Homosexuality and lesbianism is woven into the history of the Palace of Versailles and into the lives of its most famous residents.
The magnificent palace on the outskirts of Paris is a camp baroque masterpiece that defined elite tastes for a hundred years and still influences them today.
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But look a little closer, and you will see homosexual history hidden in plain sight in its art and artefacts.
The falcon loving founder, Louis XIII
Louis XIII became king of France at just nine years old. And from his teenage years he preferred the company of male courtiers to women.
Charles d’Albert, the young Duke of Luyens, was his particular favorite. While it’s not certain the two had a sexual relationship, it is widely rumored.
We do know they shared another passion – hunting. Among the titles Louis granted Charles was Grand Falconer of France. Caring for the king’s hunting birds was a great honor.
Luyens died of a fever while fighting Protestants in 1621.
But the king kept hunting. And in 1624, that was to change the shape of a small village 20kms southwest of Paris – Versailles.
Louis, then in his early 20s, decided to build his hunting lodge there.
In Louis son’s reign, Versailles was to evolve from hunting lodge to palace. But falconry was never forgotten there. The palace’s world famous Hall of Mirrors would host an annual ceremony when the king would receive his new falcons.
Louis started another fashion in 1624, donning a wig. By doing so, he set the style of European men wearing wigs for the best part of two centuries.
Was Louis’ marriage loveless?
The king had married Anne of Austria, daughter of Philip III of Spain, aged just 14. Politics, not love, dictated the match, which cemented the political and military alliance between the Catholic countries of France and Spain.
Some claim the king and queen enjoyed a few years of marital happiness. But Louis was soon busy with his male courtiers again.
It took 23 years of marriage, and sadly four stillbirths, before the pair had a son and heir.
Meanwhile, Louis didn’t follow the usual kingly fashion by having a mistress. That was so unusual that he earned the nickname ‘Louis the Chaste’.
‘A hundred filthy acts’
Despite his chastity, the king started another relationship with François de Baradas. He was a handsome and athletic officer in Louis’ household.
A contemporary writer said Louis ‘loved Baradas violently’. He added that the king committed ‘a hundred filthy acts with him’.
The relationship sparked an explicit poem too, including the lines: ‘Become a bugger, Baradas / if you are not already one.’
But it was short lived. Baradas couldn’t be faithful and apparently slept with other nobles while he was on a visit to Nantes. The king moved on.
Next in line was a more sensible young man, Saint-Simon. He stayed in the king’s favor for a decade and ended up a duke. But he became too close to the enemies of Cardinal Richelieu, the virtual co-ruler of France, who had him banished.
Then there was the good-looking and stylish Henri Coiffier de Ruzé, the Marquis of Cinq-Mars.
Louis was obsessed with him but the two regularly argued, causing him much unhappiness. The king event complained to Cardinal Richelieu that the fights were making him have sleepless nights.
Various reports reveal details of Louis and Henri’s love life.
One says a friend walked in on Cinq-Mars while he was rubbing his body with jasmine oil one day. A moment later there was a knock on the door, and the king came into the room. Obviously, Cinq-Mars had been preparing for him.
Another incident happened when they were travelling together. Louis sent Cinq-Mars to undress. But he returned, ‘adorned like a bride’. Louis said ‘to bed, to bed’ and his lover wasn’t between the sheets before he was kissing his hands.
The ulcerated king’s early and painful death
Louis suffered from ulcerated intestines, tuberculosis and generally weak health and died aged 41.
He left France much more firmly under the rule of the king rather than the nobles. And that was something his son and heir Louis XIV was to capitalise on.
But it was his other son, Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, who was to be the next great LGBTI figure in the French court.
Versailles, the gilded cage
The next king, Louis XIV created a new vision of monarchy, with Versailles at its heart.
He poured a fortune into large scale expansion of Versailles, swamping his father’s hunting lodge. What is more, he positioned himself as the Sun King. Even today, symbols of him depicted as the sun, with light shining from him, can be seen throughout Versailles.
And he put the palace to a new use. Louis XIV ordered his troublesome nobles to spend a large amount of time there. It took them away from their own lands and personal power base.
Although ambitious nobles gained from having better access to the king, it wasn’t all luxury. The palace became so crowded that some had to make do with just a few small rooms.
Louis’ brother, Philippe, was at the center of life in this gilded cage.
Philippe, the ‘prettiest child in the world’
The king’s brother had been noted as intelligent and attractive from childhood. One duchess called him the ‘prettiest child in the world’.
He was also unashamedly effeminate.
His mother, Queen Anne, called him ‘my little girl’ and encouraged him to dress in feminine clothing.
Philippe adopted this as his style and in adulthood would attend balls and parties in female clothes, for example as a shepherdess.
Some claim his brother the king was irritated by his flamboyance and openly disliked his overt sexuality. If so, he did little about it.
Perhaps his real attitude was more accepting. Louis’ second wife Madame Maintenon once complained to him about the rampant homosexuality at the court. She warned him that if he did not stamp it out, God would punish France.
Louix XIV gave her a sour smile and replied with the perfect put-down: ‘Should I start with my own brother?’
In fact, it could have helped Louis XIV. If Philippe didn’t particularly want to marry and have children, he was less of a threat to the king’s own dynastic plans.
How a cardinal fixed up Philippe’s first gay lover
Philippe was around 18 when he found his first young lover. Philippe Jules Mancini, the Duke of Nevers, was the son of Cardinal Mazarin, King Louis’ chief minister. He was around Philippe’s age.
In some accounts, Mazarin even encouraged Mancini to sleep with Philippe – believing a homosexual prince was less of a threat to the king.
The Catholic Church may technically disapprove of homosexuality, but not when they can use it to exercise power and influence.
The dashing Chevalier, the love of Philippe’s life
In that same year, 1658, Philippe met the man who was to be love of his life.
He was yet another young man called Philippe and came from a noble family. His title was the Chevalier de Lorraine. He was just three years older than the prince.
Historian Dirk Van der Cruysse tells us that by the end of the 1650s, the Chevalier had ‘hooked Monsieur [Prince Philippe] like a harpooned whale’.
King Louis may have been prepared to turn a blind eye to his brother Philippe’s homosexual relationships. But he still needed him to marry. And Philippe did that twice in his life. Both his wives became embittered enemies of the Chevalier.
It’s not hard to see why. Philippe told his first wife that he couldn’t make love to her without the Chevalier’s permission. Henriette Anne tried to get her own back. In January 1670, she persuaded King Louis to imprison the Chevalier. He was jailed in Lyon, then in the Mediterranean island fortress of Château d’If. Then he was banished to Rome.
But all this was short-lived. By February Philippe had persuaded his brother to allow his lover to return to Versailles.
Philippe’s second wife didn’t go that far, but was no friend to the Chevalier. Reportedly she merely ‘tolerated his existence’.
Meet the bisexual playboy who loved both the prince and princess
Another of Philippe’s lovers had a very different approach to the Prince’s wife. Step forward the bisexual Armand de Gramont, the Count of Guiche. He was vein, overbearing and looked down on everyone. But he was also reputedly the hottest guy at Versailles.
And that was enough reason for his lovers to look past his faults. These lovers reportedly included both Prince Philippe and his first wife Henrietta.
But Armand overreached when he flirted with Louis XIV’s own mistress, Louise de La Vallière.
His downfall came when he conspired with Henrietta to drive a wedge between Louis and Louise. The king banished him.
This wasn’t quite the end of his story, however.
In exile, Armand became a sword for hire, fighting the Turks for the Poles and the English for the Dutch. Eventually he returned to France and joined Louis XIV’s army in the Franco-Dutch War. And he proved himself a hero when swam across the Rhine, encouraging the whole army to follow him.
This incident highlights that the gay and bi men at court were often brave soldiers. Many homophobes and historians have tried to paint them as effete, limpwristed and cowardly. In fact, the opposite was the case.
Likewise Prince Philippe himself was a born soldier. In fact, contemporaries heralded him as a skilful military strategist. This annoyed his brother, the king, who was less competent on the battlefield.