Liselotte von der Pfalz, known in France as “Madame Palatine”, in a painting by Jean-Gilbert Murat for the Palace of Versailles, after an original by Pierre Mignard (detail).
Liselotte von der Pfalz, known in France as “Madame Palatine”, in a painting by Jean-Gilbert Murat for the Palace of Versailles, after an original by Pierre Mignard (detail). © RMN-GP, Palace of Versailles / Hervé Lewandowski

Madame Palatine at the court of the Sun King

Liselotte von der Pfalz’s extensive correspondence gives something of an autobiographical portrait of its writer, provides a no-holds-barred chronicle of the French court at the time of Louis XIV and the Régence, and is one of the best-known German-language texts of the Baroque period.

Murielle Schlup

Murielle Schlup

Freelance art historian and cultural scientist

“All of Europe mourns” (“Voilà un deuil pour toute l’Europe”). With these words, Parisian lawyer and chronicler Mathieu Marais commented on the death of the princess who spent 51 years of her life at the French court and who, thanks to her extensive correspondence, had a vast network of contacts throughout Europe: Elisabeth Charlotte, better known as Liselotte von der Pfalz (1652-1722), Duchess of Orléans, sister-in-law of King Louis XIV and mother of the French Regent, Philippe II de Bourbon, Duke of Orléans. From her writing desk, she sent at least 60,000 letters – three times more than Voltaire – to the royal courts of Prussia, England, Sweden, Denmark, Spain and Sicily, as well as practically all the princely courts in Germany and the ducal courts of Lorraine, Savoy and Modena.
High above the Neckar: the city of Heidelberg and Heidelberg Castle before they were destroyed. Painting by Gerrit Berckheyde, c. 1670.
High above the Neckar: the city of Heidelberg and Heidelberg Castle before they were destroyed. Painting by Gerrit Berckheyde, c. 1670. Kurpfälzisches Museum Heidelberg
Liselotte von der Pfalz came from the high nobility of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Granddaughter of the “Winter King” Frederick V and Elizabeth Stuart of England, Liselotte was the only daughter of Charles I Louis, Elector Palatine, from his first marriage to Charlotte of Hesse-Kassel. She described her childhood self as a “teutsches rauschenplattenkechtchen” – a happy, lively little soul climbing trees and running tirelessly about like a leaf in the wind. Liselotte often said that she would have preferred to have been born a boy: “For it has grieved me all my life to be a woman, and to be Elector, it hinders me from telling the truth; better to stand in a line than to be Madame”.
Happier playing with her brother’s wooden swords than with dolls: little Liselotte as a child of about 4 or 5.
Happier playing with her brother’s wooden swords than with dolls: little Liselotte as a child of about 4 or 5. Wikimedia
Liselotte’s parents’ marriage broke down when she was very young. After the legally contentious separation, her father entered into a morganatic marriage – that is, a marriage between individuals of unequal social status, entailing restrictions on succession rights, property etc. – with Louise von Degenfeld, a former lady-in-waiting to Liselotte’s mother. Accompanied by her governess, the seven-year-old was given into the care of Charles Louis’ sister Sophia of Hanover at the court of the Dukes of Brunswick-Lüneburg, where Liselotte, no longer distressed by constant parental quarrelling, spent a happy childhood. “My dear ma tante” Sophia was a kind of mother figure to her, and was to remain her closest confidant until Sophia’s death in 1714. The two later exchanged letters at least once a week, with Liselotte’s missives often running to more than twenty pages. In 1663 her father the Elector brought her back to Heidelberg, and ensured she received a courtly education as befitted a girl of her social status. This included Bible study, needlework, dancing lessons, playing the spinet and instruction in German and French. Her leisure activities were badminton, billiards and reading books on history and “moral instruction”. Of her thirteen half-siblings – some of whom died young – with whom Liselotte had good relationships, she kept up a lifelong correspondence with the Raugräfinnen (countesses) Louise and Amalie Elisabeth (known as Amelise) and with her half-brother Raugraf Charles Louis (known as Karllutz).
A portrait for the marriage market: Liselotte between 1670 and 1671, shortly before her marriage to Philippe I, Duke of Orléans.
A portrait for the marriage market: Liselotte between 1670 and 1671, shortly before her marriage to Philippe I, Duke of Orléans. Wikimedia

From Heidelberg to Versailles

In 1671 Liselotte was married to Philippe I, the widowed Duke of Orléans, younger brother of the French King Louis XIV. Through this politically motivated marriage, Liselotte’s father hoped – in vain, as it transpired about ten years later – to secure long-term protection for his territory from French expansionist ambitions. Liselotte was resigned to her fate: “Between ourselves, they have thrust me into this against my will”, she wrote subsequently from France. In tears she left her beloved homeland, which she mourned for the rest of her life: “I preferred Germany and find it […] much more pleasant, as it had less pomp and more sincerity.” Throughout her life, she set great store by “our good German ways”, including when it came to cuisine: “sauerkraut and kale taste better" and “I’d rather drink warm beer with nutmeg than chocolatte, caffé and thé”.
Monsieur and Madame, as the ducal couple were known according to their honorific titles, were wholly unsuited as a couple. The King’s homosexual brother was a rampant playboy and bon vivant, and wasn’t remotely interested in Liselotte. He led a debauched lifestyle of licentiousness and pleasure-seeking, preferring to spend his days and nights frittering away immense sums of money on lovers, favourites, and card-playing. With the King, however, whom she greatly admired and who shared many of her passions, Liselotte cultivated a much more intimate, amicable relationship. Both adored the theatre and the opera, and regularly attended performances in one another’s company. They often went hunting together, either on horseback or in a carriage. Hunting was a passion that Liselotte continued to pursue into old age – despite falls, injuries and continuous weight gain: “I may be fat, but that doesn’t stop me from hunting; I ride big horses that are capable of carrying me”.
Liselotte in hunting dress, watercolour drawing by Joseph Werner, 1671.
Liselotte in hunting dress, watercolour drawing by Joseph Werner, 1671. ©Palace of Versailles, Dist. RMN / ©Christophe Fouin

Liselotte’s life at the French court

Liselotte had her own royal household of 250 people, which cost around 250,000 livres a year, and lived in apartments in the Palais Royal in Paris and at the châteaux of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Saint-Cloud, Versailles, Marly, Fontainebleu and Montargis. Most of the time, she and her husband were required to be in attendance at the royal court in order to take part in the constant round of festive occasions, ceremonies and amusements: “[...] when we come back from the hunt, we change into different clothes and go down to the games; you stayed there until about 7 in the evening; from there you went to the commedie, which ended at about 10:30, then you went to supper, and from supper to the ball”. Liselotte had little time for the etiquette and the conventions of courtly life, and for the pervasive extravagance and ostentation. She dismissed excessive effort and expense on one’s clothing as vain and “coquettish”. She was thus all the more amused when her “old sable”, for which she was initially mocked when she arrived in France, became a popular fashion accessory in the cold winter of 1676: “[...] so now everyone can […] make one and it’s now the height of fashion,” she quipped about the rather rustic fur wrap, a style which was named the “palatine” after her. Liselotte kept hers until it was eaten by moths. The insects ended up under the microscope of the curious Duchess, who had wide-ranging scientific interests.
Liselotte in about 1678-1679, with her children: Elisabeth Charlotte, later Duchess of Lorraine (left), and the future French Regent Philippe II, Duke of Orléans (right).
Liselotte in about 1678-1679, with her children: Elisabeth Charlotte, later Duchess of Lorraine (left), and the future French Regent Philippe II, Duke of Orléans (right). © RMN-GP, Palace of Versailles / Hervé Lewandowski

“Being Madame is a miserable job”

With Liselotte, Monsieur fathered a daughter and two sons, the elder of whom died in childhood. His dynastic duties thus having been fulfilled, the Duke moved out of the marital bedroom. This was greatly to Liselotte’s relief, especially as she “did not like the work of having babies at all”. More problematic was the fact that from then on, her husband either ignored her or made life unpleasant for her. The mostly unsavoury entourage of favourites and playmates who clustered around the easily manipulated Duke night and day concocted lies about Liselotte, out of sheer spite, putting additional strain on the already difficult marriage. Liselotte was at the mercy of these intrigues, especially as the King didn’t wish to play the role of mediator all the time and refused to take sides against his brother. Liselotte now often withdrew to the sanctuary of her private apartments. “Being Madame is a miserable job,” she lamented, and resigned herself to the fact “that my verhencknuss [fate, destiny] is given by God: always to suffer and to remain silent and to be devoured by all my sorrows”. However, this amiable and witty woman didn’t sink into constant depression: “You can’t cry all the time, it doesn’t help at all; laughing is good for your health, pooping and farting met verlöff [if you will forgive me] also help a great deal”. Hungry for knowledge, she immersed herself in the books in her extensive library, looked after her significant collections of coins, precious stones and seals, took care of her Cocker Spaniels, played the guitar and devoted herself even more to her greatest passion: writing letters. “Writing entertains me and gives my sad thoughts distraction.”

Free of pretensions and artifice

Liselotte’s correspondence contains detailed descriptions of events and experiences, with “breaking news” mixed in with (seemingly) mundane descriptions of everyday life. Valuable details and titillating anecdotes offer a deeper insight into life in front of and behind the glittering Baroque backdrop at the French court. Her sentences were free of clichéd flourishes and detached artificiality; they were worded openly and directly, written in a blunt style and peppered with critical, albeit mostly highly subjective judgments, with frequent injections of self-deprecating irony and sarcasm. She confidently assumed that her letters would be destroyed immediately after they had been received and answered, as that’s exactly what she did with the mail addressed to her. So the educated, witty Liselotte committed her thoughts and views to paper without any literary ambitions, firing straight from the hip: “[...] I write as I speak; for I am too artless to write otherwise than I think”. And she did this in the awareness that her letters were always checked before they were sent out. Time and again, she was put in her place. In one of her letters, she reacted to this surveillance with an earthy humour, describing an “intimate emergency” during a journey: “I felt a great need [...], an earthen chamber pot was brought to me. When I was in the middle of my task, the chamber pot broke. […]. This is a wonderful story and deserves to be read by a minister d’estat; I would love to know whether he will report this also to the King, for matters of state will go badly if the King does not hear of this.”
Letter dated 20 February 1718, signed by Liselotte von der Pfalz. A third of her correspondence was in French.
Letter dated 20 February 1718, signed by Liselotte von der Pfalz. A third of her correspondence was in French. Heidelberg University Library

In conflict with the beloved King

The strong-willed Liselotte manoeuvred herself to the very fringes of court society due to her implacable hatred of Madame de Maintenon. de Maintenon started off as governess to the “royal bastards”, the children of Louis XIV and his mistress, Madame de Montespan. After de Maintenon had superseded the latter in her role and Queen Marie-Thérèse had died (1683), Louis XIV entered into a morganatic marriage with the “girl who rose from rags to riches”. Liselotte, basically down-to-earth and open-minded, yet at the same time deeply status-conscious and proud of her aristocratic lineage, henceforth vilified the influential de Maintenon, who had supplanted everyone else in the King’s affections, as “mouse filth gone astray among the peppercorns”, as an “old witch” and “old drab”. When the King subsequently turned his back on his sister-in-law, it was to Liselotte’s complete incomprehension. The greatest humiliation for Liselotte, who had nothing but the most profound contempt for “misalliances” – in the truest sense of the word, “improper” marital unions – occurred in 1692, when Louis XIV arranged for one of his illegitimate daughters to marry Liselotte’s son. When the impending marriage was announced, Liselotte slapped her son in front of the assembled royal household. The relationship between the King and his sister-in-law came under additional strain after Liselotte’s brother Charles II, Elector Palatine since 1680, died childless. Louis XIV raised an inheritance claim in the name of his sister-in-law, and without any right to do so, beginning the Palatinate War of Succession which raged between 1688 and 1697. French troops marched into the Electoral Palatinate, laying waste towns, villages and fields and destroying Heidelberg Castle: “It makes my heart bleed, and they still hold it against me that I’m sad about it”, lamented Liselotte.
Heidelberg in the Palatinate War of Succession: title page of an anonymous publication from 1693 about the deliberate destruction of the city and castle by fire-raising and explosions (detail).
Heidelberg in the Palatinate War of Succession: title page of an anonymous publication from 1693 about the deliberate destruction of the city and castle by fire-raising and explosions (detail). Heidelberg University Library

From widow to mother of the Regent

Monsieur died in 1701, leaving an immense mountain of debt. The widow Liselotte was now entirely dependent on the goodwill and money of the King, whom she still held in high esteem. In order to secure both, she had first to swallow her pride, make a supreme effort and reconcile with Madame de Maintenon – which she managed to do. From then on the King was again well disposed toward his sister-in-law, but continued to keep her at a distance, except on official occasions. It was only in the final years of his life that Louis XIV accepted Liselotte back into his trusted circle, when she was once again granted free access to what was for her the “holy of holies”: the king’s apartments.
In the center and at the King’s right hand: Liselotte receiving the Elector of Saxony Friedrich August, later King Augustus III of Poland, on 27 September 1714. Painting by Louis de Silvestre.
In the center and at the King’s right hand: Liselotte receiving the Elector of Saxony Friedrich August, later King Augustus III of Poland, on 27 September 1714. Painting by Louis de Silvestre. © Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
There, one topic became a perennial favorite: the uncertain succession to the throne. The accepted line of succession kept collapsing, beginning in 1711 with the death of the “Grand Dauphin”, who was the only legitimate child of the King to reach adulthood. His son, the “Petit Dauphin”, died barely a year later – followed closely by his own eldest son. When Louis XIV shuffled off his mortal coil in 1715, the throne passed to his five-year-old great-grandson, who later became King Louis XV. Because the boy was a minor, Liselotte’s son stepped in as regent. The reign of Philippe II de Bourbon, Duke of Orléans, which lasted until 1723, went down in history as the Régence.

Death and afterlife

Liselotte, mother of the Regent and “first lady” of the court until her death, maintained a good relationship with her son in old age and had regained her standing at court. But now it was sickness and infirmity that increasingly grieved and distressed her. The court in Versailles was dissolved until the new King came of age, as the late Louis XIV had ordered, and from then on Liselotte spent much of her time at the Château Saint-Cloud. She died there on 8 December 1722, at the age of 70.
The favourite residence: the Château Saint-Cloud Castle near Paris, which belonged to Monsieur, passed to Liselotte’s son after Monsieur’s death. Painting by Étienne Allegrain (detail).
The favourite residence: the Château Saint-Cloud Castle near Paris, which belonged to Monsieur, passed to Liselotte’s son after Monsieur’s death. Painting by Étienne Allegrain (detail). Wikimedia
Liselotte owes her immortality to her extraordinary correspondence, which reflects her complex personality. Her widely cited letters constitute a collection of autobiographical source material that is significant in terms of historical culture and mentality, and at the same time a chronicle-like panorama of the French court in the age of Louis XIV and the Régence. Although only around 10 percent of the letters she wrote have survived, it is a very extensive, dense collection. Unfortunately, this collection has to date been edited only in fragments, and this work has, moreover, been in non-standard, sometimes heavily modified versions (hence the linguistic discrepancies of the quotes used in this text, which come from several publications). A uniform, complete edition is yet to be produced, 300 years after her death. Astonishingly, Liselotte’s correspondence is one of the best-known German-language texts of the Baroque period.
Baroque opulence beneath the widow’s veil: Liselotte wears an ermine-lined velvet cloak with the Bourbon lilies that mark her out as a member of the royal family. Portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1713.
Baroque opulence beneath the widow’s veil: Liselotte wears an ermine-lined velvet cloak with the Bourbon lilies that mark her out as a member of the royal family. Portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1713. RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles)

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