Sunday, 10 April 2016

Sedan Chairs at Versailles

The vast complex of buildings which Versailles and the growing city around had turned into meant that getting from one place to another could be quite a hassle. In came the sedan chairs or chaise à porteur which is basically a seat in a box which is carried by two men; one in front and one in the back.

Those who did not have the Honneurs de Louvre were obliged to disembark their carriages at the gates but did have the opportunity of hailing a sedan chair for the remainder of the way up to the palace itself. Of course, to have this option also meant that sedan chairs had to be available immediately around  the royal residence. In 1674 Louis XIV gave his veteran servicemen as well as the abounding number of homeless and wounded ex-soldiers monopoly on the work as carriers of sedan chairs around the royal palaces.
The sedan chairs for rent were all painted blue; a colour which was shared by livery of the men who carried them. The fare from the gate to the palace was 6 sous.

A chaise à porteur from the King's household

Inside the palace only royalty had the privilege of using a sedan chair in the Grand Apartments. In August 1715 Louis XIV was carried to the apartments of Madame de Maintenon in such a one.

When Louis XV established the Parc-aux-Cerfs chaises à porteur was used to transport the young girls to a hidden door leading up to the King's private chambers. These chairs would always have their windows covered. The same secrecy was often adopted by Louis XV when he went on night tours to balls; on these occasions he preferred to use a kind of sedan chair which was fitted on a wheel and dragged by a single porter.

Even Marie Antoinette's brother, Emperor Joseph, used a sedan chair when he paid his sister a visit in 1777.

As fashion became an ever more important aspect of court life so did the chaise à porteur. To keep the ladies' ever-rising hairstyles intact and the lush silks and velvets of the gentlemen dry every courtier with respect for himself had one. It was the norm to have one's coat-of-arms painted on the sides and back of the sedan chair. Naturally this meant that everyone could tell who was going where. It created quite a bustle of gossip when Madame de Pompadour's sedan chair - with its mistress inside - was seen paying a visit to Maurepas who had never been a friend of hers.

The design of the private sedan chairs became evermore intricate. In the reign of Louis XV it was hard to find one that was not gilded with gold and had a comfortable seat inside rather than a mere plank with a flat pillow.

As Marly became Louis XIV's favourite retreat the popularity of personal chaises à porteurs once again came into play. The distance could be considered somewhat far - especially considering that the King was not as young as he had been - and it was quite normal for the King together with Madame de Maintenon and the Duchesse de Bourgogne to go in this manner.
Speaking of Louis XIV he had a particular fondness for the man employed to carry the front poles of his personal sedan chair. This man was named d'Aigremont and it also fell to him to open the door for the King.

A French sedan chair currently at Compiègne

Occasionally, the sedan chair was taken outside the environs of Versailles. When Louis XIV went to inspect his troops he always took his court with him. Madame de Maintenon was given the luxury of been transported there and viewing the troops through the three glass panes in her chaise à porteur.

A beautiful example from 1720

Undoubtedly, the use of sedan chairs came as a relief to a great deal of people. The elderly courtiers was spared the need to walk the immense gardens and considering that - depending on their rank - they would often not be allowed a seat when the King was there, it must have been a relief. For those who struggled with their health it was good news too. In his later years, Louis XIV often took to seeing his gardens in this way since he often suffered from pains in his legs. When Marie Adélaïde, Duchesse de Bourgogne had had a hard delivery of her first son, she too, took advantage of it.

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