How does BBC2’s Versailles compare with life under the real King Louis XIV?

Lucy Worsley investigates what life was really like in the court of the bling king...

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As a British historian, I like to think that Henry VIII can beat the world at royal magnificence. But I have to admit that even his splendid palaces and parties pale besides those of Louis XIV.

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If you know anything at all about Louis XIV, you’ll know him as the Sun King. Le Roi Soleil used the sun as his personal symbol to demonstrate his absolute power. And, at his extraordinary new palace of Versailles, he could have given Henry VIII a lesson or two in how to live it large…

Keeping the peace

As a boy, Louis XIV had been horribly scared when a rebellious mob broke into the room where he was sleeping. The country he inherited at four was wildly unruly and deeply divided into provinces with different customs, laws, even languages. But Louis would impose his rule upon this mess with a will of iron.

He’d been told from birth that he was special: after all, his parents had been trying for an heir for 23 years, and named him Louis Dieudonné, or “Given by God”. Louis took this to heart, turning self-glorification into an art form. However, the secret of his success wasn’t to wage war against his rebellious nobles. Instead, he used culture, refinement and hospitality to distract and disarm them.

The ultimate crib

At the start of Louis XIV’s reign, Versailles was just a humble hunting lodge 12 miles from Paris along a bumpy track. Louis transformed it into Europe’s most magnificent palace as a deliberate ploy to draw his courtiers out of their comfortable homes and plotting places in Paris, and bring them to dance constant attendance upon him in this drafty, uncomfortable, but extremely grand stage set. Magnificent Versailles, then, was something of a gilded cage. It was also built at immense human cost. Louis was too impatient for work to proceed at a safe pace, and three hospitals were built to tend to those injured on the building site.

In 1668 heavy machinery crushed a man to death, but when his mother complained, Louis had her thrown in prison. It’s an example of the ruthlessness with which he pursued his goals.

Louis’ women 

It was long accepted in France that a king needed two women: a foreign-born princess, like Louis’s wife Maria Theresa of Spain, to bear his children, and a mistress for pleasure. Unlike Henry VIII, Louis had no problem in fathering children. And the list of his official mistresses is bewilderingly long. Louise de La Vallière was Louis’s lover at the time when Versailles was built, but her rivals included Louis’s sister-in-law, Henrietta of England, and then Athénaïs
de Montespan. Louis is said to have made love to the witty Athénaïs three times a day. It was also said that “her powder lit very easily”.

The entourage 

Louis’s life at Versailles was an enormous piece of performance art. He turned even the simplest of actions — going to bed or going to chapel — into ceremonies, demanding his courtiers’ presence and attention. The lever, the getting out of bed in the morning, was typical. Wherever he may have spent the night, Louis made sure he was back in his own bed by 8am. The curtains opened, and he was greeted by his valet and physician. His old childhood nurse came in to give him his good morning kiss. Then the highest-ranked nobles came in to help the king with his shirt — it sounds menial, but it was a huge honour. Lesser courtiers only entered once the king was fully dressed.

The parties

The upside of attending the court of Louis XIV was that you got to take part in history’s most magnificent parties. Perhaps the best of all was a week-long entertainment called The Pleasures of the Enchanted Island, starring Louis himself as a knight named Roger. The music was by Lully and the drama scripted by Molière. In British terms, that’s rather like hiring Shakespeare and Purcell. But the star of the show was the palace itself, illuminated with thousands of candles.

Louis, ever the master of propaganda, had books of engravings (right) produced of this party, and sent them to the other kings of Europe to show them how things were done in France.

The security 

Louis XIV survived assassination attempts and plots, so was constantly paranoid and suspicious. The postal service to Versailles ran through Paris, and there Louis’s spies opened and read the letters of all the chief courtiers. Substances such as mercury were used to open and replace wax seals in a manner impossible to detect. It was a shock when those who had written something disrespectful about the king found themselves out of favour without quite knowing why. The courtiers used code, but Louis countered that by employing the great cryptographer Antoine Rossignol to decipher their secrets.

The legacy

England’s most notorious dynasty, the Tudors, puttered to a halt with the death of Henry VIII’s children. Louis, on the other hand, not only reigned for 72 years himself, but also established a line that lasted for a hundred years. The spell of Versailles was broken only when Louis’s great-great-great grandson, Louis XVI, had his head chopped off in the French Revolution.

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The French had finally had enough of absolute monarchs. But they couldn’t bring themselves to destroy the emblem of their power, Versailles, which is still seen as the symbolic heart of France.