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Lettres de Madame de Sévigné (book cover)

Lettres de Mme de Sévigné

The above image is a book cover of an edition of Mme de Sévigné’s Letters. (Photo credit: Google images)

Born Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the Marquise de Sévigné‘s (5 February 1626 – 17 April 1696) wrote a considerable number of letters to her daughter Françoise, comtesse de Grignan (1646 – 1705). These letters now belong to the world of literature and they constitute a vivid chronicle of life under Louis XIV. One of Madame de Sévigné’s letters is about François Vatel (born Fritz Karl Watel; 1631 – 24 April 1671), a famous majordomo or maître d’hôtel. 

François Vatel at Vaux-le-Vicomte

François Vatel‘s (1631 – April 24, 1671) story takes us back to Vaux-le Vicomte, Nicolas Fouquet‘s castle. In an earlier article, posted on 20 August 2013 (see Related Article), Nicolas Fouquet’s rise and fall was discussed. Fouquet had been France’s Superintendent of Finances since 1653 and had a magnificent castle built. Its inauguration took place on 17 August 1661.

As majordomo or maître d’hôtel, François Vatel was responsible for Vaux-le-Vicomte’s splendid inauguration, a festivity in honour of Louis XIV. That celebration is one of the two or three most spectacular festivities in the history of France and it has remained fresh in our memory because the day Nicolas Fouquet was host to some 2,000 guests, the culmination of a dream, was the first day of his demise. He did not know he was under any kind of suspicion. However his fall from grace was planned beginning in April 1661.

No, this was not une fête galante, nor was it une fête champêtre. People visited the gardens and the orangerie, but a fête champêtre was a more intimate event. Nicolas Fouquet (27 January 1615 – 23 March 1680), Louis XIV’s Superintendent of Finances, had invited 2,000 guests, including the 22-year-old Louis XIV. Molière‘s troupe performed Les Fâcheux and there were divertissements (entertainment) of all kinds, including magnificent fireworks. The inauguration of Vaux-le-Vicomte is considered one of the three or four most sumptuous celebrations in the history of France, but it was a public event and Vatel proved an excellent maître d’hôtel.


Nicolas Fouquet (1615-1680)

Compared to Louis XIV‘s (5 September 1638 – 1 September 1715), Louvre Palace, the royal residence, Vaux-le-Vicomte was perfection itself and it featured an orangerie built by Jules Hardouin-Mansart  (16 April 1646 – 11 May 1708), later comte de Sagonne (1699).

The splendour of Vaux-le-Vicomte intrigued the young king. Could it be, for instance, that Nicolas Fouquet, who was the king’s Superintendent of Finances, had embezzled money? Jules Mazarin (14 July 1602 – 9 March 1661), who had been the “chief minister” of France from 1642 until 1661, had no doubt embezzled funds. As well, Fouquet expected to be Minister of Finance, but so did Colbert. There was opposition to Fouquet (also spelled Foucquet).

Be that as it may, Louis XIV had Fouquet arrested by d’Artagnan, whom Alexandre Dumas, père  transformed into a fictional hero in The Three Musketeers (serialized as of 1844). Fouquet was tried, convicted and imprisoned for life at Pignerol, in the very jail that held the prisoner known as “the man in the iron mask.”

Fouquet had been a generous patron of the arts. Consequently, fabulist Jean de La Fontaine (8 July 1621 – 13 April 1695) a protégé of Fouquet, pleaded for leniency. He wrote to Louis XIV, but although La Fontaine was a superb writer, second only to Victor Hugo in the history of French literature, and recognized as a great author in his own days, he was not appointed to the French Académie, founded in 1635, until 1684. That was his punishment. La Fontaine’s first volume of Fables was published in 1668 (twelve books). The second was published in 1678 (eleven books) and the third, one book, in 1694.

Versailles: Louis copies Nicolas Fouquet

Louis XIV (5 September 1638 – 1 September 1715) was mercyless. When Nicolas Fouquet started serving his life sentence, Louis was busy recruiting the men who had designed Vaux-le-Vicomte: Louis Le Vau, Charles Le Brun, and landscape architect André Le Nôtre. Moreover, architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart, who had built a superb orangerie at Vaux-le-Vicomte, was directed to provide Versailles with an even better one.

As for Antoine Vatel, when Fouquet was arrested, he became le Grand Condé‘s (Louis de Bourbon, duc de Condé; 8 September 1621 – 11 December 1686) majordomo, or maître d’hôtel, at the Château de Chantilly (but chantilly cream is not Vatel’s creation).

Les Plaisirs de l’Isle enchantée

Louis was quite anxious to host as magnificent a feast as the inauguration of Vaux-le-Vicomte and attempted to do so in 1664. This seems an early date in the construction of Versailles. Louis XIV’s Les Plaisirs de l’Isle enchantée was a six-day feast. Its title suggests a fairy tale: l’Isle enchantée. It was lavish entertainment. Molière, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622 – 1673), contributed his first version of Le Tartuffe to the event.[I] Moreover, Molière worked with composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (28 November 1632 – 22 March 1687) because the divertissement would include music and dance. Louis XIV was a dancer. Louis’ Plaisirs de l’Isle enchantée was a lesser fête than Nicolas Fouquet’s inauguration of Vaux-le-Vicomte.

Château de Chantilly

Château de Chantilly (Photo credit: Google images)

François Vatel at Chantilly

Madame de Sévigné’s account of François Vatel’s suicide is eloquent, but mine is a mere summary. However, this one story tells in a nutshell about life under Louis XIV. It was a constant ceremonial. Vatel did not feel he could disappoint Louis XIV. Nor could he disappoint le Grand Condé, a military hero, a prince of the blood, i.e. a possible heir to the thrown of France, and his employer.

For the original text, in French, go to Chapter 47, p. 121, online. (Lettres de Mme de Sévigné; Gutenberg project [EBook 43901]FR). But there is an English translation at Internet ArchivesLetters of Mme de Sévigné, 45 & 46. I did not find the translation soon enough. The Internet Archives‘ English translation has been appended to this post and so has the French-language text.

Lettre à Françoise de Grignan, 26 April 1771

This is an incomplete excerpt from Chapter 47, p. 121, of Mme de Sévigné’s Lettres (Lettres de Mme de Sévigné: [EBook 43901]FR). The Prince is le Grand Condé: Louis II de Bourbon, Duc de Condé et d’Enghien, the highest ranking aristocrat after Louis XIV. At first, he was feared by Louis XIV because of his involvement in the Fronde(literally a sling). The Fronde was a seventeenth-century revolt (c. 1648-1652) against the increased power of a growingly centralized government that nearly excluded the participation of the higher nobility, including princes of the blood, in governing France. The people also revolted. There were two Frondes.

My abridged excerpt

Vatel said he hadn’t slept for twelve nights and that his head was turning around. There had not been enough roast and now only two loads of fish (or “fruits de mer,” [seafood]) had been delivered. Vatel, who performed his duties most diligently, was very distraught…

“…They had dinner, but there wasn’t enough roast. Vatel felt he had disgraced himself… Gourville [probably Jean Hérault de Gourville, a memorialist] went to see the prince [Condé]. …The prince walked to Vatel’s room and said: “All is well; nothing was more beautiful than the King’s supper.” Vatel answered: “Your Highness, your kindness overwhelms me. I know that roast was missing at two tables.” “Don’t get angry: all is going well,” said the prince, somewhat mockingly.

At midnight, time came for the fireworks. The display was not successful. A cloud blinded the sight; it had cost 16,000 francs! At four in the morning, Vatel started wandering everywhere. Everybody was asleep. He met a young purveyor bringing in two loads of fish [or seafood]. Vatel asked: “Is that all?” The purveyor did not know Vatel had ordered fish from every port. Vatel waited, but other purveyors were not coming …  Vatel’s head was getting hot: he thought there would be no more tides. He found Gourville and told him: “Sir I will not survive this affront.” Gourville made fun of him. Vatel went up to his room, attached his sword to a door and ran it through his body three times before he died, which is the very moment the fish started arriving. Everyone was looking for Vatel so the fish could be distributed. They went to his room, knocked on the door and then forced it open, only to find Vatel drowning in his own blood. They ran to the prince who was desperate. The duke [Condé] wept. The success of his trip to Burgundy depended on Vatel. The prince told the king sadly that this had happened because of Vatel’s idea of honour. Vatel was praised, but his courage was blamed.” 

Louis XIV went on to say that he had waited five years before travelling to Chantilly. He was afraid there would be too much of a fuss. From then on, tables were to be limited to two, not twenty-five. But, alas, this new policy could not revive Vatel. Two thousand guests were in attendance.

This story is an exceptional example of irony, at every level, and from every angle. It is a devastating testimonial. Vatel’s death did not affect the celebration. It continued as though nothing had happened. Yet, a good man had died who had every reason to fear the king and the duke. Fouquet was serving a life sentence and lawyers are still investigating the case. For a while, Fouquet’s manservant at Pignerol, now located in Italy, was “the man in the iron mask,” except that, in all likelihood, he was wearing a velvet mask. The man has a name, Eustache Dauger, but he has yet to be identified. These were fearful days.

My kindest regards to all of you.



Sources and Resources


[I] Molière had contributed his three-act comédie-ballet, Les Fâcheux, to Fouquet’s Fête.

The music is by Michel Richard Delalande (15 December 1657 – 18 June 1726)

© Micheline Walker
7 August 2014


Internet Archives translation

Supper was served, but there was no roast meat at one or two of the tables, on account of Vatel’s having been obliged to provide several dinners more


than were expected. This affected his spirits, and he was heard to say, several times: “I have lost my honor! I can not bear this disgrace.” My head is quite bewildered,” said he to Gourville.” I have not had a wink of sleep these twelve nights; I wish you would assist me in giving orders.” Gourville did all he could to coinfort [sic] and assist him; but the failure of the roast meat (which, however, did not happen at the king’s table, but at some of the other twenty-five), was always uppermost with him. Gourville mentioned it to the prince, who went directly to Vatel’s apartment, and said to him: “Every thing is extremely well conducted, Vatel; nothing could be more admirable than his majesty’s supper.” “Your highness’s goodness,” replied he, “overwhelms me;  I am sensible that there was a deficiency of roast meat at two tables.” “Not at all,” said the prince; “do not perplex yourself, and all will go well.” Midnight came: the fireworks did not succeed, they were covered with a thick cloud; they cost sixteen thousand francs. At four o’clock in the morning Vatel went round and found every body asleep; he met one of the under-purveyors, who was just come in with only two loads of fish.” “What!” said he, “is this all?” “Yes, sir,” said the man, not knowing that Vatel had dispatched other people to all the sea-ports around. Vatel waited for some time; the other purveyors did not arrive; his head grew distracted; he thought there was no more fish to be had. He flew to Gourville: “Sir,” said he, “I can not outlive this disgrace.” Gourville laughed at him. Vatel, however, went to his apartment, and setting the hilt of his sword against the door, after two ineffectual attempts, succeeded in the third, in forcing his sword through his heart.
At that instant the carriers arrived with the fish; Vatel was inquired after to distribute it. They ran to his apartment, knocked at the door, but received no answer, upon which they broke it open, and found him weltering in his blood. A messenger was immediately dispatched to acquaint the prince with what had happened, who was like a man in de-


spair. The duke wept, for his Burgundy journey depended upon Vatel. The prince related the whole affair to his majesty with an expression of great concern; it was considered as the consequence of too nice a sense of honor; some blamed, others praised him for his courage. The king said he had put off this excursion for more than five years, because he was aware that it would be attended with infinite trouble, and told the prince that he ought to have had but two tables, and not have been at the expense of so many, and declared he would never suffer him to do so again; but all this was too late for poor Vatel.

The Original Letter

A Paris, dimanche 26 avril 1671.
Il est dimanche 26 avril; cette lettre ne partira que mercredi; mais ce n’est pas une lettre, c’est une relation que Moreuil vient de me faire, à votre intention, de ce qui s’est passé à Chantilly touchant Vatel. Je vous écrivis vendredi qu’il s’était poignardé; voici l’affaire en détail: Le roi arriva le jeudi au soir; la promenade, la collation dans un lieu tapissé de jonquilles, tout cela fut à souhait. On soupa, il y eut quelques tables où le rôti manqua, à cause de plusieurs dîners à quoi l’on ne s’était point attendu; cela saisit Vatel, il dit plusieurs fois: Je suis perdu d’honneur; voici un affront que je ne supporterai pas. Il dit à Gourville: La tête me tourne, il y a douze nuits que je n’ai dormi; aidez-moi à donner 121 des ordres. Gourville le soulagea en ce qu’il put. Le rôti qui avait manqué, non pas à la table du roi, mais aux vingt-cinquièmes, lui revenait toujours à l’esprit. Gourville le dit à M. le Prince. M. le Prince alla jusque dans la chambre de Vatel, et lui dit: «Vatel, tout va bien; rien n’était si beau que le souper du roi.» Il répondit: «Monseigneur, votre bonté m’achève; je sais que le rôti a manqué à deux tables.» «Point du tout, dit M. le Prince; ne vous fâchez point: tout va bien.» Minuit vint, le feu d’artifice ne réussit pas, il fut couvert d’un nuage; il coûtait seize mille francs. A quatre heures du matin, Vatel s’en va partout, il trouve tout endormi, il rencontre un petit pourvoyeur qui lui apportait seulement deux charges de marée; il lui demande: Est-ce là tout? Oui, monsieur. Il ne savait pas que Vatel avait envoyé à tous les ports de mer. Vatel attend quelque temps; les autres pourvoyeurs ne vinrent point; sa tête s’échauffait, il crut qu’il n’aurait point d’autre marée; il trouva Gourville, il lui dit: Monsieur, je ne survivrai point à cet affront-ci. Gourville se moqua de lui. Vatel monte à sa chambre, met son épée contre la porte, et se la passe au travers du cœur; mais ce ne fut qu’au troisième coup, car il s’en donna deux qui n’étaient point mortels; il tombe mort. La marée cependant arrive de tous côtés: on cherche Vatel pour la distribuer, on va à sa chambre, on heurte, on enfonce la porte, on le trouve noyé dans son sang; on court à M. le Prince, qui fut au désespoir. M. le Duc pleura; c’était sur Vatel que tournait tout son voyage de Bourgogne. M. le Prince le dit au roi fort tristement: on dit que c’était à force d’avoir de l’honneur à sa manière; on le loua fort, on loua et l’on blâma son courage. Le roi dit qu’il y avait cinq ans qu’il retardait de venir à Chantilly, parce qu’il comprenait l’excès de cet embarras. Il dit à M. le Prince qu’il ne devait avoir que deux tables, et ne point se charger de tout; il jura qu’il ne souffrirait plus que M. le Prince en usât ainsi; mais c’était trop tard pour le pauvre Vatel. Cependant Gourville tâcha de réparer la perte de Vatel; elle fut réparée: on dîna très-bien, on fit collation, on soupa, on se promena, on joua, on fut à la chasse; tout était parfumé de jonquilles, tout était enchanté. Hier, qui était samedi, on fit encore de même; et le soir, le roi alla à Liancourt, où il avait commandé media noche; il y doit 122 demeurer aujourd’hui. Voilà ce que Moreuil m’a dit, espérant que je vous le manderais. Je jette mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins, et je ne sais rien du reste. M. d’Hacqueville, qui était à tout cela, vous fera des relations sans doute; mais comme son écriture n’est pas si lisible que la mienne, j’écris toujours; et si je vous mande cette infinité de détails, c’est que je les aimerais en pareille occasion.