“The silliest woman who ever lived”. That was the seventeenth-century memoirist Saint-Simon”s sneering assessment of Philippe I duc d”Orléans (1640 – 1701 CE), otherwise known simply as “Monsieur”. The younger brother of Louis XIV, Philippe has been overshadowed by the “Sun King” in death as much as in life and has received ill treatment from historians who, due to his romantic same-sex relationships, alongside his supposed “effeminacy”, and cross-dressing, have either dismissed him as “poor Philippe”, implying he is someone to be pitied, or subjected him to abusive and homophobic language which outstrips that of even his contemporary commentators. This is the result of prejudice and poor historical practice, but beyond this Philippe is someone who cannot easily be confined to derivative stereotypes. Alongside his interest in women’s dress and cosmetics, he was also a notable warrior, celebrated for his victory over William of Orange at the Battle of Cassel (1677), and his same-sex romances were accompanied by two marriages, the results of which were a slew of descendants, earning him the epithet “grandfather of all Europe”. That Philippe was able to embody numerous shifting and (to the modern eye) conflicting “identities” indicates that attitudes towards gender and sexuality in seventeenth-century France were undeniably more complex than has previously been assumed.
As the younger royal sibling, Philippe was always destined to play the “morning star” to Louis”s “rising sun”; although he was “so much more than all the rest”, he was insistently reminded that he was “much lesser” than his brother. Yet it is possible that his unique position, hovering in the shadows of the Crown without ever reaching for it, allowed him to lead a life which might ordinarily have been considered outwardly subversive of what, in the seventeenth century, was considered the “natural order”.
Philippe’s “effeminacy” is discussed in the contemporary sources, as is his enthusiasm for traditionally female dress. The mean-spirited Saint-Simon remarked that he was “always adorned like a woman, covered with rings, bracelets and jewels all over”, while his second wife, the German Princess, Palatine (affectionately known as Liselotte), frequently referenced his interest in finery and fashion in her frank letters home to her relatives. Another courtier observed that “his make-up resembles the ladies more than a general’s”, and the Abbé François Timoléon de Choisy, whose Memoires describe their own experiences living for some years in France as a noblewoman, claimed that Philippe “longed to dress as a woman himself”, and that in the evening he would “put on cornets, ear pendants and patches, and gaze at his reflection in a mirror”.
Although modern labels such as “homosexual” or “bisexual” are, to a degree, ahistorical and fall short when considering Philippe’s sexual and romantic relationships, it is also clear that his attraction to his own sex was well-documented and discussed, and should be considered an important part of his life. The courtier Madame de Lafayette remarked in her memoires that no woman could ever “enflame his heart”, and he was known to have a string of male favourites, the principal of which being the handsome Chevalier de Lorraine.
It might be expected that Philippe’s effeminacy and romantic liaisons with men would have been considered incredibly subversive; after all, the seventeenth century had seen a significant growth in the discourse surrounding gender and sexual practice, with an increased focus on the meanings of “masculinity” and “femininity”. Prejudice was rife and sexual activity between men was outlawed, punishable by death. In the wake of these developments was the fear that a transgression of such boundaries signified a disruption to patriarchal society, which was then considered to be the “natural order” of the universe. And yet as Joseph Harris argues, despite the close connection, transgression does not always result in subversion. No-one demonstrates this better than Philippe, whose crossing of such boundaries, although radical, may actually have been used to uphold the prevailing order.
The origins of this can be traced to his infancy. It was suggested by some, including the Abbé de Choisy, that as a child Philippe was deliberately dressed and treated as a girl, with his mother, Anne of Austria, referring to him as “ma petite fille”. Although the legitimacy of this claim cannot be confirmed (reasonable doubts have been cast upon the reliability of de Choisy as a historical source, and yet they are not the only courtier to remark upon the phenomenon of Anne’s pretty “little girl”), it is the reasons given for Philippe’s treatment that are of interest. It was believed by contemporaries that the prince was deliberately “effeminised”, in order to prevent him from proving a threat to the sovereignty of his older brother. This danger likely seemed all too real in the aftermath of the civil wars which occurred during the early years of the young Louis XIV’s reign, known as the Fronde Rebellion (1648 – 1653), when many nobles rose up against the monarchy, under the leadership of Louis XIII’s younger brother Gaston.
Throughout their lives, Louis did not actively discourage Philippe’s “transgression” of gender boundaries. It is unlikely that this was down to a progressive attitude on the part of the Sun-King; instead, whether he was dressing as a shepherdess for a ball, a nymph in a ballet, or representing the Persian Empire (linked in the seventeenth-century psyche to luxury and male “homosexuality”) in the lavish military display the Carrousel du Roy (1662),Philippe’s “effeminacy” may have prevented him from being considered a viable rival to his brother.
Philippe’s sexual and romantic relationships were also considered with more nuance than might be expected from such a persecutory society. As Helmet Puff has noted, the seventeenth century created something of a paradox surrounding same-sex relations; while on the one hand they were fiercely condemned by the Church and the Law, the flourishing of Classical culture which had emerged during the Renaissance, and was fashionable at court, brought forth a new reverence for the works of authors such as Plato or Catullus, many of which were homoerotic in their contents. This may explain why, during this period, same-sex eros was sometimes considered the preserve of the elite; street satires sang knowingly of the nobles who “love boys” at court, and the writer Mademoiselle de Gourney remarked on the subject: “God forbid that I should condemn what Socrates practised”.
Any criticism of Philippe”s romantic involvement with men was less concerned with “religious sin” or societal subversion, than with his “unseemly” and excessive devotion to his favourites, who held sway over him emotionally and financially. Liselotte sighed that although she had no desire to interfere with his “passion for his men friends”, his extravagant gifting to these “airheads” made her fear that she and their children would go without. Louis himself may also have used Phillipe’s relationships to manipulate him: in 1672 Madame Sévigné recounted to her daughter that, when the Chevalier de Lorrainne was permitted to return from an exile in Rome (imposed after he criticized the king), Louis said to Philippe “I am giving him back to you, and want you to be obliged to me for your whole life”.
Ironically, it would appear that for Phillipe, it was actually when he was at his most traditionally “masculine” that he was most at risk of subverting the hierarchical order. Louis XIV’s reign was notable for its external conflict. Both Louis himself and Philippe played a role in the offensive campaigns of the Dutch War of 1672 – 1678, but it was Philippe who truly distinguished himself as a warrior, with even his harshest critic, Saint-Simon, praising his “natural valour” during the Battle of Cassel in 1677. However, this was also the last time he was permitted to play a prominent role in conflict, something which his biographer Barker puts down to jealousy on the part of Louis, who Liselotte wrote “was not as brave as Monsieur”. I would suggest that it was more than mere jealousy which prompted Louis to withdraw his younger brother from the battlefield – “Philippe the Warrior”, the embodiment of seventeenth-century masculine martial virtue, was someone who could pose a threat to the political stability of France. Philippe’s reputation for successful military command, alongside the loyalty shown by his soldiers, made him someone that (like his Uncle Gaston) any rebellion against the King could rally around.
Arguably, the closest a portrayal of Philippe has come to doing him justice is Alexander Vlahos’ performance of the French prince in the Canal+ television series Versailles(2015 – 2018). Despite the inaccuracies and considerable artistic licence of the programme, it allows Philippe what his brother and successive historians have consistently denied him: the chance to shine, and to appear before us with all the nuances of his character which were made possible by the specific period and circumstances in which he lived. His intense romantic relationship with the Chevalier de Lorraine, his interest and expertise in make-up and fashion, and his successes as a military leader, are not treated as paradoxical, as some historians have problematically implied, but simply as parts of a whole. Philippe, as a privileged noble, cannot be considered representative of the experiences of the wider population; although undeniably an important figure in Queer History, he was also born into a unique position which allowed him greater freedom to express and follow his desires. But by paying close attention to such individuals, who may seem at first to sit outside their own society’s norms, we can gain a greater insight into the surprising complexity of the dynamics surrounding gender and sexuality in early modern France and elsewhere.
Written by Hazel Atkinson
This piece draws significantly on Hazel’s undergraduate dissertation ““The Silliest Woman Who Ever Lived”: Philippe I duc d”Orléans and Sexual and Gender Transgression in Seventeenth Century France” (2018), which can be accessed here: https://www.ed.ac.uk/files/atoms/files/the_silliest_woman_who_ever_lived_-_philippe_i_duc_dorleans_and_sexual_and_gender_transgression_in_seventeenth_century_france_0.pdf.
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