Famous Names of Versailles

When Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, says “All the World’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”, he could easily have been referring to the great theatre of power that was the Chateau of Versailles. No other place in the world speaks so directly of the excesses and follies of the elites who held sway there. Likewise, their lives, being as public as they were, read like scenes from a drama. The king, who formed the nucleus around which revolved the comings and goings of the great power brokers, ambassadors, artists, and courtesans of the day, was no more immune to scandal and intrigue than the rest of his court. Lives punctuated by plots, intrigues, successes, and failures – and added to this is a dollop of good old scandal - invariably makes for a good read.

Louis XIV (1638-1715)

Louis XIV the self-named Sun King created Versailles with one single intention in mind: consolidate power by assembling his government and court under one roof in order to control them. Louis had known the trauma of the uprising of the noblesse and the people of Paris in an event known collectively as ‘La Fronde’. By making Versailles one of the most beautiful and extravagant palaces in the world it would become literally the personification of his power and wealth, making it the most fashionable place to be for any aristocrat looking to climb the ladder of power. As the absolute monarch, he ruled with an iron fist that demonstrated his sheer stamina and energy. His official marriage to Maria Theresa of Spain was cordial and she produced six children. However, Louis had many mistresses such as Louise de la Vallière, the Marquise de Montespan and Madame de Maintenon who he would marry in secret after the death of his first wife Maria Theresa.

André Le Nôtre (1613-1700)

Even before his stint at Versailles, the great gardener André Le Nôtre had the kind of reputation that made him a household figure throughout the courts of Europe. His dazzling achievements at Versailles would cement this reputation further. The king’s gardener came from a family who practiced this profession for centuries, serving generations of French royal courts. He cut his teeth while working on the Tuileries Gardens of the Louvre, which he extended and lined up with the Champs-Elysées with breath-taking perspective. Le Nôtre had been busy working on commissions for some of the wealthiest and most privileged clients in the land before the king called on him to dedicate much of the latter part of his life to redesigning the gardens of Versailles. He transformed what was essentially a marsh into what would become a sprawling chessboard of hedges, sculptures, lakes and woods. Taking a walk around the gardens of Versailles, particularly in the summer is as rewarding and breathtaking as a walk around the palace thanks in no small part to André Le Nôtre’s talents.

Louis XV (1710-1774)

Louis XV’s reign was plagued by disasters at war, debauchery and scandal at home. The accumulation of a ballooning debt inherited from his predecessor would be added to by the excess of his court and would prove fatal for his successor Louis XVI. His diplomatic blunders, most notably the ceding of the Netherlands to Austria, and his loss of the 7 years war would mean a diminished position for France on the world stage. His lust for women proved limitless and he had many mistresses and illegitimate children. One of his most celebrated courtesans was Madame de Pompadour. She was a beautiful intellectual and proved a trusted confident to the king even when no longer romantically attached. When he wasn’t indulging in his insatiable appetite for sex he spent his time devoted to his passions for science and botany. He was responsible for extending the gardens and building Le Petit Trianon for his favourite Madame de Pompadour.

Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764)

Madame de Pompadour’s name stands out among the many courtesans who have scandalised the aristocrats at the court of Versailles. She was important to Louis XV long after he had taken on younger and more desirable courtesans. She was a trusted advisor and confidant to the king, particularly during the final years of his reign when he was unpopular and had few courtiers he could trust. Such was his confidence in her abilities that she was used as a diplomatic go between by the king. She’s celebrated for her style, her fine appreciation for gourmet cuisine, and her intellectual pursuits (she’s credited with encouraging the publication of the two first volumes of the encyclopaedia by Diderot and d’Alembert). Louis XV’s admiration for Madame de Pompadour finds its most elegant realisation in the Petit Trianon, a house he had built for her in the gardens of Versailles, far from the gossip and snooping of the Palace.

Louis XVI (1754-1793)

Louis XVI was just 20 when his grandfather Louis XV died, leaving him with a miss-managed kingdom heavily in debt. He was forced early on to face the spiralling debt of France and was advised on countless occasions by his finance ministers to tax the Nobles. Such an idea was unthinkable at the time and the Nobles, led by Louis’ brother, refused to even entertain a debate on the issue. Political deadlock meant Louis had to convene a meeting of the three estates as a last resort. This event marked the demise of the king’s absolutist powers and accelerated events that led to the bloody revolution and his gruesome execution in 1793. On the death of the king the revolutionary government abolished the calendar, naming the year simply year one of the French Republic. Ironically the king was sympathetic to some of the ideas espoused by the philosophers that informed the revolutionaries and their ideological struggle against the monarchy and church, this after all was the age of enlightenment. Although intelligent, Louis had been an indecisive ruler and was unable to push through the type of reforms that would have created a more moderate and fairer monarchy. As history would attest, the revolutionaries took matters into their own hands.

Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793)

The biggest star of the Versailles drama is without doubt the Austrian queen Marie-Antoinette. Her marriage in 1770 to the future Louis XVI was part of the Franco-Austrian reconciliation after years at war. Even from the beginning she was treated with a certain amount of distain by her subjects. To make matters worse it took Louis XVI and the Queen 8 years to produce an heir. This was largely due to the fact that Louis XVI was unable to consummate the marriage. What went on in the royal bedroom was public knowledge, a situation that could only be one of humiliation for the young queen - especially when proceedings weren’t going ahead as expected. She was notorious for her extravagant attire, her parties, and general excesses. She was a great patron of the arts and had many portraits of her and her family painted, helping us to understand today the kind of person she would have been at the time. Later in her reign, she was condemned as the source of the huge debt crises that had engulfed France, owing in no small part to her lavish lifestyle. She is alleged to have said in response to bread shortages “let them eat cake” (or brioche as the literal translation goes...) Historians are fairly certain she never said this, citing the fact that she grew up at the philanthropic court of Austria where she had undertaken charitable work. Nevertheless the remark summed up the huge gulf separating the reality of those who ruled and their subjects. Despite her own personal failings, it was unfair that she was scapegoated for the failures of those around her.

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