500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge

By Eleanor Herman

Morrow. 287 pp. $25.95

If one is inclined to believe Eleanor Herman's amusing, once-over-very-lightly account of the amatory deeds and misdeeds of kings and their kinfolk, the R in "royal" also stands for "randy." As portrayed herein, kings and princes and such were and are priapic to the max, ever in search of erotic satisfaction and ever en garde, as it were, to achieve it. If ever a monarch's spirit was willing but his flesh weak, the occasion apparently has not come to Herman's attention, for she portrays royalty as eternally ready, willing and able.

Well, maybe not Edward VIII, who during his brief reign became besotted with Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee and social climber whose "nose was lumpy, her mouth large and ugly, her hands short and stubby." Could it have been, as often was bruited about, that she "had conquered Edward with bizarre Asian sexual techniques she had learned in China," or could it have been that "the two were brought together by an avid aversion to sex -- that Edward was hopelessly impotent and Wallis icily frigid"?

Whatever the truth of it, Edward gave up the British throne for his Wallis and married her, consigning the two of them to a purgatory that lasted from 1937 until his death in 1972.

They got what they deserved, you may say, and you are quite right, but they also were handed a fate quite different from that dealt out to most kings and their mistresses. History shows that kings have mostly bounced from bedchamber to bedchamber and that the ladies they encountered along the way did a fair amount of bouncing themselves, sometimes to their profit, sometimes to their sorrow.

This is put in the past tense because the royal mistress is mostly a creature of the past: Royalty isn't what it used to be, what with a lot less money and power to be handed out as favors, and the press insists on shoving its sharp little nose (not to mention the lens of its camera) into just about everything. If His Majesty wants to have a little fun on the side, he can expect to read about it in the tabloids, which presumably can be a powerful anti-tumescent. In the good old days it was another story:

"In the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the position of royal mistress was almost as official as that of prime minister. The mistress was expected to perform certain duties -- sexual and otherwise -- in return for titles, pensions, honors, and an influential place at court. She encouraged the arts -- theater, literature, music, architecture, and philosophy. She wielded her charm as a weapon against foreign ambassadors. She calmed the king when he was angry, buoyed him up when he was despondent, encouraged him to greatness when he was weak. She attended religious services daily, gave alms to the poor, and turned in her jewels to the treasury in times of war."

The "quintessential royal mistress was Jeanne-Antoinette d'Etioles, marquise de Pompadour, who reigned for nineteen years over Louis XV and France." Frigidity, from which apparently she suffered, did not prevent her from finding ways to give the king pleasure in and out of her lavish bedchamber at Versailles, and in time "she wielded the greatest power of any royal mistress ever," to the point that in 1753 one insider wrote: "The mistress is Prime Minister, and is becoming more and more despotic, such as a favorite has never been in France." At her death in 1764 she was mourned by precious few.

Kings sought the favors of mistresses because their marriages were often empty and unhappy. Royal marriages were almost always arranged for political reasons and in the expectation that they would produce heirs. What Herman calls "the old portrait trick" was frequently used to persuade a ruler or ruler-in-waiting to take a bride. Thus Henri IV of France was shown a flattering likeness of Marie de Medici, though when she arrived at Marseilles he complained, "I have been deceived! She is not beautiful!" He "was expecting a slender beauty with elegant features, not this heavy woman with a flat farmer's face." He managed to get her pregnant, but he found happiness (such as it was) with his mistress, Henriette-Catherine de Balzac d'Entragues.

In truth, happiness seems to have been a rare commodity in most of these royal trysts. Kings often were spoiled, simple-minded and self-aggrandizing, their thinking warped by obsequious courtiers and generations of inbreeding. The court "was a world of twisted values, strange honor and disgraces incomprehensible to later generations," a world in which "the fundamental human matters of life and death and love meant little compared to the crumbs of success or specks of failure." Kings may have ruled supreme in this poisonous environment, but they were scarcely immune to the discontents and jealousies that thrived therein.

As for the mistresses, they may have been pampered and even adored, but they lived in limbo. A mistress's claim upon the king's time and exchequer rested entirely on her ability to please and amuse him. There was an endless stream of "pretty women attempting to gain the king's attention," and the mistress of the moment was forever on red alert: "When the royal eye wandered, as it did with alarming frequency, there was great speculation as to whether the object of kingly desires would prove a meaningless flirtation or if she would completely replace the existing power structure at court."

A further complication for some mistresses was that just as kings had queens, so mistresses sometimes had husbands. Some kings beckoned to married women as a way of flexing the royal muscles and/or putting their husbands (mostly high-ranking members of the court) in their places. Other husbands saw advantage in having their wives in the king's bed, and encouraged them; "indeed," Herman writes with perhaps an excess of cuteness, "many a man was willing to lay down his wife for the good of his country."

What is truly peculiar about kings and their mistresses is that many a king tolerated a mistress who was every bit as much a harridan as his queen. Charles II of England "put up with his beautiful virago, Barbara, Lady Castlemaine, for nearly a dozen years." She "badgered, threatened and intimidated Charles into submission with her unending stream of demands for money, titles and honors for herself and her children and sometimes, in a burst of selfishness, for her friends." Similarly, the legendary Lola Montez, mistress of Ludwig I of Bavaria, was no day at the beach: "whorish, selfish deceitful Lola who had broken old King Ludwig's heart and lost him his kingdom." By 1848, he finally had had enough and banished her; she went to the United States and made a new life for herself in the Wild West.

All of which should make plain that despite Herman's occasional inability to resist the temptations of coy prose, "Sex With Kings" is entertaining: a beach book, and a lot more fun than Danielle Steel or Dan Brown.