Madame de Pompadour was born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson in 1721. When she was nine, her mother took her to a fortune teller, who told them that one day Jeanne-Antoinette would reign over a king’s heart. Convinced her daughter was destined for greatness, Jeanne-Antoinette’s mother saw that she received the best education, including voice lessons from the star of the Paris opera.
Odette grew so close to the king that she earned the nickname “Little Queen” and they conceived a daughter together. Charles provided for his mistress and daughter in his will, but after his death, France was wracked by civil war. Odette was forced to earn money by becoming a spy for Charles’ son, the future Charles VII.
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Of the 13 known mistresses of Charles II of England, Barbara Villiers is said to have been his favorite. The controversial and married Barbara—who had survived a bout of smallpox with her legendary beauty intact.
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At an 1806 New Year’s Eve party, Maria met Napoleon. The obsessive emperor wooed Maria with impassioned letters and jewels. Only after Napoleon suggested he might look more favourably on Poland’s plight if Maria was his lover did she submit to his advances.
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Alice Perrers was a 15-year-old lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa when she caught the eye of Edward III, then in his 50s. When Philippa died six years later, Edward began heaping favors upon Alice and giving her gifts.
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Though Nell was illiterate and not a great beauty, her good temper and lack of pretension appealed to Londoners, who were in the mood for merriment after years of Puritan restrictions under Oliver Cromwell’s rule. More importantly to Charles, Nell had no interest in politics. Unlike his other mistresses, the down-to-earth Nell made him laugh and rarely asked for favors.
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Of Henry IV of France’s 56 documented mistresses, the only one to whom he remained faithful was Gabrielle d’Estrées. Like Agnès Sorel, Gabrielle is best remembered for a famous painting, which now hangs in the Louvre, depicting Gabrielle nude in a bath with her sister.
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