When The Sun King Louis XIV moved his court permanently to the magnificent Palace of Versailles, he made a big mistake. When considering how to house his court, he forgot (or, more likely, didn’t consider it important) to build space for the servants. The palace’s apartments were already cosy for the nobles themselves – housing the help was an ongoing issue.
To resolve this, many aristocratic families bought plots of land in the nearby village of Versailles and built their own houses called “hôtels.” These houses were more spacious, offering a sense of privacy that the cramped palace apartments couldn’t provide. There was plenty of room for the dozens of servants required to maintain a courtier’s appearance and household, but living off-site was completely undesirable for one simple reason. During the reign of Louis XIV, it was crucial for courtiers to be constantly seen by the king. Even if they didn’t hold official positions in the royal households, they could catch the king’s eye or have a quick chat with him. This was their chance for advancement. So, despite the allure of a comfortable house in the village, most aristocrats opted to stay in the palace’s modest rooms, hoping for a better apartment in the future.
Which begs the question: where did they house the servants?
Housing the help
Aristocrats relied heavily on their valets and chambermaids. These hardworking individuals had to be available day and night, ensuring everything ran smoothly. So, where did they sleep?
Well, picture this: every courtier aside from the most prominent lived in small apartments within the palace, consisting of a bed chamber, a cabinet, and maybe a wardrobe. Yes, you heard it right, the wardrobe. Today, we think of it as a place for clothes, but in the 18th century, it had a broader meaning. It was a small room where various household necessities, including clothing, toiletries, and sometimes even portable toilets, were stored. And this is where the valets and chambermaids slept, usually on beds that could be tucked away during the day.
You might be thinking, “Wow, those rooms must have been incredibly tiny!” And you’re right. Some servant quarters were so small that a grown man could hardly stand upright. However, it’s important to note that these rooms were primarily for sleeping. The servants spent most of their days elsewhere, assisting their masters. Nonetheless, sleeping in a cramped room with poor ventilation and no heating couldn’t have been pleasant.
Marie Antoinette vs Madame du Barry: a war on empathy
Let’s take a closer look at two fascinating women from the late 18th century, Marie Antoinette and Madame du Barry. Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, was known for treating her servants with kindness and respect. She was especially close to her chambermaid, whom she affectionately called “my good Rosalie,” and often relied on her for guidance and support. Despite her reputation for living extravagantly, Marie Antoinette genuinely cared for her servants. She frequently invited them to share meals with her and showed concern for their well-being.
Madame du Barry, a mistress of Louis XV, had a more controversial reputation. Some stories tell that she had a close relationship with her chambermaid, whom she fondly called “my dear Nannette,” and even provided her with a small apartment of her own. Others say she could be strict with her servants and demanded obedience in a harsh way. Likely, both are true. But we also must remember, history is written by the victors, and while Madame du Barry did carry the upper hand for a long time, the death of her lover, the king, brought about her fall from favour. It could very well be that she was a likeable person and treated her servants with kindness. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.
The fortunate few
In some cases, if a noble family managed to secure a particularly spacious apartment, their servants might enjoy better living conditions. These fortunate few might have their own stove for heating, although they were still required to share. It’s worth noting that even the lower-ranking servants, such as pages and footmen, had relatively more space in the antechambers, where they would set up foldable beds. Each morning, they would neatly pack them away before embarking on their daily duties.
Luck of the draw
Despite the cramped living quarters, the relationship between nobles and their servants was complex. Some nobles treated their servants with kindness and respect, while others were known for their cruelty and mistreatment. Some were known for being abusive or neglectful towards their servants. For example, the Marquis de Sade, a notorious figure from the same time period, was known for mistreating his servants and even keeping some of them locked up in his home.
Despite the challenges and risks involved in serving the nobility, many people chose to become servants because it offered them a chance at a better life. By working for a noble family, they could earn a steady income, receive room and board, and potentially even advance their social status through their connection to their employers.
While the living conditions for servants in the 18th century were often cramped and uncomfortable, the relationship between nobles and their servants was complex and varied. Some servants were treated with kindness and respect, while others suffered from mistreatment and abuse. Nonetheless, for many people, serving the nobility offered a chance at a better life and an opportunity to improve their social standing.