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Inside the Court of Louis XIV, 1671
The seventy-two year reign of Louis XIV was marked by an opulent extravagance best exemplified by the construction of his palace at Versailles in 1682. Here, the entire French nobility was expected to take residence and to participate in elaborate ceremonies, festivals and dinners. Louis' motivation was not based solely on his desire to have a good time but was a means of simultaneously controlling the nobility, reducing their power and watching for any potential rivals.

Prior to the construction of Versailles, Louis kept an eye on the nobility by requiring that they accompany him wherever he may go. When the king traveled, he did so at the head of a great lumbering retinue of hundreds of lesser princes - all of whom had to be fed and entertained at each stop.

"My honor is lost..."

We gain some insight into life at the court of Louis XIV through a letter written by Madame de Sevigne to a friend in 1671. Louis has decided to make war on Holland and has traveled to Chantilly to meet with his commander. A great feast is planned to take place in the forest supervised by Vatel, the "Prince of Cooks."

"It is Sunday, the 26th of April; this letter will not go till Wednesday. It is not really a letter, but an account, which Moreuil has just given me for your benefit, of what happened at Chantilly concerning Vatel. I wrote you on Friday that he had stabbed himself; here is the story in detail.

The promenade, the collation in a spot carpeted with jonquils - all was perfection. Supper came; the roast failed at one or two tables on account of a number of unexpected guests.

This upset Vatel. He said several times: 'My honor is lost; this is a humiliation that I cannot endure.' To Gourville he said. 'My head is swimming; I have not slept for twelve nights; help me to give my orders.' Gourville consoled him as best he could, but the roast which had failed (not at the king's, but at the twenty-fifth table), haunted his mind.

Gourville told Monsieur le Prince about it, and Monsieur le Prince went up to Vatel in his own room and said to him, 'Vatel, all goes well; there never was anything so beautiful as the king's supper.' He answered, 'Monseigneur, your goodness overwhelms me. I know that the roast failed at two tables.' 'Nothing of the sort,' said Monsieur le Prince. 'Do not disturb yourself, all is well.'

Midnight comes. The fireworks do not succeed on account of a cloud that overspreads them (they cost sixteen thousand francs). At four o'clock in the morning Vatel is wandering about all over the place. Everything is asleep. He meets a small purveyor with two loads of fish and asks him, 'Is this all?', 'Yes, sir.' The man did not know that Vatel had sent to all the seaport towns in France. Vatel waits some time, but the other purveyors do not arrive; he gets excited; he thinks that there will be no more fish.

He finds Gourville and says to him, 'Sir, I shall not be able to survive this disgrace.' Gourville only laughs at him. Then Vatel goes up to his own room, puts his sword against the door, and runs it through his heart, but only at the third thrust, for he gave himself two wounds which were not mortal. He falls dead.

Meanwhile the fish is coming in from every side, and people are seeking for Vatel to distribute it. They go to his room, they knock, they burst open the door, they find him lying bathed in his blood. They send for Monsieur le Prince, who is in utter despair. Monsieur le Duc bursts into tears; it was upon Vatel that his whole journey to Burgundy depended. Monsieurie Prince informed the king, very sadly; they agreed that it all came from Vatel's having his own code of honor, and they praised his courage highly even while they blamed him...

Gourville, however, tried to repair the loss of Vatel, and did repair it. The dinner was excellent; so was the luncheon. They supped, they walked, they played, they hunted. The scent of jonquils was everywhere; it was all enchanting."

   Madame de Sevigne's account appears in Robinson, James Harvey (ed.) Readings in European History (1906); Carr, John Laurence, Life in France under Louis XIV (1970).

How To Cite This Article:
"Inside the Court of Louis XIV, 1671," EyeWitness to History, (2004).