Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV

Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV

by Karleen Koen
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Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV by Karleen Koen

Louis XIV is one of the best-known monarchs ever to grace the French throne. But what was he like as a young man—the man before Versailles?
After the death of his prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin, twenty-two-year-old Louis steps into governing France. He’s still a young man, but one who, as king, willfully takes everything he can get—including his brother’s wife. As the love affair between Louis and Princess Henriette burns, it sets the kingdom on the road toward unmistakable scandal and conflict with the Vatican. Every woman wants him. He must face what he is willing to sacrifice for love.

But there are other problems lurking outside the chateau of Fontainebleau: a boy in an iron mask has been seen in the woods, and the king’s finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, has proven to be more powerful than Louis ever thought—a man who could make a great ally or become a dangerous foe . . .

Meticulously researched and vividly brought to life by the gorgeous prose of Karleen Koen, Before Versailles dares to explore the forces that shaped an iconic king and determined the fate of an empire.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307716576
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/28/2011
Pages: 480
Product dimensions: 9.38(w) x 6.54(h) x 1.54(d)

About the Author

KARLEEN KOEN is the New York Times bestselling author of Through a Glass Darkly, Now Face to Face, and Dark Angels, an Indie Next List Bestseller and a BookSense pick. She lives in Houston, Texas. 

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Rapier blades hissed through the air and made zinging sounds when they met one another. The king of France and his brother were both winded, but neither would admit it. They circled each other, and their dueling master thought to himself, thank the merciful mother of Christ there are buttons on the rapiers, or one of them would be bleeding.

Prince Philippe, the younger of the two, stepped back, and Louis, seeing an opening, lunged forward, but Philippe brought his blade singing in under Louis's arm and into the soft center of the armpit, a deadly accurate gesture that disabled or killed an opponent.

"Done," cried the dueling master. "His Highness Monsieur wins."

Louis jerked his head at the dueling master's decision, and the man closed his eyes and swallowed. His Majesty's temper was even, but that did not mean he didn't possess one.

"I won! I won!" Philippe danced around his older brother, waving his rapier and crowing like a rooster, leaping in and out of intricate dance steps they all loved, making the watching circle of friends break into laughter, making Louis himself laugh.

"Say it." Philippe circled this older brother, this first child of France, this keeper of the faith, this defender of the kingdom, this first of all kings on earth, chosen and appointed by Heaven to extend far and wide the honor and renown of the Lily, this heir to the great Charlemagne, he who had been king of the Franks and first sovereign of the Christian empire of the west. "Let me hear you say it, majesty, I won."

Louis reached out and pulled the long, dark, curling hair that was his brother's glory, as thick and beautiful as any woman's at court.

"Ow!" Philippe yelped, his mocking dance effectively stopped, and those watching laughed louder.

"You won."

"Let go!"

Louis did as commanded, faced his brother, grabbed his shoulders, kissed each of his cheeks hard, and said, "You won this time," making the "this time" both a threat and an insinuation.

Philippe grinned, stepped back to bow, and strutted over to the watching courtiers, all men he and his brother had grown up with, Vardes, Vivonne, Brienne, Guiche, Peguilin, Marsillac, others, the pride of the kingdom, these young men, some princes in their own right or sons of dukes, counts, marquises, the best France had to offer of her ancient nobility, her warrior class who defended her boundaries and then warred among themselves if bored. Like Philippe and Louis, they all wore their hair long, flowing, thick to their shoulders or past it. It was the fashion. They wore lace and voluminous shirts and wide, short breeches that showed off their calves, calves they encased in stockings of colored silk. A man was judged as much by the shape of his legs and the way he danced as by his valor on the battlefield. Philippe had set the style for a higher-heeled shoe, with a crimson heel, and every one of them wore those, stiff bows at the front. Knots of ribbons set off shoulders or garters or hatbands.

They were peacocks, all of them, their virility on display in a proud show of fashion and bravado. They drank too much wine, were unfaithful whether married or not, gambled as if their pockets had no bottom, and looked for the slightest affront to their pride. They were rowdy, raucous, witty, and dazzling. There wasn't a woman around, young or old, whose heart didn't flutter the minute they came into view. There wasn't a woman around, young or old, who didn't wish to be noticed by them. And at their center was their gallant and grave young king, only two months into his solitary reign without his adviser, the cardinal—a king who'd asked none of them to join his councils yet; and they were waiting. They'd grown up with war, within and without the kingdom. They'd seen parents, uncles, aunts, without remorse betray the king's father, then his mother, the queen regent and her chief minister, the cardinal, afterward gracefully bowing to whoever was victorious. Off their leashes, they were as dangerous as wolves, as heedless, as ruthless, as ravenous.

"Another, your majesty?"

The dueling master knew his king well enough to know he wouldn't be satisfied until he had won, and sure enough, Louis nodded his head and pointed to the captain of his household guard. The man, short and homely with frizzy hair that stood out from his head like a halo, leapt down several steep steps—they stood in a palace courtyard famous for broad, even exterior steps that led to another level. The man pulled off the tight bolero jacket he wore and threw it to the ground in a dramatic gesture. He bowed to Louis and took a rapier from the dueling master.

"On guard." Louis spoke softly. He was tired, but he knew this man well. An impetuous, impatient duelist who would soon become bored with Louis's steadiness and make a flamboyant gesture that would give Louis the opening he needed. And he needed only one.

They were dueling in what was called the fountain courtyard, bordered on three sides by buildings and on the fourth by a large pond. The palace of Fontainebleau had become a favorite royal residence of French kings in the 1500s, in the time of Francois I, Louis's ancestor. Francois had been an avid collector, and so the palace was filled with paintings, sculpture, objets d'art, and books, to which heirs to the throne had made wise and wonderful additions. Various kings and a strong queen or two had built wings and pavilions here and there, even a moat, so that the palace was sprawling and irregular, like a starfish with arms lopped off and new growth meandering off the nubs. But it had been decorated by the finest Italian and then French artists of the Renaissance, who had made it everywhere pleasing and often splendid.

One of its allures was that it sat in the forest. French kings and queens were passionate hunters—Louis was no exception—and forest encircled the palace and could be seen from turrets or second-floor balconies. There was a bit of a village nestled to one side, there to serve the palace and house courtiers, but one good gallop past clearings and outcroppings of rocks and boulders, and a man pulled the reins short to breathe in nature's leafy, verdant, abundant aroma, while his eyes rested on stands of trees as ancient as the kingdom itself. In the summer the sky usually spread azure hues above majestic branches.

This May morning, that sky was clear of clouds and promised yet another beautiful day. Watching his majesty duel, courtiers who were ranged up and down the famous outside staircase, steep, severe, straight-ramped. They lounged, these friends and members of Louis's household, at their ease, as if it were their birthright—and it was—to observe majesty. Some leaned over the stone balustrade of the staircase; some sat on its dangerous downward angle. They were deliberate and daring, full of jokes and humor, quick to spot and mock any flaw in accepted behavior, equally as quick to compliment and copy exceptional grace. High-spirited, polished, witty, they were dashing and devil-may-care and dangerous.

Philippe walked up stairs to stand beside his best friend and watch the next duel, and, as was his habit, to talk.

"Did you see that? Can you believe it? I won. I outlasted him. He didn't think I would. He was counting on my tiring out. Ha. I have you to thank. And I do." It was seldom that Philippe bested Louis at anything.

His friend, the son of a marshall of France—a marshall being one of the great officers of the crown, a distinct and unique honor—had been tutoring him, dueling with him every afternoon, forcing Philippe to sharpen his mind and his body, lecturing him all the while. You give up too easily. You're stronger than you realize. You need to force the issue about the rest of your inheritance. You need to insist you be given a place on his council. It's your right as a prince of France. Yes, lecturing him both about dueling and about the skill required to be a presence at court. Philippe was many things, lively, gregarious, generous, laughing, a raconteur; but he'd been overshadowed by Louis all his life, and this friend was determined he should be honored as befitted the second child of France, heir to the throne until Louis sired a child—which of course, Louis being Louis, he had done, except the child wasn't born yet, and in this year of 1661 many things could happen.

"Let me reward you. What do you wish, my friend?" Philippe was extremely pleased with himself, with having beaten the sacred, the semi-holy, the one and only Louis in a duel. "Anything. An orange tree. A silver box. A jade vase—"

"A walk with your wife in tonight's twilight before His Majesty stakes his claim."

"Done. That will irritate him, won't it? I've bested him there, too."

"Indeed you have, Monsieur."

And then his friend, noble and privileged, arrogant and self-sufficient, this son of a duke and marshall of France, bowed and walked down the broad stone steps, weaving in and out of men, leaving without waiting for the king's dismissal or Philippe's, for that matter.

Several of the young men on the steps watched his exit, half-admiring, half-scorning his haughtiness. Since the death of the cardinal, his majesty the king seemed to notice deference, or the lack of it, more than he had previously. Some of the bolder among them grumbled that Louis might as well put his royal seal on their backsides, as if they were cattle. But others said, no, it was his majesty's due. He was their king. The civil wars in which they'd all grown to manhood had soiled the concept of loyalty.

Philippe's eyes followed his friend until the young man was across the courtyard and walking through an arch, out of sight, and Philippe's intent expression wasn't missed either.

"I thought Monsieur was supposed to be madly in love with his new wife," said one of the young noblemen, a suggestive arch in his eyebrow.

"Some things never change—"

"Be quiet," another interrupted. "You're missing the show. His majesty is shaving the lace off Peguilin's shirt stitch by stitch. You'd think he'd be too tired."

In a sudden burst of fresh stamina, his blade slashing and hissing and seeming to be everywhere at once, Louis had driven his captain backward into a defensive posture. Peguilin defended himself valiantly, but then he stumbled over an uneven stone in the courtyard and fell, and before he could gather his wits, Louis was standing over him, the rapier's buttoned tip at his heart.

"Sire, I give up!" he shouted, alarmed at the expression on the king's face.

Louis smiled, grimness wiped away as if by magic. He brought the rapier to his forehead in a quick gesture of respect and held out his hand to help his friend from the ground.

"Clumsy idiot, Peguilin!" came a shout from among the watchers. "I had a louis on you." A louis was a gold coin, named, of course, for the man whose image graced its sides.

"More fool you!" Peguilin shouted back. He dusted himself off. "You'd have had me whether I fell or not," he said to Louis, and their eyes met in that way men display when they've had a good, clean fight, and each honors the other for the valor shown. Louis grinned.

Sacred Christ, I'm an ugly fellow, Peguilin thought. The king, by contrast, was tall and lean, his face a little like a hawk's, same flickering eyes, same slight and hard edge to the mouth.

Louis's early morning exercise ended now. Except for himself and those friends who chose to wake early, and of course servants, the palace was still asleep. It would rise for Mass, closer to the noon hour, when courtiers would run from one royal set of apartments to the next: the king's, Monsieur's, the queen mother's, the young queen's. Each household was a nest of servants and ladies or gentlemen in waiting, and courtiers dropped in to be both courteous and practical. Where would that particular household gather in the afternoon? Who had the most interesting plans? Walking at the end of which entourage brought the most advantage?

But now, in this early quiet, a courtier leapt over the balustrade to pick up the king's jacket from the ground, while Philippe took the linen with which his brother would dry his perspiring face and neck. He held out his hand for Louis's jacket. That, too, was his right—to hand it directly to the man who was the king of France and Navarre.

Etiquette was ancient at this court—who might do what was the product of several hundred years and one's birth—and since Cardinal Mazarin had died, it seemed to have sharpened. Courtiers noticed the king's slight frown over those who had the privileges of not showing up to wait upon him. This was the beginning of a reign, so to speak, and there were councils and offices and honors waiting to be plundered—and since there hadn't been a reign in a hundred years that hadn't produced a favorite and the plunder that came with that—word had spread: His majesty liked tradition upheld. The ambitious packed around him.

"Sire," said one of Louis's gentlemen, "I've been given word that her majesty is awake."

"Early bird," chirped Philippe, not noticing the hooding of his brother's eyes, as if a mask had dropped suddenly into place. "Madame never rises before noon." He was proud of his wife, bragging about her, pleased at the impact she was making at court.

"Madame" was the official title of Philippe's new wife; they weren't even married two full months. It had been a very quiet affair because of the cardinal's death, little more than family signing the required documents and a priest saying the proper prayers. With that, she had become the second lady at court after Louis's queen, except the truth was the royal brothers' mother was still a commanding figure, so perhaps Madame was really third. It depended upon the queen mother's mood any particular day. At the moment their mother was in deep mourning for the cardinal, clutching her grief to herself like a holy relic.

Of course Madame sleeps until noon, thought Louis, not a shard of what he was thinking showing on his face. She has danced all night, she has laughed and delighted us and kept us up with her, unlike my wife, who is yawning by ten of the evening, who hasn't learned French after nearly a year, and who thinks dressing well is putting on more diamonds. Last night he'd come very close to kissing—

He stopped himself. This was a line of thought that led to no good whatsoever. He rubbed his face vigorously on the linen, took his jacket from his brother, accepted his hat from someone else, climbed the steep outside steps two at a time, going into the door at their end, a door which led to that part of the palace where his bedchamber lay.

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Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
BirdieOH More than 1 year ago
I disagree with the last reader. I didn't think it was hard to follow the storyline at all. It was a little slow getting out of the gate, but Karleen Koen is the best historical fiction writer out there. The story is not as complex as her last book Dark Angels but that is one of my all time favorite books. This book is hard to put down once you get into the storyline. History is never dull with Ms. Koen. It has wonderful details and you really feel like you are living at court. The Sun King Louis XIV is no longer a dusty monarch, but a breathing person of power, ambition, and intrigue. You learn of the corruption around the king - who does he dare trust? Who will he let his heart love? Once again I was happy with this author's book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I agree with the last reviewer that she is a great historical fiction writer - one of my favorites, if not the favorite. I absolutely loved her other books which follow the same people through different generations and was anxiously anticipating her latest book. I have to say though I was a little let down because it was not as intricately woven as the last one I read - "Dark Angles", but it was still better than most or all other historical fiction I've read so I'm not complaining. I think she did what the story called for, and that was just less intricasy as her last novel. Plus she was dealing with a true life person, whereas the last books were not, so she had to follow his life. All in all, I loved this book, but prefer her earlier works to this one. I have to say though, that she does create great characters that we come to identify with so strongly and really feel for them, and it was the same with the characters in this book. You really feel attached to these characters and want to see them succeed. Great book if you like historical fiction.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was so excited to dive into this story of King Louis XIV. This story begins where Cardinal Mazarin dies and the young King begins governing France. Between love affairs "The King and his brother's wife and The King and Louise a lady of the court" you expect scandalous excitement. When the King's finance minister becomes corrupt and too powerful, you expect a page turner to see his downfall. Add in the mystery of The Man in The Iron Mask and this book should not have been put downable. So, why did this feel like a chore to read? The writing style simply bored me. The author never left me hanging or wanting more. I had no emotional connection to any of the characters. Each time I had to force myself just to pick this book up to read and at 315 pages I decided to skim to the end and bring an end to my suffering. It's always sad to me when the Author's Notes are more exciting than the actual book. I know my review is the anomaly here and I kept wondering what I was missing?
emmi331 More than 1 year ago
I loved every word of this book, and could not put it down. Ms. Koen's novel takes place in the first few months of the young Louis XIV's kingship, when he is still unsure of himself and his future greatness. The setting is the fabulous palace at Fontainebleau, where the court is currently in residence. Beneath the glamorous and opulent facade of the court is seething ambition, jealousy, and endless intrigue. Into this steps warmhearted, shy Louise, a new maid of honor in a cynical and licentious court. No one suspects this shrinking violet could ever capture a king's heart. The author does a stunning job of characterization: charming Henriette, wife to the damaged and tragic king's brother Philippe; powerful, scheming Nicolas Fouquet; the gorgeous but treacherous Count de Guiche; the Queen Mother who hides a terrible secret, and so many more. All are vividly brought to life, as are the sumptuous chambers and gardens of magnificent Fontainebleau. Musketeers, dwarves, priests and cardinals, underservants, beautiful courtiers - all populate this gorgeous novel and bring the time and place to vibrant life. How I hope there will be a sequel - there is so much of Louis XIV's life yet to tell!
Daenel More than 1 year ago
I remember taking French History when I was in college and being totally smitten with the story of Louis XIV, there was just so much decadence. Have you seen pictures of Versailles? The pompadours and powders, oui! And, dude, what was up with the man in the iron mask? That's probably one of the most enduring legends from the reign of Louis XIV and still there are no definitive answers about the who or why. Meticulously researched, this book has everything ~ mystery, intrigue, romance, lust, politics ~ too bad I couldn't keep it all straight. The cast of characters is way too large and, even with the guide at the front of the book, it was hard to keep track of who did what with whom and how they were related to the king. But I don't necessarily fault Koen, I think the confusion is probably reminiscent of the confusion of the court itself. Seriously, during a time when even your own brother may be plotting against you, how can there not be a bit of discombobulation? I'd recommend this book for someone who has a decent grasp of French history or is at least more than casually familiar with the story of the Sun King. As for me, I simply couldn't get in to this book.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very intriguing book. Kept me going for days.
JConMartin More than 1 year ago
Well-woven within the intricate story of Louis XIV's youthful days as King of France is an account of a boy forced to wear an iron mask. Karleen Koen draws from a legend that has come down through French lore and literature. While her richly plotted tale details with interest the early loves and misalliances of the king, his brother, and several women of the court, it is the story of the boy--seemingly royally born--that I found most compelling. Who was he? Why was he hiden away? And who had much to lose? Or gain? Highly recommended. James Conroyd Martin Author of Push Not the River
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sirensong47 More than 1 year ago
it's a good book, it just doesn't live op to her through a glass darkly series
Izzie_reads_books More than 1 year ago
OMG! WHy did the synopsis fail to mention Louise????!!! This is a well-written book and a must read! I found this a great balance between fiction and history and it is so interesting--this is one of the books I couldn't put down! It's lovely! Read it for yourself and you'll see. If you don't like this masterpiece, it's fine too, but I did. :)
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