The Palace of Versailles was the home to French Kings and Queens. It still stands today; you can even go and visit it. It is the sprawling creation of King Louis XIV who extended his father’s old hunting lodge to create one of the grandest palaces the world has ever seen. In 1682, Louis XIV moved his family into the Palace of Versailles and declared it the official French royal residence.
Louis XIV continued to upgrade and expand the Palace during his reign, and the kings and queens after him continued his work. In fact, up until the Revolution in 1789 the palace was under constant construction, whether it was building new rooms or redecorating the old ones. Today, The Palace of Versailles has over 2,300 rooms, 70 staircases and had up to 3,000 people living in it at a time. This included the royal family, members of the nobility, government officials and servants. Everyone who lived there had to abide by strict rules of etiquette and spent fortunes on clothing to look the part.
The rooms were divided into public and private rooms.
Public rooms, or State Rooms, were just that – completely open to member of the general public who wanted to come and view the royal family. Just as long as the men carried swords and the women were somewhat fashionably dressed, they were free to wander the Palace of Versailles. This is how King Louis XIV – also known as the Sun King – wanted to live; surrounded by an adoring public.
Because King Louis XIV believed the royal family were the public property of the people, they were on constant display to the visitors at the Palace of Versailles with very little opportunity for privacy.
In fact, the bedrooms of the king and queen were public rooms! Anybody was welcome to watch the queen put on her makeup and wash her hands, and anyone with Rights of Entry (the right to be in close quarters to the royal family) could watch her change her dress. Even putting the royal family to bed was a public affair where many people were allowed to watch.
Like in this picture of the Queen’s Bedroom, the public rooms were all separated by a golden partition down the middle so that the royal family and high-ranking nobles could remain safely on one side while everybody else, including commoners, were corralled on the other side.
The private rooms were built to allow the royals a little privacy. They were usually behind the State Rooms so that they royal family could retire to a little privacy if they needed rest or a private meeting.
Marie Antoinette used her private rooms a lot when she became queen. Her childhood had been nothing like the public life of the French royal court and she longed for privacy. She began to dress in her private rooms, took rests during the day in her private Meridian room and extended her private apartment up into the second floor of the Palace of Versailles to allow herself more private space. She even had a small private palace and built a little village on the palace grounds where she could keep farm animals and enjoy a life separate from her royal existence.
The Hall of Mirrors
The Hall of Mirrors is by far the most famous room in the Palace. It sits between the King’s and Queen’s apartments and serves as a walkway between the two. Originally it was a large balcony but was rarely used because it was open to bad weather. It was demolished and the Hall was built, taking almost six years to complete!
The Hall has over 30 different scenes painted on the ceiling, all honouring different war, political and artistic successes for France.
357 mirrors line the walls with 17 large arched windows looking out over the grand palace gardens. Everything about this room was designed to show off the power and wealth of the French court.
Courtiers and visitors crossed the Hall of Mirrors daily between the two grand royal apartments. It was also used for lavish ceremonies such as grand balls and wedding receptions.
While the king and his immediate family lived in splendour, the other residents of the palace did not have so much luck.
The King wanted his nobles to live at court so he could keep and eye on them and make sure they weren’t plotting to overthrow him.
The nobles, on the other hand, were happy to live at court because they were given status, money and gifts for doing so.
Even though there are 2,000 rooms at the Palace of Versailles, spcae was still an issue. Many of these thousands of rooms were State Rooms like galleries and dining halls. Besides that, the apartments of the king and queen had up to 20 rooms each, and high ranking courtiers would have at least seven or eight in their apartments.
So for lower ranking courtiers, their accommodation was often much less grand. They were often housed in small apartments (or even individual rooms) in the attic space. Up there it was hot in summer, freezing in winter and very cramped. Given that these courtiers had large estates and country manors of their own, it seems silly today that they would chose to live cramped into the kings smelly, cold attic!
To spare the court the smells and sounds of the kitchens, Louis XIV had the kitchens build out near the stables – separate from the palace. This meant that the 20 – 30 courses the royal family ate every day were all brought in from outside, no matter the weather, and hauled through the palace. Not surprisingly, most of the meals at Versailles were served cold.
Not as glamorous as it seems
The palace was stupendous – on the surface. During the time it was a royal residence – between 1682 and 1789 – it was actually known throughout Europe as one of the filthiest palaces in the world. The maids were too busy, or unwilling, to clean properly. Dozens of dogs lived there but nobody was too concerned with house training them. The fireplaces didn’t draw out smoke properly so most of the rooms were filled with smoke and there were no such thing as public toilets, meaning the visiting public made use of stairwells, pot plants and garden beds whenever they needed to relieve themselves.