Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Royal Hunt

The painting above shows Marie-Antoinette riding in the royal hunt, with her husband Louis XVI in the background. In practically every and any book, article or blog post about Louis XVI, it is usually pointed out that hunting was his passion. This is quite true. However, a love of the chase was not something unique to Louis. Hunting is what the nobility did, all nobles, unless some kind of physical handicap prevented them. It had, of course, originated as a way of procuring food to feed large households and families. Even in the most decadent of times before the Revolution of 1789, the game was killed not for mere sport, but to be eaten.

That the Bourbon kings of France would devote themselves to such sport should not come as a great surprise, since Versailles was originally built to be a hunting lodge. From the days of Louis XIV, hunting was almost a daily activity. The post of Grand Huntsman was among the highest in the realm. Some of the other royal residences, Rambouillet, Compiègne,and La Muette were hunting lodges as well.

According to the PBS site Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution:
All of Versailles was initially an immense hunting area, with the original chateau grounds being ten times larger than they are today. In the area now called the Grand Park, the royal family and the court continued this hunting tradition, both on horseback and on foot....

Hunting on horseback was an activity reserved to the nobility in prerevolutionary France, truly the sport of kings. Gifts of fresh game were one way in which nobles showed their generosity to those who did not share their privileges. Such gifts reminded the recipient of his lower place in the social order while demonstrating the nobility of the giver.

For the king and his retinue, the Royal Hunt was a noble pursuit. Invitations to the Royal Hunt were greatly coveted, and the King used these invitations to show favor and gain support.

Hunts were generally followed by elaborate dinners, sometimes with guest lists in the hundreds....
It was at a hunt that the English lady Mrs. Thrale observed the young Queen Marie-Antoinette on horseback, saying:

20 Octr 1775 begins. This Morning we drove into the Forest as they call it to see the Queen ride on Horseback. We were early enough to see her mount, which was not done as in England by a Man’s hand, but the right foot is fixed in the Stirrup first & then drawn out again when the Lady is on her Saddle. The Horse on which the Queen rode was neither handsome nor gentle, he was however confined with Martingales &c. & richly caparison’d with blue Velvet & Silver Embroidery : the Saddle was ill contrived—sloping off behind—& a Pommel so awkward that no Joyner could have executed it worse,—there was a Handle by the Side I saw. While we were examining the Furniture and Formation of the Horse, the Queen came to ride him, attended by the Duchess de Luignes, who wore Boots & Breeches like a Man with a single Petticoat over them, her Hair tyed & her Hat cocked exactly like those of a Man, Her Majesty's Habit was Puce Colour as they call it her Hat filled with Feathers and her Figure perfectly pleasing. She offered her Arm to the King's Aunts who followed her to the Rendezvous in a Coach, as they were getting out, but they respectfully refus'd her Assistance.
Marie-Antoinette as a young princess had been banned by her mother from joining the hunt on horseback. The Empress feared that she would have a miscarriage, or at least ruin her complexion. The Dauphine, being married and technically no longer subject to her mother, eventually insisted on riding with her husband, finding it a way to capture his attention. (Gaining Louis' regard was, of course, vital for conceiving a child.) Antoinette was said to be a fine and fearless rider, often donning male apparel. She won much public acclaim for taking care not to destroy the gardens and crops of the peasants when hunting. Such common courtesy was rare. According to Charles Duke Young:
The latter part of the year 1771 was marked by no very striking occurrences. Marie Antoinette had carried her point, and had begun to ride on horseback without either her figure or her complexion suffering from the exercise. On the contrary, she was admitted to have improved in beauty. She sent her measure to Vienna, to show Maria Teresa how much she had grown, adding that her husband had grown as much, and had become stronger and more healthy-looking, and that she had made use of her saddle-horses to accompany him in his hunting and shooting excursions. Like a true wife, she boasted to her mother of his skill as a shot: the very day that she wrote he had killed forty head of game. (She did not mention that a French sportsman's bag was not confined to the larger game, but that thrushes, blackbirds, and even, red-breasts, were admitted to swell the list.) And the increased facilities for companionship with him that her riding afforded increased his tenderness for her, so that she was happier than ever. Except that as yet she saw no prospect of presenting the empress with a grandchild, she had hardly a wish ungratified.

Her taste for open-air exercise of this kind added also to the attachment felt for her by the lower classes, from the opportunities which arose out of it for showing her unvarying and considerate kindness. The contrast which her conduct afforded to that of previous princes, and indeed to that of all the present race except her husband, caused her actions of this sort to be estimated rather above their real importance. But how great was the impression which they did make on those who witnessed them may be seen in the unanimity with which the chroniclers of the time record her forbidding her postilions to drive over a field of corn which lay between her and the stag, because she would rather miss the sight of the chase than injure the farmer; and relate how, on one occasion, she gave up riding for a week or two, and sent her horses back from Compiegne to Versailles, because the wife of her head-groom was on the point of her confinement, and she wished her to have her husband near her at such a moment; and on another, when the horse of one of her attendants kicked her, and inflicted a severe bruise on her foot, she abstained from mentioning the hurt, lest it should bring the rider into disgrace by being attributed to his awkward management….
Madame Campan records another incident of Marie-Antoinette's compassion for the poor, as follows:

A circumstance which happened in hunting, near the village of Acheres, in the forest of Fontainebleau, afforded the young Princess an opportunity of displaying her respect for old age, and her compassion for misfortune. An aged peasant was wounded by the stag; the Dauphiness jumped out of her calash, placed the peasant, with his wife and children, in it, had the family taken back to their cottage, and bestowed upon them every attention and every necessary assistance. Her heart was always open to the feelings of compassion, and the recollection of her rank never restrained her sensibility. Several persons in her service entered her room one evening, expecting to find nobody there but the officer in waiting; they perceived the young Princess seated by the side of this man, who was advanced in years; she had placed near him a bowl full of water, was stanching the blood which issued from a wound he had received in his hand with her handkerchief, which she had torn up to bind it, and was fulfilling towards him all the duties of a pious sister of charity.
It was at the hunting lodge of La Muette that in 1774 the young Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette broke with protocol by strolling arm in arm, like "man and wife," before crowds of people who cheered them deliriously. It was considered contrary to etiquette for royal spouses to display affection in public. The new King and Queen wanted to break with such stiff and antiquated customs. By the way, when Louis XVI recorded "nothing" in his journal on July 14, 1789, it meant that he had caught nothing while hunting. It did not mean that he was indifferent or oblivious to the violence in Paris, since it is obvious from his actions that he was quite concerned. It is just one more ridiculous canard which even educated people continually spout about Louis XVI.