Chateau de Saint-Cloud in the 1700s and 1800s

The Chateau de Saint-Cloud was built on a woody hill that overlooked the left bank of the Seine River about three miles west of Paris. It had been expanded by Phillipe of France, Duke of Orléans in the seventeen century and was in the hands of the Orléans family until protracted negotiations were undertaken by Louis XVI that included an offer by him for the Duke to swap Saint-Cloud for the Chateau of Choisy and La Muette, along with a small forest. That deal unfortunately fell through because of the wrangling of Louis Philippe II, Duke of Chartres who would later become the Duke of Orléans but then changed his name to Philippe Égalité during the French Revolution.

Chateau de Saint-Cloud - seventeenth century view

Seventeenth-century view of the estate of Saint Cloud by Étienne Allegrain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Saint-Cloud was also the site of an important balloon ascent that appears to have involved the Duke of Chartres. A large crowd had gathered to witness the balloon lift off, including America’s Benjamin Franklin, who at the time was living in Passy, the same elite area where the Princesse de Lamballe lived. Franklin at the time was serving as Ambassador to France. The balloon he saw was unique in that suspended beneath it was a gondola with a large rudder and paddles. Aboard it, besides the Duke, were two well-known and well respected aeronauts known as the Roberts’ brothers and a fourth passenger, thought to be the Roberts’ brother-in-law, Colin-Hulin.

“[On 14 July 1784] at 7:52 of a still, overcast morning, they were airborne. Disappearing through the ceiling within three minutes, they remarked on the feather-bed effect of a blanket of cloud … Turbulence ruled the air, and they heard a snap. The silk cords that suspended the stabilizing bladder in the middle of the enveloped had parted. Bright sunlight beat upon the surface and heated the hydrogen inside. The barometer fell rapidly … One of the Roberts set about to release the gas. In vain. The displaced bladder had stopped the vent. Attempts to free it with a long stick failed. Up, up they sped, accelerating toward the bursting point, when suddenly the duke had the presence of mind to grab the flagstaff and punch a couple of holes in the belly of the balloon. A tear of seven to eight feet opened between the punctures. They descended ‘very rapidly’… down through the cloud cover straight toward a pond called the Garenne. Throwing out a sixty-pound sack of sand, they slowed enough to gain the bank, from where a peasant woman watching her cows took flight.”[1]

A year or so after this rather disastrous balloon flight, Louis XVI succeeded in buying the Chateau de Saint-Cloud. His reason for buying it was because of the insistence of his wife, Marie Antoinette. She wanted it because she was convinced the cooler air of Saint-Cloud would be good for their children, who were often ill. Thus, Louis XVI obtained it in for 6,000,000 livres.

Once Chateau de Saint-Cloud was in Marie Antoinette’s hands, she set about transforming it into her new private home and commissioned architect Richard Mique to complete the transformation. He was a neoclassical architect born in Lorraine and is most remembered for the creation of his picturesque hamlet, the Hameau de la Reine, that he built in the gardens of Petit Trianon where Marie Antoinette, her friend the Princesse de Lamballe, the Duchess de Polignac, and others came together to “play” at farming.

Richard Mique. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Between 1787 and 1788 Mique enlarged the corpse de logis and the adjacent half of the right wing. The staircase was also demolished and replaced with new stone stairs leading into the state apartments. In addition, Mique also rebuilt the garden front.

Furniture collected from other royal residences and stored at the Garde Meuble was initially used to furnish the Chateau de Saint-Cloud. However, unique furnishings were soon commissioned for Saint-Cloud that included gilded chairs and marquetry commodes with gilt-bronze mounts. Some of these commissioned furnishings were in fact still being delivered to the chateau up until the opening days of the French Revolution.

In 1787, soon after the purchase of the Chateau de Saint-Cloud, the Queen was present at an annual fair that was held on the grounds. There an improvised ballroom had been established and the owner, a man named Bourgeois, was doing a brisk dancing business. The Queen supposedly congratulated him on his success but learned that he was being threatened that his license would be withdrawn.

“She told him that he need not be uneasy as to the future, and that she would grant him the freehold, ‘to him and his issue male in order of primogeniture, of the ground which he occupied, upon condition of his keeping the ball open every Sunday.’”[2]

Supposedly in a week’s time the deed for Bourgeois was prepared. He was also soon after authorized to build a house on the grounds and was exempted from all taxes except for a yearly payment of six francs that he paid to the Crown. Moreover, the “Queen made a point of being present at the balls when she was residing at St. Cloud.”[3]

After moving into de Saint-Cloud, the Queen allegedly became the “cause” of some regulations that were given to the staff with these supposedly being hung up on the iron gates with the statement, “By Order of the Queen.” Of course, this caused “considerable comment” and provoked complaints among the servants, and “some persons argued that if the Queen gave orders instead of the King, then the Palace of Saint Cloud was Austrian and not French property.”[4]

Discontent among the French people had also been building for some time. It eventually resulted in the French Revolution breaking out in 1789. As result there was the “Women’s March on Versailles” with the royal family forced to remove to Paris so that they would be closer to the people. The royal family then moved into the Palace of Tuileries, but still visited the Chateau de Saint-Cloud on occasion.

The Women’s March on Versailles. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

On one visit to the chateau Madame Henriette Campan, who served as the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, reported on an “affecting scene” that she described as particularly poignant. According to Madame Campan:

“It was four o’clock in the afternoon, the guard was not mounted, there was almost nobody that day at Saint Cloud, and I was reading to the queen, who was working at her frame, in one of the rooms that had a balcony opening on the court. The windows were closed, but we heard a dull sound from a number of voices, that seemed to speak only in suppressed tones. The queen told me to see what it was; I raised the muslin curtain, and saw, beneath the balcony, over fifty persons. This group was composed of ladies, old and young, all dressed in the costume usual in the country, some old Chevaliers de Saint-Louis, some young Knights of Malta, and a few ecclesiastics. I told the queen that it was probably a reunion of some societies from the neighboring country districts, who wished to see her. She rose, opened the window, and appeared on the balcony, and then all this good people said to her … ‘Have courage, Madame, the French suffer for you and with you; they pray for you, and Heaven will hear them; we love you, we respect you, and we reverence our exemplary king.’ The queen burst into tears.”[5]

Madame Jean Louise Henriette Campan. lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie Antoinette. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1790 Marie Antoinette and her family traveled to the Chateau de Saint-Cloud. There she had a meeting with Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau, a nobleman who had been involved in numerous scandals before the start of the revolution and then became a leader in the early stages of the revolution. The meeting between the Queen and Mirabeau involved saving the monarchy, but exactly what was said was not recorded. However, of this meeting it was later reported:

“The only time that Marie Antoinette ever spoke with Mirabeau was at Saint Cloud, in private, on July 3, 1790, ― a memorable interview, when two powerful influences came into each other’s presence; that of a genius and eloquence, and that of royalty and beauty, ― an affecting interview which left the great tribune, as it were, fascinated, and which, had he lived longer, might have resulted in the salvation of the French monarchy. The most illustrious of orators and the most august and charming of queens found themselves face to face for one day only, and on that day they treated with each other as equal powers.”[6]  

In April 1791, Louis XVI and family were set once again to travel to the Chateau de Saint-Cloud for Easter. The family knew that if they remained in Paris, they would have to take communion from a constitutional priest, and they wanted communion from a refractory priest at Saint-Cloud. Parisians understood this and so when Louis and his family loaded into their carriage and tried to leave, the carriage was swarmed by a crowd refusing to let them depart. Moreover, many of those in the crowd feared that if Louis and his family left the Tuileries, they might try to escape.

Marquis de Lafayette, who was heading the National Guard, ordered the guard to clear a path for the king’s carriage. However, the guards refused to obey him and thus the royal family was forced to exit the carriage and return to the Palace of Tuileries. This perhaps was also one of the reasons why royal family’s undertook their unsuccessful Flight to Varennes that happened a few months later, on the night of 20–21 June 1791.

Once Louis XVI and his monarchy fell, Saint-Cloud remained an important part of French political history. This is indicated by the fact that on 10 November 1799, the Saint-Cloud orangery became the setting for the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire that brought the Consulat to power. This coup also led to Napoleon Bonaparte being declared Emperor of France five years later, on 18 May 1804. After he became Emperor, the Chateau de Saint-Cloud served as one of his main residences as it was close to Paris. However, as there was no throne room at Saint-Cloud, Napoleon transformed the Salon de Vénus into one. That was the only change he made at the chateau other than some improvements to the palace’s interior decorations.

Louis Philippe I, son of Philippe Égalité, reigned as the King of the French from 1830 to 1848. He found himself attending the wedding of his sixth child and youngest daughter, Clementine, on 28 April 1843 at the Saint-Cloud chapel. Princess Clementine began engaged to and married Prince Augustus of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a cousin to Queen Victoria. Of the wedding the Kentish Independent reported:

“At nine o’clock the King, the Queen, and the Royal Family, entered the Galerie d’Apollon, which had previously been prepared for the performance of the civil marriage, the King giving his arm to the Princess Clementine, and the Queen leaning on the arm of Prince Augustus. … The royal family and witnesses having taken their places round a circular table, Baron Pasquier, Chancellor France, … read the civil marriage ceremony, and, after having received from Prince Augustus and the Princess Clementine the declaration required by article 75 of the Civil Code, declared, in the name of the law, that the prince and princess were united in marriage. The signatures to the certificate of marriage were then affixed. … Immediately after the signing of the civil act, their Majesties, the royal family, and all the assembly, proceeded to the chapel, where the Bishop of Versailles performed the religious marriage ceremony.”[7]

Princess Clémentine as a teenager. Portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Chateau de Saint-Cloud also served as an important entertainment spot that the French used to host important foreigners throughout the years. For instance, in 1717, the nephew of Louis XIV received and entertained the Russian Tzar Peter the Great when he visited. Thomas Jefferson is also claimed to have been another important visitor to the chateau, arriving there for a visit sometime in 1786. During the Second Empire, Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, held their imperial court at Saint-Cloud in the spring and autumn. They also hosted Queen Victoria, who arrived with her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, in Paris on 18 August 1855. The royal couple then were invited to stay at the Chateau de Saint-Cloud because it offered much greater comfort than anywhere in Paris.

Reception of Queen Victoria by Napoleon III at Chateau de St Cloud, 18 August 1855. Courtesy of Royal Collection Trust.

Additionally, a model railway was built at Saint-Cloud in 1859 for the 3-year-old the son of emperor and empress, Napoleon, Prince Imperial. Soon after the railway’s construction it was described by the Le Monde Illustré in the following manner:

“The railway built for the amusement of the Prince Imperial is a real toy as well as a masterpiece of mechanical science. It has been set up in a corner of the private park of Saint-Cloud. Its track is in the shape of a figure 8, and the curvature of its tiny rails is reminiscent of the surprising curves of the railway from Paris to Sceaux. It has a small station, small viaducts, small bridges, small inclines, and ramps. The engine, which is about fifty centimeters wide, has wheels driven by an internal spring which can be wound up as desired.”[8]

Chateau de Saint-Cloud railway for the Prince Imperial.

The model railway at the Chateau de Saint-Cloud built for the Prince Imperial. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although the Chateau de Saint-Cloud might have been the site of many happy memories, one very unhappy event that took place happened during the Franco Prussian War. The Prussians not only captured the city of Paris but also came to possess the Chateau de Saint-Cloud. Hoping to regain what had been lost, the French army was forced to shoot their cannons towards the chateau and its grounds from Fort Mont-Valérien, a fortress in a western Paris suburb, built in 1841 as part of the city’s ring of modern fortifications. Unfortunately, during the French assault, an explosive shell set the chateau on fire and it burned to the ground.

One English correspondent who witnessed the destruction that befell the Chateau de Saint-Cloud submitted the following report to the London Evening Standard that was then published on 22 October 1870:

“The Palace of St. Cloud is a heap of ruins. It has perished by the hands of its children. Shells hurled from Mont Valerin set it ablaze yesterday morning at eleven, and it has been burning every since. It will not burn much longer, for now little of it that is consumable remains. … A house utterly gutted, black smouldering walls, and on the green grass outside it confused heaps of what had been saved from destruction. Comfortable chairs of gilt frames, softest padding, perfect springs, and red velvet coverings, stood out in the open some occupied by Prussian officers, some at liberty for the next comer. Close to them were piles of priceless tapestries snatched from the burning. But, perhaps the objects which most caught the eye were the rows and heaps of handsomely bound books, with gilt leaves, and ‘N’ ― ominous letter! ― stamped in rich gold on the back.”[9]

Chateau de Saint-Cloud ruins

Ruins of the Chateau de Saint-Cloud. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1891 the standing but roofless walls were razed at the Chateau de Saint-Cloud. The only preserved part of the building, a pediment of the chateau’s right wing, was purchased by Ferdinand I of Bulgaria, who then integrated it into his palace Euxinograd on the Black Sea. The decision was also made that the chateau would not be rebuilt. Thus, today, what is now called the Domaine national de Saint-Cloud, consists of only a few outbuildings and the 460 hectare park.*

*There is a current movement afoot to rebuild the Chateau de Saint-Cloud.

References:

  • [1] C. C. Gillispie, The Montgolfier Brothers and the Invention of Aviation 1783-1784 (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 103.
  • [2] Edinburgh Evening News, “An Old French Monopoly,” September 28, 1876, p. 4.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] A. Haggard, Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette (New York: Appleton, 1909), p. 103.
  • [5] A.J.C. Hare, Days Near Paris (New York: G. Routledge, 1859), p. 9.
  • [6] I. de Saint-Amand and E. G. Martin, Marie Antoinette at the Tuileries, 1789-1791 (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1898), p. 48.
  • [7] Kentish Independent, “France,” April 29, 1843, p. 2.
  • [8]Chemin de fer du Prince imperial,” Le Monde Illustré, p. 230.
  • [9] London Evening Standard, “The Siege of Paris,” October 22, 1870, p. 2.

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