There are few palaces that can rival the Palace of Versailles in prestige. Located in Versailles, a suburb of Paris, this incredible château is renowned for its opulence and splendour.
Today, it is one of the most visited tourist attractions in all of France, and first on the list for visitors for among the various châteaux around Paris.
From the time of Sun King Louis XIV until the French Revolution in 1789, it was the home of the French monarchs, serving as a focal point for major cultural changes in France.
Built in the late 1600s, is very much a product of its time. When the château was built, Versailles was a country village; today, however, it is a wealthy suburb of Paris, some 20 kilometres (12 miles) southwest of the French capital. It would be the construction of the château that would completely transform the area.
This royal palace was built as a symbol of the power, wealth, and excess, without regard to the petit mains (meaning “little helpers” in French). While that classic architecture might be incredibly beautiful, it would be that disregard to excess that would bring on the downfall of the people who ruled over it.
These days, it is a world-famous French landmark and cultural center and a powerful symbol of French history, and the country as a whole. So let’s get to the incredible history and facts about the Palace of Versailles, shall we? Allons-y!
1. Hunting Lodge in the forest
It was actually the Sun King’s dad, Louis XIII, who bought the property at Versailles. At the time it was a hunting lodge, a couple of hours away from Paris by horse. At the age of 5, young Louis became King, with his mother Anne as Regent.
It was a tumultuous time known as the Fronde, with nobles at the time contesting Anne. At one point, the 12-year old Louis and his mother were held prisoner at Palais Royal in Paris (the palace next to the Louvre) until they conceded to the demands of the frondeurs.
This made Louis detest and distrust Paris. At 21, in 1661 young Louis reached his majority, and started to make a few decisions. Instead of the Louvre which was still a royal palace at the time, he immediately looked for a new power base. He settled on the family’s old hunting lodge: Versailles.
The location was far enough away from Paris that the nobles of the land would have to stay overnight at Versailles, rather than returning to their own homes in Paris.
Wanting to make a statement and establish himself as a strong monarch, Louis, with the help of his advisers in the Estates-General, embarked on one of the most complicated building projects in history.
2. Construction by Sun King Louis XIV
Construction began immediately on a grand scale, adding several wings, new apartments, and new buildings to house the royal court, its servants, and all their hangers-ons.
But Louis was not a kind taskmaster. Workers were expendable if it meant that he could expand bigger, higher, and faster. Thousands of workers died to build the palace as at the time, there was no such thing as workers’ rights.
Historians estimate that over 36,000 workers would work on the site for half a century, including diggers, pavers, masonry specialists, plasterers, sawyers, carpenters, plumbers, locksmiths, ironworkers, glaziers, etc.
The Sun King would also mobilize a military workforce, less expensive, which will be mainly responsible for ploughing and landscaping around the grounds.
The Palace imposed a very strict discipline on its workers. Both the quality of the work and the attendance of the workers were harshly judged, with prison sentences or corporal punishment for offenders. These difficult working conditions lead to numerous work accidents, sometimes fatal.
In addition, the lack of surrounding amenities added to the deplorable health conditions. Records show that the first cause of death at the Palace of Versailles amongst the workforce were undernourishment and disease.
Under these shoddy conditions, the old hunting lodge was transformed into the luxurious palace it is today.
3. Life at Versailles
Work continued at Versailles for several decades and the Royal court based at Versailles lived in the middle of a construction zone. At the time there was no running water, no private rooms even for the lords and ladies, and comfort at a minimal.
The place also stank, since bathing was not common. To get a good room, you were dependent on being in the Sun King’s good graces. Versailles was not a pleasant place to be.
There was a strict protocol in place as to how and when one could address the king. As was the case in those days, the closer you could get to the King’s Bedchamber was an indication of how important you were.
Watching the King perform his levée (waking up and getting dressed ceremony), or couchée (bedtime undressing ceremony), was the highlight of the day for nobles hoping to curry favor with the King.
Every hour of the King’s day would be precisely organized with all the trappings of formality around it. Dignitaries and diplomats would be greeted in the State apartments, while access to his private apartments was much more restrictive.
Dinner time was strictly observed, with the King surrounded by courtiers and valets to take part in the “Grand Couvert“. Nobility would be placed near the King, according to their importance and rank.
4. Etiquette Rules, Dress code, and Formality
Along with other restrictions, Louis XIV imposed a strict dress code, insisting on the finest materials. This meant that all the nobles of the land spent their money on outfits, bankrupting themselves, instead of being able to pay soldiers to cause trouble.
Louis’s plan was worked, and France became the capital of fashion, etiquette, and culture. The French love of art de la table and art de vivre all stem from the rules that were put in place at Versailles.
Louis XIV ruled France for 72 years, and in that time transformed Versailles and the country with it.
5. The Gardens, Fountains, and Grand Canal
The Sun King Louis XIV fell in love with the gardens at Chateau Vaux le Vicomte and hired the same engineer Andre le Notre to do the same at Versailles. Except bigger and better.
However, Versailles was one of the few châteaux in France that wasn’t located near a river.
For the King who wanted to do better than the Château de Vaux le Vicomte, artificial sources of water needed to be created. Le Notre designed a system of hydraulics and canals to bring running water to the Château from the Seine river that was not exactly nearby.
He built underground aqueducts to supply water for the Palace and to power the fountains with an elaborate system of pipes and faucets. Andre le Notre was so successful, he would go on to also do the gardens at Chateau de Fontainebleau and Chateau de Chantilly.
The Grand Canal designed by Le Notre is over 1 mile long, and you can even go boating on it. This engineering marvel still exists to this day and continues to power the elaborate fountains.
Around the palace is a series of gardens, created in a formal style called jardin à la française. Compared to the jardin à l’anglaise (English garden), the French formal garden emphasizes symmetry and grandeur to symbolize Louis XIV’s absolute power, even over nature.
With sculptures and elaborate garden hedge sets, in the center of it all is a pressurized set fountains capable of launching water high into the air was built to host light shows and a spectacle.
6. The Petit Trianon for a mistress
The Petit Trianon is a small château within the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. It was commissioned by Louis XV, the great grandson of the Sun King Louis XIV, for his mistress Madame de Pompadour.
When Madame de Pompadour died, he simply gave it over to her successor, Madame du Barry.
Louis XV would also start the construction of a palace theater, the Royal Opera of Versailles at the northernmost end of the palace, but construction was interrupted by several wars which emptied the royal treasury.
7. Building Facts and Figures
Designed by Louis Le Vau, the court architect, there are the two large wings you see today, joined by a central interior square and courtyard. Several buildings nearby were also constructed in the same style, to house ministries and members of the royal entourage.
Inside the palace, much of the artwork and decorations were designed by Charles Le Brun, a painter in the service to Louis XIV in 1647. He aimed for grand, ornate, and opulent as his employer wished.
The Château has 2,300 rooms spread over 63,154 m2. The Galerie des Glaces itself contains 357 mirrors. In 1789, there were 1252 chimneys although now only 352 are left. Not to mention 1944 windows looking out all around.
In the gardens there are 47 ponds are located in the domain, including 26 in the park of the castle and 21 in the domain of Trianon. And there are 155 statues over 27km (43 km) of garden paths.
8. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette’s reign
The Palace of Versailles was the capital of elegance by the time Austrian Marie-Antoinette married the Sun King’s great-great grandson Louis XVI, more than 200 years later.
The formality and etiquette rules of the Royal court had become so engrained and elaborate, that Marie-Antoinette took to escaping to the Petit Trianon to escape from the stifling condition in the main Château.
In addition, Marie Antoinette would construct the “Hameau de la Reine”. It was basically a small village with its own farmhouse and dairy mill with cows, hens and sheep. Of course it also came with a staff of hired “peasants” to take care of it all.
Louis XVI had planned even more renovations at the Palace of Versailles and even briefly moved the royal family to the Château de Saint-Cloud in 1784. However, construction did not begin because of financial difficulty and political crisis.
9. Royal downfall during the French Revolution
At the time, France was slowly going bankrupt. Louis XVI (16th) had expended a lot of money helping the American Revolutionaries fight their mutual arch-enemy, the British. He tried to impose even more taxes on the poor to raise money.
But for him, the distance from Paris which once was an advantage for the Château de Versailles, was now a drawback. Such extravagant opulence by him and Marie Antoinette was far from the lives of starving Parisians and raised their ire.
On 14 July 1789, the prison at Bastille fell and on 5 October 1789, the French people marched to Versailles. The Royal Family would be forced to return to Paris as prisoners. The King, Queen, and their children would never return to Versailles.
☞ READ MORE: Did Marie Antoinette really say “let them eat cake”?
10. Ransacking the Palace
Unlike other palaces that were destroyed during the revolution, the Palace of Versailles was merely ransacked. The valuables were transferred to the Louvre Museum, and other royal property was sold at auction, where foreign kings and lords snapped it up.
Today, you can see some of those pieces at Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle, and as far away as the Hermitage museum in Russia.
By the time Napoleon Bonaparte became Emperor in 1804, the palace was in bad shape. Napoleon made the Château de Fontainebleau his base instead, distancing himself from the excesses of the previous royal house.
When the monarchy was restored in 1830 following Napoleon’s downfall, the new King Louis-Philippe started to restore Versailles and turn it into a museum.
☞ READ MORE: French Revolutionary Calendar: When France tried to change time
11. During the Franco-Prussian War
Relief for the Château was short-lived. The Prussian army turned the Palace of Versailles into its headquarters during the Siege of Paris in 1870, and turned the Hall of Mirrors into a hospital.
When the war ended, the Government of France would build their Assemblée Nationale (House of Commons) in the building.
12. Famous Treaties signed at Versailles
Since its construction, Versailles has become a symbol of France and the location of many important events in world history:
- 1783 – The Treaties of Versailles where Britain conceded to France and Spain that the United States of America officially an independent nation. A separate treaty (the Peace of Paris) was signed with the United States.
- 1871 – Treaty of Versailles declaring the end of the Franco-Prussian War and the birth of a new Prussian Empire called Germany.
- 1919 – Treaty of Versailles declaring the end of World War I. France and her Western Allies insisted on the treaty at the site of the previous French humiliation: the Palace of Versailles. The punitive measures in this Treaty against Germany led to the rise of the far-right movement and Hitler.
- 1940 – Franco-German Armistice, where France surrendered to Nazi Germany. Hitler in turn, insisted on signing it at the Palace of Versailles in retaliation for the previous German humiliation at the end of World War I.
Thankfully the eye-for-an-eye cycle did not continue, and the surrender of Germany declaring the end of World War II was signed in Reims in France and not Versailles.
14. The Restoration
It was not until the 1920s that serious restoration works would begin on the Palace. Following his visit to France, American John Davison Rockefeller decided to finance the rehabilitation of the Palace of Versailles, donating $2.16 million, which would be around $30million today.
As WWII approached , the Inspector General of Fine Arts Pierre Ladoué took steps to protect the works. Major artwork and woodwork pieces were removed and sent to Sarthe in the Loire Valley. In addition, the access to the Hall of Mirrors was walled up . When the Germans arrive, the only personnel who are left with are the Chief Curator, his wife, and a disabled firefighter.
The Palace would more or less remain standing during the war, with most of its treasures safely ensconced away.
After the war, restoration would begin in earnest. These days the French government allocates an annual budget for continual restoration of the palace.
15. A Government building
The official residence of the President of France is the Palais de l’Elysée in Paris, not the Palace of Versailles.
Nonetheless, Versailles remains an official government building with the Congrés of Versailles still being held in the Salle de Congrès. During these occasions, the President of France addresses both houses of Parliament, the Assemblée Nationale (House of Commons) and the Sénat. This is similar to the Queen’s speech in the United Kingdom and the State of the Union in the United States.
In addition, the president of the Assemblée Nationale still has apartments for use at Versailles, along with his official apartments in Hôtel de Lassay in Paris.
16. Free Parks open to the public
Beyond the gardens is a large park covering over 800 hectares. As the land of this once Royal Park now belongs to the French République, access is free except during Musical Fountains Shows and Musical Gardens.
The Park is open every day of the year except during exceptional weather (snow, violent winds, etc).
You will find many a jogger and cyclist taking advantage of this wide open space in the center of the bustling city of Versailles that has now sprung up all around. In addition, the Coach Gallery that is nearby is also free to visitors. You can find more free museums in Paris here.
If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about the history of Paris. A bientôt!