Louis XIV, his mindset, his methods of wielding power, and the way he governed his country, have been frequent topics for discussion here. His memoirs are an excellent read, full of practical advice for self-conduct and leadership. Their psychological insight into power over yourself and others is the most fascinating thing about them.
Last year, we saw the airing of a new historical drama, Versailles, set in the court of Louis XIV. The first season centered on Louis’ establishing Versailles as the new center of power in France, getting the nobles to come there, and trapping them in the gilded cage. There came of course, a ton of intrigue with this move, but the first season stalled at times. Sometimes it felt like there was a lack of direction, even though the acting and staging was all excellent. Still, it lacked something that would make it truly excellent to a general audience, rather than just people interested in the period.
That wasn’t the case at all this year, as Versailles season 2 fired on all cylinders for all 10 of its episodes. The progression of the season was direct and focused, dealing with the infamous Affair of the Poisons in the 1670s. In Versailles, we are shown a palace that, despite its beautiful facade, is rotting from within. In the first episode, Louis’ minister of justice is poisoned, and things go downhill from there.
The poisonings continue throughout the season and Louis grows increasingly distressed as his beloved Versailles turns more and more into a hell, as he and his people seem to be powerless to stop them. The Affair of the Poisons is far from his only problem, however, as the Franco-Dutch War is raging in the Low Countries. Things look to be going well at first, and the king wishes to take part in the proceedings, partly to establish his presence and increase his reputation, but partly also to escape the gloom that has descended on Versailles.
His trip northward wouldn’t be the reprieve he was hoping for. Reliant on England’s fleet for assistance, that piece of the puzzle went out the window, as the Dutch fleet sent it packing.
Things got even worse from there, because as if Versailles couldn’t be bad enough with all the poisons in it, there was a Dutch spy in its midst, who was none other than Louis’ official historian. As such, William of Orange (the future William III of England) knew the French strategies before the armies met, and great a leader as Louis XIV was, he was no general. So the mid-point of Versailles‘ second season shows the great king defeated both at home and abroad. His armies were losing ground and he was losing control of his court. The Sun King had descended below the horizon, into katabasis.
The second season of Versailles was all about descent and redemption for Louis. The imagery of Christ throughout the season, particularly its closing episodes, was well-placed, not only for the Biblical parallel, but because Louis grew more religious as his reign went on. His increasing religious devotion would wind up being the key to solving the crisis and saving his hold on power in Versailles season 2, as at the low point, after suffering a defeat at the hands of William of Orange, the two rulers met, and for once, Louis was dealing with an equal in rank. He at first didn’t seem to acquit himself well. William revealed that he knew everything that was going on at Versailles, from the poisonings to his personal activities, including his relationship with his mistress, the Marquise de Montespan. Taunting Louis with how much power she had over him, he declared that she was the one he should be negotiating with, not him. This caused him much distress.
The scenes between Louis and William were the best of the second season and of the entire series so far, showing the King of France in a light very different from the character he normally put on for his court. As you might expect, that was his rock bottom. Haunted, he had a terrible nightmare, where Montespan was a demon sucking him into darkness, but suddenly, he turned around to see the light – a crucifix.
Seeing this as a sign from God, Louis found his confidence again and went back home to right the ship, starting with himself.
Personnel is Policy
In the second season of Versailles, we see that first hand. Politics and governing is done by people. We haven’t yet reached the point where computers and robots do everything for us like in Masamune Shirow’s Black Magic (I fear when we do). Instead, our “moist robot” brains do that, and that means we’re more susceptible to cognitive biases than we are rational beings. Louis certainly was that this season.
The war and the Affair of the Poisons all marred him, but his biggest enemy was himself and who he let near him. Louis’ descent came largely because he cut himself off from his truest friends and supporters and slowly began to enmesh himself with his enemies, whose iron fists were hidden in velvet gloves.
Louis dismissed his police chief Fabian Marchal, while others that were close to him and actually cared for his interests, including his brother Philippe, Queen Marie-Therese, and his valet Bontemps, saw their influence wane. In their place came those who were against him or otherwise predisposed, most notably of all Montespan, who would do anything to stay in his bed, whether or not it harmed him. She would influence him to make one bad decision after another, and as the season came to a close, showed how depraved she was in her obsession to remain his mistress by agreeing to take part in a Satanic ritual – the infamous black mass, with a baby to be sacrificed.
It was when Louis returned from Holland and began to distance himself from Montespan that he began to recover, declaring that she had blinded him to his true purpose.
When Montespan left his bed, he communed with his duties, held himself more accountable to God, and renewed his confidence in his true supporters, including bringing Marchal back into his service. This in turn would eventually unravel the conspirators in the Affair of the Poisons, uncover the ringleaders involved – a Satanic priest (Etienne Gibourg, who was a real person) and a fortune telling sorceress who was the supplier of the poisons to Versailles.
In his memoirs, Louis warned his son that “an artful woman” would attempt to divide her lover from his supporters and make it so that “she alone and her friends are listened to.” It was nice to see these warnings being brought to life in the season.
The Poetic End
When the sorceress’ plans failed and she was burned at the stake at the end of the season, she exhorted the people to stand up against the Sun King and his vanity, warning him that his time was coming, that a tide would come that would sweep him away, that Versailles was built on a weak facade, and that he and his spawn would be cursed.
All of this turned out to be true, the sorceress was just off in her timing by about 120 years.
There are some historical errors. Louis XIV was never as influenced by Montespan as the show portrayed him, and to my knowledge, he never met William in person. Other, lesser errors were found also, but that’s to be expected in a show whose primary purpose is entertaining its audience. I was impressed with the second season. If you’re interested in the time period, or the mechanisms of power, persuasion, and leadership, it’s worth a watch.
Read Stumped to learn more about making an impression on people’s minds.