|West facade of Versailles before construction of Hall of Mirrors.|
Versailles, just as every other royal court, was not only the nation’s power center, but also a hotbed of juicy rumor and delicious gossip. And there was plenty of fuel for the fire since even acts expected to be the most private—including personal bodily functions, dressing and undressing, sexual encounters, and births—were attended by courtiers and nobles who held various levels of rights of access. Naturally, the greater the Rights, the higher the individual’s personal prestige, so they were greatly prized. Louis XIV, France’s Sun King, developed these elaborate ceremonies in the 17th century as a way to control the nobles. By the late 1770s, when Refiner’s Fire is set, power struggles played out on the field of etiquette were rife.
The most important nobles held Major Rights, which included things like being able to sit in the royal presence or to address the king as Monsieur instead of Monseigneur or Majesté, a privilege that indicated the highest intimacy. Lesser nobles and servants such as physicians and valets-de-chambres were granted only Minor Rights—much less impressive, but nevertheless an indication of a degree of royal favor that could be lorded over those less fortunate.
Every day started with the ritual morning dressing, held separately for king and queen, beginning with a petit lever attended only by those who held Major Rights and followed by a grand lever open to those who held Minor Rights. The king and queen could not put on any item of clothing until it had been handed to them by whoever held that particular right. On one occasion, while Marie Antoinette waited stark naked and shivering, not to mention increasingly frustrated and humiliated, ever greater rights-holders kept entering the chamber, which meant that the article she was waiting for first had to be handed from the person in possession of it to the one who outranked her. One presumes that by the time the grand lever began the king and queen at least had their underclothes on! The ritual undressing, the coucher, followed in the evening with the same formalities as the monarchs were put to bed with the assistance of the highest ranking members of the nobility.
|Portrait of Marie Antoinette|
by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1778
At court ladies were expected to wear the cumbersome court dress that featured extremely wide hoops and a long train to display the expensive fabric it was made of. At right is an example worn by Marie Antoinette. Men’s dress was no less ornate. Both men and women had to have their hair powdered, of course. First pomatum was applied to the hair, then an enormous cape was draped over one’s clothing and powder was blown onto the hair. For ladies wool, tow, pads, and wire were added to their own hair to construct towering coiffures called poufs, which featured feathers and other ornaments. Imagine managing both a really wide, long dress while wearing a really tall monstrosity on one’s head for hours at a time! How would you sit down? Or go to the bathroom?
Madame de Pompadour at Her Toilette
by Boucher, 1758
Another interesting feature of the French court was that every subject traditionally possessed the right of access to the sovereign. This naturally made security at the palace essentially nonexistent. The common people freely roamed through the palace’s salons, hallways, and chambers, and not necessarily in decent dress. They even entered the king’s apartment as soon as he stepped out. Though the queen’s apartment was generally considered off limits, the fishwives held an ancient right to address the queen on certain prescribed occasions. This eventually morphed into a general right of access for all the market women, and they would flock into the queen’s rooms and boldly admonish her and the princesses on their perceived failings.
What struck foreign visitors to Versailles in the 18th century most was the smell and the dirt. Much of it resulted from the royals’ numerous pets. Cats, dogs, monkeys, birds—you name it, they had it. You can imagine the chaos of animals bounding through the palace at will and doing their business wherever. To say nothing of the vagrants who settled into the palace’s many nooks and crannies in such numbers that they occasionally had to be routed out with spaniels. According to some reports, you could smell the place five miles out.
All in all, life as a French king or queen wasn’t as glamorous as one might imagine. A whole crowd of royals and nobles even had to attend the queen when she gave birth! How would you feel about having so many people involved in your most private moments? Please let us know what you think about the royal life!
~~~J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is also an author, editor, and publisher. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series coauthored with Bob Hostetler, won Foreword Magazine’s 2014 Indie Book of the Year Bronze Award for Historical Fiction. Book 2, The Return, received the 2017 Interviews and Reviews Silver Historical Fiction Award. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year.