Springtime for Louis and Versailles

View of the park at Versailles
It is supposed to be about 900 metres
to the edge of the park from here.

There Were Other Seasons Too

Versailles:- Monday, 28. July 1997:- If I was only allowed one normal visit to Paris, I doubt that I would come out to Versailles. Palaces, even if they are the Sun King's, don't excite me.

Over the past several weeks, I have been doing features on Paris' 'Major!' attractions; revisiting them and having a good time doing it too. But normally, since these are easy to find and well-known, I try to take in sites which might not be quite so familiar.

For today though, it is Versailles' turn. It is also Monday and the 'Château' is closed, but the gardens are open and when I tramp up the cobblestones to the Cour Royale, I see there are a good number of other people taking the free Monday do-it-yourself tour of the extensive grounds and park.

Also for today, the sun is shining and the air is warm and the sky is almost all blue. With all the stone paving around, visitors should bring their own refreshment supply.

The Château - have I ever written that 'château' is a very flexible word in French? The President of the Republic lives at the Elysée Palace and the Republican Senat sits in the Luxembourg Palace - but Louis' place is merely a 'château.'

The place d'Armes and the Cour Royale are very stature of Louis XIV big spaces, but are really only the driveway and at one time there was probably valet-parking. It is this size of space which is so immediately impressive, but it is sort of the back-door, the delivery entrance.

Even on a Monday, Louids XIV has admirers.

When you go around to what you might think is the back, to the garden, and then look at the château, it looks quite a bit more modest: the three-story central part with the terrace is almost human in size - until you back up to the edge where the park starts. Then you see the two wings heading north and south and it looks really huge.

This is the top of a plateau, which slopes towards the entry; so there is less height here than what you see on the approach from the front.

The illusion - I think - is supposed to be, that it is a country château. From this west side, this is where you would be if you were one of Louis' pals.

That there were 20,000 of them partly explains the size of things. About 9,000 were military types and another 5,000 or so were servants; so that left Louis with just 7,000 close friends. Some lived here and the overflow lodged in the town of Versailles, just outside the gates.

A borrowed green 'Michelin' guide takes 15 and a half pages to describe the château and the park. If you want to know a lot of facts about Louis' place, I suggest getting a copy. I read the extra page and a half devoted to the town itself for an earlier feature, but I'm going to skip the château part.

There are two facts the guide does not contain. Why did Louis XIV build this palace at Versailles and where did he get the money to do it?

When he became king, officially, at the age of 22 in 1651, his father had been dead eight years. During this time France had been run by his mother, Anne of Austria - really Spanish, that is - and Louis' godfather, Cardinal Jules Mazarin; Richelieu's choice.

About Mazarin, the historian Pierre Goubert writes, "But it is true that his extreme flexibility, his bad French - he came from years of service in Rome - and his incredible greed... could put people off."

With these people running things, this is what Louis had waiting for him as he took the throne: a general war with allied Spain instead of with France's natural enemies, a treasonous semi-rebellion and near civil war known as the 'Fronde,' serious famine and devastating plague, peasant revolts and provincial uprisings, and a general populace which was very unhappy with over-high taxes.

The 'Fronde' was so bad that it is still mentioned with shudders. This one word sums up a three-way dispute between the throne, the nobility and the 'Parlement.' In 1648, Paris was filled with barricades. It was so bad on 3. January 1649, that Louis and his mother had to flee in the night to the safety of Saint-German-en-Laye. Some months later, Anne made a deal with the Prince of Condé to beseige Paris and its conspirators, who only increased their plotting.

Mazarin had Condé, his brother and brother-in-law arrested. The provinces controlled by the Condés immediately revolted. For two years Mazarin schemed and sent Anne and Louis around France on a 'political-bridge-building' tour. Then Mazarin made the mistake of releasing the Condé gang, and had to skip the country himself.

He tried to drive wedges between the Condés, but when Prince Condé inexcusably failed to show up for Louis' ascension to the throne in 1651, he was charged with outright treason which was Mazarin's goal. The last year of the Fronde saw invaders -probably the Spanish - at the gates of Paris, a civil war between Turenne and Condé, which lead to another siege of Paris; and there were the famine and the plague as usual.

The Parisians caved in and invited the King and his mother back, and even Mazarin got an invitation. He pardoned the former 'Fondeurs' and even gave them pots of money, as was the custom then.

Yet while all this nonsense was going on, Mazarin quietly arranged for France's signature to the Peace of Westfalia, which gained France most of Alsace. Spain gave up its war to retain the Low Countries and concentrated on beating up the French while the French fought each other.

Mazarin's appeal for help to Oliver Cromwell gives an idea of how wrong a side France was on. Young Louis even took part in one battle against the Spanish when he was 15. In 1658 France won the battle which the Spanish figured was enough One of many 'front' doors and the Peace of the Pyrenees was the result. France got Roussillon in the south and some towns in the Low Countries out of it. 'Spanish' Prince Condé even got an undeserved pardon.

This could have been a front door if there weren't 36 others.

Louis got a promise of Marie-Thérèse - of Spain - for a wife, and a dowry of a half-million écus to be given on condition they renounce the Spanish throne, and they did so. This dowry was never paid. Louis didn't forget it wasn't paid either.

On becoming king in deed as well as fact, Louis was a very tough customer. He didn't like or trust Parisians. He got the nobility under control. He rejected any form of even vague reform. He had only contempt for the 'Parlement.' And he closed down religious conflict from any direction for a decade.

Mazarin gets the credit for delivering a France in one piece and in peace with Europe to the new king - but this credit is seldom acknowledged. Mazarin also left Louis with a capable and devoted set of civil servants - whose sons followed them; and with Louis keeping his eye on affairs, kept them hardworking and fairly honest.

Louis main problem on taking full and absolute control was inheriting a tax-collection system prone to mismanagement, embezzlement and corruption.

As in Venise at the time, tax collection in France was put up for bid; the winner got to pay Louis the cash up front and recover it any way possible from the tax-payers. I think these collectors were called 'tax farmers,' but I have no doubt that the people who dealt with them called them something else.

I haven't got any answer to the question of why Louis chose to build up Versailles the way he did. He used to hunt in the area before he was king, so he knew it well. He didn't like Paris or the Parisians, but he already had ready-made châteaux at Saint-Germain, Fontainbleau and Rambouillet, which he acquired for one of his sons in 1706.

He did know what he wanted, and even when he was off fighting with neighboring countries, kept in close contact with his chief architects; Le Vau, Le Notre and Le Brun. Jules Hardouin-Mansart worked 30 years on its enlargements as well. He took the master craftsmen who had done Vaux-le-Vicomte, and had others kidnapped to work on it. There were 36,000 working on it in 1685.

How it was paid for is a mystery to me. Louis continued the long French tradition of centrally focusing all power in the country; he perfected the practice of it in fact.

He was the absolute monarch supreme. This was so extreme that it bemused neighboring 'absolute' monarchs; most of whom took a bit more care with maintaining useful relations with other countries.

Yet, Louis consistently made common cause with France's nominal stature by the Parterres d'Eau enemies and constantly waged war against countries disposed to be allied with France. To do this was very expensive, but Louis was so 'absolute' about it that from time to time he melted down his own gold table-settings in order to pay his armies and allies.

There are really a lot of statues to look at, closely.

This magnitude of expenditure leads historians to believe that France was an exceedingly rich country. Rich enough to support the building of Versailles, rich enough to support the sloth of countless nobles, and rich enough to fight useless wars endlessly.

In an age when most people did not live long lives, Louis died at 77 in 1715, despite the best efforts of four generations of near-quack medical practitioners. Despite Louis XIV's not inconsiderable talents, he left France in near ruin.

His great-grandson, Louis XV, picked up the ball at five and ran with it for 59 years. One of the first acts was to move the court to Paris.

Let me just say that the 'reason' for Versailles was simple: Louis wanted it. He didn't get everything he wanted - but he did get Versailles. Without being asked and regardless of how much it cost, the people of France paid a heavy price for it.

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