The opening episode of Versailles season two featured fortune tellers and laser beams. Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction – and other times, period dramas take a little artistic license.
Here’s our round-up of which on-screen events really happened, and which owe more to the imagination of screenwriters than history.
Was there really a plot to kidnap the Dauphin?
The king’s Grand Huntsman, the Chevalier de Rohan, really did join a plot to capture the Dauphin (Louis XIV’s son) – but didn’t get quite so far as he does in the show.
Rohan was stripped of his titles and position at court for helping noblewoman Hortense Mancini escape France and her abusive husband. Rumours flew around court, with the alleged real reasons for Rohan’s disgrace ranged from a flirtation with the king’s mistress...to an affair with the king’s brother.
Nursing a bruised ego and steeped in debt, Rohan joined forces with Gilles du Hamel de Lautréamont and a handful of other nobles in a plan to kidnap the Dauphin and take control of Normandy. The plot was known as the Lautréamont conspiracy.
The Dutch and Spanish showed interest and offered their support and held a series of meetings with Rohan in a small house on the outskirts of Paris – which caught the suspicion of a nearby musketeer. They were reported the authorities and the nobles involved were promptly arrested in their Versailles apartments. Lautréamont was wounded when he tried to escape and died shortly afterwards.
The Chevalier de Rohan was imprisoned in the Bastille and held for days. The commissioners eventually tricked Rohan into confessing his crimes, by telling him the king was prepared to issue a pardon in exchange for information.
Did Philippe really prefer men?
It was no secret that the king’s flamboyant brother preferred the company of men, and the show is keen to emphasise this aspect of Philippe’s life.
His great love was the chevalier de Lorraine, who was said to be incredibly beautiful...and manipulative. For a short time the chevalier was exiled to Rome, amid rumours that he was involved in the sudden death of Henriette, Philippe’s wife. However, he quickly returned to court after some pleading from Philippe.
Rather than be embarrassed by the taboo nature of Philippe’s relationships (the Catholic Church did not approve of homosexuality), Louis XIV actually encouraged his brother’s preferences and feminine behaviours.
Their father Louis XIII had been plagued by his unruly brother, Gaston, who was often drawn into treasonous plots against the king. Louis XIV’s mother Anne of Austria was determined that her younger son would not be another Gaston, and so brought up him up to be entirely dependant on his brother the king. To ensure he was even more unthreatening, it is said Anne encouraged Philippe to dress as a girl and follow feminine pursuits.
Did Louis have a court scientist to play with lasers?
The series opener featured a demonstration by Francois Villette, who used a series of mirrors to set fire to a rock. Villette himself really existed, and was an engineer, optician and fireworks expert at the court of Versailles (the phrase "jack of all trades" springs to mind).
There is, however, no evidence that Villette’s pyrotechnics were used to torture the treacherous Rohan and blind him, as portrayed in the show.
Was Madame de Montespan the top mistress?
While Louis XIV had many affairs in his time, only a handful received an official title – Maîtresse en titre. The flirtatious, razor-sharp Madame de Montespan was probably the most famous of the king’s lovers.
The first series of Versailles saw the worldly Montespan guilefully replace the previous Maîtresse en titre, naive Louise de La Vallière. This series will see Montespan continue to navigate the French court – but the terrain will certainly get rockier.
One thing which made the relationship even more complicated was the fact both parties were already married. If only one party in an affair was married, then the Catholic Church considered this to be fornication. When both lovers were married, however, it was classed as adultery, and sinful. The pious Louise de La Vallière refused to be married for this very reason, and struggled immensely with the guilt of having an affair with her king. Madame de Montespan, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so fussed.
To make matters even more awkward, Madame de Montespan’s husband was not happy about being cuckolded – even if it was by the King of France.
Usually, husbands happily turned a blind eye when their wives were seduced by Louis XIV, as it could lead to royal favours. But the Marquis de Montespan kicked up a fuss at Saint-Germain-en-Laye when he decorated his carriage with horns, the traditional symbol of a cuckolded husband. He was promptly imprisoned in the For-l’Évêque for challenging the king, then exiled to his lands. As alluded to in the opening episode, the Marquis pretended that his wife was dead from 1668 onwards – and even ordered an annual requiem mass to be sung despite Madame de Montespan being fit and well.
Did Madame de Montespan actually see a fortune-teller?
In the opening episode of Versaille season two, we meet Montespan’s mysterious card reader, who predicts misfortune for Louis.
It is believed Madame de Montespan really did rely on a fortune teller, a woman named Catherine Monvoisin, who was known as La Voisin.
There’s no proof that Louis ever came into contact with La Voisin, but Montespan almost certainly did – although some of her readings were performed through her companion Claude de Vin des Œillets. Montespan initially reached out to La Voisin when she wanted to win Louis XIV’s heart…and it worked.
When the King’s interest started to wane, Montespan is believed to have once again turned to La Voisin, who said a series of black masses – an inverted version of the Catholic ritual. Montespan is also said to have bought a number of aphrodisiacs for the King.
It wasn’t just spells and potions, La Voisin also put a lot of effort into creating an atmosphere for her clients. She even splashed out 1,500 lives on a velvet robe embroidered with gold eagles as a fancy work uniform.
Things came crashing down for La Voisin in 1679, after Montespan asked for the king and his new lover ,Angelique de Fontanges to be poisoned. As a consequence, she became implicated in a saga known as the L’affair des poisons (the Affair of the Poisons).
A French aristocrat, Madame de Brinvilliers, was convicted of murdering her father and two brothers, in order to inherit their estates. Her conviction and execution drew attention to a number of other mysterious deaths, and launched a series of investigations into alleged poisoners…. including La Voisin.
La Voisin, an alcoholic, was questioned while inebriated and admitted Montespan had sought her out to win the king’s favour.
Contrary to what we see in Versailles, though, it’s unlikely that Louis ever had a reading from La Voisin.
Did Louis employ a playwright to be his historian?
Centuries ago, history didn’t quite have the rigorous fact-finding requirements it does now. Instead, it was all about the story (sound familiar?). Who better, then, to write Louis XIV’s official histories than one of the greatest playwright in France, Jean Racine.
Racine was a contemporary of Moliere and Corneille, and primarily wrote tragedies – until he was hired as royal historiographer. Hi job was to chronicle Louis reign in the most poetic and flattering way possible. Eventually, he would work his way up to the title of “treasurer of France” and then “ordinary gentleman of the king”.