Versailles was the royal residence and center of political power in France for little more than a century, from 1682 until the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. Now a world-class museum, this palace is famous not only as a building, but also as a symbol of the absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime.
Before 1038 in the Charter of the Saint-Père de Chartres Abbey, Hugues de Versailles was listed as the seigneur of the insignificant village of Versailles, whose small castle and church lay on the road from Paris to Dreux and Normandy. The population of the village declined sharply after an outbreak of the Plague and the Hundred Years’ War, but in 1575 a Florentine citizen, Albert de Gondi, purchased the seigneury, and he invited the future Louis XIII on several hunting trips in area.
|Versailles on a 1652 map by_Gomboust|
The young dauphin was delighted with the forest and meadows that surrounded the village and the abundance of game he found there. The location was ideally situated between his principle residence at Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Paris, and after he was crowned king, he hunted there again several times, finally ordering the construction of a stone and brick hunting lodge in 1624. Eight years later, he obtained the seigneury of Versailles from the Gondi family and began to make enlargements to the lodge.
The king and his successors, Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI each renovated and enlarged the structure during their reigns, creating extensive gardens and adding numerous other buildings to the site until it became one of the most costly and extravagant palaces in the world. More than 36,000 workers were involved in construction, and when the building was completed it could accommodate up to 5,000 people, including servants. An additional 14,000 servants and soldiers were quartered in annexes and in the nearby town.
The short video below is a cool 3-D presentation showing the progression of the chateau’s enlargement and the development of the gardens and additional buildings. In all, about 37,000 acres of land were cleared to make room for tree-lined terraces, walkways, and thousands of flowering plants, with 1,400 fountains and 400 pieces of sculpture.
Versailles is most associated with the Sun King, Louis XIV, who personally took on the role of architect. He made the chateau the new center for the royal court in 1682, establishing all the power of France there: government offices and the homes of thousands of courtiers, their retinues, and all the functionaries of court. The nobles of a certain rank and position were required to spend considerable time there, which enabled Louis to solidify his control of the government by preventing them from developing their own regional powers that would compete with his. Thus the French government became an absolute monarchy.
Below is a longer and very interesting video documentary about the history and development of Versailles.
In Refiner’s Fire, Jonathan Carleton’s uncle le Comte de Caledonne brings Elizabeth Howard to France to keep her safe from British assassination attempts. While there she meets the American commissioners to Paris, among others, and is drawn into the intrigues at court.
In my next post, we'll take a look at what life was like at Versailles during the mid 18th century.
What attracts me to Versailles the most is those fabulous gardens and the works of art housed there. What fascinates or attracts you the most about this palace turned museum?