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Hameau de la Reine: Marie Antoinette’s Pretend Village

Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France, is often portrayed as a frivolous, selfish, and immoral woman whose decadent lifestyle emptied the coffers of the national treasury. She was recklessly wasteful, indulging in excesses even at a time when the country was going through a period of acute financial crisis and the population was suffering. She wore flour wigs when her people went without bread, and dressed in indienne, a textile of Indian origin that was so popular that the Royal French Ordinance had it outlawed in the 17th century to protect local French woolen and silk cloth industries. In the eyes of the revolutionaries, the Queen was the symbol of everything that was wrong with the French monarchy. Eventually, the French people began to blame her for France’s degrading economic situation, suggesting that the country was unable to pay off its debt because of her wastefulness.

Hameau de la Reine

The Mill, one of the structures in Hameau de la Reine, was purely a decorative element. No mechanism or wheel were installed in the factory. Image credit: Alex Drop/Flickr

In the midst of this growing civil unrest, which would eventually snowball into one of the biggest social revolution in modern history, Marie Antoinette started another extravagant project.

In 1783, Marie Antoinette commissioned a hameau—an ornamental village—intended to be used as a garden folly in the park of the Château de Versailles. Hameau became very popular among 18th century French aristocrats, the most famous being the hameau on the estate of the Château de Chantilly. The little village was modeled on a farm in Normandy, and had seven buildings with thatched roofs and rustic exteriors. But the interiors were extremely elegant, and used for concerts, games, and dinners.


Related: Hermits As Garden Ornaments


Marie was impressed by Hameau de Chantilly and wanted one for herself, where she could escape from the drudgery of royalty. The Hameau de la Reine, also called the Queen’s Hamlet, was completed in 1788 and contained a meadowland with lakes and streams, a classical Temple of Love on an island with fragrant shrubs and flowers, an octagonal Belvédère, with a neighboring grotto and cascade. The hameau consisted of a variety of cottages and buildings built in different styles and each with a specific function. There was a farmhouse, a dairy, a dovecote, a barn, and a mill. Each building was decorated with a garden, an orchard or a flower garden. The largest and most famous of these houses was the Queen's House, connected to the Billiard house by a wooden gallery.

Hameau de la Reine

Marlborough Tower. Image credit: Alex Drop/Flickr

Marie Antoinette and her friends would dress up as young shepherdess or milkmaids and wander around the hamlet pretending to be peasants, while still surrounded by the comforts of a royal lifestyle. A team of real farmers appointed by the Queen looked after the farm and the animals, and produced fruits and vegetables consumed at the royal table. Marie Antoinette would sometimes milk the cows and the sheep herself to get a taste of village life. Before the Queen was expected, the story goes, the “villagers” would wash the goats and dress them in ribbons.

Marie Antoinette was proud of her hameau, as one nineteenth century historian notes:

She would invite the king and the rest of the royal family to garden parties, where, at a table set out under a bower of honeysuckle, she would pour out their coffee with her own hands, boasting of the thickness of her cream, the freshness of her eggs, and the ruddiness and flavor of her strawberries, as so many proofs of her skill in managing her establishment.

The place was completely enclosed by fences and walls, and only intimates of the Queen were allowed to access it. This led many to gossip about Marie using the retreat for secret rendezvous with counts and nobles. The extravagance and subtle mockery of peasant life did not help Marie Antoinette's already suffering image.

When the French Revolution came, Marie Antoinette was arrested and charged with depleting the wealth of the nation leading to starvation of the people, as well as conspiracy against the state and was condemned to death. She was guillotined on 16 October 1793.

Much of Hameau de la Reine still exist today. One of the two diaries were destroyed during the First Empire. The barn, which also served as a ballroom, was badly damaged during the French Revolution and destroyed during the First Empire. The rest of the estate was renovated in the late 1990s and opened to the public.

Hameau de la Reine

Hameau de la Reine. Image credit: Pierre Metivier/Flickr

Hameau de la Reine

Image credit: Guido Andolfato/Flickr

Hameau de la Reine

Farm Scene in Hameau de la Reine. Image credit: Rolf E. Staerk/Shutterstock.com

Hameau de la Reine

Landscape view of the Marlborough Tower overlooking the lake in Hameau de la Reine. Image credit: H-AB Photography / Shutterstock.com

Hameau de la Reine

Image credit: Chris Goldberg/Flickr

Hameau de la Reine

Image credit: Chris Goldberg/Flickr

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