During its heyday from 1682 to 1789, Versailles wasn’t just a palace - it was the center of France’s royal world. French royals, nobles, and state officials lived together in the sprawling palace complex. But despite the regal setting, everyday life for courtiers at Versailles was often stressful, regimented, and surprisingly unsanitary.
The palace of Versailles was King Louis XIV’s pet project. Before it was the center of French court and state life, Versailles was a simple - albeit regal - hunting lodge outside of Paris. As a young man, Louis transformed the site into a palace fit for a Sun King and moved his court and government offices there in 1682.
Life at Versailles wasn’t always easy for nobles. Everyone who lived there had to participate in an elaborate system of weird etiquette rules aimed at establishing the king as an all-powerful monarch and his courtiers as obliging servants.
Versailles, its elaborate rituals, and its community of courtiers outlived Louis XIV. His successors - Louis XV followed by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette - continued to lord over the palace until the French Revolution dramatically ended the royal world in the late 1700s.
Life at Versailles was highly ritualized - even the simple act of the king and queen getting ready in the morning was a spectacle. During the lever (or official awakening), high-ranking courtiers and royal family members had specific tasks - like handing the king his clothes or holding a mirror - to help the king and queen start their day. Appointed individuals did the process in reverse at the coucher, or going-to-bed ceremony.
About 100 people crowded into the royal bedchambers to witness these ceremonies every morning and night. According to one courtier, nobles should “be absent as little as possible at the king’s lever” as well as at his bedtime ritual to better assert their presence at court.
Courtiers at Versailles had to dress the part. Indeed, Louis XIV required courtiers to wear certain clothes for specific days or occasions. At dinner, for example, gentlemen had to wear their hats at the table. The tight dresses and elaborate silks that nobles had to wear at Versailles were uncomfortable.
Louis XIV also tied fashion to French identity by supporting French textile industries. He was so committed to supporting French craftsmen that he once burned his son’s clothes because they weren’t made of French cloth.
Plumbing wasn’t really a thing at Versailles. Though the king had his own bathroom, the vast majority of nobles didn’t and had to rely on chamber pots.
The lack of places to relieve full bladders or bowels meant people did their business anywhere and everywhere - including palace hallways. This made Versailles smell terrible, and courtiers resorted to dousing themselves with perfume.
At Versailles, Louis XIV basically transformed the nobility into a class of servants. He bestowed his mark of royal favor by inviting specific high-ranking courtiers and members of the royal family to perform certain tasks, like brushing his hair or holding a candle. Tasks were highly regimented, and no two individuals could perform the same job.