Heritage
Perfume Addict King Louis XIV Ruled a Filthy Versailles
The king known for his love for perfume possessed strange hygienic habits.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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Each year, millions of visitors head to France to admire the massive Palace of Versailles, its extravagant interiors, and the elaborate gardens and courts that surround it. Prior to the splendor we see today, however, was a dirty past. Many are surprised when they read about the true state of Versailles during the reign of King Louis, XIV, the “Sun King.” The grandfather of Louis XVI, husband to Marie Antoinette, the Sun King was known for making Versailles his home as well as his government’s headquarters. The king possessed strange hygienic habits. 

Versailles satisfied the king’s love for the open air.

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King Louis XIV had always disliked Paris. It was during his rule that Versailles became the seat of power from where the king ruled. Apart from his love for nature, had also adored architecture and Versailles allowed him the liberty to construct buildings and plan his gardens.

Versailles cost approximately the same amount as a modern airport.

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The palace became a symbol of French extravagance and an object of universal beauty. The king had constructed more buildings between 1678 to 1682 than he did in his previous 20 years as monarch. His chief controller general of buildings and gardener Andre Le Notre drew up the Great Lawn and was behind the Grand Commun, but Louis yearned for more. He ordered the construction of the North Wing to accommodate the court plus a new chapel. In 1685, he had over 36,000 laborers working on Versailles.

French people were unfamiliar with the concept of hygiene at that time but not the king.

Toute L’Histoire released an online documentary called “Versailles’ Dirty Secrets” detailing the state of hygiene during that period. It turns out that baths were rarely taken. A book titled The Raucous Royals say that the Sun King enjoyed taking his Turkish baths and bathed incessantly. In Love and Louis XIV, author Antonia Fraser labeled the bathing quarters as a venue for intimacy and intercourse. One of the most popular bathing chambers was one the king had commissioned for his mistress in the Mesdames’ Apartments.  The tub made of Rouge de Rance marble is now in the Orangery.

Other historians, such as Mathieu Da Vinha, believe that people feared water because of a myth that it opened the pores and allowed illnesses to seep into the body. He explains that baths were used to cool down, instead of to cleanse. In these accounts, Louis XIV only occasionally took baths for therapeutic reasons.

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Chamber pots and pissing walls replaced bathrooms.

The concept of bathrooms and bathing for hygiene was only introduced in 1768 and after that, there were just nine bathrooms in a building that contained about 700 rooms. Prior to that, chamber pots were emptied by disposing their contents out the window. Eventually, pissing walls were introduced into court but were insufficient for the 4,000 people who lived in the palace. Visiting beggars and aristocrats alike would relieve themselves in corridors or beneath staircases, a historian says.

Bathing was done with perfumes.

When Louis XIV got up every morning, he was prepped by a team of servants, while numerous spectators witnessed this “rising of the king.” Da Vinha explains that the king took what was called a “dry wash,” which was cleansing without water. His valet brought the king his shirt and some aqua vitae, a 90-percent-proof ethanol alcohol, to wash his hands. He was shaved, sponged down with aqua vitae, and his face rinsed with water.


The contraption used to produce Aqua Vitae

Louis XIV began France’s reputation for sweet-smelling perfumes.

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Musky, strong perfumes were preferred during the 17th century. By musky, these were inspired by scents of civets and other animals. Louis XIV used these heady fragrances generously. His sickly demeanor often led him to use perfume for medicinal purposes. He was so fascinated by perfume that he was nicknamed le doux fleurant or “the sweet flowery one.” During his later years, some accounts record that the king developed allergies to these scents and later could only stand the scent of the orange blossoms. He commissioned perfumers to extract the scent from the oranges grown at Versailles. He would have his servants spray the rooms of the entire palace with this scent and would use ask for his shirts to be soaked in perfume.

The wigs used by royal members of the court were a health hazard.

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Members of the royal court donned wigs on a daily basis. To clean these wigs, they were merely patted down with powder as a sort of dry shampoo. Over time, the wigs gathered dust and parasites and ultimately became health hazards for many. The king himself suffered from anthrax, a bacterial infection which historians claim could be from the wigs.

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