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Versailles: Court of the Sun King

Turning a modest hunting lodge into this magnificent palace was the crowning glory that defined Louis XIV’s France. But it was more than a fashion statement, writes Jonny Wilkes. It was the ultimate political power play
Versailles as it was in 1668; though not yet the seat of French governance or at the height of its splendour, it is already coalescing into the battleground on which royal favour is lost and won

Louis XIV looked out at his father’s old hunting lodge and envisioned a stronger, more unified and more magnificent France than the one he had inherited at the age of four. Now in his twenties and ruling on his own as an absolute monarch, he dreamed of building a palace of unparalleled opulence. This would be the spot on which he would do it. It would become, no matter how long it took or how much it cost, the centre not only of his country, but of society, culture, art and influence in all Europe.

Versailles was not an obvious location for a grand palace; it was a hamlet surrounded by forests and marshland, with a single track connecting to Paris, a little over ten miles away, along which cattle were taken to market. Yet Louis enjoyed staying at the lodge as a boy, as it offered a retreat from a capital that he greatly disliked.

He had come to the throne in 1643. His mother, Anne of Austria, ruled as regent with the help of chief minister Cardinal Mazarin, but these years were defined by a period of civil unrest known as the Fronde. On one occasion, rioters broke into Louis’ bedroom, leaving him traumatised and with a deep distrust of Paris. Versailles gave Louis a clean slate to create and exert his own royal authority.

Louis considered Versailles a safe haven from the dangers of Paris he had experienced as a youth (inset), though it had nothing in the way of defences
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About BBC History Revealed

In this month's issue… Captain Cook's secret mission Retrace James Cook's 1768 first voyage - a scientific expedition that morphed into a globe-spanning quest to find a lost continent thanks to a set of secret instructions. Plus: Louis XIV and the Palace of Versailles; the tragedy of British Tour de France hero Tom Simpson; the fall of the Russian Romanov dynasty; history of chocolate; William Wallace; weird pets; and Palymrene Queen Zenobia takes on Imperial Rome.