[Paleopsych] WP: In His Majesty's, Ahem, Service

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Sat Jul 17 12:02:55 UTC 2004

In His Majesty's, Ahem, Service

    By Jonathan Yardley,
    whose e-mail address is yardleyj at washpost.com
    Thursday, July 1, 2004; Page C01


    500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge
    By Eleanor Herman
    Morrow. 287 pp. $25.95

    If one is inclined to believe Eleanor Herman's amusing,
    once-over-very-lightly account of the amatory deeds and misdeeds of
    kings and their kinfolk, the R in "royal" also stands for "randy." As
    portrayed herein, kings and princes and such were and are priapic to
    the max, ever in search of erotic satisfaction and ever en garde, as
    it were, to achieve it. If ever a monarch's spirit was willing but his
    flesh weak, the occasion apparently has not come to Herman's
    attention, for she portrays royalty as eternally ready, willing and

    Well, maybe not Edward VIII, who during his brief reign became
    besotted with Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee and social climber
    whose "nose was lumpy, her mouth large and ugly, her hands short and
    stubby." Could it have been, as often was bruited about, that she "had
    conquered Edward with bizarre Asian sexual techniques she had learned
    in China," or could it have been that "the two were brought together
    by an avid aversion to sex -- that Edward was hopelessly impotent and
    Wallis icily frigid"?

    Whatever the truth of it, Edward gave up the British throne for his
    Wallis and married her, consigning the two of them to a purgatory that
    lasted from 1937 until his death in 1972.

    They got what they deserved, you may say, and you are quite right, but
    they also were handed a fate quite different from that dealt out to
    most kings and their mistresses. History shows that kings have mostly
    bounced from bedchamber to bedchamber and that the ladies they
    encountered along the way did a fair amount of bouncing themselves,
    sometimes to their profit, sometimes to their sorrow.

    This is put in the past tense because the royal mistress is mostly a
    creature of the past: Royalty isn't what it used to be, what with a
    lot less money and power to be handed out as favors, and the press
    insists on shoving its sharp little nose (not to mention the lens of
    its camera) into just about everything. If His Majesty wants to have a
    little fun on the side, he can expect to read about it in the
    tabloids, which presumably can be a powerful anti-tumescent. In the
    good old days it was another story:

    "In the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the position of
    royal mistress was almost as official as that of prime minister. The
    mistress was expected to perform certain duties -- sexual and
    otherwise -- in return for titles, pensions, honors, and an
    influential place at court. She encouraged the arts -- theater,
    literature, music, architecture, and philosophy. She wielded her charm
    as a weapon against foreign ambassadors. She calmed the king when he
    was angry, buoyed him up when he was despondent, encouraged him to
    greatness when he was weak. She attended religious services daily,
    gave alms to the poor, and turned in her jewels to the treasury in
    times of war."

    The "quintessential royal mistress was Jeanne-Antoinette d'Etioles,
    marquise de Pompadour, who reigned for nineteen years over Louis XV
    and France." Frigidity, from which apparently she suffered, did not
    prevent her from finding ways to give the king pleasure in and out of
    her lavish bedchamber at Versailles, and in time "she wielded the
    greatest power of any royal mistress ever," to the point that in 1753
    one insider wrote: "The mistress is Prime Minister, and is becoming
    more and more despotic, such as a favorite has never been in France."
    At her death in 1764 she was mourned by precious few.

    Kings sought the favors of mistresses because their marriages were
    often empty and unhappy. Royal marriages were almost always arranged
    for political reasons and in the expectation that they would produce
    heirs. What Herman calls "the old portrait trick" was frequently used
    to persuade a ruler or ruler-in-waiting to take a bride. Thus Henri IV
    of France was shown a flattering likeness of Marie de Medici, though
    when she arrived at Marseilles he complained, "I have been deceived!
    She is not beautiful!" He "was expecting a slender beauty with elegant
    features, not this heavy woman with a flat farmer's face." He managed
    to get her pregnant, but he found happiness (such as it was) with his
    mistress, Henriette-Catherine de Balzac d'Entragues.

    In truth, happiness seems to have been a rare commodity in most of
    these royal trysts. Kings often were spoiled, simple-minded and
    self-aggrandizing, their thinking warped by obsequious courtiers and
    generations of inbreeding. The court "was a world of twisted values,
    strange honor and disgraces incomprehensible to later generations," a
    world in which "the fundamental human matters of life and death and
    love meant little compared to the crumbs of success or specks of
    failure." Kings may have ruled supreme in this poisonous environment,
    but they were scarcely immune to the discontents and jealousies that
    thrived therein.

    As for the mistresses, they may have been pampered and even adored,
    but they lived in limbo. A mistress's claim upon the king's time and
    exchequer rested entirely on her ability to please and amuse him.
    There was an endless stream of "pretty women attempting to gain the
    king's attention," and the mistress of the moment was forever on red
    alert: "When the royal eye wandered, as it did with alarming
    frequency, there was great speculation as to whether the object of
    kingly desires would prove a meaningless flirtation or if she would
    completely replace the existing power structure at court."

    A further complication for some mistresses was that just as kings had
    queens, so mistresses sometimes had husbands. Some kings beckoned to
    married women as a way of flexing the royal muscles and/or putting
    their husbands (mostly high-ranking members of the court) in their
    places. Other husbands saw advantage in having their wives in the
    king's bed, and encouraged them; "indeed," Herman writes with perhaps
    an excess of cuteness, "many a man was willing to lay down his wife
    for the good of his country."

    What is truly peculiar about kings and their mistresses is that many a
    king tolerated a mistress who was every bit as much a harridan as his
    queen. Charles II of England "put up with his beautiful virago,
    Barbara, Lady Castlemaine, for nearly a dozen years." She "badgered,
    threatened and intimidated Charles into submission with her unending
    stream of demands for money, titles and honors for herself and her
    children and sometimes, in a burst of selfishness, for her friends."
    Similarly, the legendary Lola Montez, mistress of Ludwig I of Bavaria,
    was no day at the beach: "whorish, selfish deceitful Lola who had
    broken old King Ludwig's heart and lost him his kingdom." By 1848, he
    finally had had enough and banished her; she went to the United States
    and made a new life for herself in the Wild West.

    All of which should make plain that despite Herman's occasional
    inability to resist the temptations of coy prose, "Sex With Kings" is
    entertaining: a beach book, and a lot more fun than Danielle Steel or
    Dan Brown.

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