The story of the Palace of Versailles begins with a visit paid by Louis XIV, then a young man of twenty-three, to his Minister of Finance, Nicolas Fouquet, at his wonderful country-house at Vaux. It was never wise for the minister of an autocrat to build himself too gorgeous a palace. Hampton Court had not a little to do with the fall of Wolsey ; Vaux was the undoing of Fouquet, an astute man of figures who had looked after the considerable fortune of Mazarin, and in collecting the national taxes had not forgotten himself. Fouquet was ” a friend of the arts, a friend of letters, a friend of women,” the patron of La Fontaine and Corneille, and a man whom Mme. de Sevigne found witty. The palace at Vaux had cost Fouquet eighteen million francs. Three villages had been destroyed in order that its gardens might be spacious. And Louis, young, arrogant, hating the idea that any one should possess anything finer than his own possessions, was filled with envy. His own country-houses at Fontainebleau and St. Germain were mere villas compared to Fouquet’s palace, and it was intolerable that a subject should be better housed than his master. To envy.was added anger when he discovered that his host possessed a picture of Louise de la Valliere. Sour – faced Colbert, who hated Fouquet and wanted his place, was ready at the King’s elbow to whisper into his willing ear that such a fortune could only have been accumulated by robbing the royal revenues. And a month after the visit, d’Artagnan arrested Fouquet, Louis took over his architect, Le Vau, and his gardener, Le Notre, and appropriated his orange trees. With architect, gardener and orange trees in hand, he began to build the palace of Versailles and to lay out its grounds, building on to a hunting-box to which his father had often gone to escape from Richelieu and the cares of State.
Versailles plays a great part in the history of France, and not a small part in the history of Europe. In the eighteenth century its splendours were shoddily imitated by every petty German princeling. It set the pace for European royalty, and it was a pace that killed.
It was at Fontainebleau that Louis first met Louise de la Valliere. She was then a girl of seventeen. Claude Ferval, who has written her story so well, a story that the poet Jean Richepin has described as ” so romantic, so unreal, so improbable,” says that the girl was ” more than pretty, with her tender appealing eyes, her frank mouth and her fair silvery hair, and she had a certain air of modesty and honesty which made her respected as well as desired.” There is no question that Louise loved the King sincerely and passionately. She was always disinterested and hardly ever happy. She was the central figure, Queen and Queen Mother being hardly regarded, in the first series of fetes that Louis gave at Versailles in 1664. Remembering Ariosto, the master of the revels had conceived an enchanted island that had contrived to float to France. On the first night the knights of Ariosto, magnificently dressed, paraded before the ladies of the Court.
“The King, representing Roger, mounted one of the finest horses in the world, whose flame-coloured harness shone with gold and silver, and precious stones. The King, like all. the members of his troop, was armed in the Greek fashion, and wore a cuirass plated with silver and covered with rich embroidery in gold and diamonds. His bearing and all his gestures were worthy of his rank : his helmet, covered with flame-coloured plumes, was worn with incomparable grace ; and never did a bolder or a more soldierly air make a mortal superior to other men.”
Then as night fell there was a procession of the seasons and pagan gods, Lulli leading the music and Moliere appearing as Pan. On the second night Moliere and his troupe performed his comedy, La Princesse d’Elis, the performance concluding with a ballet of fauns and shepherds ” so grand, so full of incident and so agreeable that nothing finer in the way of a ballet has ever been seen.” Fireworks that apparently rivalled the achievements of Mr. Brock were the piece de resistance of the third night, and after dinner the ladies drew lots for “jewellery, ornaments, silver and other similar things,” it being arranged that La Valliere should win a beautiful bracelet greatly envied by the King’s sister-in-law. In 1664, however, the palace was still only a comparatively small house, and the courtiers loudly grumbled since, when the festivities were over, many of them had scarcely a hole in which to take shelter.
In the next year Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, stopped for five days at Versailles, and the first performance of Moliere’s L’Amour medecin took place in the palace. La Valliere was created a duchess in 1666, but already her long expiation had begun. Frangoise Athenais de Tonnay Charente, Marquise de Montespan, had arrived at Versailles, ” beautiful as the day,” to quote Saint – Simon, witty, ambitious, shameless, and, when he met her, Louis began to grow indifferent to the timid charms of Louise. The courtiers, after their manner, were quick to note the passing of one favourite and the rising of another, and a verse was handed from hand to hand in the salons and corridors of the palace :
On dit que La Valliere
S’en va sur son declin ;
Montespan prend sa place,
Il faut que tout y passe
Ainsi de main en main.
La Valliere, although she was only just over twenty, was already losing her beauty. Her manner was sad, her eyes were often filled with tears. De Montespan was a figure of love and laughter, determined to win the King’s favour, consulting, so it is said, sorcerers to gain her end. Whether or not the sorcery was effective, her conquest of the King was complete. With almost incredible cruelty he compelled La Valliere to remain at Versailles to watch her rival’s triumph and in a sort of queer way to cover the King’s inconstancy. Claude Ferval has written a vivid picture of de Montespan :
” She flaunted her glories but failed to charm any one. She was full of greed and ambition and caprice, but no real love, none of that blushing weakness which wins affection and asks forgiveness. An incomparable carnal splendour, an inextinguishable laugh, a richness of blood which rendered the use of rouge on her cheeks unnecessary, all added to the scandal rather than excused it. The opulence of’ her arms and hair, full of precious stones, seemed to court admiration rather than love. But as she was, the King idolised his new mistress and the Court was at her feet. It is true that no one was more amusing than she ; no one knew better how to act the great lady. Her wit had a style of its own-it was at once refined, bantering, eloquent, and audacious in the choice of words. She had taste. She gave her patronage to Lulli and encouraged Racine and Quinault.”
She was the queen of another great fete which Louis gave in 1668, and which is said to have cost him a hundred thousand livres. It took place just after the Peace of Aix la-Chapelle had given the French King a supreme position in Europe, and its principal feature was the production in a specially erected theatre of Moliere’s Georges Dandin. At supper La V’alli6re sat at the King’s table with Mme. de Sevigne and. the daughter to whom she addressed her famous letters. At a table near by sat de Montespan, and with her a severe-looking woman of determined aspect, dressed plainly but ” like a woman who spends her life among persons of quality,” certainly disapproving of the sumptuous extravagance, although she may not have shown her disapproval. She was Mme. Scarron, widow of a scabrous poet, governess of the children de Montespan had borne the King, and one day to be Mme. de Maintenon, and his morganatic wife.
La Valliere spent her last night at Versailles in March 1674. Deserted by the King, she had turned to God for comfort, and, guided by the great Bossuet, she had at last found peace. He said of her: ” The mark of God’s favour is the strength and humility that accompany all her thoughts. He speaks and she obeys.” She paid all the visits of ceremony demanded by etiquette, making as it were a public confession of her sin. ” Since my sins are known to all,” she said, ” it is necessary that the repentance should also be known.” The King was indifferent, but his kindly Queen was gentle and compassionate, ready with assurance of forgiveness. The sad ceremonies over, La Valliere quietly drove down the long avenue of Versailles into Paris, past the Tuileries and Notre-Dame, to the Faubourg St. Jacques : ” Almost opposite the Val-de-Grace rises a noble gateway framed by two columns. A crowd has gathered, for the news had been spread abroad that on that day the gates would open and then shut on the Duchesse de la Valliere for ever. She had come to the entrance of the Carmel.”
Once before she had escaped from Versailles to a convent, to be brought back by the always useful Colbert, but this time she had. left Versailles for ever. ” When I shall be suffering at the convent,” she once said at Versailles, ” I shall only have to remember what they made me suffer here, and all pains will seem light to me.”
She died after twenty-six years of the most rigorously ascetic life, subjecting herself to the severest disciplines, ruining her health by lengthy fasts, eager to pay the full penalty for her wrongdoing. On the morning of her death she was found by the nuns lying in a dead faint, numbed with cold, at the threshold of the sanctuary, and when she was taken to the infirmary to die a few hours later, her emaciated body lay between sheets for the first time since she passed the convent gate.
The flaunting de Montespan was to stay nearly another ten years at Versailles, but not as the supreme sultana. The Grand Trianon was bought for her, and the King was the slave of her caprices, but, after a time, they began to weary him. Bossuet having persuaded the King to permit Louise de la Valliere to take refuge in the convent for which she had yearned so long, set himself to urge the dismissal of de Montespan and the ending of a public scandal. In 1675, indeed, she left Versailles, but only for a little while, coming back to receive from the King as compensation for her temporary disgrace, a dress of ” gold on gold, and gold embroidered on that, and above that again a gold-in-relief figure with gold mixed with a certain gold which makes the most divine material that ever was imagined.” De Montespan fell because she nagged. She was foolish enough to be rude in public. Moreover, again there were rumours of dealings with sorcerers, of black masses and those consultations with alchemists in the search for the philosopher’s stone to which Moliere refers in his L’Amant magnifique. The stories were probably vastly exaggerated, if not entirely untrue, but the King was now a man of forty, always jealous for his dignity, which, be it added, few kings more consistently maintained, and he had always a genuine regard for religion. The domination of de Montespan came to an end in 1679 with the short love affair with Mdlle. de Fontanges who, to quote a contemporary, was ” as fair as an angel, as stupid as an owl.” But this episode lasted for something less than a year.