The Kings’ Mistresses by Elizabeth C. Goldsmith (Book Review)

The Kings’ Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarinis the fascinating dual biography of two of the most controversial women of the seventeenth century. Marie and Hortense Mancini were the nieces of Giulio Raimondo Mazzarino, who rose to power in France as Cardinal Jules Mazarin, advisor to Anne of Austria, King Louis XIV’s mother and the regent during his minority. The Cardinal used his wealth and influence to advance his relatives, bringing his sister’s daughters to the French court and arranging their marriages to powerful noblemen. As the title of Goldsmith’s work implies, both women ultimately gained notoriety as royal mistresses. Marie was the first love of Louis XIV and Hortense eventually traveled to England, where she became the mistress of his cousin, King Charles II of England and Scotland.

The royal romances of the Mancini sisters have been discussed in other popular works including Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King by Antonia Fraser and The Mistresses of Charles II by Brian Masters. Hortense Mancini herself was the first non-royal woman in France to write her Memoirs. Goldsmith, however, brings a fresh approach and new source material to her analysis of the historical significance of the Mancini sisters. Instead of viewing Marie and Hortense exclusively as royal mistresses, Goldsmith devotes much of The Kings’ Mistresses to their determination to escape their unhappy marriages and enjoy independent travels, social lives and cultural patronage. At a time when the French state exerted close control over the institution of marriage, particularly the unions of the nobility, and legal separation was difficult to obtain, the Mancini sisters defiantly asserted their independence.

Goldsmith is a Professor of French at Boston University, who has worked on research projects involving the writings and experiences of the Mancini sisters since 1995 . She accessed the Colonna archive, donated by Marie’s descendants to the Santa Scolastica library in Subiaco, Italy, discovering the sisters’ unpublished correspondence. Marie’s and Hortense’s voices are central to the text as Goldsmith integrates extensive excerpts from their writings into her account of their struggles for autonomy.

Despite their immense wealth, patronage and influence, both women experienced significant mistreatment in their marriages as Marie’s husband Constable Lorenzo  Colonna possessed a violent temperament (he was rumoured to have attempted to poison his wife) and Hortense’s husband Armand-Charles, Duke Mazarin suffered from religious mania and obsessive jealousy. Goldsmith’s description of Duke Mazarin’s destruction of the priceless art collection Hortense inherited from her uncle is particularly chilling, highlighting her inability to protect the wealth she received from Cardinal Mazarin.

The travels of Marie and Hortense Mancini encompassed the full geography of seventeenth century Western Europe including London, Madrid, Paris, Rome and Brussels. In a book that only contains 226 pages of text, Goldsmith understandably focuses closely on their experiences, discussing the broader context of their times in a brief historical prologue. Other influential women of the period including the former Queen Christina of Sweden and Henrietta-Anne, Duchess d’Orleans are discussed briefly when their activities intersect with those of the Mancini sisters but there are only passing comparisons to other seventeenth century elite European women who sought to escape unhappy marriages. Mazarin’s own exercise of political influence, which has been discussed extensively in other works, is also summarized within a single chapter.

I found Goldsmith’s comparison of the social lives of noblewomen in different regions of Europe fascinating and wished there had been more material about the people who frequented the Mancini salons. I would also have been interested to read an epilogue about Marie’s and Hortense’s descendants, encompassing the history of the Colonna papers, which are so integral to the book. The Kings’ Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin is a well researched and well written dual biography of two of the seventeenth century’s most controversial women. Through their letters and memoirs, the adventures of Marie and Hortense Mancini, mistresses to Kings and runaway wives to unbalanced noblemen, come to life.

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