English Visitors at Louis XIV’s Court

It is difficult to estimate how many English During the resplendent reign of Louis XIV, many English travellers explored Versailles—among them a philosopher, a famous bishop, a great architect and a gifted diplomatist-poet. Claire-Elaine Engel describes how each has left some vivid personal impressions of the court that revolved around the Sun King.

A valuable aid to understanding a period of the past is to see it reflected through the eyes of foreigners. From them one gets an unexpected and original point of view. The French seventeenth century has often been indiscriminately admired by French critics and historians, who are apt to speak of Louis XIV’s court as if it were Jove’s abode on Mount Olympus. Foreigners generally offer a more critical and also a more picturesque image of it.

The common conception, or misconception, is that there were few English visitors in France during Louis XIV’s reign—apart from Ambassadors—and that they did not mingle much in social life. It is a fact that few French people knew English, although they were probably more numerous than one usually thinks. La Bruyere in his chapter on “Fashion” in Les Caractères (1688) derides people who “prefer to know many things than to know a few thoroughly,” and he goes on: “Others spend their lives deciphering Eastern and Northern languages, those in use at both Poles or in the moon.”

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