Born 'Ortensia' in Rome on 6th June 1646 to Baron Lorenzo Mancini, an Italian aristocrat and Girolama Mazzarini, the sister of Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister of France. Ortensia was the fourth of the five famous Mancini sisters, who along with two of their female Martinozzi cousins, were known at the court of King Louis XIV as the Mazarinettes. After her father’s death in 1650, her mother brought her daughters from Rome to Paris so Cardinal Mazarin, might gain them advantageous marriages.
Charles II proposed to Hortense in 1659, but Cardinal Mazarin believed the exiled king to have little in the way of prospects and refused the union. On Charles’ restoration, Mazarin realised his mistake and offered a dowry of 5 million livres, which Charles refused.
Hortense's hand was also requested by Charles Emmanuel II, Duke of Savoy, another first cousin of Louis XIV, but failed when Cardinal Mazarin refused to include the stronghold-castle of Pigneol in her dowry. A similar situation occurred when the Duke of Lorraine offered for her also.
On 1 March 1661, fifteen-year-old Hortense was married to the twenty-nine-year-old Armand-Charles de la Porte, duc de La Meilleraye, one of the richest men in Europe, and granted the title of duc Mazarin. On the death of Cardinal Mazarin shortly afterward, he gained access to his wife's huge inheritance, which included the Palais Mazarin in Paris and its fine art collection.
Hortense was young, bright, and popular; Armand-Charles was miserly, extremely jealous and mentally unstable. He had his female servants' front teeth knocked out to prevent them from attracting male attention, and chipped off or painted over the "dirty bits" in his art collection. He forbade his wife to keep company with other men, made midnight searches for hidden lovers, insisted she spend hours a day at prayer, and forced her to leave Paris and move to the country.
Rebellious, Hortense began a lesbian love affair with the sixteen-year-old Sidonie de Courcelles. Her husband sent both girls to a convent to cure their immorality, which failed as they plagued the nuns with pranks: adding ink to the holy water, flooded the nuns' beds, and headed for freedom up the chimney. The duchess in her memoirs refutes these claims saying that when she asked the nuns for water to wash her feet she was refused, and:
'It is true that we filled a large coffer which stood in our dormitory with water, and, the boards of the floor being very loosely joined together, the water which overflowed leaked through the wretched floor and wetted the beds of the good sisters. This accident was talked about as if it had been something which we had done of design.'
Despite their differences, Hortense and her husband had four children, whom she left behind when she made her escape with the help of her brother, Philippe, Duc de Nevers, who procured horses and an escort to take her to Rome, and the refuge of her sister Marie Mancini, now the Princess Colonna.
Charles Emmanuel II, Duke of Savoy, declared himself her protector as did Louis XIV and granted her a pension of 24 thousand livres. Hortense retired to Chambéry in Haute-Savoie and as Savoy’s mistress, established her home as a meeting place for authors, philosophers, and artists. After the death of the duke in 1675, she was turned out by his jealous widow, Marie Jeanne Baptiste de Savoie-Nemours, and Hortense's own husband froze her income, including the pension from Louis XIV. The English ambassador to France, Ralph Montagu, hoped Hortense would replace King Charles' current mistress, Louise de Kerouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, and therefore increase his own standing.On January 2, 1676, the French Ambassador, Ruvigny, wrote to inform Pomponne that:
'The Duchesse de Mazarin had arrived two days previously in London, dressed as a cavalier, accompanied by two women and five men, without counting a little Moor, who takes his meals with her.'
Now 30, Hortense arrived under the pretext of a visit to her young cousin, Mary of Modena, the new wife of James, Duke of York. She cut an impressive figure, tall and beautiful in men's clothing or women's, she rode and drank hard, gambled, shot pistols, swam in rivers, took lovers of both genders, played the guitar and danced like a gypsy.Saint-Evremond, who cherished a boundless admiration for Hortense described her:
'She is one of those Roman beauties who in no way resemble your dolls of France ... the colour of her eyes has no name ; it is neither blue, nor grey, nor altogether black, but a combination of all the three ; they have the sweetness of blue, the gaiety of grey, and, above all, the fire of the black . . . there are none in the world so sweet . . . there are none in the world so serious and so grave when her thoughts are occupied with any serious subject . . . they are large, well-set, full of fire and intelligence ... all the movements of her mouth are full of charm, and the strangest grimaces become her wonderfully, when she imitates those who make them. Her smiles would soften the hardest heart and ease the most profound depression of mind they almost entirely change her expression, which is naturally haughty, and spread over it a certain tincture of sweetness and kindness, which reassures those hearts which her charms have alarmed. Her nose, which without doubt is incomparably well-turned and perfectly-proportioned, imparts a noble and lofty air to her whole physiognomy. The tone of her voice is so harmonious and agreeable that none can hear her speak without being sensibly moved. Her complexion is so delicately clear that I cannot believe that any one who examined it closely can deny it to be whiter than the driven snow. Her hair is of a glossy black, with nothing harsh about it. To see how naturally it curls as soon as it is let loose, one would say it rejoiced to shade so lovely a head ; she has the finest turned countenance that a painter ever imagined."
Hortense soon attracted the attention of Charles II and Nell Gwyn went into mourning, in ironical anticipation of the fall of the Duchess of Portsmouth. By mid 1676, Hortense had replaced Louise de Kerouaille in Charles II's affections and was granted a Royal pension of £4,000, considerably lightening her financial troubles, but causing poor Louise to pour out her anxiety to anyone who would listen.
|Louise de Kerouaille Duchess of Portsmounth|
Obtusely, Hortense began a lesbian relationship with Anne Lennard, Countess of Sussex, a girl half her age and the king's illegitimate daughter by Barbara Palmer. Gossip about the two was salacious and Lady Chaworth wrote to her brother Lord Roos in December, 1676:
"Lady Sussex and Madame Mazarin have privately learnt to fence, and went downe into St. James Parke the other day with drawne swords under theire night gownes, which they drew out and made severall fine passes with, to the admiration of severall men that was lookers on in the Parke."
Anne's husband subsequently ordered his wife to the country, where she refused to do anything but lie in bed, repeatedly kissing a miniature of Hortense.
The introduction to Aphra Behn's ‘The History of the Nun’ has been taken as a suggestion that Behn too had romantic relations with Hortense, who also infuriated Charles II by beginning an affair with Louis I de Grimaldi, Prince de Monaco. Charles cut off her pension, but almost immediately repented and restarted the payments, though this behaviour signified the end of her position as the king's favourite. She and Charles remained friends, and Louise de Kerouaille returned to her role as the King's mistress.
A few days before Charles II’s death in 1685, the diarist John Evelyn wrote:
the King sitting and toying with his concubines, Portsmouth, Cleveland, and Mazarin [Hortense] Six days after, all was in dust.
Hortense was well-provided for by the next king, James II, possibly due to her kinship with the new queen, Mary of Modena. Even when James fled England and William and Mary came to power in 1688, she remained in London, albeit with a reduced pension, where she presided over such as Charles de Saint-Évremond, the poet and epicurean, who brought to her door all the learned men of London.
Evelyn recorded her eventual death in 1699 at the age of 53:
......... born at Rome, educated in France, and was an extraordinary beauty and wit, but dissolute, and impatient of matrimonial restraint, so as to be abandoned by her husband, and banished: when she came to England for shelter, lived on a pension given her here, and is reported to have hastened her death by intemperate drinking strong spirits.
With the exception of Marguerite de Valois, Hortense and her sister, Marie Mancini, were the first women in France to put their memoirs into print, possibly to record for posterity the cause of separation from their abusive husbands. Hortense may have committed suicide, keeping her life dramatic until the very end. Her creditors seized her corpse, but her husband, the only man rich enough to redeem it, claimed her body and carted it around on his travels in France, before finally allowing it to be interred by the tomb of her uncle, Cardinal Mazarin.