Once Louis XIV had gotten Fouquet out of the way following the lavish party at his Chateau Vaux le Vicomte, Louis hired Fouquet's builders and artisans to build an even more grand palace.  Louis would not be 'first among equals', as some nobles saw him, but rather an absolute monarch with greater control over his realm.  Versailles, about 10 miles southwest of Paris, was home to a quaint hunting lodge.  Starting in 1664, construction began in stages of a massive palace complex, and from 1678 to 1682, Louis moved court there.  Far enough from Paris, the buildings of the big city were too far away to compete with the grandeur of Versailles.  The site itself was uninspiring - swampy in places - but perhaps this symbolized Louis' dominance over nature.  Versailles was home not only to the king but also to aristocrats, who were expected to stay there in the 'gilded cage'.  It was also the seat of government.  Having survived the Fronde, Louis wanted to keep the aristocracy near him and under surveillance - no threat to him.  The palace was designed to overawe visitors with royal power.  The grand stables could house 12,000 horses, and the palace was home to 1,000 nobles with 4,000 servants with another 4,000 living in town.  Although the gardens featured fountains, there was no running water in the palace, and noblemen were known to urinate in the stairwells.


Louis used many of the same men who had created the sculpture, gardens, and architecture of Vaux le Vicomte to make Versailles as impressive as possible.

Elaborate and rigid ceremony surrounded the king, and nobles competed to serve the king.  Going to bed and getting up in the morning were especially full of ceremony.  The king was never left unattended and even had helpers for his bodily functions - and for even wiping!  

The chateau is especially beautiful at sunrise, with the sun's reflection prominent.  This is likely not a coincidence.



The sun had been a royal symbol for many years, but Louis elevated its use to symbolize his greatness.  In the gardens, the fountain of Apollo shows the ancient Greek sun god pulling the sun from the ocean to begin the day. 


Formal gardens symbolized Louis' control of nature.  As failed harvests, famines, and disease showed, Louis' power over nature was quite limited.  In fact, due to these problems, the French population actually declined in Louis' reign.

Hall of Mirrors

The Hall of Mirrors was meant to glorify the king, with paintings of his achievements, especially in foreign policy.  In 1871, following France's defeat, the King of Prussia was declared Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors.  In 1919, the hall would see the signature of the treaty that ended the First World War - and perhaps caused the Second.

A number of other European monarchs modeled themselves on Louis and Versailles and adopted absolutism.  French culture came to dominate the continent, and the French language became the language of diplomacy and civilization.  The early days of the Chateau at Versailles, however, proved to be the peak of French power and royal power rather than the signal for its rise.  Louis loved war, but historians believe that France's expansion during Louis' reign could have been accomplished peacefully and at much less cost.  War was expensive, and debt mounted as Louis lost the War of Spanish Succession.  Versailles became less grand, and nobles began spending more time in Paris.  Louis died in 1715, leaving the throne to his grandson, now Louis XV, while the Duke of Orleans ruled as regent from Paris.  In 1722, court moved back to Versailles, now seen as dated and out of style.  Isolated in his own world of ritual, Louis XV did not change with the times.  The system that Louis XIV created required charisma - something that Louis XV did not have - and he came to spend less time at Versailles and with his nobles.  Costly wars continued - the War of Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, and the American War of Independence being the most prominent - with none of them being of much benefit to France, and the debts mounted.  Public opinion, something the Louis XIV never had to pay attention to, went against the monarchy, with criticism of the monarch's sex life being prominent.

Grand Trianon
Louis XIV had an additional palace built at the other end of the grand canal where he escaped the strict ritual that confined him and to be with his mistress, the Madame de Montespan.

In May 1774, Louis XV became ill at the Grand Trianon.  Taken to the Palace of Versailles, he died.  His grandson became Louis XVI.

Marie-Antoinette's Estate

Louis XVI was married to a member of the Austrian royal family, Marie-Antoinette.  France and Austria had been enemies for over a hundred years.  While Austria wanted a free hand to deal with Prussia, which had taken the province of Silesia, France wanted to focus more on its maritime enemy - Britain.  The marriage was useful to both countries, but public opinion turned against Marie-Antoinette in France.  To help escape the stress of court life, an Austrian style village had been built for her at Versailles.  Meanwhile, as a visiting Ben Franklin noted, the fountains were broken and the main palace was in decline.  Marie-Antoinette was accused of adultery and of being financially irresponsible.

In 1789, a march on Versailles forced the royal couple to move to Paris, and after they were captured trying to escape the country in 1792, they were put on trial by the people and executed.  

Louis XIV's absolutism repressed society and representative government - but only for a century.  France, with a weak history of representative government, would see violent revolution followed by an empire, and government instability continued into the 20th century, thanks, in part, to Louis' absolutism.  In the end, Enlightenment was victorious.

Copyright 2010-2015 by John Hamill

Back to John's Military History Tour of Europe