Tag Archives: Madame de Maintenon

Louis XIV: A Very Thirsty King

Louis XIV by Rigaud, Public Domain

Louis XIV by Rigaud, Public Domain

When Louis XIV, aka the Sun King, decided to build the palace to end all palaces at Versailles, he was as interested in the grounds as in the palace itself.  He envisioned a paradise of gardens, 50 fountains, many interconnected canals and little wooded glens.  All this took a tremendous amount of water–which the landscape of Versailles did not have.  But he was the King, and ALL the water in the land was his by right.  So he set his engineers to work changing the course of every river he could get his hands on.

Versailles, Copyleft Free Art License

Versailles, Copyleft Free Art License

It was impossible to operate all or even very many of the fountains at the same time, even as they were being built. Workers developed a system of tracking the king and warning other workers with whistles, so that whenever the king strolled into view of a particular fountain, water could gush forth.

By 1685, Louis had exhausted all the nearby sources of water.  By this time, he had taken up with Madame de Maintenon–whose Chateau happened to sit directly on the River Eure.  Never one to do things by halves, Louis ordered his engineers to divert the water 50 miles from Maintenon to Versailles.  And he wanted the job done in grand fashion, as the Caesars had done it.  So a viaduct was begun.  During the year 1685, 10,000 troops were pressed into service for the grand building project.  In 1686, 20,000 troops were hard at work.  Unfortunately, Louis had embarked on one of his many wars, and it was hard to justify using 1/10 of his entire military force to water his gardens. He was short of cash, too. The project was abandoned, still 18 miles short of Versailles.


Today the viaduct is a romantic ruin that only adds to the charm of the Chateau de Maintenon.


The River Eure runs undisturbed, and the Chateau’s gardens are well watered.  Louis XIV had to do without, for once in his long life.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!


Chateau de Maintenon


MaintChateauMy new second-favorite chateau is one I had never even heard of until my recent trip to France. (My favorite chateau is the incomparable Chenonceau, which was built spanning a river in the Loire Valley). The story of how a penniless woman, born in a prison, came to be the second wife of the Sun King is strange but true. Chateau de Maintenon is close to the cathedral city of Chartres, and I came across a brochure about it in the Chartres tourist office.

Madame de Maintenon, Public Domain

Madame de Maintenon, Public Domain


The woman who eventually became Madame de Maintenon was Francoise d’Aubigne, born in the prison where her ne’er-do-well father was incarcerated in 1635.  She married an invalid older man, an aristocrat who brought her into the highest social circles before obligingly dying and leaving her with a sizable royal pension. After awhile, though, Louis XIV suspended the pension and she was left high and dry. One of her friends was the current favorite mistress of the King, the Marquise de Montespan. Francoise became the caretaker of the King’s many illegitimate children with his favorite mistress, about 8 as far as anybody knows.  Francoise was discreet and did her job well.  The King rewarded her with a pile of money, which she used to buy the Chateau in the town of Maintenon.

Eventually the King tired of the ill-tempered Montespan, and took up with Francoise, giving her the title Marquise of Maintenon. The King’s wife died.  He was in his early forties, beginning to feel like an old man, and beginning to be concerned about his sins.  He married the Marquise sometime in 1685-1686. She remained at his side for 30 years, his most trusted confidant for the rest of his long life.  The marriage was officially secret, but courtiers had to accept the low-born Marquise de Maintenon as a permanent fixture, like it or not. It was a seventeenth-century version of an old story:  the rich man marries the nanny. (In this case, the nanny was actually a few years older than the King, and considered overly pious in the French court. But Louis appreciated her qualities).


Today the chateau and its gardens are lovely and as inviting as they must have been when the King used the Chateau as a homey escape from the crowds at Versailles. The Marquise was given rooms adjoining the King’s at Versailles and in all the other royal residences, so she rarely had time to visit her own beloved chateau once she was married.  For the rest of her life, though, she had flowers and foods grown on her estate delivered to her.

Join me next time for more explorations in the fascinating art and history of Europe!