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The History Behind the Château de Versailles: part 2, Louis XV-Louis XVI

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. 

Louis XV as a child. Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1715-1717. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

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.  

Portrait of Louis of France, known as the Grand Dauphin. Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1697. Louis XIV’s son, Louis XV’s grandfather. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Louis of France, Duke of Burgundy, known as the Petit Dauphin. Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1704. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

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). 

Louis XIV and his Family. Unknown artist, circa 1715-1720. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Louis XV’s cousin Philippe II, 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.

Portrait of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, Regent of France. Jean-Baptiste Santerre, 18th century. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

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. 

The Peterhof Palace in Russia. Image sourced from Pixabay.

Louis XV returned to Versailles on June 15, 1722. 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. The King’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, where he had been born and lived the early years of his life, and it was as if he was coming home. On October 25 in that same year, Louis XV was crowned King at the Cathedral of Reims. In February 1723, upon his thirteenth birthday, the regency was officially ended. Versailles was once more the seat of power in France.

Portrait of Louis XV of France. Maurice Quentin de la Tour, 1748. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Portrait of the Château de Versailles in 1722. Pierre-Deni Martin. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Louis XV’s first construction project at Versailles was to finish a room that had seen its progress 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 start work on repurposing the site of the fourth chapel into a drawing room. Work began on the room again in 1722, and the Hercules Salon was completed in 1736. The room is named after the painting that adorns its ceiling, the Apotheosis of Hercules, by François Le Moyne. Louis XV used the Hercules Salon as a ballroom.

The Hercules Salon. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles
Apotheosis of Hercules. François Le Moyne, 1731-1736. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.

Later in 1723, Louis XV became ill. Although he recovered, panic set in among his advisers that he may die 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, Philippe3. Marriage to a woman of child-bearing age was urgent. A list of possible brides for Louis XV was drawn up. Maria Leszczsynski, 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 and he refused to hear any criticism of her appearance, although many contemporaries claimed that she was plain-looking. From 1727-1737, Maria gave birth to ten children, of which seven would survive into adulthood; one of them being 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.

Portrait of Maria Leszczsynski. Alexis Simon Belle, 1726. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Louis XV remained faithful to his wife 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.

The Three Graces. Charles-André van Loo, 1765. Image sourced from Wikipedia. Traditionally, three of the Mailly-Nesle sisters were considered to have been the models for this painting. The website for the Chateau de Chenonceau, whose collection this painting belongs to, says that the women depicted are Pauline, Marie-Anne, and Louise.

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 Spain4. 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 with 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.”   

Masked Ball at Versailles Given by the King. Charles Nicolas Cochin, 1745. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.
Portrait of Madame de Pompadour. François Boucher, 1756. Image sourced from Wikipedia. I love this dress, and those shoes!

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.

The Château de Marly, located 7 kms northwest of Versailles. Pierre-Denis Martin, 1724. Image sourced from the offiicial website of the Château de Versailles.
Plan of Versailles in 1746. Abbot Delagrive, 1746. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

In 1752, Louis XV ordered the demolition of the Ambassador’s Staircase5 in order to create 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.

A scale model of the Ambassador’s Staircase. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.

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 Petit Trianon.
Portrait of Madame du Berry. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1782. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

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.

The elaborate ceiling decoration of the Royal Opera House. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.

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 XVI, King of France and Navarre, wearing his grand royal costume in 1779. Antoine-François Callet, 1789. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

 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).

Portrait of Louis-Auguste (right, the future Louis XVI) and Louis-Stanislas (left, the future Louis XVIII). François-Hubert Drouais, 1757. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

For many years, Austria and France had been bitter enemies. However, European power dynamics shifted considerably in the middle of the 18th century6. 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.

Portrait of Marie Antoinette in her wedding dress. Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1785-1789. The dress had been made prior to Marie’s arrival, and did not do up in the back as it was too small. Perhaps that’s why she’s wearing a long flowing blue train with gold fleur-de-lys, to cover that up!
Auditorium of the Opera, Versailles. Celebration of the Wedding of the Dauphin to Marie Antoinette in 1770. Jean-Michel Moreau, 1770. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

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)7. 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. The couple’s first child, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, was born in December 1778. Two boys were then born: Louis-Joseph-Xavier-François in 1781 (he would later die at the age of eight in 1789) and Louis-Charles in 1785. A fourth child, Sophie-Hélène-Béatrix, was born in 1786 but died one month shy of her first birthday.   

Marie Antoinette and her children. Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1787. The painting depicts Marie Antoinette with Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte leaning on her mother’s arm, Louis-Charles seated on her lap, and Louis-Joseph-Xavier-François pointing to an empty bassinet. When the painting was first commissioned, the bassinet was painted to hold infant Sophie-Hélène-Béatrix. Sadly, Sophie died while the painting was in progress. The bassinet was left empty to memorialize her.

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. 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.

Marie Antoinette of France walking with two of her children in the park of the Petit Trianon. Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller, 1785. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
A house from the Hameau de la Reine, Queen Marie Antoinette’s Farm Hamlet.

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 collapse8.

A painting of the American delegation at the Treaty of Paris. The British delegation refused to pose, and so the painting was never finished. Depicted (left to right): John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, William Temple Franklin. 1783-1784. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

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).  

Aerostatic experiment made at Versailles on September 19, 1783 in the presence of their majesties by the Montgolfier brothers. Lenoir, after 1783. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.
A model of the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon at the London Science Museum. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The causes of the French Revolution are numerous and complex. Discontent with both royal and religious authority had been building in France over the last few decades. Privilege, corruption, and disenfranchisement are the cornerstones of a feudal system, and France was increasingly due for an earthquake. New ways of thinking about society were percolating at this time. The Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual and philosophical movement, is often cited by French historians as spanning the years 1715-1789; these same years mark the beginning of Louis XV’s reign and the outbreak of the French Revolution. The Enlightenment centered on the importance of reason as the primary source of knowledge, and included ideals such as individual liberty, religious tolerance, constitutional government, and the separation of church and state. French military involvement in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and the American War of Independence (1775-1783) were ruinous to the country’s finances. Heavy taxation was then levied on a population that was already suffering from poor harvests, price inflation, and food shortages. A loaf of bread, the main food available to commoners, cost the same as half a common man’s annual salary. People were angry, starving, and desperate. Rumours of an aristocratic plot to “starve the poor” were rampant and readily believed. Louis XVI was a man in way over his head; he was more naturally inclined to be a scholar than a King, and completely unsuited to the political and social challenges of the time. 

A caricature of Louis XVI and his family at the moment of their arrest at Varennes on June 21, 1791. Louis XVI, “Le Gourmand”, is depicted as being a glutton—overindulging while the common people starve. But the cartoon suggests he is about to get his well-deserved comeuppance. French School, 18th century. Musee de la Ville de Paris, Musee Carnavalet. Image sourced from Galica.

The people of France kicked off the French Revolution on July 14, 1789 by storming the Bastille. In August, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was drafted. On October 1, Versailles welcomed soldiers of the Royal Flanders Regiment with a banquet held in the Royal Opera House; the troops had come from a town in northern France to strengthen the king’s royal bodyguard. The celebration got rowdier as the night went on and increasing amounts of wine were consumed, with some eyewitness accounts stating that the drunken soldiers stood atop tables and sang bawdy songs. Rumours circulated that these men threw tricolour cockades onto the ground, stomping and urinating on them, as a direct insult to the revolution. The press in Paris was aflame with indignation. Whether this was true or not, the banquet was surely in poor taste: many men and women in France were starving, unable to find a loaf of bread at any cost, while these royal soldiers were being heartily fed and entertained.

Tricolour cockades from the late 18th century. Image sourced from the official website of the Musée Carnavalet. A cockade is a knot of ribbons, a cloth rosette, or other oval-shaped item consisting of distinctive colours that is usually worn on a hat. Coloured cockades were worn in the 18th and 19th centuries to show allegiance to a political faction or a person’s rank. The tricolour cockade was a symbol of the French Revolution.

On the morning of October 5, a group of women at a market in the Fauborg Saint-Antoine district in Paris began to unite in their fury over the continued scarcity and high price of bread. Someone started banging a marching drum, and the women urged a nearby church to start ringing its bells. More women from other markets joined the group, and other churches added their bells to the growing storm. The women marched on the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) where they were joined by other agitators, including men. The crowd swelled until it numbered around 6,000-7,000 people, perhaps even up to 10,000. They demanded bread and weapons, which were supplied. But at this point, a one-time offer of food was no longer enough. The women wanted assurance that it would be made continually available and affordable. Stanislas-Marie Maillard, a National Guardsman who had also been the first revolutionary to break into the Bastille, joined the group. He was a popular revolutionary figure, so when he grabbed a drum and cried out, “à Versailles!” (to Versailles!), the people were eager to follow his lead. The Women’s March on Versailles had begun. 

March of the poissardes, or market women, to Versailles on 5th October 1789 during the French Revolution, to demand justice and bread. From Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, published 1861.
Women’s March on Versailles, 5-6 October 1789. Unknown artist, 1789. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

As this first group of demonstrators began to depart the Hôtel de Ville for Versailles, a new one began to assemble in their place. Thousands of National Guardsmen, members of a French military and police reserve force, had come there after hearing the news of a gathering mutinous crowd. They may have gone there to try and contain the mob but, upon arrival, were drawn in by the agitators. The guardsmen were made up mainly of working and lower-class citizens and were largely in favour of the march. Their commander, the Marquise de Lafayette9, was surprised (and probably terrified) to find that they were on the verge of mutiny. As the tide of guardsmen turned toward Versailles they ordered Lafayette to either lead, get out of the way, or be killed. Rather than leaving them to their own devices, Lafayette reluctantly took his place at the head of the 15,000 men as they left Paris around 4:00 pm. He sent a rider to run ahead to Versailles and sound the alarm. He hoped that along the way he would find a way to protect the King and maintain public order.

Portrait of Gilbert du Motier, the Marquise de Lafayette, as a Lieutenant General in 1791. Joseph-Désiré Court, commissioned by the Historical Museum of Versailles in 1834. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

There had been numerous calls over the preceding months for a mass demonstration at the King’s primary residence, and now it was finally happening. It took six hours for the first group of agitators to march the 21 kms (13 miles) to Versailles in the hard autumn rain. They were armed with kitchen knives, pitchforks, scythes, cannons, muskets, and other makeshift weapons. When the women had first united that morning in the market, hunger and despair had been their motivation. As they were joined by more people with varying agendas, their demands grew in number and ambiguity. During the march they cheered the idea of dragging the King (whom they called “the baker”) back to Paris and then killing the Queen (“the baker’s wife”). It was reasoned that the King would be more accountable to the people if he was in Paris. As the demonstrators neared Versailles, they were met by Members of the National Constituent Assembly, who invited Maillard into their hall at the Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs10. The marchers piled into the hall behind Maillard and sat on the members’ benches. They were wet, tired, and hungry. The outnumbered and unguarded assembly members had no choice but to admit them. Maximilien Robespierre, a member who was still largely unknown at the time, welcomed the crowd warmly. His efforts helped soften the group’s hostility (and contributed to his later popularity).

Map of Versailles in 1789. The Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs is located at the bottom right, along the Avenue de Paris, at number 7-10. William Robert Shepherd, 1911. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
The opening of the Estates General at Versailles in the Salle des Menus Plaisirs. Isidore-Stanislaus Helman (1743-1806) and Charles Monnet (1732-1808). Image sourced from Wikipedia. This was the same hall used by the National Constituent Assembly that the women rested in after finishing their march from Paris to Versailles.

A group of six women were nominated by the crowd to go in to the Château and speak with Louis XVI. At this point, their demands had refocused on the supply of food. The King managed to charm the women, and arrangements were made to provide them with bread from the royal stores with a promise that more would follow. With this, Maillard and a small section of the market women were satisfied and returned to Paris. 

Louis XVI receives Parisian women in Versailles. Unknown artist, 18th century. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.

However, most of the marchers remained behind in Versailles to continue their protest. They spilled out onto the grounds surrounding the Château. Louis XVI addressed the crowd at 6:00 pm and even made some political concessions, such as announcing that he would accept the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen without qualification (a decision he had been wavering on). Still, the crowd did not disperse. Later in the evening, Lafayette arrived with his contingent of National Guardsmen. He immediately went inside the Château to see Louis XVI where he announced, “I have come to die at the feet of your Majesty.” The men he had left outside called him a traitor, and allied themselves with the members from the first group of marchers who had remained at Versailles. By the morning of October 6, the hostility of this combined group had reached a fever pitch. At 6:00 am, they forced open the gate to the Prince’s Courtyard and charged into the Royal Courtyard, and then into the residence. Chaos erupted as they stormed through the halls, looking for the Queen’s Bedchamber. They swarmed and beat any member of the Royal Guard who got in their way, killing at least two and placing their heads on pikes. Marie Antoinette and her ladies escaped her room through a secret door and passage, running barefoot to the King’s Bedchamber. They pounded on his locked door, unheard for long moments above the screams and gunfire before they were finally admitted, barely escaping in time.

The Queen’s Bedchamber. On the left, you can just barely see the outline of a door. This is the one through which the Queen and her ladies escaped as the rioters stormed through the Château looking for her. Image sourced from the official Château de Versailles website.
A slightly melodramatic cartoon depicting “The Terrible Night of 5-6 October 1789: who brought disaster on this most frigid night? Who is its carnage?” Unknown artist, 1789-1792. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles. Marie Antoinette is shown fleeing someone with a sword. Lafayette is shown in the front amidst a group of armed women.

Lafayette was eventually able to defuse the situation by mediating between the National Guardsmen and members of the Royal Guard. The fighting ceased and the residence was cleared of agitators. However, an angry mob remained outside. They demanded that Louis XVI return with them to Paris. Lafayette convinced Louis XVI to address the crowd from a balcony. As Louis XVI stepped outside, uncertain as to what was about to happen, the crowd unexpectedly cried out: “Vive le Roi!” (Long live the King!”). Surprised and relieved by this change in mood, Louis XVI announced, “My Friends: I shall go with you to Paris, with my wife and children. It is to my good and faithful subjects that I confide all that is most precious to me.” The demonstrators then demanded a similar appearance by Marie Antoinette. At first, the Queen came out onto the balcony with her young daughter and son. But the mob, still armed with muskets, commanded her to send the children back inside. Several of the guns were pointed directly at her. From the very beginning of the march, people had rejoiced at the idea of murdering the Queen. Their attitude towards her had been more hostile than the one they had regarding the King. They had broken into the Château that very morning and chased after her through the hallways, beating and killing others along the way. Ordering her to dismiss her children and face them alone was fearfully ominous. It seemed like the blood-thirsty crowd would finally get what they had come for: regicide. Marie bravely faced the crowd with her arms crossed over her chest. And then cheers of “Vive La Reine!” (Long live the Queen!) broke out through the audience. Lafayette knelt before her and kissed her hand, a display that further delighted the crowd. It was a moment that had danced delicately across a razor’s edge. The royal couple had been met with positivity and celebration rather than bloodshed and mutiny. Several heads had already ended up on pikes; theirs could have very easily followed suit. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were undoubtedly relieved to come away from that balcony alive, but they were no longer free. The crowd may have cheered for them, but their directive was still clear: the royal family was going to Paris.

Lafayette kisses Marie Antoinette’s hand on the balcony at Versailles. Unknown artist, 18th century. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

At 1:25 pm on October 6, the royal family began their trip back to Paris, escorted by a crowd that now numbered around 60,000 people. Louis XVI left the Château in the care of his Minister of War, La Tour de Pin, with the words, “try and save my poor Versailles!” He had hoped to return, but his departure would prove final. Versailles would never again serve as a royal residence. The journey to Paris took nine hours with the National Guard leading the way. Loaves of bread were paraded on the points of bayonets alongside pikes with the decapitated heads of members of the Royal Guard. Celebratory gunshots were fired over the royal carriage into the sky. The King and the French people knew fully who was now in charge of whom. Louis XVI and his family were taken to the Tuileries Palace and, ever the scholar, he asked for a book to be brought to him from the library: it was a history of Charles I, the deposed King of England.  

Departure of the King. Unknown artist, 18th century. Image sourced from the official website of the Château de Versailles.

Two weeks later, the members of the National Constituent Assembly followed Louis XVI to Paris. They set up shop at a former riding school, the Salle du Mènage, close to the Tuileries Palace. Louis XVI and his family remained at the Tuileries for the next three years, effectively prisoners, as the country tried to work out a plan for governance. Versailles was closed in their absence and left in the caretaking of the township of Versailles. The Tuileries had not been occupied since the time of Louis XIV and was a considerable downgrade from their previous residence. A year after his forced relocation in October 1790, Louis XVI wrote a letter in which he asked for the furniture in Versailles be moved to the Tuileries—an attempt to make their confinement more comfortable. However, the mayor and municipal council of the town of Versailles politely resisted the request, saying that such a move would result in the town’s financial ruin. Louis XVI rescinded the order. 

Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the Dauphin walk in the Tuileries Garden. Desraise Claude-Louis, 1790-1791. Image sourced from the official website of the Louvre.

During the night of June 20-21, 1791 Louis XVI and his family fled their captivity in Paris, but were caught and arrested a short while later in the small town of Varennes. This escape attempt turned public opinion against Louis XVI even further, and talk shifted from the possibility of establishing a constitutional monarchy to abolishing it outright. Further, the National Constituent Assembly declared that with this flight attempt the royal family had effectively abandoned all of their possessions. The King and Queen’s standing quickly deteriorated from there. During the Insurrection of August 10, 1792 the Tuileries Palace was stormed by the National Guard (for more information on this, see my post on the Arc de Triomphe). Louis XVI and his family fled the palace and sought refuge with the National Assembly. On August 13, they were imprisoned in the Temple Tower. On September 21, 1792, the monarchy was abolished. Louis XVI and Marie were stripped of their royal titles and referred to as Citoyen and Citoyenne Capet. On October 20, the interior minister of France proposed that all of the furnishings in the Château and its related residences (the Grand Trianon, etc.) be sold. Louis XVI was separated from his family in December 1792 and put on trial. On January 15, he was found guilty of treason and condemned to death by a majority of one vote. On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was beheaded by guillotine at the age of 38.

Execution of Louis XVI in the Place de la Révolution. Isidore Stanislas Helman, 1794. Image sourced from Wikipedia. The empty pedestal on the right side of the painting had previously exhibited an equestrian statue of his predecessor and grandfather, Louis XV.

On April 6, the Committee of Public Safety became the de-facto government of France as the Reign of Terror kicked into full gear. Marie’s son, Louis-Charles, was taken away from her on July 3. He was placed in the care of Antoine Simon, a cobbler who was tasked with turning him against his mother and into a “proper republican citizen”; Louis-Charles would later die of illness on June 8, 1795. Marie Antoinette was put on trial by the Revolutionary Tribunal on October 14, 1793. Her verdict was effectively a foregone conclusion: she was found guilty of treason, depletion of the national treasury, and conspiracy against the security of the state. On October 16, at the age of 37, Marie Antoinette was executed by guillotine. Her daughter, Marie Thérèse, remained imprisoned and was not informed of the death of her mother or brother until late August 1795. She was finally released on the eve of her seventeenth birthday on December 18, 1795, in exchange for six prominent French prisoners. She was taken to Vienna where her cousin, Francis II, was ruling as the Holy Roman Emperor.

Marie Antoinette’s Execution on October 16, 1793. Sanson, the executioner, shows Marie’s head to the people. Anonymous artist, 1793. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

I’m going to pause my recap of the history of the Château de Versailles at this point, with the death of two of its most famous inhabitants. I’ll return soon with a third and final post on the history of Versailles, in which I’ll discuss what happened to it after the French Revolution. 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 1791. 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 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.   

4 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. 

  5 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 (Mad) 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—see my post on him for more information).     

The Schloss Herrenchiemsee in southern Bavaria, Germany. Image sourced from Pixabay. 
The Grand Staircase of the Schloss Herrenchiemsee, taken while standing in the middle of the staircase and looking to the side. Image sourced from the official website of the Schloss Herrenchiemsee. 

 6 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 Three 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. 

7 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. 

8 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. 

9 The Marquis de Lafayette, Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette (1757-1834), distinguished himself as a war hero during the American War of Independence, commanding the American troops in several battles. He was a close friend of George Washington. He returned to France in 1787 and was appointed to the Assembly of Notables in 1787, then elected to the Estates General of 1789, and helped form the National Constitutent Assembly. He helped to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen with Thomas Jefferson, inspired by the American Declaration of Independence. He was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the National Guard after the storming of the Bastille in July 1789, and tried to steer a middle course during the time of the Revolution. He fled France in August 1792, when radicals demanded his arrest. He returned to France in 1791. He later declined an offer to become dictator of France during the July Revolution of 1830, and supported Louis-Philippe I instead.  

10 The Menus-Plaisirs du Roi was a department of the French royal household that looked after the “lesser pleasures of the King.” It was in charge of the preparations for all ceremonies, events, and festivities, down to every last detail. During the reign of Louis XV the Hôtel des Menus-Plaisirs was built in the town of Versailles, near the Chȃteau, to house the activities of this department. A provisional space was set up in this building to accommodate the Assembly of Notables in 1787 and 1788. In 1789, one of the courtyards was used to create the Salle des États, to house the Estates-General (the First Estate of the clergy, the Second Estate of the nobility, and the Third Estate of the commoners). The Salle des États is where the women marching on Versailles met with members of the National Constituent Assembly. The Hôtel des Menus-Plaisirs still stands, and is now home to the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles

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