Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

The Court of the Sun-King

Louis XIV, the Great Monarch, held memories of Paris too bitter to suffer him to dwell in the capital of France. King from an early age, the years of his minority were such as he did not care to dwell on when he was at the zenith of his power—the most famous of the Bourbon line, the most dreaded ruler in the whole of Europe.

Memories haunted him in Paris, of the days when Mazarin ruled, amassing riches for a future King but tenacious of the rights of ministers; of the civil war when the royal troops were turned from the Bastille by the cannon of a warlike woman; of the period when the nobles exercised prerogatives that diminished the glory of the throne and were never held in check by fear of an iron hand controlling them. Perhaps the crowd that surrounded Louis' state carriage, if he drove through the streets, wearied him more than he cared to tell. Perhaps his pride was wounded by a suspicion that lowly subjects could whisper among themselves of a certain neglected boy who had been fished out of a basin in the garden of the Palais Royal and bundled out of Paris by night to sleep on straw at Saint Germain.

In splendid state, with guards and lackeys in his trains the King still had fears that the world might remember the plight of a youth who had had torn sheets on his bed and a ragged coat on his royal back. But, during the years of sore humiliation, there had always been a real belief that one day the King would worst the nobles and play the Grand Monarch of his generation.

Mazarin's death freed Louis Quatorze at the age of twenty-three. Then and there he declared the outline of his regal policy—"Gentlemen," said he, "I shall be my own Prime Minister."

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


At Paris, the nobles, so disdainful of authority, could build their own hotels, could come and go at pleasure. At Versailles, they were part of a magnificent Court pageant, units in the vast array of pomp that Louis knew would protect him like a suit of armour. The highest in the land must serve the King, belonging to his daily retinue; they must pay court to favourites, they must attend the chase and fetes. When the money was spent that such a palace demanded of its inmates, they could not return to deserted estates in the country. It was their part to curry favour then and confess themselves dependent on the King's bounty.

The days of castle-dwelling were at an end with all the feuds that weakened the royal dominion. The great lords lost their hold over the tenants they never saw, and it was Louis XIV only who ruled, Louis the magnificent Sun-King.

The palace rose at the bidding of the monarch, a pile of buildings worthy to be the monument of imperial pride. The rooms and galleries were spacious, the courts received vast throngs of noblemen and the gentlemen of their suites, the gardens gave pleasure to an eager multitude. The Guards dazzled the eye by their forms on occasions of state ceremony. They were there to protect the King's person and dared not neglect their duty. It was part of Louis' wisest policy to insist on their regular service in the army. He was under the charge of four bodyguards, twenty-five guards of the halberd and fifty guards of the gate. Then there were the Hundred Suisse, the company of provost-guards and the hundred gentlemen of the battle-axe. The military household numbered both cavalry and infantry, a gorgeous array of men in gray and black, blue and red, musketeers and grenadiers, surely a stalwart shield of defence for the glory of Versailles.

The court of the palace became the centre, not of a little coterie but of all France and her dominions. It was gay with liveries, splendid horses, gilded carriages and the blaze of pomp and color that whirled so continually along the roads from Paris to Versailles. "Versailles! All roads lead to it," they used to say. And these roads were kept in good repair because they were trampled by the steeds of the royal retinue as they went forth to the chase.

To hunt was the first of His Majesty's own pleasures. He could ride and shoot with the best and knew no fatigue in pursuit of stag and hare. The hunting train was imposing in the household where magnificence was demanded for the routine of each day. The Grand Huntsman of France was a nobleman, and the Captain General of the Foils had no menial office nor the Grand Master of the Wolf-Hounds. Their coats were adorned with lace to show the different gradations of their rank. They had many subordinates and treasured the dignity of their position. It was a goodly sight to see the train set forth with the packs of hounds and gallant riders and the pages, whose duty it was to accompany all Court functions in the hope of gaining some prize that would repay the arduous service of their youth. Gorgeous in apparel, such scions of nobility gave the brilliance of spring to the King's more faded cavalcade. They were bold and witty and quick to turn a compliment. They could enjoy to the full such customs as holding the quarry by torchlight and re-echoed the cries, "Hallali, valets! Hallali," when the flesh was torn from the stag's bones by the greedy pack. They knew, too, the etiquette of the fetes held in honor of favorites or to celebrate some royal marriage.

The Court was used, sometimes, for the performance of comedies in which princes and princesses deigned to take a part. Moliere, the renowned comedian, was invited, they say, to sup with Louis at his table, an honor without parallel, surely, from a monarch who would keep his own brother standing in his presence. There were brilliant plays to act in that age of literary giants. Racine came to the Court until he offended, and Corneille and others whose names have lived. Louis was without education himself, but he valued learning in others. He could barely read and write, but it pleased him to make Versailles the centre which attracted men of note from every part of Europe. It was a fine reward for struggling authors to stand in the illuminated court among the groves of orange-trees, which relieved the marble whiteness of the pavement. They heard the applause of men and women courteous and well-mannered. They shared the delicious banquets at the conclusion of the fete and were themselves objects of envy to the gaping crowds of good Parisians who had come to catch a glimpse of earthly Paradise.

The gardens lay beyond the court, a triumph of French art and skill. Le Notre was in the service of Louis and devoted his great genius to Versailles. When he brought the plans to the King and led him to the terrace to describe the vast wilderness beyond, Louis XIV interrupted him constantly, exclaiming, "Le Notre, I give you 20,000 francs." But the gardener was not avaricious. He stopped in vexation and declared, "Sire, your Majesty shall hear no more. I should ruin you."

The Grand Monarch was stayed for a brief moment. Then he spent lavishly and set the fountains running with the beautiful jets that play to this day when Paris makes holiday and visits the palace of the ancient order. The water was difficult to bring in sufficient volume to supply the 1400 jets that rose from the sculptured basins. There was a plan to bring the River Eure to Versailles and 30,000 soldiers were set to work at the bold enterprise. Great numbers caught some contagion from the upturned earth and died of it. It was at the cost of their lives and of forty million francs that King Louis could amuse the frequenters of his court.

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


But even the fountains of Versailles lent their aid to the tale of kingly splendor which was to spread through Europe and give honor to the French. Foreign ambassadors entered the King's presence by the Grand Staircase to have audience of the King. They had seen the noble gardens and the orangery beloved of princesses, they had alighted in the clamor of the bustling courtyard. Now they slowly ascended the marble steps, regarded through the marble columns by a brilliantly-hued mass of courtiers of different nationalities, one in their perfection of attire, their elegance of bearing, and their silent deference toward the King. These dazzled the messengers of royal courts by the consciousness that the eyes of the whole world were upon them. They turned their attention to the walls and rich tapestry and superb pictures which delighted their eyes like the fountains with their groups of gilded bronze.

Beneath the high roof of his palace, the King sat on a silver throne in the heyday of his glory. He created in his own person the idea of sunshine and fulfilled his own conception of the King whose duty it was so to shine.

Louis XIV presented truly a gallant type of manhood. He wore a velvet coat studded thickly with diamonds and becoming to his handsome limbs. He had grace and dignity as well as beauty. The unfailing tact was his which creates few enemies. At a Court famed for polished manners, he was pre-eminent for the grand air that he imparted to every formal ceremony. There were few occasions when the mantle of state was laid aside since he took for his pattern the young victorious figure painted on the ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors. He strove for the superb aspect of the Sun-King in his minute attention to the details of public functions. He forgot that financial difficulties were likely to arise when earthly existence was supported on the lavish scale of a god's requirements. He said that he gave alms when he spent freely, and frowned on honest Colbert, the minister whose body was worn to a shadow by the cares of a thankless office.

Louis XIV was the hero of his nation even after disasters of war came upon him. He shed abroad, somehow, the luster of France when he received diplomatic guests in one of his superb habits. He smiled indulgently on his subjects when they exulted in success.

Etiquette deprived the monarch of private ease, but he never truly craved it. He was always surrounded by courtiers and soldiers—three or four thousand was his retinue at Versailles and five or six hundred at Marly. Seclusion was not in this man's nature, nor simplicity that would diminish one iota of his power. He spent more than twelve million pounds on Marly and was never alone, though he excluded certain of his Court. At Versailles, nobles stood in his presence and were not bidden to be seated. At Marly, the chosen few might be told, on occasion, to sit down. None were covered before him at Versailles, but when he left the country residence to promenade, he was wont to say, "Your hats, gentlemen," and noted the relaxation with some pleasure. Alone with his family circle, there was the same rigor observed in the relationship of King and governed. The King sat in an arm-chair while the sons remained standing and the daughters were permitted the use of little stools.

The King's levee was the solemn beginning of a day that ended also with grand ceremony. The nobles, warned of the hour when His Majesty would rise, had to be in the ante-chamber, waiting until the door was opened. They had been dressed themselves with elaborate preparations and were sumptuous in their full periwigs and fine habits thus early in the morning. Some were allowed to enter at eight o'clock when Louis was awakened. Monseigneur, the heir to the crown, and the princes of the blood were the first to have the privilege. They conversed with the King in bed and very often had favors to ask at this private audience. The great officers of State came next and the King's clothes were brought by them. The first doctor, the first surgeon; and the nurse of the royal infants were admitted at this entrance. There was a short, religions service held which all followed gravely. Louis XIV was a devout Roman Catholic by practice; though he was curiously ignorant of religion and knew nothing of the Bible.

Before the actual rising, wigs were brought that the King might choose the one he wanted. The barber removed the nightcap from the monarch's head as soon us he was in the place where he dressed regularly and the whole business of the toilette began in due and careful order. The valet of the Wardrobe had to present the knee-breeches with silk stockings attached, which the King put on himself. A garcon of the Wardrobe put on the buckled shoes, and other officers of the Bouche  and Goblet  presently served breakfast from dishes of porcelain and of gold. The valet of the Wardrobe brought the King's shirt and the grand chamberlain handed it to the Dauphin if he were present or to one of the princes of the royal blood, should he be unable to attend. Each detail was carried out with tiresome minuteness and Louis might well be fatigued when he was preceded from his chamber by the announcement of "Gentlemen, the King!" No wonder that the man who went through these formalities every time he rose or slept considered himself superior to other men and held that the realm of France was vested in his person!

Dinner was served by the aid of the service known as the Bouche du Roi, which numbered more than three hundred persons. They had their own apartments at Versailles, where each meal was so elaborate that it entailed the care of butlers, cooks and cup-bearers, carvers, equerries, and a host of underlings. The King dined in public, exposed to the gaze of a crowd of loyal subjects. He was excessive in his appetite but drank wine sparingly. At one meal he is said to have eaten "four platefuls of different soups, a whole pheasant, a partridge, a plateful of salad, mutton hashed with garlic, two good-sized slices of ham, a dish of pastry and afterwards fruit and sweetmeats."

Etiquette ruled the King and by it the King ruled the Court. He was himself the pink of courtesy and expected from all a like deference to the laws of breeding. Weary, the courtier must yet remain upon his feet, angry, he must control his tongue and countenance. All were dismayed if the monarch gave way to natural emotion of either grief or wrath. He was completely master of himself in general and any exhibition of feeling was distasteful. The men he drew to Court learnt lessons of real value. They were able to meet danger fearlessly and to bear loss of fortune without sign of distress. Their incomes diminished woefully, since they had to please a master who compelled magnificence. He shone as the Sun-King and the minor constellations also must be brilliant. The card-tables ruined the gambler and the expenses of the chase the hunter. The lord lost the hearts of his tenants by continual absence from his estate. These murmured of their grievances and were met, did they raise their voices, by the same surprise that Louis felt when the cost of Marly was lamented.

Offices were sought through favorites, for pride stooped very low to gain its ends. Mme. de Maintenon, the King's wife, was approached continually by those anxious for the welfare of either sons or daughters. She was known to influence the King, to have many places to bestow.

The noble away from Versailles passed into oblivion quickly. Louis XIV said of the neglectful courtiers, "They are people I never see." It was useless for a go-between to ask a favor. Suitors must see the patron personally and attend him every day. The men never present at court functions were dismissed with the haughty disclaimer, "I do not know them." It were foolish indeed for Louis to have spent five hundred million francs from the national coffers that the buildings of hip; palace might be empty, his royalty but a name.

Above all monarchs of his age, the Sun-King displayed the might of power and place. He was gifted by nature for kingly duties. He fulfilled his ideal of them with a loftiness that was maintained always. He lost prestige among other nations when he lost battle after battle, but his own country looked up to him to the last hour as the embodiment of everything truly national. The war he failed to conduct to successful issues was the beginning of a downfall he foresaw but dimly for the Monarchy. France was rich when he succeeded to the throne and could afford him the appointments which were then his people's pride. France was drained by enormous expenditure as the army reached efficiency, and could not maintain a long struggle against allies of increasing strength. The money was forthcoming, nevertheless, whenever Louis asked it as his right. The whole land of France was his. Why should subjects deny some portion of it when they existed for the King's convenience? Few withstood the demands for taxes; few even murmured beneath their own roofs that there would be a day of reckoning.

Marlborough, the all-conquering English general, broke the power of the Grand Armies, yet could not break the spirit of his foe. After a long reign, Louis was popular with his subjects. He did not show chagrin at defeat or consciousness of decaying fortunes.

He died amidst the pomp of Versailles, an old man, whose wife fled from him to make her own future quite secure. He had seen children and grandchildren die before him. He knew that his successor was unworthy, but he was mortal, and left the palace at the time appointed, neither young nor victorious now, though he retained the wreath of laurel.

"Still, heedless of the centuries, upon the arches of that sumptuous Galerie des Glaces, the Sun-King sits serene. Out under the blue sky, he drives his four-horse chariot amid the leaping waters, and the gilded device of his divinity still blazes on the railings that hedge his royal house. He is always young, he is always victorious, he is always crowned with laurel, he is always superb. Each day he rises and sets with the same splendor, and, in transit, he gives light and life to all the world."