views updated Jun 08 2018


VERSAILLES. The seat of the French monarchy from 1682 to 1789, Louis XIV's chateau at Versailles had its origins in a modest hunting lodge built in 1623 for his father, Louis XIII. When Louis XIV (ruled 16431715) assumed personal control of the government in 1661, he embarked upon a building program at the site that continued almost unabated until his death. Versailles was first an intimate retreat for the king and then a royal residence for a still itinerant court before it became the permanent seat of the French royal family, court, and government in 1682. Jean-Baptiste Colbert (16191683), Louis XIV's indefatigable finance minister, was responsible for procuring the staggering sums needed to build the chateau that became the model for royal palaces across Europe.


Louis XIV's magnificent chateau evolved in three major phases. The Sun King first intended Versailles to be a retreat from the responsibilities of government. Between 1661 and 1668, the architect Louis Le Vau (16121670), the gardener AndréLeNôtre (16131700), and the painter Charles Le Brun (16191690) collaborated to create a palace suitable for the Sun King to entertain favored courtiers. When Louis XIV decided in 1668 that Versailles was to become a royal residence, able to house his full court for months at a time, he ordered extensive additions. Le Vau drew up plans to frame the Old Chateau in a terraced "envelope" of white stone. The envelope included state apartments for the king and queen, the salons of which were each dedicated to one of the seven planets known to orbit the sun. The king's own bedchamber, echoing the theme articulated in the chateau's gardens, depicted scenes from the myth of Apollo.

Work on the chateau and its gardens was by no means complete when Louis XIV permanently installed his family, court, and government at Versailles in 1682. Jules Hardouin-Mansart (16461708) oversaw the final enlargement of the palace and adjacent buildings that would eventually house five thousand courtiers and as many government officials, guards, and servants. It was Mansart who designed the legendary Hall of Mirrors. Running almost the entire length of the chateau's western facade, the gallery was sheathed in mirrors, furnished with solid silver chandeliers, and crowned by ceiling panels by Le Brun that depicted pivotal episodes from the Sun King's life. Meanwhile, Le Nôtre continued to expand the gardens, adding grottoes, ornamental lakes, and a Grand Canal so vast the navy could perform maneuvers on it. Construction on Louis XIV's palace ceased only with the completion of the Chapel Royal in 1710.

The exterior of Versailles changed little over the course of the eighteenth century. Louis XV (ruled 17151774) came to loathe his great-grandfather's formal palace and added little to it. Although he commissioned the Royal Opera designed by Jacques-Ange Gabriel (16981782), he was far more interested in increasing the privacy of his own apartments. Louis XVI (ruled 17741792), the last of the Bourbons to rule at Versailles, also concentrated on interior renovations. His queen, Marie Antoinette (17551793), concerned herself with the Petit Trianon, a bucolic palace on the grounds of Versailles. After a revolutionary crowd triumphantly carried the ill-fated king and his family back to Paris in 1789, the chateau fell empty. The history of Versailles as the residence of the French kings officially ended in 1837, when Louis-Philippe declared that the royal chateau was to become a museum celebrating "all of France's glories."


The fortunes of the town of Versailles waxed and waned with the presence of the court. Louis XIV razed the original village to make room for his chateau's grand avenues and parks. He rebuilt the town on a new site, decreed that it was to become "the most frequented and flourishing in the world," and strictly regulated even the colors of building materials and decorations for its houses. With the court in permanent residence, Versailles became the administrative capital of France, the seat of all branches of government except the judicial. By the end of the seventeenth century, the town's populationswelled by those whose occupations or interests brought them to courtstood at over 30,000, and its inns could house hundreds more. With the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the court departed for Paris, and Versailles soon became a ghost town. It enjoyed a revival after 1722, when Louis XV returned to his great-grandfather's palace. Versailles lost its position as the administrative capital permanently in 1789 with the forced departure of Louis XVI for Paris.


For many years, Versailles was seen as a gilded theater upon whose stage an all-powerful absolute monarch entertained a captive audience of domesticated aristocrats. Recent research has shown, however, that Louis XIV could not arbitrarily dominate his subjects. His rule was limited by the fundamental laws of the realm, tradition, and the practical difficulties of enforcing his will on an extended country of twenty million people. Furthermore, without a police force or a standing army, the king relied upon his noble subjects to ensure order in the kingdom. Louis XIV's reign was consequently marked by cooperation with, rather than control over, the aristocracy. Similarly, the court of Versailles was a site of mutually satisfactory exchange between king and nobility. The king required the great nobles to attend court because he sought to ensure their loyalty. They came because they considered it their right and privilege and because they received social and material rewards for doing so.

The vast majority of the French nobility did not live at Versailles. Only the grands, the highest-ranking French nobles, were in residence. Even at the peak of noble attendance, the ten thousand court nobles represented only 5 percent of the hereditary nobility. Attendance was on a system of quarters that entailed residences of three months, twice a year. The privileged among this number were granted rooms within the chateau itself (which contained 220 apartments and 450 surprisingly small rooms); the less fortunate lived in the town of Versailles or were forced to travel back and forth to Paris each day. At the palace, the Sun King provided a continuous whirl of ballets, operas, fêtes, plays, and thrice-weekly gambling nights. While Louis XIV prevented members of the hereditary nobility from participating in affairs of state, courtiers did have more to do than attend entertainments, for many held offices in the royal households.

The primary duty of every courtier, however, was to attend the king. Accompanying the king conferred prestige but, even more important, allowed nobles to gain access to royal patronage. To secure the allegiance of his nobility and to prevent anyone else from gaining too much influence and power, Louis XIV distributed all royal patronage personallyno chief minister had control over the treasury, the distribution of estates, or the assignment of lucrative church posts or military commands. Those nobles who did not attend court seldom received any reward. Louis was known to say, when solicited for a favor on behalf of a noble who did not come to Versailles as often as the king liked, "I do not know him."

Louis XIV subjected his courtiers to a strict etiquette that governed their comportment, manners, and dress. This precisely graded code meted out privileges according to a noble's position in the court hierarchy. It determined, for example, who was allowed wear a hat and when, and who could sit in the presence of the royal family. The sociologist Norbert Elias has famously argued that the intricate rules and rituals that governed the members of Louis XIV's court facilitated the creation of the modern centralized state. The ordered society of Versailles became the European ideal of the well-run state.

Louis XIV performed the role of sacred kingship like an actor who never broke character. He calibrated his movements, gestures, and expressions at all times. The activities of his daywaking, dressing, socializing, eatingall followed a regimen so exacting that his every gesture took on a ritual status. This ceremonial elevated the status of the monarch at the same time that it limited access to him. The lever, the king's ceremonial awakening, serves as an example. During this daily "kingrise," six strictly designated sets of noblemen entered the royal bedchamber to dress the monarch. The highest-ranking noble present received the greatest privilege, that of handing the king his shirt. Courtiers vied to attend the lever (or its evening counterpart, the coucher ) because it provided an opportunity to ask favors of the king. Those excluded could importune the monarch only as he traveled in his ritualized orbit from bedchamber to chapel to council chamber over the course of the day.

Without a monarch dedicated to the public performance of monarchy, the court of Versailles could not function so effectively as an instrument of rule. Through force of personality (and a renowned capacity for hard work), Louis XIV created a court that was simultaneously an irresistible social center for the high nobility and a seat of government for his ministry. This system, however, was largely dependent on the personality and abilities of the ruler. Louis XIV tirelessly performed the rituals of kingship, but neither Louis XV nor Louis XVI was willing to maintain such strict ceremonial. They also proved less able to divert members of the high nobility away from affairs of state or to maintain as effective a control over their ministers and state policies. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the court of Versailles, which had once been a celebration of divinely appointed monarchy, instead came to represent a center of despotism.

See also Absolutism ; Colbert, Jean-Baptiste ; Court and Courtiers ; France ; Louis XIV (France) ; Louis XV (France) ; Louis XVI (France) ; Marie Antoinette ; Monarchy ; Saint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy .


Primary Source

Saint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy, duc de. Historical Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon: A Shortened Version. Edited and translated by Lucy Norton. 3 vols. New York, 1967.

Secondary Sources

Adamson, John, ed. The Princely Courts of Europe: Ritual, Politics, and Culture under the Ancien Régime, 15001750. London, 1999.

Beik, William. Absolutism and Society in Seventeenth-Century France: State Power and Provincial Aristocracy in Languedoc. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1985.

Damien, André. "Versailles, Capitale?" Revue des sciences morales & politiques 151 (1996): 2138.

Elias, Norbert. The Court Society. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. New York, 1983.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. Saint-Simon and the Court of Louis XIV. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago, 2001.

Mukerji, Chandra. Territorial Ambitions and the Gardens of Versailles. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1997.

Newton, William B. L'espace du roi: La cour de France au château de Versailles, 16821789. Paris, 2000.

Solnon, Jean-François. La cour de France. Paris, 1987.

Lynn Wood Mollenauer


views updated May 29 2018

Versailles City in n France, 16km (10mi) wsw of Paris, capital of Yvelines department. It is famous for its former royal palace, now a world heritage site visited by two million tourists a year. Louis XIII built his hunting lodge at Versailles. In 1682, Louis XIV made Versailles his royal seat and transformed the lodge into a palace with extensive gardens. The architects Louis Le Vau, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, and Robert de Cotte built the monumental palace in a French classical style. Charles Le Brun designed the interior, which includes the Royal Apartments and the Hall of Mirrors. André Le Nôtre landscaped the magnificent gardens. The park also contains the Grand and Petit Trianon Palaces. Versailles was a royal residence until the French Revolution (1789). It was the scene of the signing of several peace treaties, notably at the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War and World War I. Pop. (1999) 85,726.


views updated May 14 2018

Versailles a palace built for Louis XIV near the town of Versailles, south-west of Paris. It was built around a château belonging to Louis XIII, which was transformed by additions in the grand French classical style.
Treaty of Versailles the name given to both a treaty which terminated the War of American Independence in 1783, and to a treaty signed in 1919 which brought a formal end to the First World War.