3 min

Never underestimate the alpha in a beta

Will you have the last laugh if you have a hairy chest?

Hairy chests are all the rage in Canadian politics right now.

I refer, not to the real thing — I regret to say — but to the style of leadership that the federal Conservatives are trying to sell us for political gain.

The pitch goes like this: Stephen Harper is alpha — that’s good. Stéphane Dion is beta — that’s bad. Vote for Stephen.

According to the polls, Canadians are buying. So let’s take a look at another alpha-beta rivalry and see who got the last laugh.

Our beta is Duke Philippe d’Orléans and our alpha, his older brother King Louis XIV of France. Let’s call them Philippe and Louis.

Both boys were brought up in the midst of a civil war, which left their mother Queen Anne and her advisor Cardinal Mazarin desiring to concentrate all power in the hands of the future king in order to bring stability to the kingdom. Their plan worked and Louis enjoyed a long, uncontested reign. Neutralizing Philippe as a potential rival for the throne was part of that plan.

And there nature lent a hand.

Philippe was of a naturally effeminate disposition, fond of wearing dresses, makeup and jewelry. The Queen decided to encourage this penchant, and so she commanded the mother of Philippe’s favourite playmate to dress her son in girl’s clothing as well.

This was only the beginning.

Philippe’s tutors were enjoined to let the boy neglect his studies so that he would not intellectually outstrip his brother. By early adulthood, Philippe was “…fond of cards, of holding drawing rooms, of eating, dancing and dress, in short all that women are fond of,” according to his German second wife, Liselotte, Princess Palatine.

Philippe was introduced at an early age to the Italian vice, as homosexuality was called then, by a member of Cardinal Mazarin’s family. He remained actively homosexual — two wives and six children notwithstanding — until his death at age 61.

That he could do so was due in part to the relaxed, not to say cynical, attitude of the French upper classes, Liselotte explained to her shocked German relatives: “Persons of rank speak of it openly. They regard it as elegant; also that since Sodom and Gomorrah the Lord God has no longer punished anyone for it.”

The contrast between the two brothers could not have been greater. Louis was tall, handsome and light haired. He cuckolded half the nobles at his court and then found religion late in life (“…court life has become so dull,” wrote Liselotte, “that one can hardly stand it any longer. For the King imagines that he is pious when he sees to it that everyone is properly bored and bothered.”)

Philippe was small and dark, with a pot-belly and bad teeth. He had favourites whom he indulged shamelessly, often leaving his family dependent on Louis’ charity. One favourite, the Knight of Lorraine, was reputed to have poisoned Philippe’s first wife out of spite.

The relationship between the two brothers was volatile, with Louis determined to prevent Philippe from exercising any kind of political influence. Like their mother, he encouraged Philippe to devote himself to trivial pursuits.

Perhaps he was right to do so.

Louis was a fighting King, but Philippe proved to be the better general. “He would arrive at the battle field,” says historian Tom Foakes, “painted, powdered… and covered with ribbons and diamonds,” leading his soldiers to say, reported Liselotte, “… that he was more afraid of being sun-burnt and of the blackness of the gun powder than of the musket-balls.” But he won France much-needed victories including one over the formidable William of Orange. After that, Louis made sure that Philippe never again commanded an army.

Another area where Philippe outperformed his brother was in the begetting of legitimate heirs who actually reached adulthood, for which exercise he required the intervention of the Virgin Mary by the expedient of hanging Marian medals on certain body parts.

The first time he approached Liselotte with this in mind, she exclaimed, “Forgive me sir, but you will not persuade me that you are honouring the Virgin by carrying her image on those parts which are destined to take away virginity.”

After producing three children, they agreed to sleep apart, rather to Liselotte’s relief: “It was… very disagreeable to sleep with [him]; he could not bear any one to touch him when he was asleep. So that I was obliged to lie on the very edge of the bed; whence it sometimes happened that I fell out like a sack.”

Philippe died in 1701 of apoplexy following a violent quarrel with his brother over his son Philippe Charles. When Louis died 14 years later, all his eligible direct descendants were dead, save for a five-year-old great-grandson.

After some very deft politicking, who got himself appointed Regent of France? Why, Philippe Charles.

Dad would have been proud.