Last weekend, I finally realised a long-standing ambition by visiting Versailles, the royal French palace. What a fine place it proved to be, especially with such a helpful guidebook. First up, the Coronation Room:
Here on Maundy Thursday, the Queen washed the feet of thirteen pauper girls and gave them a meal in commemoration of the Last Supper. The ritual was discontinued after 1785, however, following an incident in which one of the girls kicked Her Majesty during the ritual washing, whilst shouting republican slogans. Needless to say, the young women was brought before the Council the following morning, stripped and tied over a table, then whipped severely by the King – an incident that in no small part contributed to the growing revolutionary fervour in Paris.
I then processed through a series of grand chambers: The Hercules Room, The Room of Abundance, The Nobles’ Room, The Clemency Room, The Whipping Chamber. Hold on… those last two?
Wives and daughters of the nobility were excused from the punishments meted out by the courts to mere commoners. In the unusual event of one such being sentenced for a crime, she would be taken to Royal Palace, where she would attend his Majesty in the Clemency Room. The lady would be offered an opportunity to plead for an overturn of her conviction, or to request his Majesty’s mercy. On the rare occasions when neither was forthcoming, she would be taken to the adjacent Chamber to be flogged, the number of strokes being commensurate with the King’s displeasure at her offence.
Finally, I emerged from the crowded rooms into the vast expanse of the wonderful gardens. Oh look: there’s Tuby’s statue of The Saone – a naked woman. Le Hongre’s “Air”. Another naked woman. Legros’s “Water” – can you guess? Surprisingly, the areas furthest away from the chateau were quite deserted – the Obelisk Grove, for example, the sort of place in which one could readily imagine oneself to be far from the crowds at the court. That has certainly been the case in 1745, when:
… the king’s eldest daughter and one of her ladies-in-waiting (the niece of the Duc d’Angers) were caught in near the fountain in the centre of the grove in a state of some undress and in a position of not inconsiderable intimacy. Both were taken forthwith to the King, who was outraged at their behaviour – not least because the princess was betrothed to the son of the King of Spain. Contemporary reports state that the Captain of the Guard was called forth and instructed to birch both girls soundly on their bared buttocks, a task he undertook with considerable vigour.
A strange by-product of this incident is a curious bye-law still on the statute books of the Municipality of Versailles, requiring any couples caught committing indecent acts in the palace gardens to be sentenced to corporal punishment. The measure is enacted infrequently, most recently in 2004 when two girls from the Sorbonne each received twelve strokes of the cane.
Let me finish with a short note to tourists stumbling across this site having googled for information regarding visits to Versailles: I believe that the guidebook has recently been undergoing revision, and so some of the material I’ve described above may be missing from newer editions.