18th Century portrait of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette

This week I learned – the coital quandary of Louis XVI

This started out as an entertaining tidbit that arose from my recent tour of Versailles (“hee hee, royal sex ed”), which I was originally going to tack on to the end of my last TWIL post. But, as sometimes happens when I try to turn “this cool thing I heard” into “this well-researched and hopefully accurate information I’m willing to share publicly”, the real story turned out to be much more complicated – and, in this case, of much more personal interest – than I had expected.

So today I delve into the historical mystery of: why did it take Louis XVI and his queen Marie-Antoinette seven years to consummate their marriage?

N.B. the following, as well as several of the links included, discusses sex and may be considered NSFW.

A king without an heir

Louis XVI and his wife, the probably more famous Marie-Antoinette, are remembered as the monarchs whose reign – and lives – ended with the French Revolution in 1793.

There were many catalysts leading to the overthrow of the French monarchy – the incredible excesses of Louis XVI and his two predecessors played a large part, as did widespread food shortages resulting from two decades of drought and poor harvests. But it’s clear that one of the factors was the unpopularity of Marie-Antoinette as queen – and one of the factors in that was her perceived inability to bear her husband an heir.

Louis XVI was only 15 when he was wed, and his new wife only 14. Their marriage was arranged by their parents and was of great political importance: Marie-Antoinette was daughter to the  Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, a country that shared 300 years of enmity with France.

The union between the French Dauphin and the empress’s own child was an attempt to smooth over the troubled relationship between the two countries, but after seven years of marriage not only had the couple had no children – they had not even consummated their marriage. Four years into their marriage they had been crowned king and queen of France following the death of Louis XV, but even this new responsibility had made no difference to their marital situation. Rumours were circulating: that the king was impotent; that his wife spurned him and pursued her own pleasures.

Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor and royal sexual investigator

Marie-Antoinette’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa, was having none of this. She dispatched another of her children to visit the royal couple and find out what was going on – her oldest son, Joseph, otherwise known as the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II.

Marie-Antoinette was delighted to see her beloved brother (though in matters other than her marital misfortune the visit proved to be a fraught one (chapter 9)), and she poured out her woes to him. Her husband rarely visited her bedchamber and, even when he did, he was incapable of doing the deed.

Louis XVI was also willing to confide in his brother-in-law, and it is a matter of historical record that Joseph II advised the king, and that following his departure the marriage was finally consummated; Louis wrote to him that “I hope that next year will not pass without having given you a nephew or a niece” (p. 30) and indeed, the couple’s first child was born the following year.

But less clear is the question of what advice the Holy Roman Emperor gave to Louis XVI, or why such intervention was even necessary. What, exactly, was the obstacle?

Why didn’t Louis XVI want to have sex?

The cause or causes of Louis’s hesitance in bed is still a matter for debate among historians. Many sources argue that the king suffered from phimosis, or another medical condition which made sex uncomfortable; there is some evidence that those around him, including his grandfather Louis XV, believed the obstruction to be a physical one. Some historians even assert that, following Joseph II’s visit, Louis underwent some kind of surgery – and yet if surgery did occur, it has left no concrete historical record.

Joseph II himself analysed the problem as inexperience – he wrote to his brother Leopold (a.k.a. the Grand Duke of Tuscany) complaining that,

“In his marriage bed, he has strong erections, he inserts his member, remains there for perhaps two minutes without moving, withdraws without ejaculating, and while still erect, bids good night. It’s incomprehensible... My sister does not have the temperament for this and together they make an utterly inept couple.”

(What the Grand Duke of Tuscany thought about receiving these intimate details regarding the king of France goes unrecorded.)

The bit that caught my attention, though, is Joseph’s description of Louis’s own reaction to these sexual fizzlers: He’s satisfied, saying he does it only out of a sense of duty but has no desire for it. (emphasis mine)

Was Louis XVI asexual?

Joseph II’s depiction is not the only evidence suggesting that Louis XVI simply wasn’t interested in sex.

On the night of his marriage, Louis’s grandfather, then-king Louis XV, warned his grandson against overeating at his wedding feast, to which Louis is reported to have replied, Why not? I always sleep better after a good supper.” (p. 22)

It’s also a matter of record that even after he and Marie-Antoinette consummated their marriage, Louis XVI never took a mistress, making him only king in the lengthy Capetian dynasty to have had no extra-marital lovers (Louis XV, as you may recall from my previous post, had at least a hundred).

Historians and contemporaries detailing Louis’s marital difficulties describes the young Dauphin as “inhibited”, “frigid”, “apathetic”, or suffering from “timidity and immaturity”. Some blame his lack of amorousness towards his wife on his education emphasising anti-Austrian sentiment.

But the evidence suggests that, despite an initial coldness towards her, by the time of his coronation Louis XVI showed true affection for his wife. Madame Campan, her lady-in-waiting, described how His long indifference had been followed by admiration and love. (chapter 8) well before the visit from Joseph II and subsequent consummation of their marriage.

As with so many intimate details of historical figures, we can never really know the truth of what led the young Louis XVI to spend seven years avoiding intercourse with his beautiful and willing wife. But in light of a more modern understanding of sexuality, there’s another factor to consider: perhaps he was simply asexual, in a time before the concept was even understood.

More info (the short version): The Visit of Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor

More info (in depth):

Androutsos, George, 2002; The truth about Louis XVI’s marital difficulties

Geer, Walter, 1922; The French revolution: a historical sketch (chapter 2 – 1774-1779 The Young Sovereigns)

Madame Campan, 1900; Memoirs Of The Court Of Marie Antoinette, Queen Of France (chapters 3, 5-6, 8-9)

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
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