A lover, a prostitute, a royal mistress, a wife, a disgrace, and a traitor. All of these are words often used to describe Madame Du Barry in a time of terrible unrest in France.
Born as the illegitimate child of a seamstress and a friar, little Jeanne Becu was brought into the world with little prospects on August 19, 1743. Her father was not a part of her upbringing leaving Jeanne’s mother sole custody of her until it became too difficult as a single parent. Fortunately for Jeanne, a wealthy benefactor offered his financial support to have her educated at a convent school as a child.
Once school at the convent was complete Jeanne began working at a fashion house in Paris but because of her financial straits and a blatant lack of a decent adult role model, Jeanne began offering services of her own. Within the area of the few blocks surrounding the boutique, the teenager began entertaining men privately to supplement her income and to indulge her in the tastes of high society that she was so obsessed with. The money and gifts were such an incentive that Jeanne continued her “work outside work” and since her exceeding beauty became known around Paris, she became more and more involved with men in high power. Her flowing golden locks of hair and her violet eyes that could capture a man’s heart would lead her into the arms (and bed) of the man that had the power to change her life forever.
Comte (or Count if you are English) Jean Du Barry was a wealthy Gascon noble who had made his fortunes as a war contractor which provided him with connections in Parisian high society, including that of the royal family. Wanting to show off his beautiful mistress to King Louis XV’s court, Jean introduced Jeanne to the King resulting in an instant infatuation. Madame Pompadour who was the previous mistress to King Louis had died in 1764 leaving the king grief stricken and severely depressed. For the first time since Pompadour’s death, Louis had found happiness in another woman but there was a catch that needed attending to first. In order to be a royal mistress in France, the woman must first be married to a noble and Jeanne did not have a husband nor a prospect. Jean, realized that finding Jeanne a noble husband was paramount to Jeanne’s successes but also his own as they could rise in the favor of the king.
Introduce Comte Guillaume Du Barry, Jean’s short, fat, and idiotic brother. Luckily for Guillaume, or maybe even Jeanne, she did not care about the qualities of her husband considering her end goal was to be with the king not her husband. The marriage was arranged between the couple and the now, Comtesse Jeanne Du Barry, arrived at Versailles in April of 1769 starting her new career as official mistress to King Louis XV of France.
To the surprise of no one, Jeanne and the heiress to the throne, Marie Antoinette, did not particularly see eye to eye. Marie was married to Louis XV’s son who would later become King Louis XVI himself. It has been said that Marie refused to look at the royal mistress because of the lowly nature of her birth and did not see fit to address someone of her status. The notion that Marie did not care for her did not bother Jeanne considering she had the protection and support of the king, so this petty quarrel was easily dismissed. It would become much more than just protection and support that Jeanne would receive from him though, making the Parisians jealous and angry of her fast rise into society.
Jeanne being a woman with exceedingly good taste but without a means to support her ever growing desire to wear the highest of fashions, now had the most powerful man in France to buy her anything she wanted. Marie and Jean shared the same dress maker that created the most extravagant of dresses for both ladies, and the two ladies even shared the same hairdresser who provided them with the finest of wigs. Not just any wigs though, the ones that were of fashion during 18th century France were of considerable height, some of Marie’s later wigs while she was queen would nearly double her height.
In the mansion so generously provided for her, the Hotel Du Barry, she would throw exquisite parties with private entertainers for any occasion. The mansion still stands today at 21 Avenue de Paris. None of this would matter though once the scandal of the Diamond Necklace Affair broke around the country. The Affair would be the eventual fall of Marie Antoinette and the possible start of the French Revolution but that story will be reserved for another post since we are focusing of Madame Du Barry. King Louis XV had a necklace designed for Du Barry by jeweler Charles Bohmer in 1772 which had an incredible 2,800 carats of diamonds on it. Such a fanciful gift has been estimated in today’s currency at around $100 million dollars.
Unfortunately for Du Barry, the king died before being able to purchase the necklace from Bohmer. Small pox took the life of the king in May of 1774 and all the lavishness bestowed upon Du Barry by the king could not save her from her fall from grace or the powerful hand of the now Queen of France, Marie Antoinette.
King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette ascended to the throne of France and immediately removed Du Barry from Versailles, never to return again. At first, Du Barry was sent to a convent but only stayed until 1776 when she was transferred to a much more comfortable life at her Chateau at Louveciennes. She would stay at her Chateau, where she enjoyed a rather luxurious lifestyle while never losing her ability to attract lovers of high society, until her death.
All would not continue to be well for Madame Du Barry for in May of 1793 she was arrested and imprisoned at Sainte Pelagie in Paris. Fortune’s Wheel kept spinning for this unfortunate Madame. Jeanne’s trial was held by the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris where the verdict found her guilty of treason by being accused of assisting those escaping the French Revolution. It was a time of dire desperation for Du Barry as she begged for her life to be spared while never losing hope that she would be released. After all her offers of bribery were refused and a transfer to the Conciergerie in December in 1793, her hope had finally been diminished but not evaporated. The Conciergerie was a prison in Paris where once you were transferred there your chances of survival were slim to none.
Now being 50 years of age, the desperation to stave off death became more intense. Du Barry had claimed back in January of 1791 that all of her jewelry had been stolen, even offering rewards if they were found. These jewels were never found as far as Du Barry ever recorded but when the executioner opened the doors to her cell, Jeanne claimed that she knew the location of every jewel she had ever owned, and if her life would be spared, then she would make a list of all of them.
The executioner left only to be replaced by 3 men from the Committee of Public Safety who were sent to make records of all the jewels of Du Barry’s. The 3 hour session ended with a sigh of relief but her release was not afforded for the executioner returned to cut off her hair and tie her hands behind her back. This was the custom for guillotine preparation.
On her trip from the Conciergerie to the Place de la Revolution, Du Barry kicked, screamed, cried and flailed after being put onto the tumbrel that would carry her to her death. It is said that she was the only person of the French Revolution that showed fear of the guillotine, whether or not this is true is a matter of pure speculation. It is known that she would not climb the stairs and she had to be carried before the death machine. She screamed and begged for her life until the blade of the guillotine fell swiftly upon her neck, killing Madame Du Barry on December 7, 1793 at the age of 50.
A wax figure still resides at Madame Tussaud’s of Madame Du Barry dubbed “Sleeping Beauty”. It is the oldest wax figure in the London museum.