The Versailles strategy – which isn’t unique to Early Modern France; I think the sankin-kōtai system of the Tokugawa shogunate is similar enough in purpose and effect that it qualifies – was a strategy for monarchies to gain power over the nobility through the exercise of (mostly) soft power, rather than crushing them by military force.
The basic idea is this: bring the whole of the nobility together into a very large court (the court at Versailles included 6,000-7,000 people when you add together the royal family, royal officials, courtiers, and servants; compare this to the early medieval court of Charlesmagne, which amounted to a few hundred people). Instead of the king going out on progress to visit his subjects, his subjects would come to live at Versailles instead.
This change had a number of consequences:
- Reduction of the economic independence of the nobility: Living at Versailles in the style benefiting a nobleman or noblewoman was incredibly expensive. Not only did it require you to establish a second household – with Louis XIV as your landlord charging you rent – but the official rules of Versailles required a particularly high-spending lifestyle: “The king insisted that every courtier be well dressed on all occasions: a death, a birthday, or a marriage in his family required that everyone wear new clothes.” (Versailles: A History, Robert Abrams) Moreover, while you were away at Versailles, you weren’t spending time on your estate maximizing your income, and the scissors of increasing spending and stagnant or declining incomes trapped a lot of the nobility in debt.
- And once you were in debt, you were in Louis’ clutches. Because working was out of the question, the only way to earn additional money to help pay off your debts was through a royal post or the like, and those were Louis’ to give and take away. Moreover, residents of Versailles were spared from various forms of taxation and were legally protected from having their property seized for non-payment of debt – this is how Louis initially enticed the nobility to move – but that meant that at any time, Louis could evict you from Versailles and throw you to the wolves.
- Reduction in the political independence of the nobility: at the same time, living away from your base of power meant that you became less important back at home. After all, you weren’t there making all the of the important day-to-day decisions, but the King’s intendant was.
- More importantly, living in Versailles meant that the king controlled your political environment. While you might think that being surrounded by the rest of the nobility of France in close physical proximity to the King’s person might give rise to assassination or coup d’état, the reality was that you were living in the King’s palace surrounded by his guards and very far away from your feudal levies, and you had to obey his rules, which by the way kept you constantly busy in various rituals and ceremonies from the time the king got up in the morning to the time he went to bed at night, and let the king observe who was there and who wasn’t. And if that wasn’t enough to keep people loyal, he also had his spies open everyone’s mail, and listen at everyone’s doors, and he could order you arrested at pretty much any time he wanted?
So why would anyone sign up for this system?
Well, in addition to those nice taxation and debt privileges, Louis simply made it a requirement that if you wanted anything from the king – command in his armies, help with public works in your area, help with a legal case, etc. – you had to come and ask him in person. Which meant coming to Versailles and taking part in the rituals, and since getting an audience took forever, you’d better get an apartment, and so it goes…
Just as importantly, after a certain point, it was the place that the nobility wanted to live. Did you want to make a good marriage? Versailles was where the most eligible matches lived. Did you want to live a magnificent lifestyle? Louis spent a LOT of money on making Versailles the most ostentatious and magnificent palace in Europe, not just in terms of architecture and gardens, but the best entertainments, the best scholars and artists, the best tailors and craftsmen, and so on and so forth. Did you want a political career? You couldn’t really do it out in the provinces anymore, so you might as well go to Versailles and play the game.