History of Europe

Marie-Madeleine, sister of the Montespan and Pearl of the Abbesses

The story of Marie-Madeleine-Gabrielle de Rochechouart de Mortemart was eclipsed by that, more scandalously hectic, of his sister Madame de Montespan. However, the one that was nicknamed the Pearl or the Queen of Abbesses was the "glory of her sex and the adornment of her age ". A woman of character, religious, learned, literate and a great letter writer.

Abbess of Fontevraud at twenty-five

Marie-Madeleine is the daughter of Gabriel de Rochechouart, Duke of Mortemart, and Diane, Marquise de Grandseigne. She was born in 1645, in the Pavilion of the Tuileries occupied by his father:he was a gentleman to King Louis XIII. Until the age of eleven, she was brought up under the same roof as Philippe d'Orléans , younger brother of the young Louis XIV.

The child is destined for a religious life, of which she has no vocation . It is by dragging her feet that she agrees to be locked up in a convent. The young girl puts this time to good use:quickly, she masters Greek, Latin, Italian and Spanish. She is presented to the Infanta Marie-Thérèse newly arrived from Spain, and the young girl amazes the whole Court how well she speaks the mother tongue of the new Queen of France.

Against all odds, Marie-Madeleine finally discovers a religious vocation. She takes the veil in front of the whole Court , at the Abbaye aux Bois, in 1664, "by the hand of the two queens Anne and Marie-Thérèse of Austria .

The young woman manages to be appointed by Louis XIV Abbess of Fontevraud, August 18, 1670, only twenty-five years old. She can thank her sister Athénaïs, who is no stranger to this nomination! She succeeds in this task to Jeanne de Bourbon , natural daughter of Henri IV and Charlotte des Essarts.

Nothing more illustrious could be given after the blood of the Bourbons.

Indeed, Marie-Madelaine will show herself up to it of this honor given to him. She took possession of her abbey, one of the most prestigious in France, in March 1671.

More than ten thousand people gather to see the one who is already famous for her spirit , that of the Mortemart family, and for its beauty . A fresco by Thomas Pot, in Fontevraud, represents her several years after her investiture:a full and rounded face, a calm and velvety gaze, witnesses of the beauty of her youth which, despite a slightly imposing nose, must have been real.

Queen in her kingdom

Penetrating and fertile, Mary Magdalene is also generous and deeply beneficent, cherishing that sense of "not being entirely useless in this world “, as she writes herself. The nuns are quickly conquered.

The charms of his person, supported by infinite politeness and gracious affability, won hearts for him, while his wise, modest, and majestic air held them in respect and in duty.

She administers her abbey, and the 60 convents attached to it, like a small kingdom. She knows how to keep order there with rare skill . His gentle, authoritarian and energetic manner, sometimes uncompromising, is appreciated by the Order.

Discipline is a big concern for her. In 1674, she complained about the poor submission of certain nuns who harassed the mother prioresses to obtain exit permits . She recommends being careful to silence what she sees as “spiritual libertinism ". In 1686, she restricted authorizations for religious outings, which can only be done in the case of absolute necessity.

The uniform shouldn't be too mundane either. She stated in 1681:"We order simplicity and uniformity in clothes and hairstyles »

Among other unusual rules , she forbids father confessors to afford the luxury of hunting, a pleasure she considers "scandalous even if they were invited by the king. Its regulations are considered excellent by Bossuet , who asks for copies to "learn how to govern the nuns of his diocese .

Before the Revolution, there was a portrait of Marie-Madeleine de Rochechouart in Fontevrault. Below the painting, the verses of a poet :

This illustrious woman burst,

By a profound knowledge rare in our times,

And by his virtues deserved,

The honor of commanding men.

The abbess also completes the architectural projects not completed by Jeanne de Bourbon, sparing no expense to embellish Fontevrault :dormitories, restored or newly built chapels, vast lounges and spacious galleries, beautiful ornamental gardens...

Learned and learned

Its burden is considerable. But she finds time to indulge in her favorite activities , from which she draws a form of fulfillment:gardening, and above all writing and reading.

Smart , highly cultured, conversationalist, Marie-Madeleine was versed in science, philosophy, morality, theology, metaphysics and Holy Scripture. She likes to converse with scholars , read Plato and Homer. She even dabbled in a few translations, and "the best writers of this century have often given her their works to examine .

Ladies Friend ofSable and La Fayette , or Root , “she shared their admiration for the masterpieces of antiquity and modern times »

All his talents make him a truly extraordinary person. and Madame de Caylus affirms "that one could not gather in the same person more reason, more spirit, and more knowledge .

Passionately fond of letters, she nevertheless shuns all literary glory. Extremely modest unlike her two sisters, she gives all her time to the administration of her great abbey, aware of her privilege.

Very different from those who would believe everything was lost if a line from their pen was missed by posterity, she took particular care to steal his productions from the public.

Her knowledge, she devotes it above all to God , by writing works of piety and morals, maxims of conduct. We appreciate the tone and eloquence of his sermons:a crowd throngs during his speeches.

Precious correspondence

Marie-Madeleine receives a lot in his abbey. She maintains an abundant correspondence with a few hand-picked friends. , in a graceful, affectionate, noble and dignified epistolary style. These letters tell us wonderfully about the personality of the abbess. To one of her friends, Segrais, she confesses:

Intercourse with my friends is my most sensible consolation, and you can well judge, Sir, to what rank I place that of Madame de La Fayette. We find in her all the spirits with an attention, an exactitude and a certainty which is certainly not ordinary.

In 1674, she mentions her sister the Marquise de Thianges , whom she hardly likes, in a letter to Madame de Sablé. Obviously, the behavior of his sister at the Court does not please him, and inspires him very bitter words :

I am determined to be patient, to pass people by, and to always remember the injustices of which they are capable, not to blame them badly, but in order never to be so foolish as to lay any foundation on them.

A letter addressed to Doctor Vallant testifies well to his profound modesty:

I know very well that I am not fulfilling all the duties of my office, that strength, vigilance and fervor, which are qualities necessary for a superior, I completely lack. Thus, I assure you that I am still not at all satisfied with my driving.

His letters to his sister Madame de Montespan have unfortunately all been lost , they would no doubt have enlightened us on what she thought of Athenais' position at Court!

Mary Magdalene and the Court

The Abbess of Fontevrault confesses to her friend Segrais April 26, 1686 :

The world attaches happiness to places where neither rest nor pleasure can be found, without which, however , I do not see that one can be happy.

In other words, the universe of the Court in which two of his sisters flourish outrageously does not interest him . She made few stays at the Court (four are known to us), but from the first, she had a lasting attachment to Louis XIV.

In 1675, his father the Duke of Mortemart suffered a stroke of paralysis. Marie-Madeleine is hastily called to Paris . It happens at the height of love between Athenais and the monarch. She dines at the Carmelites with the queen, the king and Madame de Montespan. Louis XIV gives him a diamond gift worth 3,000 louis.

The king has for the younger sister of his mistress a lot of consideration . He likes to receive letters from her, but would prefer to have her close to converse with her. He even offered her the abbey of Montmartre to bring her closer to the Court , which she refuses! Louis XIV definitely appreciates the woman who refuses to participate in any public entertainment. The Duke of Saint-Simon tells us:

The king liked her so much that he could hardly do without her. He would have liked her to attend all the parties at his court, so gallant and so magnificent at the time.

Marie-Madeleine returns to Fontevrault in December, her father having died the day after Christmas. She made a second stay in 1679, of which we know nothing. The abbess writes to Segrais July 8, 1686 :

I do not envisage that I can go to Paris, and it is quite certain that I would never go without a real necessity, which is quite rare.

In 1696, however, she was there because she attended a sermon of Father La Ferte. On July 8, 1699, Madame de Montespan wrote to Maréchale de Noailles:"My sister is very determined not to go to Paris, and I do not fight her resolution .

Marie-Madeleine went there all the same one last time in 1700. She dines with… Madame de Maintenon and sees Louis XIV returning from Marly. Her sister has not been the king's mistress for a long time. The abbess comes to follow a trial in which she embarked against the bishops of the Grand Council. Because the management of Fontevrault is not an easy task and has caused him some misadventures...


During the 34 years that she spent at Fontevrault, conflicts of attribution earned her serious clashes with certain prelates, powerful lords whom she does not hesitate to stand up to:the Bishop of Saint-Flour, the Bishop of Poitiers, and above all the Archbishop of Reims.

In 1695, an edict imposed that nuns wishing to leave a monastery must obtain written and reasoned permission of the archbishop of the diocese. A serious attack on the authority of Mary Magdalene. The Archbishop of Reims, supported by prelates, wants to bend the Abbess of Fontevrault. This serious affair was of great concern to the person concerned who, pushed to the limit, begged for the help of Louis XIV :

Must I see privileges that have existed for so many centuries perish in my hands? (…) It is only in this way that I have preserved until now what I have received from the princesses to whom I have the honor to succeed, and if this help fails me, it is impossible that I avoid the shame which Your Majesty has in some way pledged to protect me from. Nor will I avoid a more essential misfortune, which would be to lose the esteem and confidence of the people I govern, and thus no longer be able to lead them successfully.

The affair was buried for a few years, then revived in 1701 :to defend her privileges, Mary Magdalene asks the king for permission to plead against the bishops . She also wrote to Madame de Maintenon, with whom she had an affectionate relationship , an extremely rare friendship with the secret wife of the sovereign.

This fight fought without firing a shot testifies to the strength of character of Mary Magdalene, able to rise up against all to defend her rights, in a world governed by privileges.

Last years

From 1695, the Abbess of Fontevrault became very close to her sister Athénaïs, expelled from the Court. She writes, in one of her last letters to Segrais , in 1699:

I have my sister's company at least half the year, and that still attracts others who populate this desert enough to take away from her the sadness that too great and too continuous a solitude could cause.

She also retains the friendship of Madame de Maintenon, who writes to her six months after the fall of her rival, with some hypocrisy and hiding his satisfaction well:

I am delighted to have received some tokens of remembrance from Madame de Montespan. I feared I was wrong with her; God knows if I did something worthy of it and how my heart is for her!

During her stay in Paris in 1700, Marie-Madeleine took the opportunity to visit the famous Saint-Cyr of her friend. Mme de Maintenon writes to the superior of her convent:

Let the classes be in good order; may the most beautiful voices sing the psalms at vespers (…); that my apartment is clean and trimmed; finally, my dear daughter, do not forget anything so that the whole house of Saint-Louis is in its luster; Madame de Fontevrault has never seen her.

Marie-Madeleine's health slowly declines for several years, which forced him to take cures in Bourbon. She died in Fontevrault August 15, 1704 , fifty-nine years old. His niece Louise-Françoise de Rochechouart, his brother's daughter, is at his bedside.

Athenais' pain is immense. As for Louis XIV, while he showed complete indifference on learning of the death of Louise de La Vallière and Athénaïs de Montespan, he was very affected by the loss of Mary Magdalene. He replaces her at the head of Fontevrault with his young niece:

I am very sorry for the loss of Madame de Fontevrault. I thought I could not better replace her than by a person who was close to her, and who, having been brought up near her, would have taken her maxims and profited from her examples...

It is true that Louis XIV, touched by the natural graces, the vast culture, the lofty spirit, the ardent faith and the sense of management of Marie-Madeleine, had always shown her a lot of esteem and friendship. , in no way blunted by Madame de Montespan's estrangement.

In the memory of a nun, never abbess had pushed to such a degree of perfection the difficult art of reigning...