John Laurenson

Death watch | 19 November 2015

The rituals that followed the death of a French king included the complete dismembering of the body, as this new exhibition at Versailles shows

At the beginning of the summer of 1715 Louis XIV complained of a pain in the leg. In mid-August gangrene set in and by 1 September he was dead. He’d been on the throne for 72 of his 77 years. A new exhibition at Versailles looks at the elaborate rituals that followed.

The Sun King died as he had lived — in public. Despite his illness, he carried on his daily routine until two days before his death, a decision made easier perhaps by the fact that he’d always conducted a good part of the affairs of France from his bedroom. It was no ordinary bedroom, and what went on there wasn’t ordinary either. It is in the exact centre of the palace façade, so the view from his bed would have cut straight down the middle of the magnificent gilted approach to the palace he built, a line which is, not at all coincidentally bien sur, the East–West axis of the sun.

Here, each day began with the ‘lever du Roi’. Over a period of an hour and a half, the king was dressed and received visitors beginning with the most intimate — his brother, his son — and ending with more distant courtiers and lords. By the time he had his wig on his head and his sword fixed to his belt, and was pulling on his gloves, his bedroom would be full of people. Each day ended with the ‘coucher du Roi’, which was the same thing in reverse.

The day after the king’s death, his body was cut open, divided into three parts (body, heart and entrails) and embalmed by doctors and surgeons in front of the principal officers of the court, before being placed in a coffin made of lead, which was placed in a coffin made of oak.

The practice of dividing dead French kings into three began with Philippe le Bel in 1314.

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