Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge
by Eleanor Herman
A review by Georgie Lewis
While everyone is scanning through over 900 pages of Bill Clinton's memoir in
the hopes of finding some juicy tidbit about a powerful man and his extramarital
affair, why not pick up Sex with Kings and find a tantalizing fact or two
per page about powerful men and the women they bed.
Sex with Kings is an absolutely unputdownable romp through the sex lives
of the men who inherited the thrones of Europe over the last 500 years. Herman's
fluid and frequently cheeky text delves unabashedly into the affairs of male
royalty and their mistresses. And what a fascinating history especially in
comparing the mores of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries to the more stringent
standards of the twentieth century.
France has, admittedly, always held a more tolerant view towards infidelity
than many Western countries, so it is not surprising that when a French king,
Francois I, gave the title maîtresse-en-titre to his "official royal
mistress," the woman in question wielded a fair amount of power. In fact,
in France during the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, these women accepted
positions in court, attended council meetings, appointed ministers and generals,
made laws, and influenced the arts. That said, some of the most manipulative
and influential mistresses could be found behind the scenes of a British monarchy,
as continental tastes took root.
Even if theirs was not a political ambition, mistresses often wore finer clothes
than the queens, were bejeweled, given property and wealth, and often accompanied
the King to more social occasions than the queen herself. Many ex-mistresses
lived comfortably off their social status as well as the money and jewelry "earned"
while in the king's company.
But lest we think the life of a king's mistress was some sort of fairy tale,
Herman makes it quite clear that satisfying and placating a man who could be
a horrid bore (let alone a pus-ravaged, smallpox-riddled letch) was no walk
in the gardens of Versailles. Not only was their task to flatter, adore, and
service their kings, a prominent mistress needed to keep a vigilant watch on
any enigmatic countesses or beautiful noblewomen who may also have their eye
on their man.
Valued friend and confidant to the wife of Louis XIV, Madame de Montespan betrayed
her friend the queen, as well as her good friend and current mistress to the
king, Louise de La Vallière, by seducing Louis. She did so over several
years and utilized whatever means, including consulting a witch and slipping
disgusting "love potions" made of bats blood and fetal tissue into
his food and wine.
Oddly enough, while the sexual side of the relationship could fade, the political
power of the maîtresse-en-titre sometimes blossomed into something far
more powerful Madame de Pompadour, mistress to Louis XV for nineteen years,
being the exemplar. She worked as France's unofficial prime minister. As Herman
puts it, "indeed she had far more power than Louis's ministers, as it was
she who appointed them."
This is a witty and engaging book, intelligently written, with an endless amount
of scandalous, hilarious, and eye-opening anecdotes. As Herman is the first
to admit, though, many tales of the court were related by gossipy courtiers,
memoirists eager for vindication, or contemporary biographers with an eye for
comic flair and exaggeration. Be that as it may, Herman's sparkling writing
and evident enthusiasm make her, to my mind, a modern-day Scheherazade.