Friday, 12 September 2014

Royal Residences: The Palace of Versailles

The magnificent Palace of Versailles began life as a hunting lodge built by King Louis XIII near the village of Versailles, roughly twelve miles south-west of the city of Paris in 1624.

Louis had been invited to hunt in the forests surrounding the village by the lord of Versailles, Albert de Gondi, and created a base there, such was his liking for the area. Some years later, Louis gained ownership of the fief from the Gondis and set about expanding the base beyond a hunting lodge into a large country manor, which was called Château de Versailles.

The Palace of Versailles. (Wikipedia)

The grand Palace we know today was not developed until the reign of Louis XIII's son, Louis XIV, known as 'the Sun King'. Louis XIV, influenced by the teachings of his godfather, France's Chief Minister Cardinal Mazarin, wanted a centralised government ruling France, which was only possible if he could undermine the power of the French nobles, as they each held sway over their respective areas under the remnants of the feudal system, and could muster private armies if need be in defiance of the king's authority.

Louis XIV of France in 1701, seen here in one of over 300 portraits. Note the high heels, which Louis had made to raise his stature, and which subsequently set a fashion trend for women. (Public Domain)

Louis' plan was the further development of a standing (national) army under his rule and the creation of a power base situated safely outside the capital, Paris. He also instituted various reforms in spending and taxation. These policies slowly worked to weaken the nobles and further bring them under his direct rule.

Revolts led by Parisians against the monarchy from 1648 to 1653 (known as the Fronde) had left a bitter taste in the mouth of the young king, who had ascended to the throne at age 5 in 1643. It would seem he never quite trusted the city of Paris as a safe place to rule from again, yet the victory of his rule over the rebellion (won by the efforts of Cardinal Mazarin on the young Louis' behalf) placed him in a very strong position from which to begin his long reign when he came of age.

The Hall of Mirrors, designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart and decorated by Charles Le Brun. In modern times heads of state are entertained here. (Myrabella - Creative Commons)

Louis employed some of the greatest minds of France in his designs for Château de Versailles including: Louis Le Vau and Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the great French architects; André Le Nôtre, the master landscape architect; and Charles Le Brun, the renowned painter - whom Louis called "the greatest French artist of all time". Together these men helped create a palace which was to become a most fitting symbol of the power, majesty and influence of Louis XIV's absolute monarchy.

The Royal Chapel at Versailles designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart and completed by his former pupil Robert de Cotte. The lavish design and artwork is typical of the French Baroque style and was designed to impress upon the viewer a sense of great wonder and awe. The style is seen throughout the Palace of Versailles in its art and architecture. (Diliff - Creative Commons)

While Versailles expanded in size and grandeur, more and more of the French aristocracy were invited to stay at the Palace by the king. It was Louis' wish that his court should always remain there, and so the power of the French nobles was weakened further, as one by one they became guests of the king at Versailles and their influence was decreased in their own home regions which they had been forced to leave unattended in an effort to remain in the king's favour. In the Palace of Versailles, Louis could keep an ever-watchful eye on those he distrusted.

The Queen's Bedchamber in the Queen's Apartment at Versailles. The small door standing open by the Schwerdfeger case leads into a hidden passage through the palace and was used by Marie Antoinette during her escape from Versailles as the revolution gained momentum and threatened Versailles. (WestendRaider, Flickr)

Upon Louis XIV's death in 1715, his 5-year-old great-grandson Louis XV became king. The new king was not as ambitious in his plans for the Palace - or indeed the state - and Versailles remained largely unchanged afterwards, save minor modifications and additions, though Louis XV still ruled as an absolute monarch.

A panoramic view of the Grand Trianon. The Trianon was a smaller residence away from the Palace where the king and queen could entertain guests without the grand formality of royal court. It was designed and built by Louis Le Vau and Jules Hardouin-Mansart, and features a ceramic façade.  (All Free Photos)

This trend continued with the succession of Louis XVI, grandson of Louis XV, in 1774, and by then, with France having become a much-weakened kingdom since Louis XIV's time, the public were no longer tolerant of such symbols of power and splendour. Versailles separated the monarchy from the people of France, much as Louis XIV intended, but while the king's court continued on with lavish balls and entertainments organised by Queen Marie Antoinette, national debt spiralled out of control and unrest grew in the country.

The absolute monarchy was teetering on the edge without the powerful hand of Louis XIV to guide it.

King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette. The king was deemed to have lost control of the state such were problems with national debt, and his Austrian queen found herself isolated at court and mistrusted by the people. (Public Domain)

When the dust had settled after the initial events of the revolution and Louis XVI was deposed, Versailles was left in an uncertain position. After much debate on what to do with such a national institution (into which vast amounts of money had been poured), it was decided the Palace and it's properties would be preserved under the care of the Republican government as a museum. The Palace also became a repository for items confiscated from houses and churches associated with the Ancien Régime and those deemed enemies of the new state.

The Palace and Gardens were allowed to fall into a state of disrepair until 1794 when André Dumont, head of the newly-created administrative department Seine-et-Oise - which included Versailles - began work to restore and preserve the buildings, gardens and art for fear they would be left to ruin.

Part of the Little Apartment of the King now restored to its pre-revolution appearance. (Lionel Allorge - Creative Commons)

During the later part of the 1790's, items from the Palace were sold off to pay for various costs associated with the revolution, and other items were appropriated for use in government buildings. Part of the Palace was used as a military hospital, and the King's Grand Apartment was used as a gallery to display works of art.

The Orangerie designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart was completed in 1686 to replace Louis Le Vau's earlier, smaller version. It is part of the famous Gardens of Versailles. (Urban - Creative Commons)

With the arrival of the Napoleonic era, Versailles again became a central location for French government when it was given the status of imperial palace. Pope Pius VII visited in 1804 for the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor in Paris, and gave his blessing to the crowd gathered in the palace gardens from the balcony of the Hall of Mirrors.

After the final defeat of Napoleon, the Bourbon heirs of Louis XVI returned, though now under the stricter rules of a constitutional monarchy. Louis XVIII, the younger brother of Louis XVI, ascended to the throne in 1814 (Louis XVII, Louis XVI's son, died aged 10 during the revolution without ascending to the throne.) Little was done to update Versailles as there was continuous unrest in France. Charles X, another of Louis XVI's brothers abandoned Versailles for the Tuileries Palace in Paris.

King Louis-Philippe I of France (Public Domain)

The year 1830 saw the Bourbons again deposed, and then King Louis-Philippe I of Orléans rose to power and soon began an ambitious regeneration of Versailles, turning it into a grand museum dedicated "To All the Glories of France" - a visual chronicle of all the ages of French history.

Louis-Philippe, hoping the endeavour would unite the people of France and bring about an end to civil strife, dedicated more than 15 years to the project and paid for the work with his own money until Versailles was suitably modified for the purpose. Recognising Louis XIV and Versailles' deep and unending connection, Louis-Philippe had the great king's apartment restored to its right and proper appearance so the French public could glimpse the world of the Sun King and Château de Versailles' former glory.

Signing of the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors in June 1919 to end the war between Germany and the Allies. Again, the palace found itself at the very centre of French history. (Public Domain)

From 1892, the Palace of Versailles gained new life under the administration of Pierre de Nolhac, historian, art historian, poet and curator of the Palace museum from 1892. To help support the restoration work Nolhac organised events to collect funds and raise public awareness of the importance of Versailles in France's history. He also succeeded in returning much of the Palace's collections, which had been removed in the preceding years, including furniture and draperies. These items had been confiscated and sold to recover money considered misspent by the monarchy.

The Petit Trianon, which was designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel for Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's beautiful mistress, aide and advisor, who unfortunately died four years before its completion. It was afterwards occupied by his mistress Madame du Barry, and later home to Queen Marie Antoinette. It is considered a prime example of Rococo-Neoclassical transitional architecture. (All Free Photos)

Following in Nolhac's footsteps, and hoping to finally restore the Palace, the French art historian Gérald Van der Kemp set in motion wide-reaching restoration plans, beginning in the early 1950s. Over 30 years, Van der Kemp worked tirelessly to recreate Louis XIV's vision, and today in Versailles we see the brilliant fruit of his labour.

Van der Kemp, working with a team of artisans not seen in Versailles since the Sun King's reign, left no detail unchecked; he wanted Versailles to be again perfect.

With the help of his US-born wife, Florence, he set up the Versailles Foundation in New York, which found many generous and willing American supporters whose contributions were essential in the rebirth of the Palace, the Grand Trianon and the Gardens.

Editor's note: This post, the first of a series on royal residences we'll be featuring here at The Royal Digest was written by Andrew (my other half :)). A former student of history and art who has had the opportunity to visit a vast number of royal residences. We hope you'll enjoy the series!


  1. I loved this post and the historical background provided. I cannot wait to read more of these posts.

    Thank you for taking the time to prepare it!

  2. rose from Brooklyn12 September 2014 at 12:24

    Thank you. Thank you! What an interesting article! !!!!! Beautiful! !!!!

  3. Great job - thank you for taking the time to put this together!

  4. Hats off to Andrew for such a well written post! The Palace at Versailles is absolutely stunning and the historical facts provided are so interesting. I love reading about all the European monarchs, past and present, but gosh it can be so difficult to keep all the names, families, blood relations, etc straight that sometimes my head fairly swims, but this post was a joy to read. Thanks Andrew! I can't wait to read more!!

  5. Many, many thanks for your lovely comments. I'm determined to keep The Royal Digest updated on a daily basis and hope it becomes a good resource for royal fans. Andrew enjoys writing about historical topics and suggested doing a series here on royal residences. It's most enjoyable when couples can enjoy interests such as sport or blogging together!

    1. Hi Charlotte,

      You are so lucky to have found a man that shares your interest in the royals! I have really enjoyed this blog because I find all the European royals so interesting and it can be so difficult to find great information on them and of course their fashion choices.

      Can't wait to read more about fascinating royal residences!!

  6. Great read, well thought out and written. Looking forward to starting every morning with your posts. :)

    1. Thank you very much Kimberly and welcome to The Royal Digest :)

  7. anon from Leominster12 September 2014 at 16:57

    Lovely feature, Charlotte. Unbelievably magnificent. Hope Tiara Time and the Royal Round-up will return as well. Really enjoyed those.

    1. They will both be returning in the coming week Anon from Leo :)

  8. Bravo Andrew! Great post!

  9. Thank you Charlotte and Andrew! Great work! Love the new series. Looking forward to more.

    Jessica from the US.

  10. This is so interesting! Thanks to your other half for his hard work. :) I very much enjoy this blog--and it is especially welcome as unfortunately we will be seeing less of Kate for the next little while. Thank you for both of your hard work! :)

  11. Oh Charlotte, I absolutely LOVED this post! Thank you for providing such a great history. My hubby and I visited Versailles 11 years ago on a trip to France. Breathtaking would be an understatement. It was incredible! The gardens, oh my goodness! Amazing!

    I'll look forward to checking in to catch the latest news. For some reason I thought you had stopped this blog, but happy to know it's still here! Thanks again! Fabulous job!

  12. Thank you so much! Not only does this refresh what I learned at Versailles many years ago, it also provides a nice outline of French royal history from the 19th century, The photos are beautiful, and the writing is splendid. I look forward to the rest of the series.

  13. LOVED this post. Truly enjoy reading about the real estate of royalty and how it came to be. It wasn't quite clear how the property transferred - paid for? under threat? (suggested as a gift to the king so the owner and his family did not die?) Perhaps no one dare record how it happened. Also, I did not know that it is Louis XIV who is to blame for high heels! That painting is delightful to study - everything from the wig, stockings, heels, textiles, sword to project an image of power. Probably just a short bald old man underneath all that. Interesting that the purpose of the palace to control the nobility ending up causing the end of the monarchy. It was only a royal palace from 1682-1789. 107 years. As a fan of numbers - here are some basic stats: The Palace boasts around 2,143 windows, 1,252 fireplaces, and 67 staircases. The house cleaning must be a nightmare! :-)

    Looking forward to the next in the series!

  14. Loved it! What a great addition to the Royal Digest blog! Looking forward to the next installment!

  15. All I can remember about seeing Versailles years ago is being overwhelmed by its splendor. Thanks Andrew for bringing it back to me.

  16. Many thanks Andrew for writing an interesting and informative post which also kindly mentions the good works of Gerald and Florence Van der Kemp and their Foundation, which often get short shrift from the French - except 'round about donation time...

  17. LOVE this post!!!! I can see why he is you're other half, you two are doing a wonderful job!!! I especially appreciate your work, being a student myself I know you must be really busy. I don't know how you manage to have two great blogs, updated so frequently (yes, I'm a huge fan of the duchess kate blog as well :)).
    This palace is really amazing (those gardens!!!), I've been there once when I was 15, and have decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life there ;) Sadly, it didn't work out...
    Anyway, it was really interesting to read and learn about its history. Looking forward for the next posts of this serie.


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