Episode 4 Inside Versailles


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Episode 4

A closer look at the history behind Versailles. In this episode, Professor Kate Williams and Greg Jenner examine how Louis XIV created an absolutist monarchy during his reign.


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Bonjour!

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Welcome to Inside Versailles, where we're going to go straight in

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to an exciting discussion about one of my favourite subjects - power.

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And we are joined by Dr Joanne Paul.

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And the first thing, really, we should talk about here

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is Louis XIV - most powerful man in Europe,

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-perhaps, or certainly that's how he wants to be seen.

-Absolutely.

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-And absolutely is the word.

-Yes!

-He's an absolutist monarch.

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-This is the phrase we use.

-Yes.

-What does that mean?

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It means that he has absolute power, as you said.

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He's the centre of all the power in France or, at least,

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as you say, wants to be seen that way - he wants to be

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the centre of it all, really.

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Versailles is the biggest possible symbol of power, isn't it?

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Not just because it's so expensive, but also because all these nobles,

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who are used to living on their private country estates,

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now have to come and live under the eyes of his spies.

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Yeah, he really takes them away from their own centres of power

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and brings them to his centre of power.

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And bringing them all together and doing things like having

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these court masques, which are very expensive.

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Yeah, here we have a portrait that's commemorating a court masque,

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and you can see the entire family of Louis dressed as these sort of

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Greek and Roman gods and goddesses.

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All the portraits we've seen have got Louis in the centre but,

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-here, he's just slightly to the side.

-Yeah.

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What's the point of this? Is it power?

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-Well, it certainly is about power, but not necessarily Louis's.

-Ah.

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This was commissioned by Philippe.

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Louis is dressed as Apollo, as he usually is, the Sun King.

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But Philippe has given himself the role of the Morning Star who,

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of course, heralds the sun and comes in before the sun does.

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So it is about these hierarchies of power,

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-but this one is all about Philippe.

-How does Louis make decisions?

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Does he listen to advice or is it simply that, what he says,

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they have to put into power?

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Louis is very, very clear about the separation of counsel and command.

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So, at 22, when he comes in and decides he's going to rule himself,

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he very clearly tells his counsellors that I will

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consult you, I will listen to you,

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but I get to make the final decision, I'm the one who commands.

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And then you have this debate going on between the absolutists,

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who think that Parlement is really just there to register

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the King's edicts in the sense of sort of proclaiming them,

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and then you have the constitutionalists, who think that

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you're giving your consent, your stamp of approval, to these edicts.

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Now, of course, Louis sides with the absolutists.

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And so, what Louis attempts to do is to chip away, really,

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at the power of the Parliament to resist his edicts.

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So they have this right of remonstrance - the right to say,

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no, we don't like what you're saying,

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we're not going to put our stamp of approval on it.

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And he starts to take away some of that power to the point that

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they're not even allowed to delay when they register an edict -

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-they have to do it right away.

-Right.

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And he also takes away their power to call the King down and

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voice their concerns about the edicts.

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He says, I don't really want to go down there any more.

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And so, by chipping away at this power,

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he's really sort of saying, well, no, I have the power.

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Power cannot be divided. It has to be from one source.

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There's a great line in the episode where Philippe says,

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"You've taken your clothes off, you've shown us your frailty."

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And that seems to me to be the crux of it - if you show your frailty,

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it could undermine this whole house of cards.

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Precisely, and he's getting that a lot from Renaissance texts

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that emphasised reputation - that the reputation of

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a monarch was really everything.

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And so, you could be as full of vice and frailty as you like, sort of

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on the inside, but you had to give this great show of glory,

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this performance, this sort of court masque attitude towards things.

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And Louis is, in fact,

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the one who sort of invites in that close scrutiny

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by making his home really this performance.

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It means that he has to keep up that act.

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And how much does this interest in divine power set him against

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the religious aspects of court, because, essentially, if you're

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saying, God speaks through me, isn't that the role of the priest?

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Louis thinks that, within France, the kings have a right to decide

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about the Catholic Church and the Pope doesn't actually have

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any power to do that.

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So it is a little bit contrary to the Church, in some ways,

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that he claims this direct divine right.

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Which means, what, the King has been appointed by God?

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And that the people have no right to resist him.

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And so, if you get a bad king,

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it's actually God's punishment and you have to endure it -

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-you can't try to overthrow the King or anything like that.

-Harsh!

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And the greatest symbol of all of Louis's power was Versailles,

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so perhaps we should go and talk a bit more about it.

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Absolutely.

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When you look at Versailles, it looks so beautiful -

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this incredible place, beautifully laid out,

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yet, to so many of the nobles in there, it was a pure prison.

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Versailles is one of his greatest tools of power as well as

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expressions of power.

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You can see in the gardens, for instance,

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this great sign of man's power over nature and the sort of rationalism.

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-As you tame it.

-Absolutely.

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And even the sort of untamed bits were designed to control

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people's emotions, in certain ways.

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And so, there was a sort of rational irrationalism going on,

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or maybe irrational rationalism, but, either way,

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it was all controlled and all designed in a specific way.

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At this point,

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he doesn't care about the ordinary people of Paris or wherever.

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Not really, no.

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They make up France and he is France but, beyond that,

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he's certainly not interested in the vox populi -

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the voice of the people.

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It's not important to him.

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So, to Louis, the working classes aren't really anything more than

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just someone for him to make money out of.

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You also see that a bit with the aristocracy -

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that, basically, they're just there for him to make cash out of.

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I mean, every episode, they are gambling for these huge stakes.

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Yeah, they were gambling about three times a week within Versailles,

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and gambling was one of another ways in which Louis controls his nobles.

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By getting them to gamble,

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he's essentially taxing them without actually taxing them,

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cos you can't tax the nobles in France, and raising taxes in general

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is a sure-fire way, if you're a monarch, to lose your head.

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-Bit unpopular.

-It doesn't really work.

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And he has lots of examples

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from recent history to remind him of that.

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So, instead, he gets them to sort of tax themselves

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while also appeasing them,

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keeping them fairly happy and keeping them in Versailles.

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Versailles really is the seat of Louis's power.

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Joanne, that's been fascinating.

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Thank you so much for joining us,

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and thank you too for joining us this evening on Inside Versailles.

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-See you next week. Bonsoir.

-Bonsoir.

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A closer look at the history behind Versailles. In this episode, Professor Kate Williams and Greg Jenner examine how Louis XIV created an absolutist monarchy during his reign.