French Court Moves to Versailles Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The French court isolated the government from the people when it moved from the Louvre to the newly built palace at Versailles, serving as a means to control the French nobility and becoming the symbol of King Louis XIV’s dominance in France and France’s supremacy in Europe.

Summary of Event

Cardinal de Richelieu, the chief minister of France, died in 1642. Six months later, the five-year-old Louis XIV Louis XIV inherited his father’s throne, and during his minority, his mother, Anne of Austria Anne of Austria , served as regent of France. In this turbulent period, the power of the state was in the hands of Cardinal Jules Mazarin, Mazarin, Jules a favorite of the Queen Mother and a protégé of Richelieu, who attempted to continue the diplomatic policies of his predecessor. In domestic affairs, Mazarin continued efforts to consolidate power in the hands of the central government. [kw]French Court Moves to Versailles (1682) [kw]Versailles, French Court Moves to (1682) Government and politics;1682: French Court Moves to Versailles[2760] Architecture;1682: French Court Moves to Versailles[2760] France;1682: French Court Moves to Versailles[2760] Versailles

In the final half century of the reign of the House of Valois, the French nobility had strengthened their position during the civil and religious wars, but Henry IV, founder of the House of Bourbon, strengthened the monarchy and placed it on a sound economic basis. Under Henry’s son, Louis XIII, Richelieu moved against the nobility. He strengthened the position of the intendants at the expense of the provincial nobility, he forbade private warfare (including dueling) he dismantled fortified castles that could not be of any use in defending French frontiers, and he pensioned old army officers. Upon his death, Richelieu left a nobility that was seriously wounded, though not dead. Richelieu was succeeded by an Italian opportunist, a small boy, and the boy’s mother—an unimpressive trio that caused the nobility to believe that the time had come for them to reverse the trend toward centralization.

The civil wars called the Wars of the Fronde (1648-1653) Fronde, Wars of the (1648-1653) , which marked the minority of Louis XIV, taught the young king to distrust the nobility of France and to fear the people of Paris, who generally supported the opponents of Mazarin. At the height of the civil disorder, the Queen Mother fled from the capital to Saint-Germain, taking with her the impressionable eleven-year-old uncrowned monarch. Louis XIV always remembered this flight; he never forgave the city of Paris for the insult, and he never felt safe in the city thereafter.

When Cardinal Mazarin died in 1661, the king assumed full power. He accelerated the weakening of the power of the nobility, and he brought the concept of absolute monarchy to its zenith in France. Paris did not allow the degree of aloofness that he required, so Louis XIV had a palace built at Versailles, some eleven miles southwest of the capital, in a marshy area where a favorite royal hunting lodge was situated. To build the new royal residence, Louis Le Vau Le Vau, Louis and other top architects, artists, engineers, landscapers, and gardeners were employed, along with tens of thousands of laborers. Work was begun in 1661, and construction costs proved to be astronomical.

In 1682, as soon as he could, Louis XIV moved to Versailles with his entire court. Versailles provided him with the opportunity to escape Paris and its unruly population, and it also allowed him to hunt daily, a sport for which he had developed a passion. He was following the example of Spanish monarchs in the sixteenth century, who spent most of their time at El Escorial. Yet Louis had many original purposes for Versailles as well. Versailles was intended as a monument to the Sun King himself, to his absolutist dominance of France, and to France’s political and cultural supremacy in European civilization. State receptions at the palace did overwhelm foreign visitors, while court culture and the palace itself became a standard-setter for European monarchies.

A photograph of one of the many elaborate halls of the palace at Versailles.

(George L. Shuman)

For Louis, Versailles also was a place to keep the semi-independent high nobility under a watchful eye and to transform them into dependent creatures, kept too busy with minutia and entertainment to seriously involve themselves with practical political matters. Housed in tiny and crowded quarters, and impoverished by the move, the expenses of court life, and continuous gambling at court, many became dependent on royal favor. This meant involvement in the complicated daily activity of the king, his dressing and undressing, his meals and snacks, his rising and retiring. If properly bowing to the passing of the king’s food or moving up in a line of courtiers in a royal dressing line meant recognition and royal favor, then these things became matters of paramount importance. In institutionalizing and domesticating the high nobles, Versailles served a very practical end. Unfortunately, while King Louis XIV’s daily routine involved long and hard work, and he escaped being victim to his own creation, his successors appear to have been overwhelmed by the inanities of court life at Versailles, producing serious problems in a system that ran by competent absolutist rule.

Significance

For the following century, no French king resided in Paris, and Versailles came to be synonymous with the Bourbon monarchy. The return of Louis XVI to Paris in October of 1789 was the result of the Women’s March on Versailles, when the unruly population of the capital forced its king to abandon the isolation of his two predecessors and become a prisoner of the people of Paris.

The isolation of the kings of France during the eighteenth century undoubtedly contributed to the French Revolution of 1789. The kings were cut off from their subjects. Misunderstandings and suspicion between the royal government and the masses of people led to a credibility gap that paved the way for revolution. The causes of the French Revolution were deeper and more complex than the move to Versailles, but the isolation of the king, the court, and the royal administration ultimately led to the execution of Louis XVI and the overthrow of the monarchy.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berger, Robert W. A Royal Passion: Louis XIV as Patron of Architecture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. The work surveys Versailles and other buildings closely associated with Louis to explain why these structures, gardens, and decorations were so important to him and how they represented his absolute authority.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bluche, François. Louis XIV. Translated by Mark Greengrass. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990. A comprehensive study of the Sun King’s reign, with significant detail of court life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edmunds, Martha Mel Stumberg. Piety and Politics: Imagining Divine Kingship in Louis XIV’s Chapel at Versailles. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002. An analysis of Louis’s royal chapel, constructed as a dynastic shrine and consecrated to his ancestor, King Louis IX.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lossky, Andrew. Louis XIV and the French Monarchy. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994. An excellent political biography of the Sun King.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norton, Lucy, ed. and trans. Saint-Simon at Versailles. London: H. Hamilton, 1958. Reprint. New York: Harmony Books, 1980. An account of life at Versailles during the last twenty years of the king’s reign, by a highly perceptive, though not always objective, court noble.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pérouse de Montclose, Jean-Marie. Versailles. New York: Abbeville Press, 1991. A lavishly illustrated, large-format study of the entire project at Versailles, Le Vau’s early role and designs, and the accommodations to them made by later architects and contractors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubin, David L., ed. Sun King: The Ascendancy of French Culture During the Reign of Louis XIV. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1992. A collection of papers presented at a major symposium on Louis, court life, and the cultural and intellectual developments in France during his reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walton, Guy. Louis XIV’s Versailles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. A thorough study of social and cultural life at Versailles during Louis’s reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weiss, Allen S. Mirrors of Infinity: The French Formal Garden and Seventeenth Century Metaphysics. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995. A concise intellectual history of the function and meaning of Versailles and other French formal gardens.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Anne of Austria; Jean-Baptiste Colbert; André Le Nôtre; Louis Le Vau; Louis XIV; Madame de Maintenon; François Mansart; Jules Hardouin-Mansart; Jules Mazarin; Madame de Sévigné. Versailles

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