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Today's selection -- from A History of France by John Julius Norwich. France revolved around Louis XIV and his palace at Versailles:
 
"Louis XIV was crowned on 7 June 1654. He was soon to be sixteen and was henceforth his own man, determined to govern France as he wished. He worked hard, for at least six hours a day, often for far longer. He may not have been exceptionally intelligent (the Duc de Saint-Simon, who disliked him, said that he was born with a mind below the mediocre, though this is certainly untrue) but he was never inflexible, always ready to listen to the advice of others and, if he thought it desirable, to act on it. Everyone remarked on the perfection of his manners. He was never offensive, seldom raised his voice and never failed to lift his hat on passing a woman -- including the palace chambermaids. He was patient, and he was kind; and if he was famously susceptible to flattery, preferably laid on with a trowel -- well, there are many worse faults than that.

"He remained, however -- and let this never be forgotten -- an absolute despot. When he remarked that he was the State -- 'L'Etat, c'est moi' -- he spoke no more than the truth. Ultimate decisions were taken by him, and by him alone. At the beginning of his reign the Treasury was in the hands of the Superintendent of Finance, Nicolas Fouquet, a highly intelligent and cultivated man and one of France's principal patrons of the arts, a close friend of Madame de Sevigne (the greatest letter-writer of her day) and of the fabulist Jean de la Fontaine; alas, he was his own worst enemy. He had recently built a splendid chateau for himself at Vaux-le-Vicomte, some thirty miles south-east of Paris. Here he gave magnificent receptions and enter­tainments -- to which on one occasion he invited the king. This proved a mistake, first of all because it suggested that he was putting himself on a par with His Majesty, and second because people began asking themselves where all his money had come from -- and since the subject of their curiosity was the Superintendent of Finance the conclusion was not difficult to draw. When he went even further by buying -- and fortifying -- the remote island of Belle-Île off the coast of Brittany, he was charged with embezzlement, given no means of defending himself, found guilty and condemned to exile -- a sentence which the king 'commuted' to imprisonment for life. He was sent to the fortress of Pignerol (Pinerolo) in Piedmont, where he was to remain until his death sixteen years later.

1655 portrait of Louis, the Victor of the Fronde, portrayed as the god Jupiter

"The way was now clear for his successor, a young official from Reims named Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Colbert's job was a permanent challenge: it was not easy to control the finances of an absolute monarch. 'I entreat Your Majesty', he wrote to the king, 'to allow me to say that in war and in peace Your Majesty has never consulted his finances to determine his expenditures.' One can only wonder what suffering he was caused by his master's passion for warfare -- or indeed by the building of the Chateau de Versailles.

"There was in fact a small country house in the village already, built by his father; and Louis had adopted the habit of making quite frequent visits there to see a mistress or two. He loved the place above all because of the privacy it afforded. At the Louvre he was never alone; people went in and out as they wished. To enjoy a good love affair in such surroundings was virtually impossible. He slipped off to Versailles more and more often, throwing out wings here and extensions there; until finally in 1682 he made the palace (as it had now become) his principal residence -- and, very soon afterwards, that of most of the aristocracy of France. Within a year or two some 5,000 people were living there, more often than not in conditions of considerable squalor -- the building was totally without sanitation -- but they had no choice. Unlike their British counterparts, who apart from occasional visits to the House of Lords had no reason to leave their country estates, these French noblemen lost all connection with the lands from which they came; if they failed to live at court, they found themselves virtually disowned by the king, deprived of all lucrative positions and benefices. Life at Versailles was ruinously expensive, but that again was deliberate: past experience of what the aristocracy could do had taught Louis to keep their wings severely clipped. For them, everything depended on the king's favour. With the flicker of an eyelash he could grant them a pension or accord them some valuable privilege: with a single word he could raise a man to distinction or dash him to the dust. Another institution that struck fear into the hearts of the nobility -- and the bourgeoisie too for that matter -- was the lettre de cachet. Such a docu­ment, sealed with the royal seal and countersigned by a Secretary of State, could send any of the king's subjects, without appeal, to the Bastille for an indefinite period. Louis himself used this weapon spar­ingly -- sometimes even mercifully, to spare a family the shame and notoriety of the law courts; but even the threat of it was usually enough to keep an overambitious nobleman in his place.

"Louis XIV, as we know, liked to think of himself as the sun -- the dazzling light that irradiated all around him. Light there may have been; but there was very little warmth. Let no one imagine that life at Versailles was fun; it was for the most part bitterly cold, desperately uncomfortable, poisonously unhealthy, and of a tedium probably unparalleled. The most prevalent emotion was fear: fear of the king himself, fear of his absolute power, fear of the single thoughtless word or gesture that might destroy one's career or even one's life. And what was one's life anyway? A ceaseless round of empty ceremonial leading absolutely nowhere, offering the occasional mild amusement."
 

A History of France
 
author: John Julius Norwich  
title: A History of France  
publisher: Grove Press  
date: Copyright 2018, John Julius Norwich  
page(s): 161-164  
A History of France
 

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