Spanish version

Maiden or Mistress, Women in the XVIIth Century

Family and Marriage

Felipe IV painted by VelazquezIn the XVIIth century family was an organization dominated by the husband or father. Family ensured honour and wealth. i.e. it maintained lineage. To have a house was very important as it was the family's seat.

Citizens lived two kinds of life, the public or social life which took place outside of the house, and the private life which took place inside the house. In this case we are talking about the noblemen or upper classes. Poor people identified life and work which they carried out in the street, whenever they could.

Lineage was still important as it asured the maintainance of heritage. This is why frequently the spouse belonged to the same social class. The main objective of marriage was procreation. It was a way of calming down male's excesses, the lesser of two evils. Marriage was a legal situation that ensured wealth. Pleasures were enjoyed away from the family. One has to take into account, that marriages were arranged between very young people, who had neither experience nor wanted to get married. It was a procedure one had to comply with and nothing else. Marriage was not ment to make you happy, it was more of a punishment.

La Calderona, the king's mistressWomen

First, women depend from their father or tutor, afterwards from the husband. They lived in a sort of seclution rarely leaving home, but for attending mass and always with a chaperone. Those who became emancipated and lived alone were immediately considered as a ‘femme fatal'.

To change this kind of life, women had to get married or enter into religious life. Any infidelity or attack on her honor, even if it had been revenged, meant immediate seclusion. It is interesting that with all these measures – as frequently mentioned in literature – it could be so dificult to find virgens.

This was also a reason for the great number of matchmakers that existed, who taught how to be successful in love or how to restore virginities.


While women lived this boring and eventless life, a man had to court. It was considered as normal if a young man spent all his money on a mistress. If we think about these young girls kept at home, it is also easy to understand how they fell for any young guy who just tried to seduce them. Of course, it was important to maintain this relationship secret as the punishment would be devastating. A usual place for the lovers' meeting could be a friend's home.

The most admired women had to be blond with green eyes and white and long hands. Also nuns very were in demand, probably because they were dificult to obtain (supply and demand). The young man usually felt completely in love with his sweetheart and dedicated her all his time. He tried to meet her while promenading or talking through the grille at night, while the old people were aslept. Of course, once he had obtained her favours or even married her, the whole situation changed and he quickly lost any interest.

A big problem for men was to make sure that their women did not cheat on them. To have an unfaithful wife was the worst offence. But, on the other hand, there were men that obliged their women to be ‘friendly' to other men in order to earn more money. They could be considered as the first moonlighters.

In case a woman had been unfaithful, the husband had all the right to kill her. In the opposite case, there was nothing she could do, just keep on smiling. Sometimes a husband's lover could even be something positive as it kept him away from his wife, who probably was not even interested in the guy.

Juan Jose de Austria, the king's bastard

The Bastards

It was a time when many illegitimate children were born. Noblemen or those belonging to the upper classes sometimes recognized them, but bastards were usually despised and rejected by lower classes. Many children were also abandoned or even killed. One of the most famous bastards of the time was Juan Jose de Austria, son of king Felipe IV and his mistress the actress known as La Calderona.


During the reign of Felipe IV, we find a deep influence of religion that dominated everyday life. But we also find a king who announced laws against prostitution, while he himself was constantly visiting them. There were double standards to measure the same activities depending on the involved person.

Brothels existed in Madrid since the XIIIth century and their activity had already been regulated by Felipe II. People thought they were necessary to calm man's ardor. If a young girl wanted to work in a brothel, a very popular job, she had to prove that she was at least twelve years old, an orphan or an abandoned girl and that she was no virgen any more. All this had to be proved before a judge, who always tried to discourage the lady without any result.

During the times of Felipe III the number of these establishments increased. Most of them were located between Plaza Mayor and calle Bailen.

During the first years of the XVIIth century there were three brothels in Madrid. One literary area in Madridspecially dedicated to rich clients, was located at what is now calle Cervantes. The bourgeoisie had its place at calle de Luzón and the poor at plaza del Alamillo. About 50 years later there were over 800 of these places in the capital. A florishing business.

In those days at least there was some control regarding these businesses. There were laws regarding its cleanliness, there could be no rows and visitors were obliged to leave their weapons outside. Also the ladies working there underwent a regular medical control in order to prevent contagious deceases. If the owner of the establishment, usually called 'mother' or ‘father' lied regarding the ladies' health, they were severely punished.

Another area that increased its number of brothels was the one located around Plaza de Santa Ana , the literary zone. Specially calle Huertas, where many actors, writers or producers lived. Actresses were very popular among men. These women probably thought that having a rich lover was a way to get an early retirement. King Felipe IV himself had a relationship with a quite famous actress, known as ‘La Calderona'. She bore him a son who was immediately taken to another family to be looked after. She had to enter a convent. It seems that she ended up as mother superior. A successful woman.

As time went by, there were more brothels, more scandals and the area became dangerous. Felipe IV made these establishments to be moved farther away.

Finally they were more or less eliminated, leaving only one establishment at calle Mayor. But this solution was even worse than the problem itself: illegal brothels appeared and prostitution increased. It seems to be aproblem without solution. Even nowadays.


@Copyright 2008, 2009 Mª Dolores Diehl Busch. All rights reserved.
Sponsored by Keydomo S.L.