Ortensia Mancini was born in Rome in 1646, the fourth of the five celebrated Mancini Sisters, daughters of the sister of Cardinal Mazarin, the chief advisor of the young King Louis XIV of France and reputed lover of his mother, Anne of Austria. After their father’s death in 1650, the Mancini girls were brought to France by their mother, who hoped that her brother would help find rich and titled husbands for her brood of girls: Laure, Olympe, Marie, Marie Anne and Ortensia, who became Hortense as soon as her exquisitely silk shod feet set foot on French soil.
Along with their two cousins, Laura and Anne Marie Martinozzi, the five Mancini girls were to become the talk of Paris thanks to their sumptuous dark haired, olive skinned beauty and wild, flamboyant manners, with the young Hortense, her uncle’s favourite niece being the most badly behaved of them all as she grew up into a bold eyed beauty, who was absolutely impossible to resist.
Madame Mancini’s ambitions were not to be disappointed as one by one her daughters married into the oldest families in France, attracting aristocratic husbands both with their good looks, family connections and enormous dowries, which were provided by their doting uncle.
For a brief while it looked as though the loveliest of the girls, Marie would end up married to Louis XIV himself – she was his first ever love and he even bought the exiled English Queen Henrietta Maria’s pearls for her as a present, but it was not to be and instead she was packed off back to Italy to marry the Prince of Colonna.
Then, in 1659, it was Hortense’s turn to have a brush with a royal engagement when the exiled and impoverished Charles II asked her uncle for her lovely hand in marriage, hoping that a combination of her wealth and family connections could be the answer to a lot of his problems. Alas for Hortense, his proposal was swiftly turned down. Of course they might have felt differently had they known that only a few months later, Charles II would regain his throne and be invited back to England to rule again. Mazarin effected a rapid about face and offered Charles an astonishingly huge dowry of 5 million Livres to take on his favourite niece as his bride, but Charles, perhaps still chagrined and humiliated by their reaction to his original proposal turned down both Hortense and her money.
Not that Hortense seemed to mind for on the 1st of March 1661, at the age of fifteen she was married to one of the richest men in all Europe, the Duc de Meilleraye, with the couple being declared Duc and Duchesse de Mazarin after their wedding day. If anything proves the old adage that money can’t buy you happiness, it is the badly matched marriage of Hortense Mancini.
Her new husband, Armand-Charles was twenty nine years old and probably due to his enormous fortune had been allowed to have his own way for a very long way. This can be the making of some men, but in the case of the Duc de Mazarin, it meant that he fell into some very peculiar modes of behaviour. Amongst his many iniquities, it is said that he coupled extreme sexual jealousy towards his young wife with an over the top sense of morality, which led to his insisting that the front teeth of female servants be knocked out lest they attract men with their toothsome smiles and that dairy maids be forbidden from milking cows lest the sight of their hands manipulated udders inflame the sexual ardours of any passing men.
To Hortense’s annoyance, his behaviour towards herself was insanely jealous and distrustful, involving nightly searches of her rooms to look for hidden paramours, forbidding her from being alone with any men and insistence that she spend much of her day praying in the chapel for forgiveness for the sins of the flesh.
In the end and rather inevitably, Hortense decided that she had had enough and began a relationship with a female friend of her own age, one Sidonie de Courcelles. Both girls were very happy with this arrangement until Hortense’s outraged husband had them both packed off to a convent (one wonders what Sidonie’s family thought of this), where they spent their days playing pranks and trying to escape by climbing up the chimneys.
It is astonishing perhaps to learn that in the midst of all this marital woe, the ill assorted pairing that was Hortense and Armand-Charles managed to have four children before she decided on the night of the 13th June 1668 that she had had enough of him and ran away to Rome to live with her sister, Marie.
Life for a woman separated from her husband could be vilely unpleasant in the seventeenth century, a time when women were considered nothing more than the property of their menfolk but Hortense was no ordinary woman and managed to obtain the support of Louis XIV himself, who gave her a large pension that enabled her to live independently, which she proceeded to do – setting up home in Haute-Savoie, where she became the mistress of the Duke de Savoie until his death in 1675, whereupon his jealous wife sent her packing.
At this point, fortune struck Hortense a further blow when her spiteful husband took control of all of her finances, including her pension from Louis XIV, leaving her totally penniless. The situation was looking dire indeed until Ralph Montagu, the English ambassador to Rome saw in her the perfect opportunity to improve his own situation in England, where one’s influence at court depended on how well you got on with the latest of the King’s mistress. Montagu hoped that if he managed to insert Hortense into Charles’ bed and get rid of the current occupant, Louise de Kerouaille, then he would be able to curry favour with the King and secure for himself all manner of untold loot.
Hortense, always intrepid, instantly agreed to this plan and in 1675 she disguised herself as a man and headed off to England, ostensibly to visit her cousin, Mary of Modena, who had married Charles’ younger brother, James but really with the absolute intention of making herself the King’s latest mistress.
Of course it didn’t take long for her plan to succeed and by the Summer of 1676, Hortense was sleeping with the King and had been granted a pension of £4,000 a year, which enabled her to live very well indeed in London, much to the chagrin of the displaced Louise de Kerouaille.
By all accounts (mostly her own), Hortense had a great time in England and took a procession of lovers including Charles’ daughter by Barbara Castlemaine, Anne, Countess of Sussex who was besotted with her. The two women are said to have had a public fencing match in St James’ Park while dressed in their night gowns and cheered on by a crowd of courtiers. This was to be the final straw for Anne’s long suffering husband however and he would promptly have her packed off to their country home, where she proceeded to pine for Hortense and spend days lying in bed, kissing her miniature.
Charles II seems to have been relatively good humoured about Hortense’s love life but then quarreled with her when she started sleeping with the Prince de Monaco, which seems to have been a step too far in his opinion. The quarrel turned out to be a serious one and resulted in Hortense losing her all important royal pension and also her position as official mistress, much to the relief of poor Louise de Kerouaille who was promptly restored to her original position.
Despite the end of her royal affair, Hortense and Charles remained good friends until his untimely death on the 6th of February 1685 and she would remain in the good books of his brother and successor James as well as those of James’ daughter Mary and her husband William who succeeded him later on. Hortense was to remain in England for the rest of her life, living a comfortable and elegant life in her house in Chelsea, surrounded by books and art and the centre of a coterie of witty and intellectual friends.
The beautiful Hortense was to die at the age of fifty three on the 9th of November 1699 of unknown causes with some saying that she committed suicide while others, including John Evelyn, claiming that she had basically drunk herself to death. To the shock of everyone, her estranged husband (remember him?) insisted upon seizing her body after her death and then proceeded to take it with him wherever he went, much like Juana of Castile and the corpse of her husband, Philip the Fair.
Interestingly, the beautiful Mademoiselles des Nesles (the five sisters, of whom four were to be mistresses of Louis XV) who I wrote about recently were descended from Hortense via her son, Paul, Duc de Mazarin.