If you enjoyed the TV series Versailles, then I suggest you read Josephine Wilkinson’s biography of Louis XIV: The Real King of Versailles, published in 2019.
In anticipation of Dr Wilkinson’s forthcoming book, The Man in the Iron Mask (US. Pegasus, 6th July 2021, $28.95 hardcover, $18.99 Kindle; and UK: Amberley 15th August 2021 at £17.60) I have just re-read this latest biography of Louis IXV in order to refresh my knowledge of this French monarch and the events of his very long reign.
While the BBC TV series provided sumptuous visuals of Louis’s lifestyle, this biography provides a much deeper insight into the influences that initially formed the character of the king who succeeded to the French throne at the age of four, and later, the machinations of various courtiers and administrators who connived and plotted against him and others.
What was not apparent in the TV series was the very deep and close relationship Louis had with his mother, Anne of Austria (1601 – 1666) sister of Philip IV of Spain. Anne was a deeply religious woman, who assumed the regency for the reign of her four year old son on the death of her husband Louis XIII (1601 – 1643). The Italian Cardinal Mazarin (1602 – 1661), who served both Louis XIII and his son as chief minister of France, guiding both kings and regent was rumoured to have had a close relationship with the queen. That rumour was never proved, but it demonstrates the atmosphere at the French court where rumours and gossip were rife.
When Louis became king in his own right, he appointed Nicholas Fouquet (1616 – 1680) whose family were nobles of the robe, i.e. a class of aristocrat whose rank came from holding posts in the judiciary or administration, to the post of Superintendent of Finances. Not only did Fouquet become a wealthy man in his own right, he married twice – the second time to the wealthy fifteen year old, Marie Madeleine de Castile (1635 – 1716) . It was his love of architecture, art and entertaining that is best seen in the exquisite château, Vaux-le-Vicomte. Fouquet employed the architect Louis le Vau (1612 – 1670) to design the château and André le Nôtre (1613 – 1700) to design the gardens. When the artist Charles le Brun (1619 – 1690) returned from Rome, Fouquet originally employed him to paint a portrait of the queen Mother, Anne of Austria and then commissioned le Brun to work at Vaux-le-Vicomte.
The three talents of le Vau, le Nôtre and le Brun created the glory that is Vaux. When Fouquet entertained the king there in 1661 little did Fouquet know that he would shortly fall from grace and be imprisoned, accused of having his fingers in the national financial pie, and of lèse majesté. Louis had clearly taken offence at the magnificence of Fouquet’s château, but despite Fouquet’s fall, the future bode well for the three artisans who had created it.
The entertainment laid on for the king’s visit in 1661 featured a new play by Molière, with a lavish repast, and fireworks. Louis had been planning to remove Fouquet from office as early as the May of that year. My abiding impression was that Fouquet was a man of style that the young king was determined to emulate, but had been manipulated by ambitious men who saw Fouquet as a threat.
From the descriptions of the troubles Fouquet found in Mazarin’s handling of the nation’s finances, right through to his arrest in 1661, the dedication this loyal servant of the French crown shines through. We also come to understand how others at court were jealous of his wealth and success, and how they plotted and schemed, dripping poisonous ideas into the 22 year old king’s mind about how Fouquet’s wealth had possibly come about, and perhaps this was why the minister of finance was able to build, decorate and furnish such a glorious residence. I would certainly like to know more about this man who had such a sense of style and elegance.
Whilst the world knows of the glory of Versailles, what is less known is that it was Fouquet’s château that inspired Louis’ palace. Le Vau, le Nôtre and le Brun were all involved in the development of this once humble hunting lodge. Many of us have been to Versailles and gloried in the Hall of Mirrors and looked up at le Brun’s ceiling where he has portrayed Louis as the Sun King.
Looked through the windows at the magnificent gardens laid out by le Nôtre and admired the magnificence of the actual building envisaged by Louis le Vau, but compared to Vaux, Versailles lacks the dignity and style of the former. Fouquet’s steward, François Vatel (1631 -1671), who created the banquet and designed the entertainments for the fateful fête of August 1661 ended up in the entourage of Louis II, Prince of Condé (1621 – 1686), after the prince’s restoration in 1659 after being exiled for rebelling against the king in 1651.
Clearly the later festivities that took place in Versailles were influenced by that 1661 event, which made me wonder why the king was determined to outshine Fouquet by building bigger palaces that had more bling, more art, bigger gardens with even bigger fountains, long after Fouquet had been consigned to prison. Why did this Breton aristocrat inspire such jealousy in his master and those around him?
Not only does Wilkinson describe the various wars, civil and otherwise, she tells of Louis’ love of all the arts and of the various entertainments and enacted at Versailles. How he was fond of dancing and opera, his interest in all the sciences and especially of gardening. These royal interests led to the founding of many French academies, most of which survived the Revolution of 1789 thus demonstrating that even Napoleon accepted their importance to French culture.
Court intrigue is not neglected, and not just the political ones such as the last Fronde led by Condé in 1651. The jealousy of various courtiers such as Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619 – 1683) who took over the French finances after Fouquet’s arrest, as well as what is known as The Affair of the Poisons. The plots are described and analysed in such a way that the individuals and events leap off the page with all the energy of those depicted in a fictional thriller.
Many of us will have formed a view of this long reigning French king from watching the various films such as The Three Musketeers or The Man in the Iron Mask, especially the 1998 version of the latter that starred a young Leonardo di Caprio. From these cinematographic manglings of Dumas’ stories (as well as history) we might be led to believe Louis was purely a fun loving king that had no care for his people, preferring to spend lavish amounts on building magnificent château, to party, to hunt, take mistresses, perform in various ballets, or enjoy the latest play by Molière or new operas by Lully, but this biography reveals this was not the case. Louis took his responsibilities as monarch very seriously. There are intriguing insights into his marital relationship with his first wife, his double first cousin Marie-Thérèse of Spain (1638 – 1683) who was, like Louis’ mother, Archduchess of Austria. This was a diplomatic marriage that was brought about in order to end the long running war between France and Spain.
After the death of Marie-Thérèse, Louis entered a morganatic marriage with the governess of his children, the intelligent and erudite Françoise d’Aubigné, better known as Madame de Maintenon (1635 – 1719). The chapter on Mme de Maintenon describes her childhood in the French West Indies and how she became Louis’ confidante and mistress. Her history is a real rags to riches story with all the ups and downs of a Grimm’s fairy tale.
When Louis died on 1st September 1715, he had ruled for seventy two years and one hundred and ten days, the longest rule of any European monarch to this day.
This biography benefits from Wilkinson’s use of many French sources, demonstrating how an author who is able to access prime sources in languages other than English, provides the reader with a deeper insight into a specific subject. Louis emerges as an absolute monarch with a love of display, but also as a deeply religious individual who took his coronation oaths seriously. Most of all he is portrayed as a flawed human being.
I am looking forward to the release of The Man in the Iron Mask later this year, and I hope that Jo will soon turn her attention to the other intrigues of the French court, especially the intriguing Affair of the Poisons – a mysterious plot to kill the French king involving witchcraft as well as poisons, and perhaps a biography of the elegant Nicholas Fouquet, who was clearly set up by those jealous of him.
Other titles by Josephine Wilkinson:
2009 Richard III: the Young King to be.
2010 Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress.
2012 Anne Boleyn: The Young Queen to be.
2013: The Princes in The Tower. Did Richard III murder his nephews, Edward V & Richard of York?
2017 Katharine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s fifth Queen.
Jo has also written a short story One Morning at Versailles, (click the link below to open the story in a new tab), which was published last October. This will give you an insight into just how versatile Jo Wilkinson is as a writer. Enjoy