By Donna Wichelman
My daughter instigated my first visit to the Palace of Versailles in the summer of 2018. She’d known about its extraordinary role in history, heard about the spectacular gardens, and seen a feature film that took place there during the time of Marie Antoinette. Since we were already going to take a family vacation to Ireland and England, it would only be a hop across the English Channel to do a four-day mother/daughter trip to Paris.
The Palace of Versailles conjures a multitude of extravagant celebrations or significant historical events in its four-hundred-year existence. The most recent lavish affair would have welcomed King Charles III of Great Britain in March 2023. Unfortunately, riots in Paris and elsewhere in France delayed the event until at least summer.
We might ogle such landmark occasions with awe as we consider entertaining guests in our own modest castles. If you’re like me, we take a little more casual approach when it’s family. But, invite a new acquaintance, give a wedding shower or a large holiday party, and it takes days to prepare--cleaning the house until it’s immaculate, planning a menu of the choicest delights, and serving up a spread that gives guests the royal treatment.
Imagine, then, Louis XIV’s conception of a monolithic enterprise so extravagant that it elicited the grandest of all royal treatments. What started as an unremarkable hunting lodge surrounded by a vast forest with plenty of game constructed by Louis XIII in 1623, became the opulent palace we know today on a massive 800-hectare (3 square miles) estate. The palace consists of no less than 2,300 rooms, while the rest of the estate includes two more chateaux, two opera houses, Marie Antoinette’s Museum, and hectares of parks and formal gardens with numerous fountains.
As a boy, Louis's mother, Anne of Austria, instilled in Louis a belief in the divine power and authority of the monarchy. Versailles embodied the expression of that premise. The lavish expansion of the palace was allegorical of his desire to extend France's reign over Europe, which he eventually accomplished, moving his borders eastward into the Hapsburg dynasty. He also warred against Spain, developing a European coalition to gain the throne for his grandson.
But Louis’s vainglorious attitude was most demonstrated in his lavish parties put on for hundreds, sometimes thousands of people.
The Party of the Delights of the Enchanted Island in 1664 was his first and purported to be in honor of Louis XIV’s mother. Instead, it was a ruse to host his mistress Louise de LaVallière. The party took place over a week in which a fictional tale on a grand scale was acted out with costumes, sorcery, and seduction—the king himself being the hero. Thousands of torches and lanterns lit the gardens at night, while dinner guests watched ballets and theatrical performances. A grand display of royal fireworks consummated the event.
The Great Royal Entertainment in 1668 gave Louis an excuse to expand his gardens and fountains. It featured the new Dragon Fountain, an extravagant tea party, and a theater production performed in a new theater with crystal lamps. The celebration included a banquet and the traditional fireworks display.
Louis XV carried on his father’s tradition in 1745 with the Yew Ball in celebration of his eldest son’s marriage to María Teresa Rafaela of Spain. However, history has conferred on the ball an entirely different event.
As with all the parties at the palace, theatrics played a huge role as guests were ushered into the Hall of Mirrors and met by eight people dressed as clipped yew trees. In the hall, Louis, encountered Jeannne Antoinette, dressed up as the goddess Diana, and the rest is history as it was the beginning of their infamous affair with Louis imputing to her the title of Marquise de Pompadour.
Other events of note include Marie Antoninette’s Wedding Party in 1770 with all its fanfare, theatrics, garden parties, and fireworks, and the Ball for Queen Victoria hosted by Emperor Napoleon III in 1855.
By the time of Queen Victoria’s visit, the French Revolution had chased the last of the royal court to Paris in 1789. As a gesture of reconciliation with the people of France after the revolution, King Louis-Philippe turned the Palace of Versailles into the Museum of the History of France in 1837.
When Queen Victoria visited in 1855, Napoleon III wanted to put on an extravagant event equaling those of the monarchy. Twelve hundred guests saw the Marble Courtyard, the Hall of Mirrors, and the Royal Opera House illuminated by gas lamps. Four orchestras played in the four corners of the Hall of Mirrors conducted by Isaac Straus and Dufresne where, according to the Chateaux website, (https://en.chateauversailles.fr/discover/history/key-dates/visit-queen-victoria-1855) “Hundreds of chandeliers, girandoles and torches were reflected in the mirrors, and large garlands of flowers were hung from the ceiling. Gold and diamonds glistened everywhere among the men dressed in evening attire and the women in crinoline dresses." And Queen Victoria was treated to the most sumptuous dinner and, of course, the royal fireworks display.
Perhaps the most well-known historical event in modern history at Versailles is the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, marking the end of World War I, June 28, 1919, also held in the Hall of Mirrors. Unlike the lavish balls of earlier centuries, the signing of the treaty took on a more somber tone and has been considered one of the greatest diplomatic blunders of the 20th century, leading to Adolf Hitler’s rise and World War II.
In a few months, I’ll have an opportunity to visit the Palace of Versailles and its gardens once more. This time, I’ll observe it with a keen eye, knowing more about Louis XIV and what motivated him to create the palatial estate. I hope to provide more of my reflections on this grand estate in another blog in the coming months.
Weaving history and faith into stories of intrigue and redemption grew out of Donna's love of history and English literature as a young adult while attending the United World College of the Atlantic—an international college in Wales, U.K. She still loves to explore peoples and cultures of the world, developing plots that show how God’s love abounds even in the profoundly difficult circumstances of our lives. Her stories reflect the hunger in all of us for love, forgiveness, and redemption in a world that often withholds second chances.