August 17, 1661 — It was the party to end all parties. Held in a magnificent new château, the 6,000 guests, including a king, were handed gifts such as diamond brooches for the ladies and thoroughbred horses for the men.
A spectacular fireworks display took place in glorious gardens and a play, especially written for the occasion by the playwright Molière, was performed.
But the French king who was supposed to be flattered and impressed by it all – Louis XIV – was appalled. He had already been tipped off that the host, his finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, had amassed his vast wealth by cooking the books.
Invited as guest of honour at the celebrations held to open Fouquet’s new château named Vaux-le-Vicomte, Louis was soon infuriated, believing that the festivities demonstrated how much wealth his minister had amassed at the expense of the state.
He considered this to be the case after being told so by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a bureaucrat who quietly wanted Fouquet’s job. He had revealed to the king irregularities in the minister’s accounts and accused him of creating financial schemes principally designed to enrich himself.
Armed with the accusations and outraged by Fouquet’s display of “unashamed and audacious luxury,” the king ordered his arrest. His trial for embezzlement lasted an astonishing three years, the articulate and intelligent Fouquet conducting his own defence and winning much public sympathy in the process.
After his guilt was finally proclaimed the king hoped for the death penalty but the judges instead ordered banishment. Then, for the first and last time in French history, the monarch over-ruled the court and changed the sentence. Fouquet was jailed for life, his wife was exiled and his glorious château taken over by the state. He died in prison 16 years later at the age of 65.
Born the son of a wealthy shipowner and royal administrator, Fouquet had risen to become the most wealthy and powerful man in France. The writer Voltaire commented: “On 17 August, at six in the evening Fouquet was the King of France: at two in the morning he was nobody.”
The palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte, located at Maincy, 55 kilometres (34 miles) southeast of Paris, was the largest private château in France with 1,235 acres of gardens. It is now a privately owned tourist attraction luring – at least in pre-covid times – about 300,000 visitors a year.
It has been featured in many fashion shoots, television shows and movies, including the 1979 James Bond film, Moonraker and the 1998 film, The Man in the Iron Mask.
In 2004, Vanisha Mittal, daughter of British-Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, was married at the château to Amit Bhatia, the British-Indian economist and businessman. It is said that Kylie Minogue was paid $330,000 to sing at the wedding.
The India Today magazine reported that “over 35 craftsmen were flown in from Mumbai to erect a mandap on a pond in the sprawling gardens of the estate. Elephants made of fibreglass, minarets and a huge reception hall done up in pink were also put up. A lotus was designed in the pond and petals of all colours and shapes scattered over it. Craftsmen were jetted in from India and florists from Holland”.
Nicolas Fouquet would undoubtedly have approved.
Published: August 5, 2020
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