My first post on the history of the Château de Versailles concluded with the death of its foremost figure, Louis XIV, on September 1, 1715. The man who had transformed Versailles from a private hunting retreat into a grand palace had reigned for 72 years. He was succeeded by his five year-old great-grandson, Louis XV. It was not an easy transition, and was beset by tragedy. I’m going to back up a couple of steps to illustrate how this came to be.
Towards the end of Louis XIV’s reign, his succession seemed a sure thing as he had a full stable of legitimate male heirs (lots of illegitimate children as well, but that’s besides the point). He had a son named Louis, known as the Grand Dauphin1, who had been born in 1661 (the same year Louis XIV started to take an interest in Versailles!). Further, Louis XIV had a grandson who was also named Louis, born in 1682, known as the Petit Dauphin and the Duke of Burgundy. Louis XIV also had two great-grandsons, both named Louis2 , who had been born in 1607 and 1610 at Versailles. Plenty of Louis’ to spare! Or so it seemed.
Things took a turn in 1711. That was when Louis, the Grand Dauphin, died of smallpox at the age of 49. Then, in February 1712, Louis the Petit Dauphin (aged 29) and his wife, Marie Adélaïde of Savoy (aged 26), died of measles. On March 7, their two young sons were also stricken with measles. Louis XIV’s great-grandsons both underwent the typical treatment of the time: they were bled. During the night of March 8-9, the elder Louis died from a combination of the disease and his treatment at the age of 5. The governess of the younger Louis, Madame de Ventadour, prevented the doctor from bleeding him further. Thanks to her intervention, he survived. Three and a half years later, he became Louis XV.
The portrait below is a composite of six generations of Bourbon men and one non-royal woman, Madame de Ventadour, whose presence in the painting honours her role in saving the dynasty. Louis XIV is seated in the centre. The man standing to the left of Louis XIV is his son Louis, the Grand Dauphin. The man standing on the right is his grandson, Louis, the Petit Dauphin. Madame de Ventadour appears on the far left holding the reins of her charge, Louis XV, who is shown reaching up to his great-grandfather. The figures are flanked by busts of Louis XIII (Louis XIV’s father) and Henri IV (his grandfather). It’s quite an honour, to be included in such a dynastic ensemble of men! That speaks volumes as to how appreciated Madame de Ventadour was for saving Louis XV’s life.
Louis XV’s cousin Philippe II, the Duke of Orléans (son of Louis XIV’s younger brother Philippe), served as Regent during Louis XV’s minority. Philippe II moved the court away from Versailles and back to Paris during this time. Louis XV lived at the Tuileries Palace while Philippe II conducted the affairs of the regency out of his Parisian residence, the Palais-Royale (which he had inherited from his father).
In 1717, Russian czar Peter the Great stayed at the Grand Trianon. He was impressed by Versailles, and used it as inspiration for the building of the Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg from 1714-1723.
Louis XV returned to Versailles on June 15, 1722 when he was twelve years old. He was cheered by a crowd as they gathered on the main street leading up to the residence. Both the town and the Château of Versailles had missed the energy and attention that came with being the official residence of the monarch and the French government. Louis XV’s first stop at Versailles was the Royal Chapel to attend mass. He then explored the gardens, the State Apartments, and the Hall of Mirrors. He lay on the floor in the Hall of Mirrors, staring up at the paintings that Charles Le Brun had made to honour the exploits of his great-grandfather. The court followed his example. Louis XV loved Versailles, as it was where he had been born and lived the early years of his life; it was as if he was finally coming home. On October 25 in that same year, Louis XV was crowned King at the Cathedral of Reims. In February 23, Louis XV’s thirteenth birthday meant that he had reached the age of his majority and the Regency was officially ended. Versailles became once more the seat of power in France.
Louis XV was determined to follow the example set by his great-grandfather. He had the clock in the Marble Courtyard set to the time that Louis XIV had passed away, where it would remain unchanged for the rest of Louis XV’s reign3. As a result, Louis XV did not make many modifications at the Château de Versailles. His first construction project was to actually complete one that had been interrupted by the death of Louis XIV in 1715. When the fifth and final Royal Chapel had been completed in 1710, Louis XIV had architect Robert de Cotte begin work to repurpose the site of the fourth chapel into a drawing room. Louis XV kick-started this project once more in 1722, and the Hercules Salon was completed in 1736. The room was named after the painting that adorns its ceiling, the Apotheosis of Hercules, by François Le Moyne. It was considered the most finely appointed room in the Château due to the beautiful painting and the room’s marble decoration. Louis XV used it occasionally as a ballroom.
Later in 1723, Louis XV became ill. Although he recovered, panic set in among his advisers about the possibility of him dying without leaving an heir. If that happened, the throne would then pass on to the Bourbon-Orléans branch of the family—the descendants of Louis XIV’s younger brother, Philippe4. Marriage to a woman of child-bearing age was urgent. A list of possible brides for Louis XV was drawn up. Maria Leszczsynska, the daughter of the deposed King of Poland, Stanislaw I, was eventually chosen (you can read more about him in my post on the Château de Chambord, here). Maria and Louis XV met for the first time on the evening of their official wedding, which took place on September 5, 1725 at the Château de Fontainebleau. They were reported to have fallen in love at first sight. Louis XV was 15 years old and Maria was 22. Their relationship was initially happy. Louis XV was flattered to have a wife several years older than he was. From 1727-1737 Maria gave birth to ten children of which seven would survive into adulthood; one of them was the crucial male heir, Louis the Dauphin, born in 1729. In 1737, Maria nearly died in childbirth. She was advised that another pregnancy may kill her, and so she and Louis XV ceased having sexual relations. Sadly, things cooled between them from this point on. Louis XV barred Maria from family get-togethers, and they would only see each other on public court occasions.
Louis XV remained faithful to Maria for the first eight years of their marriage, but later became a notorious womanizer; one list I found contained the names of 61 mistresses, official and otherwise. He began his first affair with Louise Julie de Mailly-Nesle in 1733; apparently, the experience was so to his liking that he then had relationships with Louise’s three younger sisters: Pauline Félicité (in 1739), Marie Anne (1742), and Diane Adélaïde (1742). At first, Louis XV was discreet about his extramarital affairs. Louise only became the first official maȋtress-en-taitre (chief mistress) in 1738, after the King and Queen had ended the intimate aspect of their relationship. Maria was still hurt by the affair, especially as Louise was one of her ladies-in-waiting; she would eventually become resigned to her husband’s philandering.
On the night of February 25-26, 1745, a masked ball was held in the Hall of Mirrors to celebrate the marriage of Louis XV’s son, Louis the Dauphin, to Maria-Teresa Rafaela of Spain5. Louis XV and several of his men dressed as topiary yew trees (shown in the picture below, to the right), which led to the event becoming known as “the Yew Tree Ball.” The ball started at 11:30 pm and continued until 8:30 am the next day with 1,500 people in attendance. It was at this ball that Louis XV met Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, who was dressed as a shepherdess. She became his mistress shortly thereafter. Of all Louis XV’s mistresses, Madame de Pompadour would be the most politically influential. In some respects, her power at court eclipsed that of the Queen, and some have suggested her role could be seen as being a “de facto prime minister.”
Louis XV continued with the spectacle and performance of kingship that his great-grandfather had initiated, but he wasn’t as comfortable in the role as his predecessor. He was a little more timid than Louis XIV, and so his work at Versailles was directed toward creating more private and intimate spaces. Louis XV renovated several of the apartments so that they were smaller and more personal as opposed to the grand public spaces that Louis XIV had created. The gardens of Versailles remained largely unchanged during his reign. Further, Louis XV didn’t stay at Versailles exclusively; he divided his time between several other residences such as those at Marly, Fountainebleau, and Compiègne.
In 1752, Louis XV ordered the demolition of the Ambassador’s Staircase6 in order to create more apartments for his daughters. The staircase had served as an entrance to the King’s State Apartments, and had been built between 1672-1679 by Louis Le Vau. It was richly decorated by Charles Le Brun with polychrome marble, gilt bronzes, paintings, and featured a glass roof. Other decor had celebrated the victory of Louis XIV in the Franco-Dutch War of 1672-1678.
From 1762-1768 Louis XV had a small château, the Petit Trianon, built on the grounds of the Grand Trianon. Louis XV had it designed with Madame de Pompadour in mind, but she died four years before its completion. Her successor Jeanne Bécu, the Comtesse du Berry, became its occupant. More information about the Petit Trianon can be found in this blog post.
The biggest project undertaken during the reign of Louis XV was the construction of the Royal Opera House of Versailles from 1763-1770, under the direction of architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel. At the time it was the largest concert hall in Europe, and could hold nearly 1,500 spectators. In addition to its use as a theatre space, it could also be adapted for use as a ballroom and a hall for feasts thanks to a complex system of movable floors using winches and hoists (for more on the Royal Opera House, see this post).
Louis XV died of smallpox on May 10, 1774 after reigning for 59 years. He was predeceased by his wife Queen Maria in 1768 and his son Louis, Dauphin of France, in 1765. Louis XV would be succeeded by his grandson, Louis-Auguste (crowned Louis XVI), who was two months shy of his twentieth birthday.
Louis-Auguste was born on August 23, 1754. His mother was Maria-Josepha of Saxony, the second wife of Louis, the Dauphin of France. Louis-Auguste was the third child born of his father’s second marriage, but his elder sister and brother both died while they were young: Marie-Zéphyrine from an attack of convulsions at the age of 5; Louis-Joseph from tuberculosis at 9. Louis-Auguste would have two younger brothers and two younger sisters: Louis-Stanislas, the Count of Provence (later crowned Louis XVIII); Charles, the Count of Artois (later Charles X); Marie-Clotilde (later known as Clotilda, Queen of Sardinia); and Madame Élisabeth. Louis-Auguste was timid and studious as a child. Some of the subjects he enjoyed learning included Latin, Italian, English, history, geography, and astronomy. Louis-Auguste’s parents both died of tuberculosis at a young age: his father in 1765 (he was 36), and his mother in 1767 (she was 35).
For many years, Austria and France had been bitter enemies. However, European power dynamics shifted considerably in the middle of the 18th century7. One outcome of such a change in alliance was that, in 1770, Louis-Auguste was married to Maria-Antonia, the youngest daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and his wife, Empress Maria-Theresa. Maria-Antonia’s name was changed to Marie Antoinette in order to sound more French. The couple were married in the Royal Chapel at Versailles on May 16. Afterwards, they attended a feast in the Royal Opera House. Louis was 15 years of age and Marie was 14.
The Austrian Archduchess did not receive a warm welcome in France. For generations, the French had viewed Austria as their enemy and the new alliance between the two nations had resulted in France’s humiliating defeat by the English in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)8. The French public had soured on the French-Austrian alliance and the young Dauphine became the target of that ire. This established a pattern that would be repeated throughout the next 25 years of their marriage, in which Marie Antoinette would draw a lot of heat (and negative propaganda) for the monarchy’s wrongdoing. The relationship between Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was initially friendly but distant. Both of them were only in their mid-teens, and Louis XVI was very shy; their marriage remained unconsummated for seven years despite incredible pressure to produce a male heir. One of the issues was that there was a significant distance between the King and the Queen’s bedchambers, one that Louis XVI could scarcely bring himself to bridge because it was very public. Courtiers would spot him walking through the Œil de Boeuf antechamber and there they would point, laugh, and make comments that left him feeling very uncomfortable. In the summer of 1775, a secret staircase was built to connect the King’s and Queen’s chambers (remember this staircase, as it will later save the Queen’s life). The couple’s first child, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, was born in December 1778. Two boys were then born: Louis-Joseph-Xavier-François in 1781 and Louis-Charles in 1785. A fourth child, Sophie-Hélène-Béatrix, was born in 1786 but died one month shy of her first birthday.
Like his grandfather, Louis XVI had been born at Versailles. Unlike his grandfather, he spent most of his time there. He enjoyed long periods of solitary study within his private chambers, and any work he did at Versailles was dedicated to making these areas more comfortable for him and his family. In May 1774, two weeks after the death of Louis XV and their ascension to the throne, Louis XVI gifted the Petit Trianon to Marie Antoinette. She used the property as a very exclusive, private domain; even the King wasn’t allowed there without her permission. She made extensive changes to the interior of the small château and its grounds, including the construction of a rustic farm hamlet from 1783-1786 (read more about the Hameau de la Reine here). Neither Louis XVI or Marie Antoinette enjoyed living their lives as publicly as their predecessors. This did not sit well with the nobility, who were accustomed to the previous levels of access that had been established by Louis XIV and Louis XV. Their resentment began to fester, and would later contribute to the royal couple’s downfall.
In 1775, the American War of Independence broke out between Britain and the Thirteen Colonies. Louis XVI sent financial and military assistance to the Americans and, in 1778, France officially joined the war against the British. This conflict became global when Spain and the Netherlands later took part (also in opposition to Britain) and battles were fought throughout America, Europe, and India. On September 3, 1783, two of the three treaties of the Peace of Paris were signed at the Château de Versailles in the Hôtel des Affaires étrangères et de la Marine, officially ending the war. Britain accepted the independence of the Thirteen American colonies as part of these peace agreements. French assistance had been vital and decisive to this outcome, but it came at a high cost to France as its economy was nearly bankrupt. After accumulating over a billion livres in debt, the country was on the verge of financial collapse9.
Two weeks after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, Versailles hosted an event that was much lighter in tone (literally). On September 19, 1783 the Château was where the first hot-air balloon flight took place. Brothers Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier had begun experimenting with lighter-than-air flight in 1782. The brothers caught the attention of the Académie Royale des Sciences, who asked them to stage an experiment for Louis XVI. The demonstration used a balloon made of cotton canvas with paper glued onto both sides that measured 18.47 metres (60.6 feet) tall by 13.28 metres (43.57 feet) wide, and weighed 400 kg (882 pounds). The balloon was a sky-blue colour with gold decoration and interweaving letter L’s in honour of the king. On the day of the experiment Louis XVI, his family, and a crowd of curious onlookers gathered in the palace forecourt. At 1:00 pm, a cannon fired to announce the beginning of the demonstration. A sheep, a duck, and a rooster were guided into a wicker basket that was tied to the balloon by a rope. Eleven minutes later a second cannon fired, indicating the lift-off of the basket. The balloon soared 600 meters (1,968.5 feet) into the air. It traveled through the air for 8 minutes and 3.5 kms (2.17 miles) before slowly descending, due to a rip in the fabric, and landing in the woods nearby. Happily, the three animals survived their journey; it wasn’t entirely expected that they would. They were rewarded with a home in the Versailles Menagerie. The first manned hot-air balloon flights would later follow in October and November, but were not carried out at Versailles.
It is here, on the eve of the French Revolution, that I am going to pause in my summary of the history of the Château de Versailles. The events leading up to the French Revolution, and the role that the Château played in them, is deserving of a post of its own. Thank you for reading!
1 The Dauphin of France was the title given to the heir of the throne of France, equivalent to the English title of the Prince of Wales. Dauphin is French for dolphin. The name comes from the Count of Vienne, Guigues IV (?-1142), who had a dolphin on his coat of arms–thus earning him the nickname le dauphin. The name became part of his title, the Dauphin of Viennois, which was inherited by his successors. In 1349, the seigneury/lordship of Viennois was sold to King Philippe VI (1293-1350) on the condition that the heir apparent retain the title of Dauphin de Viennois. The Dauphin’s wife would be called a Dauphine. The title was used from 1350 to the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. It was taken up again during the reign of Charles X (during the Bourbon Restoration) from 1824-1830. Charles X’s son, Louis Antoine, Duke of Angoulême, was the last man to be styled as Dauphin. Interestingly, he was married to Marie Antoinette’s daughter, Marie-Thérèse, and the couple technically ruled France for 20 minutes in between the time Charles X signed his abdication and Louis Antoine was forced to do the same.
2 Why so many men named Louis? It was tradition for the Capetian royal dynasty to name the eldest son Louis, and the second son Philippe. The name Louis harkens back to the Germanic name Chlodwig. A leader by this name was the first King of the Franks to unite all the Frankish tribes under one leader, effectively changing the style of Frankish rule from that of several chieftains ruling over multiple groups to a single King ruling over one; his heirs would then inherit his title as King. (The Franks were a Germanic tribe). Chlodwig was Romanized into Clodovicus, and then Clovis; Clovis I (466-511, reigned 509-511) is the name most often used for this Frankish King. Clovis then evolved into Clouis and then, finally, Louis. You’ll notice that a lot of French men were also named Louis and French women Louise in an effort to flatter the King—similar to how there were so many Marys and Elizabeths in England.
3 The clock in the Marble Courtyard would display the time of Louis XIV’s death until 1775, at which point it changed to reflect the time of Louis XV’s passing. It remained at this time until the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.
4 The senior branch of the Bourbon family, of whom Louis XIV and Louis XV were a part, later ended when their descendant Charles X was forced to abdicate in 1830, and the Bourbon-Orléans branch would take its place in the succession. Charles X was the younger brother of Louis XVI and Louis XVIII; all three of them being grandsons of Louis XV (Louis XVI’s son with Marie Antoinette died of illness at the age of 10; he is unofficially titled as Louis XVII even though he was never crowned). Charles X was forced to abdicate in favour of his cousin, Louis-Philippe I, who was part of the Bourbon-Orléans branch of the family (and more inclined towards a constitutional monarchy than Charles X). So eventually the Bourbon-Orléans would have their day in the sun, even if it was denied at this point when Louis XV recovered from his illness. The branch is named after the Dukedom (Orléans) that their members frequently held.
5 Sadly, in July 1746 Maria-Teresa would die three days after delivering the couple’s first child, a girl named Marie-Thérèse. Maria-Teresa and Louis the Dauphin were very much in love, and Louis was devastated by her passing. He had to be physically dragged away from her deathbed by his father, Louis XV. He married his second wife, Maria-Josepha of Saxony, on February 9, 1747. In April 1748, the two year old Marie-Thérèse also died.
6 Interestingly, an exact replica of that lost staircase was later built (1878-1886), and can still be seen, at the Schloss Herrenchiemsee on the orders of King Ludwig II of Bavaria; the Herrenchiemsee itself is modelled after Versailles. Ludwig II idolized Louis XIV, the Sun King, and styled himself as “the Moon King” (amongst other titles including the “Mad King”—see my post on him for more information).
7 The War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) saw the major powers of Europe divided on whether Marie Antoinette’s mother, Maria-Theresa of Austria, had the right to succeed her father, Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, when he passed away in 1740 with no male heirs. The problem was that a woman (Maria-Theresa) could not hold the title of Holy Roman Empress and her husband, Francis, did not have enough land or rank on his own to make him eligible. Maria-Theresa had all of the qualifications except gender. Francis had the gender but none of the other qualifications. To solve this, in 1740 Maria-Theresa made Francis co-ruler (with her) of Austria and Bohemia. She then set about securing their joint claim to the Hapsburg Empire and fighting off other powers, such as Prussia and France, that were taking advantage of this political uncertainty to claim pieces of that empire for themselves. A lot of conflict and shifting of political alliances happened as a result. It’s way beyond the scope of this blog post to go into detail, but suffice it to say that Marie Antoinette’s mother was at the heart of it all. In 1745, Francis I became Holy Roman Emperor. While he may have had the title, Maria-Theresa was definitely the deciding voice in matters of state. Great Britain had been an ally of Austria, but failed to come through for Austria in the face of Prussian aggression. Austria realized it needed another ally to counter the Prussian threat, and so it turned to a country that had once been its enemy—France. France was eager to have Austria side with them against Great Britain. Et voilà! The First, Second, and Third Treaties of Versailles were signed between Louis XV and Maria-Theresa at the Château de Versailles in 1756, 1757, and 1758. In 1770, a marriage alliance was arranged between Louis-Auguste and Marie Antoinette to further secure their partnership.
8 The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) is considered by many historians to be the first global war. France and Austria were soundly defeated by the British and Prussians both in Europe and North America. As a consequence, France was forced to give up its colonial claims in Canada and the Indies to England. Not a popular political move.
9 The rate of inflation from 1783 to 2017 is an estimated 2,212.45%. So $100 in 1783 would be worth $2,2312.45 today. So 1 billion livres of debt would be around 23 billion livres of debt today ($23,124,528,301.89 to be precise). But how much would that debt, calculated in French livres, be worth in US dollars today? This is where things enter pure speculation. According to HistoricalStatistics.org, 1 French livre tournois (1663-1795) in 1783 could buy the same amount of consumer goods and services in Sweden as 0.14621893202721578 US dollars (1791-2015). So 1 US dollar is worth 6.849315068 French livres. 1 billion livres thus becomes 6,849,315,068 livres of debt. Adjusted for that inflation rate, the debt is $158,387,180,138 US dollars. This provides a very rough estimate of 158 billion US dollars in debt. Just for fun, I looked up what the US debt rate is at. According to NPR, as of February 2019 it is 22 trillion. In 2015, France’s national debt was estimated to be 2.51 trillion according to statista.com. But, of course, world finances are very different than they were in 1783. Being indebted is much more acceptable in today’s credit-centric world than it was in 1783.