The Mancini Sisters: Mistresses and Memoirists

The Mancini Sisters

This article stems from one of the Exhibitions at the Folger: Shakespeare's Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700 curated by Georgianna Ziegler. For more infomation about the Mancini Sisters and the other women and artifacts featured in this exhibition, please consult Shakespeare's Sisters exhibition item list.

Please also visit the archived online exhibition for more content.

An interview with Elizabeth Goldsmith

The following is an interview with Elizabeth Goldsmith about Marie and Hortense Mancini. Goldsmith is the author of The Kings' Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin, and a contributor to the Folger exhibition Shakespeare's Sisters: Voices of European Women, 1500-1700.

Marie and Hortense Mancini seem like such incredible women, very ahead of their time. Why don’t more people know about them today?

That’s an interesting question. In the United States, most people don’t know about them. Bits and pieces of their lives are very well known in France and in England. In Marie’s case, this is the story of her romance with Louis XIV. In French history, their teenage romance has become a legend confirming the process of growing up that Louis had to do, because he had to sacrifice her in order to make a royal marriage. But the rest of their lives are less known.

There were actually more Mancinis than just Marie and Hortense. What happened to the other girls?

There were three other sisters; each of them had interesting lives as well and was successfully married off. The oldest was Laure Mancini. She married a French nobleman but died young, in her 20s, in childbirth.

Olympia married Eugene Maurice, Count of Soissons, and took advantage of it right away. She was more of an intriguer. In the end, she was implicated in some scandalous criminal affairs at the French court and exiled for a period. She was not a timid soul by any means!

The youngest was Marie-Anne. She married a duke, Godefroy Maurice de La Tour d'Auvergne, and ran a sophisticated salon in Paris for writers and artists.

What do we know about the marriages of Marie and Hortense Mancini, and their experiences as royal mistresses?

After Marie’s experience as the mistress of Louis XIV she was exiled to a remote fortress on the Atlantic coast. She was released after she agreed to an arranged marriage to Lorenzo Colonna.

It seems the first years of the marriage weren’t that unhappy. She enjoyed a lot of prestige and he enjoyed having a highly-placed French wife. After they had three children, Lorenzo started having affairs, which enraged Marie. She decided she wanted what was known as “a separation of beds,” and he wasn’t willing to grant her that, and their relationship became very tense. She started fearing that he would plot to kill her and marry someone else. He was capable of it, he’d orchestrated the deaths of his enemies before.

Hortense had a clearly miserable marriage from the beginning. She was married to a religious fanatic who was also half-mad. She tried legal means to get a separation and wasn’t able to get it. So she decided she needed to just run away. She had had four children in four years and was 22 when she left.

Everyone took a look at Hortense’s husband and knew immediately why she left, but Marie’s husband was more subtle. His was a cat and mouse game.

What were the contemporary reactions to Marie and Hortense?

It’s hard to find much concrete evidence of expressions of envy or admiration, although they did have some prominent advocates who fought on their behalf. There is a lot of press coverage that tends towards gossipy and scandalous. There is a lot of observation of their movements and speculation about where they would travel, and people following them with excitement.

There are also some more intellectual debates about the whole question of divorce, and under what circumstance does a woman have a right to split from her husband and retain her dowry. Then we have letters where people are writing about them; in one case, there are letters between a man and woman and the man is much more sympathetic to Hortense. So reactions don’t always divide along gender lines.

Did Marie and Hortense Mancini view themselves as revolutionary?

I don’t think they saw what they were doing as contributing to a political or ideological movement. But they were definitely iconoclastic and opposed a number of injustices that women of their time had to face. In their memoirs and in their lives, they are advocating for other women and for themselves.

Other media

Hear Ziegler discuss the Mancini sisters.