‘Versailles’ Reigns Supreme in the Popular World of Period Drama

“I am the state.” ~ Louis XIV

If you haven’t already seen ‘Versailles’ and you have an interest in history or a love of period drama, you’ll want to watch it at some point. Ambition, conspiracy and danger lurk around every gold-leaf covered corner of Louis XIV’s palace of pleasure, Versailles.

The pure splendour and magnificence of the Palace of Versailles was ultimately down to the vision, determination and seemingly endless va-va-voom of Louis XIV, France’s longest reigning monarch.  He was self-styled with a rather apt sobriquet: le Roi-Soleil (the Sun King).

I had long assumed he was just another lazy and privileged monarch who breathed hubris from every pore, a fashion loving, philandering, power obsessed, party animal. But I hadn’t been quite fair to Louis XIV.

As the recent drama on BBC2 has enlightened me, there was much more to this king than meets the eye. And whilst some of my impressions are fairly accurate, what I had failed to understand was the context for such behaviour.

Portrait of Louis XIV by Charles Le Brun c. 1661

Portrait of Louis XIV by Charles Le Brun c. 1661

Also, it’s unfair to see a person as the sum of their vices, as Louis XIV had incredible energy and a love of outdoor pursuits. He was also a visionary; his obsession to transform his father’s old hunting lodge at Versailles, (which was surrounded by swampland and forest) into a palace that would eventually become the heart of the French Court and the envy of seventeenth century Europe, was his legacy to France.

‘Versailles’ is a new joint Anglo-French production dramatising Louis’s turbulent and fragile rule over the disjointed kingdom he inherited upon the death of his mother and Regent, Anne of Austria at the age of twenty seven. Louis XIV was her first surviving child after twenty three years of marriage to King Louis XIII. Anne was featured as a major character in Alexandre Dumas’s novel, The Three Musketeers.

Anne of Austria c. 1622 - 25 by Peter Paul Rubens

Anne of Austria c. 1622 – 25 by Peter Paul Rubens

At that time France was controlled as much by belligerent, powerful, feuding nobles, as the by the king and his court, and Louis’s main task was to unify and bring them to heel or he and his younger brother, Philippe I, Duke of Orleans, would have been assassinated. He started out in a very precarious position with his power and control hanging by a thread.

Needless to say, I quickly got hooked on it, as I always do with engaging period dramas. I could have period drama queen stamped across my forehead!

Clips from Versailles:

I am feeling bereft now that episode 10 of season one has ended, very sadly I might add, with the death of his beloved Henriette of England. However BBC 2 will air season two next year.

How will I last that long?!

Versailles was located only twelve miles from Paris but was too small for many guests to stay there for entertaining purposes. One of the things that struck me in the early episodes was the remote, treacherous single track road that led to the chateau. A few nobles come to grief on that quiet, eminently ambushed, wooded road.

It certainly got me interested in this period of French history. As with all period dramas, there is enough factual content to make it realistic and enough dramatic fictional content to make it addictive!

BBC link showing the historical and fictional characters of ‘Versailles’.

BBC Clips from Season One of Versailles, including  some ‘behind the scenes’ glimpses.

You can purchase/download all 10 episodes via the BBC website.

Season One had ten wonderful episodes full of political intrigue and turmoil, religious acrimony, plotting, betrayal, murder, steamy sex scenes, scandal, more bedroom action (both heterosexual and homosexual) and AMAZING costumes, all filmed on location at Versailles as well as in the studio.

Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) at Versailles

Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) at Versailles

You really get a sense of how claustrophobic it must have been in the early days at Versailles, with all these power hungry individuals cooped up, seeking to either gain favour with the king or plot his downfall. Even in the king’s personal circle you have him secretly bedding his brother’s beautiful but neglected wife, a jealous Philippe who is still content to take male lovers, as well as the female rivals at court competing for the king’s frequent amorous attention!

“I could sooner reconcile all Europe than two women.” ~ Louis XIV

Even though the acting is great, (especially George Blagden as Louis and Alexander Vlahos as Philippe) and the script is well-written (in modern parlance), this drama has elicited more questions than it answered.

Inside Versailles

With after show analysis now popular in its own right, such as Thronecast for Game of Thrones, the BBC foresaw the interest this new historical series would spark in viewers and produced a short contextual historical analysis, Inside Versailles, directly following each episode.

These ‘after episode’ mini documentaries, hosted by Professor Kate Williams and Greg Jenner and various guests are really interesting and provide an insight into the how the drama encompasses the actual history of Versailles.

It seems bizarre and immoral to our modern sensibilities that a man would be permitted to openly play the field when he was married, but for seventeenth century France, infidelity was so pervasive that questions would have been asked had the king and his nobles not taken lovers.

Marriage was arranged purely for political alliances and to produce heirs. Rarely was love involved. In Louis’s case he was betrothed to Maria Theresa of Spain, daughter of Philip IV of Spain and also his mother’s niece.

Maria Theresa is handed over to the French and her husband Louis XIV by proxy on the Isle of Pheasants in June 1660

Maria Theresa is handed over to the French and her husband Louis XIV by proxy on the Isle of Pheasants in June 1660

The king’s preferred mistress, (his favourite at any given time), was bestowed with a semi-official position known as the maîtresse-en-titre.

As the most powerful man in France he was surrounded by beautiful women. Louis’s love of women is infamous, as is the long list of courtesans who had shared his bed and the title of maîtresse-en-titre. There were plenty of places and opportunities in which to have illicit trysts in Versailles!

Louis XIV was actually a very hard working king: he held council meetings three times a day, went hunting three times a day and yes, you guessed it, the royal member was reportedly active three times a day. He must have had a very healthy constitution and potent libido!

Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart, marquise de Montespan, at the château de Clagny c. 1670 by Henri Gascar

Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Marquise de Montespan, at the château de Clagny c. 1670 by Henri Gascar

He fathered many children through his mistresses, most of whom he later legitimised and gave titles to.  Françoise Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Marquise of Montespan, aka Madame de Montespan, bore him seven children over a decade, of which four survived into adulthood. She was also influential in the legacy of the fashion industry in France today.


Louis XIV through his daughter with Madame de Montespan, Louise Françoise de Bourbon (1673 – 1743)  who married Louis III, Prince of Condé and their daughter, Louise Élisabeth de Bourbon, whose only daughter by Louis Armand de Bourbon, Prince of Conti was Louise Henriette de Bourbon, who via her marriage to Louis Philippe d’Orléans, was mother of Louis Philippe Joseph d’Orleans (Philippe Égalité), make them ancestors of (as well as the descendants on the direct legitimate male line from Philippe I) the House of Orléansthe July Monarchy and the current living members and pretenders to the throne of France, Italy and the kings of Spain and Belgium and the Grand Duke of Luxemburg. The prince and princesses du sang live on!

Philippe I, Duke of Orléans aka ‘Monsieur’

The relationship between the king and his younger brother and how they handle the threats to the monarchy forms the backbone of the drama. In ‘Versailles’ their relationship is portrayed as tense, tumultuous and at times, tender. Philippe is trying to make his own way at court but ultimately cannot escape being controlled by his older brother.

A tender scene from episode 10 as they are about to lose their beloved Henriette:

At one point in the drama Philippe, in a moment of utter desolation, tells Louis, “If you think it’s difficult being a King, you should try being a King’s brother for a day!”

In this early portrait of Louis and Philippe you can see that Philippe is wearing a dress. It was common practice to put dresses on boys in seventeenth century France until they were aged seven or thereabouts.

Portrait Of King Louis XIV and his Brother Philippe I, Duke of D'Orleans

Portrait Of King Louis XIV and his Brother Philippe I, Duke of D’Orleans

In an attempt to mitigate any sibling rivalry between her sons, Anne of Austria actively encouraged Philippe to wear dresses to remove any threat from his brother Louis. This obviously served to bolster Louis’s masculinity as King. Philippe was known to cross-dress at court, and although he was very fond of his wife, his real passions were reserved for the Chevalier de Lorraine, his official male mistress.

Louis was emotionally scarred by the Fronde during his childhood. His traumatic experiences from the uprising would shape his modus operandi as future king. He had seen how civil war ended for Charles I across the channel so it made perfect sense for him to take a different approach.

Instead, Louis launched a charm offensive on his nobles.

By 1684 his whole court had transferred from Paris and was installed at Versailles, then home to five thousand souls. Louis wielded his power with refinement and overwhelmed his nobility with luxury, providing distractions such as feasting gambling, hunting and extravagant parties.  As the courtiers were busy with every day court minutiae it took their minds off revolt. Louis very cleverly gave them the message, ‘You don’t need to rebel to get what you want.’

Philippe proved himself to be a brave soldier and fought well as commander at the Battle of Cassel. It was the only way he could see to use his talents and earn any personal glory as a prince of the blood. His success meant that it was the only battle Louis allowed him to participate in. He couldn’t bear to be upstaged by his younger brother!

Jean-Baptiste Lully was Louis’s court composer. This Overture to Le Ballet Royal de la Nuit is a great example of the pomp and splendour of the French Baroque period:

As well as incurring a hefty financial cost, there was a high human cost to building Versailles, which was highlighted by rebellious, disgruntled workers. The sheer scale of the works required thirty six thousand builders to labour under terrible conditions. Health and Safety laws hadn’t yet been invented so these poorly paid men who were sick of risking their lives day and day out decided to go on strike.

There was a terrible accident on 26th July 1668 as half a dozen workers were crushed under the debris of falling masonry. The king was confronted by an angry mother of one of the victims who had demanded to have her son’s body back, overstepping the bounds of conformity of the day. She was punished for her trouble.

Construction of the Chateau Versailles by Adam Frands van der Meulen

Construction of the Chateau Versailles by Adam Frans van der Meulen

In the episode Louis comes across as quite cold hearted over this matter, it appears that Versailles represents the glory of France and he is not prepared to let anything get in the way of that. To him, the end justified the means. Fortunately he did relent, and paid compensation to families of the dead and injured workers. Three hospitals were eventually built, including Les Invalides.

There were three distinct construction periods during Louis XIV’s tenure at Versailles – the first phase of expansion being from 1661 to 1678. Three new wings of stone, known as the enveloppe style, were built surrounding the original hunting lodge on the north, south and west (garden side).

Entrance to Versailles

Entrance to Versailles

During the second phase (1678 – 1715) two enormous wings were added, north and south of the wings flanking the Cour Royale. The large terrace facing the garden formerly built by Le Vau was replaced by what would become the Palace’s grandest and most ostentatious room, the Hall of Mirrors.

The third phase was smaller in scale, with the enlargement and re-modelling of the royal apartments in the original hunting lodge. This was undertaken after the death of Maria Theresa in 1683. Mansart began work on the Royal Chapel of Versailles, located at the south end of the north wing in 1688, which was completed after his death in 1708 by his assistant Robert de Cotte in 1710.

General view of the Palace of Versailles c. 1680s by Adam Perelle

General view of the Palace of Versailles c. 1680s by Adam Perelle

André Le Nôtre was the head landscape gardener at Versailles, and he had the unenviable task of draining swamps and moving forests in order to tame the land and create formal gardens for the king and his guests. Le Nôtre was held in high esteem by the king, as were his friends and compatriots the royal artist, Charles Le Brun and celebrated architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart.

Culture and sophistication ruled at Versailles. The king’s schedule, starting with the Grand Levee was tightly controlled. A selected elite witnessed him dressing and lined his daily route to chapel. If nobles attended Versailles regularly they were more likely to gain an audience with the king to ask for favours. If you weren’t a familiar face to the king you were out in the cold. You had to be part of the public spectacle of the king’s life.

It could never have worked for a monarch devoid of charisma, but for Louis, it seems that he thrived on being the sun to the universe of his court at Versailles. In this manner he got his nobles bowing and scraping to him and his reign as an absolute monarch was a successful one.

It’s worth mentioning Louis’s most trusted servant and head valet, Alexandre Bontemps, who faithfully served Louis XIV for forty years. He was totally devoted to the king and was one of his most trusted advisors and confidantes. Bontemps slept on the floor in the king’s official bedroom. Not even a queen was allowed to sleep in the king’s bedroom.

There is a great scene in the drama (I forget which episode), where the king invites Bontemps to sit beside him in front of the fire in a chair with arms.  Bontemps hesitates and tries to pull up a stool, because in those days protocol dictated only a king was allowed to sit in a chair with arms, but Louis insists Bontemps is his friend and equal.

One of my favourite fictional characters in the drama is the overworked Fabien Marchal, the king’s beleaguered head of security. He is a curious blend of noble man and ruthless brute, and for most of season one he has a stoic and sombre countenance! He is kept rather busy, torturing and capturing the plotters and would-be assassins, only just surviving being poisoned himself. This is down to the skill of Louis’s female physician, who I think is also a fictional character.


Versailles after Louis

The drama ‘Versailles’ is portrayed as a hotbed of maneuvering, poisoning, gossip, adultery, jealousy, passion, pursuit and state business. The drama only adds to the sense that in reality, Versailles was one of the most incredible royal palaces anywhere in the world, with a history to match!

In the meantime, if you want all the insider details of what really went on in Versailles you could read the memoirs (in  three volumes) of Louis XIV and his Court by diarist the Duke of Saint-Simon.

I will certainly be glued to season two when it broadcasts next year… C’est magnifique!