Sunday, 12 February 2012
Louis XIV...Vision of a King
He was a trend setter (of sorts and to a much lesser degree than his many mistresses), a lover of all things decadent and a one hell of a big spender. King Louis XIV was responsible for, perhaps, the most beautiful and splendid of all the buildings in France; the palace at Versailles.
Louis reigned for an amazing period of 72 years, overseeing French successes and failures and left behind one hell of a legacy (arguably an unsustainable one contributing to the French Revolution).
During his reign, Louis was a bit of a war monger-he expanded both the army and the navy and fought wars against the Dutch, the Spanish and the Holy Roman Empire. In his early reign Louis was a very successful and adept monarch. He managed to placate the nobility that had taken part in the Fronde rebellion during his infancy by compelling them to re-locate and live in his palace at Versailles. This meant that Louis could keep an eye on his nobility and it prevented them from going back to their country estates and raising armies against the King, if they had reason to. It also meant that Versailles had to have major extension work done to make it larger to accommodate all the nobility and make sure that everyone had what their status entitled them to. For many years Versailles was a construction site, with around 40,000 workers at the peak of building work (on the 'envelope'). Due to the large volume of people working at Versailles and the lack of toilet facilities it has been said that the workers alleviated themselves wherever they were! However, because the nobility were so close in proximity to the King and were entertained so well, there was less chance of another Fronde like rebellion happening, as Louis used life at Versailles to keep control of his nobility and keep them happy.
Louis made Versailles the absolute place to be and when he decided to centrally locate his entire government there it was the only place to be. Versailles became a tremendously spectacular court from where Louis ran France and kept the nobility busy. Everyone who was anyone in France was at Versailles to enjoy lavish feasts, balls, open-air theatre, ballets and firework displays-to not be included was devastating for a nobleman. However, Versailles became a gossip hotbed-no one could do anything without it going around the entire palace and so, in this sense, Versailles was a very claustrophobic place to be (and one of the reasons why Marie Antoinette hated it when she lived there as dauphine and Queen of France). Louis made the monarchy in France popular and fashionable and, above all else, powerful. The nobility would adopt deferential poses when near him and compete with each other to be the first to congratulate him or compliment him on his latest improvement to Versailles. There is one famous exchange that perhaps best sums up the kind of power Louis had over those around him at Versailles. When Louis asked one of his courtiers when his wife's baby was due the courtier responded by saying 'when your Majesty wishes it to be born'. Louis was also responsible for many of the rituals that took place at Versailles that lasted until the French Revolution. In the mornings his entourage would help Louis dress and depending on what position you held or how far up or down you were in the Royal Family depended on which item of clothing you put on the King. In the evenings his entourage would also be responsible for undressing Louis. Louis very much put himself on display for his nobles and this even extended to his mealtimes where a crowd of nobles and relatives would watch his every move and hoped in earnest to be spoken to, looked at or even requested to hand the King something-a huge honour (again, these were the things that Marie Antoinette hated about life at Versailles, which may explain why she spent a lot of her time at Petit Trianon).
Louis was a trend setter at court too-as a short man he favoured a heeled shoe, which all noblemen adopted as their shoe of choice also. Once the King's hair started to recede he began wearing long and elaborate wigs to hide his disappearing hair line-the noblemen also adopted this fashion too. The King's mistresses were also trend setters at court. If you were in the most fortunate position of being the maitresse en titre to the King you were virtually a celebrity and the women of the court would be keen to copy her in every way. Madame de Montespan was one such trend setting mistress-she invented her own bodice and trousers ensemble that court ladies quickly followed suit with.
Later in life Louis became less and less interested in improving Versailles and started to lose his star appeal and just became quite sick and tired of the frivolities of his life. Louis became more and more disenchanted with the once beautiful Madame de Montespan and instead began showing affection towards Madame de Maintenon; the pious nanny to the King's many children. The pair married secretly in a morganatic ceremony (due to Maintenon's social status) in 1685. With his marriage to Madame de Maintenon Louis himself began to become more and more pious and Maintenon became very important to Louis in terms of his religious salvation (Louis began to become gravely concerned about his relationship with Madame de Montespan as she was a married woman and adultery with an unmarried woman was one thing but double adultery was sacrilege). Perhaps the King's apparent final words to his heir are quite telling of the mood Louis ended his life in-Louis said 'Do not follow the bad example which I have set you; I have often undertaken war too lightly and have sustained it for vanity. Do not imitate me, but be a peaceful prince...' After enjoying his life to the full and after creating such a wondrous place like Versailles, Louis still ended his full life as an unhappy man that had made mistakes he couldn't change.