Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Truth behind the Drama - Part One. Versailles


Lucy Worsley is one of my favourite Historians and is Curator of the Royal Palaces collections  here in the UK and as such, to my mind at least, her  pedigree to speak on all things Sun King, is  well established and so when I saw she was doing a companion documentary to  new BBC drama “Versailles,” I was thrilled.



Historian Helen Castor joins her as they delve a little deeper behind the story being so lavishly presented in the French produced Historical Drama.

Louis XIV  had inherited a country at odds with itself, but it was the building of his palace in the rural area of Versailles that would make his Seventy two years on the throne so  interesting and groundbreaking. 

His glorious Palace was to play a huge part in Court Politics, his personal life and his very safety. The Sun King shone thanks to gilt and mirror and a great deal of cleverness!

Versailles was a tiny hamlet. 


Situated some twelve  miles from Paris, it had served as refuge from the rebellious Nobles after a failed attempt to seize power. Soon after Louis’ Mother died leaving the country in flux. The only thing remotely Grand in the locality was the hunting lodge that had belonged to Louis and Phillipe’s father, so the plan to build a palace must have seemed like pie in the sky.

The Capital and the Lodge were connected by an old Drovers path. It was nigh on inaccessible.  The Royal  seat of power was the Palace of the Louvre and the Nobles all had residences nearby in the city. 

Louis though, was an outdoorsy sort of King, he loved to Hunt and Ride.  He expected his courtiers to come to him in his country retreat, but many were unwilling to travel as the well to do, Dukes, Duchesses,  Counts and Countesses  were wholly unsatisfied with their accommodations!

Was Versailles  really a “Mistress without Merit”? The nobles thought so.

The plans were to house his guests all on site, so Louis decided to just build around the existing Lodge architecture,which had originally cosily housed about fifteen guests.  By quite literally encasing the original structure  in an envelope(called the “Enveloppe”  even today )  of additional rooms and courtyards,he was able to house  up to Six Hundred people at any given time.

This endeavour was not Louis  just being a tremendously generous host to the displaced visitor, he had much more serious reasons for this bringing  of folk all together under one roof. 

He was absolutely and resolutely going to protect his throne. 

His very birth was the first viable pregnancy after twenty three years of marriage by his parents, his arrival deemed so much a  a “gift from God”  that his name the   Dieudonne means just that. His  belief in the Divine Right of Kings  passed on with vigour from his Mother was the cornerstone of his belief system and his confidence.

He was so confident in himself that he had many likenesses made of himself in guises of massive power, Popes, Alfred the Great, even Zeus the Greek God!



Making his personal Emblem a blazing sun, was further designed to make sure people always made him the centre of the Royal universe. This determination to be the fulcrum  around which all else revolved was partly due to a deep seated paranoia that it might all come crashing down around him.


France was not a unified nation, in fact customs, language and laws differed from region to region and great swathes were held under the thrall of powerful noblemen. Louis knew only too well how vulnerable his position was. He had personal  experience.

In 1651, an attempt  by the monarchy to wrest power back from the ruling houses had resulted in civil war and a mob had even fought its way into his childhood bed chamber in the palace. Pretending to slumber, he eventually escaped with his mother, but he was forever suspicious of Paris, always equating it with unrest and plots to get him and his throne.

Versailles is to become the seat from which  he wants to rule.  He begins to stamp himself out as  an absolute monarch, stripping power from the nobles. Louis was  very clever at wielding what might be termed soft power, learning rapidly from the mistakes of Uncle Charles in England.  Charles I’s struggles with his parliament started in  civil war and ended in execution and exile for his son.

Louis was not to be thwarted the same way. His plan was to “devastate” dissent with hospitality and “overwhelm” adversaries with titles that in reality meant very little,wielding little to no power at all.. The plan was to emasculate by giving all the nobles trivial jobs in the  massive household.

Louis was a lavish entertainer, Gambling, Feasts , hunting trips and parties were commonplace. He wanted to dazzle his guests! And he  obviously succeeded. Books  of revels  were produced so that visiting dignitaries could take home physical evidence of the glorious reign of Louis XIV and show them just  how the French do things-  with style and panache of course!

One such book illustrates the celebration of  a six day  and six night  extravaganza named
 “ The pleasures of the Enchanted Isle” based on epic poem, The  frenzy of Orlando .



Louis  was a great dancer and always took the lead role in dramatics or displays wearing lavish costumes. The Pictures in these books show marble Courtyards decorated with orange trees and candles in every window.


Court composer Jean -Baptiste Lully wrote  the ballets  performed at these parties and was the most renowned composer of the time.  Fireworks and illuminations  were set off at night to astonish  the assembled guests  by the magnificence, novelty and  pomp of the new palace.


Once hooked by the extravagance of the entertainments, Louis had another cunning way to keep his courtiers enthralled and more importantly - Present. 

He began a series of rituals throughout his day that demanded attendance and to participate was a great honour. The closer you were to the King during these daily tasks and ablutions the higher in regard you were thought to be held.

The noblemen have to present themselves at the appointed hour. Chosen elites shared his intimate rituals  and might be allowed to participate.

At 8am sharp, wherever the King had slept the previous night, the curtains would be thrown back  behind a golden gate and courtiers would witness the “ The rising’” a  physician would check the kings’s wellbeing, his wet  nurse would administer a morning kiss and the King would rise.

Next the Grand Entrée, nobles would help dress him in his shirt. Dressing,  shaving, drinking and eating, were no longer tasks of everyday life, but displays of wealth, harmony, modesty and piety. Louis demanded to be Worshipped like a God.

This did hold some positive for the gathered court. Nobles seeking favours knew exactly  where the monarch  was  at any given time and were able to  engineer meetings and transform their fortunes. 

The King’s  progress to Mass would be thronged with petitioners. If however the person for which the favour was asked was not part of Versailles society they would be turned down with a flick of the wrist and a” we never see him , we do not know  him”


 This Avid attendance was paramount, which  ostensively kept court imprisoned  within the opulent walls  of the palace, so nobles could not plot, or ferment rebellion back at their personal households.


As soon as a structure was in place, the other passion of his life could be enjoyed. That was of course Women and he  was a voracious par taker of the ladies!  I have previously  spoken a little in my other blogs this month of the relationships with his Brother’s wife and  in actual fact first cousin to both brothers.






This dalliance went on  in front of his real wife  the Queen and the other woman in his bed, nominal head “mistress “ or Maitress Declaree , Louise De Valiere.


 Louise had beguiled the King as he planned his great palace.  However remaining  in this hallowed position of power would prove hard as other women snapped at  their heels and seemingly stepped over each other to get a seat, quite literally at the King’s side. It was not long before another lady elbowed the others out of the way.

Athenais  De Montespan was said  to be a great beauty whose spirit  and Fire intrigued the King, a friend of Louise’s she took her first opportunity to usurp her, betraying her friend,she stepped into her place  when the king’s appetites for bedding the  lady Montespan rose to three times a day. She, not an unwilling partner. It  was said,  Athenais’ desires were just as pressing and she maintained her allure and so  her place; at Louis’s side for ten years.



Join me again on Thursday when I carry on  looking at the intriguing behind the scenes history of The Sun King, finding out about Court fashions, the building works themselves and the ever bubbling sibling unrest between Louis and the almost as interesting figure of Phillipe, his younger brother.







1 comment:

  1. I have to admit I want a shave from a barber one time before my journey is over, but I don't think I could ever get used to somebody dressing me! A wet-nurse? Fascinating window you opened Emma!

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