The History Behind the Château de Versailles: part 1, Louis XIII-Louis XIV

Of the many sites that Neil and I planned to see during our stay in Paris, I was most excited to see the Château de Versailles. The beauty of its gilded halls and the splendor of its former inhabitants loom large in our social and cultural imagination. The Château has housed a few of the most intriguing, even tragic, French historical figures and has served as the backdrop to some truly dramatic scenes. The Château, its magnificent gardens, and the other impressive buildings that lay within its grounds have earned it many admirers and imitators1 worldwide. Consisting of 2,300 rooms spread over a distance of 63,154 square meters (207,198 square feet), Versailles is overwhelming, even to modern eyes. It’s impossible to appreciate how fantastical it would have seemed in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was host to the French court at the height of its decadence and hubris.  

The east façade of the Château de Versailles overlooking the Marble Courtyard.
The south wing of the Château de Versailles alongside the Marble Courtyard.

It’s going to take a concentrated effort on my part to try and tell the story of Versailles through a medium as modest as a blog post. In fact, I’m going to use eight different posts to break down this endeavour: three posts (including this one) will cover its history (click here for part 2), two posts will recap our visit to the main residence (part 1, part 2), and three separate posts will go into detail about the other residences found on the grounds—the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, and the Queen’s Hamlet. There is a lot to learn about and see at Versailles!

A house from the Hameau de la Reine, Queen Marie Antoinette’s Farm Hamlet.

The Château de Versailles served as the primary royal residence of the French monarchy from 1682 until the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. It is referred to as a château rather than a palais because it was located in the countryside², about 20 kilometers (12 miles) southwest of the centre of Paris. Notable figures in the history of the Château de Versailles include several guys named Louis, each accompanied by a number (XIII-XVI). I’ll go through each of them in turn.

The earliest recorded reference to Versailles can be found around 1038 in a charter that contained the signature of Hugo de Versailliis, the seigneur (lord) of Versailles. The word Versailles has its root in the Latin word vertere, which means “to turn the soil.” Versailles was a small medieval village of 200 peasant families that contained a small castle and a church. A windmill once stood where the present day château resides. Outside of the village, the area consisted of meadows and a forest well-stocked with game such as pheasants, boars, and stags. In 1575, Albert de Gondi purchased the seigneury of Versailles. He was a Florentine man who had held a prominent position in the court of Henri II (1519-1559, reigned 1547-1559). Gondi and his family invited Henri IV (1553-1610, reigned 1589-1610) to Versailles on several hunting trips in 1589, 1604, 1607, and 1609. Henri IV brought his young son, six-year old Louis (later crowned Louis XIII), along on August 24, 1607. Louis XIII (1601-1643, reigned 1610-1643) returned to Versailles in 1621. Versailles was located between Paris and Louis XIII’s main residence at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which made it an ideal stopping point.

Louis XIII of France. Philippe de Champaigne, 1655. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

In 1623, Louis XIII purchased some land and had a small hunting lodge built, which is shown in a 3-D model below3. It was 24 metres long (79 feet) by 6 metres (20 feet) wide. There were four sides to the lodge, which enclosed a small central court. A protective ditch surrounded the residence. The main wing of the building is the one located towards the back, in the west. This is where the King’s apartments were located. The ground floor of the main wing contained four bedrooms, and the floor above held three rooms and a gallery that overlooked the courtyard. There are two other wings that attach to the lodge’s main wing on its northern and southern sides. The north wing contained the kitchens, service rooms, the house of the concierge, and four spare rooms for Louis XIII’s companions. The south wing contained storerooms, latrines, and four more guest rooms. There were no rooms built to accommodate Louis XIII’s Queen, Anne of Austria, or her ladies. The hunting lodge was strictly for Louis XIII and the members of his hunting party. The fourth and final side of the residence (located at the front, in the east) is not a wing but, instead, a protective wall that contains an entry gate. The hunting lodge and its grounds covered about 2.5 acres. Louis XIII first stayed in it in June 1624.

Image sourced from the Versailles 3D Website. S ←→ N

In 1631, Louis XIII decided to demolish his hunting lodge at Versailles and had architect Philibert Le Roy build a bigger, but still modest, château in its place, shown below. The new residence was made of red brick and stone, and had a slate roof. In May 1632, Louis XIII purchased the seigneury of Versailles from the Gondi family. Construction was carried out on the new château from 1631-1634. Gardens and a large park surrounding the estate were also laid out. However, this second residence was still considered as being “far from royal” and described as being “a little castle of cards.” Louis XIII did not mind this; rather, he preferred to keep Versailles as a solitary retreat and rarely extended invites to guests that were not already members of his hunting parties. Even Queen Anne never spent the night there. Although rooms had been built to accommodate her, Louis XIII always arranged to have her taken to Paris or Saint-Germain to sleep. By 1643, the grounds of Versailles had grown to cover 312 hectares (771 acres).  

Image sourced from the Versailles 3D Website. S ←→ N
A pencil illustration of Louis XIII’s château. Image sourced from the official guidebook of the Château de Versailles. S ←→ N
Portrait of Anne of Austria, Queen of France. Peter Paul Rubens, 1622-1625. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

It would be Louis XIII’s son, Louis XIV (1638-1715, reigned 1643-1715), who transformed Versailles into the grand pleasure palace that it is recognized as today. By the time Louis XIV was born in 1638, his parents had been married for 23 years. They had already grieved the loss of four stillborn children. Louis XIV’s birth was considered a miracle of God, and so he was named Louis Dieudonné, the God-given. Throughout his childhood, Louis XIV was encouraged to think of himself as literally being God’s gift to the people of France. This would later shape his ideas concerning rule. He believed in the “Divine Right of Kings”: that a monarch derives the right to rule directly from the will of God, and is not subject to any earthly authority. As an absolute monarch and the centre of all power, France revolved around Louis XIV in the same way the earth orbits the sun. Thus Louis XIV titled himself “the Sun King” and adopted the sun as his personal emblem. He identified himself with Apollo, the Greek and Roman god of the sun.

Portrait of Louis XIV, King of France. Attributed to Charles Le Brun, circa 1661-1662. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Louis XIV was first sent to Versailles in October 1641 at the age of three, along with his younger brother Philippe, to protect them from a smallpox epidemic that had reached Saint-Germaine. Louis XIV returned to Versailles in 1651, at the age of thirteen, where he participated in a hunt. He visited Versailles a few times over the next few years. He took a greater interest in the property following his marriage in 1660 (to María Teresa of Spain) and the death of his chief adviser (Cardinal Mazarin) in 1661.

Maria Theresa of Austria as Queen of France. Jean Nocret, circa 1660. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

María Teresa’s marriage to Louis XIV came about as a result of the Treaty of Pyrenees, which was signed on November 7, 1659. The treaty and the marriage put an end to the nearly twenty-five years of war (beginning in 1635) that had raged between France and Spain. Louis XIV and María Teresa were first cousins as they shared a grandfather, Henri IV of France (Henri IV was the father of Maria’s mother, Elisabeth of France and Louis XIV’s father, Louis XIII). Upon her marriage, María Teresa’s name was changed to Marie-Thérèse to make it sound more French (I’m going to compromise and refer to her as Maria Theresa, which is how she’s addressed in most English-language accounts). She was shy, insecure, and spoke hardly a word of French—a sharp contrast to her new husband, who positioned himself at the centre of French political life. Five of their six children would die in early childhood (the sixth, the all-important male heir, Louis the Grand Dauphin, would also predecease his father at the age of 49, but not before continuing the line with a son of his own). Louis XIV remained faithful to Maria Theresa for the first year of their marriage, but he then went on to have many affairs. Maria Teresa became good friends with her mother-in-law, Anne of Austria, with whom she spent a lot of time.

A portrait of Maria Theresa4 at the age of 15.

Infanta Maria Theresa. Diego Velázquez, 1652-1653. Image sourced from Wikipedia. The hairstyle and dress in this photo were very popular in Spain.

Louis XIV had a greater role in mind for Versailles than the one that it had served for his father as a private hunting retreat. Louis XIV wanted a place where he could gather his entire court around him, something that no other royal residence had the capacity for. He wanted to keep all his advisers and provincial rulers close, so that he could keep his eye on them and prevent them from plotting against him. Louis XIV also wanted to expand Versailles so he could host and entertain on a grand scale.

The western/garden façade of the Château de Versailles as built by Louis XIII. Israël Silvestre, circa 1660-1664. Image sourced from Wikipedia. (N ←→ S)

From 1661-1668, Louis XIV initiated some minor building work inside the existing château as well as the addition of some outbuildings. These works were guided by architect Louis Le Vau and French painter Charles Le Brun5. Louis XIV also hired French landscape architect and gardener André Le Nȏtre to extend the grounds and gardens. In 1664, Le Nȏtre added an orangery and menagerie. In 1666, the Thetys Grotto was built.

Below is a painting depicting Versailles and its gardens around 1667-1668. You can see that the château built by Louis XIII remains at the heart of the Versailles residence. The foreground shows the new Place d’Armes, a grassy fan-shaped square that is enclosed by a white fence and lines of trees on the bottom of the painting. To the left of the Place d’Armes is the old village of Versailles. In the middle of the painting, a royal procession led by guardsmen on horseback makes its way through the Place d’Armes and through a forecourt (the Cour d’Honneur) towards a gate. Beyond that gate lies the paved Royal Courtyard. The Royal Courtyard features four new buildings. The two larger ones found toward the centre are the Communs, which were built in 1662. The wing on the left (south) houses the pantries and kitchens, the wing on the right (north) the stables. There are two other smaller, narrower buildings that flank the Communs and lie towards the outside of the Royal Courtyard. They contained the wood reserve on the left (south) and a shed for coaches on the right (north). To the right of the coach shed are three water reservoirs that were used to supply water to the ponds and fountains of the garden. The square building that can be seen on the western (far) end of the coach shed housed the Thetys Grotto, another elaborate water feature. Behind the Château, the vast expanse of the gardens can be seen, with the Grand Perspective spanning into the distance.

The Château de Versailles. Pierre Patel, circa 1668. Image sourced from Wikipedia. (S ←→ N).

Louis XIV kicked off these improvements at Versailles with the purpose of displaying his power and grandiosity. In 1664, he held the first of what would be many big parties at Versailles. The celebration, entitled The Party of the Delights of the Enchanted Island, ran for one week from May 7-13 with 600 guests in attendance. The party was inspired by an Italian epic poem6 in which a magician, Alcina, imprisons the knight Ruggiero and his companions in her palace on an enchanted island. Guests were treated to a rich selection of entertainments that centered on the theme including fireworks, a carousel, theatre and ballet performances, parades, horse races, rides, and a lottery. The party had a program guide that numbered 58 pages! There were refreshments and elaborate meals served by servants in mask and costume. Guests also delighted at the sight of exotic animals in the royal menagerie such as an elephant, a camel, and a bear. French actor and playwright Molière and Italian composer and violinist Lully organized the entertainment. Louis XIV himself danced the part of Ruggiero in a ballet, The Princess of Elide, that had been specially written for the occasion by the two artists. The Round Pool (which later became Apollo’s Fountain) was used to stage a recreation of Alcina’s palace. At the conclusion of the performance, Alcina and her servants departed her castle while riding on the backs of a whale and two whale calves.

The illustrations below depict scenes from the party. Note the elephant and camel in the first one, the ballet performance in the second (Louis XIV, who had a starring role, was quite proud of his dancing ability7), and the castle of Alcina in the third. If I had the ability to time travel and my choice of where I could visit, this party is definitely a top-five destination.

The First Feast Day at the Enchanted Island, 7 May 1664, Given by Louis XIV at Versailles. Parade of the Knights of Charlemagne. Israël Silvestre, 1664. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.
The Second Feast Day at the Enchanted Island, 8 May 1664, Given by Louis XIV at Versailles. Performance of the Princess of Elide. Israël Silvestre, 1664. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.
The Third Feast Day at the Enchanted Island, 9 May 1664, Given by Louis XIV at Versailles. Ballet at the Castle Alcina. Israël Silvestre, 1664. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.

The celebration was officially dedicated to the two Queens of France: Louis XIV’s mother, Anne of Austria, and his wife, Maria Theresa of Spain. However, the party’s unofficial honoree was François-Louise de la Baume Le Blanc, Duchess de la Vallière, the first official mistress8 of Louis XIV. In fact, Louise had been living at Versailles since her affair with the king began in 1661. Their relationship was an open secret at the time of the party and a popular topic of gossip.

Louise de la Vallière as Diana. Claude Lefèbvre, 1667. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

On July 16, 1668, a second giant party was held at Versailles with 1,500 guests in attendance. The Grand Royal Entertainment was held to celebrate the military successes of France during the War of Devolution with Spain9 and the signing of the Peace Treaty of Aix-Chapelle. Louis XIV also had a new mistress, Françoise-Athénaïse de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Marquise/Madame de Montespan, to whom the celebrations were dedicated.

Portrait of Françoise-Athénaïse de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Marquise/Madame de Montespan. Unknown artist, 1650-1700. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The party lasted for one night and took place in the gardens. The celebration began in the late afternoon with a visit to the Dragon Fountain, which makes for an impressive sight as its main water jet shoots water up to a height of 27 metres (88.5 feet), making it the tallest and most powerful water feature at Versailles.

Viewing of the Dragon Fountain at Versailles. Part of the Grand Royal Entertainment given on 18 July 1668 by Louis XIV. Jean Le Pautre (1618-1682). Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.
The Dragon Fountain in 2017 (the sculptures were redone in 1889, which is why it differs from the illustration above). Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Guests were then invited to partake in a lavish afternoon tea in the Star Grove. Following that, members of the court were then delivered via coach and sedan chair to the site of what would be the highlight of the festivities: a comedic ballet performance of George Dandin, which featured the music of Molière and Lully as well as the choreography of ballet master Pierre Beauchamp. The ballet required more than a hundred dancers, and the elaborate set decoration included blue tapestries decorated with fleur-de-lis and 32 crystal chandeliers. The performance was followed up with a feast and a ball.

The Ballroom in the Small Park of Versailles. Part of the Grand Royal Entertainment given on 18 July 1668 by Louis XIV. Jean Le Pautre (1618-1682). Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.

At the conclusion of the festivities, the guests were taken to the bottom of the Grand Perspective. There, they enjoyed a view across the gardens looking back towards the Château. The residence was lit up from inside, and there were rows of illuminated statues and painted vases lined up along the Great Lawn. Just when the guests thought it couldn’t get any better, fireworks burst across the sky. It must have felt like a fairy tale ending to an already magical evening.

Fireworks and Illuminations of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles. Part of the Grand Royal Entertainment given on 18 July 1668 by Louis XIV. Jean Le Pautre (1618-1682). Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.

On the day after The Grand Royal Entertainment, Louis XIV concluded that the existing château built by his father was too small. Rather than demolishing the old residence and building anew, Louis XIV had Le Vau construct a new white stone building that enveloped the older residence on its north, west, and south sides (shown in the 3-D model below). This building is known as the enveloppe or the château neuf to distinguish it from Louis XIII’s original structure. The chateau neuf resembled a baroque Roman villa, the popular architectural style at the time of its construction. It contrasted sharply with the red brick, stone, and slate of Louis XIII’s original residence so much that it looked like there were two châteaus, one slotted into the other. Construction took place from 1668-1674; after Le Vau passed away in 1670, architect François d’Orbay continued with the project. Le Brun guided the interior decoration of the new residence. The château neuf consisted of three separate wings, each with three floors: the ground floor, the main floor, and the upper floor10. The main floor of the north and south wings consisted of two symmetrical suites of apartments: one for the King on the northern end (the grand appartement du roi), and one for the Queen on the south (grand appartement de la reine). The west wing, the one that overlooked the gardens, contained some of these apartments on its northern and southern ends. The King’s and Queen’s apartments were then separated by a large, marble terrace that lay in the middle of the west wing.

Image sourced from the Versailles 3D Website. N ←→ S

Below is a floor plan of the main floor of the expanded Château de Versailles. Louis XIII’s original château is shaded grey. The new château neuf, which enclosed the older structure, is outlined in green. The King’s new suite of apartments is shown on the right (the north) in blue, and the Queen’s on the left (south) in yellow. The terrasse can be seen separating them in the middle of the west wing. This symmetrical design of apartments was an unprecedented feature in French palace design. It’s suggested that Louis XIV had this identical set of rooms built for his wife, Maria Theresa, because he intended to establish her as Queen of Spain. They would rule as dual monarchs: equal in power, status, and State Apartments. (See footnote 9 for more information on why Louis XIV felt Maria Theresa had a claim to the Spanish throne).

Plan of the main floor of the Château de Versailles, circa 1676-1680. Image sourced from Wikipedia. S ←→ N.

The expanded western/garden-side façade of the château can be seen in the painting below. The King’s State Apartments were located on the left, and the Queen’s on the right. You can see the large open-air terrace in-between them, located on the main (second) floor.

View of the Château de Versailles and the Water Parterre circa 1675. Unknown painter. Sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles. N ←→ S

Below is a model that shows the western/garden side façade from above, with a view of the terrace (which contained a fountain in the middle). You can see how the new white stone building of the château neuf was built around the red-brick residence of Louis XIII. The two small inner courtyards help to mark out the different structures.

An overhead model showing the terrace and the new white building of the château neuf. N ←→ S

The King and the Queen already had apartments located in the original residence that had been built by Louis XIII. They retained these rooms even as Versailles expanded, but they were meant for their own private use (you can learn more about and tour the King’s Private Apartments in this post). The new State Apartments built on the main floor in the château neuf were public spaces and served a performative function (you can learn more about and tour the King’s State Apartments in this post). Each apartment suite consisted of seven adjoining rooms: a vestibule; a guard room; an antechamber; a chamber; a large cabinet or office; a bedroom; and then a smaller cabinet. Three of the rooms were located in the western wing overlooking the gardens, and then four more found in their respective north and south wings (you can see this in the floor plan, shown previously). The apartments on the main floor connected to the ground floor through a ceremonial stairway.

A corner in the Abundance Salon, one of the King’s State Apartments.

The State Apartments were richly decorated, and their ceilings had paintings with allegorical or mythological themes. To complement Louis XIV’s title of “Sun King” and his identification with the Sun God Apollo, each room was dedicated to a planet and its associated Greco-Roman deity (Venus, Mars, Mercury, etc.). Further decoration of the rooms included references to historical figures from antiquity, such as Alexander the Great and the Roman Emperor Augustus; Louis XIV’s association with them was meant to highlight his similar heroic qualities. The walls were covered with polychrome marble, and large bay windows filled the rooms with natural light.

The Venus Salon of the King’s State Apartments showing the richly painted ceilings and the marble walls.

Construction on the château neuf was carried out between 1668-1674. At the same time, Le Nȏtre was busy with further improvements to the grounds of Versailles. He was tasked with making them the most magnificent of their kind in Europe. He embellished the grounds with fountains, statues, flower beds, a labyrinth, and groves of trees. From 1668-1679, Le Nȏtre had the Grand Canal built. With a length of 1,670 metres (5,479 feet, just over a mile) and a width of 62 metres (203 feet), the canal was large enough that boats could be sailed on its waters (as shown in the picture below). In this period, the grounds of Versailles reached a peak area of 2,473 hectares (6,111 acres)11.

View of the Apollo Fountain and the Grand Canal, circa 1675. Adam Perelle (1640-1695). Image sourced from Wikipedia.
View of the Apollo Fountain and the Grand Canal, 2017.

In the summer of 1674, Louis XIV decided it was time for another big party. The Franco-Dutch War had kicked off in 1672, and Louis XIV wanted to celebrate recent French military successes including the reconquering of the Franche-Comté (a territory that he had been bitterly forced to give up in 1668). The King also wanted to show off the impressive modifications that had been made to the grounds at Versailles, and so most of the festivities were held outside. The Grand Fête was a festival of six parties that took place between July 4 and August 31. Madame de Montspan was once more the festival honouree. The first celebration day was held on July 4 and featured an opera by Lully, Alceste, staged in the Marble Courtyard. Dinner was served in the Grove of the Marais.

First Day: Performance of Alceste, a musical tragedy, in the marble courtyard of the Château, which is illuminated from the top to bottom by an infinite number of lights. Jean Le Pautre, 1676. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.

On July 11 (the second celebration day), the Porcelain Trianon hosted a ballet performance by Lully, L’Eclogue de Versailles. A dinner illuminated by 150 candles was held in the Grove of the Feast Hall. On July 19 (the third celebration day), the Thetys Grotto served as a backdrop to a comedic ballet, Du Malaide Imaginaire, by Molière and composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier. A meal was supplied in the Menagerie. Guests also took turns boating on the Grand Canal in two gondolas that had been gifted to Louis XIV by the Republic of Venice. The gondolas and the four gondoliers sent to man them were housed in a series of buildings at the end of the Canal, which became known as “Little Venice.”

Third Day: Performance of Du Malaide Imaginaire in the Park of Versailles in front of the Thetys Grotto. Jean Le Pautre, 1676. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.
Design of a gondola for the use of Louis XIV in the Grand Canal of Versaille. Jean Berain (1640-1711). Image sourced from Gallica.

On July 28 (the fourth celebration day), a lyrical pastoral performance of La Fête de l’Amour et du Bacchus was staged at the Dragon Fountain. The audience was treated to a rich selection of fruit, ice, wine, liqueurs and jams. A light snack was served in the Grove of the Water Theatre, and then guests were serenaded by violins and oboes while enjoying their dinner in the Marble Courtyard. A fireworks display also lit up the Grand Canal.

Fourth Day: Feast with tables set around the fountain of the marble courtyard. Jean Le Pautre, 1676. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.

On August 18 (the fifth celebration day), the tragedy Iphigéne by Jean Racine was performed in front of the Orangery. Food was available in the Grove of the Girandole. Later that night, guests crowded around the newly finished Apollo Fountain to watch a fireworks show that consisted of at least 5,000 rockets. The fireworks lit up an obelisk created by Le Brun, which was topped by the figure of a sun—Louis XIV’s personal emblem (seen in the picture below).

Fifth Day: Fireworks on the Canal. Jean Le Pautre, 1676. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.

On the sixth and final evening, August 28, the Grand Canal was the centre of the entertainment. Courtiers once more took turns riding in the gondolas, accompanied by boats of musicians. The entire canal was also illuminated, as seen in the picture below.

Sixth Day: Illuminations around the Grand Canal of Versailles showing the palace, the fountains, and the statues. Jean Le Pautre, 1676. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.

Louis XIV was increasingly spending more time at Versailles and, with him, so too was the French Court. In 1677, he decided that he wanted to move the court and government there permanently. This was a revolutionary idea, as European kings and their courts had always lived life on the move, dividing their time and presence between different residences and regions in their territory. Versailles would have to be significantly enlarged in order to permanently house all the members of the royal family, the members of the court and their retinues, as well as all their servants. Louis XIV hired architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart to conduct this third round of building expansion at Versailles, which he began in 1678. Mansart’s additions increased the capacity of the Château five-fold, and made it possible to accommodate a further 4,000 people12. He built two new stables (1679-1682) that were located at the foot of the Place d’Armes: the Petites Écuries in the south was for the cart horses, and the Grandes Écuries in the north for the saddle horses (used for riding and hunting). Two new wings containing living quarters were built to the south (1679-1682) and north (1685-1689) of the residence. Two new Ministers’ Wings (1679-1682) containing offices for the four Secretaries of State (Foreign Affairs, War, King’s Household, and Navy) were built on the north and south sides of the Cour d’Honneur. The Grand Commun was built in the south to house service rooms (such as kitchens and pantries). I’ve indicated the location of the new structures on the map below.

Map sourced from the official Château de Versailles guide book. S ←→ N

In 1678, Mansart demolished the outdoor terrace that had been located in the middle of the western wing of the residence and replaced it with what would become the Château’s most famous feature: the Galerie des Glaces, the Hall of Mirrors, which was completed in 1684.  

At the time, mirrors were among the most expensive items that one could possess. The Republic of Venice had a monopoly on their manufacture. Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, had a requirement that all items used in the decoration of Versailles be made in France. He convinced a few Venetian glassmakers to come to France to design the mirrors for Versailles13. The Hall of Mirrors is 73 metres (239.5 feet) long by 10.5 meters (34.4 feet) wide by 12.3 meters (40.4 feet) high. It is flanked by the Salon de la Guerre (War Room) on the north side and the Salon de la Paix (Room of Peace) on the south. Three rooms from the Queen’s suite of State Apartments and three rooms from the King’s suite of State Apartments (the ones that had been located in the west wing), were absorbed into the new design, which you can see in the map below.

Image sourced from the official Château de Versailles guidebook. S ←→ N.

The Hall of Mirrors contains 17 mirror-clad arches that reflect 17 arcaded windows. Each arch contains 21 mirrors, for a total of 357. Marble pilasters topped with gilded bronze capitals are located on either side of the arches; the capitals are decorated with fleur-de-lys and roosters (France’s national animal). The room was originally illuminated by thousands of candles, and contained silver furniture (later melted down to fund Louis XIV’s army during the War of the League of Augsburg from 1688-1697).

The mirrors and marble pilasters in the Hall of Mirrors.

The ceiling contains 30 paintings by Le Brun that portray the military and diplomatic victories of Louis XIV achieved from 1661-1678. A painting in the central panel, Le Roi Gouverne par Lui-même (the King Governs Alone), encapsulates Louis XIV’s attitude towards leadership and the distribution of power. The room was designed to impress, and during weddings and diplomatic events Louis XIV’s throne would be placed on a platform at the south end of the room in front of the Salon de la Paix.

Le Roi Gouverne par Lui-même (the King Governs Alone). Charles Le Brun, 1661. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

On May 6, 1682, Versailles was officially declared the official residence of Louis XIV, his court, and the government of France. Versailles became the stage, and Louis XIV the master of spectacle. He made it a requirement that his nobles spend time each year at Versailles. On any given day, 3,000-10,000 courtiers could be present at Versailles. Additionally, both the Château and its gardens were largely open to the public. People gathered in the Hall of Mirrors on a daily basis in order to catch a glimpse of the King as he made his way from the State Apartments to the Royal Chapel. Louis XIV gave the impression that a King was constantly visible and accessible. Elaborate ceremonies were made of his most private moments: hundreds of courtiers watched him eat his evening meal, and his bedroom was filled every morning and evening with nobles who helped him perform the rituals of “getting up” (lever) and “going to bed” (coucher). The Lever ceremony was so involved it was divided into two: the Petit Lever and the Grand Lever. Nobles were admitted into the King’s Bedchamber and the Lever ceremony based on rank; the first to enter were those with the right to see Louis XIV still in his bed. Then those with the right to see the King in his dressing gown seated in a chair would be given admittance. Finally, the entire court would enter as he was being dressed. By the end of the ceremony, almost 150 people would be in the room. The same ceremony took place in the evening, but in reverse, with the crowd eventually dwindling to those privileged few who had the right to see the King in bed.

In the Bedchamber of Louis XIV. Paul Philippeoteaux, circa 1875. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Every moment of Louis XIV’s day was a performance, an act of state. All favours of land, titles, offices, pensions, etc. were granted through him. He was the “Sun King”, the centre of power around which all of France revolved. Strict rules of court etiquette served to establish and maintain a hierarchy that held him at the top. Prestige, rank, and appearance were crucial. Extravagance was compulsory. Louis XIV reasoned that if he kept all of the powerful people in his country at Versailles and focused all of their attention on him (and made them compete with each other for his favour), then they would be too busy to scheme against him. (Keep your friends close and your enemies closer!). By doing this, Louis XIV prevented regional concentrations of power that could have effectively challenged his own. Political tension and satisfaction centered on who had the honour of sitting on a chair in the King’s presence and who was required to stand. At the King’s evening meal, only twelve titled ladies had the right to be seated on stools before the royal table, hundreds of other courtiers had to stand and watch. Further, your rank determined whether your chair had a backrest or armrests, effectively setting up how comfortable you would be while basking in the glory of the King’s presence. Maybe today would be the day in which one would have the privilege of holding the King’s mirror or water basin as he shaved… The man who held the candlestick that illuminated the King as he undressed held one of the highest positions of all. According to French political theorist Henri de Saint-Simon, Louis XIV’s granting of distinction was proof that “the king possessed before all men the art of giving importance to trifles.” It sounds crazy, but it seems to have been effective. Louis XIV reigned for an impressive 72 years. His predecessors would increasingly retreat from living such a public life, and alienate their noble supporters in the process.  

Louis XIV, Protector of the Academy. Henri Testelin, 1667. I like the King’s fancy shoe ribbon!

After Maria Theresa’s death in 1683, Louis XIV had modifications done to the Private Apartments. He had some of the rooms from the Queen’s Private Apartments reallocated into a third set of apartments for him, the Petit Appartements du Roi (Small Apartments of the King). Unlike the King’s State Apartments and the King’s Private Apartments, which were largely open to courtiers and members of the general public alike, access to the King’s Small Apartments was provided only through personal invitation. In the illustration below, the King’s State Apartments are shown on the far right, in dark purple. The King’s Private Apartments are shown to the right of the Marble Courtyard in light purple. The new King’s Small Apartments are shown to the left and above the Marble Courtyard in medium purple. The Queen’s State Apartments are shown to the far left in yellow. The Queen’s Private Apartments were reduced to the ones that are shown in dark pink.

Plan of the main floor in the central part of the Chateau, circa 1742. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

In 1683, Louis XIV also married his third official mistress, Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon, in secret. Françoise came from an impoverished background14. Her inferior social position meant that she was not openly acknowledged as Louis XIV’s wife nor did she become Queen. Nonetheless, she did have a powerful influence on the King and was one of his closest advisors.

Portrait of Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon. Pierre Mignard, 1694. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

In 1699, Louis XIV had Mansart begin work on a new Royal Chapel. It was the fifth, and final, chapel built at Versailles since the reign of Louis XIII. It would also be the last grand project that both Louis XIV and Mansart undertook at the Château. Upon Mansart’s death in 1708, work on the chapel was completed by his assistant (and brother-in-law) Robert de Cotte in 1710. The design for the chapel incorporates gothic architecture and baroque decoration, and has a two-floor layout that is similar to the Palatine Chapel in Aachen, Germany (which was built for Charlemagne around 792 C.E.). The chapel was dedicated to Saint Louis IX (1214-1290), patron saint and ancestor of Louis XIV.

The Palace of Versailles, the Chapel Courtyard. Jacques Rigaud, early 18th century. Image sourced from the official Château de Versailles website.
The upper floor and ceiling of the Royal Chapel.

In 1701, Louis XIV had his Ceremonial Bedchamber moved from its location in the State Apartments to a more central position in the residence. He had it placed on the second floor, overlooking the Marble Courtyard, and backing against the Hall of Mirrors.

Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.

Louis XIV passed away on September 1, 1715. His reign of 72 years was so long that he survived his son Louis, the Grand Dauphin (who died in 1711 at the age of 49), and his grandson, Louis the Petit Dauphin (who passed away in 1712 at the age of 29). He was succeeded by his great-grandson, Louis XV. Louis XIV is the figure who played the most prominent role in the creation of Versailles, and so it seems fitting (and necessary) to end Part 1 of the Château’s history at this point. I’ll continue Part 2 of the History of Versailles in my next blog post, covering the history of the Château under Louis XV up to the present day. Thanks for reading!  

¹ Numerous palaces throughout Europe have been inspired by the magic and grandeur of Versailles: the Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia (constructed 1714-1723, nicknamed “the Russian Versailles”); the Palacio Real de Madrid in Spain (constructed 1738-1755); the Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna, Austria (built in the 1740s-1750s); Karlsruhe Schloss (first built in 1715, rebuilt entirely of stone in 1746); the Reggia di Caserta in southern Italy (1752- around 1773); and (Mad) King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s Schloss Herrenchiemsee (1878-1886).  

² This distinction between a rural and urban grand estate is not made in the English language the way it is in French, so in English it is most often referred to as the Palace of Versailles. For more information on the difference between châteaux, palaces, and castles, see my post on the Loire Valley.

3 The official website for the Château de Versailles contains a page with a video that shows the changes made to the structure over time. Click here to see Versailles from the time it was first built in 1624 as a hunting lodge by Louis XIII through its major construction periods under Louis XIV, up until the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1792.

4 Maria Theresa is also the subject of Diego Velázquez’s famous painting, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour), 1656. The figure of a young Maria Theresa in this painting with her wide hooped dress inspired an art installation that appeared on the streets of Madrid (which Neil and I got to see when we were there!). These Las Meninas (from the Meninas Madrid Gallery) are a series of 80 identical sculptures of a female figure with a wide hooped dress and a cropped hairstyle (I would argue that the hairstyle comes from Velázquez’s painting of Maria Theresa when she was fifteen, which I already used in the post above). Sculptor Antonio Azzato designed the Meninas and recruited a group of artists, fashion designers, and singers to help decorate them. The Meninas were auctioned off for charity in July 2018.

Las Meninas. Diego Velázquez, 1656. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

5 Louis Le Vau and Charles Le Brun also worked together on the renovations of the Louvre and the Tuileries Palaces, which began in 1659. See my post on the Louvre for more information about that project.

6 Orlando Furioso was written by Italian poet Ludivico Ariosto (known as “Ariosto”) from 1505-1532. In one of the episodes of the poem, the knight Ruggiero arrives on an enchanted island that belongs to the magician Alcina and her sister Morgana. Alcina falls in love with Ruggiero and casts a spell on him to keep him on the island. Later, Ruggiero’s fianceé, Bradamante, comes to the island disguised as a man (Ruggiero’s brother, Ricciardo) in search of him. Morgana then falls in love with “Ricciardo” and many spectacular magical antics ensue.

7 Below is an image of Louis XIV dressed as Apollo, a role he played in 1653 in The Ballet of Night by Giacomo Torelli, based on verses by Isaac de Benserade. The ballet called for over 100 costumes, designed by Henri Gissey. Louis XIV played the role of the rising sun dressed in golden feathers. He would reprise his role as Apollo in several court ballets and in life itself, titling himself “the Sun King.”

Royal Ballet of the Night, Louis XIV as Apollo. Anonymous, 17th century. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.

8 Louise was the first maîtresse-en-titre (chief mistress) of Louis XIV. This was an official position that came with its own apartments. The title came into use during the reign of Louis XIII’s father, Henri IV. Louis XIV had three official mistresses who would hold that title: Louise (1661-1667); Françoise-Athénaïse de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Marquise de Montespan (1667-1681); and Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon (1680-1715). Of course, a chief mistress does not mean the only mistress. Louis XIV had relations with at least two dozen other women.

9 In 1659, France and Spain ended 24 years of war with the Treaty of Pyrenees. Philip IV of Spain agreed to marry his daughter, Maria Theresa, to Louis XIV on the condition that the marriage voided her inheritance rights to her father’s Spanish throne. To compensate her for this, a dowry of 500,000 gold crowns was promised, but never actually paid, to Louis XIV. When Philip IV of Spain passed away in September 1665, Louis XIV claimed that since Maria Theresa’s dowry had not actually been paid, his wife’s renunciation of her inheritance rights was invalid. Maria Theresa was born out of Philip IV’s first marriage, whereas the underage Spanish heir Charles II (four years old at the time) was the result of Philip IV’s second marriage. Thus, Louis XIV argued, the estate of Philip IV properly “devolved” to Maria Theresa. This led to the War of Devolution, which broke out on May 24, 1667. Louis XIV and his armies quickly conquered the Hapsburg-controlled Spanish Netherlands (present-day Belgium) and other surrounding territories. Louis XIV wanted to conquer as many Spanish territories as possible. He planned to use them as bargaining chips for peace negotiations. The Spanich Franche-Comté, a region in eastern France, was one of them. He tasked Louis II de Bourbon, the Prince de Condé (known as the Grand Condé), with the military action. Condé invaded on February 4, 1668 and, a short 17 days later, all of the Franche-Comté was successfully occupied. However, Louis XIV’s plans were halted when he was informed that an alliance had been formed against him by Spain, the Netherlands, England, and Sweden. He knew that France was no match for this coalition. The Peace Treaty of Aix-Chapelle was signed on May 2, 1668. Louis XIV was allowed to keep some of his conquered Flemish territory, but he had to give up most of his conquered territories in the Spanish Netherlands and the Franche-Comté. He was angered by this result. In particular, he felt that he had been betrayed by the Dutch, as France had provided assistance to the Dutch during their war of independence from Spain (the Eighty Years’ War of 1568-1654). Tensions would lead later to the Franco-Dutch War of 1672-1678. ANYWAY. The Grand Entertainment of July 1668 was meant to paint a bright, victorious face on what could have been otherwise considered a military and political disappointment. Charles II (Maria Theresa’s younger half-brother) ruled Spain until he died, childless, on November 1, 1700. Charles II named Philip of Anjou as his successor. Philip of Anjou was the grandson of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa. Philip’s father, Louis the Grand Dauphin (son of Louis XIV), could not claim the Spanish throne since he was in the line of succession for the French one. So too was Philip’s elder brother, Louis the Petit Dauphin. So the second son is up! Of course, other European countries were not a fan of having the Spanish throne in the hands of the French as that would have meant a major power imbalance. So this kicked off the War of the Spanish Succession (1700-1714). Philip V of Spain ruled from 1700-1724, and then again from 1724-1746 (with a brief seven month interruption in which his son, Louis I, ruled until he died of smallpox).   

10 in Europe, the numbering of floors is done in a different sequence than in North America, so it can be a little confusing. In North America, the ground floor is called the “first” floor. In Europe, the ground floor is equal to floor “0.” In North America, the next floor up would be called the “second” floor. In Europe, this would be called the “first” floor. The three wings of the chateau neuf contained three separate floors. Instead of calling them (in accordance with North American custom) the “first”, “second”, and “third” floors, I’m referring to them respectively as the “ground floor”, the “main floor”, and the “upper floor.”

11 Under Louis XIV, the grounds of Versailles reached a peak area of 2,473 hectares (6,111 acres). Compare that with the 2.5 acres that Louis XIII started out with for his hunting lodge!. The grounds of Versailles are now only 815 hectares (2,014 acres)—roughly ⅓ the size they were during the time of Louis XIV.

12 3,000 more courtiers would be housed in the town of Versailles.  

13 Legend has it that assassins were sent to poison these glassworkers to punish them for revealing the secrets of their trade. An interesting story, but I’d have to do a bit more digging to find out if that was true.

14 Here are a few more details concerning the background of Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon, because they are interesting. Her father, Constant d’Aubigné, was imprisoned from 1629-1639 for conspiring against Cardinal Richelieu (Louis XIII’s Chief Minister). Françoise was born during this time period in 1635; her mother was Jeanne de Cardilhac, daughter of Constant’s jailer. When Constant was released in 1639, the family moved to the island of Martinique in the west Indies. Constant died destitute in 1647, and Françoise was sent to live with her aunt. She was then educated in a convent. Madame de Neuillant, the mother of Françoise’s godmother Suzanne de Baudéan, introduced Françoise to higher society. Françoise married French poet and novelist Paul Scarron in 1652 (he wsa 25 years her senior), but was widowed in 1660. Through her connections she met Madame de Montespan in 1666, Louis XIV’s current lover. In 1669, when Madame de Montespan’s second child by Louis XIV was born, Françoise was hired on as a governess. This led to her meeting Louis XIV, who was initially put off by her strict religious disposition. His feelings had softened by 1675, when he gave her a title—the Marquise de Maintenon. It is unknown when Louis XIV and Françoise began having an intimate relationship, but by the late 1670s he was spending a lot of his spare time with her. In 1680, Louis XIV gave her a prominent position in his daughter-in-law’s household (the Dauphine Maria Anna of Bavaria, who was married to Louis, the Grand Dauphin). Soon after, Madame de Montespan left court. Françoise, Madame de Maintenon, was a good influence on Louis XIV. She was also kind to Maria Theresa who, for years, had been rudely treated by Madame de Montespan.

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