Versailles comes to Bath

20 July 2010

Thanks to living in Somerset, I don’t actually have to go all the way to Paris or Versailles when I fancy a bit of a wander in the silk shod footsteps of the luminaries of Marie Antoinette’s court. No, I just have to badger my usually unwilling husband into taking me to Bath for the day instead. He hates Bath because the parking is terrible and the streets are usually packed with an uneasy mix of foreign tourists, hippies, homeless people and moneyed middle classes. I love it though – my grandparents used to take me shopping there when I was a teenager and even now I adore wandering its beautiful streets, admiring the exquisite honeyed stone buildings and soaking in its calming atmosphere.

During the eighteenth century, Bath was one of the most elegant and fashionable spas in Europe and was therefore visited by most of the major celebrities of the day – including the Duchesse de Polignac who arrived in May 1787 and the Princesse de Lamballe, who visited in September 1787 and then again in 1791.

I’ve been researching my latest novel, which kicks off at the time of the Duchesse’s visit to Bath in Spring 1787 and have been having a lovely time looking at photographs of the gorgeous Cotswold sandstone buildings and sweeping, elegant streets. The Duchesse’s visit was one of the big news stories at the time thanks to her closeness to Marie Antoinette and it is to have serious and life changing repercussions for my characters.

Madame de Polignac along with her husband, sister in law, Diane and children and her lover, the Vicomte de Vaudreuil arrived in London on the 6th May 1787, ostensibly for a holiday but it is likely that they had secret diplomatic business to attend to as well as only a few months earlier both the dismissed minister Calonne and also the husband of arch adventuress Jeanne de la Motte had rolled up in England as well and were suspected of busily making trouble for Marie Antoinette.

Upon arriving in London, the Polignac family teamed up with their old friend Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and immediately began to enjoy everything that London had to offer with a round of balls, assemblies, dinner parties and trips to the theatre before finally, exhausted, departing for Bath on the 12th May, stopping en route to be lavishly entertained at Stowe and Blenheim Palace.

The Polignac family along with the French and Spanish ambassadors, who had also joined their party were housed in two houses on the stately North Parade, which overlooks the River Avon. I haven’t been able to find out which houses the Polignacs stayed in but will work on this.

The French party remained in Bath for a month until the 16th June,  with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire as their hosts, taking the waters, attending the assemblies and concerts and losing vast quantities of money at gambling, which was readily available in the spa town, where card sharps, cheats and fortune hunters stalked the elegantly decorated rooms alongside the nobles and writers who also thronged there.

There were also visits to neighbouring stately homes such as Bowood, Stourhead and also to the nearby town of Salisbury. I wonder if my own Bristol was honoured with a visit at this time?

In the same month as the Polignacs returned to Paris, either empty handed or successful after their negotiations with La Motte, his wife, Jeanne had escaped from prison in Paris and was making her own way to England, probably with fresh scandalous ‘revelations’ about the Versailles court. Marie Antoinette panicked and this time despatched the Princesse de Lamballe to England to negotiate with the ghastly pair in July, while being lavishly entertained by the Devonshires as well as all of the aristocracy of London.

The Princesse de Lamballe arrived back in England three months later, in September 1787 using the pseudonym of the Comtesse d’Amboise, landing at Southampton on the 19th before moving on with a ‘numerous retinue’, that included her own doctor (a necessity for such a hypochondriacal woman) to Bath, where she stayed at number 1, the Royal Crescent from the 21st of September and took the waters in between private meetings with Calonne, who was also staying in the city with his mistress Madame d’Harvelay and who took on the job of trying to curb the malicious, wagging tongues of the rapacious La Motte couple who were both in London and fully intent on causing trouble. This must have been a huge relief to the notoriously nervous Princesse, who can’t have relished the prospect of negotiating with such an atrocious pair of troublemakers.

The Royal Crescent in Bath is one of the most beautiful streets in all the world and one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture. With a beautiful and harmonious golden sandstone facade that curves around the hill and overlooks the lovely city below. It is a fine spot and one that even the Princesse, used to Versailles, must have appreciated.

Number One Royal Crescent is now a museum and has been lovingly restored to its original appearance inside with many fine examples of Georgian art and furniture. It’s not quite as it would have been at the time of the Princesse’s visit, but it is easy to imagine her there as you walk around inside.

Hm, I think I may have to pay a visit to Bath soon and take more photographs!

If you are keen to learn more about the Princesse de Lamballe’s English visit, there is a post at Marie Antoinette’s Gossip Guide that you will probably find fort amusant and which reminded me that I’ve been meaning to make this post for ages!

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