Versailles etiquette was as complicated and ornate as the furniture and artwork filling the great chambers of the French royal palace. The smallest details of life at court were dictated, regulated, and policed. But more often than not, court etiquette at Versailles was more bizarre than it was dignified.
The palace of Versailles was meant to awe. In 1682, King Louis XIV officially moved his court to Versailles, which had previously been a royal hunting lodge used for entertaining. Louis transformed the structure into an opulent, palatial symbol of French monarchy. With its exceptional gardens, impressive hallways, and larger-than-life artwork, Louis and subsequent French kings used Versailles to display their authority. From the Sun King to Marie Antoinette, Versailles was the center of the royal world - and remained so until the French Revolution changed everything.
Versailles was also a world unto itself, with a wild system of etiquette built on hierarchy and rank. The rules at Versailles were clear: every single courtier was there to lend their service to the king and become part of the elaborate court rituals that clearly defined the nobility’s place.
While it is true that Versailles rules were rigidly enforced, 17th and 18th century French etiquette could also be ridiculous. Weird French court etiquette - and not just the king - apparently ruled at Versailles.
For all the strict rules and protocols that governed court life at Versailles, it is downright bizarre that folks at the palace were not bothered by when or where courtiers decided to relieve themselves. In his memoirs about life at Versailles, Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon recalled that the Princess d'Harcourt routinely relieved herself in the hallway, much to the anger and annoyance of the servants who had to clean up after her.
The dignity of her blood, in her opinion, was so great that it would actually be beneath her to stop and use a close stool - so she would just answer nature's call as she went along, hardly bothering to stop walking. Even for more conscientious courtiers, the lack of plumbing at the storied palace meant human waste was basically everywhere. In other words, Versailles was a stinking palace and visitors often noted how horrible it smelled.
At Versailles, something as basic as knocking on a door was highly regulated and ritualized. Tapping on a door with knuckles was a faux-pas; instead, courtiers had to scratch on door frames with their fingernails. This more discreet system was the only way someone could announce their presence to a room.
As a result of this method, courtiers grew out one of their fingernails specifically to scratch on doors.
Virtually every aspect of royal life at Versailles was highly orchestrated, ritualized, and displayed. That included royal wake-up calls and bedtime. The lever and the coucher were two times when nobles received the privilege of getting to attend the king or queen as they woke up or went to bed, respectively.
The privilege to do things like hand the king his shirt, meanwhile, went to the highest-ranking gentleman in the room. Whomever got to help the king change into his clothes for the day even got a glimpse of the royal body in all its naked glory.
It was a truth universally acknowledged at Versailles that only important people got to sit down in the presence of royalty. Naturally, the king got an armchair, as did his queen and any other visiting monarchs of appropriate rank. But courtiers were granted the privilege of sitting down based on their rank.
Princes and princesses of the royal bloodline were entitled to armless chairs, while duchesses could sit on stools. Like many of the rituals at Versailles, the politics of seating arrangements could be highly contentious, and many schemed to gain the right to sit on a stool in the same room as the king.
In one instance, the infamous Princess d'Harcourt raised eyebrows when she forcibly removed a duchess from her stool after finding no other seating to her taste. In general, however, courtiers only got to sit "at the mass, at the comedy, and at the card-table."