At the Threshold
He had survived more than seventy summers of wet, fly infested heat. And more than seventy winters too. He had outlasted infection and epidemics. He was almost as hard a man as the New England stone that marked his fields. He is believed to have once beaten a servant so badly that the man died from the wounds; he fought with his neighbors, even stole from them, and, in his last year of life, failed to defend his wife when she was accused of being a witch.
Barely a month later, he also stood accused. He spent his final summer being moved, in tandem with his wife, from stifling jail to stifling jail, first in Salem, then in Ipswich, then in Boston, and finally back home to Salem again; a single dungeon could not begin to house all of the colony's suspected conjurers. In each town or city, his family had to pay for his food and drink and even the wood for his fires, as well as fees to the jailers. But when it came time for him to answer the charges of witchcraft and be tried before a special court, which ultimately sent nineteen souls to face the noose on a barren slope near Salem Village known as Gallows Hill, he refused.
On the morning of September 17, in 1692, Giles Corey, a landed farmer and recent church member, was stripped naked. The last voluntary act of his life was to lower his quivering flesh to the ground and wait as a wooden board was placed upon his chest. Then, in full view of his neighbors, Salem's sheriff called for rocks to be piled upon the board. A friend of Corey's and even members of the court pleaded with him to agree to a trial. In turn, he pleaded for more weight to bring a speedy end to his suffering. It took two long days for the slow increase of rocks upon the board to crush the breath from his lungs and halt the pulse of blood from his heart. As he lay dying, in a final, painful indignity, the sheriff drew his cane and forced Corey's flaccid tongue back into his mouth.
One of the Salem magistrates, Samuel Sewall, laconically wrote in his diary, "About noon, at Salem, Giles Corey was press'd to death for standing mute."
But Giles Corey's brutal execution was not some aberrant punishment concocted on the fringe of the Europeanized world, where, a mere seventy miles away, Indian war parties were murdering colonial farmers in their fields. No, here in this budding paradise of liberty, Corey died by means of a centuries old, rather conventional European punishment, popularized by Henry IV and named the peine forte et dure, and employed as a standard sentence for those who refused to submit to the state's will. In such ways, big and small, did the hand of the old reach out to touch the new.
The waning decades of the seventeenth century remained, for a majority of mankind, the bleakest of times. Kings ruled at the pleasure of the Almighty; all others did what they were told to do. For millions of subjects eking out a meager existence and shackled in ignorance, life was fleeting, dirty, and cheap. Public opinion scarcely existed, even as a meaningful concept, and the weak endured what they must, forcibly grateful for what little they had. Once the sun dipped over the horizon, the world — or at least the limited world they knew — was enveloped by a vast swath of darkness. Fires crackled and smoked, precious tallow candles smoldered, but for the most part life paused. And whatever secret dreams they held — or lingering agonies they grappled with — were subservient to the bare exigencies of brute survival.
Only half of infants made it past their first year; in the British colonial city of Boston, a quarter of all newborns died before they reached a mere seven days. Middle age was one's thirties and few lived beyond forty. Most were haunted by disease. Throughout much of the century, pestilence was one of the greatest killers — plagues and epidemics, cholera, smallpox, or microscopic fl eas nesting in the coats of rodents, each leaving behind fresh graves. So did an array of mysterious ailments, like the "sweating sickness" that devastated England. Indeed, it is a remarkable fact that in the seventeenth century Europe's population actually declined. Nor was this just due to dark reigns of pestilence. The simplest of infections were perilous. And with depressing regularity failed harvests and famine swept the continent, which only added to death's grisly toll. The years of hunger were terrible: Peasants might be forced to sell all that they owned, and cannibalism was not unknown. There were even tales of starving men who tore hanged bodies from the gallows, frantic to eat the raw flesh while it was still warm. Rampant filth and negligible public sanitation also raised the butcher's bill — mosquitoes harbored malaria, lice ferried typhus, and heaps of animal dung lured storms of flies in the streets. The New World was hardly better. On top of the same scourges, hunger, bitter cold, and crippling heat, many settlers lived in fear of Indian raids and heard lurid tales of men, women, and children being hacked to death by silent, efficient war parties as unlucky colonists gathered to chat on a porch or checked on a crop in the fields.
On European soil, it was also an age of horrid cruelty. As the historian J. H. Plumb once wrote: "life was cheap." Torture was universally employed for all manner of crimes, from speaking ill of the king to stealing a tradesman's wages or even loaves of bread. Rarely was there mercy. To be sure, one might be hanged, drawn and quartered — that was simple. But ordinary criminals and political dissidents alike were routinely beheaded, burned, or broken alive on the wheel. Or slowly crushed by the infamous peine forte et dure. Or they were subjected to the rack and the rope. Or the knout. Treason, but not only treason, often yielded more creative methods. Rapists, for one, were castrated. Counterfeiters were punished by pouring molten metal down their throats. Curiously, those speaking ill of the sovereign were, to a point, more fortunate: They simply had their tongues ripped out.
News was scarce, gossip and storytelling supplied most information. And people of all stations believed that their physical world was suffused with the comings and goings of spirit beings. Illness or health, privation or plenty were the work of otherworldly forces. Even some of the century's leading scientific minds were not immune: Men like Francis Bacon believed in witchcraft and the curative power of south- facing windows; Robert Boyle, who initiated the beginnings of modern chemistry, wanted legions of miners to be interviewed about their encounters with subterranean demons; and Sir Isaac Newton devoted more time to his studies of the occult than to the physics principles that won him lasting fame.
Whether one was standing in Salem, Massachusetts, or in Paris on the banks of the river Seine, let alone amid the cold snows of Moscow, the future, as much as anyone could see of it, appeared unchanging and immutable, an era of perpetual illness and barbarism, abduction and subservience, superstition and famine. This was all the more ironic because the day was fast approaching that would yield to an era of teachers and lawgivers, builders and administrators, philosophers and learned men, and enlightened rulers as well. Ironic too because a subtle and powerful new spirit would soon be rising in the world, a mighty political storm of revolution, republicanism, democracy. And ironic because in many ways, more so than at any time in human history, tucked inside a few corners of seventeenth- century Europe and especially the New World, there was already an increasingly forward- looking community filled with uncommon radiance and energy. Nowhere was this more evident than in the supreme monarchy of the day.
Between the people and the sovereign a bright line was drawn. The royalty of the age was invested in glory, bathed in mystique, and clothed in magical powers. To be king was not simply to be lord of men, a host of great feasts, but a giver of rings, of gold, of landed estates. It was to be a builder, a warrior, a patron of the arts, and a later- day version of Apollo. It was to be the very embodiment of civilization, answerable only to God, and in one instance, to be civilization itself. Never was this more the case than in France, the forefront of world civilization, where Louis XIV, his most Christian majesty, reigned, and where, in 1682, one of the greatest of palaces in the world — it was actually a chateau — was being finished: Versailles.
His legacy still echoes down the years. Once saluted as "the invisible divinity," he is known both by his royal name of Louis XIV and his adopted sobriquet, the "Sun King." For seventy- two years, he presided over some 19 million subjects, and was alternately referred to as "Louis le Grand," "Le Grand Monarche," and "Le Roi Absolu." And he was the most influential ruler in the world, looming across every facet of European life, politics, diplomacy, and civilization. Few monarchs in any era have approached his undeniable grandeur; Voltaire compared him to the great Roman emperor Augustus. The symbol of absolute monarchy in the classical age, his very presence was designed to overwhelm; his merest gesture became the subject of endless talk. The Sun King claimed dominion over the center of all Europe; it was his France against which the rest of Europe felt obliged to combine and which set the course for a swath of lesser nations, whether it was the future of the Spanish possessions, the independence of the once- mighty Holland, or the survival of England's parliamentary revolution. And this was just the beginning.
France itself was a land of sharp contradictions. With its fertile soil, it was the wealthiest country on the globe, even if millions still lived in appalling poverty. The aristocracy held sway as in no other era, yet there was also a growing middle class: lawyers, office holders, bureaucrats, and merchants. France was a self- sufficient country, yet the French of this century reached out everywhere: trade in India and Madagascar; the founding of Canada — it was French Canadians along with their Indian allies who tormented the settlers on the wild Massachusetts frontier, sending terrified refugees streaming south to Salem — and farther west, penetrating the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley. They established plantations in the West Indies, expanded ancient French commerce with the Levant, and enlarged the French navy, an act that would one day have unforeseen but immense consequences for America and the world.
France was cultural and intellectual center as well, infused with literary giants, like the tragedists Corneille and Racine and the playwright Moliere, who ridiculed the newly rich and the foppish aristocrats. There were Descartes, the towering mathematician and scientific thinker, and Bayle, the father of modern skeptics, and Pascal, the renowned scientist who became a profound spokesman for Christianity. But always there was, at the core, the Sun King himself.
Louis was the third king of the Bourbon line, but the eminence of his majesty fl owed from his character: his prodigious pride, his unimpeachable self- assurance, and his overarching ego. He was five feet, nine inches, quite tall for that day, and astoundingly handsome too. His face was pitted from smallpox, but he retained his rich brown eyes and captivating gaze, and delighted in wearing high heels to accent his well- muscled calves. The ultimate effect was a robust and "noble" appearance, which made, as one court diarist noted, others "tremble" in his presence. As he grew older and his locks of sleek chestnut hair thinned, the king donned a wig of long black curls that only added, as an observer confessed, to his "majesty."
Genial and ruthless, he was a king almost from the cradle. His own father, Louis XIII, had died in 1642, when Louis was four. Ruling in his name was his mother, Anne of Austria, and her chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, the brilliant protege of the great Cardinal Richelieu. But it was not to be a peaceful regency.
When Louis was just nine, France erupted into revolution, spurred on by discontented nobles and a new rash of stringent government revenue schemes. Known as the Fronde, it was the precursor to the French Revolution: Barricades were thrown up and street fighting broke out in Paris; along with the nobility, Paris's courts also rebelled, seeking to circumscribe the crown. And at the height of this violence, armed bands, led by nobles, roamed the countryside terrorizing the peasants. One night, the boy king himself and his mother were besieged by an angry Paris mob. Surrounded by horrid cries and the crackle of muskets outside his windows, Louis was hastily spirited off to St. Germain, where he spent the night on a bed of straw. It was a frightful moment — and formative. While the uprising was eventually subdued — it took five murderous years — the rebellion made a lasting impression on the Sun King. Scarred by the tumult, he was adamant from then on to be his own man, answerable to no one. And he was equally determined never to be controlled by scheming ministers or thickets of court intrigue, a choice with ominous portents for his heirs to come.
Louis was no great intellect, or so his critics said. But this was deception. True, his formal education was mediocre; true, he was not the wisest man of his time. Neither was he the most gifted. But he always grasped the intricate ingredients of leadership. Overbearing and iron- fisted, with an insatiable appetite for admiration and flattery, he instinctively understood how to gain power, how to magnify power, and ultimately how to embody power itself. He was every inch a king. And after the Fronde and years of religious wars, the bourgeois of France were, unlike the British or later the Americans, eager for a strong monarch. This is what Louis meant to give them.
He ebulliently boasted (or so his enemies said), "Letat, c'est moi" — "the state is myself," and set about making precisely that happen. In 1668, twelve miles west of Paris, amid the rolling woodlands of the village of Versailles, he decided to build a palace to embody his own personal majesty. That majesty took fourteen years to make flesh. Some 36,000 men toiled, month after month, year after year, on the platforms that wrapped around the building. They struggled in the muck and heat and darkness, laying formal gardens in the long- fallow ground. They chipped and carved away, chisels in hand, fashioning statues of stone and marble. There were the skilled labor, the slave labor, and the imported labor. And there was the death: The mortality rate was appalling. After dusk came the unearthly creak of wagons carting away the dead, bodies crushed by massive stones or broken in violent falls. Deadly bouts of malaria and other maladies also tore through the barracks, but it was of no matter; the work continued. Meanwhile, 6,000 horses dragged timbers or blocks of stone, until in 1682, the king officially moved into the palace.
To all who saw it or heard tell of it, it was a monument to worldly splendor, the marvel of all Europe and the envy of lesser monarchs everywhere. And it was unique, starting with the fact that it had no ramparts, no moats or walls. Such was the overweening confi dence of the Sun King that he could bask in his wealth and glory without the most minimal of defenses to protect himself. Even the chateau's gate was almost never locked.
The original site had been home to a hunting lodge for Louis XIII. That was then. Now the Sun King's Versailles had a facade a full one- fifth of a mile in length — it was filled with exquisite reception galleries and chambers of state, dance halls and meeting rooms, private suites for the royal family and public rooms for government offices, rows of apartments for the royal guests, alcoves and bustling shops, let alone all that was hidden away from public view, like the ample closets that housed the royal clothing, the kitchens that produced the feasts, and the endless corridors, guardrooms, and hideaways. In decor, it was stunning, from its polished mirrors and rich, gleaming floors, to its magnifi cent Gobelin tapestries and walls lined with patterned velvet, all overlooking a formal park with fountains and shaded walks. By day, blazing sunlight illuminated great arched ceilings and frescoes of mythological royalty; at night, thousands of candles burned brilliantly in sparkling chandeliers and polished candelabra. And everywhere there was silver: silver chairs, silver tables, silver planting pots, and of course silver table services. Even the giant doors were branded in gold with the symbol of Apollo, a glittering mark of his regal majesty. As if to reinforce this, the great French painter Charles Le Brun himself rendered Louis as God on the vaults of Versailles.
Below the chateau, the gardens were equally arresting. Where there had once been nothing more than a sandy rise and enveloping woodlands, millions of flowers, bushes, and trees were planted amid emerald swatches of finely clipped hedges and lush green corridors. Terraces gave way to ramps, staircases descended to an intricate display of ponds, lakes, and bubbling fountains, and all were populated by an extravagant menagerie of rare birds, ostriches, and herds of wild animals. On warm spring evenings, indoors and outdoors flowed together in a dazzling array, as the entire court spilled on to the grassy lawns and into the Grand Canal, where a fleet of gondolas awaited. And then there were the orange trees, thousands of them, which the king had imported from as far away as Santo Domingo and which almost miraculously bloomed year round.
One of the most ambitious constructions ever conceived, Versailles rivaled the imperial forums of Rome and the great temple complex at Karnak, Egypt. But it was far more than an unfettered pleasure dome. All across the Continent — and beyond — kings, princes, and potentates dreamed of their own royal colossus, instructing their architects and builders to erect palaces worthy of Louis's royal grandeur, down to the imported carpets, the cut crystal, and the filigreed porcelain. So outside Vienna, the Hapsburgs built Schonbrunn; outside Berlin, at Potsdam, Frederick II built Sans Souci; outside Constantinople, the Ottoman sultan built a summer palace, Sa'adabad; and eventually, in St. Petersburg, Tsar Peter the Great built Peterhof. Well into the next century, wealthy planters in the American South modeled their gardens on Versailles, and even the radiating broad boulevards of Washington, D.C., were crafted by a Frenchman in imitation of the Sun King's magnum opus.
And of course, there was the politics. Behind the gilt and gardens, Versailles teemed with political machinations. Far more than a royal residence, Versailles was in many respects the ultimate public building, the instrument for the king to concentrate all power in the hands of the monarchy — his monarchy — even as France remained a hodgepodge of competing jurisdictions, special privileges, and bureaucratic ineptitude. Here, under the royal eye, Louis housed the great French nobility, the very classes who had started eleven civil wars over the course of forty years and instigated the dreaded Fronde. As political theater, it was genius. As political strategy, it was ingenious. Away from their lands and estates, absorbed into the ritual of the court, the French aristocracy soon became satellites of the king, rather than his rivals or potential regicides. So Louis lured them to his palace, corrupted them with gambling, exhausted them with dissipation, and seduced them with ritual. Under the Sun King, there would be no repeat of the Fronde.
Thus, at Versailles, and at the Sun King's command, there were no idle hours for plotting or excessive intrigue. Louis was a master of overstatement. Everything unfolded in precise and formalized detail around him. From the moment the sun streamed over the horizon straight into la chambre du roi — it was no accident that the king's bedroom stood at the exact center of the palace — his daily routine of rising (lever), of eating (dîner), and of going to bed (coucher) became an infinite series of minutely orchestrated, ceremonial acts. He awoke ("sire, it is time"), was massaged with rosewater, and was shaved and dressed by the most exalted of his subjects — six of them for this routine alone. So it was that the landed and titled desperately sought the privilege of removing the royal nightshirt, of carrying the royal clothes, and of presenting the chair for his daily "natural functions" or the royal bed for his lovemaking. When he prayed, when he ate, when he grumbled, and when he laughed, as he strode through the palace or sauntered through the parks, a bevy of lords and nobles flowed in his royal wake, with rigid etiquette dictating who could be present, who could speak, who could hold his sleeve ("right" versus "left"), who could share la viande du roi (the king's dinner). And whomever the king chose to be in his presence, the court honored in turn.
Aside from the many feasts, which were themselves immense, and thrice-weekly social evenings, the amusements were endless: There were the tournaments and the tennis matches, the billiard games and the boating parties, and the great balls. And then there were the special occasions: a parade of torchlight suppers in the open air, all- night gambling soirees, and multiday festivals when the entire court dressed up as Persians or Turks, Romans or American Red Indians; Versailles had literally become heaven on earth. Equally titillating was Louis's love life: True, he slipped into his wife's bed twice a month to make love to her. But the rest of the time, as long as she lived — she died in 1683 — he was picking a series of lovers: When Louis went to war in 1673, he was accompanied by the queen and two of his mistresses, one of whom was pregnant; while mules carried their vast train of wardrobes, the three ladies rode in the same carriage. Moreover, in matters of politics, Louis was equally willful: He never called the ancient Assembly of Notables or the Estates- General, and he ignored the regional courts. And though it is true that he rarely took action without carefully weighing the advice of his fleet of experts, all major decisions were ultimately made by his eminence: the Sun King at Versailles.
Yet under Louis, France was at its pinnacle, laying claim to the epicenter of the world: Its arts, its courtly manners, its elaborate clothing and elegant speech suffused all of Europe—French was the language of diplomats and the tongue of the most prominent men of letters; the French navy rivaled Britain's and its army was among the finest on the continent; and it boasted great scientific minds. Of course, few decrees were more commanding than those signed by Rex Christianissimus, "his most Christian majesty:" Louis XIV. In his hands, nothing couldn't be done, nothing couldn't be accomplished, nothing couldn't be dreamed.
But Louis's radiance belies the fact that he was hardly universally loved. While his politeness was without parallel, he was routinely thoughtless, or boorish, or stern, bearing little affection for the common people. His religious beliefs were painfully narrow; he brutally repressed the Protestant Huguenots. He even once decreed that all prostitutes consorting with soldiers within five miles of Versailles should have their noses and ears cut off. And there was the matter of Louis's penchant for armed conflict with his neighbors: To much of the rest of Europe, the Sun King was "a bloodthirsty tiger," a brash Catholic despot.
Indeed, if Versailles were the thunderclap reverberating across Europe, his martial activities were even more earthshaking. Increasing his forces from 100,000 to 400,000, Louis made war a near constant activity of the state. For much of his long reign, he was either at war, preparing for war, or biding his time, and his army soon became the scourge of Europe. He harbored designs against Spain and in 1672 invaded the Dutch provinces; in 1679 his troops infi ltrated the dissolving frontiers of the Holy Roman Empire in Alsace and Lorraine; in 1681 his men occupied the city of Strasbourg. Then, in 1683, when the dreaded soldiers of Islam, the Ottoman Turks, moved up the Danube and stormed the gates of Vienna, they did so with Louis's initial tacit support; ironically, Catholic France and the Muslim Ottomans were long- standing allies. And he seized the Rhine and annexed Flanders. As his empire swelled ever more, Europe would repeatedly band together against him: There was the coalition of the kings ofSpain and Sweden, the electors of Bavaria, Saxony, and the Palatinate, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Dutch Republic. That was in 1686. Fifteen years later, a combined Europe would again be forced to act against him: England, Holland, Portugal, as well as the Italian duchy of Savoy; this war would continue for twelve years.
Ultimately, this conflict was a considerable setback for Louis. The continuous war produced only poverty, misery, and criticism at home and led to the loss of valued royal possessions abroad. Belgium was lost, and so were Newfoundland and Nova Scotia (then Arcadia), as well as the disputed American Northwest, the Hudson Bay territory, ceded by treaty to
the British. And there was a further, inglorious price to be paid among the people of France themselves: When Louis died in 1715, his body was borne to the Saint-Denis basilica — to the jeers of the teeming populace. For much of his life, he was the subject of excessive flattery, but in death, he was serenaded by indiscriminate abuse.
The king's final years were blighted by domestic tragedy as well. His only surviving legitimate child, the Grand Dauphin, died in 1711. A year later the new dauphin was gone, dead of measles. Almost simultaneously, he lost two of his grandsons. And within days Louis's great-grandson, the next dauphin, died of the same disease. In the Sun King's direct line, there now remained only one great-grandson, a red-cheeked child with brooding eyes; frail and of ill health, he was only two. And he too had measles. But the governesses bolted his doors and refused to allow the doctors to treat him. Miraculously, the child survived.
On his deathbed — Louis was suffering from painful gangrene and his flesh literally seemed to be falling off his bones — the Sun King summoned his surviving great-grandson to his side. As shafts of bright light filtered in through the windows, the Sun King leaned over and whispered prophetically, "My child, you will one day be a great king. Do not imitate my taste for war. Always relate your actions to God." He also added: "I am going away, but the state will always remain."
Louis XV did his duty and listened. He would spend fifty- nine years on the throne. Indeed, together these two men would reign in France for 131 years.
With such power and pedigree, despite nagging wars and even territorial reversals, the grandeur and glory of the French monarchy seemed invincible. So when Louis XVI, the fifth ruler of this distinguished line, assumed the throne, it was believed by all that he — like all of France's rulers since Clovis was crowned king of Francia in 496 — would follow in their magnificent wake, arousing awe, testifying to the immensity of their heritage, and trailing endless blazes of glory.
How, it seemed, could it be anything otherwise?
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