Parc-aux-Cerfs and Tales of Louis XV’s Harem
Fifteen-year-old King Louis XV married a pious woman by the name of Marie Leszczyńska in September 1725. She was the daughter of the deposed King of Poland and 21 at the time. After their marriage, similar to most French kings, Louis XV took several mistresses. Among the most famous of all his mistresses, was his maîtresse-en-titre (chief mistress) named Madame de Pompadour. She was a beautiful, educated, and intelligent woman whom he met at a masked ball in February 1745.
Some years later, the name Parc-aux-Cerfs, which literally means stag park, began to be whispered at Louis XV’s court. Parc-aux-Cerfs, also known as the King’s Birdcage, was alleged to be where the King’s “harem” lived. Parc-aux-Cerfs was in a quarter of Versailles called Parc-aux-Cerfs, and it also happened to be the same neighborhood where Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s favorite, settled after her physical relationship with him ended in 1752.
Madame de Pompadour liked being the King’s favorite and wanted to maintain her position, but it came under threat in 1753 when the King fell for Marie Louise O’Murphy. She was the daughter of an Irish shoemaker called Morphise by courtiers and she became known as the model for a famous painting created by François Boucher. O’Murphy was also a lesser mistress to the King, got pregnant by him, and gave birth on 20 June 1754 to his illegitimate daughter, Agathe-Louise de Saint-Antoine de Saint-André.
In 1755, O’Murphy made the mistake of trying to officially replace Madame de Pompadour as Louis’s favorite. It resulted in O’Murphy’s downfall: She was repudiated by the King, expelled from Parc-aux-Cerfs in the dead of night, and sent far away from Versailles forever.
In order to prevent further rivals and similar situations, Madame de Pompadour decided to take action. She organized a constant stream of very young beauties to entertain the bored King in his bedroom. The beauties were housed at a small house in Parc-aux-Cerfs purchased in 1755 by the King. This house was later described by some people as a seraglio. The King did not visit the beauties at the little house but rather had them escorted discretely to and from the palace when he requested a rendezvous, and, from all accounts, most people at the time had no idea anything inappropriate was happening.
The bevy of beauties that Madame de Pompadour supplied and supervised were low-class but supposedly virginal women. This was done to ensure Louis XV would not acquire any dreaded venereal disease. But a venereal disease was not Madame de Pompadour’s only fear. There was also fear a girl might get pregnant, similar to O’Murphy. To deal with that, Madame de Pompadour ensured the girls were given a dowry and married off when they became pregnant to unsuspecting men or she ensure that they became the wives of distant relatives of the King’s.
Later, as rumors leaked out about Parc-aux-Cerfs, the stories became more and more exaggerated. Some people claimed thousands of girls passed through the small house and that there were wild orgies. One nineteenth writer likely exaggerated the going-ons at Parc-aux-Cerfs when he wrote:
“Several elegant houses … were used for the reception of women … Hither were brought young girls, sold by their parents, and sometimes forced from them. They left this place loaded with gifts, but almost certain of never more beholding the King who had dishonoured them, even when they bore with them a pledge of his base passion.”
One Victorian writer maintained that the stories about Parc-aux-Cerfs were “far from reality.” Whereas some people claimed the King debauched thousands of innocent girls, other people argued:
“[T]he house was so small that there was ordinarily but one damsel sojourning there at one time, with the woman who had charge of her and the servant who waited upon them both … [and] sometimes the Parc-aux-Cerfs had no tenant for six months in succession.”
Moreover, a “M. Théophile Lavallée estimated the whole number of victims of the Parc-aux-Cerfs at about thirty.”
After Madame de Pompadour died the King had no maîtresse-en-titre for a time. Eventually, however, a Madame du Barry, who was rumored to have also passed through Parc-aux-Cerfs, became the King’s maîtresse-en-titre. She was said to be young, demanding, strikingly beautiful with almond-shaped blue eyes and luxurious golden ringlets. However, when Marie Antoinette learned that she was the king’s mistress, it was said the Dauphine took an instant dislike to her and a contentious relationship between the two women developed.
Despite Madame du Barry’s problems with Marie Antoinette, the King was smitten. Madame du Barry supposedly occupied so much of the old King’s attention and time, that was the reason he sold the house at Parc-aux-Cerfs in 1771, after having kept it for 16 years. When he died, however, Marie Antoinette made sure that her husband got rid of Madame du Barry.
Louis XVI exiled her to the Abbey du Pont-aux-Dames near Meaux-en-Brie. Initially, the nuns were not happy to have her in their midst, but after she opened up and they learned she was timid, they warmed up to her. Eventually she was able to leave the convent but come under suspicion during the revolution of financially assisting émigrés who had fled France. She was arrested for treason, condemned to death, and died on 8 December 1793 when she was beheaded by the guillotine at the Place de la Révolution (now the Place de la Concorde).
-  Campan, Jeanne-Louise-Henriette, Mme., Memoirs of the Court of Marie Antoinette, 1854, p. 254.
-  Saint-Amand, de Imbert, The Women of the Court of Louis XV, 1892, p. 202.
-  Ibid. p. 203.
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