Memoir of a Page of the Grand Stable of King Louis XVI

Memoir of a Page of the Grand Stable of King Louis XVI

(Extract from “Recollections of a Page at the Court of Louis XVI: Chapter, The Pages,” by Charles-Alexandre-François-Felix, Comte de France de Hézecques, Baron de Mailly. (Author Hézecques born 7-30-1774, died August 1835.) Originally written 1804. Edited, from the French, by Charlotte M. Yonge, 1873)

[NOTE from K.M. What was life really like for a young aristocrat serving as a page to the King of France and taking early life lessons from the paramilitary organization of the Grand Stable? From 1784, from the age of 12 through the age of 18, this young Count served his King…read on for a very interesting story.]

“The imagination always recurs with delight to the happy days of youth. In the thorny paths of life, a moment of sweet satisfaction is often felt in turning the thoughts to these peaceful years of tender age when the only sorrow was to be thwarted in some little project, when privations were so short, and tears so soon forgotten.”

“I was brought up in the midst of an abundance of pleasures, in one of those establishments whose aim was to perpetuate the traditions of ancient chivalry. How often, in my troubled life, have I felt a sweet pleasure in recalling the recollections of my earlier years. Perhaps, alas, the bitterness of those that followed contributed to make these more dear to me. However it may be, nothing touches my heart like the thought of these times of happiness. This is my chapter in which I take delight. May its length and possible want of interest, be forgiven; to me there is keen enjoyment in all the matter it contains.

What an advantage for youth were these great establishments, where the scions of nobility imbibed heroism and attachment to their king in the midst of the Court! And how wide did these advantages extend, as when I came to Versailles there were pages to the number of a hundred and fifty-eight there, besides those of the princes of the blood who resided in Paris!

At first I was placed among the pages of the King’s chamber. Four years afterwards, through reforms and arrangements, I was shifted to the great stable; so I can speak of the duties of both positions, as well as the internal management of this establishment, which was not one of the least remarkable things to see.

The pages of the chamber were eight in number. Their service was entirely within the castle, and did not require height or strength; so it was under taken at a very early age, and I have known some who began at nine years old. Two governors and a tutor had the task of superintending their education; and, thanks to their small number, this education was much superior to that given to the pages of the stable, which, I must say, left much to be desired. Formerly, the first gentlemen of the bedchamber had the direction of the pages; each of them had six, who only served for one year. But, in 1781, it was perceived that this plan of service was inconvenient in several ways, both on account of their education, and of the expense; so the number of pages was reduced to eight, and they were made permanent; and instead of giving them lodgings as before, in the hotels of the first gentlemen to whom they were attached, a special lodging was assigned to them in the Rue de l’Orangerie.

To be received as page, it was necessary to prove at least two hundred years of direct noble descent, and to have an allowance of six hundred livres for minor expenses. Then the parents were delivered from any further care; clothing, food, masters, attendance in sickness, all were furnished with truly royal magnificence.

One dress alone for a page of the chamber cost fifteen hundred livres; for it was of crimson velvet, with gold embroidery on all the seams. The hat was trimmed with a feather and a broad piece of point d’Espagne. They had, besides, an undress suit of scarlet cloth, with gold and silver lace.

The service of the pages of the chamber consisted in being present at the grand levee of the King [the public morning rising ritual], going to mass with him, lighting him on returning from hunting, and attending his retiring to give him his slippers. I will subsequently describe the manner in which this curious service was performed, for it was quite unique to make two children stay up to hand slippers. But if the prince had allowed relaxation on any points under the pretext of special reasons, we should soon have seen the disappearance of all the majesty that should surround the throne and sovereign.

The economical spirit of Cardinal de Brienne did not forget the pages. Forty pages of the private stable and two of the chase disappeared from Versailles, as a preliminary to the subsequent destruc tion of the other establishments of this nature by the Revolution. There was only the great stable left, and its fifty pages had to perform the whole service of the Court, even that of the pages of the chamber, who did not escape overthrow, though their number was so small; and we were all so young that we were transferred to the grand stable.

I should find it very hard to describe this noisy collection properly, and to characterize the kind of government that obtained among them. The authority of the elders [older pages] over the new ones made it a kind of oligarchy; but the harshness of this authority, the profound submission required to be shown, made it approach to a despotism, while the license that reigned among the members of this young society, and the slight respect they professed for the governor, gave it the appearance of a republic, if not of complete anarchy. So our education came to nothing, though there were numbers of masters and professors. It was a bad thing for anyone who went there without a taste for self-instruction. He would leave a good dancer, a good fencer, a good rider; but with lax morals and plenty of ignorance. A little compensation for these evils was to be found in an excellent temper, rendered docile by the severe education the juniors received from the seniors.

I will first mention the superb lodgings that were allotted to us, then the service, and will conclude with the usages of our house, regulated by laws that were more sacred than if they had been written on marble and bronze, because they were sustained by the authority transmitted to the seniors from generation to generation from time immemorial.

All the right side of the great stable was taken up with our lodgings. On the ground-floor there was a very pretty chapel, a great hall for exercise, the offices, the kitchens, and the dining-room, with two billiard tables in it. This last room was vast and dark, its massive vault rested on four pillars, it was lighted by lamps, and must, by its appearance, and still more by the noise that was made there, have resembled the cavern of Gil Blas. At least there was equally good cheer there. We were divided between four tables, and the King allowed the steward eighty thousand francs a year for food, light, and the fire in three or four stoves.

On the first-floor, in equal rank, in an enormous gallery, were ranged the fifty chambers where we slept, all painted yellow and varnished, and furnished uniformly. As these chambers only reached half up the story, there was a kind of gallery above arranged like the boxes of a theatre, and used as a wardrobe. Four enormous stoves were placed at the ends, and their pipes passing over the chambers made them sufficiently warm. At the end of the gallery a great hall, well warmed, served for a study. The two under-governors, the preceptor, and the almoner had their rooms in the garrets, and the linen was kept there also. Our library was situated there, and was open for two hours a day for the changing of books and the reading of the public papers. There were also there a collection of maps, objects for drawing from, and scientific instruments.

The pages of the state-stable wore the King’s livery as their uniform, that is to say, blue coats covered with crimson and white silk lace. But eighteen of them, chosen by the grand equerry, who had to superintend the supply of horses, had blue coats with gold lace, red waistcoat and breeches. Whether the pockets went across or upright marked the difference of the great and lesser stables. Two of them always went before the princesses when they went out; with a third, one of those with the lace and who was called surtout, to bear the train of the dress; they rode as the escort when the princesses went out in the carriage.

When the King went out shooting, all the surtouts had to be at the meet. They took off their coats, and put on little vests of blue drill and leather gaiters, and each bearing a gun, they kept behind the prince, who, after firing, took another gun while the empty one was passed from hand to hand to the armourer to load. Meanwhile, the first page had the game picked up, and kept an exact account in a little note-book; and as soon as the sport was over he went to the King’s study to take orders for its distribution. It may well be supposed that this was a very pleasant post ; besides the advantage of having a special work to do for the King, like a little minister, the first page got a good many for himself, as Louis XVI every day that he went out killed some four or five hundred head. We also received a dozen bottles of champagne on these occasions.

On days of grand ceremonies the pages were in a carriage with two horses; and when the King or Princes wished to send to inquire after anyone, or pay their compliments on any family event, a page, followed by a groom, carried the message.

With the army, the pages became aides-de-camps to the aides-de-camp of the King, and learnt from the fountain of command how to command at a future day. They also carried the King’s armor, while it was still the fashion to wear a cuirass. Every page leaving the service after three or four years, had the right to choose a sub-lieutenancy in any corps ; and the leading pages of the King’s chamber, of the stables, and of the Queen, had a troop of cavalry and a sword.

At home the gradation of pages was by three degrees. The seniors, having, after two years, absolute power over the fresh boys ; the second year, a sort of hybrids, called semis, who were not under orders, neither could give them; but if they behaved badly in the least thing to the seniors, order was given to the fresh boys to hold them under eight taps that delivered a large flow of water into a marble basin in the dining-room. The first year was passed in the noviciate of being a fresh boy, and a very severe noviciate it was! The most perfect and passive obedience was the first quality of a fresh boy; and many lads arriving from their country homes with very little of this notion about them, were received in a manner that pretty soon taught them. A fresh boy had no property; always ready to obey the slightest sign, even obliged to foresee the desires of his senior, every fault that he was guilty of, even involuntarily, was immediately punished, either by a decree much more strictly kept than those of the governors, or by pages of German grammar to write out, or by stripes called sarates [an old shoe], from the name of the instrument used to apply them. Not one of the names used in a college was employed among us. The words passages, refectories, classes, were scrupulously exchanged for corridors, halls of study, etc.; to mention the others would have been to endanger one’s peace; and a fresh boy who called his comrade his “school fellow,” was called by that nickname all the time he was in the service.

Many people were displeased at this severity of the seniors towards the fresh boys, and thought it cruel. In truth, it was sometimes carried to excess; but when exercised with moderation, as I saw it, the effect was very good. A page never entered a regiment without being well thought of, and a general favorite. Besides, freshness was an ancient institution; it was known and approved by all the heads, many of whom had been pages, and consequently had experience of it. The ordeals the new boys had to undergo formerly, went beyond the greatest terrors exhibited by freemasonry. M. de la Bigne, equerry of the riding school, a page fifty years ago, still had on his back the print of a red hot spur with which he had been branded. I am far from approving of such cruelties, but what might seem incredible, was nevertheless true. A senior and a fresh boy meeting again in the world as equals were good friends. In my time, a fresh boy’s duties were confined to perfect obedience, and a difference of rank, the universal consequence of seniority.

The great liberty enjoyed at the state-stable, the small amount of study, the spirit of independence that descended from generation to generation, all combined to make the youths conduct very irregular. Confinement and arrest only lasted for a time; the general spirit was permanent, and great severity would have been required to produce a reform.

Three hours of study in the morning and two after dinner, were the only time they could not ramble about the town; besides, they could go any where up to half-past nine at night, the hour of supper. The results of such license may easily be conceived. I found it pleasant enough at the time, but could not now look with approval on it.

Mass was said in the chapel every day; and two Capuehins of the Convent of Meudon had the duty of preaching and the direction of our consciences. Good heavens! what consciences ! But though there was no great desire to confide the peccadilloes that had been perpetrated, there was a good deal more to hear the lectures one of them gave us—Father Chrysologus, a celebrated astronomer, whose works are now published under his real name—M. de Gy.

The mornings were employed in the riding school, when all the pages of Versailles attended. It was undeniably the most famous in Europe, both for the beauty of the horses and the skill of the riding masters. When I came, these horses were two hundred and forty in number, but they were after wards reduced to one hundred. They were all very handsome, and were used on State occasions. In tractable by nature, not much used to the sun, excited by the noise, they often reduced their riders to desperation. For their common work the pages had a set of twenty or thirty light speedy horses. I should find it hard to say how many horses the King possessed; but I should think that, before any retrenchment took place, their number must have amounted to three thousand. The riding-horses were at the great stable, and the carriage-horses at the smaller. The Master of the Horse in France was Charles de Lorraine, with the French title of Prince de Lambesc. His family was not recognized as royal, and he was not allowed the title of Highness. The Prince de Lambesc is now a General in the Austrian service; he was a good soldier, firm, even harsh, but not the least cruel, as the Revolutionists tried to make him out. He was one of the best riders in France. At five o’clock in the morning, even in winter, he was at the riding-school, having it lighted up, breaking or teaching horses, and giving lessons. He gave me my first teaching; in artistic language, he gave me my longe. After the office of Constable was abolished, the Master of the Horse performed the duties. He then wore a dress of cloth of gold, and carried the King’s sword in a scabbard of violet set with golden fleurs-de-lis.

Besides the beautiful horses at the great stable, the saddle-room was a sight! There all the state saddles were kept, and a quantity of antique arms and armor that had formerly been used in tournaments. A little poem composed by M. de Cadrieux, page under Louis XIV, had been preserved among the pages for more than a century. The little work was written in a light and pleasant manner, and described the customs in use among the pages, their rules, and the way the day was spent. Every page’s character was originally described in it. I had made some alterations that were required after so long, and substituted the portrait ofthe pages of my time; but this copy has been lost in my travels, and I feel sorry for it.

The Queen’s pages, twelve in number, were clothed in red with gold lace. Monsieur and the Count d’Artois each had four pages of the chamber, and twelve of the stable, and their wives eight. Those of Monsieur and Madame were also in red and gold. ‘The pages of the chamber were dressed in embroidered velvet; when the colors were the same, the difference was shown by the pattern of the lace. All these pages also had their governors and masters for mathematics, German, drawing, dancing, fencing, vaulting, athletics, and knowledge of horses, like us, besides the tutors’ lessons. It is evident that if the education was bad it was not for want of means.

Many quarrels arose in consequence of the meeting of the pages at the riding-school and the theatre, and the duels were the more dangerous that they used sharp foils, which being square, made a severe wound. And yet during nearly six years that I remained living at Versailles, no page died either of sickness or anything else. A surgeon who lived in the Rue de Chenil had a contract to take in the pages of the grand stable when they were ill. As it was very comfortable there, they went into the infirmary on the slightest pretext. The King paid five francs a day for each page, and the prescriptions of our doctors came from the court apothecary. It was curious that the garden, or one of the rooms of this house, was often chosen for settling disputes. At any rate assistance was close at hand.

In the winter of 1790 a dispute arose between the King’s and the Prince’s pages. It was agreed to let the time of the carnival pass, not to interfere with the pleasures of that period, and that the meeting should take place on Ash Wednesday at the Porte Saint Antoine, under pretence of a game of prisoners base on the road to Mar’ly, and that each should measure himself against his chosen antagonist. The meeting took place on the appointed day. Two or three had been wounded when M. de Lambesse, page to the Countess d’Artois, afterwards known by the name of Golden Branch in the Chouan war, was so dangerously run through the lungs by M. de Montlezun that there was nothing else to be done but carry him back to Versailles, where he was bled seventeen times. The affair got wind, the governors met and endeavoured to appease the existing state of enmity and restore peace.

I may note that the promotion of the pages, and the coming of the new ones, took place on the first of April in the great stable, while the other pages were relieved on the first of the year.

On the 1st of January, 1790, the pages of the chamber were abolished, and placed among those of the great stable. On account of the Revolution and the decrees about the nobility, the places of the pages who left at that time were not filled up. This ancient establishment was brought to an end by the fall of the throne, the King’s captivity, and the danger that was run by all who had attached themselves to him, and the remainder were broken up.”

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