Move Over, Downton: Louis XIV Returns in Versailles with One Reign to Rule Them All

versailles

Image of George Blagden (Louis XIV) and Alexander Vlahos (Monsieur Philippe d’Orléans) retrieved from IMDB.

In March, Downton Abbey set its last table, rang its last bell, and gave its memorable chandelier a final gentle dusting. After six seasons of laughter, heartbreak, and satisfying one liners from the unshakeable Maggie Smith, Crawley and Co. bid us goodnight. But devoted friends of the series need not resort to full mourning over the loss of a leading period drama. A new series exploring the tumultuous lives of Downton’s neighboring aristocrats across the Channel will soon be available this spring on BBC2.

Versailles is a drama set shortly after the Thirty Years War and imagines a young Louis XIV as he makes the decision to construct the iconic titular palace. Penned by David Wolstencroft (The Escape Artist) and Simon Mirren (Criminal Minds), the series will offer an intimate look at the life of the Sun King and his relationship with his brother Philippe, among other members of his circle of busy nobles. Versailles originally aired on Canal+, where it is currently celebrated as the most expensive and ambitious television project in the country to date—each episode costs more than double the average episode of Downton Abbey. And although French critics have sharp words for the nerve of its writers who dare to resurrect the famous monarch with English hands, a second season has already begun filming in France and is set to be completed on July 12, 2016.

But why 1667, and why now? In this spin on the longest reign in European history by one of its most powerful monarchs, contemporary audiences are invited to see Louis XIV transformed by trauma and fear. If your interest in French history was inspired by your enthusiasm for the chaotic life and times of Marie Antoinette, you won’t be disappointed by this chance to learn about Louis XIV, who would win Most Unbelievably Dramatic Life if the history of European monarchs were assembled into a yearbook. Louis was made king at the tender age of four in 1643. His mother, Anne of Austria, ruled as the sole Regent of France with Cardinal Mazarin aiding her as Chief Minister. However, her time in power was characterized by rebellion and a series of civil wars known as the Fronde, so named for the slings used to shatter the windows of her supporters. Louis began his reign in 1654 and declared himself absolute monarch in 1661 after Mazarin’s death, beginning his lifelong campaign to secure the centralized control so unobtainable in his youth. From the earliest years of his life, the Sun King found himself at the center of the series of unfortunate events that set the tone for his costly and chaotic reign and makes seventeenth-century Europe so compelling to twenty-first-century audiences accustomed to mayhem of the HBO variety. 1)For those who blinked and missed their European history classes: The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the event that opens Versailles, started as a conflict between the Protestant and Catholic states of the Holy Roman Empire (which by then managed to be neither holy, Roman, nor an empire). Following sixty-three years of religious tensions that culminated in fifteen Catholic councilmen being thrown from a window to an awaiting violent mob, the conflict developed into a much more terrifying war involving Sweden, France, Denmark, England, Transylvania, Hungary, The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, The Ottoman Empire, Spain, and many others. The war was so mercilessly destructive and long that it spawned a notable eruption of witchcraft persecutions, famines, and general pestilence. Accompanying the Thirty Years War was the Franco-Spanish War (1635-1659), which was inspired by French involvement in the Thirty Years War and featured a time-out in 1653 when essentially none of the armies fighting at the time had the strength to gather and transport supplies. Louis XIV appropriately followed up these wars with the War of Devolution (1667-1668) and the Franco-Dutch War (1672-1678), putting France on the offensive to seize lands. At the end of the Franco-Dutch War, Louis ultimately returned all the Dutch lands he had captured. During this turbulent period, French borders shifted and significant European powers formed and broke alliances at allemande speed. Observe, a map of the shifting political boundaries during the Thirty Years War, retrieved from the University of Texas Library.map 

Based on the trailer, audiences can anticipate watching the melodrama of a man’s constant struggle to protect personal and national interests. While Louis desperately fights to minimize resistance and keep powerful nobles under his control, violence and deception pervade every gilded corner. Louis XIV set the standard for absolute power by prohibiting private armies, establishing elaborate court ceremonies and even revoking the Edict of Nantesending a period of religious peace. Downton Abbey meets Game of Thrones in this contested space where clean divisions between the past and present, order and chaos remain as slippery as the palace’s immaculately polished silver.

In addition to representing the complexities of life amid violence, the show hints at attention to questions of gender and sexuality in its representation of Louis’ brother Philippe. As a libertine, he must negotiate immense political pressure and a life of physical pleasure unrestricted by adherence to rationalism or moral constraints. Unlike Laurence Dunmore’s disappointing depiction of libertinism in his 2004 film The Libertine, Versailles promises to deliver a more fully realized portrayal of libertinism in Philippe’s unapologetic interest in clothing intended for women, his preference for sex with men, and the unique cultural life of Louis’ court. In this reconstruction of the Sun King’s life, Monsieur may prove just as central to the plot as his brother.

To avoid setting audiences up for a betrayal of period drama proportions, we at ABOPublic cannot promise viewers an exceptionally thoughtful meditation on the complexities of nation, gender, sexuality, and war. However, we do consider ourselves fortunate in being able to pass on some eighteenth-century fun. Although a clear date has not yet been set for the show’s debut on BBC2, season two will be released around March 2017. If you’re looking for a period piece to watch before then, consider Outlander, which has returned for a second season, and check out our own reviews of the show here. In the meantime, you can follow Versailles on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Amarin Young

Amarin is an editorial assistant for ABOPublic at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She likes it when literature gets fuzzy.

References   [ + ]

1. For those who blinked and missed their European history classes: The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the event that opens Versailles, started as a conflict between the Protestant and Catholic states of the Holy Roman Empire (which by then managed to be neither holy, Roman, nor an empire). Following sixty-three years of religious tensions that culminated in fifteen Catholic councilmen being thrown from a window to an awaiting violent mob, the conflict developed into a much more terrifying war involving Sweden, France, Denmark, England, Transylvania, Hungary, The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, The Ottoman Empire, Spain, and many others. The war was so mercilessly destructive and long that it spawned a notable eruption of witchcraft persecutions, famines, and general pestilence. Accompanying the Thirty Years War was the Franco-Spanish War (1635-1659), which was inspired by French involvement in the Thirty Years War and featured a time-out in 1653 when essentially none of the armies fighting at the time had the strength to gather and transport supplies. Louis XIV appropriately followed up these wars with the War of Devolution (1667-1668) and the Franco-Dutch War (1672-1678), putting France on the offensive to seize lands. At the end of the Franco-Dutch War, Louis ultimately returned all the Dutch lands he had captured. During this turbulent period, French borders shifted and significant European powers formed and broke alliances at allemande speed. Observe, a map of the shifting political boundaries during the Thirty Years War, retrieved from the University of Texas Library.map

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