CHAPTER I. THE BEGINNINGS OF VERSAILLES
A dreary expanse of low-lying marsh-land, dismal, gloomy and full of quicksands, where the only objects that relieved the eye were the crumbling walls of old farm buildings, and a lonely windmill, standing on a roll of higher ground and stretching its gaunt arms toward the sky as if in mute appeal against its desolate surroundings - such was Versailles in 1624. This uninviting spot was situated eleven miles southwest of Paris, the capital city of France, the royal city, the seat, during a century before, of the splendid court of the brilliant Francis I and of the stout-hearted Henry II, the scene of the masterful rule of Catherine de Medici, of the career of the engaging and beautiful Marguerite de Valois and of the exploits of the gallant Henry of Navarre.
The desolate stretch of marshland, with its lonely windmill, meant nothing then to the court nor to the busy fortune-hunting and pleasure-seeking inhabitants of Paris. No one had reason to go to Versailles, except perhaps the poor farmers and the owner of the isolated mill - least of all the nobility and fashionable folk of the glittering capital. No exercise of the imagination could then have conjured up the picture of the splendor in store for the barren waste of Versailles. The mention of the name in 1600 would have brought nothing more from the lips of royalty and nobility than an indifferent inquiry: "And what, pray, is Versailles and where may it be?" You, my lord, who raise your eyebrows interrogatingly, and you, my lady, who flick your fan so carelessly, will some day behold your grandchildren paying humble and obsequious court to the reigning favorites at Versailles - yes, out there on this very moorland where you see nothing but marshy hollows and ruined walls, there will your lord and master, your glorious Sun King, the Grand Monarch, Louis the Fourteenth, build a palace home that Belshazzar might justly have envied: there will he hold high court and set the whole world agape at his prodigal outlay and magnificent festivities. And well may we inquire to-day: how came this dreary waste to be the wondrous Versailles, the seat and scene of so much in the making and the making-over of the world?
Ancient records of France indicate that in 1065 the priory of St. Julien was established on the estates of the house of Versaliis - a grant under royal protection. A poor farm community grew up about the ecclesiastical retreat. Here, also, on the estates of the barony of Versailles, was a repair of lepers, destroyed in the sixteenth century.
The origin of the name is said by some to be derived from the fact that the plains thereabouts were exposed to such high winds that the grain in the poor land was frequently overturned (verses). The lord of these acres first named in history is Hugues (Hugo) de Versaliis, who lived early in the eleventh century and was a contemporary of the first kings of the Capet dynasty. A long line of nobles of this family succeeded him. In 1561 Martial de Leomenie, Secretary of Finance under Charles IX, became master of Versailles. The farming village being on the route between Paris and Brittany, he obtained from the king permission to establish here four annual fairs and a weekly market on Thursdays. Martial perished in the Massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572. Henry IV, as a prince, when hunting the stag with Martial often swept across the low plains of Versailles. The rights to the lands of the barony were acquired by Marechal de Retz from the children of Martial de Leomenie, and inherited from the noble duke by his son, Jean-Francois de Gondi, first archbishop of France. It was this prelate that sold to Louis XIII in 1632, for 66,000 pounds (about $27,400), the land and barony of Versailles, consisting, in the phrase of the original deed, "of an old house in ruins and a farm with several buildings."
In 1624, Louis XIII, who had hunted in the vicinity of Versailles since childhood and in later life had sought relief there from ennui and melancholy, often slept in a low inn or in the hill-top windmill after long hunts in the forest of St. Leger. It occurred to him that it would be convenient for him to have a pavilion or hunting-lodge in this unattractive place, and accordingly he ordered one erected at Versailles, on the road that led to the forest of St. Leger. In 1627, concluding that in no other domain of its limited acreage could he find so great variety of land over which to hunt on foot and horse-back, he bought a small piece of property at Versailles. Immediately afterwards he caused to be erected what Saint-Simon called "a little house of cards" on the isolated hill that rolled up in the heart of the valley, where the windmill had stood.
Louis' architect was Philbert Le Roy, and the new villa was about two hundred feet from the lodge first constructed. Its form was a complete square, each corner being terminated by a tower. The building was of brick, ornamented with columns and gilded balustrades; it was surrounded by a park adorned with statues sculptured after designs by the artist Poussin. Ambitious addition! A villa on the old mill site, decorated by the favorite court artist of the day, Nicolas Poussin! The court resented the enterprise, the nobility despised it. It was the King's fancy; nothing else excused it. A noble of the court, Bassompierre, exclaimed that "it was a wretched chateau in the construction of which no private gentleman could be vain."
Scarcely was his new chateau finished (1630) when the King took up his residence there for the hunt. In this place were terminated in November, 1630, the autocratic services of Cardinal Richelieu to the King - the first of many significant historical events to take place there.