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. 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 in part used as a way to control the government and put it more in the hands of the king. 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 developments 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 even 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 his problems with the nobles and financial situation, particularly as the construction of Versailles got underway. 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. 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. While it is not clear what the rivalry was between the brothers, it is known that Philippe was a proven war leader.
Perhaps the most prominent plot 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, including Philippe's wife and Louis' lover Henriette, who was the sister of the King of England Charles II. This part of the story greatly differs from historical accounts. First, there were various plots, including a series of poisonings called the Affair of the Poisons that lasted from the 1670s-1680s. However, this was not targeted specifically against the royal family and leaders of France. Henriette did die, although it was likely not poisoning but rather digestive disease. However, some observers at the time did suspect poisoning. The first season ends with Louis' son, the Dauphin, being kidnapped. This is not known to have occurred.
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. 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 is shown to be Henrietta of England. While it is likely they were close, there is no proof they were ever intimate. 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.
Maria Theresa of Spain
Maria was Louis' first wife, who was the daughter of the king of Spain and was a marriage made 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 dark in color; however, this may have been due to oxygen deprivation. Another rumor, however, suggested tht that the queen had an affair with her black jester, where she was known to have a black jester, 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.
Philippe I, Duke of Orléans
Philippe, Louis' brother, is shown as being close but also 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.
Henrietta of England
While Louis' affairs with Henrietta are in dispute, she was known to have largely tolerated her husband's homosexual relationship with the Chevalier. Henrietta's relationship with her husband was 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. In the series, Henrietta and Philippe are depicted as a couple in name only. Historically, the Chevalier did join Phillippe's household, where she did have to compete with her husband's lover for attention in the royal household despite her status. 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. 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.