“Love me right, or we’re gonna fight.”
~Hortense Mancini, probably
This week’s mistress spotlight falls upon Hortense Mancini, an Italian aristocrat who was considered one of the most beautiful women alive in the 1660s-1680s, as well as one of the wealthiest. Her large fortune was gifted to her upon the death of her wealthy uncle in an amount between 190 million-280 million dollars. Despite her massive fortune and vast network of nobility, by 1676, Hortense found herself in England seeking asylum with Charles II, an arrival that sent the king’s previous lovers (Nell Gwyn and Louise, Duchess of Portsmouth) into despair.
Born into an aristocratic Italian family, Hortense Mancini was no stranger to glittering balls, intellectual salons, or the company of kings. Her own sister, Marie, was the first true love affair of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV. At the age of 6 Hortense and her family moved to France where she lived exclusively until her marriage at the age of 16. Ironically, Charles II proposed to Hortense in 1559, but at the time, he had no clear claim to England’s throne and the match was rejected outright by Hortense’s uncle, the Cardinal Mazarin. Instead, Hortense was married to French nobleman, Armand Charles de la Porte, known as the Duc of Mazarin following his marriage to Hortense on March 1, 1661.
By all accounts the marriage was happy at first, and the couple even had four children together! However, Armand was a jealous man and began to show signs of abuse. Hortense was utterly isolated in her marriage and her husband fired servants that she liked, forced her to travel with him on his many royal assignments (even while she was pregnant), and spent her massive fortune however he pleased, denying her the same right. Several sources suggest he became a religious fanatic, going so far as to cover or remove exposed genitals from statues and famous portraits; at one time he even considered knocking out the front teeth of his daughters to discourage their vanity! By 1666 Hortense decided she had had enough and filed for separation from her husband on the legal grounds that his excessive spending would lead to their son having no inheritance.
Armand’s response? Sending his wife to a convent–classic.
Actually, Hortense had to be sent to several convents because she had a great love of playing pranks on the nuns who kept her. In one nunnery, she befriended the Countess Sidonie de Courcelles, who was held in the convent by a husband with a similar, cruel disposition. Together they spent their days running around the convent, causing the older nuns to sprain their ankles in the constant chase! On one occasion, believing that Armand was coming to forcibly remove Hortense, the two friends hid in a chimney where Hortense got stuck and had to be pulled from the tight space. Some historians suggest a romantic affair began between Hortense and the Countess during this time, a theory that holds some water considering the Countess later lived with Hortense while once again hiding from her own husband.
Eventually, with the help of her brother and some early support from King Louis XIV, Hortense was able to escape her husband by cross-dressing as a man and riding on horseback across Europe, staying for extended periods with friends and presumed lovers in Geneva, Milan, and Rome. This cross-dressing escape also raises eyebrows for those who believe Hortense was perhaps bisexual. However, by her own account, she was never very well disguised, and people recognized her as a woman during her escape because she was so beautiful, no one believed she was a man.
At long last, in 1676 Hortense found herself on the much safer shores of England where her reputation as a great beauty proceeded her. Before she ever met with Charles II, poems were written about how the king would inevitably discard his current mistress, Louise the Duchess of Portsmouth, in favor of the Italian Hortense. One poet dreamt of the moment when Louise and Hortense would meet and wrote:
“Dressed to advantage, this illustrious pair
Arrived, for combat in the list appear
What may the fates design! For never yet
From distant regions two such beauties met.”
Charles II was immediately smitten and took it upon himself to personally protect Hortense, refusing to send her back to her husband. At one point, Charles II even wrote directly to Armand to “inflame his jealousy,” assuring the rejected Duke that his wife was comfortable and happy living at Whitehall Palace.
While at Whitehall, the king and Hortense formed a very close relationship that included the young and impressionable Anne, Countess of Sussex. The Countess helped facilitate the couple’s late-night meetings between bedchambers, but she also spent so much time with Hortense, that the Count of Sussex became suspicious of their friendship. On one December evening, the two women ran from the palace dressed in their nightgowns and had a friendly, but very public fencing match in St. James Park. Questions arose about this incident and the Count of Sussex decided to remove his wife from court, separating the Countess from Hortense indefinitely. This, of course, fueled the rumors of Hortense’s bisexuality, which then only increased when the exiled Countess had a figurine made in Hortense’s likeness, which she reportedly kissed obsessively to console herself in isolation.
Hortense did not remain the official royal mistress for very long and Duchess Louise reclaimed her place as mistress en titre. However, Hortense did maintain her friendship with Charles II, his successor James II, and eventually, she found her true calling during the rule of William and Mary. Hortense Mancini is one of the best known women to hold intellectual salons that included the great artists and writers of London- similar to the French salons made famous by Marguerite of Navarre. Discussions of philosophy, religion, and culture flowed freely in the chambers of this former mistress-turned-cultural-icon. After a life full of rebellion, passionate love affairs, and international fame, Hortense died in 1699 at the age of 53.
Rival Sultanas: Nell Gwyn, Louise de Keroualle, and Hortense Mancini (by H. Noel Williams) Memoirs (by Hortense Mancini)
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