Christmas at Versailles

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In 1682 the French court moved from Paris to the new palace at Versailles where Louis XIV was lauded as “The Sun King”. His younger brother Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, was a successful general but also a scandal — an open homosexual, accused of necromancy, and one who made light of the Catholic religion. One mischievous anecdote of Orléans at Christmas is related in the memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon: 

His passionate desire, like that of his companions in morals, was this, that it would turn out that there is no God; but he had too much enlightenment to be an atheist; who is a particular kind of fool much more rare than is thought. This enlightenment importuned him; he tried to extinguish it and could not. A mortal soul would have been to him a resource; but he could not convince himself of its existence. A God and an immortal soul, threw him into sad straits, and yet he could not blind himself to the truth of both the one and the other. I can say then this, I only know of what religion he was not; nothing more. I am sure, however, that he was very ill at ease upon this point, and that if a dangerous illness had overtaken him, and he had had the time, he would have thrown himself into the hands of all the priests and all the Capuchins [Franciscans] of the town. His great foible was to pride himself upon his impiety and to wish to surpass in that everybody else.

I recollect that one Christmas-time, at Versailles, when he accompanied the King to morning prayers and to the three midnight masses, he surprised the Court by his continued application in reading a volume he had brought with him, and which appeared to be, a prayer book. The chief femme de chambre of Madame la Duchesse d’Orléans, much attached to the family, and very free as all good old domestics are, transfixed with joy at M. le Duc d’Orléans’s application to his book, complimented him upon it the next day, in the presence of others. M. le Duc d’Orléans allowed her to go on some time, and then said, “You are very silly, Madame Imbert. Do you know what I was reading? It was ‘Rabelais,’ that I brought with me for fear of being bored.”

The effect of this reply may be imagined. The thing was too true, and was pure braggadocio; for, without comparison of the places, or of the things, the music of the chapel was much superior to that of the opera, and to all the music of Europe; and at Christmas it surpassed itself. There was nothing so magnificent as the decoration of the chapel, or the manner in which it was lighted. It was full of people; the arches of the tribune were crowded with the Court ladies, in undress, but ready for conquest. There was nothing so surprising as the beauty of the spectacle. The ears were charmed also. M. le Duc d’Orléans loved music extremely; he could compose, and had amused himself by composing a kind of little opera, La Fare writing the words, which was performed before the King. This music of the chapel, therefore, might well have occupied him in the most agreeable manner, to say nothing of the brilliant scene, without his having recourse to Rabelais. But he must needs play the impious, and the wag.

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