Jeanne Bécu was born in Vaucouleurs on the 19th August 1743, the illegitimate daughter of a gorgeous seamstress and a friar. It was a shocking beginning to what was to be a scandalous life.
Jeanne, dragged up by her mother then fortuitiously sent to a convent school by a wealthy benefactor, was to grow up to be exceedingly beautious with a lovely face, tumbling blonde hair and meltingly seductive violet eyes. Sadly, her fiscal prospects were non existant and the presence of protective adults was minimal so the young Jeanne after an initial attempt to train as a milliner soon found herself working in a casino come brothel.
She was ‘rescued’ from this life by a noted roué, the spurious comte du Barry who installed her as his mistress then launched her career as a high class courtesan to men of the court. Jeanne does not appear to have been adverse to this life, being untroubled by too much in the way of morals and blessed with a budding taste for expensive luxuries.
She did very well for herself until 1768 when on a visit to Versailles, she came to the attention of another aged roué, Louis XV who, always prone to depression, had been in a protracted state of bored gloom ever since the death of his exquisite mistress, Madame de Pompadour. He’d ignored all of his courtiers attempts to divert his attention with various beautiful and well born ladies of the court and had instead consoled himself with the less demanding charms of servant girls and young women who were housed in his private brothel in Versailles.
He was instantly smitten by the young Jeanne and it wasn’t long before her lover du Barry’s brother was forced to marry her in order to make her position more respectable and enable her to have the title that was so necessary for an entrée to Versailles life. After this there was no stopping her and to the horror of all, the King even installed her in apartments in the palace. No one in Versailles had any illusions about the origins of the latest favourite, lovely thought she was. They’d all sneered at the middle class origins of Madame de Pompadour, so you can imagine how they felt about having Madame du Barry prancing around in their midst, dressed up in pink silk and exquisite lace and covered in the diamonds that she adored so much.
The good times didn’t last for long however as in May 1774, Louis XV died of small pox in his room at Versailles and Madame du Barry, who was loathed by his young and rather prudish grandson and heir Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette was promptly sent away from court and at first compelled to enter a convent, although she did not remain there for long.
Madame du Barry was never again received at court but does not seem to have regretted this exile too much as she had her own beautiful chateau at Louveciennes and seems to have lived there very happily throughout the rest of the 1780s, taking one lover after another, patronising artists and being a lady bountiful to the local people.
She did her best to live out the revolution in relative obscurity but her fame as one of Louis XV’s most extravagant mistresses and also, as usual, her total lack of proper advice and support were to be her downfall.
On the night of the 10th January 1791, a significant amount of the Comtesse’s jewelery collection had been stolen from her bedroom and she had moved heaven and earth in an attempt to retrieve it, which necessitated offering a reward and several trips to England. If she had only remained in London, where she had friends, then she would have been safe and would have come to no harm. However, not being too bright, she always returned to France and eventually these trips brought her to the attention of the hostile authorities, who were hardly likely to be sympathetic about her tale of stolen diamonds.
It was not long before she was arrested, in March 1793 and then imprisoned in Paris. The unfortunate woman seems to have spent her days between hysterical fear and a belief that she would be able to buy or charm her way out of her predicament. When she was sentenced to death in December 1793, she wrote a lengthy list detailing the hiding places of all her remaining money and jewels at her estate in Louveciennes, hopeful that this would lead to her life being spared.
It availed her nothing and on a frosty day, the 8th December 1793, the still lovely fifty year old former courtesan was loaded on to a tumbrel and driven, crying and screaming through the streets of Paris to the guillotine. The aristocratic victims of the Terror prided themselves on their poise and haughty silence in the face of the baying mob – not so Madame du Barry who broke down completely and appealed ceaselessly to the crowds to rescue her from her fate.
It must have been a relief to everyone when they finally reached the square and their unwilling victim was pulled down from the cart then led up to the scaffold but her screams for mercy did not cease until the very end and even as they forced her onto the plank, she was begging the executioner for ‘one moment more, please monsieur, do not hurt me.’
Madame Vigée-Lebrun, who knew Madame du Barry very well and painted her more than once was to write: ‘Madame Du Barry … is the only woman, among all the women who perished in the dreadful days, who could not stand the sight of the scaffold. She screamed, she begged mercy of the horrible crowd that stood around the scaffold, she aroused them to such a point that the executioner grew anxious and hastened to complete his task. This convinced me that if the victims of these terrible times had not been so proud, had not met death with such courage, the Terror would have ended much earlier. Men of limited intelligence lack the imagination to be touched by inner suffering, and the populace is more easily stirred by pity than by admiration.’