The palace, shrouded in a proud silence beside the Louvre and often suffering the scorn of not even being noticed by tourists because of his illustrious neighbour, hides a story as captivating as neglected, and it’s time to do it some justice.
Let’s meet some of the famous faces that made this beautiful palace what it is now, lived in it or just hang about it, making it a crossroads of thrilling human histories, if not always very edifying.
At the beginning, Palais-Royal, was called Palais-Cardinal, because it was built by order of Cardinal Richelieu – that Richelieu, the puppet master par excellence, made immortal by the pen of Alexandre Dumas in “The Three Musketeers”.
Even Richelieu had to die at some point – even if he couldn’t believe it himself – and he did, right here, on December 4th, 1642. While a considerable number of French people were celebrating – let’s consider the fact that, during his long life, the cardinal much preferred to be obeyed rather than loved -, the palace was inherited by King Louis XIII and therefore took the name of Palais-Royal.
His majesty, however, couldn’t enjoy his new palace for long, because he died right the year after. The palace became property of his wife, queen Anne of Austria – yes, the same who was in love of the handsome Duke of Buckingham, the same implicated in the adventure of the diamond necklace that Dumas narrated – even if in reality they were two brooches, but this is yet another story.-
Widow of a difficult husband, and finally free from the oppressive presence of Richelieu, Anne of Austria could finally breathe something akin to freedom. What Dumas tells in his novels isn’t, in this case, so different from what actually happened: cardinal Richelieu, to better keep his influence on King Louis XIII, had often tried to turn the king against his wife, to the point that he ended up distrusting her completely.
Become regent to the throne of France, Queen Anne took over her new palace with her children in tow. They were the extremely young Louis XIV (the future Sun King, he was five at the time), and his younger brother Philippe, the next Duke d’Orleans. Apart from a few small household accident – little Louis XIV, often left unwatched, fell in the main basin of the garden and almost drowned -, life was nice and peaceful at Palais-Royal, until the stormy years of the so-called Fronde.
This tormented civil war, aiming at weakening the future sovereign’s power, lasted for five long years that showed to Anne of Austria how the role of regent could be even worse than the one as Queen Consort. The peak of tension was reached when word was spread that the young king – only twelve at the time – was about to be taken away from Paris. Palais-Royal was then invaded by rebel nobles in the middle of the night. They demanded to see their king. Louis woke up abruptly and witnessed the invasion of his room by armed men, a terror that stuck with him and was at the core of his future decision to move the court outside of the dangerous Paris.
Meanwhile (1649) from over the Channel a surprise had come for Queen Anne. At the doors of Palais-Royal came knocking the Queen of England and her five-years-old daughter:
«Auntie! It’s so nice to see you! What brings you here?»,the little Louis XIV happily exclaimed (in fact, the Queen of England was his aunt, sister to Louis XIII)
That’s not an historically accurate depicting of the scene – I imagined it – but let’s delve into what had happened to the ill-fated Queen. Henriette-Marie de Bourbon (1609-1669), wife – and already widow – of King Charles I of England, had just ran away from her reign in the middle of a revolution where her head and her husband’s had been loudly demanded by their own subjects. King Charles, as you probably have already imagined, hadn’t been as lucky as his wife…
Due to the annoying night forays we’ve talked about, queen Anne decided to leave Palais-Royal and retire behind the more secure walls of the Louvre. In the Palace remained Henriette and her daughter, Henriette Anne Stuart (1644-1670), who will later on marry Philippe, the youngest brother of the Sun King, who will later be remembered not only for becoming the first Duke d’Orleans, but also, and mainly, for his reiterate BI-sexual scandals.
On the occasion of his wedding, Louis XIV gifted Palais-Royal to the couple, and duchess Henriette embellished the palace even more, adding water gardens, artwork, fabulous parties and every nice thing could help her forget her hellish conjugal life.
The balls of the Duchess d’Orleans became legendary, and so did her death, swift and suspicious. She was just 26, and after drinking chickory water was suddenly shaken by violent spasms. She died after an excruciating agony, screaming bloody murder – more precisely, poison. Even if the doctors ascribed her death to an unforeseen attack of stomach flu, behind many a fan and handkerchieves everyone was still whispering about that certain lover of her husband who had many good reasons to get rid of Madame (so the King’s sister-in-law was called at court)…
Duchess Henriette Anne Stuart, mistress of Palais-Royal, daughter of the deposed King of England and cousin to the Sun King, Louis XIV, had even another undeniable perk. I’m talking about her thick, graceful entourage of ladies-in-waiting that had caught the whole attention of her royal cousin. From this garden of ringlets, lace and silk laces, in fact, the passionate Sun King picked some of the most beautiful flowers – not overlooking the cousin herself!
One of the most famous flowers was the sweet Louise de la Vallière, who gave two sons to the king and had them right in Palais-Royal. Truly in love with a very volatile king, she was soon overshadowed by a new and more sparking flame: the bold and shameless Madame de Montespan, a woman with a completely different attitude. The neglected Louise decided then to spend the rest of her days in a nunnery, thusly becoming a public paragon of redemption, the incarnation of a modern Marie Magdalene, penitent and forever renouncing the wild pleasures of the court of Versailles.
Françoise-Athénaïs de Montespan was firmly decided to keep the King all to herself and to destroy any competition, even resorting to forbidden arts like black masses, love potions, and so on. Her involvement in the Affair of the Poisons is another story, and I tell it in another article, but it’s an important event to depict the incredibly reckless attitude of this woman who gave the king seven children, six of which were legitimated. Between those, there was the enchanting Françoise-Marie de Bourbon, also known as Mademoiselle de Blois, who later on married Philippe’s son thanks to the bold maneuvers of her unstoppable mother. The bastard daughter of the king became, in this way, the new mistress of Palais-Royal.
However – if it wasn’t already clear enough – the king was capricious, and after the Affair of the Poisons Madame de Montespan’s shining star started her decline to leave way for a new star, more modest in appearance and not noble of birth, but with a personality that was second to none. I’m talking about Françoise d’Aubigné, who later on conquered, by her charme and wit, the title of Marquise and went down in history as Madame de Maintenon, even becoming the morganatic wife of Louis XIV. How could have the Montespan ever been suspicious of the overly religious governess of the sun’s illegitimate children, the one she had chosen herself? Surprise!
Influenced by Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV became a much more straight-laced man, and took the court’s habits down a notch.
The revelries at Versailles ground to a halt that put Paris on the map as the new place to find fun, especially after the death of the Sun King. Since the new baby-king Louis XV still had to become of age, the court went back to the capital, and the throne was given to a regent – guess who? -, Philippe d’Orleans, husband of the woman who once was Mademoiselle de Blois.
Palais-Royal became the core of the most beautiful parties of the Age of Enlightenment. Revelries and merrymaking ended up tarnishing the reputation of the palace with an ambiguous name, mainly tied to the controversial one of its master, but the best had yet to come. For the palace of the Dukes d’Orleans, long years were coming. Years of social transformation, golden years, bloody years…
(read about the golden years when Palais-Royal became an ante-litteram mall in “The Coolest Palace is the Duke d’Orleans’s”)