Book Review: Sex with Kings by Eleanor Herman
One of the advantages of being a king is that the rules don’t apply to you the same way as they do to commoners. For centuries in Europe, this also extended to tolerance of extramarital affairs, to the point that many kings had maitresse-en-titre, the “official mistress.” This book is about those mistresses, their lives and times.
Rather than a strictly chronological list, the book is divided into topics from the actual act of sex, through relationships between the mistress and queen or princess, to kings who actually married their mistresses. (The book was published in 2004 and thus just missed out Prince Charles marrying Camilla.) This means jumping back and forth between different countries and historical periods; quite a few of the mistresses get discussed multiple times.
One thing the book makes quite clear is that while the mistress job had a lot of perks, it was no bed of roses. Unlike the wife, who was usually hard to get rid of for religious and political reasons, mistresses could be replaced at the snap of a finger by the next favorite, and there were always plenty of women vying for the job. This meant that the king had to be kept happy at any cost. There’s a particularly painful story about a mistress who had to hold urine in for six hours on a carriage ride because until the king needs a potty break, no one needs a potty break.
Mistresses were also often the source of much emotional misery for queens, as the wife was often chosen for bloodlines or political alliances rather than having compatible personalities with the king, beauty or even good personal hygiene. They’d often see the mistress get better personal rooms, finer dresses and jewelry, and the king favoring his out of wedlock children more than his lawful offspring.
Even the kings themselves were sometimes less than happy about the arrangement, having mistresses not because they wanted to fool around, but because all the other kings had them and the people would question their virility if they didn’t.
The book is Eurocentric, and primarily focuses on the British and French courts as those have the most accessible documents. The way the topics are divided up, the story of any individual mistress is scattered about the different chapters, and you will need to use the index heavily if you are interested in just that one person. There are also terse endnotes and a bibliography, a section of colored illustrations in the center (Not Safe For Work), and some end matter by the author, including her autobiography and a comparison of royal mistresses to modern pop stars.
The material covers salacious matters, and I would not recommend this book to readers below senior high school level. (I imagine some parents might object even then.)
People I would recommend this to are those interested in the role of women in history, and those who enjoy reading about other people’s sex lives.