Away from the crowds of Versailles. Away from the Palace. And away from the town of Versailles, you’ll find a little village with all the charm of a rustic farm. This is Hameau de la Reine (the Queen’s Hamlet), and the place where Marie Antoinette escaped to ‘play dress up’ when she got bored of palace life…
Le Petit Trianon: A Refuge from the Crowds of Versailles
When Marie Antoinette was sick of court and tired of the pomp and circumstance of the Grand Palace, she would escape a kilometre or two down the driveway to a place rather ironically named ‘Petit Trianon’ (every aspect of her ‘small palace’ is, in fact, larger than life and lavishly styled).
She was gifted the mansion aged just 19 (she married Louis XVI age 15 and was executed age 37) by her then 20-year-old husband. It was supposed to be for her exclusive use and enjoyment. Here, she lived in relative privacy in comparison with the crowds of Versailles (yes, there were always plenty of people in the Palace, even during the time of Louis XVI).
It’s also here, in the secluded privacy of her own mansion, Le Petit Trianon, that Marie Antoinette allegedly conducted affairs with various counts and nobles. Most notable was her supposed dalliance with Swedish Count, Axel von Fersen, with some historians even claiming that her child Sophia was actually the count’s illegitimate son.
While Sophia tragically died in infancy (only one of Marie Antoinette’s four children survived to adulthood), the rumours persisted and were never fully dispelled. Then again, who writes “Adieu, my tender friend, I love you and will love you madly all my life” to ‘just a friend,’ as Count Fersen did to Marie Antoinette on the 29 October 1791?
Hameau de la Reine: Where Marie Antoinette Played Dress Up
But the affair is not the only secret hiding amidst the grounds of Le Petit Trianon. After all, wander past the marble columns of the follies and away from the perfectly directed streams of the sprawling gardens and you’ll find a perfectly charming hamlet. Dotted around a picturesque lake, little-thatched cottages and small vegetable patches sit side by side.
While Marie Antoinette probably never said ‘Let them eat cake‘ when told that her French citizens were starving, there is no denying the decadence of her lifestyle, as well as the sheer cost of it all. While French men and women across the country quite literally didn’t have enough to eat, she would ‘escape’ from the court, and from her mansion house, and head to the Hameau de la Reine to ‘play peasant with her ladies’- or so the story goes. One tale even tells of the goats being washed and dressed in ribbons before Marie Antoinette arrived to ‘milk them’.
Other sources claim that Marie Antoinette simply liked to wander around the hamlet; entertaining guests in lavishly decorated interiors in one part. This was while a second part of the hamlet functioned as a fully working farm where the Royal children could learn about life outside of Versailles. A third part of the farm housed a real working dairy (destroyed during the reign of Napoleon), a fully functioning barn and other useful buildings.
Construction, Dilapidation & Reconstruction of Hameau de la Reine
Marie Antoinette commissioned the hamlet in 1783, and it took three years to complete- such was the scale of the project. Other châteaux in the region had their own rustic follies and it had become fashionable to take your guest out to explore the ‘backyard farm’.
It’s more than likely than not that Marie Antoinette drew inspiration for her Hameau de la Reine from the Hameau at Château de Chantilly. The small cottages and farm buildings are not meant to mimic any sort of architectural style but are instead meant to evoke a rustic charm and be altogether aesthetically pleasing.
In total, there were a dozen buildings or so. These included a dovecot, a boudoir, a mill, two dairies, a farm, a grange, a guardhouse, a tower (used purely for decoration and named after the popular song of the time ‘Malborough’), a boudoir, a billiard room, and even a rechauffoir (a room dedicated solely to preparing the queen’s meals in the hamlet).
The first bout of restoration took place during the reign of Napoleon from 1810 to 1812. However, many of the buildings were in such poor repair that they were destroyed altogether; this includes a barn and the working dairy. Originally one of two dairies, one was where the products were made, while the other dairy was purely for Marie Antoinette to sit in and sample the products.
The second round of restoration (thanks to donations from John Rockefeller) took place in the 19030s, but the Hameau de la Reine wasn’t fully restored until the 1990s. Finally, in 2006, the restoration works were complete and the hamlet opened up to the public. The resulting works are what you see today if you take the time to wander around the hamlet (and I highly recommend you do!)
Featured image: Berit Wallenberg, Visitors wandering around the Hameau de la Reine, 1934, via Flickr