In the early morning of October 6, 1789, hundreds of starving, defiant women and men (some disguised as women) from Paris stormed the palace of Versailles, the legendarily extravagant seat of government in France. They tore through the gilded halls, beating and beheading palace guards, displaying one grisly head on a pike.
The mob headed through the marbled corridors adorned with art celebrating the Bourbon dynasty, towards the private apartment of the half-dressed Queen Marie Antoinette, as a bloodied guard ran ahead to warn the monarch of the impending deluge. The Queen escaped to King Louis XVI’s rooms, before the Marquis de Lafayette came to calm the crowds. Later that day the couple and their children were forced to travel to Paris to take up residence in the Tuileries Palace.
Louis XIV Built Decadence at Versailles
Into the vacated palace the citizens of France swarmed, finally able to see the excessive luxuries of Versailles for themselves. They walked through the echoing Hall of Mirrors, never again to be graced by the King’s ponderous footsteps or the Queen’s soft patter.
It hadn’t always been this way. For many decades, the magnificence of Versailles had been a source of pride for the French. “A Parisian bourgeois says in all seriousness to an Englishman, “What is your king? He is badly lodged: to be pitied, in fact,’” the writer Louis-Sebastien Mercier wrote. ‘Look at ours. He lives at Versailles.’”
Versailles was seen as a glorious symbol of the absolute monarch, of France’s divinely ordained royal family, and of the state itself. But well before the French Revolution, some were warning that the grandeur and excesses of Versailles were in fact terrible for public relations. “A generation earlier,” writes Tony Spawforth in Versailles: Biography of a Palace, “the Marquis d’Argenson thought that the palace had signaled the arrival on French soil of ‘oriental regal extravagance.'"
It is not surprising the Louis XIV (1638-1715), known as the “sun king” and the “vainest man ever” was the royal responsible for turning what had once been a small royal hunting lodge into the most extravagant court that Europe had ever known. Entrusting Europe’s master architects, designers and craftsmen with what he termed his “glory,” he spent a huge amount of taxpayer money on Versailles and its more than 2,000 rooms, elaborate gardens, fountains, private zoo, roman style baths (for frolicking with his mistress) and novel elevators.
The Hall of Mirrors
At a time when most of his subjects lived bleak lives in little more than wooden or stone hovels, Louis was paying for the Hall of Mirrors, whose Baroque splendor dazzles to this day. As Francis Loring Payne describes the 240-foot-long hall in The Story of Versailles: “Seventeen lofty windows are matched by as many Venetian framed mirrors. Between each window and each mirror are pilasters designed by Coyzevox, Tubi and Caffieri—reigning masters of their time…Walls are of marble embellished with bronze-gilt trophies; large niches contain statues in the antique style.”
On May 6, 1682, Louis officially moved his court—including his government ministers, his official family, his mistresses and his illegitimate children—to Versailles. He also demanded that nobles and minor royals be in attendance at Versailles and live in whatever small apartments they were given. This move was designed to neutralize the power of the nobles. This it did, but it also created a hotbed of boredom and extravagance, with hundreds of aristocrats crammed together, many with nothing to do but gossip, spend money and play.
Royal Amusements Broke the Bank
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From the start, everything was over the top at Versailles. The elaborate dress required for the court nearly broke many noble families, while they were also expected to buy large quantities of French goods to support various industries. Amusements—be they concerts, multi-course banquets, balls or parades—packed the calendar. Plays and pageants were favorites of the royal household, and an enormous amount of money was spent on everything from the costumes to the set.
“Who would have thought, Monsieur, that a stage décor that shone with so much order, industry and innovation could have been created in less than a fortnight, in order to stand for perhaps a day?” the Abbe de Montigny wrote.
Gambling was also a favorite pastime during the reign of all three kings to rule over Versailles. According to Payne, “Sometimes the losses of the players at the tables were enormous; again, nobles counted their gains by the hundred thousands.” Payne recalls one game where the granddaughter of the King, the Duchess of Bourgogne, lost a sum equaling 600,000 francs, which her doting grandfather paid.
While most of France lived in poverty, fortunes were made and lost at Versailles on a nightly basis. Bribery was common, as were graft and embezzlement. The royal stables were often the target of corruption, Spawforth writes. In 1775 one noble was accused of taking 120 of the king’s horses for his own personal use.
By the time the sun king’s great-grandson, Louis XV, took the throne in 1715, public sentiment was beginning to turn against the crown—and Versailles. By the time his grandson Louis XVI was crowned in 1774, Versailles had acquired a sordid reputation that was further degraded by Louis XV’s love affairs and mistresses.
French Revolution Targets Versailles
In the 1780s, as the economy went into a tailspin, Versailles became the symbol of the crown’s lack of concern about its subjects. Protests became frequent and pamphlets depicting the debauched gambling, sexual liaisons and wanton spending of the royal family at Versailles appeared across the country. As 2000 starving workers protested outside Versailles in 1786, it was said courtiers enjoyed a sumptuous ball, dancing with the “greatest gayety.”
For many French folks, the Austrian-born queen, Marie Antoinette, became a hated symbol of all that was wrong at Versailles. “Her budget overruns on an annual clothing allowance of about $3.6 million in current spending were, in some years, more than double,” writes by Laurence Benaim in Fashion and Versailles. “Sometimes the King made up the difference, and occasionally the Queen made a propitiatory gesture of economy—she once refused a set of jewels on the ground that the Navy could use a new battleship.”
Then there were the bad optics of the epically “rustic” Petite Trianon, the Queen’s Versailles getaway, and the fake country village she built there for her amusement. “At one end of the lake a hamlet was created, with a picture-mill and a dairy, fitted with marble tables and cream jugs of rare porcelain,” Payne writes.
In the lead-up to revolution, rumors of the extravagance and excess of Versailles reached an all-time high. And so, it is not surprising that when revolution finally came, Versailles was one of the first places attacked.
Versailles, Spawforth explains, had become “the symbol and working center of a political and social system that many French people now saw as anachronistic and corrupt.”