Sophie of France (1734–1782)

Sophie Philippine Élisabeth Justine de France,[1] (27 July 1734 – 2 March 1782) was a French princess, a fille de France; she was the sixth daughter and eighth child of Louis XV of France and his queen consort Marie Leszczyńska. First known as Madame Cinquième, she later became Madame Sophie. She and her sisters were collectively known as Mesdames.

Madame Sophie
Duchess of Louvois
Jean-Marc Nattier, Madame Sophie de France (1748) - 01.jpg
Sophie by Nattier
Born(1734-07-27)27 July 1734
Palace of Versailles, France
Died2 March 1782(1782-03-02) (aged 47)
Palace of Versailles, France
Full name
Sophie Philippine Élisabeth Justine de France
FatherLouis XV of France
MotherMarie Leszczyńska
ReligionRoman Catholicism
SignatureMadame Sophie's signature


Sophie is less well known than many of her sisters. Her birth at the Palace of Versailles was relatively unremarked. Her second name, Philippine, was given in honour of her second brother who had died the previous year. Unlike the older children of Louis XV, she was not raised at Versailles but, in June 1738, sent to live at the Abbey of Fontevraud with her older sister Madame Victoire and younger sisters Madame Thérèse (who died young) and Madame Louise, because the cost of raising them in Versailles with all the status they were entitled to was deemed too expensive by Cardinal Fleury, Louis XV's chief minister.

According to Madame Campan, the Mesdames had rather a traumatic upbringing in Fontrevault, and was not given much education: "Cardinal Fleury, who in truth had the merit of reestablishing the finances, carried this system of economy so far as to obtain from the King the suppression of the household of the four younger Princesses. They were brought up as mere boarders in a convent eighty leagues distant from the Court. Saint Cyr would have been more suitable for the reception of the King’s daughters; but probably the Cardinal shared some of those prejudices which will always attach to even the most useful institutions, and which, since the death of Louis XIV., had been raised against the noble establishment of Madame de Maintenon. Madame Louise often assured me that at twelve years of age she was not mistress of the whole alphabet, and never learnt to read fluently until after her return to Versailles. Madame Victoire attributed certain paroxysms of terror, which she was never able to conquer, to the violent alarms she experienced at the Abbey of Fontevrault, whenever she was sent, by way of penance, to pray alone in the vault where the sisters were interred. A gardener belonging to the abbey died raving mad. His habitation, without the walls, was near a chapel of the abbey, where Mesdames were taken to repeat the prayers for those in the agonies of death. Their prayers were more than once interrupted by the shrieks of the dying man."[2]

Reign of Louis XVEdit

Jean Etienne Liotard - Prinzessin Sophie Philippine Élisabeth Justine de France (1734 - 1782) (Sammlung Rau)
Madame Sophie de France by François-Hubert Drouais, 1762, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Madame Sophie and her sister Louise were allowed to return to the court of Versailles in 1750, two years after Victoire. While their education had been neglected in the convent, they reportedly compensated for this and studied extensively after their return to court, encouraged by their brother, with whom they immediately formed a close attachment: "When Mesdames, still very young, returned to Court, they enjoyed the friendship of Monseigneur the Dauphin, and profited by his advice. They devoted themselves ardently to study, and gave up almost the whole of their time to it; they enabled themselves to write French correctly, and acquired a good knowledge of history. Italian, English, the higher branches of mathematics, turning and dialing, filled up in succession their leisure moments."[2] The King referred to them by nicknames: he called Madame Adelaide 'Logue' [Tatters], Madame Victoire 'Coche' [Piggy], Madame Sophie, 'Graille' [Mite], and Madame Louise, 'Chiffie' [Rubbish].[2]

Madame Sophie never married, but became a member of the collective group of unmarried princesses known as Mesdames. Being described as of a shy and reserved nature, she did not attract much attention. She did not exercise any influence at the court, but let herself be directed by her older sister Madame Adélaïde, following her in her antipathy against her father's mistresses, Madame de Pompadour and then Madame du Barry.

In 1761, when her sister Victoire visited the waters in Lorraine for medical purposes for the first time in the company of Adelaide, Sophie and her sister Louise visited Paris for the first time.[3]

Madame Campan, who was employed as her reader in 1768, described her: "Madame Sophie was remarkably ugly; never did I behold a person with so unprepossessing an appearance; she walked with the greatest rapidity; and, in order to recognise the people who placed themselves along her path without looking at them, she acquired the habit of leering on one side, like a hare. This Princess was so exceedingly diffident that a person might be with her daily for years together without hearing her utter a single word. It was asserted, however, that she displayed talent, and even amiability, in the society of some favourite ladies. She taught herself a great deal, but she studied alone; the presence of a reader would have disconcerted her very much. There were, however, occasions on which the Princess, generally so intractable, became all at once affable and condescending, and manifested the most communicative good-nature; this would happen during a storm; so great was her alarm on such an occasion that she then approached the most humble, and would ask them a thousand obliging questions; a flash of lightning made her squeeze their hands; a peal of thunder would drive her to embrace them, but with the return of the calm, the Princess resumed her stiffness, her reserve, and her repellent air, and passed all by without taking the slightest notice of any one, until a fresh storm restored to her at once her dread and her affability."[2]

The life of the sisters in the last years of the reign of the father was described as follows: "Louis XV. saw very little of his family. He came every morning by a private staircase into the apartment of Madame Adelaide. He often brought and drank their coffee that he had made himself. Madame Adelaide pulled a bell which apprised Madame Victoire of the King’s visit; Madame Victoire, on rising to go to her sister’s apartment, rang for Madame Sophie, who in her turn rang for Madame Louise. The apartments of Mesdames were of very large dimensions. Madame Louise occupied the farthest room. This latter lady was deformed and very short; the poor Princess used to run with all her might to join the daily meeting, but, having a number of rooms to cross, she frequently in spite of her haste, had only just time to embrace her father before he set out for the chase. Every evening, at six, Mesdames interrupted my reading to them to accompany the princes to Louis XV.; this visit was called the King’s 'debotter',—[Debotter, meaning the time of unbooting.]—and was marked by a kind of etiquette. Mesdames put on an enormous hoop, which set out a petticoat ornamented with gold or embroidery; they fastened a long train round their waists, and concealed the undress of the rest of their clothing by a long cloak of black taffety which enveloped them up to the chin. The chevaliers d’honneur, the ladies in waiting, the pages, the equerries, and the ushers bearing large flambeaux, accompanied them to the King. In a moment the whole palace, generally so still, was in motion; the King kissed each Princess on the forehead, and the visit was so short that the reading which it interrupted was frequently resumed at the end of a quarter of an hour; Mesdames returned to their apartments, and untied the strings of their petticoats and trains; they resumed their tapestry, and I my book."[2]

In 1770, the fourteen-year-old Marie-Antoinette became Dauphine by marriage to Madame Adélaïde's nephew the Dauphin, the future Louis XVI of France. Because of the close relationship between the Dauphin and his aunts, Marie-Antoinette also initially came close to the Mesdames her first years in France as the senior royal women at court. The Mesdames use to alternate with the Countess of Provence in accompanying Marie Antoinette on official assignments.[4] The close relationship between Marie-Antoinette and Mesdames was, however, discontinued in 1772, after the attempt to entice Marie Antoinette to humiliate Madame du Barry was thwarted, a plan which had been led by Madame Adélaïde with support of Madame Victoire and Madame Sophie.

Reign of Louis XVIEdit

Sophie, previously thought to be a portrait of Marie Antoinette

From April 1774, Madame Sophie and her sisters attended to their father Louis XV on his deathbed until his death from smallpox on 10 May. Despite the fact that the sisters never had smallpox, and the male members of the royal family, as well as the crown princess, was kept away because of the high risk of catching the illness, the Mesdames were allowed to attend to him until his death, being female and therefore of no political importance because of the Salic Law. After the death of Louis XV, he was succeeded by his grandson Louis Auguste as Louis XVI, who referred to his aunts as Mesdames Tantes. The sisters were in fact infected by their father and fell ill with smallpox (which they however recovered from), and were kept in quarantine on a little house near the Palace of Choisy, to which the court evacuated after the death of the king until recovery.[5]

Their nephew the king allowed them to keep their apartments in the Palace of Versailles, and they kept attending court at special occasions - such as for example at the visit of Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, who reportedly charmed Adelaide.[6] However, they distanced themselves from court and often preferred to reside in their own Château de Bellevue in Meudon; they also traveled annually to Vichy, always with a retinue of at least three hundred people, and made the waters there fashionable.[7] The Mesdames continued to be the confidants of Louis XVI, and they also maintained a good relationship with their niece, Princess Élisabeth of France, and often visited her in her retreat at Montreuil [fr].[8]

In 1777, Sophie and her sister Adelaide were given the title duchess of Louvois by their nephew the king, after having jointly acquired an estate of that name.[3]

The Mesdames did not get along well with queen Marie-Antoinette. When the queen introduced the new custom of informal evening family suppers, as well as other informal habits which undermined the formal court etiquette, it resulted in an exodus of the old court nobility in opposition to the queen's reforms, which gathered in the salon of the Mesdames.[6] They entertained extensively at Bellevue as well as Versailles; their salon was reportedly regularly frequented by minister Maurepas, whom Adelaide had elevated to power, by the prince of Condé and the prince of Conti, both members of the Anti-Austrian party, as well as Beaumarchais, who read aloud his satires of Austria and its power figures. [7] The Austrian Ambassador Mercy reported that their salon was a center of intrigues against Marie Antoinette, were the Mesdames tolerated poems satirizing the queen.[7] The Mesdames gathered the extreme conservative Dévots party of the nobility opposed to the philosophers, the encyclopedists and the economists.[3]

She was buried in the royal tomb at the Royal Basilica of Saint Denis which was plundered and destroyed at the time of the French Revolution.

Her great-niece, Sophie Beatrix, youngest daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was named after her.

In popular cultureEdit

In 2006, she was played by Scottish actress Shirley Henderson in the movie Marie Antoinette.



  1. ^ Achaintre, Nicolas Louis, Histoire généalogique et chronologique de la maison royale de Bourbon, Vol. 2, (Publisher Mansut Fils, 4 Rue de l'École de Médecine, Paris, 1825), 155.
  2. ^ a b c d e Madame Campan, Memoirs of the Court of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, Project Gutenberg
  3. ^ a b c Latour, Louis Therese (1927). Princesses Ladies and Salonnières of the Reign of Louis XV. Translated by Clegg, Ivy E. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.
  4. ^ Joan Haslip (1991). Marie Antoinette (in Swedish). ISBN.
  5. ^ Joan Haslip (1991). Marie Antoinette. pp. 72–73. ISBN.
  6. ^ a b Joan Haslip (1991). Marie Antoinette. Stockholm: Norstedts Förlag AB. ISBN 91-1-893802-7
  7. ^ a b c Joan Haslip (1991). Marie Antoinette. pp. 79–80. ISBN.
  8. ^ Maxwell-Scott, Mary Monica, Madame Elizabeth de France, 1764-1794, London : E. Arnold, 1908
  9. ^ Genealogie ascendante jusqu'au quatrieme degre inclusivement de tous les Rois et Princes de maisons souveraines de l'Europe actuellement vivans [Genealogy up to the fourth degree inclusive of all the Kings and Princes of sovereign houses of Europe currently living] (in French). Bourdeaux: Frederic Guillaume Birnstiel. 1768. p. 12.
  10. ^ Żychliński, Teodor (1882). Złota księga szlachty polskiéj: Rocznik IVty (in Polish). Jarosław Leitgeber. p. 1.

Further readingEdit

  • Zieliński, Ryszard (1978). Polka na francuskim tronie. Czytelnik.