Louis XIII’s Château of Debauchery
I am going to Versailles tomorrow for two or three days … anywhere as long as I am far from these women.[i]
Louis XIII, August 19, 1638
Twelve miles from Paris, the country village of Versailles prospered in the Middle Ages, known then for its small castle, windmill, and church of Saint Julien. After the Hundred Years War, however, the castle fell into ruins in a sparsely populated area of marshy land, an area known locally for its “stinking ponds.” The ponds, some of which fed into each other, emptied into the Ru de Gally, a small river of sewer water widely said to be “black as ink.”[ii]
Henri IV regularly hunted in this area, bringing his six-year-old son Louis here for the first time on August 24, 1607.[iii] After Henri’s death in 1610 and by the time the child was crowned Louis XIII, the melancholic Louis found joy in returning here for riding and the hunt.[iv]
One day in February 1621, when hunting for stag ran later than usual, Louis found himself at nightfall on a small hill where an ancient windmill stood. He slept here on a bed of straw while his men took shelter in a nearby cabaret, and when he woke, the fresh air soothed his soul. Finding the mill uncomfortable, two years later, at the age of twenty-one, Louis decided to build his own pavilion with a small park attached,[v] and the mason Nicolas Huaut began work on the site where the mill stood.[vi]
IMAGE: Louis XIII oversees construction of his piccolo casa
Dense woods and pestilent wastelands surrounded the original site where Louis XIII began construction to create his haven—a graceful, but small, castle that the Duke of Saint-Simon called a “little pasteboard box.”[vii] But Louis was content with the spot, which was neither too near nor too far from his court at Saint-Germain-en-Laye.[viii] Saint-Simon also called the king’s country retreat a “château of cards,” and the Venetian ambassador called it “una piccola casa per ricreazione”—a mere folly. A courtier named Bassompierre said one could not boast of it, but it was better than sleeping on a mattress of straw infected with fleas, ticks, and vermin.[ix]
When the king stayed at the pavilion, he had his bed brought from Paris. [x] He stayed for only a night or a week at a time until 1630, when he would take up permanent residence after his overbearing mother, Marie de Médici, failed to displace Cardinal Richelieu as chief minister and succumbed to self-exile.
Louis XIII’s physician, Jean H roard, wrote: “Whenever the king arrived at Versailles, he hunted, dined, and afterwards went riding to take a deer or a fox. After supper, he would often exercise with his musketeers or create and perform ballets before retiring for the night.” Before long, Versailles served as the king’s treasured escape from his ministerial duties, his queen, and women in general.
A recurring theme in the development of Versailles began to evolve. The new residence was only intended for short stays with a small, all-male entourage to escape the women of the Parisian court of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
IMAGE: Louis XIII, circa 1620
To isolate himself from prying eyes, Louis XIII built square pavilions rising at the castle’s four corners with a moat crossed by a stone bridge on the side of the gardens to the west and a drawbridge to the east. The structure was all brick and stone, most fitting for Louis XIII and his musketeers; it would become a site well secluded for the king to carry on numerous affairs with men in secrecy.
IMAGE: Louis XIII’s Versailles, as constructed circa 1630–1640
It must be noted that, although legal oppression against homosexuality was severe in France, the privileged status of the French nobility did assure a degree of immunity.[xi] The proverb “in Spagna gli preti, in Francia i Grandi, in Italia tutti quanti” (in Spain the priests, in France the nobles, in Italy everyone) rang true not only in the reign of Louis XIII but would apply to the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI as well.
The hunting retreat at Versailles was truly a man’s retreat, in more ways than one. Louis XIII’s mother, Marie de Médici, had enfeebled her stuttering Louis by rendering him effeminate, allowing her to keep hold of the reins of the monarchy.[xii] As a result, if it could be said that Henri IV loved women, then Louis XIII loved men.
The king’s first affairs included his coach driver, Saint-Amour, and his kennel master, Haran. After these passions d’adolescence, Louis’s first serious affair “that only death could extinguish” was that with Charles d’Albert, Duke de Luynes.[xiii]
After Henri IV’s death, his widow, Marie de Médici, negotiated the marriage of ten-year-old Anne of Austria, a Spanish member of the Habsburg family, with Louis, creating a Spanish alliance and a pledge of peace between the two great Catholic powers. Anne’s father, King Philip III of Spain, had great hopes that his daughter’s presence at the French court would support the interests of Spain.
Anne married Louis XIII, King of France and Navarre, by proxy in Burgos, Spain, on November 24, 1615. Although the newlyweds were only fourteen years old, Marie de Médici, then regent, did not want this union to be questioned, so she endeavored to ensure that the marriage was immediately consummated for political reasons. However, the wedding night appeared to have been a disaster, partly due to the newlyweds’ inexperience.[xiv]
Moreover, according to historian Guardian, Louis XIII "never loved a woman, not even his own." And, as for the wedding night, he may have been asked to fulfill an act of manhood--before being a man. The story of what happened that evening was documented by journalist Armand Bashet.
After the wedding ceremony at about seven o'clock in the evening, Louis and Anne made their way to the archbishop's palace for the nuptial to be blessed. Louis then went to lay down in his room and in his usual bed, according to custom, and Anne was directed to another chamber. The queen mother then went to Louis at eight o'clock, sending all the guards and persons away in the hallways.
"My son," she said, "it is not enough to be married, you must come to see the queen, your wife, who is waiting for you. "
"Madame," he replied, "I was only waiting for your command. I'm going, if you please, to find her with you."
Louis removed his robe and his boots and followed his mother to his wife's room, where they entered with two nurses, Louis's governor, his physician Héroard, and his valet carrying the candle.
The queen mother approached Anne's bed: "My daughter, here is your husband whom I bring you, receive him near you, and love him, I beg you."
When Anne replied in Spanish that she had no other intention than to obey and please him, Louis joined his queen in bed. The queen mother then told everyone but the two nurses to leave, allowing the couple to consummate their marriage. It was reported by the nurses that the young king did his duty and did it twice. After sleeping a short while, he woke and called for his nurse to bring his robe and boots, and he was led back to his own chambers.
This story of the royal couple's consummation, however, was pure fantasy. Louis later confessed that he had only painful memories of his wedding night, the consummation was nothing but a charade for political purposes. It is doubtful that Louis XIII actually knew what was required of him because the young king was so humiliated that night that he kept a long grudge against his mother. Several reigns later, the fifteen-year-old dauphin and future king, Louis XVI, would record his experience with his new fourteen-year-old wife, Marie Antoinette of Austria, writing that “nothing” happened—a short “rien” in his journal.
Even if Louis had been informed about the task at hand, the public affair of official consummation--with his nurses watching--may have rendered him unable to do his duty. In any case, this first, failed test of virility might well have discouraged or even disgusted the prince. An official onlooker noted that it only produced “pain and fatigue,” and the couple would not produce an heir for another twenty-three years. Moreover, Louis’s relationships with mistresses, unlike his father's and his son's, would all be chaste.[xv]
Most of what we know about Louis XIII’s youth can be collaborated with the journals of Héroard, his personal physician, who kept diligent notes of Louis’s medical treatment and personal behavior for over twenty years.
Although Louis would not share Anne’s bed for another four years after the wedding night, the king did visit his queen daily in her apartment, following royal protocol, once in the morning and once in the evening. More notable, in the meantime he also visited the Duke de Luynes several times a day. When hunting, he would leave his wife behind and take the Duke de Luynes with him. When he returned, having not seen the queen for some time, he would pay her a short visit before leaving abruptly to have lunch in the duke’s apartment, alone with him. The king’s passion for the duke was described as an “extreme condition” or “special love,” but his mother, Marie de Médici, described the passion in more detail; she said it was a “demon that haunts the king and makes him deaf, blind, and dumb.”[xvi]
The Duke de Luynes, although not known for his statesmanship, became Louis XIII’s adviser partly due to their shared love of the hunt, but the duke also rose in stature to become Grand Falconer of France and Constable of France due to other unique talents. He planned, for example, the king’s ballets and even cast himself in starring roles at his protégé’s side. But the Duke de Luynes would not be the only male favorite; others included the Marquis de Montpouillan, the royal-page-turned-favorite Barradat, and Claude de Saint-Simon, the father of the celebrated biographer, who “lasted the longest but was loved the least.”[xvii]
It is difficult to confirm whether Louis XIII had the same homosexual characteristics as his second son, Philippe, known as Monsieur during the eventual reign of his brother, Louis XIV. However, the biographer Gédéon Tallemant des Réaux reported that Louis XIII’s love affairs with men were indeed strange ones in which he spoke like a “half-hearted lover” and was susceptible to “bouts of jealousy.”[xviii]
He also had female favorites. In fact, on many occasions, disputes erupted between Louis XIII and one favorite, Marie de Hautefort, a young woman who knew herself beautiful and noted, with vexation, that Louis “could not resolve himself with a few carnal acts!” The king referred to the young woman as an “inclination” when their relations were good and as “the creature” when anguished. The provocative favorite taunted Louis one day to come and retrieve a note from her bodice. The king complied, but only by using tongs from the chimney.
Louis also paid attention to another courtesan, Louise de La Fayette. He called her “Angelique,” but she too was just another chaste pastime.
His most open affair was with Henri Coiffier de Ruzé, the Marquis de Cinq-Mars, a handsome young subject selected as “an amusement” for the king by Cardinal Richelieu.[xix]
IMAGE: Marquis de Cinq-Mars
The king would summon Cinq-Mars, “adorned like a wife,” to his chambers, first covering his hands with kisses before coaxing him into his bed.[xx] While Cinq-Mars was at war, the king ordered reports dispatched daily from the battlefield to check on his favorite’s well-being. And when the nineteen-year-old fought in the thirty-eight-year-old king’s presence on the battlefield, Louis told Marie de Hautefort that “his affections now belonged to Cinq-Mars.”[xxi] One courtier wrote that Louis loved Cinq-Mars “ardemment,” or with fervor; but historian Tallemant des Réaux said the king loved him “esperdument,” to distraction.[xxii]
IMAGE: Louis XIII, the first royal to wear a wig
Although there had been efforts to interest Louis XIII in the fairer sex, he would only profess love for women in a chaste manner. When the court poet Boisrobert, himself homosexual,[xxiii] celebrated the king’s love for women in verse and, in particular, for Madame Hautefort, the king objected to the words “with desire” in the song; he desired nothing of the sort.[xxiv] The poet then recounted unsurprisingly with a new verse: “Oh, guess what the king needs to do? Have a list of the Musketeers!”[xxv] Unsurprisingly, because Louis was making sojourns to Versailles with his Musketeers much more frequently at this time.
In November 1626, Louis invited his mother, Marie de Médici, and Queen Anne to dine at Versailles. It would be their first visit and their last, because Louis had not furnished a single bedroom for any women in the twenty-six-room château. In fact, Louis designed the twenty-room retreat to exclude accommodations for ladies. There were two bedrooms, a comfortable apartment for himself, and a "large dormitory for men only."[xxvi]
Louis was neither physically nor emotionally attractive; he was known to be a “cruel, petulant, and jealous” man. Although his younger brother, Gaston, Duke of Anjou (and later Duke of Orléans), was jovial, social, and well liked, Louis did not love him. His queen did, however, and, as a consequence of her husband’s coldness and neglect, she openly vied for Gaston’s admiration, hoping to “inspire the king with a more just appreciation of her merits.”[xxvii]
But the queen’s efforts were in vain. The marriage was hardly a happy one, and after twenty years of marriage, the queen still had not given birth to an heir to the throne. Perhaps she and her husband had relinquished all hope for a child.
On the evening of December 5, 1637, however, marital affairs took a turn for the better. The king was forced to seek shelter from a storm at the Louvre on his way to Blois one evening. He immediately proceeded to Queen Anne’s apartments to find the queen quite surprised by the impromptu visit. Perhaps she was even more surprised that he remained with her until the next morning. Consequently, in September 1638, after twenty-three years of marriage, Anne finally gave birth to a son, the future Louis XIV, at the court of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.[xxviii]
IMAGE: Queen Anne of Austria
Anne, having given the king an heir, desired to play a political role in France, but she never won the trust of her husband or his principal minister, Cardinal Richelieu. The situation only worsened when George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, a favorite of the English king, fell in love with the French queen. Severely affronted, Louis decreed that henceforth no male would have permission to visit his queen’s chambers unless he was present. The royal marriage deteriorated even more as Louis tried to take control of the queen’s entourage.[xxix]
Louis XIII had a pronounced dislike for women, and for years he did not make his queen happy, perhaps even setting the stage for Anne to succumb to Buckingham’s charms. However, when Richelieu died, Louis appointed Cardinal Mazarin as his minister, little suspecting that his new minister would become Anne’s lover. Richelieu seemed to have foreseen this when he first introduced Mazarin, then his apprentice, to the queen: “He will please you, madame; he’s like Buckingham.”[xxx]
IMAGE: George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham
The public announcement of the birth of the heir created quite a stir. Louis was equally astonished and immediately hastened to the Louvre to offer the queen his congratulations, despite the rumor at court that the child was the son of Cardinal Mazarin.[xxxi]
The king’s subjects praised the birth as a miracle and, to show of gratitude for the long-awaited heir to the French throne, Louis and Anne named him Louis-Dieudonné, or God-given. The birth of the future Louis XIV was followed by that of his brother, Philippe, Duke of Anjou (later Duke of Orléans), two years later in 1640.[xxxii]
Louis XIII died in Paris on May 14, 1643, when Louis XIV was but four years old and too young to reign; consequently, his mother served as Regent of France. Until Louis XIV’s majority at the age of thirteen in 1651, his court was held at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Although he would visit his father’s château at Versailles for the first time the year of his majority, he would not become impassioned to expand his father’s retreat until ten years later, when Louis finally took the reins of his rule on the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661.
And it would be a glorified château at Versailles where Louis XIV would continue his father’s predisposition for adulterous affairs, but the new king’s conquests would be women rather than men.
From the very first stones mortared in place, Versailles was destined to metamorphize into a labyrinth of spaces where forced marriages with foreign princesses would be unconsummated or plagued with adultery, where courtiers would turn a blind eye to homosexuality, where favorites would be lavished with titles and riches for sexual favors, where sexually transmitted diseases would flourish, and where the high levels of court intrigue and scandal would be unsurpassed in France’s history.
[i] I am going to Versailles tomorrow: Jean d'Elbée, Le Mystère de Louis XIII (Lyon: H. Lardanchet, 1943), 23. "Je m’en vais demain à Versailles pour deux ou trois jours. J’ai trouvé le sexe féminin avec aussi peu de sens et aussi impertinent en leurs questions qu’ils ont accoutumé. Il m’ennuie bien que la Reine ne soit accouchée pour m’en retourner en Picardie si vous le jugez à propos ou ailleurs pourvu que je sois hors d’avec toutes ces femmes, il m’importe où."
[ii] a small river of sewer water: Louis Dussieux, Le château de Versailles: histoire et description (Versailles: L. Bernard, 1881), 2.
[iii] Henri IV regularly hunted in this area: Mémoires de la Société des sciences morales, des lettres et des arts de Seine-et-Oise (Versailles: Société des sciences morales, 1880), 406.
[iv] the melancholic Louis found joy: Katherine Alexandra Patmore, The Court of Louis XIII (London: Methuen, 1909), 10-12.
[v] Louis decided to build his own pavilion: Jean-Claude Guillou, "Le Domaine de Louis XIII à Versailles," Versalia, 3, (2000): 87.
[vi] the mason Nicolas Huaut began work: Comte Alexandre de Laborde, Versailles: Ancien et Moderne (Paris: Imprimerie Schneider et Langrand, 1844), 158.
[vii] a graceful, but small, castle: Louis Dussieux, Le château de Versailles: histoire et description (Versailles: L. Bernard, 1881), 2. "Versailles" appears for the first time in a charter of the 11th century.
[viii] But Louis was content: André Pératé, Versailles: The Palace, the Gardens, the Trianons, the Museum, the City (Paris: H. Laurens, 1922), 5-8.
[ix] better than sleeping on a mattress of straw: Jean Héroard, Journal sur l'enfance et la jeunesse de Louis XIII (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1868, xxv.
[x] When the king stayed at the pavilion: Jacques Levron, Daily life at Versailles in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (New York: Macmillan, 1968): 19.
[xi] although legal oppression against homosexuality was severe: Louis Crompton, Homosexuality & Civilization (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009): 321.
[xii] had enfeebled her stuttering Louis: Jean Héroard, Journal sur l'enfance et la jeunesse de Louis XIII, xix.
[xiii] “that only death could extinguish” (seule la mort abolit): Pierre Chevallier, "Les Étranges Amours du Roi Louis XIII," Historama, 336, (1979): 1
[xiv] the wedding night appeared to have been a disaster: J. M. Guardia, La médecine à travers les siècles: histoire et philosophie (Paris: J.-B. Baillière et fils, 1865), 318. "Revenons à Louis XIII, qui lisait peu ces auteurs, et à qui ce vers ne saurait s'appliquer tout entier; car il n'aima jamais une femme, non pas même la sienne, bien que, marié jeune et mis en demeure de faire acte de virilité avant l'âge d'homme, il eût été comme conduit par la main à cueillir les fruits précoces de l'amour."
[xv] it only produced “pain and fatigue,”: J. M. Guardia, La médecine à travers les siècles: histoire et philosophie, 320. "La consommation était purement illusoire, et le roi avoua plus tard qu'il n'avait conservé que de douloureux souvenirs de cette nuit de noces dont la politique de la régente avait fait dresser le procès-verbal."
[xvi] The king’s passion for the duke: Kate van Orden, Music, Discipline, and Arms in Early Modern France (University of Chicago Press, 2005), 111.
[xvii] who “lasted the longest but was loved the least.”: Pierre Chevallier, "Les Étranges Amours du Roi Louis XIII," Historama, 1.
[xviii] was susceptible to “bouts of jealousy.”: J. M. Guardia, La médecine à travers les siècles: histoire et philosophie, 316. "Remarquons toutefois que Tallemant des Réaux a dit expressément que les amours de Louis XIII étaient d'étranges amours, à l'endroit où il en parle comme d'un amoureux transi et susceptible tout au plus de jalousie."
[xix] a handsome young subject selected as “an amusement”: Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon, Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History: From Antiquity to World War II (London: Routledge, 2002), 511.
[xx] The king would summon Cinq-Mars: A. Lloyd Moote, Louis XIII, the Just
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 286.
[xxi] “his affections now belonged to Cinq-Mars.”: A. Lloyd Moote, Louis XIII, the Just, 285.
[xxii] the king loved him “esperdument,”: A. Lloyd Moote, Louis XIII, the Just, 285. "Louis 'l'aimait esperdument'--that he loved the youth to distraction."
[xxiii] When the court poet Boisrobert: Wayne R. Dynes, Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (New York: Routledge, 2016), 156. Boisrobert also earned the sobriquet of "the mayor of Sodom."
[xxiv] the king objected to the words “with desire”: Tallemant des Réaux, Les historiettes de Tallemant des Réaux (Paris: J. Techener, 1854), 240.
[xxv] The poet then recounted unsurprisingly with a new verse: Tallemant des Réaux, Les historiettes de Tallemant des Réaux, 241.
[xxvi] and a "large dormitory for men only.": Lucy Norton, The Sun King and His Loves (London: H. Hamilton, 1983), 13.
[xxvii] she openly vied for Gaston’s admiration: John Stevens Cabot Abbott, Louis XIV (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1898), 14.
[xxviii] The king was forced to seek shelter: Jean d'Elbée, Le Mystère de Louis XIII, 35.
[xxix] The royal marriage deteriorated: A. Lloyd Moote, Louis XIII, the Just, 147.
[xxx] Richelieu seemed to have foreseen this: M. Wolowski, Revue des cours littéraires de la France et de l'étranger littérature, philosophie, théologie, éloquence (Paris: Germer Baillière, 1867), 657.
[xxxi] the child was the son of Cardinal Mazarin: Richard Wilkinson, Louis XIV (New York: Routledge, 2017), 14. One of Louis XIV's biographers, Anthony Levi, is convinced that Cardinal Mazarin, Anne's lover, future chief minister and possible husband, was the father of Louis XIV.
[xxxii] The birth of the future Louis XIV: Richard Wilkinson, Louis XIV, 38.