St. Germain

By Leitch Ritchie


The view from the terrace of Saint Germain is one of the finest in France. This view, and a shady walk in the forest behind, are the only attractions of Saint Germain; for the old palace of the kings of France presents the appearance of nothing more than a huge, irregular, unsightly brick building. It is true, a great portion of the walls is of cut stone; but this is the idea which the whole conveys to the spectator. The edifice stands on the site of a chateau built by Louis-le-Gros, which, having been burned down by the English, was thus raised anew from its ruins. Charles V., Francois II., Henry IV., Louis XIII., and Louis XIV., all exercised their taste upon it, and all added to its general deformity.

Near this Henri Quatre built another chateau, which fell into ruins forty or fifty years ago. These ruins were altogether effaced by Charles X., who had formed the project of raising another structure upon the spot, entirely his own. The project, however, failed, like that of the coup d'etat, but this is of no consequence. The new chateau exists in various books of travel, written by eye-witnesses, quite as palpably as the enormous bulk of the ancient chateau. It is a true "castle in Spain." Among the sights to be seen in the palace is the chamber of Mademoiselle de la Valliere, and the trap-door by which she was visited by Louis Quatorze. There are also the chamber and oratory of our James II., who died at Saint Germain, on the 16th September, 1701.

The forest of Saint Germain is seven leagues in circumference, pierced in every direction by roads and paths, and containing various edifices that were used as hunting-lodges. This vast wood affords no view, except along the seemingly interminable path in which the spectator stands, the vista of which, carried on with mathematical regularity, terminates in a point. This is the case with all the great forests of France except that of Fontainebleau, where nature is sometimes seen in her most picturesque form. In the more remote and unfrequented parts of Saint Germain, the wild boar still makes his savage lair; and still the loiterer, in these lengthened alleys, is startled by a roebuck or a deer springing across the path….

Independently of the noble satellites attached to the court, the infinite number of official persons made its removal to Saint Germain, or the other royal seats, seem like the emigration of a whole people. Forty-nine physicians, thirty-eight surgeons, six apothecaries, thirteen preachers, one hundred and forty maitres d'hotel, ninety ladies of honor to the queen, in the sixteenth century! There were also an usher of the kitchen, a courier de vin (who took the charge of carrying provisions for the king when he went to the chase), a sutler of court, a conductor of the sumpter- horse, a lackey of the chariot, a captain of the mules, an overseer of roasts, a chair-bearer, a palmer (to provide ananches for Easter), a valet of the firewood, a paillassier of the Scotch guard, a yeoman of the mouth, and a hundred more for whose offices we have no names in English.

The grand maitre d'hotel was the chief officer of the court. The royal orders came through him; he regulated the expenses; and was, in short, to the rest of the functionaries, what the general is to the army. The maitre des requetes was at the head of civil justice; the prevot de l'hotel at the head of criminal justice….

When the courtiers presented themselves at the chateau, some in chariots, some on horseback, with their wives mounted behind them (the ladies all masked), they were subjected to the scrutiny of the captain of the gate. The greater number he compelled to dismount; but the princes and princesses, and a select few who had brevets of entrance, were permitted to ride within the walls.

At court the men wore sword and dagger; but to be found with a gun or pistol in the palace, or even in the town, subjected them to a sentence of death. To wear a casque or cuirass was punished with imprisonment. The laws of politeness were equally strict. If one man used insulting words to another, the offense was construed as being given to the king; and the offender was obliged to solicit pardon of his majesty. If one threatened another by clapping his hand to the hilt of his sword, he was to be assomme according to the ordinance; which may either mean knocked down, or soundly mauled--or the two together. If two men came to blows, they were both assomme. A still more serious breach of politeness, however, was the importunity of petitioners.

When the king hunted he was accompanied by a hundred pages, two hundred esquires, and often four or five hundred gentlemen; sometimes by the queen and princesses, with their hundreds of ladies and maids of honor, mounted on palfreys saddled with black velvet.

[24] From "The Rivers of France." Pictures by J. M. W. Turner, R.A. Text by Leitch Ritchie.