I know I normally make these about three different interesting things, but this week I visited Versailles, France, and learned enough things about the eccentricities of Kings Louis XIV-XVI (a.k.a. the last three kings before the French revolution) and their nearest and dearest to fill pages of blog. Here are two stories of Louis XIV and one of Louis XV (or rather, of his most prominent lover) that especially caught my fancy. As for Louis XVI, my favourite story about him has turned intriguing enough to receive its own post next week…
Importing a forest
Up until Louis XIV, the monarchs of France had ruled from her capital, Paris. Louis XIV changed all that by relocating his entire court to the (at the time) provincial and isolated Versailles, an area of wilderness than his father had used for hunting. But before moving, of course, he wanted to upgrade the area to something more suitable to be the royal court.
Versailles’ original landscape was quite open and wild, consisting of meadows and woodlands. But Louis XIV wanted a forest – and he wanted it on his terms.
He sent men to the south of France to source hundreds of mature linden trees – a species not indigenous to the Versailles area – and relocate them by hand to Versailles. There they were replanted in perfect rows to create avenues, so that one might walk or ride through the “forest”. Nearby, he also had his men hand-dig a Grand Canal in the shape of a holy cross – a symbol of his piety 1,670m long and 62m wide.
Despite the ridiculous extravagance, there was a clever political element to Louis’s over-the-top landscaping. The years of Louis’s reign were marked by war after war, so by the time he moved to Versailles he had a large standing army at his command. Relocating trees and digging canals were ways for him to keep those men occupied – and keep them from growing restless – during the periods when they weren’t out fighting.
More info: It’s actually very hard to find a good link for the forest at Versailles, since more sources of information are far more interested in the famous formal gardens. But this site at least makes reference to the “300 hectares of forest” found there besides the gardens.
Good morning, your Majesty
Keeping his soldiers occupied wasn’t Louis XIV’s only concern – he also wanted to keep the nobility in hand. Louis ascended to power young – he was 22 when he took the reigns, though technically he had been king since the age of 4 – but with strong memories of the Fronde rebellion, an uprising by the aristocracy while he was still a child. Many of the nobles who surrounded him as king were the same people who had rebelled against his mother.
As part of the move to Versailles, Louis instituted a system whereby aristocrats who wished to retain the pensions and privileges of their rank had to demonstrate their respect for their king by paying court to him almost constantly.
Elaborate rituals were built around every part of the king’s day. In the morning, a select audience of nobles would gather in his bedchamber to watch Louis rise from his bed and be washed, combed and shaved. This performance was repeated at night, when the king went to bed.
More nobles would line the hall separating the Louis’s “private” chambers from his state apartments, seeking the chance at a few words in the king’s ear as he passed by on the way to begin his day’s business. The most highly favoured nobles of all were even so privileged as to accompany the king when he used the royal chamber pot.
Again, this seemingly farcical behaviour had a keenly political purpose. Louis XIV had an excellent memory for faces, and it was political suicide not to be seen when expected at the king’s court. In this way, Louis kept his aristocracy isolated at Versailles, away from their personal centres of power in Paris and elsewhere.
More info: A day in the life of Louis XIV
Greatness foretold – Madame de Pompadour
The grounds at Versailles include two smaller palaces: the Grand Trianon, commissioned by Louis XIV for his chief mistress (an official title – the king was entirely expected to have official mistresses), and the Petit Trianon, commissioned later by Louis XV for his own chief mistress, Madame de Pompadour.
Madame de Pompadour was an anomaly: the daughter of uncertain but by no means noble parentage (her father was probably either a financier or a tax collector) who became one of the most influential figures in 18th Century France. A keen patron of the arts and sciences, she personally sponsored many important writers, painters, sculptors, and architects, transforming Paris into the European capital for art and culture. She took a personal hand in the design of the Place de la Concorde, as well as the aforementioned Petit Trianon. She even championed the development of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, arguably the greatest achievement of the French Enlightenment. And finally, of course, she inspired the hairstyle made famous by Elvis Presley.
But how did she reach her vaunted position from such humble beginnings?
As a child, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson was already considered both bright and beautiful. When, at 9 years old, she contracted tuberculosis, her worried mother took her to a fortune teller. The fortune teller predicted that she would become mistress to the king.
Where others might have laughed this off, her mother took the prediction very seriously. She made sure Jean-Antoinette received an excellent education, including lessons in music, painting, dancing, and all the other arts required to be a lady of standing.
At 19, she was married to the nephew of Charles Le Normant de Tournehem, the tax collector under suspicion of having fathered her. De Tournehem furnished the couple with a large estate, and Jean-Antoinette was able to use her new wealth and status to move into the more fashionable Parisian circles, holding salons to which she invited all the major artistic and cultural icons of the day, including the writer Voltaire, who became a close friend. Even the king came to hear of her, an achievement than can only have been aided by the fact that de Tournehem and other courtiers were promoting her intelligence, beauty, and many courtly talents.
At 23, now solidly entrenched as a social celebrity, she attended her first royal ball at Versailles, and she and Louis XV hit it off immediately. Within a month he had taken her as a mistress, and by the end of the year her marriage had been annulled and Louis had elevated her to the Marquise of Pompadour, under which title she had the rank to become a formal member of his court.
Louis XV was known for his sexual voracity – he had at least a hundred other mistresses at the Grand Trianon, which might explain why Madame de Pompadour, as Jean-Antoinette was now known, decided she wanted her own palace. Her period as chief mistress only lasted 6 years, but despite the king’s wandering attentions he and Jean-Antoinette remained devoted to one another.
It was this continued influence over Louis XV, combined with her own fierce intelligence, that allowed Madame de Pompadour to shape the course of French culture over nearly 20 years over power. And none of it might have been, if not for the words of a fortune-teller and the faith of a mother.