Madame du Barry: How A Peasant Became The Most Hated Woman In France

Jeanne Bécu (better known as Madame du Barry) knew just how to reach a position of power, even if it meant becoming the most despised figure in France.

Isabel Cara

Once upon a time, there was a peasant woman hated by the entire kingdom of France. Even Marie Antoinette, who probably stills holds the title of “the most hated woman in France,” loathed her guts. From the long list of Louis kings, the most famous one was Louis XIV, the Sun King, who gave the world the lavish and regal wonder that is Versailles. His two successors weren’t as iconic as him, and the spotlight was taken by women, their love interests, in fact, and Jeanne Bécu (better known as Madame du Barry) knew just how to reach that position of power, even if it meant becoming the most despised figure in the country.

Madame du Barry’s life was basically what you’d find in any tragic novel. Born in 1743 as the illegitimate daughter of a seamstress and, allegedly, a friar, she learned from a very young age that being a “good girl” wasn’t really the way to a better life. When she was just a little girl, her mother started working for a wealthy man (she eventually became one of his lovers) called Monsieur Billiard-Dumonceaux. Both Jeanne and her mother were appointed to Dumonceaux’s mistress’ house, where young Jeanne experienced for the first time what it was like to live a life of luxury.

She was a very likable girl, and both Dumonceaux and Francesca (his mistress) became quite fond of her, to the point that they even paid for her education at the Saint-Aure Convent. However, a pious life wasn’t exactly what Jeanne had in mind for her future. She had gotten a taste of wealth and wanted it for herself. So, when she turned 15, she left the convent, longing to return to Dumonceaux’s household. Little did she know that her mother had rekindled her relationship with him; furious, Francesca kicked mother and daughter out of her house.

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Portrait of madame du barry – auguste de creuse (18th century)

To survive, Jeanne started selling old trinkets on the streets of Paris and working everywhere she was hired. Soon, she became famous in the city for her looks and caught the eye of Jean-Baptiste du Barry, a wealthy pimp who procured young and beautiful women for upper-class men. Knowing that this was probably her best chance to get the wealth she dreamed of, she agreed to work for him and moved into his household, where she also became his mistress. In just a matter of time, an endless stream of aristocrats and noblemen were lining up to meet Jeanne, or as she now called herself, Mademoiselle Lange.

Though she was doing great as a high-class mistress, her luck would change dramatically when, in 1768, she was summoned to Versailles to be one of King Louis XV’s courtiers. Rumor has it that there was a plot between the Duke of Richelieu and Jean-Baptiste du Barry to make the King fall for Jeanne, but whether it was true or not, it worked, and Louis fell head over heels for the charming blonde.

Despite his affection, Louis had to name Jeanne maîtresse-en-titre (or the King’s official mistress); she wasn’t really a candidate for the position, not only because she wasn’t a noblewoman, but also because she wasn’t married. To solve the issue, she was married to Jean-Baptiste’s brother, Guillaume du Barry just a few months later, of course, with a false birth certificate to “prove” she was of noble descent. It was then that she became the formal King’s Favorite and moved to Versailles as Madame du Barry and presented to the court some months later despite the resentment of Louis’ courtiers.

Naturally, du Barry was rejected by the courtiers due to her humble origins. She wasn’t a lady, and people could tell. Nevertheless, instead of letting them humiliate or shun her, she worked really hard to educate herself and learn as much as possible about their ways. She became a very cultivated woman who appreciated art very much. During her time as the King’s official mistress, she supported a large number of artists who found glory at the time. She befriended some of the most important intellectuals France, like the one and only Voltaire, with whom she remained friends until his death in 1778.

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Madame du barry – françois-hubert drouais (1770)

Still, no matter how much work she put into her image, she was never accepted at the court. Not only had she, a peasant, taken the place of a noblewoman, but she was also given more power than the title entailed. Louis XV loved her so much that he even let her participate in private councils, even though she wasn’t that interested in politics. She was also loathed for the lavish lifestyle she soon adopted, spending huge amounts of money on vain things like jewels, gowns, and extravagant objects.

For a long time, she didn’t care that much about the courtiers’ hatred, since most of them were scolded or even forced to befriend her. However, it all got a bit awkward when the King’s grandson married Marie Antoinette. As soon as she found out that Du Barry’s role was “to please the king,” she felt repulsed by her, and thus, a terrible feud started.

For years, their feud involved not inviting each other to their private parties, spreading rumors about each other, and Marie Antoinette refusing to speak to her in public (which was seen as a huge offense to the King), but eventually, there would be only one winner, and sadly, it wasn’t Du Barry. In April 1774, King Louis XV caught smallpox and died after just one month. Naturally, when his grandson Louis XVI became king, the very first thing Marie Antoinette did was exile Du Barry to a convent, but she didn’t stay there long.

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Portrait of madame du barry – louise élisabeth vigée le brun (c. 1789)

For years, she continued enjoying her fancy and extravagant life outside of Paris. She hosted lavish parties, continued her charity work, and kept supporting emerging artists. But that was until the French Revolution broke out and, as mistress of a former King, she joined the list of those who had to be eliminated. In 1792, one of her slaves who had joined a group of Jacobins, denounced her to the Committee.

Jeanne Bécu, or Madame du Barry, was arrested and executed by guillotine in December 1793. Unlike the long list of aristocrats and nobles executed who faced the guillotine with strength and pride, she let the people see she was devastated and scared about her fate. Instead of cheering as they had done so with previous noble figures, they ended up feeling sorry for this woman who, in their eyes, had had everything and lost it all. Her last words were a shout for mercy to the executioner.

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