Born at Niort, 28 November 1635; died at Saint-Cyr, 15 April 1719. She was the granddaughter of the celebrated Protestant writer, Agrippa d'Aubigné. Constant d'Aubigné, son of Agrippa, imprisoned in the Château Trompette at Bordeaux on suspicion of intriguing with the English, had married in 1627 Jeanne de Cardillac, daughter of his jailer. Again imprisoned at Niort on a charge of conspiring against Cardinal de Richelieu , he was accompanied into prison by his wife, and it was in this prison at Niort that Françoise was born. She was baptized a Catholic, her father having been already received into the Church. In 1639 the family went to Martinique, but came back to France in 1645. Françoise was then placed under the care of Mme de Villette, a Protestant aunt, who undermined the child's faith. An order of the court transferred Françoise to the care of a Catholic relative, Mme de Neuillant, but for a time neither the kindness nor the subsequent strictness the latter employed, nor the efforts of the Ursulines of Niort, who kept Françoise gratuitously for some time, could counteract the influence of Mme de Villette. She was finally converted at the age of fourteen through the influence of the Ursulines of Rue Saint-Jacques, Paris. In June 1652, Françoise, having lost her mother and finding herself reduced almost to poverty, consented to marry the celebrated burlesque poet, Scarron, who was a cripple. She took great care of him, was faithful to him, and gathered around him a group of celebrated writers. As she read Latin, and spoke Italian and Spanish, she had little difficulty in attaching them to her circle.
Scarron died on 7 October 1660. Françoise, who had preserved her virginity during this odd marriage, was then a pretty widow of twenty-five years; she obtained from the queen-mother a pension of 2700 livres (approximately $540 ), and withdrew to the convent of the Hospitaller Sisters of Our Lady. Having received the entrée into the Albret and Richelieu circles, she there became acquainted with Mme de Sévigné, Mme de La Fayette, and Mme de Montespan. She was called "la charmante malheureuse," and society began to take an interest in her. In March 1670, Mme de Montespan invited her to undertake the education of the children she had borne to Louis XIV. Françoise accepted and undertook the work in a house situated in Rue de Vaugirard, devoting herself enthusiastically to the young children, and the Duke of Maine especially was always very grateful to her. When in July, 1674, the children were legitimized, Françoise followed them to Court: it was the beginning of her fortune. At first, as she herself relates, she displeased the king very much; he considered her as a bel esprit , interested only in sublime things. Soon, however, he gave her 200,000 livres ($40,000 ); with this she bought the lands of Maintenon, and at the end of January 1675, the king in full Court named her Mme de Maintenon, by which title she was thenceforth known. A silent struggle, the details of which may be found in the letters of Mme de Sévigné, began between her and Mme de Montespan. Abbé Gobelin, Mme de Maintenon's confessor, represented to her that the salvation of the king required her to remain at Court.
In 1680 she was appointed lady of the bed-chamber to the Dauphiness. The affection of the king for Mlle de Fontanges showed that Mme de Montespan's influence was waning. The earnest efforts of Mme de Maintenon to reconcile the king and the queen, Marie-Thérèse, were facilitated by the death of Mlle de Fontanges (1681), and brought about the disgrace of Mme de Montespan. The queen died, however, on 30 July 1683, and from that time was verified the witticism of certain courtiers who, speaking of Mme de Maintenon in 1680, called her "Mme de Maintenant." Louis XIV used to say to her: "We address popes as 'Your Holiness,' kings as 'Your Majesty;' of you we must speak as 'Your Firmness' ( Votre Solidité )." In the beginning of 1684 Louis XIV married Mme de Maintenon secretly. This marriage is proved, principally: (1) by two letters which Godet des Marais, Bishop of Chartres and spiritual director of Mme de Maintenon, wrote to the king and Mme de Maintenon in 1697; (2) by the marriage contract of the Comte de Choiseul, a contract on which there may be seen, in the corner of the page, where the king and the Grand Dauphin had also signed, the signature "la marquise d'Aubigné."
Mme de Maintenon was to play a prominent part in politics for the next thirty-one years: the king used to come with his ministers to work in her room; she received foreign princes, generals, and ambassadors. It was not unusual for Louis XIV to remain with her from five to ten o'clock in the evening. She did not thrust herself on the public, but the more she endeavoured to efface herself, the more her power grew.
For a long time historians have formed an erroneous opinion of Mme de Maintenon; they judged her solely by the "Mémoires" of Saint-Simon, who hated her, by the letters of the Princess Palatine, which are bitterly antagonistic to her, and by the interpolations and forgeries of La Beaumelle, the first editor of Mme de Maintenon's letters. As a result of the labours of Lavallée, no importance is now attached to La Beaumelle's publications, and history passes on her a more equitable judgment. The letters written to her by Louis XIV during his military campaigns show how ardently and patriotically she was interested in the destinies of France. She supported Marshal de Villars against his enemies, who treated him as a madman, and it was largely owing to the advice of Mme de Maintenon that he was placed at the head of the army, and was thus enabled to save France by the victory of Denain. But Mme de Maintenon's influence was felt most in the matters of religion; and that is why she incurred the hatred of the Protestants and the Jansenists. The extraordinary character of her destiny was represented to her by many of her advisers as a "marvelous vocation," which by "a kind of miracle " had placed her beside the most powerful monarch in the world. She was anxious that the king should not forget his spiritual responsibilities. It may be said that, but for the influence of Mme de Maintenon, the end of Louis XIV's reign would probably have resembled, by its depravity and excesses, the subsequent reign of Louis XV. It was largely owing to her that Louis was brought back to the right path, and it was due to her influence that the courtiers came to recognize that impiety, blasphemy, and licentiousness were obstacles to advancement.
Her great anxiety was for the conversion of the Court. This explains how it happened that, in her zeal for religion, she favoured some of the officials who displayed the greatest severity towards the Protestants ; but "it is an error," writes M. Lavisse, "to blame Mme de Maintenon for the revocation of the Edict of Nantes." After having authorized Mme Guyon to come and lecture at Saint-Cyr, Mme de Maintenon, warned by des Marais, tried to arrest the spread of Quietism ; the opposition which she met with on the part of Fénelon and Mme de la Maisonfort, was terminated in 1698 by the lettres de cachet , ordering the withdrawal of Mmes de la Maisonfort, du Tour, and de Montaigle to convents. It was Mme de Maintenon, who in August 1695, had Louis-Antoine de Noailles, Bishop of Châlons, appointed to the See of Paris ; but from 1699, under the influence of des Marais, she detached herself from Noailles, who was too much inclined to Jansenism. Mme de Maintenon, whose role was oftentimes so difficult and who was not infrequently placed in very delicate situations, was wont to confess that she spent many a wearisome hour; she would compare herself to the fish in the ponds at Marly, which, languishing in the sparkling waters, longed for their muddy homes. But she always tried to shake off this lonesome feeling by engaging in teaching and charitable works. Her charity was celebrated, and at Versailles she was called the "mother of the poor." Of the 93,000 livres ($18,600 ), which the king gave her annually, she distributed from 54,000 to 60,000 in alms. Not only did she not profit by her position to enrich herself, but she did not make use of it to favour her family. Her brother, Comte d'Aubigné and formerly lieutenant-general, never became a marshal of France.
Mme de Maintenon's great glory is her work in the cause of education. She adored children. She brought up her nieces, the Comtesse de Caylus and the Duchesse de Noailles, and attended to the education of the Duchess of Burgundy, who seemed likely to become one day Queen of France. When the Court was at Fontainebleau, Mme de Maintenon loved to go to the little village of Avon to teach catechism to the children, who were dirty, ragged, and covered with vermin. She also organized a school for them. In 1682 she had fifty young girls educated at Rueil by an Ursuline, Mme de Brinon. Her zeal for education increased: the boarding-school at Rueil was transferred in February 1684 to Noisy-le-Sec, where 124 girls were educated ; then, in 1686, to Saint-Cyr, to the magnificent buildings which Mansart had begun to construct in June 1685. The house at Saint-Cyr, called the "Institut de Saint-Louis," was intended to receive 200 young ladies, who had to be poor and also able to prove four degrees of nobility on their father's side; on leaving this house each one was to receive a dowry of 3000 crowns. Mme de Maintenon took an active interest in everything at Saint-Cyr; she was the stewardess and the servant of the house, looking after the provisions, knowing the number of aprons, napkins, etc. The primary idea connected with the foundation of Saint-Cyr was very original. "The object of Saint-Cyr," wrote the Jesuit La Chaise, the king's confessor, "is not to multiply convents, which increase rapidly enough of their own accord, but to give the State well-educated women ; there are plenty of good nuns, and not a sufficient number of good mothers of families. The young ladies will be educated more suitably by persons living in the world." The constitutions of the house were submitted to Racine and Boileau, and at the same time to Père La Chaise and Abb, Gobelin. Fénelon came to Saint-Cyr to preach; Lulli composed the music for the choirs; Mme de Brinon developed among the pupils a taste for declamation; Racine had the young ladies play Esther (January and February 1689) and Athalie (5 April 1691). But the very success of these pieces, at which Louis XIV and the Court assisted, finally disturbed many minds ; both the Jesuits and Jansenists agreed in blaming the development of this taste for the theatre in young girls. At the instigation of des Marais, Mme de Maintenon transformed Saint-Cyr: on 1 December 1692, the pensionnat became a monastic boarding-school, subject to the Order of St. Augustine. This transformation, however, did not change the end for which the house was founded: of the 1121 ladies who passed through Saint-Cyr from 1686 to 1773, only 398 became nuns, 723 remaining in the world. And even after the transformation of Saint-Cyr, the course of instruction remained, in the opinion of M. Gréard, incomparably superior, by its comprehensiveness and duration, to that of any other house of instruction in the eighteenth century. The "Entretiens," the "Conversations," and the "Proverbes" of Mme de Maintenon, by which she formed her students, hold a unique position in the contributions of women to French literature.
Mme de Maintenon left Versailles on the evening of 30 August 1715, thirty-six hours before the death of the king, who recommended her to the Duc d'Orléans, and said of her finally: "She helped me in everything, especially in saving my soul." She went to live at Saint-Cyr in deep retirement, which was interrupted only by the visit paid to her on 10 June 1717 by Tsar Peter the Great of Russia. The news of the imprisonment at Doullens of the Duke of Maine, who was compromised by the conspiracy of Cellamare (1718-19), saddened and perhaps shortened her closing years. In January 1794 her tomb was desecrated by the revolutionaries, who stripped her corpse, mutilated it, and cast it into a large hole in the cemetery. As for the Institut de Saint-Louis, it was closed in 1793.
Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online