sweden’s diplomatic corps in 1970.
Axel remained in Paris for the whole of 1971, and it’s believed that during this time he became a close friend of Antoinette, remaining so during her tumultuous years as queen consort. Speculation arose that their relationship transcended friendship, suggesting a romantic involvement.
In this part of Marie Antoinette’s letter of 4 January 1792 to the count the copper elemental map revealed the original words “non pas sans vous.” (Anne Michelin / Science Advances)
Some have argued that the connection between the two was purely platonic, emphasizing the lack of concrete evidence to support the allegations. But people always have a tough time accepting platonic relationships between men and women and others contend that their relationship was intimate, pointing to letters (which use language like beloved, tender friend, adore and madly to refer to him) and memoirs that hint at a deeper emotional bond.
These whispers of infidelity, combined with her extravagant lifestyle and the larger socio-political context of the time did the royals no favors, fueling the flames of discontent among the French population. Tragically, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI faced a dire fate during the French Revolution. The queen was ultimately convicted of treason and executed in 1793, bringing an end to the turbulent chapter of her life and reign.
3. French Queen Marie Louise of Austria and the Austrian Count
It appears that French queens had a weak spot for foreign counts. It has been alleged that Queen Marie Louise of Austria, the second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, was busy having an affair with an Austrian Count, Adam Albert von Neipperg, while her husband was exiled to the island of Elba.
As was common for the time, and throughout history, the marriage between Marie and Napoleon was much more of a political alliance than a romantic affair. These kinds of marriages often led to loneliness, so it’s not that surprising that the emperor's abdication and subsequent exile left her feeling lonely and detached. It was during this period that she is said to have found solace and companionship in the arms of Count von Neipperg.
Their affair blossomed during Napoleon's absence, and they continued their relationship after his death. Marie Louise's liaison with von Neipperg was a subject of controversy and scandal, particularly as it involved an Austrian nobleman and went against the expectations of her marital fidelity.
Yet with time Marie Louise and von Neipperg openly acknowledged their relationship, and they had several children together. Due to political sensitivities, they kept things discreet, and following Napoleon’s death Marie kept a lower profile than usual but the affair itself was common knowledge.
4. Queen Isabeau of Bavaria and Her Brother-in-Law
This might just be the most scandalous entry on our list. Queen Isabeau of Bavaria was the queen consort of King Charles VI of France, and like most other French queens was surrounded by scandal and rumors of multiple affairs throughout her reign. Most notably, it was said that she had an affair with her brother-in-law, Louis, Duke of Orléans. Who, by the way, was involved in a murder.
To be fair to Isabeau, her marriage to Charles VI wasn’t an easy one. Known by history as “Charles the Mad,” her husband suffered from mental illness, which left him incapable of ruling effectively. The day-to-day business of running the country fell largely to Isabeau and her brother-in-law.
It is suspected that over time the two went from political allies to something much more intimate. Given the sorry state of her marriage, it’s really not that surprising. Charles spent much of his time locking himself away, ranting, raving, and attacking those closest to him.
The whispers of their relationship brought accusations of betrayal and questioned Isabeau's loyalty to the crown. Isabeau was a political animal and knew she was in trouble. It was then that the king’s cousin, Jean Duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless, came on the scene. Amongst the scandal at court, he began gathering support among the French nobility and Isabeau realized it was time to switch sides.
John the Fearless ordered the assassination of Queen Isabeau's brother-in-law Louis of Orléans in 1407. (Public Domain)
On the night of 23rd November 1407, Isabeau beckoned her lover to her bed chamber. Upon his arrival, he received an urgent message that he was needed on the other side of Paris. Soon after leaving, he was brutally murdered by a group of thugs. Conveniently, this allowed John to become both the new Regent and also Isabeau’s bedfellow.
All this being said, it's crucial to note that historical accounts of Isabeau's affairs are often muddled by political rivalries and propaganda. Her reputation suffered greatly due to these allegations, which is exactly what her rivals would have wanted. Her alleged affairs further complicated an already tumultuous period in French history, leaving a legacy of controversy surrounding her reign as queen consort.
5. Queen Margot - Unlucky Lovers
Of all the queens on this list, few were as unlucky in love as Queen Margot, also known as Marguerite de Valois, whose various lovers had a nasty habit of getting themselves murdered. As the wife of King Henry IV of France, her relationship with him was strained, marked by political tensions and personal animosity. Margot sought solace and passion outside her marriage, engaging in multiple romantic entanglements.
Her most famous lover was her first, a young nobleman and dancer by the name of Joseph Boniface de La Môle. The two began their affair not long after Margot’s marriage, but it didn’t last long. He was accused of plotting to murder the queen’s brother, Charles IX, using magic and the Queen’s mother ordered he be tortured and then executed.
French Queen Margaret of Valois, by François Clouet. (Public Domain)
Jacques de Harlay followed poor Joseph. This affair was outed by Margot's brother, Henri III, (who is said to have quickly tired of his sister’s proclivities) during a state banquet. It was made clear that the affair must end, or Jacques would lose his head.
Next, supposedly, came an apothecary who nursed Margot back to health after she became ill following the events at the above banquet. During her treatment he fell in love with her, only to be stabbed to death by a jealous bodyguard. Margot is said to have found solace in the arms of a handsome captain of the French army.
When Henri III found out, he promptly had the captain gruesomely executed. After Henri III was murdered in 1589 Margot's husband became King Henry IV. He promptly divorced her, which she agreed to as long as she could keep the title of queen and receive a hefty sum of money. Money she apparently spent pursuing more affairs throughout the rest of her life.
6. Queen Hortense de Beauharnais - Had an Illegitimate Son
Queen Hortense de Beauharnais, wife of Louis Bonaparte and mother of Napoleon III, was technically Queen consort of Holland but seeing as her father was a French Emperor and so was her son, she counts as a French queen in our books.
Like many French queens before her, she also found herself entangled in a well-known affair during her marriage. Her lover was Charles Joseph, Comte de Flahaut, a French general and diplomat. And this time we actually have proof!
Hortense didn’t like her husband, at all, and was incredibly displeased when Napoleon made him King of Holland in 1806, meaning Hortense had to leave her life in Paris behind and move to the Netherlands. While she quickly warmed up to life in the Netherlands, the same cannot be said for her relationship with her husband.
After the death of her first son, Hortense was allowed to move back to France. Although they never divorced, she saw her husband’s abdication shortly after their son’s death as the end of their marriage. This left her free to pursue Charles Joseph more openly.
Portrait of Queen Hortense with her second son, Prince Napoléon Louis. (Public Domain)
They didn’t waste much time and in 1811, somewhere in Switzerland close to Lake Geneva, Hortense gave birth to an illegitimate son, Charles Auguste Louis Joseph. Hortense and Charles Joseph's affair was a notable scandal of the time, further complicating the dynamics within the Bonaparte family.
The affair ended in 1814 when Hortense discovered her lover was having an affair. Hortense's affair with Charles Joseph, although short-lived, had repercussions beyond her personal life. The existence of her illegitimate child and the scandal surrounding the affair influenced the politics and perceptions of the Bonaparte family during a critical era in French history.
7. Empress Joséphine - Cuckolded Napoleon
Few French queens are rumored to have had quite as many extramarital affairs as Empress Joséphine, the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. The historical record shows that Bonaparte was enamored with her from day one, saying in a letter before they married, "I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses." This, however, didn’t stop her from playing away.
Maybe Napoleon should have listened to his family, who had always been unimpressed with Josephine who was older, a widow, and already had two children. We don’t know exactly how many affairs Josephine actually had, but it’s rumored to have been quite a few.
Her most famous, and well-documented affair began in 1796 shortly after her marriage to Napoleon. Just two days after their marriage Napoleon went off to fight the Italians and Josephine began sharing her bed with a handsome Hussar lieutenant, Hippolyte Charles. Napoleon soon heard about the affair and their relationship was changed forever.
Besides Charles Josephine was also tied to numerous French political figures, such as Paul Francois Jean Nicolas Barras. Yet it seems to have been her affair with Charles that did the most damage. Upon discovering the affair Napoleon demanded it end and his relationship with his wife was never the same again.
The Divorce of the Empress Josephine’ (1843) by Henri Frédéric Schopin. (Public Domain)
Of all the affairs on this list, Josephine’s is perhaps the saddest. Napoleon had genuinely loved his wife and her betrayal stung him deeply. He began having his own affairs and ultimately divorced her in 1810, replacing her with a new wife who he hoped would give him an heir. She turned out to be just as loyal.
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There’s really no wonder the French have a reputation for romance and infidelity when you see what their royals were accused of getting up to. Yet before we judge these queens too harshly, we must think about why they pursued such scandalous love affairs. Affairs that often came at great personal risk.
Most of these women were forced into loveless political marriages where they were expected to be little more than baby factories. Can we really blame them if they sought affection away from their often-distant husbands? Husbands, who, we must remember, weren’t exactly innocent when it came to having extra-marital affairs.
These affairs may have been scandalous, but they also give us a fascinating insight into the private lives of these formidable women. They highlight their desires, vulnerabilities, and the profound impact their romances had on the course of history. In their stories, we find a blend of passion, power, and the timeless pursuit of love.
Top image: Renaissance styled French queen cavorting with French gentleman. Source: LanaK/Adobe Stock
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