If I had the ability to travel back in time, I would visit Versailles in its heyday every single time. As with many of palaces and castles which sit just outside of Paris, Versailles began its life as a hunting lodge, used by the King of France to entertain themselves, their guests, and to just generally show off. The lodge still remains, with the ‘envelope’ of the palace being built around it.
The story of Versailles doesn’t really begin until 1661 when Louis XIV began to develop his father’s old hunting lodge in order to create the incredible palace we see today. The French court officially moved from the Louvre to Versailles in 1682, which was the first time the country’s nobles lived alongside the King. The Palace has 700 rooms altogether and can house 20,000 people at full capacity, which is roughly the population of the city of Ely in Cambridgeshire (for anyone familiar with UK geography).
Louis XIV was one of the most egotistical kings France has ever seen. He styled himself as the ‘Sun King’, making himself the centre of everyone’s world, and built the daily life of his courtiers for them, based entirely around himself. He implemented mundane routines that all the nobles had to follow, such as being present when he woke up in the morning. A few of the ‘lucky’ ones were even allowed to help him into his shirt.
The French nobles were so wrapped up in trying to earn favour with Louis that they had no time to revolt against him, thus creating relative peace within France throughout his 72 year reign. Louis liked to change court fashions from time to time as well. If you weren’t dressed in the latest attire, you were a nobody at Versailles. If you couldn’t afford it, you could borrow money from the King (probably with extortionate interest rates). It was, to paraphrase The Lion King, a circle of debt for many of Louis’ ‘guests’.
Not only was Versailles a place for Louis to reinforce himself as King of France, it was also a place that projected France onto the world stage. Colbert, Louis’ Finance Minister, thought that the Palace should showcase the best that France could offer. The vast majority of the decoration, furnishings, and other materials were made in France or had French origins. This brings me to an interesting anecdote. In the 17th century, Venice held the monopoly on the manufacture of mirrors, meaning they could not be made anywhere outside of Venice. To maintain his ‘Made in France’ ideals, Colbert persuaded a few Venetians to come to France and make the mirrors at the Royal Manufacturers. To protect their own interests, the Venetian Republic sent assassins to France to poison the mirror makers. Apparently. No matter what the story is behind these mirrors, they make the Hall of Mirrors a pretty epic room. Mirrors were hugely expensive to buy at the time, due to the monopoly, and so it would have been striking for visitors to see so many in one place. Thankfully, when Connie and I visited, we arrived before the Palace even opened, allowing us to get to the front of the queue and see the Hall of Mirrors in full splendour without a hoard of other tourists in the way.
The grandeur obviously doesn’t end with the Hall of Mirrors. Nearly every room in Versailles is decorated, much like Fontainebleau, including the chapel and even the anterooms to state apartments.
Of course, all these building costs stack up, and some reports say that building a modern-day Versailles from scratch would be £1.4 billion, and the 17th century Palace is said to be worth £41.95 billion! But when it comes down to it, every penny was entirely worth it. It is hard to find anywhere that demonstrates the immortality of kings quite like Versailles, and it is particularly apt in relation to Louis XIV’s final words: “Je m’en vais, mais l’État demeurera toujours.”, or ‘I depart, but the State shall always remain.’ Versailles will always be there, a testament to my favourite French king, representative of his absolute monarchical power and insane ego.