Sex, Power & the French Revolution: The scandalous life of Madame Du Barry

A cheap whore that got lucky; that’s the general historic consensus on Jeanne Bécu, more commonly known as Madame Du Barry. The rival of Marie Antoinette, scandalous mistress of Louis XV and joke of the French Revolution.

But I’d argue that there is WAY more to this lady than history has warranted her. 

The tale of Madame Du Barry verges on unbelievable. This is a story jam packed with love, sex and an EXTRODINARY  leading lady – oh, and at the end the entire cast is beheaded…

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Go on….

Jeanne Bécu was quite literally born into scandal. The illegitimate daughter of a seamstress, she was the result of a remoured (a quickly covered up) love affair with a local friar.

Yet despite her salacious start in life, Jeanne had a priveledged upbringing.

Her mother worked for an incredibly wealthy and powerful man, who just happened to be her former lover. This worked in favour of the precocious young Jeanne and she became an unofficial part of the household. Doted on by the staff, her  mother’s boss and even his mistress.

But this lush life came to a sudden end when Jeannes Mum married. The days of being showered with attention and gifts were over. And the family moved away from the household that had so adored Jeanne.

Soon money became more of an issue and Jeanne was shipped off to a convent.

Unsurprisngly this was not an environment that suited the fun loving and feisty Jeanne.

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Convents, not the natural home for teenage sass…

So as soon as she could Jeanne left the convent. And at just 15, Jeanne was making a living on the streets of Paris.

She worked selling low grade trinkets in the cities dingy side streets. In addition to a string of other short lived jobs and even shorter lived affairs…

Just surviving day to day was a struggle, but Jeanne still remembered her small taste of oppulance. She was determined to get that life back and was more than happy to work her arse off to get it.

Her endless jobs, hard work and good looks, caught peoples attention. Soon the back streets of Paris were abuzz about the beautiful and charismatic Jeanne.

A young Jeanne by François-Hubert Drouais
A young Jeanne by François-Hubert Drouais

Jean-Baptiste du Barry, had heard all about Jeannes beauty and he decided he wanted her on his books.

A ‘procurer’ of high class mistresses (read, Pimp) Du Barry thought Jeanne would be his crowning jewel and was desperate for her to join his merry band of mistresses.

Jeanne was totally down with this!

Becoming a mistress to the Parisian elite would allow Jeanne to get out of the gutter, maintain much of her independence, AND earn more money than she could dream of.

Finally Jeannes’ ship had come in… even if it was driven by Captain Creep.

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An accurate representation of Jean-Baptiste du Barry

Despite Captain Creep being at the wheel, Jeanne took Paris by storm. Becoming the mistress to political power players and influential courtiers.

She was the IT girl and everyone wanted a piece of her…including The King of France.

Jeanne had caught the Kings eye during a quick trip to Versailles (to see one of her many lovers) and upon meeting her King Louis XV was immediately entranced.

The king announced he wanted Jeanne as his main mistress. 

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The King in question, Louis XV

Slight snag; only titled, married, noble women could become the Kings mistress and Jeanne was a girl from the back streets of Paris with no ounce of noble blood…

But no matter! This was love!!

And so in a very real Cinderella story, the Kings men searched all the brothels of Paris, for the creep that could make their dreams come true.

And they found him!

Jeanne was married to her former pimp, Jean-Baptiste du Barry’s brother. He was then promptly paid to fuck off, making Jeanne just technically married.

The King then invented a fictional noble lineage for Jeanne, before transforming her old clothes into a fabulous gown and lavishing her with one of the most ornate wigs French court had ever seen.

Jeanne was now Madame Du Barry, and she was ready for her official debut as royal mistress extraordinaire.

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I’m shocked Disney has not made this yet!!!

Sadly the French Court didn’t get the whole ‘Cinderella story’ memo.

To them Jeanne was a ‘whore’. Sure she’d been cleaned up, but she was nothing more than a cheap guttersnipe who got lucky.

Women literally had to be bribed to become friends with Jeanne.

Those that didn’t ‘befriend’ Jeanne, remained irate that this strumpet had been chosen as mistress over noble born ladies. And so, in true OTT mean girls spirit, they started spreading rumour and gossip filled pamphlets about Jeanne across court.

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Who knew Mean Girls was inspired by Versailles?!

Almost as soon as she arrived at court, Jeanne had everyone around her actively pushing for her failure.

But she didn’t buckle. Instead Jeanne did what she always did. Worked.

Taking up classes in manners and etiquette, to help own her new role.

Not only that but just to prove that she was more than the cheap gold digger she was painted as, Jeannes first favour from the King wasn’t a request for money, political power or jewels…it was for mercy.

Infact, Jeanne became known for saving people from execution; falling to her knees and refusing to get up until the King agreed to spare lives.

She notably saved a debt ridden couple from beheading and a young women who was due to be hung after not reporting her still born child as dead.

Things were looking up for Jeanne,as she started cementing her place in court.

And then Marie Antionette turned up.

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In 1770 Marie Antionette married the Kings grandson (and heir).  joining the French Court.

Upon seeing Jeanne, Marie asked what she did and was told that Jeanne gave the King ‘pleasure.’

To which Marie Antionette said:

‘Oh, then I shall be her rival, because I too wish to give pleasure to the King.”

Yeah… Marie Antionette was very green.

But sadly if Jeanne thought that sweet (and VERY naive) Marie was going to be her first real friend at Court, she was all kinds of wrong.

She had in fact just met her very own Regina George (in sheeps clothing)

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This bitch..

When Marie Antoinette discovered what Jeannes job actually was, she was disgusted. Feeling that Jeannes mere presence was degrading.

BUT Marie’s hatred of Jeanne wasn’t just down to properiety.

Marie Antoinette was just weeks into her marriage, but she was still struggling to have sex with her new husband. Infact the pair hadn’t even consummated the damn thing!

Now this openly sexual woman was being thrust in her face constantly.

That’s not the basis for a lasting living friendship.

And so, egged on by the court, Marie Antoinette did what any young woman does when faced with someone they hate….

she froze the bitch out.

Marie Antoinette and her entourage indulged in long bitch sessions about Jeanne and developed a fun habit of throwing lavish parties…where Marie just accidentally always forgot to invite the Kings Mistress.

Not only that but Marie Antoinette refused to acknowledge Jeanne in public.

Now this wasn’t like the parties and snide comments. This was a HUGE deal. For Marie to not acknowledge the Kings mistress broke all kinds of court etiquette and appeared to send a message that she was questioning the Kings decision making.

It’s the historic equivalent of you striding across the office, punching your bosses PA in the face, flipping their desk and calling them a bitch.

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Big no no!

But it wasn’t just Marie going after Jeanne. Shots had been fired by both sides in this battle.

Jeanne orchestrated the removal of one of Marie Antoinette favourite courtiers. She also loved nothing more than openly and loudly talking about Marie Antoinettes bedroom issues with her new husband.

BUT Marie Antoinette icing out Jeanne had taken things to far… it had gone from a mutual dislike to an actual threat to Austrian French relation. This fued had to end!

So on New Years Day 1772, Marie Antoinette ended the fight in style.

She cooly walked over to Jeanne in one of Versailles packer corridors. Waiting until she had everyone’s attention, Marie stared Jeanne down and said

“There are a lot of people today at Versailles”  

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The weirdly polite shade of it all!

With the feud between Marie Antoinette and Jeanne now at an end, you’d be forgiven for thinking things would chill out for Jeanne.

Nope!

In April 1774 King Louis XV caught Smallpox.

By May he was dead.

Marie Antoinette and her husband were now ruling France…and with Jeannes’ rival now Queen, that could only mean one thing.

Jeanne was out on her arse. 

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Madame Du Barry, by Elisabeth Vigée LeBrun

Just like that, Jeanne was once more sent to a convent.

But she didn’t stay there for long. Jeannes’ mistress-ing work had paid off and she could afford to buy herself an amazing house out in the country. Out of the way of Marie Antionette but still the lap of luxury, it was perfect.

So there Jeanne lived. Hosting salons for Frances best artists, doing charity work in her local area and taking as many lovers as she wanted,

But we all know that this story can’t end in pastoral bliss. Why?

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION! 

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‘Do you hear the people sing, singing this won’t end well’

By the 1790s, the revolution was in full swing. Many of the courtiers that Jeanne knew, had already met with the Guillotine and so she was doing her best to keep a low profile out in the country.

But then in 1791, Jeanne had her jewels stolen in the night.

Desperate to get them back she launched an investigation. Traveling between France and London to look for them.

King Louis XVs mistress running around Europe on a hunt for her missing jewels soon caught attention…and not the right kind.

It turns out the French Revolution is not the climate in which to become a bougie Carmen Sandiego. The people were calling out for Jeannes blood.

In 1793 she was arrested and on the 7th Dec that year, Jeanne was sentenced to death. Madame du barry.jpg

Jeanne was an emotional wreck (to be fair, wouldn’t you be!?!) she was to die the next day and had no clue how to get out of it.

But then she had an idea!

In the morning, when guards arrived to cut off Jeannes hair -in preparation for her execution-she calmly told them that she wanted just a few hours grace, so she could tell the Revolutionaries where a load of her valuable jewels were.

Surely these stupidly expensive jewels would result in her freedom.

So Jeanne spent hours informing the guards of where all her hidden gems were.

After she finished the guards left….and the hairdresser came back to chop off Jeannes hair in preparation for the Guillotine.

This was the Revolution; they weren’t going to play fair. 

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Yeah…not known as the most friendly time in history

When Jeanne boarded the wagon that was to take her and the other doomed nobles to the Guillotine, she was a damn wreck.

The French elite prided themselves on remaining stone faced as they traveled to their deaths. They wouldn’t show a flicker of emotion about their imminent demise.

Jeanne wasn’t playing this game.

Whilst the others in the cart stayed haughtily neutral. Jeanne screamed, wept and begged onlookers to help her.

This unnerved the gathering crowds. Jeanne was the first person they had ever seen show any kind of fear about the whole ‘about to get my head chopped off’ thing. Suddenly this wasn’t such a fun day out…

When the cart arrived at the Guillotine, Jeanne was too scared to get out, having to be bundled onto the scaffold ‘like an animal’.

She continued weeping, wailing to the crowd

‘You are going to hurt me! Why?’

Then she saw the executioner and broke down even more.

Rather than enjoying themselves, as usual, the crowd was clearly deeply unnerved by what was about to happen. This caused the executioner to work faster than usual.

He thrust Jeanne onto the Guillotine. She turned to him crying:

‘one moment more, please monsieur, do not hurt me’

As Jeanne cried for mercy, the blade came down. Madame Du Barry 4

And so ends the tale of Jeanne, more commonly known as, Madame Du Barry. A woman who pulled herself out of poverty and into power. Who lived openly as a sexual being and in doing so felt the wrath of those around her.

Who overcame time after time, only to die at the hands of those she had grown up with.

This was interesting, where do I find out more? It’s weirdly hard to get hold of decent books on Madame Du Barry. A lot seem to have gone out of print/don’t exist in most  book shops/online outlets.

So first, check out your local library and if that leaves you empty handed, I fully suggest checking out the below:

Madame Du Barry, The Wages of Beauty by Joan Haslip 

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