Versailles is a city in
France; palace of the
French kings (built in the 17th century); peace treaty signed in 1919 between
Germany and the Allies.
The name Versailles appeared for the first time in a medieval document dated A.D. 1038. In the feudal system of medieval France, the lords of Versailles came directly under the king of France, with no intermediary overlords between them and the king; yet they were not very important lords. In the end of the 11th century, the village curled around a medieval castle and the Saint Julien church. Its farming activity and its location on the road from
Paris to Dreux and Normandy brought prosperity to the village, culminating in the end of the 13th century, the so-called "century of Saint Louis", famous for the prosperity of northern France and the building of Gothic cathedrals. The 14th century brought the Black Plague and the Hundred Years' War, and with it death and destruction. At the end of the Hundred Years' War in the 15th century, the village started to recover, with a population of only 100 inhabitants.
In 1561, Martial de Loménie, secretary of state for finances under King Charles IX, became lord of Versailles. He obtained permission to establish four annual fairs and a weekly market on Thursdays. The population of Versailles was 500 inhabitants. Martial de Loménie was murdered during the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre (24 August 1572). In 1575, Albert de Gondi, a man from Florence who had come to France with Catherine de' Medici, bought the seigneury of Versailles.
Henceforth Versailles was the possession of the family of Gondi, a family of wealthy and influential parliamentarians at the
Parliament of Paris. Several times during the 1610s, the Gondi invited King Louis XIII to hunt in the large forests around Versailles. In 1622, the king became the owner of a piece of wood in Versailles for his private hunting. In 1624, he bought some land and ordered Philibert Le Roy to build there a small hunting "gentleman's château" of stone and red bricks with a slate roof.
This small manor was the site of the one of the historical events that took place on the Day of the Dupes, on 10 November 1630, when the party of the queen mother was defeated and Richelieu was confirmed as prime minister. Eventually, in 1632, the king obtained the seigneury of Versailles altogether from Gondi. The castle was enlarged between 1632 and 1634. At the death of Louis XIII, in 1643, the village had 1,000 inhabitants.
Louis XIV, son of Louis XIII, was only five years old when his father died. It was 20 years later, in 1661, when Louis XIV commenced his personal reign that the young king showed interest in Versailles. The idea of leaving Paris, where, as a child, he had experienced first-hand the insurrection of the Fronde, had never left him. Louis XIV commissioned his architect Le Vau and his landscape architect Le Nôtre to transform the castle of his father, as well as the park, in order to accommodate the court. In 1678, after the Treaty of Nijmegen, the king decided that the court and the government would be established permanently in Versailles, which happened on 6 May 1682.
At the same time, a new city was emerging from the ground, resulting from an ingenious decree of the king dated 22 May 1671, whereby the king authorized anyone to acquire a lot in the new city for free. The plans provided for a city built symmetrically with respect to the Avenue de Paris (which starts from the entrance of the castle). The roofs of the buildings and houses of the new city were not to exceed the level of the Marble Courtyard, at the entrance of the castle (built above a hill dominating the city), so that the perspective from the windows of the castle would not be obstructed.
The old village and the Saint Julien church were demolished to make room for buildings housing the administrative services managing the daily life in the castle. On both sides of the Avenue de Paris were built the Notre-Dame neighborhood and the Saint-Louis neighborhood, with new large churches, markets, aristocratic mansions, all built in very homogeneous style according to the models established by the Surintendant des Bâtiments du Roi. Versailles was a vast construction site for many years. Little by little came to Versailles all those who needed or desired to live close to the maximum power. At the death of the Sun King in 1715, the village of Versailles had turned into a city of approximately 30,000 inhabitants.
When the court of King Louis XV returned to Versailles in 1722, the city had 24,000 inhabitants. With the reign of Louis XV, Versailles grew even further. Versailles was the capital of the most powerful kingdom in Europe, and the whole of Europe admired its new architecture and design trends. Soon enough, the strict building rules decided under Louis XIV were not respected anymore, real estate speculation flourished, and the lots that had been given for free under Louis XIV were now on the market for hefty prices. By 1744, the population reached 37,000 inhabitants. The cityscape changed considerably under kings Louis XV and Louis XVI. Buildings were now taller. King Louis XV built a
Ministry of War, a
Ministry of Foreign Affairs (where the Treaty of Paris (1783) ending the
American Revolutionary War was signed in 1783 with the
United Kingdom), and a Ministry of the Navy. By 1789, the population had reached 60,000 inhabitants, and Versailles was now the seventh or eighth-largest city of France, and one of the largest cities of Europe.
Seat of the political power, Versailles naturally became the cradle of the French Revolution. The Estates-General met in Versailles on 5 May 1789. The members of the Third Estate took the Tennis Court Oath on 20 June 1789, and the National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism on 4 August 1789. Eventually, on 5 and 6 October 1789, a crowd of women joined by some members of the National Guard from Paris invaded the castle to protest bread prices and forced the royal family to move to Paris. The National Constituent Assembly followed the king to Paris soon afterwards, and Versailles lost its role of capital city.
From then on, Versailles lost a good deal of its inhabitants. From 60,000, the population had declined to 26,974 inhabitants by 1806. The castle, stripped of its furniture and ornaments during the Revolution, was left abandoned, with only
Napoleon briefly staying one night there and then leaving the castle for good. Louis-Philippe, who took the throne in the July Revolution of 1830, saved the castle from total ruin by transforming it into a National Museum dedicated to "all the glories of France" in 1837. Versailles had become a sleepy town, a place of pilgrimage for those nostalgic for the old monarchy.
Prussian War of 1870 put Versailles in the limelight again. On 18 January 1871, the victorious Germans proclaimed the King of
Wilhelm I, emperor of Germany in the very Hall of Mirrors of the castle, in an attempt to take revenge for the conquests of Louis XIV two centuries earlier. Then in March of the same year, following the insurrection of the Paris Commune the French government under Thiers relocated to Versailles, from where the insurrection was militarily quelled. The government and the French parliament stayed in Versailles after the quelling of the insurrection, and it was even thought for some time that the capital of France would be moved definitely to Versailles in order to avoid the revolutionary mood of Paris in the future.
Restoration of the monarchy was almost realized in 1873 with parliament offering the crown to Henri, comte de Chambord, but his refusal to accept the tricolor flag that had been adopted during the Revolution made the restoration of monarchy impossible for the time being. Versailles was again the political center of France, full of buzz and rumors, with its population briefly peaking at 61,686 in 1872, matching the record level of population reached on the eve of the French Revolution 83 years earlier. Eventually, however, left-wing republicans won a string of parliamentary elections, defeating the parties supporting a restoration of the monarchy, and the new majority decided to relocate the government to Paris in November 1879. Versailles then experienced a new population setback (48,324 inhabitants at the 1881 census). After that, Versailles was never again the seat of the capital of France, but the presence of the French Parliament there in the 1870s left a vast hall built in one aisle of the palace which is still used by the French Parliament when it meets in
Congress to amend the French
Constitution, as well as when the French president addresses the two chambers of the French Parliament.
It was not until 1911 that Versailles definitely recovered its level of population of 1789, with 60,458 inhabitants at the 1911 census. In 1919, at the end of the First World War, Versailles was put in the limelight again as the various treaties ending the war were signed in the castle proper and in the Grand Trianon. After 1919, as the suburbs of Paris were ever expanding, Versailles was absorbed by the urban area of Paris and the city experienced a strong demographic and economic growth, turning it into a large suburban city of the metropolitan area of Paris. The role of Versailles as an administrative and judicial center has been reinforced in the 1960s and 1970s, and somehow Versailles has become the main center of the western suburbs of Paris.
The center of the town has kept its very bourgeois atmosphere, while more middle-class neighborhoods have developed around the train stations and in the outskirts of the city. Versailles is a chic suburb of Paris well linked with the center of Paris by several train lines. However, the city is extremely compartmented, divided by large avenues inherited from the monarchy which create the impression of several small cities ignoring each other. Versailles was never an industrial city, even though there are a few chemical and food processing plants. Essentially, Versailles is a place of services, such as public administration, tourism, business congresses, and festivals. From 1951 until France's withdrawal from
NATO unified command in 1966, nearby Rocquencourt was the site for SHAPE. Versailles is also an important military center, with several units and training schools headquartered at the Satory military base, which was the headquarters of the famed 2nd French Armored Division until 1999, and where a military exhibition is organized annually.