How Versailles During the Time of Louis XIV Really Looked and Smelled Like

The construction of Versailles went down in history as one of the most expensive in terms of modern money — about $300 billion dollars were spent on it. Despite this fact, the builders had to cut back on expenses which is why the palace of the then-reigning ’Sun King’ is remembered for its residents, rich decorations, and draughts so strong people had to sleep wearing 10 layers of clothing. However, the 14th century Versailles’ main claim to fame was its bad smells that were impossible to hide from. Is this just a wild guess about things back then?

Bright Side tried to figure out how much merit these claims have and what Versailles and its residents of the time of Louis XIV were really all about.

Hygiene and clothing

The bedchamber of Louis XIV

Common fact: Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV was a smelly place. But is this really true? Let’s start with the fact that the attitude toward hygiene was different back then from what we have now. Hot water was considered a “substance” provoking the spreading of various diseases. There was an opinion (which was quite fair) that hot water opened up pores through which (which is a myth, of course) any disease could get inside, even the plague.

They say King Louis took a bath only 3 times in his life. However, despite the fact that hygienic procedures took place more seldom than they do now, this belief is only fiction. King Louis took baths which were portable most of the time. However, usually, the King was using them for love joys with numerous favorites. Thus, for example, the block designated for Madame de Montespan, had an octagonal bath with stagnant water. As for the hygiene of the monarch as a whole, every morning he was wiped down with a cloth soaked in alcohol, and he changed his bottom layer of clothes several times a day.

However, King Louis’ subjects living in Versailles didn’t have their own baths, that’s why their personal hygiene was mostly about so-called “dry cleaning”. They simply wiped themselves with a cloth — usually dry and sometimes soaked with something sour.

Nevertheless, they used to change their underwear and shirts (they were worn both by men and women) quite frequently — the cleanness that was shown was symbolized by white cuffs that were used to be flaunted. The shirts used to cost a lot! So much so that they were written into the inventory of their owner’s property after death. Both the King and his courtiers’ outerwear was never washed but thoroughly cleaned because clothes back then were made from mostly velvet and silk which could be easily damaged by washing. Shirts, bedclothes, and table clothes were given to laundresses.

Men’s fashion during the times of Louis XIV’s reign

In general, Versailles residents believed that only things that were visible should be clean. For example, in the pharmaceutical books of that time, there were recipes for balms and tinctures preventing bad breath and bad smelling feet. In those times, teeth were taken care of as much as it was possible — there were special “rubbing” powders that were, unfortunately, not that effective. In addition, sugar, which was very expensive at that time, was available only to very rich people who abused it, which often caused cavities.

King Louis’ spouse Maria Theresa already had bad teeth by the time of her marriage at the age of 22. King Louis himself was also known for his bad smelling breath, the main reason for this was the bad condition of his jaws. As curious as it might sound, he was actually born with 2 teeth, something that happens very rarely.

It was impossible to eliminate all these smells which is why courtiers would use a lot of perfume. As a rule, the perfumes of those times had very heavy aromas of animal origins such as ambergris or musk. The court pharmacists would create sachets, which were not only placed in the linen and clothing chests, but they were also sewn into outfits in the armpits or thighs.

As for King Louis XIV, he also liked to use perfume abundantly when he was young, but he ceased to endure heavy odors with age. That’s why his servants would open all the windows before the King entered a room in order to air out all the perfume aromas. Once, the monarch didn’t even let his lover Madame de Montespan into his carriage because she smelled so strongly of perfume and body creams.

The King’s favorite smell was the scent of orange flowers. And it was not only his bedroom that had this smell, but the essence was also added to street fountains.

The court perfumer

The perfume was supposed to solve not just one issue. Apart from disguising the smells of the human body, they were used to hide a bathroom stench. Despite having somewhat public lavatories in the castle, their condition was often so terrible that some of Versailles’ residents relieved themselves in various nooks and corners. In addition, there were a lot of dogs living in Versailles who, of course, were not concerned about finding special places for pooping.

The rooms had night pots that were emptied by servants or footmen. Oftentimes, the contents of those pots were simply poured out of windows because the analogs of modern cesspools were usually located quite far. Of course, all these things didn’t improve the smell inside the castle. Moreover, servants would carry night pots along Versailles’ corridors during the visits of noble people and anyone could use these pots. However, there weren’t enough “hygienic pots” for everyone and many people relieved themselves behind curtains without waiting for a footman.

The king himself had special chairs with slots under which there was a pot. As unbelievable as it might sound, King Louis could be accepting visitors at the time of his intimate procedures. However, for invitees, this act was as honorable as being present at a royal meal.

Rituals at the court of Louis XIV

The life of the Sun King consisted of a big list of various rituals and ceremonies, one of which was the morning getting-up ceremony. King Louis was woken up by the First Valet de Chambre who was sleeping in the same room. After that, the First Doctor and First Surgeon arrived who checked the monarch’s pulse and bowel movement.

Later, members of his entourage appeared, sometimes as many as 100 people. They lined up in a certain order, depending on rank, and the footman proceeded to the shaving procedure, which was watched by those present. Moreover, the noblemen had the honor of seeing the process of dressing the King, after which he would leave the bedroom.

It wasn’t that easy to get such an honor. One had to pay enormous amounts of money for the opportunity to see the morning procedures of the monarch. The bedchamber of King Louis was reminiscent of a theater stage, consisting of a bed drawn up with canopies from all sides which was located on a podium towering over the room.

All the rituals were written down to the smallest of details. For example, it was different valets who were supposed to give slippers and a gown to the King. On cloudy days, when there was not enough light in the bedchamber, a valet would ask the King which of his spectators would get the honor of holding a candle-holder. And the one who got this privilege would become the “keeper” for the time of the ceremony.

The royal court on a walk

Generally speaking, the position of each court person depended on the King’s opinion. Versailles residents used to compete with each other based on their luxurious robes because King Louis’ opinion about a certain person could be formed depending on how fashionably they looked. The fashion competition was so tense that some of the nobles went bankrupt due to their enormous clothing expenses.

But the Sun King, who had survived a revolt and in his childhood was known as “Fronde”, had his personal reasons as to why he would keep noble people in his court — it was the only way to control and prevent noble men and women from arranging a new conspiracy. All people who were in the court were spied on while their correspondence was opened and checked. The king himself didn’t stand aloof either. He would search through their clothing in order to find letters in which a conspiracy could be revealed.

Dinners at the court of Louis XIV were pompous as well. He used to spend breakfast and lunch alone, however, the same people who were present at morning rituals could watch the monarch’s eating process. The evening meal, where apart from family members, courtiers took part in too, was a huge and luxurious ritual and dozens of cooks would work on preparing dishes for it. It’s worth noting that the King was literally insatiable.

King Louis was very fond of meat dishes and began many of his meals with braised beef cheeks. His diet included pigeons, swans, hawks, turkeys and almost any bird that you could imagine, as well as a variety of other meats and, of course, oysters and other seafood. The King’s favorite dessert was the same oranges which were poured over with caramel and sprinkled with edible gold.

Despite obvious problems with the King’s teeth (it is believed that he didn’t have any by the time he turned 40), King Louis’ appetite remained the same throughout his entire life. When he lost the ability to chew food, he would swallow it in pieces. The King would always eat with his hands and those whom he shared his dinners with were forbidden to use sharp knives. This was due to his fear of conspiracies.

An equestrian portrait of Louis XIV of France made in 1692

Another thing that represented his fear were numerous portraits of himself. About 300 paintings of the monarch were created during his reign of 72 years. Of course, there was also a certain amount of pride, but the main purpose of the portraits was to constantly remind the courtiers about who exactly stood above them all: the same was done by dictators in the 20th century.

When the King left the hall, a painting of his was exhibited there and people were supposed to treat it as respectfully as the monarch. For example, none of the courtiers could turn their back to it. Portraits of the King played a huge role in the political life of France at those times, which was held under the banner of absolutism.

Louis XIV took a leave as dauphin before the reign of Louis XV.

Louis XIV died in 1715 at the age of 76 only a few days before his birthday because of gangrene that developed after a leg injury. Perhaps he would’ve lived longer, but the king refused the doctors’ suggestion to amputate the affected limb, finding it undignified. Shortly before his death, he said to the courtiers surrounding his bed, “Why are you crying? Did you really think that I would live forever?”

From the time of Philippe le Bel, the bodies of French monarchs were opened, their entrails were removed, their hearts were separated from the other organs, and all 3 “parts” were buried in different places so that people could worship the deceased ruler at more places than just the main tomb. According to the will of the dead king, the procedure was held in his bedchamber in the presence of the same nobles.

The body of Louis XIV was buried at the basilica at Saint-Denis, the burial place of French kings. After less than 100 years, in 1793, the remains of the Sun King were dug out by revolutionaries and scattered together with the remains of other kings. The copper plaque on the coffin was turned into a saucepan.

Some historians believe that the French Revolution was the price paid for the exorbitant luxury of the King and his descendants, which caused significant damage to the state’s treasury. Simple people couldn’t understand how the monarchs and court people could have such a lavish lifestyle when they didn’t even have enough money for bread. Louis XVI of France, great-great-grandson of the great Sun King, paid this price with his head.

Which of the facts from the life of Louis XIV impressed you the most? We’d be glad to hear from you in the comments!

Preview photo credit Jean-Marie Hullot / wikipedia
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