Was Louis XIV illegitimate?

Versailles season 3 plays with the idea that Louis XIV, the great Sun King, was not legitimate. This idea is not new at all and pretty much as old as Louis XIV.

Louis XIV as an infant with his nurse Longuet de la Giraudiére

If a child is legitimate, it means it is born to two people bound in marriage and those two people are the natural parents of the child. If a child is illegitimate, it means that it is born to two people who are not married to each other, might not be married at all or be married to someone else. The kids Louis had with his wife, were legitimate. Those he had with his mistresses, were illegitimate.

The Sun King’s parents, Anne d’Autriche and Louis XIII, tried… but for many years they were not blessed with a child. Anne became pregnant a couple of times, but she lost the children. Louis blamed her a bit for that. He wasn’t really eager to perform his duties in that department either, so it took what felt like ages until the future Louis XIV was finally born.

And the rumours of him being a bâtard were born along with him. There are many versions of how that supposedly happened.

The most common one involves Cardinal Mazarin. Since Anne and Louis XIII were not blessed with children, people started to think there might be something wrong with Louis XIII… down there. Which in turn would mean that Louis XIII might not be able to father children… or there could be something wrong with Anne and maybe she was not able to carry a child for the necessary duration. The latter was what people suspected first, but the longer it took, the more people started to eye Louis XIII suspiciously. He was not really considered to be a strong King and not being able to father kids, perfectly fitted his persona. A man with problems down there, was not a ‘real man’ as in he was not considered strong.

But then Anne got pregnant again, when the people already had given up hope, and her pregnancy went well. Therefore, the problem could not be Anne, they thought… and so the rumours started. Anne must have had an affair, they said, or at least a one-night-stand. She was rather beautiful and had many admirers. She also was desperate to be the mother of the next King of France and did not really want Louis XIII’s brother to become King. Maybe she plotted with someone… and the most likely plot-partners were Cardinal Richelieu and Mazarin. Cardinal Richelieu was of an advanced age, Mazarin not so much. Thus Anne must have slept with Mazarin.

Other candidates were Louis XIII’s brother Gaston, to keep it in the family, the Marquis de Cinq-Mars, a favourite of Louis XIII and someone Richelieu brought to court.

Cardinal Mazarin was not in France, or anywhere close to Anne, around the time Louis XIV was fathered. Both of them got along very well in later years, which led to rumours of a secret marriage between them, but he can not possibly be the father of Louis XIV. Same goes for Cinq-Mars. Anne was already pregnant as Cinq-Mars gained close access to the royal family. In case of Gaston, it is highly unlikely that Anne, who did not want Gaston as next King, would agree to have him as father of the future King… and live with the danger of being exposed by him. Some argued that Louis XIII actually arranged for Anne and Gaston to share a bed. Either way, Gaston already showed he was able to father kids and if Louis XIII died without heir, he would become King. There was plenty time left for Gaston to roll in bed and make a legitimate heir himself with the wife.

Portrait of a Child Presumed to be Louis XIV, French school c. 1638

As interesting as the rumours are, the chance of something like that actually happening are very very very slim. There is a much more simple explanation why it took so long, it makes way more sense… and is actually documented.

Anne and Louis tried, but since Louis was not too eager in that department, he might have had more interest in men, they did not try as often as the general public expected. Louis was not infertile, nor was Anne, which the miscarriages prove. The couple did not always get along well, which made them even less eager to try. As both grew older, they worried more about the matter and Cardinal de Richelieu did indeed involve himself… but not as the rumours say by finding a bed-partner. He had a serious talk with Louis XIII about the matter and urged him to make peace with his wife and try again.

Shortly later, Louis XIII spent a night in Anne’s bedroom, in November 1637, and around six weeks later, the doctors declared Anne to be in happy circumstances. She gave birth to healthy boy, the future Louis XIV, nine months later. At Christmas time in 1639, they had a bit of a cuddle again and Philippe was the result. Both boys had undeniable Bourbon features and they could not come from Anne.

The idea Versailles plays with is thus a bit of a century old conspiracy theory with the aim to discredit everyone involved by painting Louis XIII as weak, the pious Anne d’Autriche as adulterous, Louis XIV himself as imposer and Richelieu and Mazarin as evil masterminds. Hinting the people of France, who fight and finance their King, have been fooled and are ruled by someone who has no right to do so…. which would make them a bit of a laughing stock.


  • Debra L. Taylor

    Thanks much for giving us the historical background — the rumors the TV writers chose to build on. I do find the idea of Louis XIV and Philippe being illegitimate unbelievable. And, by my logic, if they found some viral Bourbon look-alike to father Anne’s children and then pass them off as Louis XIII’s, would not they have killed the biological father as soon as the second healthy son was born? If I could believe the rumor-story up to that point, I certainly can’t believe they would leave the father alive.

    • Aurora von Goeth

      Exactly. If you go to such an extend to secure the throne, you do not leave the one thing alive which can destroy it all. Especially when there is a legal heir, Gaston, who has proven to be difficult to deal with. You erase the ‘father’ from the books. You do not put a mask on him and put him in some prison, where he eventually could be discovered.

    • ncas

      It was my understanding that the vatican chose to keep the man alive as leverage over France, which is why agents of the vatican were guarding the man in the iron mask. After all, they were only content to keep the secret as long as France remained their ally.

      If Louis XIII and the vatican were so tightly involved that he made sure they were aware his wife slept with another man, then he likely would have simply done their bidding in allowing the man to be taken by knights of damascus instead of killing him. Personally this second part seems like a weak point in the plot, but ignoring how the vatican became involved it does make sense they’d be the ones who wanted to keep him alive and guarded with their own men…. Actually no it doesn’t. The whole time I’ve been listening to Cardinal Leto make threats about revealing the truth I keep thinking about the obvious lack of dna testing technology during that era and how they could have easily just pulled any idiot off the streets and claimed Louis is a bastard. Still an interesting story though.

  • Dawn Martinez-Byrne

    Anne and Louis both hated and feared Gaston. Neither of them wanted him anywhere near the throne. That alone was incentive enough for them to try for children, no matter how old they were. Philippe was insurance that Gaston I would never come to pass.

  • Patricia O

    In a somewhat loose adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ (Dumas’s) Musketeer books (some of them) in “The Musketeers” the BBC implied a relationship with between Anne and Aramis (so I suppose in that instance Aramis would have been the Dad). For the avoidance of doubt I do not harbour any misconception that real-life Aramis was the father of real-life Anne’s baby. The actors (Santiago Carbrera and Alexandra Dowling) did make a handsome make-believe couple though.

  • Brandon

    Alternative theories suggest that it must have been a noble or valet involved in a notorious public scandal. None of them make any sense. What would be the purpose of secretly imprisoning and concealing the identity of a known public person for 30 years? For taking such great lengths as scrubbing and painting their cell to eliminate all trace of them when moved? And why would the care and creature comforts of said person be paid for through a stipend from the Royal household?

    No. Whoever that person was had a connection to the Royal family and they went to extraordinary lengths to ensure nobody knew he existed. I am partial theory that it was Louis XIV’s biological father. So why might contemporary people believe such a rumor?

    Well, decades of fruitless marriage and his very poor health at the time certainly lend to it and poor Louis was not alone in that problem. The House of Bourbon was prolific at producing daughters but suffered from a shortage of sons. By his time, 9 cadet branches of the House were already extinct. If he died without an heir then the throne would pass to his brother Gaston who, as a typical Bourbon, was awash in daughters but also had no male heir. And to make matters worse he had an illegal and illegitimate marriage. So what is a sickly and precariously perched King to do but introduce some possibility of political stability by spontaneously producing not one but two sons.

  • createalemon eatapear

    I wish these docu-dramas were closer to historical fact; after all it is a shame that ignorant persons will watch and believe it to be fact when it is just farcical docu-drama; why re-write history? I am interested in what is known; not a re-write. It is actually a crime to present a subject matter as historical when it is completely fiction. But what is worse is the lack of critical thinkers; and the surplus of people who cannot think critically; it is exasperating.

    • G Blake

      If you are interested enough you could buy the book by Marcel Pagnol titled ‘l’homme en masque du fer’ (The Man in the Iron Mask). It’s in French but there must be a translation. The mother of Louis 14th had been rejected by her husband the king for many years. Pagnol puts a convincing argument that 1) Louis14th was one of twins. The second child was whisked away when the king hurriedly arranged a Te Deum for the first child immediately (instead of in a few days) and the birth room was emptied as all rushed to the chapel. It is also suggested by some that Dartagnan was the father. However there was a child after Louis 14th, his homosexual brother known as Monsieur.

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