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The Sun King’s Hunting Camp

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A detail from the gates of Versailles

The boys and I took the train out to Versailles today. Matthew, who is a speedreader, read Christopher Hibbert’s “The French Revolution” yesterday, and I was hoping he and I could tour the palace and better understand the convulsions of the late 18th century. As it turned out, the line to get into the chateau was hours long, and we didn’t have the patience to wait to get in. But we could still walk around outside the vast pile, Louis XIV’s monument to his own glory, and have a look at the astonishing gardens.

Versailles is a stunning place — for me, it’s hard to find anything I’ve seen to compare it to– even looking at it merely from the outside. To see its splendor, and to understand that the King and his Court lived like this while millions of his people were suffering intensely, and moreover, to read how the First and Second Estates (that is, the nobility and the clergy) refused to recognize that anything at all had to change … well, let me put it like this: in retrospect, I cannot believe that the French Revolution was on balance a good thing, but it is hard to deny, from the sight of Versailles, that absent profound change, it was an inevitable thing, a thing that could have been avoided if the King and his Court had been wiser. Gouverneur Morris, the American representative in Paris in the final days of the French monarchy, wrote at the time of Louis XVI, “he is so weak [in character] that unless he be kept out of bad Company it is impossible that he should not act wrongly.”

All of this built for the glory and pleasure of a single man, Louis XIV, and his family. If it had been for God, one could understand (well, I could understand, and approve). But for a man? I don’t know that I have felt more American on this entire trip than standing before the gates of Versailles.

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14 Comments To "The Sun King’s Hunting Camp"

#1 Comment By Will in Mississippi On October 30, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

Check out the Zoffany paintings of the scene when the Paris mob occupied Versailles. It’s very revealing, especially when read closely. Bet you can find the images online without difficulty…or without less difficulty than technically inept me…

#2 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On October 30, 2012 @ 2:33 pm

But, I believe, no indoor plumbing and no running water.

Versailles? Motel 6? No comparison.

#3 Comment By Liam S On October 30, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

It’s a shame you didn’t go in. I love Versailles; it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, I think.

While acknowledging the validity of the points you make, I think it’s also important to remember that all this wasn’t just about the glory of one man – it was about the glory of France. The king was not understood to be simply another individual, though entrusted with the reins of power, such as we might think of the president. The king was the embodiment of the nation – “l’Etat, c’est moi” was not merely an idle boast.

When you read about the heavy burden of Court ritual at Versailles, and understand that Louis XIV never ate a hot breakfast because of the length of the rituals that preceded it, it’s easy to see that the issue was about far more than one man’s pleasure. This is a concept that’s difficult for us to grasp, but essential to an understanding of what Versailles, or Buckingham Palace, or the Winter Palace meant.

There’s an interesting book by the late Anna Vyrubova, the close companion of Empress Alexandra Feodorova, in which she describes the life of the Russian Imperial family. It’s fascinating to read how stifling they found it, and what little power they, theoretically all-powerful, had to change the slightest detail.

#4 Comment By Rod Dreher On October 30, 2012 @ 3:00 pm

It’s a shame you didn’t go in. I love Versailles; it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, I think.

Oh, if it had been just me, I would have waited. But I wasn’t about to make two young boys wait, especially given that my oldest wasn’t feeling well today. God willing, I’ll be back.

While acknowledging the validity of the points you make, I think it’s also important to remember that all this wasn’t just about the glory of one man – it was about the glory of France. … There’s an interesting book by the late Anna Vyrubova, the close companion of Empress Alexandra Feodorova, in which she describes the life of the Russian Imperial family. It’s fascinating to read how stifling they found it, and what little power they, theoretically all-powerful, had to change the slightest detail.

I appreciate your remarks. One thing I’ve gotten from this trip is a much greater interest in the French Revolution, which includes the history leading up to it. This is just a blog, in which I record my opinions at any given moment … but I intend to be open enough to change my opinion, based on further reading and reflection.

I was thinking today while I was there about Marie Antoinette, and how tragic her case was. You read the accounts of how she suffered in captivity, and what those dogs did to her and her son, and you see not a queen brought low, but a suffering mother, a hare in the jaws of the hounds. When she was at Versailles, before the Revolution, she was surely unaware of the suffering in her country, and of the injustice of the political and social structure of the ancien regime. Was she not, in some real sense, a prisoner of it? The impression I get of Louis, her husband, is that he was (not unlike the final Tsar) a weak man ill-suited to the burdens of leadership, but also a prisoner of a system he inherited. One of the tragedies of the French Revolution, or so it seems to me, is that the leadership class in the Old Order — the Crown, the nobility, the Church — really didn’t have the imagination to understand what was going on. Again, I’m impressed by Gouverneur Morris’s observation: that the King was a weak man surrounded by bad advisors, and that it wasn’t going to end well for him.

#5 Comment By cecelia On October 30, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

Rod – good point re:the lack of imagination to understand what was going on – I think there are some parallels with people today – if you live in a typical upper class US suburb – you are so out of touch with the lives other Americans live and the presures they face. It is like being in a bubble – cut off from others experiences. And you lack the imagination and empathy – as well as being complacent – to truly understand the temper of the times. I think that is in part why people did not flee to protect themselves and their children – they really did not see it coming.

#6 Comment By MC On October 30, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

“…it was an inevitable thing, a thing that could have been avoided if…”

Your daily nitpick. “Inevitable” and “Unavoidable” are synonyms.

#7 Comment By JonF On October 30, 2012 @ 4:25 pm

Morris wasn’t the only one who knew that Louis XVI was ill-suited for his throne. That was pretty much common knowledge of everyone who had any dealings with the French court.

The King’s secretary put out a daily bulletin describing what he was up to that day. there were just three possibilities: The King is hunting, The King is at Mass, or The King is doing nothing. “Doing nothing” meant Louis was actually attending to the governance of his country.

#8 Comment By David J. White On October 30, 2012 @ 4:34 pm

But, I believe, no indoor plumbing and no running water.

I’ve never been to Versailles, but when I was in Vienna I toured Schoenbrunn, the similarly extravagant estate of the Habsburg monarchs of Austria. The guide made the point that the emperor’s dinner was prepared in one part of the palace and was ritually carried in procession through the corridors to the dining room where it was served with a flourish. The likely result is that the emperor probably never got to enjoy a hot meal.

#9 Comment By DS On October 30, 2012 @ 5:00 pm

If only the French had the concept of noblesse oblige.

#10 Comment By Irenist On October 30, 2012 @ 5:51 pm

I have never felt more deeply American when I was surprised to discover that I found the interior of Versailles to be tacky and overdone. It just seemed like if some guy from New Jersey with a giant gold necklace had been given a Pentagon-sized budget to build his dream house. I may be Catholic, but growing up in New England has a way of shaping a person’s aesthetics–almost as if I had Puritan ancestors instead of the Irish Catholics I actually had.

#11 Comment By James C. On October 30, 2012 @ 8:30 pm

I’m not a big Baroque guy, so you can count me as another person who loved the gardens more than the palace (though I would like to see it again after the recent massively expensive refurbishments). I spent an entire day exploring the endless gardens; it’s one of my favorite places in the world.

#12 Comment By Steve On October 31, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

@Liam is right – the excess of Versailles wasn’t about the pleasure of the king, but about creating an atmosphere of grandeur and ritual to overawe and intimidate French elites and foreign ambassadors, and create an image of royal dominance in France and French dominance in Europe.

Louis XV, who really was dedicated to his pleasure spent less time in Versailles and more in small private rococo palaces stocked with his many mistresses and neglected the tiresome public ceremonies to establish this “glorie”

I would also be wary of connecting the splendor of Versailles with the Revolution – the Austrian Habsburgs had equally impressive palaces, but their dynasty was in power until 1918. Historians of the period argue the real problem Versailles created for the French monarchy was that it put them outside of Paris and so made them less sensitive to the mood of the restless urban population.

#13 Comment By Jay On November 1, 2012 @ 1:46 am

All of this built for the glory and pleasure of a single man, Louis XIV, and his family. If it had been for God, one could understand (well, I could understand, and approve).

How would that have been much better? I mean, one of the reasons that people turned on the clergy during the French revolution was the mandatory tithe that they demanded, from believer and non-believer alike. Would you really approve of the church taking bread from the mouth of your starving children to build a Versailles-like equivalent, but devoted to worship? Would you approve of this being done to others’ children? Really?

#14 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On November 1, 2012 @ 10:59 am

How would that have been much better?

+1 to this.