In the heyday of Versailles’ majestic court life, ‘ceremonies’ were an integral part of life. The ceremonies were rituals that took place every day to showcase the royal family’s importance, and the court performed them with earnest sincerity. These ceremonies were for anything, such as the ‘debotter’ ceremony of removing the king’s boots, his waking up and going to bed ceremonies and the ritualistic ‘getting ready’ of every member of the royal family. But before we talk about precisely what these ceremonies were, let’s talk about why.
I mean, seriously…why?
While some early versions of these rituals may have taken place before King Louis XIV, he was the one who turned them from a courtesy into a rigorous routine. Aside from the obvious immodest reason of wanting to be the centre of attention (from the man who dubbed himself the ‘Sun King’!), he may have had smarter reasons. First, structuring his day around ceremonies that took place at the same time every day means that one would know exactly where to find His Majesty at any given time of any day. Secondly, and perhaps most cleverly, they helped to keep him safe on the throne. You see, these ceremonies involved handing out honours to favourite nobles – such as the honour of handing His Majesty a hand mirror or putting on his shoes. High ranking nobles would squabble for their small part of the ceremony, and when these nobles were quarrelling over who got to pass the king a stocking, they weren’t plotting to overthrow him.
Quite brilliant, really.
All members of the royal family would partake of their own ceremonies. Let’s have a look at a few.
The King’s Levée (Getting Up ceremony)
The ‘getting up’ ceremony began at 8:30 am when the First Valet of the Bedchamber came to wake the king. Select members of the court were invited into the king’s bed-chamber to watch as he was washed, shaved, coiffed and dressed.
In the second stage of the ceremony, more than 100 male subjects were admitted into the king’s bed-chamber to watch him eat breakfast.
The process was reversed for putting him to bed.
The Queen’s Dressing
The queen’s toilet was a masterpiece of etiquette; everything was done in a prescribed form. The honour of handing the queen her petticoat and pouring water for her to wash her hands was as desirable a task as attending the king. Usually, it was awarded to the dame d’honneur. It went something like this.
The queen would be undressed – yes, in front of a room full of people. While this may seem strange by our standards today, we have to remember that a woman of high birth was raised being dressed and undressed by servants as their gowns were so complicated. Coupled with the pomp and ceremony of daily life in Versailles, the queen’s nudity in a room of select nobles was something she would have been used to.
Once undressed, the dame d’honneur would present the queen her petticoat. But not if a princess of the royal family happened to attend the ceremony. In that case, the dame d’honneur would pass the garment to the first femme de Chambre, who, in her turn, handed it to the princess of the blood.
The same ceremony would take place in the dauphine’s (the princess married to the prince next in line to the throne) room. Once, young Marie Antoinette found herself in an awkward situation.
One winter’s day, Marie Antoinette, who was entirely undressed, was going to put on her shift, held out to her by the dame d’honneur, when a scratching at the door admitted the Duchesse d’Orleans, who was a princess of the blood. She took her time to remove her gloves before she was ready to take her part in the ceremony. But as it would have been wrong for the dame d’honneur to hand the linen directly to the duchesse so it was handed back to the first femme de Chambre, and then passed on to the duchesse.
More scratching at the door then emitted the Comtesse de Provence, who proceeded to remove her gloves before taking the petticoat. All this while the poor young princess kept her arms crossed over her bosom, and was likely very cold.
It’s no wonder she abolished this ceremony once she became queen.
The Royal Table
At 10 pm each evening, Louis XIV would sit down to dinner. His family were invited to join him, and anybody, from nobles to commoners visiting the palace, was welcome to watch. Very high ranking nobles were permitted to perch upon padded stools as they watched the king eat, but everybody else had to stand – nobles on the foreside of the gold partition which ran the length of the room, and the commoners on the other side.
Dinner at the Royal Table was held at 10 pm in the queen’s or the king’s antechamber.
There was a large number of dishes, which were brought to the table in ‘services’ at staggered intervals. Roasts and salads followed the soup and starters, then puddings and finally fruit. It is fun to note that the king disliked the noise and smell a kitchen emitted and so had the kitchens built down by the palace stables. More often than not, the king received his dinner ice cold.
For all this, the meal lasted less than an hour.
At about 11.30 pm, the reverse of the waking up ceremony was performed in public as his subjects wished him a good night’s sleep.