An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: Versailles

As an aid to students, teachers and parents, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. We’ve shared bite size introductions to historical figures, events and periods – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. For V, Gombrich covers (the Palace of) Versailles.



E. H. GombrichIn 1643 King Louis XIV ascended the throne of France. He was then four years old and still holds the world record for the length of his reign. He ruled until 1715: that is, for seventy-two years. To Louis, kingship was no mere accident of birth. It was as if he had been given the leading role in a play which he would have to perform for the rest of his life. No one before or since has ever learnt that role so well, or played it with such dignity and ceremony to the end.

Life revolved around court and was staged in the most magnificent palaces anyone had ever seen. For palaces were Louis XIV’s great passion.’

To dress like the king, to carry one’s cane as he did, to wear one’s hat as he did, to sit and move as he did, was the aim of all men at court. And that of the women was to please him. They wore lace collars and ample, rustling robes made of the richest fabrics and were adorned with precious jewels. Life revolved around court and was staged in the most magnificent palaces anyone had ever seen. For palaces were Louis XIV’s great passion. He had one called Versailles built for himself outside Paris. It was almost as big as a town, with an infinite number of rooms covered in gold and damask, and crystal chandeliers, mirrors in their thousands, and furniture that was all gilded curves, upholstered in velvets and silks. The walls were hung with splendid paintings where people could see Louis in many guises. There is one that shows him dressed as Apollo, receiving homage from all the peoples of Europe. Grander still than the palace was its park. Everything about it was magnificent, elaborate and theatrical. No tree might grow as it pleased, no bush retain its natural form. Everything green was clipped, trimmed and shaped into walls of green foliage, curved hedges, vast lawns and spiralling flowerbeds, avenues and circuses, set with statues, lakes and fountains.

Just think what such a palace and such a way of life must have cost! The king had two hundred servants for himself alone, and that was only the start of it. But Louis XIV had clever ministers, mainly men of humble origin chosen for their outstanding ability. These men were all experts at extracting money from the country. They kept tight control of foreign trade and encouraged France’s own crafts and industry as much as they could. But the true cost fell on the peasants, who were burdened with crippling taxes and duties of all kinds. And while at court people ate off gold and silver dishes, piled high with the choicest delicacies, the peasants ate scraps and weeds.

Free Resources to Learn More about the Palace of Versailles and Louis XIV

BBC Shadow of the Sun King

2 episodes – Professor Julian Swann

BBC History

Louis XIV (1638-1715)

The Palace of Versailles—Facts and History

Google Arts and Culture

11 secrets from the Palace of Versailles

Khan Academy

Château de Versailles 

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.

A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

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Following in the footsteps of E. H. Gombrich’s worldwide bestseller A Little History of the World, the books in our Little Histories series explore the history of the world’s most remarkable people, events and ideas. With engaging personal insights, our authors will take you on a whistle-stop journey from ancient times to the present – exploring all of life’s big subjects from archaeology to science. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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