Friday Hoyden: Hortense Mancini

C17th miniature portrait of young woman with flowers in her hair.

Hortense Mancini, Duchess Mazarin

In the middle of the 17th Century, an Italian noblewoman brought her five daughters to Paris, where her brother had acquired a position of enormous political power, with the intention of finding them all illustrious husbands. They were pretty, educated, noble, wildly intelligent and gracious good company, so this wasn’t a difficult task in itself. A good marriage on paper, however, bears so little relationship to what the experience of it will be. The five Mancini sisters and their two cousins, nieces of the highly influential Cardinal Mazarin, were collectively referred to at court as “Les Mazarinettes”, which tells us how little France appears to have changed in four hundred-odd years. Hortense Mancini was her uncle’s favourite, and was made his heir. She was married at fifteen to one of the richest men in Europe, who turned out to be an obsessive, violent, controlling abuser.

After seven years, four children, and two rejected petitions to the courts to be permitted to live separately from her husband, Hortense bolted for Rome, and the protection of her older sister. She was forced to leave her children behind. When her sister Marie began to suspect that her own husband, Prince Lorenzo Colonna, was trying to poison her (the Colonna men were famous for murdering their wives), the two of them took flight again. Travelling on horseback, in men’s attire, they arrived in France “with an abundance of jewels but no clean linen”.

Hortense devoted the rest of her life to hosting salons for artists and philosophers, and having a string of high-profile affairs. She was King Charles II’s primary mistress for a time, which brought her a pension to live on. Even after her other affairs (including with one of his daughters) demoted her from her position as his favourite, they remained on good terms. She spent her last twenty-five years in England, dying at fifty-three. She seems to have been captivating to innumerable people, to the very last. Her other known lovers included the Duke of Savoy and the playwright Aphra Behn.

The most extensive online biography of Hortense I could find is actually on a site devoted to the history of Monaco, as their Prince Louis was madly in love with her. Here is an account of her friendly duel with her lover, the Countess of Sussex.

Many portraits were painted of her. This one of her as Diana she commissioned herself.

C17th painting of woman surrounded by animals and servants, bare-breasted, with bow.

Hortense as Diana

If you would like to see a fictionalised adaptation of the lives of Hortense and Marie, drawn from their memoirs and letters, you can come and see this show I’ve been helping out with:




28, 29 March & 3, 4, 5 April

King Street Theatre, 644 King Street, Newtown, Sydney

Tickets $25, $15 concession, available at the door

There will be a Q&A panel, which includes yours truly, after the show on the 3rd

Categories: gender & feminism, history

Tags: ,

17 replies

  1. I don’t normally think “ooh, I wish I lived in Sydney.”
    I love that the portraits of Hortense don’t just show her as a young woman. She never considered herself to be finished or faded: always vital and beautiful and ready for her next adventure.
    I do wonder how adventurous she would have been had she been able to keep her children. Maybe it would have increased her determination to live well and fully: maybe too many obstacles would have been in her way.

  2. I don’t normally think “ooh, I wish I lived in Sydney.”


  3. Interesting post -and I’m happy to learn about the current production in Sydney, which I saw when it was in Boston and enjoyed very much. I have written a biography of Hortense and her sister that your readers might like: The Kings’ Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Hortense Mancini, duchess Mazarin and her sister Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna.

  4. The fabulous tigtog has just agreed to chair the panel for us on Thursday! So one more reason to get there.
    I found this article yesterday on the Marie Mancini pearls (a present from Louis XIV to his first love), which has lots of Marie’s history. Although it does make it sound as if she chose to live for years in convents, instead of it being the agreement she was forced to make with her husband in order for him to let her out of prison.

    • Really looking forward to that panel session, Orlando. A great chance to learn more about one of my favourite periods of history.

  5. I just read a book called ‘Wedlock’ which has a similar situation with an English heiress. I wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you have your blood pressure well under control because it will probably make you very very angry. Also trigger warning for horrific domestic violence.

  6. Wedlock is an outstanding (and violent) story. As an 18thC historian, I got a bit annoyed at some of the interpretations of events, but I doubt anybody but me would care!

  7. Would be interested to hear what you thought was misinterpreted, or perhaps could have had an alternative explanation FA.

  8. To be honest, it was mainly small things that mounted up! The big issue for me was that she didn’t really appreciate how the ‘nature’ of the source material would impact on the evidence it provided, so that a court record was the same as a letter was the same as a pamphlet without ever thinking about how the context they source is made in shapes the story it tells. This meant at times I think she found it difficult to decide who Mary Bowes was, because she took every source at face value. But, of course, many of them provided contradictory evidence – especially as many of her sources were salacious newspaper gossip. So in one chapter, she is a wronged loving mother and the next she is a bit of a heartless hussy.
    On top of it, she didn’t always have the background knowledge. So, she sees the Chancery court as ‘heartless’ because the legal docs don’t consider the children as people and human beings when deciding custody. But the Chancery Court has no jurisdiction over child welfare (in that context at least), it’s about protecting property. So, of course, a set of legal documents aren’t going to express that care and emotion, because it would be meaningless to a judge who has to make a decision based on property interests. It doesn’t mean it would be meaningless to the family using that court to win custody, or that they weren’t motivated by love or care. Another silly example is that she makes a psychological drama about Bowes have ‘reigns’ (for children not animals) amongst her childhood goods, but they were used for teaching children to walk, not as she assumes for restraining them as they are now. Children generally weren’t allowed to crawl and went straight from sitting to walking using reigns to hold them up. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really detract from the main story which is fabulous and generally well researched. But to a historian of the topic and period, it jars a bit!

  9. You can prevent a child from crawling? Also, I presume you mean reins, rather than reigns?
    And Orlando, the blurb on the HaT front page for this is supposed to read “live her life”, not “live her live”.
    The links I read don’t reveal whether Hortense had any further contact with her children after being forced to leave them. Wikipedia told me that they continued to be and marry important and powerful people, but not if they ever saw their mother again.

  10. Thanks for noticing, Arcadia, fixed. I know Hortense at least saw one of her daughters again, because she introduced her to one of her current lovers, and they ran off together!
    Elizabeth, it’s great to see you here. Do you have a favourite fact or story you could share with us, as the person who probably knows more than anyone in the world about Hortense?

  11. Arcadia – yes, when children were swaddled pretty much until they were ready to start walking; crawling was seen as animalistic (at least in the 17th century; the 18th is outside my area).
    Feminist Avatar – oh gods, I hear you! Especially with:

    But, of course, many of them provided contradictory evidence – especially as many of her sources were salacious newspaper gossip. So in one chapter, she is a wronged loving mother and the next she is a bit of a heartless hussy.

    It’s like writers who take the word of that PoS Tallemant des Reaux’s gossip about people decades before, when eyewitness reports contradict him.

  12. Kittehserf is correct. In parts of Europe, crawling was associated with animalism and children were actively restricted from doing it by moving from swaddling into walking, using reins to hold them up and to allow them to build leg strength. By the 18thC, the animalistic elements were no longer a concern, but the way children were trained to walk remained the same, although this was to decline in the latter part of the century.
    A major issue is that there was often nowhere practical for children to crawl. Even in elite houses, dirt floors were the norm until the 18thC (although some of the wealthier had rugs and upper floors might have been wooden). They were often covered with hay or herbs to stop the dust being kicked up, and because the hay caught the dirt and could be replaced regularly for hygiene reasons. This wasn’t exactly a great environment for small children to crawl about in. The ground might also have been cold and damp, depending on where you lived and time of year. In Scotland, it was so damp for much of the year that they couldn’t use plaster on their lower walls as it just crumbled – hence wealthy homes had wood pannelling for longer than elsewhere. So changing mechanisms for teaching children to walk may have been influenced by changing decor and architectural technologies as well as changing ideas about crawling, and also about swaddling (which goes out of fashion).

  13. I love threads like this.

  14. I love threads like this, too.
    Mentioning the weather in Scotland reminds me of the structure of the Iron Age brochs, those double-skinned stone towers. I love the idea of the tower with its walkway and stairs between the walls, and apparently it was a great method of keeping all the water out of the inner layer, hence keeping the living areas on the upper floors dryer and warmer (for a given value of “warm” in a Scottish winter!)
    One thing that gets overstated with the usual image of swaddled babies is how tight the bandages were. A healthy baby could kick out of them by the time it was a few months old; Louis XIV did so, apparently. I imagine Charles II did, too: he was one big bub! Henriette Marie famously wrote to her sister (I think) that people took him for a year old when he was only four months. I hope he wasn’t proportionately big when he was born – Henriette was tiny.

  15. Just noting that the play was most enjoyable, particularly how it played around with the fourth wall and the character/actor mask in a way that emphasised the sisters’ role as convention-breakers.
    I very much enjoyed chairing the discussion panel afterwards, there were some fascinating insights brought out.

  16. Thanks so much for doing it, tigtog. There certainly were a lot of interesting people in the room.

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