Hortense Mancini was one of the famous Marazinettes, the nieces of the influential Cardinal Mazarin, who were sort of like the Kardashians of late-seventeenth century Europe but with Latin tutors and the occasional public fencing match.
The girls met with both fascination and disapproval, for their beauty, wit and free-spiritedness within the confines of the deeply sexist society of the day.
Hortense Mancini in particular was known for her glamorous looks, her intelligence and her non-conformity.
After turning down an offer marriage from King Charles II of England, who was then in exile following the execution of his father Charles I at the end of the English Civil War, her uncle arranged her marriage to Armand Charles de La Porte de La Meilleraye.
Hortense was only 15-years-old when she married the 29-year-old Armand, in March 1661.
Armand was already one of the richest men in Europe and his fortune increased when the Cardinal Mazarin died scarcely more than a week after the marriage, leaving both titles and fortune to his niece’s new husband.
Part of this inheritance was the cardinal’s famous art collection, which included one of the greatest collections of classical Greek and Roman sculpture even amassed.
But despite wealth and fortune, the marriage was doomed to failure from the start.
Armand was mentally unstable and deeply devout, prone to fits of religiously-tinged mania.
He was insanely jealous of his teenage bride and forbade her even the most innocent pastimes… like playing Blind Man’s Bluff with her servants. In her biography, written after their separation, Hortense recounts many acts of petty spite and cruelty on the part of her husband.
But the stories she leaves out of her memoirs are the most shocking.
According to other accounts – possibly apocryphal – Armand was so obsessed with sexual sin, that he forced his female servants to have their front teeth chipped out to make them less attractive to men, a fate he even considered for his own daughter until he could be dissuaded.
It was also reported that he forbade his milkmaids from spending too much time milking cows (literally the job of a milkmaid) because he felt that udders had sexual connotations and believed that the Angel Gabriel had appeared to him in a dream, warning him to tell the King of France to have fewer affairs.
A warning which we are sure the King of France appreciated.
Regardless of the veracity of some of the more lurid stories, at least one of his acts of religious mania is well documented.
In 1670 he took a hammer to the nude statues he had inherited from the Cardinal Mazarin, smashing the genitals and obscuring paintings he deemed too licentious with black paint. These actions were met with widespread consternation from educated Parisian society of the day and the damage is still visible on works which have since found their way into public collections.
We know too, that he insisted Hortense live with him in seclusion on his country estates, far from her friends and family, away from the temptations of court life.
And when she proved too rebellious he had her sent to a convent.
At the convent she struck up a relationship with another errant teenage bride Marie-Sidonie de Courcelles, who had been imprisoned there by her own husband for adultery, and the two young women tormented the nuns with pranks – like putting ink in the Holy Water and climbing up the chimney to escape.
After giving birth to four of his children, Hortense finally escaped her husband after seven years of unhappy marriage.
Dressed in men’s clothing, she travelled hundreds of miles by horseback to seek refuge with her older sister Marie Mancini, Princess of Colonna.
For the next few years of her life, the intrepid and charismatic young woman travelled the courts of Europe, finally arriving in England and the court of Charles II in 1675.
Charles II – who had wanted to marry Hortense, while he was still in exile fifteen years before – was struck immediately by her beauty and vivacity.
This famously libidinous king installed her as one of his principal mistresses and gave her vast sums of money to help pay off her enormous debts.
Their affair was less long lasting than some of Charles II more famous extra-marital relations, such as his long-standing relationship with Barbara Villiers, Countess of Cleveland or his romance with actress Nell Gwynn.
However, it gave Hortense some stability in her exile and rocketed her to the centre of English courtly life, despite her precarious financial and social position as a wife on the run from her husband, at a time during which it was almost impossible for women to secure legal divorce.
But not everyone was a keen on Hortense as King Charles II.
Her scandalous way of living attracted as much disapproval, as it did fascination.
The king also found her infidelity difficult to tolerate. Her affairs with both men and women were the object of much speculation, including an alleged romance with the king’s illegitimate daughter by Barbara Villiers, Lady Anne Palmer.
But it was her affair with Louis I, Prince of Monaco that finally put an end to the Hortense’s time as Charles’ principal mistress. When the affair became public knowledge the king cut off Hortense’s pension, although it was quickly reinstated and the two remained friends until Charles’ death in 1680.
Hortense died in 1699. Up until her death, she enjoyed the patronage of the British Royal Court even after the deposition of her niece Mary of Modena’s husband, James II, by his son-in-law and daughter, the Protestant monarchs William III and Mary II.
She lived in London cultivating her own salon of poets and intellectuals, carrying on affairs into her middle age, including one with the young Earl of Albemarle, who was also rumoured to be the lover of William III.
Despite her Royal pensions, towards the end of her life her financial situation worsened and she is reported to have been drinking heavily at the time of her death, although rumours she committed suicide are most likely unfounded.
As one of the first secular women to publish an autobiography, Hortense Mancini has secured her place in the history of women recording their own lives in their own words.
Her memoirs were written in part to document the abuses she suffered at the hands of her husband, to lend weight to her case for separation, and to rehabilitate her own reputation in the face of breathless gossip and rumour-mongering, which persists even to this day in relation to her own life and legend.
Her beauty and her charisma made her famous and paved her way through the courts of Europe, often via the bedroom, however her adventures can also be seen as the attempts of an intelligent and at times desperate woman, to live life on terms compatible with her own sense of honour and dignity.
Despite her wealth and social position, her status as a woman made her entirely dependent on the patronage of powerful men – from the uncle who married her off as a teenager, to her mad husband, to the royals she seduced for political protection and financial security.
By choosing to record and publish her own history, she makes the implicit statement that her life was more than just scandal and ephemera. She grants herself a significance that goes beyond simply her relationships with men and emerges as a person in her own right.
Sadly immediately following her death, she was not granted the dignity that her memoirs have afforded her in posterity.
Her estranged husband, determined in the very last to achieve what Hortense had denied him in her thirty years of flight, took possession of her body and carted it back with him to Europe.
Once he had her corpse, he dragged it with him to his various estates refusing to allow the casket to be interred.
Just as during their marriage Hortense had been forced to travel with her husband from remote estate to remote estate, even while she was in the advanced stages of pregnancy, this restless touring of Armand’s possessions was repeated in macabre fashion, with the bride now in her coffin.
After several months of dragging the body of his deceased wife from place to place, he was finally persuaded to have the body laid to rest in the tomb of her uncle, the Cardinal Mazarin.
Hortense’s sister, Marie Mancini, also left a memoir and lived a life almost as colourful in its details as Hortense’s. Although Maria’s marriage had initially been happier than her sister’s, she also became estranged from her husband following the birth of her third son after deciding to put a limit on her childbearing.
These two fascinating ladies, born into vast wealth and privilege but still trapped by the expectations of their sex, made brave attempts to take control their own destiny.
In the midst of much historical rumour and titillation at the wilder aspects of the Mancini story, the woman herself emerges as a historical actor who steadfastly refuses to stay on script, despite the role into which she has been cast in this real-life Restoration drama.