Versailles - a guide to its historical accuracy
Hello! Hopefully you’ve enjoyed watching BBC Two’s lavish drama import, Versailles. Coming from the quills of noted showrunners David Wolstencroft and Simon Mirren, both known for gripping series with a conspiratorial bent (i.e. Spooks), it was no surprise when this drama arrived with a hearty dollop of sex, violence, tension, and intrigue. Speaking as a neutral TV viewer, I loved it – Versailles is visually spectacular, but also underpinned by some tight plotting, powerful performances and punchy dialogue. Regardless of its historical content, it’s good telly.
If you watched the broadcasts on BBC Two, you may have seen me and Prof Kate Williams presenting a short discussion show after every episode. That was us wearing our historian hats, but even then we aimed to avoid giving away plot spoilers, and didn't want to pour cold water on the exciting drama with historical nit-picking. Our goal was to provide better context for the viewer. However, now that the series is over, this feels like a better opportunity to explore some of the ways in which the drama deviated from historical reality.
Firstly, let’s be clear that historical dramas don’t need to be accurate. It’s nice when they are, but it’s not their purpose - drama is entertainment, not educational programming. Representing the past with careful verisimilitude, while also making watchable telly, is a rare and difficult feat. The past was messy. Stories, however, require rigid structure. In the case of Versailles, it’s a series grounded in broader historical truths, but one in which chronology has been manipulated and key characters invented so as to produce a stronger narrative. When events are debated by historians, it understandably dramatises the raciest interpretation of those contested events. More tellingly, it also conjures up its own entirely fictional subplot – though this is loosely based on the real conspiracy of Louis de Rohan and Gilles du Hamel de Latreaumont.
So, given that it’s a thrilling blend of ‘DID HAPPEN!’ ‘MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED!’ ‘DIDN’T HAPPEN!’ then you may be wondering what was poetic license, and what was taken from the pages of history? Hopefully this will help.
The series follows King Louis XIV of France as he tries to quash the rebellious nobility by trapping them in the luxurious cage of his new palace – his father’s old hunting lodge at Versailles. In the drama, which is set between 1667 and 1670, we first meet King Louis when he is 29 years old. This seems young, but he had already reigned for 25 years by this point. Or had he? Let’s be clear, Louis wasn’t calling the shots as a four year-old boy, and he was still heavily advised by his mother and her chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, after he reached his legal majority aged 13. It required both of their deaths for King Louis’ political power to be unshackled.
So, despite many years in power, at the start of Versailles we find a King who only now is outlining his political goals, and looking to reshape France in his image. Throughout the series, almost all of the action is staged at Versailles: the palace under construction. Indeed, for totally justifiable reasons, the showrunners have made the palace both a key character in its own right and, also, a metaphor for Louis’ psychological development. As the scaffolds go up, so too is Louis constructing himself. Aged 15 he was already dancing in ballets while dressed as the Sun King, but now he is trying to physically, and mentally, embody that persona.
The duality of Versailles and Louis is a fascinating focus for a story, but one that cheats on the history a bit. In reality, Versailles wasn’t the main royal residence until 1682, and would only have been occupied for a couple of months at a time. But if I were writing this series, I would have set the whole thing in Versailles too. It makes for a better story.
Given the plot twists, and need for thrilling jeopardy, some crucial characters in the series are wholly invented, thereby allowing the showrunners to bump them off without altering history. The fictional villains comprise the conspiratorial Duke of Cassel; the Protestant Béatrice de Claremont (and her innocent daughter, Sophie); Mike, the masked assassin who colludes with Louis de Rohan; and the back-stabbing Montcourt who slaughters the (also fictional) Parthenay family on the roads near Versailles.
Louis’ fictional allies include the psychopathically effective head of security, Fabien Marchal, who is alarmingly fond of hammers and eye-gouging; his one-armed gardener, Jacques – a sort of a horticultural Obi Wan Kenobi, often dispensing wisdom in plant metaphors – and, of course, the King’s overworked medical advisors, Dr. Masson and his talented daughter Claudine. In reality, no woman every practiced medicine at the court – Louis’ real doctor at this time was called Antoine Vallot.
However, the drama is also populated by many real people from Louis’ court. His mother (Queen Anne, seen dying in a flashback); Spanish wife (Queen Marie-Thérèse); brother (Philippe, Duke of Orléans); English sister-in-law (Henriette-Anne, or ‘Minette’); outgoing mistress (Louise de La Vallière); incoming mistress (Athénaïs de Montespan); loyal valet (Bontemps); son (the kidnapped Dauphin); chief advisors (Colbert & Louvois – though Louvois was much younger in reality); and – most thrillingly – the treacherous old friend (Louis de Rohan, a former childhood pal who really did join a northern plot to kidnap the Dauphin and murder the King).
We might also make special mention of Prince Annabar (Aniaba of Issigny) who turns up in the historical sources, but is a bit of a conundrum. There are some doubts as to whether he was a genuine African prince, but we know Louis treated him as the real deal and eventually supported his claim to the throne in Senegal. However, this wasn’t until 1700, by which time Aniaba had been in France for several years. In the episode we are told he arrives for a trade deal and leaves almost immediately.
Highlights of Invention
This also brings us onto the black baby, born in front of a shocked crowd in episode one. Various gossipy chroniclers recounted this tale, but all of their scurrilous stories date to several decades after the event. Crucially, none of them implicated Prince Aniaba by name: that is a modern writerly invention. So, where does the 'black baby' story come from?
Queen Marie-Thérèse’s ‘dark’ baby was, in all likelihood, born premature with her skin a violent purple hue – she died soon after, perhaps of oxygen deprivation during delivery. In the drama we then see the Queen’s scandalous child being given to the nunnery, and the death is faked. This is a conflation of a separate story. As far as we can tell, a real black baby was indeed taken from the palace to a convent, and grew up to become the infamous Black Nun of Moret. Her portrait was painted by the King’s artist, and, as an adult, she was apparently visited by the King and his court, suggesting she knew who her father was! But the implication here was that the Black Nun was Louis’ lovechild, not Marie-Thérèse’s.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Louis had affairs with perhaps as many as 20 women in his life, and was likely responsible for as many pregnancies. Tragically, miscarriages and infant death was horribly common for Louis’ lovers. The Queen fell pregnant six times, yet only the dauphin survived to adulthood. Louise de La Vallière bore Louis five children, but the first three never reached their third birthdays. The King’s brother, Philippe, certainly preferred sex with men, but he did his marital duty often enough to see Henriette-Anne’s body ravaged by eight pregnancies in nine years – with only two daughters outliving their tragic mother.
In one of the most compelling strands in the narrative, Versailles depicts Louis frequently sleeping with Henriette, his beautiful and charming sister-in-law, much to the outrage of his emotionally conflicted brother. Though the pair did indeed embark on an intense flirtation in their youth, sex between them would have been considered full incest under Catholic law of the time. A sister-in-law was simply a sister in the eyes of the Pope. Furthermore, the sexless affair was long since over by 1667, when the drama starts, though the King undoubtedly felt strong emotions for her right up until her sad demise.
This painful death, rendered so horrible in Versailles, is now known to have been due to natural causes – perhaps a perforated ulcer. Accusations of poison in the series finale, however, are well-grounded in historical evidence. At the time, the finger of blame was emphatically pointed at an assassination, though not by the evil Dutch or Louis de Rohan. Instead, it was Philippe’s snarky lover, the Chevalier de Lorraine, who was the alleged villain, having already been jailed in Lyon and then exiled to Rome for contributing so much tension to Henriette-Anne and Philippe’s tempestuous marriage.
The drama successfully captures how Louis maintained several relationships at once. He was said to always return to the Queen’s bed at night, cheekily blaming a mountain of paperwork for his tardiness, but he had usually been cavorting with Louise or Athénaïs. Louis loved the thrill of the chase when it came to beautiful, charming women – but he did tend to wander off to pastures new when they fell pregnant, only to return when they got their figures back. A virginal Louise de La Vallière had initially been a decoy to allow Louis to see Henriette-Anne without tongues wagging, but he soon fell for the younger woman. After a few years, and five pregnancies, Louise herself noticing the King’s interest in her was waning, and enlisted the help of her lady-in-waiting, Athénaïs, Marquise de Montespan to try and woo the King back on her behalf. This backfired. The buxom and charismatic stole Athénaïs Louis’ affections for herself, despite being already married with kids.
In Versailles we see her earning Louis’ trust, and a spot in his bed, by coercing the imaginary Duke of Cassel to come to court, and winning big at the card table. Only the latter is true (she was a talented gambler). History tells us her seduction of the King began in 1667 but was fairly old-fashioned in its techniques: catching his eye, dancing with him, making him laugh, and then revealing herself to be an energetic lover in the sack. This spelled the end for Louise de La Vallière’s hopes. She was left behind when Louis went to war in the Spanish Netherlands, though other women were allowed to join him. Louise, panicking that she was being frozen out, raced after him; but Louis sent her back to Paris. Game over. They were done.
Guilt-ridden and hurt, Louise de La Vallière is depicted in the drama as a self-flagellating victim of Louis’ coldness. This is largely true, she really was deeply devout and struggled to reconcile her love for him with her Godly morality. When it was just her and the Queen sharing Louis’ bed, it appeared manageable – because Louis was divinely appointed by God, perhaps it seemed to her as a form of heavenly worship to sleep with the King – but the arrival of Athénaïs broke that spell. Louise begged for forgiveness from the Queen and, full of anguish, made repeated escapes to the nearby convent. In reality, Louis callously made her wait until 1674 until he released her to a life of perpetual prayer – in the TV series she makes her exit five years earlier.
Something else which happened much earlier was Louis’ dramatic illness. In the drama, this strikes him in 1669; he becomes delirious and composes a new ballet (as you do!). The prognosis is so serious that the emergency council gathers to pick the regent to rule on the dauphin’s behalf. In truth, Louis was prone to various digestive problems but avoided serious illness for many decades. The near-fatal moment in his youth was not endured at Versailles, but was a bout of typhoid contracted while on military campaign in Mardijk when aged just 20. His life was not endangered again until many years later, when painful surgery on his rectum became a strange court spectacle.
And, on the topic of timeline changes, something depicted in the drama that happened considerably later in history was the arranged marriage between the Dutch leader William of Orange and the young English princess, Mary – a scene we see after Henriette has succeeded in negotiating the treaty of Dover with her brother, Charles II of England. This Anglo-Dutch marriage occurred in 1677, not 1670, and famously resulted in the couple becoming the only co-monarchs in British history when they invaded during the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 to become William III and Mary II of England.
In summary, Versailles is a rewarding watch for the historian, because it’s fun to spot the real events and enjoy their dramatization. Professor Kate Williams and I mainly engaged with these “yes, that really happened!” moments in our BBC Two discussion programme Inside Versailles, but – as you hopefully now realise – several historical concessions were also made to heighten the storytelling.
In general, the producers largely avoided placing real historical people in false situations, and instead skilfully constructed a fictional conspiracy narrative (built from mainly fictional characters) within the wider historical framework. The result is a pretty fair portrayal of King Louis XIV and his court, something historians can verify, within which a much darker secret is played out for our entertainment… but, crucially, is never recorded for posterity. In short, the show's creators, David Wolstencroft and Simon Mirren, make dramatic hay from the historian’s favourite adage: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Just because Cassel, Montcourt, and Béatrice de Claremont didn’t exist doesn’t mean something else like this *MIGHT* have happened, and then was covered up!
If you've got any questions or comments for Greg, tweet him @Greg_Jenner.