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The origin of the Sun King?

Charles Perrault, Courses de testes et de bague faittes par le roy, et par les princes et seigneurs de sa cour, en l’annee 1662

This collection of exuberant engravings of prancing stallions and ringleted riders has actually been extracted from a seventeenth century ‘festival book’ . The original volume was published to celebrate the Carrousel (or tournament) held in June 1662 by Louis XIV, which was the last fete held in Paris before he moved the court to Versailles. Opinion varies as to whether the event was staged for his mistress Louise, Duchesse de la Valliere or to celebrate the birth of his son, Louis.

Festival books were published to record the magnificent festivals and ceremonies that took place in Europe between 1475 and 1700 such as the marriages and funerals of royalty and nobility, coronations and other grand events. As official publications, they were essentially PR jobs designed to impress and promote the image the court or government wanted to project. They are idealised rather than being strictly factual.

The book from which our extracts have been taken was lavishly illustrated, with 97 engravings, and was published by the Royal Press in 1670 in both French and Latin, so it could be circulated outside France. Louis XIV was particularly proud of this publication and had his own copy hand coloured. The original French text was written by Charles Perrault, who became famous as the author of what we know as the ‘Tales of Mother Goose’ and the engravings were created by Israel Silvestre and Francois Chauveau.

Allegedly organised by the 24 year old king himself, who was a gifted horseman and enjoyed performing, the Carrousel involved 55 participants and horses, divided into teams (or ‘quadrilles’) which competed in a course de bague (a game which seems to have resembled polo, where the riders attempted to spear a ring whilst riding at full gallop). The teams represented different nations – Romans, Persians, Turks, East Indians and Native American Indians – with the king and four of his noblemen acting as chiefs. Each team was elaborately costumed in specific colours and the decorations and motifs worn by the team members all had symbolic and heraldic meaning. The Romans, led by the king dressed as a Roman Emperor, were in red and gold. Significantly, Louis’s device was a sun, and it appears that this was the first record of his use of the emblem which became such a key part of his identity as the Sun King.