In the early morning hours of October 6, 1789, hundreds of starving and defiant women and men (some disguised as women) from Paris stormed the Palace of Versailles, the legendaryly extravagant seat of government in France. They tore through the golden halls, beating and decapitating the palace guards, displaying a gruesome head on a pike.
Crowds made their way through marbled hallways adorned with artwork celebrating the Bourbon dynasty, toward the private apartment of half-clad Queen Marie Antoinette, as a bloodied guard ran past to warn the monarch of the impending flood. The queen escaped to the apartments of King Louis XVI, before the Marquis de Lafayette came to calm the crowds. Later that day, the couple and their children were forced to travel to Paris to settle in the Tuileries Palace.
Louis XIV builds decadence at Versailles
In the vacant palace, the citizens of France swarmed, finally able to see for themselves the excessive luxury of Versailles. They passed through the echo of the Hall of Mirrors, never again to be honored by the King’s heavy footsteps or the Queen’s soft crackle.
It had not always been so. For many decades, the magnificence of Versailles has been a source of pride for the French. “A Parisian bourgeois says very seriously to an Englishman: ‘Who is your king? He is badly housed: to be pitied, indeed”, writes the writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier. ‘Look at ours. He lives in Versailles.
Versailles was considered a glorious symbol of the absolute monarch, the god-ordained French royal family, and the state itself. But long before the French Revolution, some warned that the grandeur and excesses of Versailles were actually terrible for public relations. “A generation earlier,” writes Tony Spawforth in Versailles: biography of a castle“the Marquis d’Argenson believed that the palace had marked the arrival on French soil of the ‘Oriental royal extravagance’.”
It is not surprising that Louis XIV (1638-1715), nicknamed the “Sun King” and the “the most vain man of all timewas the king responsible for transforming what had once been a small royal hunting lodge into the most extravagant court Europe had ever seen. Entrusting the master architects, designers and craftsmen of Europe with what he called his “glory”, he spent an enormous sum of taxpayers’ money on Versailles and its more than 2,000 rooms, elaborate gardens, fountains, zoo private, its Roman-style baths (to frolic with your mistress) and new elevators.
The Hall of Mirrors
At a time when most of his subjects were living bleak lives in little more than wooden or stone hovels, Louis was paying for the Hall of Mirrors, whose Baroque splendor still dazzles today. As Francis Loring Payne describes the 240-foot-long hall in The history of Versailles“Seventeen tall windows are matched by as many framed Venetian mirrors. Between each window and each mirror are pilasters designed by Coyzevox, Tubi and Caffieri, reigning masters of their time… The walls are made of marble adorned with gilded bronze trophies; large niches contain antique statues.
On May 6, 1682, Louis officially moved his court – including his government ministers, official family, mistresses and illegitimate children – to Versailles. He also demanded that nobles and lesser members of the royal family be present at Versailles and live in the small apartments assigned to them. This move was designed to neutralize the power of the nobles. This he did, but it also created a hotbed of boredom and extravagance, with hundreds of aristocrats huddled together, many of whom have nothing to do but gossip, spend money money and play.
Royal Amusements broke the bank
From the start, everything was exaggerated at Versailles. The elaborate dress required for the court nearly broke many noble families, as they also had to purchase large quantities of French goods to support various industries. Entertainment – whether concerts, multi-course banquets, balls or parades – filled the calendar. Plays and pageants were favorites of the royal household, and a huge amount of money was spent on everything from costumes to scenery.
“Who would have thought, Sir, that a stage set that shone with so much order, industry and innovation could have been created in less than a fortnight, to last perhaps one day?” Father de Montigny wrote.
Gambling was also a favorite pastime during the reign of the Three Kings to rule Versailles. According to Payne, “Sometimes the losses of the players at the tables were enormous; again, the nobles counted their winnings in the hundreds of thousands. Payne recalls a game where the king’s granddaughter, the Duchess of Burgundy, lost a sum equivalent to 600,000 francs, which her adored grandfather paid.
While most of France lived in poverty, fortunes were made and lost at Versailles every night. Corruption was common, as were bribery and embezzlement. The royal stables were often the target of corruption, Spawforth writes. In 1775, a nobleman was accused of having taken 120 horses from the king for his personal use.
By the time the Sun King is great grandson, Louis XV, ascended the throne in 1715, public opinion began to turn against the crown and against Versailles. By the time her grandson Louis XVI was crowned in 1774, Versailles had acquired a sordid reputation which was further degraded by the loves and mistresses of Louis XV.
The French Revolution aims at Versailles
In the 1780s, as the economy collapsed, Versailles became the symbol of the crown’s disinterest in its subjects. Protests became frequent, and pamphlets describing the royal family’s debauched gambling, sexual liaisons and gratuitous spending at Versailles appeared across the country. As 2,000 starving workers demonstrated outside Versailles in 1786, courtiers were said to be enjoying a lavish ball, dance with the “the greatest joy”.
For many French people, the Austrian-born queen, Marie Antoinette, became a hated symbol of all that was wrong with Versailles. “His budget overruns on an annual clothing allowance of approximately $3.6 million in current expenditures were, in some years, more than double,” writes Laurence Benaim in Fashion and Versailles. “Sometimes the king would make up the difference, and sometimes the queen would make a propitiatory gesture of economy – she once refused a set of jewelry on the grounds that the navy might use a new battleship.”
Then there was the bad optics of the epic “rustic” Petite Trianon, the Queen’s getaway to Versailles and the fake country village she built there for her amusement. “At one end of the lake a hamlet has been created, with a picture-mill and dairy, fitted with marble tables and rare porcelain creamers”, Payne writing.
As the revolution approached, rumors of Versailles extravagance and excess reached an all-time high. And so, it’s no surprise that when the revolution finally came, Versailles was one of the first places attacked.
Versailles, explains Spawforth, had become “the symbol and working center of a political and social system which many French people now considered anachronistic and corrupt”.