In recent months, I’ve been visiting a lot of Book Clubs who have read my novel ‘Bitter Greens’. Some have cooked me French onion soup; others have poured me fine French champagne. All of them have been full of questions.
Most questions begin ‘Is it true …?’
Some of the most eagerly asked questions were about the court of the Sun King, and so I thought I would write a little more about this most imperious of kings. It is all really quite fascinating.
Yes, it is true that the Sun King used to ride out in a coach with his wife and his two favourite mistresses.
Yes, it is true that he married his bastard children’s governess (although he never acknowledged her as his wife).
Yes, it is true no-one except another royal was permitted to ever sit in his presence (except at the gambling tables, one reason why gambling was so popular with his footsore courtiers). Even his own sons had to remain standing, though his daughters were allowed to squat on little footstools, a privilege that they fought over bitterly.
Yes, it is true that courtiers had to bow or curtsey to any dish being carried to his table.
Yes, it is true that it was considered rude and vulgar to knock at a door. Courtiers grew the nail of their little fingers long so they could scratch at a door.
The etiquette of the court at Versailles was extraordinarily rigid.
Take the King’s daily routine.
He was surrounded at all times by his courtiers and soldiers – three or four thousand was the usual number.
Every morning, a chain of servants and courtiers passed each item of clothing to the king. For example, the Valet of the Wardrobe brought the King’s shirt, passed it to the grand chamberlain, who handed it to the Dauphin, who passed it to the King.
He had one servant whose only job was to present him with his golden goblet of wine.
The King ate alone, watched by up to 300 people at a time. At one meal he is said to have eaten “four platefuls of different soups, a whole pheasant, a partridge, a plateful of salad, mutton hashed with garlic, two good-sized slices of ham, a dish of pastry and afterwards fruit and sweetmeats.”
The King expected all noblemen to live with him at Versailles. Anyone who preferred to live on their own estates soon fell from favour. The King would simply say, ‘I do not know them’, and favours would be passed to those who danced attendance upon him.
Louis XIV was Europe’s longest serving monarch. He reigned for 72 years and 110 days. He out-lived his son, and his two eldest grand-sons (all three were named Louis too). He was succeeded by his five year old great-grand-son, Louis XV.
And, yes, it is true that vichyssoise was invented because it took so long for the King’s soup to reach him after being passed along a long chain of tasters to ensure it was not poisoned. If the King ate cold soup, everyone must eat cold soup.