“L’etat c’est moi,” proclaimed Louis XIV. I am the state—-and how could he not be? He was the Sun King. Everything revolved around him; his grand palace, Versailles, was built for nobles to come far and wide to bask in his glory. Every single thing said that Louis XIV was the state, was the sun with France revolved around—-except, of course, from reality.
That was the true glory of Louis XIV, the mirage of the Sun King, and the splendor of Versailles: it was to mask how very, truly, the King of France was not. The Ancien Régime, which Louis sat proudly atop of, was a barrel full of water that had been shot through a couple hundred times with a machine gun. In other words—-it wasn’t.
History remembers the terrible cruelties suffered under the blind, apathy of an ineffectual king that spawned a bloody revolution that toppled the Ancien Régime. Which is true—-but the truth also is that the Ancien Régime (this great absolute monarchy) was broken long before 1789 came ’round. All the glory that we remember; the gold and glitter of Versailles, is exactly what you’re supposed to remember. Because Versailles was bluff that worked that well.
The Ancien Régime is shorthand for the monarchic-aristocratic-social-political organization that ran France from the 1400s to the late 1700s (i.e.: the French Revolution). This mess of supposed centralized royal power, mixed with feudal clientele and liege-lord systems, and local historic privileges was a direct result of the destruction of medieval France’s political centralization by the Hundred Years’ War and the later Wars of Religion. So with all of these tiny fiefdoms with liege-lords, judges with historic privileges, dukes with their duchies, bishops and dioceses, and royal tax-collectors who came knocking once a year, it’s safe to say if there was one thing that French political power wasn’t, it wasn’t centralized.
And the Kingdom of France needed centralized: they needed it to (a) wage war and (b) pay for everything (including war). So the reigns of Henry IV, Louis XIII, and even Louis XIV—-they were all desperately looking for a way to make “royal power” mean something. Especially out in far reaches of French countryside where nobles ruled like little kings. Because the nobility? Despite being nominally the king’s most fervent supporters, you can bet that if there’s one thing nobles don’t like, it’s someone taking their stuff. Especially if it’s power—even if it is their king!
Which is when Louis XIV stumbled upon a grand idea: a labyrinth. Not literally, no; Versailles—-this massive palace with its own zip code—–was constructed to be the French royal court’s own little playpen. All the politics of the court would be played out here, safely kept from affecting reality behind painted walls, keeping the nobles busy as Louis XIV really ran the kingdom…or at least kept them from causing trouble. To the outside world, it looked like Louis really did hold supreme power over his subjects, even though he couldn’t actually change the French political system. Instead, he got all the main players out of the way while he did what he wanted.
Don’t want to play? Don’t want to be trapped in a maze of rules about fashion and jewelry and who has the literal honor of helping the king put on his shoes? Fine. No help from the crown for you. You play or you and yours—-your land, your family, your prestige, your money, your people (if you even care about that sort of thing)—–suffer.
That’s what we’re going to look at here. The glory, the glitter, the gilded cage of Versailles—-the greatest masquerade the world’s ever seen.
So here we are. Welcome to Versailles! Enjoy your stay. You won’t be leaving.