Ever since King Louis XIV made Versailles the official seat of the French court and government in 1682, the palace has been a symbol of France's decadent monarchy. It started as a hunting lodge and only became a royal palace because of the king's whims. But the French government poured enough money into the remote lodge to make it the height of luxury - and also enormous, capable of hosting up to 20,000 people.
Court life at Versailles was replete with intrigue, scandal, corruption, and good old-fashioned adultery. The final years of the Ancien Régime were filled with enough salacious stories to fill several tabloid newspapers.
Here are some extreme stories from the court of Versailles that sound made up, but did actually happen.
Louis XIV's Mistress Got Caught Up In One Of The Court's Biggest Scandals
In the 1670s and 1680s, the French court was swept up in a literal witch hunt that caused hundreds of arrests and claimed dozens of lives. It began in the late 1660s, when members of the French court began perishing under mysterious circumstances.
Autopsies revealed blackened and damaged organs, which led officials to believe these casualties were caused by poisonings. In 1678, police received an anonymous tip that King Louis XIV himself was a target, kicking off an investigation that would last three years.
Suspicion soon turned to Paris's thriving underground arcana market. At this time, the scientific revolution was still ongoing and many Europeans of all classes still relied on magic to explain their world and solve their problems. Paris was home to a community of fortune-tellers, sorceresses, and potion-sellers who sold their wares to people from all walks of life. Ambitious aristocrats often relied on these goods to advance their stations. Sometimes, their solution was as benign as a good luck charm. But occasionally, that meant poison.
Investigators eventually set their sights on Catherine Monvoisin, known as La Voisin, the most prominent of these practitioners. Under interrogation, La Voisin's daughter implicated one of their clients, the king's mistress Athénaïs de Montespan de Rochechouart. Madame de Montespan had only frequented La Voisin to buy aphrodisiacs to sprinkle into the king's food, and for help on magic rituals designed to make him fall in love with her.
King Louis decided to suspend the public inquiry, but the investigation continued. Overall, 319 people were arrested and 36 were executed in what came to be called the Affair of the Poisons.385Outlandish?
Louis XV Had A Separate Area On The Versailles Grounds Where His Mistresses Lived
For centuries, the custom among male European royals was that they weren't expected to remain faithful to their wives, whom they often married out of political necessity. European rulers were allowed and even encouraged to have affairs. By the 18th century, mistresses of Bourbon kings could live openly, and received many special privileges.
Louis XV ordered the construction of a lavish apartment on the grounds of the royal palace specifically for his mistress, Madame de Pompadour. But Madame de Pompadour perished of tuberculosis before Le Petit Trianon was finished, and Louis re-gifted it to his next mistress, Madame du Barry.
Royal drama aside, the apartment is one of the defining examples of Neoclassical architecture.324Outlandish?
A French Aristocrat's Chef Took His Own Life After Fish Arrived Late For A Banquet
European royals would regularly travel with entourages that could number in the thousands, and banquets were a part of daily life. This meant that actually putting together these banquets was a logistical nightmare - especially since all food had to be sourced locally.
Francois Vatel served as officier de la bouche to Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, one of King Louis XIV's most important generals. Vatel was responsible for procuring food for everything from banquets to the king's bedtime snacks. In 1671, Vatel oversaw a banquet for 2,000 people - including the king himself.
The day before the banquet, Vatel's fish supplier informed him that they wouldn't have enough fish for the banquet. According to letters from the Marquise de Sevigne, Vatel was so distraught about the implications for his reputation that he braced a sword against the wall and ran himself through.
It later turned out that it was a misunderstanding, and there was enough fish for the banquet.3411Outlandish?
Louis XIV Had An Affair With His Brother's Wife
Henrietta of England was a major political figure in both the English and French courts of the 17th century, and like many European royals, her life was a tangled web.
Henrietta was the daughter of King Charles I - who was beheaded by pro-Parliament forces during the English Civil War - and the sister of Charles's son and successor, Charles II. Originally, Henrietta was supposed to marry King Louis XIV, but the English political turmoil relegated Henrietta to marrying Louis's brother, Philippe I, Duke of Orléans.
It was a political marriage, with the added complication that Philippe was most likely either gay or bisexual and regularly had affairs with male French aristocrats. Henrietta took her marital vows as seriously as Philippe did, and she was rumored to have had affairs with several other French nobles, including Louis XIV.
Even though their marriage was most likely loveless, the rumors still infuriated Philippe.2514Outlandish?