How Historically Accurate is season 1 of Versailles?
This article contains spoilers
Versailles Season 1 follows the French king Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King, during the early years of his reign when he commissioned the construction of the palace of Versailles, a former hunting lodge. Construction of the palace began in 1661 and lasted, on and off, until 1715. Despite the objection of much of the nobility and even his court, Louis was determined to make the palace the greatest in the world and solidify his rule. Although later Louis was known as a strong and respected ruler in Europe, the early years of his reign were fraught with problems with the nobility, wars with the low countries, conspiracies, and ongoing conflict between Catholics and Protestants. It is this background that sets up the story in the first season.
History and Key Events
The story begins with Louis having a vision to build a great and grand palace at Versailles. The palace is depicted as a symbol for France and in the first season Louis attempts to instill in his nobility that the palace is to represent all of France and his role in building it is essentially to unify the country (Figure 1). Although the palace is known today for its grand opulence such as the Hall of Mirrors and other structures, the intent was to make this building project help centralize the state itself. Rebellion by nobles during the reign of his father was a major problem in France, weakening the country. The series rightly indicates that the construction of the palace was used as a way to control the government and put it more in the hands of the king by moving resources to Versailles. Paris had been rife with plots against the royal family, likely prompting Louis to move the court at a distance that allowed him to have better control of the government while not being trapped by the demands of the ever rebellious nobles. One major plot development is Louis asks his nobles to produce papers to prove their nobility. Louis XIV is known to have instigated a major program that verified the lineage of the nobility.
Another key event in the early episodes is his war in Holland and the Spanish Netherlands. While initially very successful, Louis was persuaded to make peace with the Dutch after the war threatened to become much larger and involve other major European powers. Louis could not afford, early in his reign, to fight a long and protracted war, particularly given potential problems with the nobles and financial situation, where the construction of Versailles also became a drain on the treasury. By 1671, the war rekindled and this time France marched into Dutch territory along with English support. The war continued until 1678, by which time Louis had gain territorial concessions from the Spanish Netherlands. The series did not give much detail about this prolonged conflict, where much of the focus was more on Louis' domestic problems with his nobles. Nevertheless, Louis is shown as trying to make alliances and treaties with the English and even African nobles visiting so that French trade could be placed in a more superior position, something that the war with the Dutch also allowed. These events were largely true and Louis did try to position French trade interests in the growing African and Atlantic trade networks.
One focus of the episodes is the rivalry between Louis and his brother Philippe, Duke of Orléans. Tension between the brothers was brewing because Louis would not let his brother join the war against the Dutch. Eventually Louis relents and Philippe proves to be a valiant warrior. Philippe was, in fact, a well known leader and proved to be a successful commander, earning the respect of his men for his bravery. The rivalry between the brothers in the series may be more fiction than fact.
Perhaps the most prominent plot in the series revolved around a group of nobles and others conducting a conspiracy to make the king loose power and control over the country. This involved poisoning of some of the characters, shooting prominent families on the road to Versailles, where even Philippe's wife and Louis' lover Henriette, who was the sister of the King of England Charles II, was killed in one of these attempts. This part of the story does differ from likely historical accounts, as it is not clear Louis ever faced any major threats to his kingdom from internal unrest despite having some troubles from the nobles as he centralized the state early in his reign. There were various plots, including a series of poisonings called the Affair of the Poisons, that lasted from the 1670s-1680s, but the reasons for this did not relate to plots by nobles. The Huguenot, or French Protestants, also attempted to conduct a campaign against the king, although Louis' major persecution of them only began in the 1680s, a period after when the first season took place. The Huguenot's came closer to threatening the French crown long before Louis' reign in the 1610s-1620s.
Louis is depicted as have a strong desire to centralized the state, which is true from known historical records. He was famously quoted as saying "I am the state," which he did in fact say and was one of his well known declarations. The Sun King was what he was called throughout Europe and Louis did emphasize his symbol of the sun as a way of showing his power. While, on the one hand, he considered himself to be a devote Catholic, he was also known for his numerous affairs. Louis voracious sexual appetite is a well known historical fact. However, one of his main lovers in the series is shown to be Henrietta of England. While it is likely they were close, there is no proof they were ever intimate, as he may have respected his brother by not sleeping with Henrietta, despite the fact his brother was gay. At the very least, she was not likely to be his main lover. In fact, Madame de Montespan, who is depicted in the series as a smart and cunning character, did become Louis' main mistress and he even fathered seven children with her. In France, it was typical for a king to have an official mistress, where this position even offered some official power, which was a role that de Montespan had for much of Louis' early reign.
Maria Theresa of Spain
Maria was Louis' first wife, who was the daughter of the king of Spain and was married to Louis as part of a treaty with Spain to create peace between France and Spain. She is generally known to have been virtuous. However, one major possible scandal may have concerned her. In the series and in the first episode, she is shown giving birth to a dark colored baby. This may, in fact, have happened, although the reasons for this are not agreed upon. There may have been a baby born to Maria who was of mixed race; however, this may have been due to oxygen deprivation, causing the skin color. Another rumor suggested that the queen had an affair with her black jester (Nabo) and this baby was the result of that affair. Years later, a black nun, whose parents were unknown, was rumored to be the child that Maria gave birth to. In effect, there were rumors about the events depicted in the series, but the circumstances are not clear and the French court was often full of false rumors.
Philippe I, Duke of Orléans
Philippe, Louis' brother, is shown as being close but competitive with his brother, where their rivalry often boils over in Philippe's defiance of the king. Philippe is shown as gay and this is a well known fact. Despite being married to Henrietta, Philippe had a lover named Chevalier de Lorraine, a French noble, who was a historical figure. In one episode, Philippe dresses in woman's clothing, which was known to have occurred, as since his childhood his mother was known to have dressed him as a girl. Philippe's prowess on the battlefield, despite what people thought of his sexulity, did earn him respect by many soldiers.
Henrietta of England
While Louis' affairs with Henrietta are in dispute, she is shown as tolerating her husband's homosexual relationship with the Chevalier. Henrietta's relationship with her husband was, more likely, awkward, even by the French court's standards. She may have had an affair with one of her husband's lovers, Guiche, although Henrietta and Philippe did manage to have several children, but the paternity of the children was rumored to be from others given Philippe's known homosexuality. In the series, Henrietta and Philippe are depicted as a couple in name only. Historically, the Chevalier did join Philippe's household, where she did have to compete with her husband's lover for attention in the royal household despite her status as a royal figure. Nevertheless, she proved to be instrumental to the French crown when she helped secure the Treaty of Dover between England and France, where Henrietta, the sister of the English king, having played an important role in negotiations in the treaty that allowed the English to ally themselves with the French. The portrayal in the series is largely accurate, as it credits her with the success of the treaty.
Display of Culture
Much of the series depicted extravagant opulence and parties at the palace, where show was critical in displaying power and status. The series depicts that Louis made it a requirement for the nobility to view him getting ready in the morning and watch his performances such as dances. This is known to have occurred, as Louis did try to keep many nobles in court at Versailles, using the palace as almost a prison for the nobility and keeping them from their lands. Fashion became an area of excess, which was true and many prominent officials and nobles began spending enormous sums of money on the latest fashions and clothing. In fact, the opulence in Louis' court was known to have influence court life throughout Europe, where monarchs began to imitate Louis' behavior in trying to control the court and display of fashion and opulence.
The series also depicts Louis creating a series of complicated etiquette for his court to follow. There is some truth in this, as the French etiquette system became more complicated during the reign of Louis. This was depicted as a way to help keep the nobles under control through elaborate ritual that required display of obedience to the king.
The main cultural event was the development of the palace at Versailles, where its gardens were tended to by a former French army soldier. The gardens did command a lot of attention by Louis and several well known designers were employed by the king to help design the gardens, including their famous orangerie. Oranges had relatively recently been introduced into Europe and the garden in Versailles astonished visitors as these delicate plants were able to survive harsh winter conditions despite the tropical origin of the fruit.
Versailles is a series full of visually effective scenes that display the intrigues of court, conflict in European affairs, and innovation that began to transform France and Europe in the age of the Sun King. While events such as the poisoning of royalty and birth of a black baby by the queen may not have happened as depicted in the series, many events did happen and the main characters and their personalities did represent aspects that were known from various historical accounts. Some of the timeline of events did not follow a historical timeline, such as the conflict with the Dutch, while other aspects did prove to be true, in particular Louis' attempts to centralize the state through his personality and through court etiquette that developed. At the center of Louis' desire for central power was the building of Versailles. In effect, this was true and Versailles did become not only one of the world most opulent palaces but became the symbol of France's centralized, royal power. Something that the participants in the later French Revolution noted as they stormed the palace grounds to capture and later execute Louis' great grandson Louis the XVI.
- For more on Louis' early part of his reign and vision to build Versailles, see: Berger, Robert W. 1985. Versailles: The Chateau of Louis XIV. Monographs on the Fine Arts 40. University Park: Published for the College Art Association of America by the Pennsylvania State University Press.
- For more on Louis' early wars and finances, see: Young, William. 2004. International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great: A Guide to the Historical Literature. New York, NY: Universe.
- For more on trade and alliances under Louis, see: Nolan, Cathal J., and Cathal J. Nolan. 2008. Wars of the Age of Louis XIV, 1650-1715: An Encyclopedia of Global Warfare and Civilization. Greenwood Encyclopedias of the Modern World Wars. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, pg. 210.
- For more on Phillipe, see: Barker, Nancy Nichols. 1998. Brother to the Sun King--Philippe, Duke of Orléans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- For ore on the Affair of the poisons, see: Somerset, Anne. 2004. The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV. 1st U.S. ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- For more on the Huguenot revolts, see: Trim, David J. B., and Walter C. Utt, eds. 2011. The Huguenots: History and Memory in Transnational Context ; Essays in Honour and Memory of Walter C. Utt. Studies in the History of Christian Traditions 156. Leiden: Brill.
- For a detailed history of Louis XIV, see: Levi, Anthony. 2004. Louis XIV. 1st Carroll & Graf ed. New York: Carroll & Graf.
- For more on Maria Theresa of Spain, see: Forester, C.S. 2007. Louis Xiv: King of France and Navarre. Kessinger Publishing, LLC, pg. 211
- For more on Philippe's character and personality, see: Barker, Nancy Nichols. 1998. Brother to the Sun King--Philippe, Duke of Orléans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, pg. 315.
- For more on Henrietta, see: Lehman, H. Eugene. 2011. Lives of England’s Reigning and Consort Queens: England’s History through the Eyes of Its Queens. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, pg. 452.
- For more on court life in Versailles, see: Duindam, Jeroen Frans Jozef. 2003. Vienna and Versailles: The Courts of Europe’s Major Dynastic Rivals, 1550-1780. New Studies in European History. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
- For more on the ritual at Versailles, see: Behr, Harold. 2015. The French Revolution: A Tale of Terror and Hope for Our Times. Brighton ; Chicago: Sussex Academic Press, pg. 11.
- For more on the gardens of Versailles, see: Baridon, Michel. 2008. A History of the Gardens of Versailles. Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.