The Glories of France | The History of the Palace of Versailles

When a Frenchman reads of the Garden of Eden, I do not doubt but he concludes it was something approaching to that of Versailles.

— Horace Walpole, 1736 —

When traveling through of the bustling metropolis of Paris, one passes the great monuments of the City of Lights: the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Bois de Boulogne, and many more. As one leaves the city and journeys west, crossing over the Seine River and passing through the villages and towns which surround the French capital, one arrives in the city of Versailles. Once a small, insignificant mark on a map, Versailles became the centerpiece of French political and cultural life in the 1660s when the “Sun King” Louis XIV enlarged his father’s small hunting chateau into one of the largest royal residences in the world. Standing at the Palace of Versailles’ front entrance, surrounded by tourists as the sun set behind the magnificent building on a summer’s evening in 2010 with my tour group, I was struck by the beauty of this place and the history contained in its many halls.

The Creation of the Palace

Since the Middle Ages, France had struggled to maintain a balance between royal authority and the rights of both nobles and peasants (represented by local parlements). The kings of France, believing they had been chosen by God to rule with absolute authority, increasingly violated the liberties of their subjects, and by 1648 the situation had grown desperate. In that year, a revolution broke out called the Fronde, named after the slings used by the Parisian mob to smash the windows of noble homes. The king of France, Louis XIV, was only ten years old and had been on the throne for half his life. His chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, convinced the royal family to depart Paris for their own safety while he crushed the rebellion. This he did, and by 1653 the king was back in his capital and celebrating his victory. Louis XIV’s reign was forever changed by the chaos of the Fronde—for the rest of his life, he would remain wary of the common people and, especially, the nobles who had risen up against him. For that reason, he chose to remove his court from the city of Paris in 1682 to his father’s old hunting lodge at Versailles, where it would remain for the rest of his long rule.

Of course, a hunting lodge was not suitable for the great “Sun King” of France, and so before he could take up residence the chateau had to be rebuilt—a process which took almost fifty years to complete. Once all building activities had ceased in 1710 (only five years before Louis XIV’s death), the palace measured over seven hundred thousand square feet, and its front facade stretched for 1,319 feet in length, making it the largest building in the world at that time. The vast gardens take up over three square miles of land west of Versailles and are the largest royal gardens in the world. Construction and maintenance of the court bankrupted the French government, absorbing one-tenth of all tax revenue by 1700. To compare these statistics for an American audience, the Palace of Versailles is nearly eight times as long and thirteen times as vast as the White House; its grounds are 109 times larger; and its operating budget would today cost the US government $342 billion—more than double what we spend on the military.

Life at Versailles

The palace included apartments for nearly ten thousand French nobles, whom Louis XIV wished to keep close so he could watch over them and maintain their loyalty. To accomplish this goal, he created a complex system of ceremonies which replaced material wealth as a measurement of one’s stature in the court. For example, the beautiful and historic Hall of Mirrors at Versailles was the king’s dressing room—he began at one end of the chamber wearing very little, and nobles lined the mirrored wall to hand him the various articles of clothing in his elaborate garb. The piece of clothing a noble was assigned to hand the king each morning signified his status with the monarch; if it was a stocking, that noble needed to step up his sycophancy, but if it was the king’s hat, the noble stood at the summit of royal esteem. This system worked, and the rest of Louis’ reign was peaceful at home, though he waged many wars against his English and Dutch neighbors.

In addition to the main palace, the grounds at Versailles included numerous “smaller” buildings (many of which were larger than the primary residences of other European monarchs).

Louis’ interest in zoology led him to build a menagerie in the grounds, where he kept numerous exotic animals—most famously an elephant given to him by the King of Portugal—as well as salons and viewing rooms on three floors. Sadly, the menagerie was torn down in 1801 after the land on which it sat was sold off by the government of Napoleon Bonaparte. A hunting lodge for the king’s prime ministers, the Pavillon de la Lanterne, was built near the menagerie and continues to serve as the French prime minister’s country house. The most opulent of these buildings are the two Trianon palaces—the Grand and the Petit. The Grand Trianon was Louis’ home for his family, and they lived there for much of his reign. It has also played host to many famous world leaders, including Peter the Great of Russia, Charles de Gaulle, and Donald Trump. The Petit Trianon, built by King Louis XV, is a much smaller (hence the name) chateau near the Grand Trianon. It is most famous as the home of Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XVI, and its beautiful architecture has been copied in buildings across Europe and the world.

From Palace to Museum

The Palace of Versailles underwent few changes during the reigns of Louis XV and XVI, both of whom lived there for most of their lives. But when revolution swept across France in 1789, the palace soon became the focus of national attention. The commoners of the Third Estate met at a nearby tennis court to form the National Assembly and swear they would not disband until a constitutional government had been formed during that fateful summer. Later in the fall, King Louis XVI and his family were forced to leave Versailles. When the royal family was arrested two years later after trying to flee the country, the palace was stripped of its furnishings to pay the nation’s debts, and revolutionaries destroyed many of the fine appointments to signify the new day which had come to France. (Many of these items have been lost to history, but some were later returned.) Versailles remained largely empty as Napoleon Bonaparte sat on the French imperial throne; he resided at the Grand Trianon, though his second wife Marie-Louise had a series of apartments in the larger palace. When the Bourbon family returned to power after Napoleon’s downfall, Versailles remained neglected, and only when a new royal family came to power in 1848 did life return to the palace.

In 1833, King Louis-Philippe of the House of Orléans designated the Palace of Versailles to be a museum dedicated “to all the glories of France.” The southern wing became the Galerie des Batailles, or “Hall of Battles,” and commemorated the various military triumphs of France from the early Middle Ages to Napoleon’s last victory at Wagram in 1809. The northern wing was transformed into the Salle des Croisades, or “Hall of Crusades,” and was filled with paintings and busts of famous French knights of the Middle Ages. Fifty years later, additional exhibits were created to showcase the royal pageantry of life at Versailles under Louis XIV. The royal apartments and chapel were restored to their former glory, and the Hall of Mirrors was rebuilt to its original specifications. The museum continues to be a centerpiece of French culture and tourism and is today visited by more than three million people each year.

“Hall of History”

By far the most famous room in the Palace of Versailles is the Hall of Mirrors. Once the dressing room of King Louis XIV, the hall is lined with seventeen arches which mirror (pardon the pun) the same number of windows overlooking the gardens. Within each arch are 21 mirrors which fill the hall with sunlight—and provided Louis XIV with a view of his court’s backs and guarded against assassination attempts. The hall is 239 feet long (71 feet longer than the White House) and served as the center of court functions, the celebrations of new births in the royal family, and numerous receptions for new ambassadors to the court. In 1855, Emperor Napoleon III hosted Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom in a spectacle of grandeur which symbolized a new era of Franco-British friendship.

The Hall of Mirrors became the focus of world attention on January 18, 1871. Four months earlier, the combined armies of the German nations led by the Kingdom of Prussia had destroyed those of the French Second Empire and brought down Napoleon III (who surrendered his sword to King Wilhelm I after the battle). Days later, the Prussians had laid siege to Paris, which was in turmoil and whose garrison battled both their nation’s enemies and an uprising by the Paris Communards. As a symbol of Prussia’s victory and France’s humiliation, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck chose the Hall of Mirrors as the site for a ceremony in which Wilhelm I would be proclaimed Deutsches Kaiser, German emperor. Kings and princes from across Germany filled the hall in a scene brilliantly captured in a painting by Anton von Werner, and as one they swore their loyalty to the new German Empire. French officials from the newly-formed Third Republic were required to attend as well, and they were mocked and humiliated by the Germans for their defeat. This event (combined with Germany’s annexation of two French provinces on the Rhine border) cemented the desire for revenge in the French national psyche. Only weeks after the German Empire’s creation, the French national parliament took refuge at Versailles during the Communard rebellion. Paris had become too dangerous for the nation’s leaders, and so once again they looked to Versailles for safety. Once the uprising had been crushed at Montmartre, the government returned to the capital, and life at the palace/museum returned to normal.

Almost half a century later, the world again looked to Versailles and to the Hall of Mirrors. In 1919, after four years of bloodshed across Europe, representatives from 32 nations had come to Paris to forge a lasting peace that would ensure the Great War would be “the war to end all wars.” The conference opened on January 18, 1919—48 years to the day since the German Empire had been proclaimed in the hall—and for the next six months the delegates crafted five peace treaties between the victorious Allied and the defeated Central Powers. The most famous of these agreements was the Treaty of Versailles with Germany, and its vast and complex scope is much too detailed to be discussed here. It is necessary merely to note that the treaty blamed the Great War entirely on the German people and government, who were made to pay the full cost of the war, surrender territory and resources to the victors, and accept major reductions in armaments. Designed to form a lasting peace on the Continent of Europe, the Treaty of Versailles instead made a second and more devastating war likely, if not inevitable (as Marshal Ferdinand Foch predicted when he read the treaty and commented it was an “armistice for twenty years.” For many Europeans, the word “Versailles” soon became synonymous with a failed peace that threatened the security of their nations and the world.

Versailles Today

Today, the Palace of Versailles is one of the most popular tourist attractions in France. The city is nestled amidst the rolling hills west of Paris, and its people are friendly and eager to interact with visitors. AET has taken students to Versailles on a number of occasions, where we have walked in history’s footsteps and learned of both the glories and follies of the men and women who shaped the course of events inside its beautiful gates. The gardens of Versailles (which are open to the public free of charge) are some of the most beautiful landscapes in all of France, and both tourists and natives are often seen strolling along its manicured paths, basking in the summer sun, or playing football—soccer to Americans—or throwing a frisbee with their friends.

Inside the palace, visitors enter near the Royal Chapel and begin their tour on the first floor along the western facade of the main building. A series of rooms showcase art and artifacts from the life of Louis XIV, including his early childhood portraits and toys, busts of his court members, maps of his many military campaigns, and models of the Sun King’s other residences across France. The next series of rooms approaching the Hall of Mirrors are dedicated to French history in general, from the Middle Ages to the Paris Commune. One then turns a corner and enters the Hall of Mirrors, best seen in the afternoon when the sunlight streams in through the windows and reflects off the gold, brass and glass of the mirrors. The hall is typically filled with visitors, but this can add to the ambiance of a tour since it was often the centerpiece of world events. The king’s bedchamber is accessed through a door at the center of the hall, and the queen’s chambers are at the hall’s south end. The tour then proceeds to the Gallery of Battles and concludes with a journey down the grand staircase to the exit (and the gift shop).

The beauty of the Palace of Versailles is almost overwhelming to first-time visitors, and you will be tempted to run from one room to the next to take it all in. When you come to the Hall of Mirrors, pause and step to one side—doing your best given how crowded the hall usually is—and just take in the historic air which fills the room. The clamor of voices seems to echo the gala celebrations, royal receptions, and treaty discussions of the past.

Close your eyes.

Image the great Sun King of France’s morning rituals, the embassy receptions with the magnificent Queen Victoria coming to France and meeting with Napoleon III, the harsh tones and clicking heels of Prussian soldiers celebrating their victory over the Second Empire, and the multi-language shouts and cheers as the Allies drove Germany into the ground in 1919.

For students of history, Versailles is a place of both wonder and sober reflection on the past. It is a perfect place to encapsulate centuries of human stories and for each of its visitors to walk in the footsteps of history.