Madame du Barry had quite an amazing life. She is best known as the mistress to King Louis XV of France and as the enemy of Marie Antoinette. Because of her very humble beginnings, she had a hard time fitting in with the noblemen and women of the court.
But whatever you might think of her, there is no doubt that she worked hard to get what she wanted. For a woman in the 18th century, and a common-born woman at that, her transformation from street peasant to noblewoman was extraordinary.
Let’s get to know her better.
Jeanne Becu was born into a scandal. Her mother was a seamstress and her father was the local friar. This was in a time where being born out of wedlock – that is, if your parents weren’t married – was shocking!
Her parents affair was quickly covered up. After Jeanne was born, her mother took a job in a wealthy household and little Jeanne was lucky enough to grow up as a part of the family.
Sadly, when her mother got married, the newlyweds moved away taking Jeanne with them. Money soon became a problem so Jeanne was sent to live in a convent.
Setting out alone
Jeanne left as soon as she turned 15. She headed to Paris where she worked selling trinkets on the streets. She barely made enough money to survive.
But she was tough. She wanted a good life and she certainly was not afraid of hard work. She became quite well knows on the back streets of Paris as a beautiful, amusing young woman and soon people began to seek her company.
A gentleman by the name of Jean-Baptiste du Barry enjoyed her company a great deal and began bringing her to extravagant parties.
To meet the king
Jeanne soon became popular company and was invited to the best parties and balls in Paris. She was showered in expensive gifts from admirers; jewels, furs and feathers. She was on her way to becoming a very wealthy woman!
On a trip to Versailles, Jeanne caught the eye of His Majesty King Louis VX and he immediately fell in love. He wanted her as his mistress which, in the 18th century, was quite like an official title for ‘girlfriend’.
But there was a problem
Only a married noblewoman was allowed to be the king’s mistress, and Jeanne was neither married nor anywhere near a noblewoman! What was Louis to do?
Jeanne was quickly married off to the brother of her old friend Jean-Baptiste du Barry. Her husband, the Compte (Count) Guillaume du Barry, was then paid a lot of money to move back to his country estate and leave his new bride in the care of the king.
It was actually not completely unheard of at the time.
Little Jeanne; common, illegitimate daughter of a seamstress was now a noblewoman in favour of the king.
The disapproval of Madame du Barry
Nobody at the Palace of Versailles was as keen on the new Madame du Barry as the king. As far as the court was concerned, she was nothing but a cheap commoner who got lucky. Most likely it was petty jealousy, but people started spreading nasty rumours about her, making her life very difficult. The king didn’t really care what people thought of his mistress; he enjoyed her company. But in order to make her fit in he literally paid women to be her friends.
And just when things finally started looking up, along came Marie Antoinette…
Madame du Barry vs Marie Antoinette
In 1770, Marie Antionette married the king’s grandson and joined the French royal court.
Marie Antoinette was only 14 at the time and didn’t quite understand how things were done at Versailles. When she asked who Madame du Barry was, she was told that her role in the palace was to please the king.
To which Marie Antionette said:
‘OH, THEN I SHALL BE HER RIVAL, BECAUSE I TOO WISH TO PLEASE THE KING.”
But Marie Antoinette was a very conservative girl; she did not believe in mistresses. When she discovered what Madame du Barry’s role in the palace really was she swore never to speak to her again. This delighted the ladies of the court who still hated du Barry. Mesdames Tantes (the king’s daughters) especially saw this as an opportunity to try and get rid of the mistress.
And so, egged on by the court, Marie Antoinette completely ignored Madame du Barry. She would talk about her behind her back and ‘forget’ to invite her to the parties she threw.
A very bad idea
What Marie Antoinette didn’t realise was that she was making the king very angry. He was not pleased at his new granddaughter’s behaviour. By ignoring Madame du Barry, Marie Antoinette was openly questioning the king’s judgement, and the king did not like that at all.
To make matters worse, the women were involved in a battle of sorts with shots being fired from both sides. They were very open in saying nasty things about each other in public and spread horrible rumours behind the other’s back. It was turning into quite a cat fight!
It got so bad that the king began to question whether Marie Antoinette should be sent back to Austria. The fight had to end.
On New Years Day 1772, Marie Antoinette ended the fight in style.
She walked over to Jeanne in front of the whole court and said:
“There are many people at Versailles today.”
And that was the end of that.
An end to Palace life
In April 1774 King Louis XV caught smallpox and by May he was dead.
With Marie Antoinette and her husband now the king and queen of France, Marie Antoinette wasted no time getting rid of her old rival. Madame du Barry was sent to live in a convent – a common fate for unwanted noblewomen.
But Jeanne did not stay there long. She was, by this time, a very wealthy woman. She bought herself a beautiful house in the country where she spent the rest of her life hosting famous artists, throwing extravagant parties and doing charity work.
Sadly, Jeanne was killed during the French Revolution in 1793.