Versailles, formerly the capital city of the kingdom of France, is now a wealthy suburb of Paris and is still an important administrative and judicial center. The city (commune) of Versailles, located in the western suburbs of Paris, is the préfecture (capital) of the Yvelines département. Population of the city at the 1999 census was 85,726 inhabitants, down from a peak of 94,145 inhabitants in 1975. Versailles is made world-famous by the Château de Versailles, from the forecourt of which the city has grown.
A seat of power
Versailles was the unofficial capital city of the kingdom of France from May 1682 (King Louis XIV moves the court and government permanently to Versailles) until September 1715 (death of Louis XIV and regency, with the regent Philippe d'Orléans returning to Paris), and then again from June 1722 (King Louis XV returns to Versailles permanently) to October 1789 (King Louis XVI forced to move back to Paris by the people of Paris). During the entire period, Paris remained the official capital city of France, and the official royal palace was the Palace of the Louvre, but in practice government affairs were conducted from Versailles, and Versailles was regarded as the real capital city.
Versailles became again the unofficial capital city of France from March 1871 (French government takes refuge in Versailles due to the insurrection of the Paris Commune) until November 1879 (newly elected left-wing republicans relocate government and parliament to Paris).
Versailles was made the préfecture (capital) of the Seine-et-Oise département at its inception in March 1790 (Seine-et-Oise had approximately 400,000 inhabitants at its creation). By the 1960s, with the growth of the Paris suburbs, the Seine-et-Oise département had reached almost 3 million inhabitants and was deemed too large and ungovernable, and thus it was split into three départements in January 1968. Versailles was made the préfecture of the Yvelines département, the largest chunk of the former Seine-et-Oise département. At the 1999 census the Yvelines département had 1,354,304 inhabitants.
Versailles is also the seat of a Roman Catholic diocese (bishopric) which was created in 1790. The diocese of Versailles depends from the archdiocese of Paris.
In 1975 Versailles was made the seat of a Court of Appeal, whose jurisdiction covers the western suburbs of Paris.
Since 1972, Versailles was made the seat of one of France's 26 académies of the Ministry of National Education, in charge of supervising all the elementary schools and high schools of the western suburbs of Paris.
Versailles is also an important node for the French army, a tradition going back to the monarchy, with for instance the military camp of Sartory and other institutions.
The name of Versailles appears for the first time in a medieval document dated 1038. In the end of the 11th century the village curled around a medieval castle and the Saint Julien church. Its farming activity and its location on the road from Paris to Dreux and Normandy brought prosperity to the village, culminating in the end of the 13th century, the so-called "century of Saint Louis", famous for the prosperity of northern France and the building of gothic cathedrals. The 14th century brought the Black Plague and the Hundred Years' War, and with it death and destruction. At the end of the Hundred Years' War in the 15th century, the village started to recover, with a population of only 100 inhabitants.
In 1561, Martial de Loménie, officer of the crown, became lord of Versailles. He obtained permission to organize four fairs per year, and one market every Thursday. The population of Versailles was 500 inhabitants. In 1575 the seigneury of Versailles ended up in the possession of the family of Gondi, a family of wealthy and influential parliamentarians at the Parlement of Paris. In the 1610s, the Gondi invited several times the king Louis XIII on some hunting trips in the large forests of Versailles. In 1622 the king became the owner of a piece of wood in Versailles for his private hunting. Later in 1624 he bought some land and ordered Philibert Le Roy to build there a small hunting "gentleman's chateau" of stone and red bricks with a roof of slate. In this small castle happened the famous historical event called the Day of the Dupes, on November 10, 1630, when the party of the queen mother was defeated and Richelieu was confirmed as prime minister. Eventually, in 1632, the king obtained the seigneury of Versailles altogether from the Gondi. The castle was enlarged between 1632 and 1634. At the death of Louis XIII in 1643 the village had 1,000 inhabitants. King Louis XIV, his son, was only 5-year-old.
It was only 20 years later, in 1661, when Louis XIV started his personal reign, that the young king showed interest in Versailles. The idea of leaving Paris, where as a child he had experienced first-hand the insurrection of the Fronde, had never left him. Louis XIV commissioned his architect Le Vau and his landscape architect Le Nôtre to transform the castle of his father, as well as the park, in order to accommodate the court. In 1678, after the Treaty of Nijmegen, the king decided that the court and the government would be established permanently in Versailles, which happened on May 6, 1682.
At the same time, a new city was emerging from the ground, resulting from an ingenious decree of the king dated May 22, 1671, whereby the king authorized anyone to acquire a lot in the new city for free. There were only two conditions to acquire a lot: 1- a token tax of 5 shillings (5 sols) per arpent of land should be paid every year (in 2005 US dollars, that's $0.03 per 1,000 ft² per year); 2- a house should be built on the lot according to the plans and models established by the Surintendant des Bâtiments du Roi (architect in chief of the royal demesne). The plans provided for a city built symmetrically with respect to the Avenue de Paris (which starts from the entrance of the castle). The roofs of the buildings and houses of the new city were not to exceed the level of the Marble Courtyard, at the entrance of the castle (built above a hill dominating the city), so that the perspective from the windows of the castle would not be obstructed. The old village and the Saint Julien church were destroyed to make room for buildings housing the administrative services managing the daily life in the castle. On both sides of the Avenue de Paris were built the Notre-Dame neighborhood and the Saint-Louis neighborhood, with new large churches, markets, aristocratic mansions, buildings all built in very homogenous style according to the models established by the Surintendant des Bâtiments du Roi. Versailles was a vast construction site for many years. Little by little came to Versailles all those that needed or desired to live close to the political power. At the death of the Sun King in 1715, the village of Versailles had turned into a city of approximately 30,000 inhabitants.
When the court of King Louis XV returned to Versailles in 1722, the city had 24,000 inhabitants. With the reign of Louis XV, Versailles grew even further. Versailles was the capital of the most powerful kingdom of Europe, and the whole of Europe admired the new architecture and design trends coming from Versailles. Soon enough, the strict building rules decided under Louis XIV were not respected anymore, real estate speculation flourished, and the lots that had been given for free under Louis XIV were now on the market for hefty prices. By 1744 the population had reached 37,000 inhabitants. The city changed considerably under kings Louis XV and Louis XVI. Buildings were now taller. King Louis XV built a Ministry of War, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (where the Treaty of Versailles ending the American Revolutionary War was signed in 1783 with the United Kingdom), and a Ministry of the Navy. By 1789 the population had reached 50,000 inhabitants, and Versailles was now the third or fourth largest city of France, and one of the largest cities of Europe.
Seat of the political power, Versailles naturally became the cradle of the French Revolution. The Estates-General met in Versailles on May 5, 1789. The members of the Third Estate took the Tennis Court Oath on June 20, 1789, and the National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism on August 4, 1789. Eventually, on October 5 and 6, 1789, a throng from Paris invaded the castle and forced the royal family to move back to Paris. The National Constituent Assembly followed the king to Paris soon afterwards, and Versailles lost its role of capital city.
From then on, Versailles lost a good deal of its inhabitants. From 50,000, the population declined to 28,000 inhabitants in 1824. The castle, stripped of its furniture and ornaments during the Revolution, was left abandoned, with only Napoleon briefly staying one night there and then leaving the castle for good. King Louis-Philippe saved the castle from total ruin by transforming it into a National Museum dedicated to "all the glories of France" in 1837. Versailles had become a sort of Sleeping Beauty. It was a place of pilgrimage for those nostalgic of the old monarchy.
On January 18, 1871 following the Franco-Prussian War the Germans proclaimed the king of Prussia, Wilhelm I, emperor of Germany in the very Hall of Mirrors of the castle, in an attempt to take revenge for the conquests of Louis XIV two centuries earlier. Then in March of the same year, following the insurrection of the Paris Commune the French government under Thiers relocated to Versailles, from where the insurrection was militarily quelled. The government and the French parliament stayed in Versailles after the quelling of the insurrection, and it was even thought for some time that the capital of France would be moved definitely to Versailles in order to avoid the revolutionary mood of Paris in the future. Restoration of the monarchy was even almost realized in 1873. Versailles was again the political center of France, full of buzz and rumors. Eventually, as the left-wing republicans won elections after elections, the parties supporting a restoration of the monarchy were defeated and the new majority decided to relocate the government to Paris in November 1879. After that, Versailles was never again used as the capital city of France, but the presence of the French Parliament there in the 1870s left a vast hall built in one aisle of the palace which is still used by the French Parliament when it meets in Congress to amend the French Constitution.
It was not until 1901 that Versailles recovered its level of population of 1790, with 54,982 inhabitants at the 1901 census. In 1919, at the end of the First World War, Versailles was put in the limelight again as the various treaties ending the war were negotiated and signed in the castle proper and in the Grand Trianon. After 1919, as the suburbs of Paris were ever expanding, Versailles was absorbed by the urban area of Paris and the city experienced a strong demographic and economic growth, turning it into a large suburban city of the metropolitan area of Paris. The role of Versailles as an administrative and judicial center has been reinforced in the 1960s and 1970s, and somehow Versailles has become the main centre of the western suburbs of Paris.
The centre of the town has kept its very bourgeois atmosphere, while more middle-class neighborhoods have developed around the train stations and in the outskirts of the city. Extremely well linked with the center of Paris by several train lines, Versailles is a chic suburb of Paris. However, the city is extremely compartmented, divided by large avenues inherited from the monarchy which create the impression of several small cities ignoring each other. Versailles was never an industrial city, even though there are a few chemical and food processing plants. Essentially, Versailles is a place of services, such as public administration, tourism, business congresses, and festivals.