Thursday, 9 June 2016

Versailles - A nest of surveillance, Shoes and Sibling Rivalry

We rejoin Lucy Worsley and Helen Castor  the engaging and entertaining hosts of this in -depth examination of the reign of The Sun ,King Louis XIV just as Louis begins work on the renovation to the Hunting Lodge that was to become the most Lavish Palace in French History.

The plans  that Louis  had envisioned were extensive including a man -made lake a league in length. Nothing could  be allowed stand in his way, not even the topology of the land.He set about  employing people to do whatever was necessary, be that draining swamps, moving forests or even diverting Rivers. 

This Palace had to be blazing beacon of Wealth and more importantly, Power!

For decades much of the palace stood under scaffolding while a workforce of up to thirty six thousand toiled from Dawn to Dusk in  awful conditions. A bricklayer might earn five sou, which was barely enough to pay for tiny  piece of butter. It was perilous work with injury rates being so high that three hospitals were erected to cope with demand for medical treatment.

Eventually in desperation, workers went on strike, tired of the abject suffering  and in a bid to improve conditions and safety. It was estimated  that six men per week were killed with many more sustaining life altering injury. 

Helen Castor has uncovered an empirical example from archives . In the summer of 1668  , the Gazette of Amsterdam reported a piece of machinery malfunctioning, causing debris to fall,  crushing and killing  five men. The Mother of one  of the dead men happened to get close to the King to petition for his body to be returned to the family for burial. It is claimed she made these entreaties with “many insults “ thrown at the King.  The woman was Imprisoned. 

It seems from our viewpoint that to Louis , the Human cost of the endeavour was irrelevant in the grand scheme. One wonders how many  families had no grave or marker to pay respects at and whether it was not so much the fact of her asking for the body, but her ability to come so close to the King and make even justified scathing remarks, sealed her fate.

Louis was constantly afraid of Enemies and plots from within. He undertook a massive court wide surveillance. For Louis Information really was power. The court records showed 948 journals  filled up entirely  with the personal particulars of every single member of the court from the Royal Valet to the lowliest kitchen maid.

Mail was intercepted, prior to Louis taking the throne, personal seals would have been used to authenticate the identity of the sender, the wax left unbroken, proof that tampering had occurred. However as one courtier wrote to a German cousin,  Mercury and other elements are used to make impressions to make counterfeit seals with which to make  the imprint on fresh wax after the letter’s contents had been ascertained. Any  Contrary comment about the King’s speech , policy,or friendships meant a courtier was  finished. 

In retaliation those who wanted to dissent led to the introduction of cyphers to disguise the content of letters. Louis was not to be outdone, he just employed used his own skilled cryptographers to break the codes.

One such Cryptographer was  the brilliant Antoines  Rossignol  who created  a code so complex that once it fell out of use it baffled cryptographers for centuries.  Antoine Rossignol and his son, worked either at their estate at Juvisy near Paris or in a room next to the King's study at Versailles. For him they developed the Great Cipher (also called the Grand Cipher) of Louis XIV. They alone mastered it, encoding letters, memoranda, and records. The Rossignols ran the Cabinet noir, the French Black Chamber (founded when Louvois served as Minister of War) as a code bureau

A generation later, when Bonaventure's son, Antoine-Bonaventure, died, the Grand Cipher fell out of use. Without the key, and even the base concept, it remained uncrackable until the late 19th century, when Etienne Bazeries deciphered it after three years of work. Until this time, historians had remained unable to read the coded diplomatic records of the time in the French archives.

Louis obviously had trouble trusting but there were some people he did trust and those were his retained servants most notably his valet, Alexandre Bontemps who stayed with Louis for forty years. It was an exceptionally privileged position. He was the first to see the King in the Morning and tucked him in at night, he slept on a truckle at the foot of the bed just outside the little gate that delineates the point where the kings’s bed became private. He was the sole person allowed to sleep in the King’s Bedchamber, not even the Queen was allowed to do that!

His devotion to his duties was massive and meant his own family was left bereft on occasion, when once asked how his wife was, he absentminded replied, “I’ll ask the King”. All private correspondence went through him. And he acted as go-between between The king and his mistresses. It is said that he may well have been The King’s closest friend.

Bon Temps was showered with titles, gifts of land and lucrative posts. He was able to run an entire household with twelve servants of his own, so his position really did come with privileges.

Louis also began to promote commoners into high ranking roles. Before nobles were the only people offered such positions but of course he did not trust the nobles and so he had to be innovative in his choosing of his closest advisors and ministers  and so began the reign of the vile bourgeoisie!

Louis also decided that if he was to be a leader he would have to take prerogative with fashion too. By edict you were not to wear anything that did not come from French Manufacture, so if you were caught wearing anything else you were fined. A court Uniform was designed of blue with Gold embellishments and Red lining and this was given to the fifty top ranking courtiers. Lace and gold buttons were incredibly expensive and so it was not uncommon for nobles to fall into debt trying to bulk out their wardrobes and so would borrow money against purchases from the King’s purse.
The French court was to all intents and purposes rich, at least in appearance, but also Louis had established another ingenious way of keeping them beholden to his good graces. Debts and dues kept the nobles close and under his control.

Philipe, his brother had always been treated as less, their Mother had exaggerated  the differences in the two boys as children and  even in art, Louis is represented as a strapping young lad in bright clothes and with a kingly air. At age  7  boys would be allowed to wear breeches,so this would have been correct for their relative ages, but it seems little Philipe was actively encouraged to wear dresses and to play up his feminine side so much so that she called him her little girl!

Philipe was a spare rather than an heir so he was left to indulge this and become a living embodiment of a  rather stark test of nature versus nurture as sincerity childhood  he seemed to err towards femininity and a more fluid attitude to sexuality by wearing dresses and engaging in a torrid affair with handsome powerful Chevalier De Lorraine who lived with Phillipe despite he being married to Henriette of England.

Even in male Garb he decked himself in rings, bracelets and jewels, wore flowing wigs and had specially high heels on his shoes. One year he spent 50000 on shoes alone. Louis feigned embarrassment at his brother’s flamboyance, but secretly was glad as his strength and manliness was exaggerated by his brother’s effeminacy.

It seems odd then, that Philipe fervently wanted to go to War, to fight for King and country. In 1677  when France  was at war with Dutch, Philipe was finally able to ride out to try to wrestle back enemy held towns. He distinguished himself with honour and valour at the Battle of Cassell. Leading the charge, he was such a dashing figure that he inspired the troops to a crushing victory. The men saw him as a true warrior.

Louis would not allow that, his jealousy preventing him from even hearing of  his Brother’s exploits in despatches, so when the inevitable painting of the battle was commissioned, Louis is featured in a attitude of blazing righteous regality and Philipe in his shadow as usual.  The simple truth however was Louis had never even been there!

In 1684, Versailles became the permanent residence of the King and in the following, thirty years, he returned to Paris only eight times.The interesting combination of paranoia and cold hearted determination could well have ended the reign as civil or noble arrest could have made the whole structure fall apart, but there was no violence collapse and the Reighn of Louis XIV was one that preempted a period culture and sophistication that continues into modern day.


  1. Looks like a Truckle is a more plush version of a futon. Who is Phillippe feeding in the shot you have included on this piece? Another piece dispensing information, That I was unaware of!!!

    1. The Chevallier De Lorraine, his live- in lover! Bless his heart, married to his cousin purely so that she would stay within Louis's clutches, his proclivities were pointed elsewhere. I have some empathy for poor Phillipe, his brother’s paranoia was legendary despite Philipe's loyalty!