The Palace of Versailles: Sun King Louis XIV’s ultimate power play

Turning a modest hunting lodge into the magnificent Palace of Versailles was the crowning glory that defined King Louis XIV’s France. But this opulent edifice was more than a fashion statement for the Sun King, writes Jonny Wilkes: it was a political endeavour that cemented his personal authority

Photo of the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles

Louis XIV looked out at his father’s old hunting lodge and envisioned a stronger, more unified and more magnificent France than the one he had inherited at the age of four. Now in his twenties and ruling on his own as an absolute monarch, he dreamed of building a palace of unparalleled opulence. This would be the spot on which he would do it. It would become, no matter how long it took or how much it cost, the centre not only of his country, but of society, culture, art and influence in all Europe.

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Versailles was not an obvious location for a grand palace; it was a hamlet surrounded by forests and marshland, with a single track connecting to Paris, a little over ten miles away, along which cattle were taken to market. Yet Louis enjoyed staying at the lodge as a boy, as it offered a retreat from a capital that he greatly disliked.

He had come to the throne in 1643. His mother, Anne of Austria, ruled as regent with the help of chief minister Cardinal Mazarin, but these years were defined by a period of civil unrest known as the Fronde. On one occasion, rioters broke into Louis’ bedroom, leaving him traumatised and with a deep distrust of Paris. Versailles gave Louis a clean slate to create and exert his own royal authority.

Why did Louis XIV build the Palace of Versailles?

Following Mazarin’s death in 1661, Louis caused a shock by announcing he would rule without a chief minister, taking absolute control of government. He was of the belief that the divine right of kings made him answerable only to God.

He instigated a series of administrative and military reforms, as well as the construction work at Versailles. The latter began under the supervision of architect Louis Le Vau, with painter Charles Le Brun overseeing interior design and landscape architect André Le Nôtre in charge of the gardens. All three were the greatest in their fields.

Everything inside the palace was to glorify Louis, and everything outside was to show that even nature fell under the King’s will. Mountains of earth had to be moved to level the ground, rivers diverted, swamps drained and thousands of trees transported from across France.

Over the years, Le Nôtre created a panorama of manicured lawns, parterres and flowerbeds, statue-filled groves, walkways, towering hedgerows and dozens of the most extravagant fountains. Supplying the vast streams of water required by the fountains constituted a devilishly difficult challenge that pumping stations failed to alleviate. In the end, Louis’ gardeners switched off the jets at every opportunity.

Photo of the gardens of Versailles
The grand gardens of Versailles need to be replanted every century to maintain their design. (Photo by Gilles Rigoulet/Getty Images)

As with his government, Louis had his say in all aspects of the decision making. No detail was too small – he once declared that even passports could not be signed without his command – and he worked long hours to prove himself a committed administrator. Le Vau had to alter his original design for the palace to satisfy Louis’ demand that the hunting lodge be preserved. The resulting ‘enveloppe’ therefore saw the three new wings enveloping the lodge, now at the centre of the complex.

The party palace

Enough progress had been made for Louis to hold his first lavish get-together at Versailles in May 1664. He started as he meant to go on: ‘The Pleasures of the Enchanted Island’ lasted for six days and six nights. There were horse parades, firework displays and theatrical performances, even the premiere of a ballet. Though it was officially all in honour of his mother and his wife, Louis used the week of banquets to introduce the world to his palace (he sent out engravings of the events to European courts) and celebrate his mistress, Louise de la Vallière.

Despite his dedication to his position, Louis knew how to enjoy the pleasures of life. He had several mistresses, among them his brother’s wife, Henrietta of England, and the witty and beautiful Madame de Montespan, who replaced Vallière. Reportedly, his desires could not be contained by them; it’s said that one day he grew so impatient waiting for a lover to undress that he turned his attention to one of the maids.

Louis XIV had several mistresses, among them his brother’s wife

He was a great patron of writers, artists and musicians too. At Versailles, this meant countless commemorations of himself. Master playwright Molière wrote hagiographies, court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully produced hundreds of baroque pieces to give the palace its own soundtrack, and every wall and space seemed to be filled with paintings and sculptures of Louis. He appeared as historical and mythological figures, from Alexander the Great to the gods Zeus and Apollo, or as his emblem, the Sun, which he chose shortly after assuming absolute power.

Of course, the other way the Sun King could seek glory was on the battlefield. The French invaded the Spanish Netherlands in 1667, which Louis claimed on behalf of his Spanish wife, Marie-Thérèse. When that endeavour ended unsatisfactorily, he allied with England and attacked the Dutch Republic. That war concluded with the 1678 Treaty of Nijmegen and left France with extended frontiers in the north and east. Louis, approaching 40, now stood tall as the dominant force in Europe.

Peacetime never lasted long during Louis’ reign – and he spent most of it planning his next military move. Yet his victories in the Franco-Dutch War allowed him to focus on domestic goals, most notably centralisation. Louis intended the palace to become the official royal residence and seat of government, so construction at Versailles intensified.

The Affair of the Poisons

With such labyrinthine rules, was it possible to rig the game at Versailles? Those at court certainly tried…

As Louis XIV prepared to move his government to Versailles in the late 1670s, a scandal erupted that appalled and intrigued in equal measure – it featured murder, black magic and the King’s own court.

Before her execution for poisoning her father and two brothers, Madame de Brinvilliers cried out that she was far from the only one guilty of dabbling in poisons. A three-year investigation headed by Paris police chief Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie looked into the matter and uncovered a booming magical underworld, where rebel priests performed black masses and sorceresses sold concoctions ranging from love spells to ‘inheritance powders’ made of arsenic.

One of the most popular potion-peddlers was La Voisin, who named among her clients those looking for advantage at Versailles. The Duc de Luxembourg bought charms to keep him safe from swords, while a number of women looked for any additive to seduce the King.

With De la Reynie convinced of an epidemic, Louis appointed a special tribunal in April 1679. Its sessions took place in a hall lit only by flaming torches, the chambre ardente (burning chamber). More than 400 people were accused, dozens exiled and 36 put to death, including La Voisin.

Fear spread among a court already riddled with suspicion and the deaths continued, but Louis put an end to things after he heard a name of someone implicated that alarmed him: the Madame de Montespan, his mistress. Fearing the King may tire of her, she is said to have sprinkled love potions into his food; potions made from Spanish fly, iron filings, sperm and menstrual blood. It was even claimed she had a priest perform a sacrilegious mass over her naked body, which involved the sacrifice of an infant. Montespan was never tried, but the affair revealed something dark and rotting at the heart of Louis’ Versailles utopia.

Between 1678 and the declaration of Versailles as the centre of government on 6 May 1682, Le Vau’s replacement, Jules Hardoiun-Mansart, built more than had been constructed in the previous 20 years. As well as two massive wings for the nobility and princes of the blood, he added the architecturally splendid Great and Small Stables (capable of housing 700 horses), the artificial Lake of the Swiss Guards (replacing a marshland known as the stinking pond) and completed the 1,670-metre Grand Canal after more than a decade of digging. Boats would regularly be seen on the water, among them gondolas presented to Louis by the Republic of Venice.

Building went on from dawn to dusk, with up to 36,000 people working in the gardens in dire and dangerous conditions. Injuries became a daily occurrence, and so many died that bodies would be quietly removed at night in bulk. The workers went on strike, but Louis saw Versailles as a symbol of his prestige – and, therefore, France’s prestige. It was worth any price. When half a dozen men were crushed in an accident, one grieving mother approached Louis to request her son’s body. He had her imprisoned.

It was not only the human cost that mounted. Taxation, and more efficient tax collection, had helped with the astronomical cost of Versailles, but minister of finances Jean-Baptiste Colbert went further by turning the palace into a showcase of French manufacturing. This suited Louis, so Colbert nationalised the tapestry industry and persuaded Venetian mirror makers, considered the world’s best, to come and work at a French company.

Painting depicting Louis creating the first knights of the Order of St Louis
Louis creates the first knights of the Order of St Louis in 1693. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Their skills were vital for Mansart’s pièce de résistance: the Hall of Mirrors. A spectacular gallery with wide windows on one side, overlooking the gardens and a wall of mirrors on the other, Louis used it to host major events, including diplomatic meetings with the Doge of Genoa and ambassadors of Siam and Persia. The hall was the shining gem in the Versailles crown.

The purpose of Versailles was not just to inspire awe, though, but also deference and servitude. By putting the court under his roof, Louis could control his nobility with a tight grip in a velvet glove. If you were to have any hope of advancement, you had to be at Versailles and abide by the King’s rules. Contact with Louis became currency, and the worst thing for the King to say about a courtier was that he never saw them.

“Falseness, servility, admiring glances, combined with a dependent and cringing attitude, above all an appearance of being nothing without him, were the only means of pleasing him,” wrote one of the courtiers who never pleased Louis, named Saint Simon.

Louis turned his life, movements and even ablutions into a daily performance, governed by a seemingly endless list of detailed rituals and strict rules of etiquette – all in order to keep the nobles busy. Being stuck at Versailles and playing strange social games based on Louis’ whims meant they could not bolster their personal power in their own lands and rise up in rebellion.

Louis turned his life, movements and even ablutions into a daily performance

All revolved around the Sun King, starting when he first awoke. A select group would be granted access to the King’s bedchamber, although they were not to cross the railing to get near the bed during the ceremonial levée (rising), and only the most senior in the room had the honour of helping Louis into his shirt. Meals were a spectator event, dances had to be joined in the correct order of rank and people had to know what type of chair they were permitted to sit in.

Living at Versailles was an expensive business. Courtiers had to be seen in the latest fashions, which cost so much that they could bankrupt the wearer – or they had to borrow from the crown, making them more dependent on Louis. Maintaining the proper degree of fashion was crucial, so after Louis began losing his hair and had a risky operation on his bottom, huge wigs and groin bandages became all the rage.

What was it like living at the Palace of Versailles?

Life at Versailles was controlled by a series of bizarre decrees on etiquette and decorum. Forget them at your peril…

  1. Knocking on the King’s door was not permitted. Instead, courtiers had to scratch the woodwork with the little finger on their left hand and wait to be granted entrance.
  2. Women could not hold hands or link arms with a man. They could place their hands on top of his bent arm or touch fingertips.
  3. No one could sit on a chair with arms in the presence of the King or Queen. Chairs with backs were reserved for the highest-ranking nobles, like the dauphin, so most perched on stools.
  4. When presented to the King for the first time, women had to curtsy three times while approaching and three times when retreating.
  5. It was improper to ask to relieve yourself in front of the King, even during a coach ride that could last hours. Courtiers either did not drink beforehand or trusted in their bladder control.
  6. Men had to have swords when attending the public meals, called the Grand Couvert. If they arrived unprepared, they had to rent one.
  7. A courtier could not wipe their face or nose with a napkin.
  8. If someone sneezed, it was impolite to say “God Bless You” out loud. Instead, courtiers said it silently while removing their hat.

The first nobles to stay at Versailles had called it a “mistress without merit”. Life at court could be far from glamorous, not least as the building spent years at a time under scaffolding. Perhaps the greatest problem was the lack of toilet facilities – courtiers thought nothing of answering the call of nature in the corridors. Poor drainage and nearby marshes filled Versailles with bad odours.

When a noble first came to live at Versailles, they would be offered one of the 350 rooms Louis had built. Yet the quality of the apartments and how close they got the inhabitant to the King varied wildly, so days would be spent bartering and cajoling for the best ones. In such a sprawling space, with everyone gossiping and looking for any fault or weakness to exploit, Versailles could feel claustrophobic despite its size.

Courtiers thought nothing of answering the call of nature in the corridors

This was only worsened by the fact that Louis kept everyone under surveillance and intercepted their mail. Courtiers came up with codes to try to keep their messages secret, so the King employed cryptographers. Yet the only thing worse than being at Versailles was not being at Versailles. For a short while, at least.

Louis XIV’s death

By the 1680s, the parties, feasting and debauchery that had come to be expected at Louis’ palace had begun to wane, making the orchestrated daily schedule and etiquette unbearably tedious. Following the Queen’s death in 1683, Louis married Madame de Maintenon, a woman much more subdued and pious than any of his mistresses.

The ailing King may have been more concerned with his spiritual wellbeing, but he still made enemies in Europe (notably with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had protected Protestants in France) and courted war. Silver from Versailles had to be melted down to pay for his campaigns, with public opinion finally turning on him after the disastrous War of the Spanish Succession in the early 18th century.

When Louis died on 1 September 1715, after gangrene spread through his leg, he had spent more than 72 years on the throne and outlived many of his descendants, including his son. It would be his great-grandson who succeeded him. He supposedly said on his deathbed, “I have loved war too much”, but it was glory that he adored, whether it came from battle or from the pomp and majesty of his gargantuan palace.

He had fulfilled his dream of building a palace that would be the heart of France – and that may have contributed to the downfall of the monarchy. Versailles came to be seen as a symbol of waste and corruption that fuelled the fires of the French Revolution.

The Palace of Versailles in numbers

357

Mirrors line the 17 arches of the Hall of Mirrors

3

Hospitals built to care for those injured while working at Versailles

99

Jets on the Neptune Fountain

700

Rooms in the palace, although there are more than 1,200 fireplaces

8,150,265

The area, in square metres, of Versailles, making it the world’s largest royal domain

8

Days that Louis XIV’s body was displayed in the Mercury Room following his death

10,000

Trees uprooted by a massive storm in 1999, including some planted by Marie Antoinette and Napoleon

11 years

Time taken to construct the Grand Canal, from 1668-79. At parties, its 1,670-metre length would be lined with candles or torches

50

Heads of hair needed to make a royal wig

Jonny Wilkes is a freelance writer specialising in history

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This content first appeared in the August 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed