The Duchess of Navailles is unjustly punished by Louis XIV for upholding honor

September 16, 2010


It was about this time that the king appeared to attach himself to Mademoiselle de La Motte-Houdancourt, maid of honor to the queen….

The Duchesse de Navailles, lady of honor to the queen, believed herself obliged, in the discharge of her duties, one of which is the care of the maids of honor, to oppose the king’s sentiments. She spoke to him often as a Christian and an honest woman. At first the king merely showed that he did not like these disagreeable little harangues; on other occasions also he seemed ill-pleased; but this was shown in so civil a manner that she thought she had no reason to fear his anger.

Some time went by in this way; but at last the desire for victory, and the annoyance that opposition causes in the breasts of men, particularly those of sovereigns, made themselves strongly felt in the king’s heart. He let Madame de Navailles know that she was exposing herself to the danger of displeasing him, and he commanded her, through Le Tellier, not to meddle any longer with the behavior of the queen’s maids of honor; and he even had several methods proposed to her of accommodating his wishes under honorable appearances. She answered the minister that it would not be fulfilling her obligations to cease to do her duty; and that so long as the king was pleased to leave her in her office, she should do the functions of it in the best manner possible to her.

Then the king became angry in good earnest, and told her she ought to fear what he could do against her; and that she had better refrain from disobeying him, out of consideration for her own interests. She replied that she had already considered them, and saw all the evils that the loss of his good graces might cause her; and then, enumerating herself her offices and those of her husband, she told him that the withdrawal of all those benefits could not change the resolution she had made to satisfy the duty of her conscience. She conjured him to seek elsewhere than in the household of the queen the objects of his pleasure and his inclinations, inasmuch as he appeared to have done so already in the person of Mademoiselle de La Vallière.

The king grumbled, and seemed vexed and out of temper; but that evening, or the next day, Madame de Navailles being in the queen’s bedroom, leaning against the silver balustrade, the king came up to her and, offering his hand with a gentle and favorable manner, asked for peace. He did this action not only as a great prince, striving to vanquish himself by triumphing over his weakness, but also as a very honest man who had too much sense to refuse to give his esteem to one who deserved it.

Madame de Navailles acted after this for quite a time without constraint, and the king seemed satisfied. He continued, however, to meet Mademoiselle de La Motte-Houdancourt at the rooms of the Comtesse de Soissons, who fostered this passion in the heart of the king as much as she could. She hated the Duchesse de Navailles…

The king’s heart was filled with the human follies which in youth make the false happiness of many an honorable man. He let himself be gently led by his passions, and chose to satisfy them. He was then at Saint-Germain, and had taken a habit of going to the apartment of the queen’s maids of honor. As the entrance to their chamber was forbidden by the sternness of the lady of honor, he often talked with Mademoiselle de La Motte-Houdancourt through a hole in the partition, which was made of pine boards.

Château de Fontainebleau

Photo taken by Carolus

I was at this time in Paris, and had gone to the Val-de-Grâce in attendance on the queen-mother. There I met my friend, Madame de Navailles, and saw her anxiety. She told me of the position in which the king placed her by his eagerness for the girl, and said that she had just consulted a learned and pious man as to her duty in the matter, whose answer had been decisive. He told her she was bound to lose all her establishments rather than fail in her duty by criminal compliance. She seemed to me resolved to follow that advice; but it was not without shedding a great many tears, and feeling the anguish in which these two great alternatives threw her. On her return to Saint-Germain, she learned by her spies that men of good appearance had been seen at night on the gutters and around certain chimneys which from the roof could lead adventurers into the apartment of the maids of honor. The zeal of the Duchesse de Navailles was now so great that, without checking herself, or seeking means to prevent with less scandal the thing she feared, she at once ordered all these passages closed with iron gratings. By this action she preferred her duty to her fortunes, and the fear of offending God was greater in her than the desire to be agreeable to the king, which in the eyes of the people of the great world is the greatest pleasure to be enjoyed at a Court, when it can be done innocently.

It is not amazing that the king was now in good earnest irritated against the Duchesse de Navailles, saying that he only pressed the adventure in order to annoy her, and that her boastful virtue could no longer be borne. But as he had in all things a marvelous power over himself, he did not show at this time all that he felt about the iron gratings, and concealed his vexation under the ridicule and contempt with which he spoke of them. But he did not forget them, and his remembrance brought grievous results on those who had dared to resist him…. He complained to the Duc de Navailles for not restraining his wife from doing what might be disagreeable to him, and blamed him for seeming to approve of her conduct. The queen-mother valued the feelings of both husband and wife, and often told the Duchesse de Navailles to continue to act virtuously, assuring her that some day the king would praise her for it….

Shortly after, the king, followed by the queens and all the Court, went to establish himself at Fontainebleau for part of the summer. It was there that, on a mere word which the Duc de Navailles said to him in speaking of a matter of little consequence relating to the cavalry, the king showed anger to him publicly, and the ruin of himself and wife was determined. They received commands (June, 1664) to give in their resignation of Havre-de-Grâce, of the lieutenancy of the light-horse cavalry, and the office of lady-of-honor.

Memoirs of Madame De Motteville on Anne of Austria and Her Court, trans. Katharine Prescott Wormeley (Boston: Hardy, Pratt & Company, 1902), Vol. III, pp. 277-281, 296-297).

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 7

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