Drama documentary. The French people are starving, but the aristocracy is too busy partying inside the gilded palace of Versailles to take much notice.
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For over a century, the Palace of Versailles was home
to the most powerful family in Europe.
A place of artistic brilliance,
passion of love affairs
and outrageous scandals.
But while a lucky few danced, feasted and flirted their days away,
the state was on the brink of collapse.
Outside these gilded gates,
millions of ordinary people were taxed to the hilt,
while rich nobles paid virtually nothing.
A new king, Louis XVI,
and his beautiful young queen, Marie Antoinette,
faced the biggest challenge in the history of their illustrious family.
Bring fairness to the system and hope to their subjects
or face losing their palace, their crowns
and their heads.
In 1775, Versailles celebrated the coronation of a new king and queen.
Louis XVI had lived most of his 20 years here,
surrounded by courtiers and power brokers.
But, like his young Austrian wife, Marie Antoinette,
he didn't feel ready to rule.
Despite their king's private feelings,
the public had high hopes.
He's young, he has a beautiful wife,
so there's everything to expect
from this new and hopefully glorious reign of Louis XVI.
Louis XVI wants to rule in a grand manner.
He wants to be an absolute monarch.
He wants to live up to the style
of Louis the Great, Louis XIV.
But, interestingly, he wants also
to rule in a way which is popular.
To be truly popular, Louis knew that he had to govern
in the interest of all his people,
and not just the ones he had grown up with.
In keeping with the Enlightenment,
he's going to be a slightly more modern king.
He has ambitions to be a just
and a philanthropic monarch.
He calls himself Louis le Bienfaisant, Louis the Philanthropic.
In fact, one of his first decisions was so modern
that it quite terrified his courtiers.
He had his whole family inoculated against smallpox,
using a procedure that was experimental and very dangerous.
That was something which, you know,
raised heads at the time.
People thought, "Oh, what will happen if he dies?"
And I think, in that way, the king took the lead.
He showed that he could lead with the times and move with the times.
And that was a promising start to the reign.
Louis and Marie Antoinette seemed happy and relaxed in public.
But, behind the smiles, there was a problem with the royal marriage.
A big one.
The marriage was in one way a disaster.
If you say that the point
of the marriage was to produce heirs
who would combine the blood
of the Austrian royal family
and the French royal family.
Well, that wasn't going to happen,
cos poor Louis XVI simply couldn't,
wouldn't or didn't try to consummate the marriage.
A king and queen sex life, or lack of one,
was an important matter of state,
so it didn't take long for news of Louis' failings in the bedchamber
to spread around Versailles.
It's so embarrassing,
a situation where all the courtiers hang about the bridal chamber.
I mean, it's inconceivable to us.
They were allowed to do that and sort of more or less said,
"How was it for you, sir?"
And nothing happened and he didn't consummate it for a long time.
Precisely what was going on behind the bedroom door mystified the courtiers,
and divides historians to this day.
For the first seven years of the marriage,
there is clearly a sexual problem.
And certainly, either the couple
do not have sex
or they don't have sufficient sex.
Or they are not sufficiently instructed in sexual matters
to actually produce pregnancies and children.
Given the legendary sexual exploits of Louis XIV and XV,
it's hard to believe that number XVI was such a blushing innocent.
It does seem extraordinary that he wouldn't have known how to do it.
But, apparently, he didn't.
What he would do is put his penis
inside the queen's vagina,
leave it there without moving for two minutes and then withdraw.
The queen would leave his bed, and he would then have a...
a happy ending on his own.
But some believe it wasn't ignorance that stopped Louis from doing his royal duty.
It was illness.
A rare medical condition called phimosis,
which meant that lovemaking was more pain than pleasure.
It's possible that Louis XVI had a malformation
which needed to be corrected by minor surgery
before he could have full sexual relations.
And at various times,
an operation of circumcision
was discussed to correct this.
But, in fact, this was found not really to be the case.
Luckily, we have his hunting diary.
And I went to top experts on the subject of phimosis,
which is what he would have had if he'd needed an operation.
And they assured me when I showed them the hunting diary, which he wrote,
no-one who'd had an operation for phimosis without anaesthetic
could possibly have gone hunting day after day after day.
Without going into details, it's unthinkable.
While Louis struggle to father a child with Marie Antoinette,
he also had to address the problem that had blighted the final years
of Louis XV's reign - the poor state of the national finances.
He hired one of the sharpest minds in Europe, Anne-Robert Turgot,
to advise him on the economy.
France was a society which still lived on the margins of subsistence.
Many people still had memories of the terrible famines
that had killed millions at the end of the reign of Louis XIV.
Turgot is an enlightened minister,
who has a particular sense of the importance of landed wealth,
and the need to tax landed wealth.
Turgot tried to teach the king and his ministers
some lessons about life outside Versailles, like the price of bread.
Louis was interested.
The others, not so much.
Louis XVI really does begin his reign
with modernising and adventurous policies,
so this is a modern, forward-looking king who would hope to reform France
and to help France regain its status in the world
as well as the leading European power.
Louis' enthusiasm for reform was not shared by most of his courtiers.
The palace was full of powerful, landed aristocrats,
many of them Louis' own relatives.
If Turgot's reforms went through,
they would have to pay taxes like everyone else
for the first time in their lives.
And they didn't like that idea at all.
Versailles is becoming an increasingly isolated little world.
Nobles who are living uselessly,
spending money, relying on court pensions,
utterly oblivious to the political issues in France.
Certain taxes were not paid
by the nobility,
notably the taille,
simply wasn't paid by anyone.
Now, Louis XVI thought this was wrong and aimed to end it.
But Turgot's reforms had to be accepted
by France's highest law court, le Parlement.
Its members, like most of Louis' own governing council,
were outraged by his ideas.
Opposition to Turgot's reforms came from within the council,
very conservative men who felt that the sorts of things
that Turgot was proposing,
threatened the traditional structure of society,
in which nobles and clergy held a privileged position
relative to the rest of society.
And so, he had, if you will, stirred up a hornets' nest of vested interest.
Queen Marie Antoinette loved to dance and gamble
in the most fashionable Parisian salons,
where she heard all the gossip against Turgot.
One of the most powerful opponents of reform
was the king's own brother, le Comte de Provence,
known in court simply as Monsieur.
He clung to the traditional order of French society.
Three estates under the king - the clergy, the nobility and the rest.
With only the rest paying taxes.
The gossip in Paris, combined with the strong vocal opposition inside Versailles,
began to undermine Louis' faith in Turgot and reform.
Louis XVI must not have known which way to turn,
because the economists are divided and, fundamentally,
the issue is the French state and whether it will survive.
Very momentous decisions for a young man to take.
It looked initially as if he was going to stand firm.
However, his confidence was undermined.
Louis XVI lacked the willingness to support him to the bitter end.
Despite his promises of support, Louis eventually dismissed
the man he'd recruited to save the French economy.
He's famously said to have remarked,
"Monsieur Turgot wants to be me,
"I don't want him to be me."
And for that reason, the minister was disgraced.
His treatment of Turgot made Louis look weak and indecisive.
Labels that would stick.
But Louis did have something to celebrate.
After eight years of marriage,
he and Marie Antoinette finally managed to start a family.
First, a daughter,
and then an heir to the throne.
The birth of their second child, le Dauphin,
was enormously important.
She'd produced a SON.
She'd fulfilled her duty.
And that was tremendously important and bolstered her.
And the king was extremely pleased. Hugh celebrations.
It was seen as a miracle.
This little baby really was seen as a saviour.
He was the boy who was going to save France.
The bells rang in Paris, the fountains flowed with wine, the Te Deum was sung.
I mean, nothing was neglected.
Louis enjoyed being a father and for a while began to enjoy being king.
But the responsibilities of government weighed upon him every day,
especially the urgent need to fill the national treasury.
Louis' next attempt to do so arrived at Versailles in the shape of Jacques Necker,
one of the wealthiest men in Europe.
Necker is an enormously rich Genevan banker.
States like France, which, you know, is having financial problems,
finds it terrifically advantageous, because it means that he places his personal credit
to the benefit of the state.
He seemed initially as a sort of miracle man,
because by establishing confidence, financial confidence,
the state can boom.
Necker arrived at an exciting time in Versailles.
France's old enemy, England,
was struggling with an armed rebellion in its American colonies.
A rebellion that Louis wanted to support.
France, since the defeat of the Seven Years' War,
had been desperate to get revenge on England.
Louis XVI would like nothing more than to attack the old enemy.
But, on the other hand, there's a problem.
If they do that, are they not supporting insurgence?
And indeed insurgents, many of whom were republicans,
and avowed republicans like that.
And so, it's difficult.
And so, to begin with, they take a kind of a middle course.
Louis approved the aid, but insisted that everything was done in secret.
Using a certain amount of covert skulduggery,
weapons and arms are sent off to help the Americans
fight off the British attempt to reconquer the rebellious colonies.
All this assistance to American cost the French government a fortune.
Money it simply did not have.
Louis turned to his new Finance Minister
and Necker arranged emergency loans from his banking friends.
The world's first democratic revolution
was being financed by one of the least democratic nations in Europe.
A fact that troubled Louis himself.
After two years of war,
Louis' investment in the American revolution seemed to pay off
when the rebels got their first great victory at the Battle Of Saratoga.
He decided that the moment had come to support America publicly
and go to war with Britain.
He threw a huge party at Versailles to welcome one of the men
who'd drafted America's Declaration Of Independence - Benjamin Franklin.
Louis and the nobles of Versailles didn't care that Franklin was a democrat
who did not believe in the rule of kings and princes.
What appealed to them was the chance to do down a country they hated so much
that they wore its image on their backsides.
The courtiers at Versailles loved Franklin
because he was a pseud, like they were,
they dressed up as shepherdesses, he dressed up as a fur trapper.
When Benjamin Franklin arrived in France, he was an absolute celebrity.
There was a real sort of frenzy, really,
a Franklin-mania almost, as everybody wants to be seen with the great man.
The war may have been successful,
but it was costing more every year that it dragged on.
Finance Minister Necker had already borrowed up to the hilt,
and was now struggling to get a grip on royal spending.
War is increasingly expensive and the French political system
is not set up to impose taxes on the people who are best able to pay them.
So the fundamental problem of the French state is, "How do you tax the rich?"
Necker, after several years in government,
had pretty much exhausted the possibility of borrowing.
He was aware that it was necessary to raise taxes.
Necker published plans to get rid of the unnecessary but lucrative jobs
enjoyed by the courtiers at Versailles.
But even the suggestion of reining in the privileges of the nobles
set off a familiar argument.
Louis promised to back Necker all the way, just as he had with Turgot.
Marie Antoinette encouraged her husband to be strong this time.
But once again, he began to dither.
Louis XVI was not a decisive man by nature,
he was a decent man.
He was controlled more by his ministers than previous kings had been.
But he was facing a different situation.
Despite his wife's advice, Louis decided that Necker had to go.
The second attempt to confront the French nobility had ended
just like the first one, in complete failure.
When the British finally gave up fighting in America
and recognised the new country's independence,
it looked like Louis had achieved a famous victory.
But even as Versailles celebrated,
his courtiers were whispering that France was not getting what it expected
from a war it had financed on borrowed money.
Louis had hoped for an economic boost for the war,
but the Americans had other ideas.
The Americans preferred to continue to trade with England,
so France actually ended up spending an awful lot of money
on a war from which she got very little tangible benefit.
Turgot, the ex-Minister Of Finances says,
"The first gunshot will drive the state to bankruptcy."
Well, he's wrong, but he's only wrong by a few years,
because the impact of that war on French finances is absolutely terrible.
Necker's successor was Charles Alexandre de Calonne,
who proposed a new idea.
He told Louis that to boost the French economy
he should spend even more.
Calonne's financial policies aggravate these very serious problems,
financial problems of the state to breaking point.
Marie Antoinette had given the French people an heir to the throne,
but as an Austrian outsider, she had never been very popular.
Now, as the financial crisis deepened,
ordinary people came to see her not as their queen,
but as a symbol of the selfishness of the aristocratic elite.
It's a truism of history -
when there's economic stress,
people look round for who to blame.
And it was all too easy to blame the Austrian, L'autrichienne.
And that she had an extravagant court,
and that country people were starving
and she was having parties and giving balls.
So that's really what caused the major downturn in her reputation.
There is a stream of salacious pamphlets
which come out about Marie Antoinette in the 1770s and 1780s.
The sorts of things that they say,
that she has a very wild sex life.
Frustrated in her relations with the king,
she has sexual relations with his brothers.
She's the new Messalina,
she's the new sort of sexually wild person at the court.
And this is dragging the monarchy down.
One of the innuendoes was that Marie Antoinette
had an affair with Cardinal de Rohan, who was the court almoner.
And he then passed venereal disease on to every woman in the court.
That's the sort of thing that went around. It was very gross.
The grosser the better.
They make anything that people may put up with today
look absolutely mild.
They are so gross.
They are really lewd,
with detail and illustrations.
One of the points the satirists made in their pamphlets was that
Marie Antoinette had it off with her brother-in-law, the Comte d'Artois.
You know, you take a story,
like she's having it off with her brother-in-law and then,
how do you prove she's not?
That was the trouble, so everybody liked to believe it.
I think the king, who was a very nice man, was very upset by it.
Louis himself was also a victim of the pamphleteers.
From everything that he read,
Louis assumed that the whole country now despised him.
But a visit to Normandy to inspect a new port,
brought a pleasant surprise.
This is a triumphant moment for Louis XVI.
For the rest of his career,
he virtually never goes out of the area around Paris.
It's almost the only time he sees the rest of his country.
And what it shows is he is incredibly popular.
There's a sort of popularity which he is utterly unsuspecting of,
and he even ends up cheering and clapping himself in the excitement.
He was much applauded in Normandy,
and it is said that,
as he was getting back
to Versailles, he said,
"I know I'm getting near
"to Versailles cos the cheers are much weaker."
As soon as he returned to his court, Louis faced another crisis.
Finance Minister Calonne decided that his spend, spend, spend formula
had been wrong after all.
Now he called for cuts, and new taxes for the nobility.
The same advice that his ill-fated predecessors had given.
And sure enough,
the nobles organised themselves to resist taxation all over again.
1787 and 1788 will be characterised
by a state that's desperate for financial reform
to get out of the situation of bankruptcy which is staring it in the face.
Louis believed that Calonne's medicine could save France,
but doubted that the patient would ever be prepared to swallow it.
And it's going to be absolutely vital that Louis XVI
for once in his life follows through
and supports his minister in order to make sure
that these plans are accepted, because there is no Plan B.
The Assembly of Notables included
all the most powerful figures in Louis' realm.
They had the authority to see that Calonne's reforms
became the law of the land.
Calonne's reforms will be introduced to them,
they will give it their endorsements,
thus showing a degree of almost national support,
and the king will go on happily.
Of course, it doesn't happen like that.
The Assembly of Notables turns into an absolute bear garden,
an absolute dogfight.
What Calonne was doing was asking an assembly of privileged people
to vote away their own privileges.
In other words, asking turkeys to vote early for Christmas.
And so, inevitably, they rejected it.
The king realises that Calonne has failed to persuade
the political elite to go down his route.
He gets sacked. The ideas which he proposes are withdrawn.
So it's a pretty unmitigated disaster.
Calonne was the third Finance Minister to fall from grace
after trying to make the rich pay more tax.
And the third that Louis had supported only to sack.
Trapped between economic disaster
and the implacable opponents of change all around him,
the king couldn't cope any more.
He suffered a mental breakdown.
Stumbling around his palace,
rambling about the visions that tormented him.
Just as his grandfather, Louis XV,
was subject to melancholia and depression,
Louis XVI seems to enter into a period
of really quite deep depression.
The failure of the Assembly of Notables
seems to have affected Louis XVI very badly.
He's unable to manage the courts
and to manage the political situation in a way that he has to do as a king,
because he is at the pinnacle of a system which is itself in crisis.
In some respect, from this moment he'd lost the control.
This was a key moment where
his ability to actually be a king
and dominate the political agenda was put under question.
After the Notables, Louis XVI exhibits the qualities
that have gone down the Louis of history.
You know, tearful, uxorious, reliant on Marie Antoinette,
kindly, indecisive, all that.
And there are lapses of reason,
which are very unfortunate for the people who have to be with him.
Louis' mental state was hardly improved
when somebody sneaked into his private chamber
and left him an unwelcomed gift.
A portrait of the execution of England's king Charles I.
Louis XVI was dominated by the life of Charles I,
who was his direct ancestor.
He knew, bit by bit, line by line, what happened to Charles.
And so, people were able to scare him
by moving a portrait of the king into his private apartments.
But Louis, who had a very sort of mechanical kind of mind, he said,
"If I avoid the mistakes that Charles made, I won't be executed."
He said, "Charles was executed because he levied war on his own subjects.
"I'm not going to do that."
Louis recovered his composure and tried one last time
to change the way his kingdom was taxed and governed.
He called an unprecedented meeting of all three estates -
the nobility, the clergy and the Third Estate,
who represented the mass of the common people.
In August 1788, the treasury was bare.
The government was forced to summon an Estates-General.
It really was a last throw of the dice.
Despite their huge numerical superiority,
the votes of the Third Estate only counted the same
as those of the nobility and the clergy.
You will always have a situation
where the two votes of the so-called privileged orders,
that is the nobility and the clergy,
representing maybe less than half a million people,
will always outweigh the wishes of the 27.5 million people
of the Third Estate.
So, straight away, you've got a political deadlock
as soon as the Estates-General meet.
And getting out of that deadlock
will be what happens over the summer of 1789
that triggers the Revolution.
A difficult time grew even worse for Louis and Marie Antoinette
with the death of their eldest son.
The death of the Dauphin, the young heir to the throne,
is quite a big psychological shock, actually.
The king is met by a tremendous amount of support from the nobility.
Psychologically, it draws the king and his nobility closer together, in a way.
It was a crucial moment.
Louis sudden shift in sympathy back to the nobles
meant that their enemies, the representatives of the Third Estate,
decided he was never going to help them.
The king is increasingly finding it difficult to distance himself
from his nobles and their interest.
That's the world he moves in.
This is Versailles, it's all about being surrounded by nobles.
He's hardly ever met his own subjects outside of,
out of that context.
So he's swaying towards supporting the nobles,
and Marie Antoinette certainly is swaying towards them.
With negotiations at the Estates-General still hopelessly bogged down,
the Third Estate sent a group to Versailles to ask for Louis' help.
He refused to meet them.
It was the final straw.
The Third State takes matters into its own hands
and declares itself the National Assembly.
And this is absolutely critical, because it's the first time
in modern European history
that a representative body has claimed power in the state
based on the democratic principle that it represents 80% of the French people.
It was a genuinely radical revolutionary moment,
because they were saying they were not going to disperse
until France had been given a constitution.
Faced with the crumbling of the structure of the old Estates-General,
Louis XVI decided finally that he would resort to force.
As a result, he began to call in troops
and to assemble troops around Paris.
The whole business was botched.
The Parisians panicked
by rapidly rising food prices,
decided to defend themselves.
As a result, they attacked the Bastille to get the powder.
Louis was woken in the middle of the night with the news
that his people had finally taken up arms against the authorities.
Louis XVI had a choice.
He could have tried to face down the people of Paris
and the National Assembly by force of arms.
In other words, he could have risked civil war.
If there is one thing that is clear about Louis XVI is that
he refused to take that path.
He would not fight or raise his standard against his own people.
He knew his English history, he knew what had happened to Charles I.
He had no intention of repeating it.
Louis may not have wanted to go to war with his own people,
but many of them now wanted to go to war with him.
Three months after the fall of the Bastille,
a group of angry Parisians marched on Versailles itself.
The rioters vowed to kill the one person they blamed for all their troubles,
the symbol of the hated rich - Marie Antoinette.
There's no doubt that some elements of this crowd
had very bloodthirsty thoughts in their mind.
Marie Antoinette has become a figure of absolute hatred
for the population of Paris at this point.
Marie Antoinette was the main target,
because she's been the main target for many years now.
She was considered that... the person who really was giving poor advice to Louis XVI
would be at the origin of the fiscal crisis because of her lavish expenses.
One reason the crowd hated Marie Antoinette
was because of a phrase she was said to have uttered
when told that the poor had no bread.
"Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" - "Let them eat cake".
Marie Antoinette never said "Let them eat cake,"
and she never could have said it.
She was brought up in the philanthropic court of Austria,
where her mother Maria Theresa would tell them to go round
giving soup and bread to old women in farmers' cottages.
And it was inconceivable.
She would have given the brioche to...
She was much more like Princess Diana, you know.
She would perform a gesture like that.
So, she could never have said it.
Whoever said what or when,
the revolutionaries were after the queen's blood,
and were soon breaking down the palace gates.
They broke in in the early morning,
and they tried to climb in the room of Marie Antoinette.
One of her bodyguards is killed actually defending the entrance
to her chamber in the palace, massacred there and then.
Marie Antoinette only escapes by a rapid exit into the king's chamber.
It is a very, very dangerous moment for the royal family.
There was no doubt they must have been terrified.
And the king and the queen and their children
go out onto the balcony to show themselves.
In a sense, to show that they are prisoners, and are not fleeing.
It must have been an absolutely terrifying moment
for the king, the queen and their children,
because the crowd is fearsome.
They are not used to coming into contact with people like this.
The entire royal family surrendered itself to the revolutionary crowd,
and agreed to be taken as prisoners to Paris.
None of them would ever see Versailles again.
They were taken back as the baker, the baker's wife and the baker's son,
in reference to the grain and the bread prices that had triggered this.
But it's fair to say that, after the 6th of October,
the king and the royal family were prisoners of the Revolution.
Louis had tried and failed to change his kingdom.
Now, he would pay the price.
Both he and Marie Antoinette would die under the blade of the guillotine.
For over a hundred years, Versailles stood for the power and prestige
of the Bourbon dynasty.
But it also stood for a society that was fundamentally unfair and corrupt.
Romantic, but royally debauched.
Glittering, but grotesquely unequal.
Magnificent, but profoundly immoral.
A society whose time was up.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Lavish drama-documentary chronicling the final days of the Bourbon dynasty under the ill-fated Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette.
Unlike his highly-sexed forebears, it takes Louis seven years to consummate his marriage - and his performance as ruler of France is no more distinguished than his efforts in the royal bed chamber.
The French people are starving, but the aristocracy is too busy partying inside the gilded palace of Versailles to take much notice. Louis tries to make a difference, but his every attempt at reform is blocked by his greedy relatives. Marie Antoinette gets much of the blame for the excesses of the rich, even if she never uttered the famous words "let them eat cake".
As he drifts into depression and madness, Louis and his Queen attempt to stave off a revolution, pleading with the nobility to accept reform. But it is too late - the astonishing extravagance of Versailles, which once served the glory of France so well, backfires into the ending of the monarchy itself.