BiographyYolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron was born in Paris in the reign of King Louis XV. Her parents were Jean François Gabriel, comte de Polastron, seigneur de Noueilles, Venerque and Grépiac, and Jeanne Charlotte Hérault. As was customary with aristocrats, most of whom bore more than one Christian name, she was generally known by the last of her names (Gabrielle). She was born into a family of ancient aristocratic lineage, however by the time of Gabrielle's birth, despite their exalted ancestry, the family were encumbered by many debts and their lifestyle was far from luxurious.
Whilst Gabrielle was still an infant, her parents moved to the family château of Noueilles, in the province of Languedoc in southern France. At the age of three, she lost her mother and her welfare was therefore entrusted to a female relative. In this case, it was an aunt, who arranged for her to receive a convent education.
At the age of sixteen, Gabrielle was betrothed to Jules François Armand, comte de Polignac, marquis de Mancini (1746-1817), whom she married on 7 July 1767, a few months short of her eighteenth birthday. Jules de Polignac's family had a similarly "well-bred" ancestry to Gabrielle's, and they were in equally uncomfortable financial straits. At the time of his marriage, he was serving in the Régiment de Royal Dragons ("1er régiment de dragons"), on an annual salary of 4,000 livres. Within a few years of the marriage, Jules and Gabrielle had two children: a daughter, Aglaé, and a son. Two more sons followed several years later, including Jules, prince de Polignac who became the prime minister of France in 1829, under Charles X.
AppearanceMost surviving portraits show her in a generally pretty or attractive light. One historian said that in her portraits by Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Gabrielle generally looks "like some harvested and luscious fruit." - most of her contemporaries were far more enthusiastic about her appearance than surviving portraits would lead modern observers to suspect. She had dark brunette hair, very pale white skin and, perhaps most unusually, lilac or violet-coloured eyes.
Compiling the contemporary accounts of her, one modern historian has summarised her physical appearance as: -
"Her particular freshness of appearance [gave] an impression of "utter naturalness" ... with her cloud of dark hair, her big eyes, her neat nose and pretty pearly teeth, [she] was generally likened to a Madonna by Raphael."
VersaillesWhen her sister-in-law invited her to the Court at Versailles, she came with her husband and was presented at a formal reception in the Hall of Mirrors in 1775, at which time she was formally presented to the Queen of France, Marie-Antoinette, who was instantly "dazzled" by her, and invited her to move permanently to Versailles. The cost of maintaining oneself at the court of Versailles was ruinous and Gabrielle replied that her husband did not have the money to finance a permanent move to the palace.Determined to keep her new favourite by her side, the Queen agreed to settle the family's many outstanding debts and to find an appointment for Gabrielle's husband.
Once she was installed in the palace, near the Queen's apartments, Gabrielle also won the friendship of the king's youngest brother the comte d'Artois and the approval of King Louis XVI himself, who was grateful for her calming influence on his wife, encouraging their friendship. She was, however, resented by other members of the royal entourage, particularly the queen's confessor and her chief political adviser, the Austrian ambassador. In a letter to the Queen's mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, the ambassador wrote: "It is almost unexampled that in so short a time, the royal favour should have brought such overwhelming advantages to a family."
Charismatic and beautiful, Gabrielle became the undisputed leader of the queen's exclusive circle, ensuring that few entered without her approval. She was considered by many of her friends to be elegant, sophisticated, charming and entertaining. The entire Polignac family benefited enormously from the queen's considerable generosity, but their increasing wealth and lavish lifestyle outraged many aristocratic families, who resented their dominance at Court. Ultimately, the queen's favouritism towards the Polignac family was one of the many causes which fueled Marie-Antoinette's unpopularity with some of her husband's subjects (especially Parisians) and members of the politically-liberal nobility. In 1780, her husband was given the title of duc de Polignac, thus making her duchesse, a further source of irritation to the courtiers.
By the late 1780s, thousands of pornographic pamphlets alleged that Gabrielle was the queen's lesbian lover, and although there was no evidence to back up these accusations they did immeasurable damage to the prestige of the monarchy, especially given the deep-rooted suspicion of homosexuality held by the bourgeoisie and urban working-classes at the time.
It has been suggested by several historians that Gabrielle's extravagance has been greatly exaggerated and point out that, during her fourteen-year residency at Versailles, she spent as much as Louis XV's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, had spent in one. Others have contended that to some extent she deserved her negative reputation because, despite the inaccuracies of the claims that she was sexually disreputable, other criticisms of her were valid - that she was cold, self-centred, self-indulgent and masked a love of gossip and intrigue behind a sweet-toned voice and flawless manners. This argument was particularly championed by the author and biographer, Stefan Zweig, who wrote:
"Not even Madame de Maintenon, not even the Pompadour, cost as much as this favourite, this angel, with downcast eyes, this modest and gentle Polignac. Those who were not themselves swept into the whirlpool, stood at the marge contemplating it with astonishment ... [as] the Queen's hand was invisibly guided by the violet-eyed, the lovely, the gentle Polignac."
Governess of the Children of FranceIn 1782, the Governess to the Children of France, Victoire de Rohan, princesse de Guéméné and wife of Henri Louis de Rohan, had to resign her post due to a scandal caused by her husband's bankruptcy. The Queen replaced the princess with Gabrielle. This appointment generated outrage at court, where it was felt Gabrielle's social status was insufficient for a post of that magnitude.
As a result of her new position as Gouvernante des Enfants de France, Gabrielle was given a thirteen-room apartment for herself in the palace. Technically, this was within the acceptable limits of etiquette, but the size of the apartment was unprecedented, particularly in a place as overpopulated as Versailles. Royal governesses had previously been quartered in four or five room apartments. Gabrielle was even given her own cottage in Marie-Antoinette's favorite pastoral refuge, the Hameau de la reine, built in the 1780s on the grounds of the Petit Trianon in the park of Versailles.
Gabrielle's marriage was cordial, if not successful; in other words, it was typical of aristocratic arranged marriages. For many years, she was apparently in love with the captain of the Royal Guard, Joseph Hyacinthe François de Paule de Rigaud, Comte de Vaudreuil, although it was felt by many of her friends that Vaudreuil was too domineering and too uncouth for the kind of society in which Gabrielle now moved. It was rumored at Versailles that Gabrielle's youngest child was actually fathered by Vaudreuil. However, the exact nature of Gabrielle's relationship with Vaudreuil has been debated by some historians, some feeling it was almost certainly not a sexual liaison. This theory has recently been resurrected by Catholic novelist and commentator, Elena Maria Vidal. Despite the claims that they were lovers, though, Gabrielle showed no hesitation in distancing herself from Vaudreuil whenever she felt her own social position was being threatened by the Queen's dislike of the manipulative courtier. There are almost no letters surviving from the couple. There are several possible reasons for this. The couple may not have been sufficiently close enough in reality to write to each other when separated, or they may just have been very careful in masking their communications for political reasons. Their letters may have been subsequently destroyed either by themselves or others for precaution's sake.
Historians are thus currently divided about whether or not Gabrielle and the comte de Vaudreuil were lovers.
- Aglaé Louise Françoise Gabrielle de Polignac (7 May 1768, Paris; 30 March 1803 in Edinburgh).
- Married the duc de Gramont et Guiche. Nicknamed Guichette by her family. Married at Versailles 11 July 1780
- Armand Jules Marie Héracle de Polignac, duc de Polignac (11 January 1771, Paris; 1 March 1847 in Paris). Second duc de Polignac
- Jules, prince de Polignac, prince de Polignac (10 November 1780, Paris; 30 March 1847 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye). Third duc de Polignac. Married first Barbara Campbell (1788-1819); second Mary Charlotte Parkyns (1792-1864); was French Prime Minister from 1829-1830, under the government of Gabrielle's friend, Charles X, the former comte d'Artois.
- Camille Henri Melchior de Polignac, comte de Polignac (27 December 1781 in Versailles; 2 February 1855 in Fontainebleau). Married Marie Charlotte Calixte Alphonsine Le Vassor de la Touche (1791-1861)
In EnglandPerhaps due to the Queen's intense dislike of the comte de Vaudreuil, whom she found rude and irritating, Gabrielle's influence over Marie-Antoinette temporarily waned after 1785, when the queen's second son was born. The queen was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the ambition of her favourites, especially when they championed a politician whom the queen herself despised. She confided to another lady-in-waiting, Henriette Campan, that she was "suffering acute dissatisfaction" over the Polignacs - "Her Majesty observed to me that when a sovereign raises up favourites in her court she raises up despots against herself". Eventually, Gabrielle felt Marie-Antoinette's displeasure and decided to visit friends in England, particularly Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who was the leader of London high society and one of Gabrielle's closest friends. During her time in England, she earned the nickname "Little Po," due to her delicate constitution.
RevolutionThe months leading up to the outbreak of the French Revolution in July 1789 saw the queen and the duchesse de Polignac become close again. Politically, Gabrielle and her friends supported the ultra-monarchist movement in Versailles, with Gabrielle becoming increasingly important in royalist intrigues as the summer progressed, usually in partnership with her friend and the king's youngest brother, the comte d'Artois.
The marquis de Bombelles, a diplomat and politician, remembered her ceaseless work to promote hardline responses against the emergent revolution. Together with Bombelles' godfather, the ex-diplomat and politician baron de Breteuil, and the comte d'Artois, Gabrielle persuaded Marie-Antoinette to help work against the king's liberal chief minister, Jacques Necker. However, without the necessary military support to crush the insurrection, Necker's dismissal fuelled the already-serious violence in Paris, culminating in the attack on the Bastille fortress.
After the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, all the members of the Polignac family went into exile. On Louis XVI's express orders, the comte d'Artois left, as did Breteuil; Gabrielle went with her family to Switzerland, where she kept in contact with the Queen through letters. After she had left, the care of the royal children was entrusted to the Marquise de Tourzel.
Later lifeGabrielle developed a terminal illness while living in Switzerland, although she had arguably been in poor health for several years. Most historians have concluded that she died of cancer. She died in Austria in December 1793, shortly after hearing of the execution of Marie-Antoinette. Her family simply announced that she had died as a result of heartbreak and suffering. Contradictory royalist reports of her death suggested consumption as an alternative cause of death, but no specific mention of her disease was made in the various allegorical pamphlets which showed the Angel of Death descending to take the soul of the still-beautiful duchesse de Polignac. Her beauty and early death became metaphors for the demise of the old regime, at least in early pamphlets and in subsequent family correspondence, the duchess's beauty was a much-emphasised point.
LegacyGabrielle was the mother of Jules, prince de Polignac, who became Prime Minister for Charles X (the former comte d'Artois) in 1829. She was also the mother of Aglaé de Polignac, duchesse de Guiche, who died in 1803 in an accidental fire. Two of her grandsons were Camille Armand Jules Marie, Prince de Polignac and Prince Edmond de Polignac. Her descendants can also be found in France and in Russia, where her granddaughter, daughter of "Guichette", married a nobleman, Aleksandr Lvovich Davydov.
Gabrielle de Polastron has left her mark in history and it can be seen in history books, novels, movies and other media. In 1979, she was one of the major characters (albeit a scheming one) in "The Rose of Versailles", a shōujo manga/anime created by Riyoko Ikeda. She was portrayed by Rose Byrne in the 2006 film Marie Antoinette and by Virginie Ledoyen in the 2012 film Farewell, My Queen.
She is the great-great-great-great grandmother of Princess Caroline, Prince Albert, and Princess Stéphanie of Monaco
CriticsHer critics among historians have argued that the duchesse de Polignac typified the aristocratic hangers-on at the court of Versailles before the French Revolution and that she embodied the exclusivity, the obliviousness and the selfish extravagance of the ruling class. However, more sympathetic historians, such as Pierre de Nolhac and the marquis de Ségur, agree that most of the problems originated with her entourage and that she was certainly no worse than any of some of the aristocrats or favourites who had preceded her at Versailles.
Assessments of her character aside, it is generally agreed that she was one of the key figures in the ultra-monarchist movement throughout the early summer of 1789, acting under the influence of her friend, the comte d'Artois.