The filth and stench at Versailles

The opulence and splendour of the Palace of Versailles isn’t a place you’d immediately associate with rank filth. But the three hundred year old royal residence was smelly beyond belief at its height.

Built by the so-called “Sun King”, Louis XIV, it was intended to bring the whole aristocracy of France together in one place – where the king could keep a close eye on them. But with all their servants and retinue – plus no toilets – it was soon coated in filth.

DISCOVER: Maddest rulers in history

Nobles waiting to see the absolute monarch were forced to relieve themselves behind the curtains, in the corridors or along the staircase. Meanwhile, servants carried buckets round allowing dukes and duchesses to take a pee and continue to wait.

One visitor said they felt like retching as they approached the palace. “The squalor inside was unspeakable”. The pervading odour even permeated wigs, cloaks and undergarments.

The reason for all this filth at Versailles was that as a working palace in a very centralised kingdom – with power concentrated around the king – the palace was a magnet for politicians, petitioners and ordinary people.

They flocked to Versailles to raise their concerns and questions with the king. And they came from all classes. The palace was surprisingly open by our standards so serfs, workers, merchants, soldiers and nobles rubbed shoulders – and spread their filth.

They queued for hours on end to see King Louis and were terrified of losing their place. So when nature called, the visitor to Versailles held their place in the queue by dropping their load there and then!

You may have seen the BBC drama series Versailles about the scandal and decadence revolving around King Louis XIV and his court in the late 17th century.

He built a vast palace at Versailles into which the French aristocracy were forced to take up residence so the king could keep a beady eye on them.

On a UKTV programme Private Lives of the Monarchs I detail what a stinking hellhole Versailles was. People and their pets relieving themselves while they waited to see the king – behind curtains and in piss pots.

Ten places of execution in London

London has always had its interesting landmarks but none could be so ghoulish as its regular places of execution. They are not always easy to spot now but let me give you some ghoulish clues!

Up until the 19th century, there were certain places where you could be guaranteed to catch a hanging, burning or beheading – should you wish.

Unfortunately, many Londoners did wish – as it was viewed as a macabre form of entertainment. So – where would you have seen such a dreadful spectacle? Where are the places of execution in London?

  • Tyburn. If you were a commoner, then it was off to Tyburn to be hanged high in the air dancing at the end of a rope for a vast crowd. The location of the triple gallows that entertained so many Londoners was on what is now a traffic island at the intersection of Oxford Street and the Edgware Road. Oxford Street was called Tyburn Road up until the 1700s and the area was semi-rural, effectively the edge of London. This was probably the most popular place of execution in London.
  • Tower Hill. If you were an aristocrat, you could avoid the shame and humiliation of dangling at Tyburn by being beheaded on Tower Hill. Your end was swift provided the executioner was good at his job – and that wasn’t always guaranteed. But for an aristocrat, this was the place of execution for you in London – not the shame of the tree at Tyburn.
  • Lincoln’s Inn Fields. One of the lesser well known places of execution in London. Those conspiring against the life of the monarch might be dispatched at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Such was the fate of Anthony Babington who plotted against Elizabeth I. Her day out was ruined however by his persistent screams of agony while being hanged, drawn and quartered. He made such a racket that the Queen decided just to behead everybody else involved in the conspiracy.
  • Smithfield. Now being heavily redeveloped, the meat market near Farringdon tube station once rang to the shrieks of Protestants being burned for their faith by Queen Mary Tudor aka “Bloody Mary”. The Catholic Queen was out to reverse the religious reforms of her father Henry VIII using the flames to consume those who had rejected the pope’s authority.
  • Execution Dock. Pirates breathed their last here – in a London location for execution deemed to suit their crime. They had lived by stealing on the waters – and so they would face their end by the river with the tide submerging their bodies. Captain Kidd was hanged at this location.
  • Banqueting House, Whitehall. King Charles I stepped from a first floor window and on to a wooden scaffold to lose his head. When his son Charles II became king, he hunted down those who had signed his father’s death warrant and had them executed a stone’s throw away at Charing Cross. The diarist Samuel Pepys, a bit of a royalist toady by then, wrote an inappropriately merry account of one of those hanging, drawing and quarterings.
  • Kennington. This was south London’s main place of execution. I’ve blogged before about two unfortunately gentlemen who were hanged for the crime of being gay. It surprises me that given the large LGBT population in the area, there is no monument to this injustice.
  • Stratford-le-Bow. Now I knew nothing about this London execution site until recently. But this is where Queen Mary Tudor burned another load of Protestants as part of her ongoing and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to turn Britain back to Catholicism. Thirteen men and women were burned in front of 20,000 people on 27 June 1556.
  • Shooters Hill Crossroads. Little bit further out of town towards Woolwich is where highwaymen were hanged. This was presumably to warn any wannabe Dick Turpins heading towards London that they would meet a grim fate.
  • St Thomas-a-Watering. Right next to the Thomas-a-Becket pub on the Old Kent Road, famous in the 20th century for playing host to gangsters and boxers, was the place of execution for a small group of Catholic friars in 1539. As with Marble Arch and Tyburn, you’re going to need to summon up those powers of imagination to picture the scene now.

C’mon America – was King George really a tyrant?

It wasn’t just American colonists who though King George III of England was a tyrant. Many English radicals thought he was too. And that’s before we canvass the opinion of the French!

King George the tyrant – in American eyes!

I’ve now been to see the musical Hamilton twice and what’s not to like. Alexander Hamilton as a morally compromised hero. Thomas Jefferson as a vicious piece of work. And then there’s the hilarious figure of King George III – who prances on to the stage to rile the audience.

He loathes democracy. Thinks America won’t be able to handle everyday life once he’s forced from their stage. They’ll be crying to have him back soon – he jibes at the theatregoers. And we love it of course. Everybody adores a villain. Especially a villain with a big crown and velvet breeches.

DISCOVER: Top history movie turkeys!

King George – not such a tyrant

I appeared as a contributor on the TV series Private Lives of the Monarchs presented by the co-curator of the Royal Palaces, Tracy Borman. We did one programme looking at King George III and posing the question – was he really THAT bad?

He was certainly a lot more complex than he’s given credit for. His correspondence points to a man who took kingship terribly seriously. In fact, he was very keen to be seen as a “good king” and a constitutional monarch.

Compared to monarchs in continental Europe, he was fairly benign. He had to work with a democratically elected parliament (well, elected by property owners at that time) and couldn’t make arbitrary judgments in the way that kings were able to in France – or the Tsar in Russia.

His Prime Minister imposed a stamp tax on the American colonies. The reason was to pay for the war that had just been fought against France in the Americas. Not only the cost of that war but also the continued stationing of troops in the colonies had to be paid for. Not that the English expected to see all that tax revenue as America had a shaky record on actually coughing up its taxes due to the British crown.

Well, as we know, Americans of an independent spirit saw things differently. They rebelled and achieved their independence. So how did King George the tyrant react to the loss of the United States?

George wrote a long letter on the subject full of remorse and sadness. Interestingly, his main point was a warning to British politicians that no overseas possession could be retained if those living there didn’t support British rule.

Americans had clearly turned their back on the king and Mother Country. But George wrote that he hoped they could remain friends – if for no other reason than mutual trading benefits.

I’m not going to completely whitewash King George III here or let him off the tyrant hook completely. But we’re all grown ups here and capable of a bit of nuance and acceptance of shades of grey in history.

George III’s main claim to fame was the onset of madness. Now we wouldn’t mock the insane today. Yet George’s mental illness was treated with hilarity at the time in a way that would make most of you squirm. For example, he was referred to by one English satirist as “Your Mad-jesty”.

The tyrant King George did end up talking to plants and addressing Lords as peacocks. The man’s condition was made worse by being treated with toxic substances like arsenic. Still, he did have an unusually long reign from 1760 to 1820 and very much shaped the era in which he ruled.