As Louis XIV announced his intention to pay a visit to le Grand Condé in April 1671, he had no idea that the honour he bestowed upon Condé, the honour of having the King and his whole court as guests for a few days, would end in a suicide.
The Prince de Condé had only 15 days to prepare the recently renovated château de Chantilly for lavish festivities, create delicious noms and opulent decorations, ballets, fireworks, a hunt, little games to amuse the court, rooms to host the King and court. The château itself was too small to host all six hundred nobles and several thousand valets, maids, other servants and followers, thus accommodations had to be rented close by, of course all according to rank.
The man who was put in charge of all of this was François Vatel, born as Fritz-Karl Watel in Switzerland between 1625 and 1635. François’ way had led him to France, where he served Louis II. de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, as cook during the Fronde and, as his master went into Spanish exile, went into service of Nicolas Fouquet. Vatel was present and in service of Fouquet at Vaux-le-Vicomte during the infamous party hosted for Louis XIV in August 1661, that lead to Fouquet’s arrest. He returned into service of Condé around 1667 as Maître de Cuisine et Plaisir.
These lavish celebrations of three days and three nights, Thursday 23 to Saturday 25 April 1671, were a big step for Condé. Louis XIV had finally somewhat forgiven him for the part he played during the Fronde and if everything went as planned, Condé might return to favour and lucrative military commands.
The King and his court arrived at Chantilly on Thursday evening, after a successful hunting trip. The château was beautifully illuminated and twenty-five tables were prepared for the most important of the important. A lush dinner was followed by a two-hour show for general amusement and a firework display, which was a bit of a fail due to all the fog it created. Another unpleasantness, there was not enough roast for all tables, after an extra seventy-five people showed up unexpected. The spectacle, costing about 16,000 livres, was a success anyway and the King pleased. Vatel saw the matter different, too many things went wrong for him and he blamed himself for it. He had put so much effort and thought into it, he barely slept in the last twelve days, and, although Condé assured him the King was pleased, Vatel thought it was unforgivable that they ran out of roast.
On the next day, a Lenten Friday, Vatel had decided to spoil the royal and noble guests with seafood. Since the catches in the rivers close by were too unpredictable to ensure a full supply with all that was needed, he sent his people out to buy what was needed on markets and ports.
Unfortunately for poor Vatel, only two baskets of quality fish arrived at Chantilly in the early hours of morning. Vatel was shocked and distraught at the sight. Hours passed and Vatel waited and waited and waited… in hopes more will arrive soon, but it did not. He retired to his room shortly after telling Gourville , his second-in-charge, that he can’t possible live with the disgrace, something his second-in-charge did not pay much attention to and thought to be spoken out of a temporary mood.
According to the Marquise de Sévigné, he then ran himself through with his own sword three times. He was found dead in his rooms shortly after he was called, but did not appear to behold that, after all, enough fish of good quality and size had arrived in the meanwhile.
Vatel was buried on the local cemetery by Gourville without much ado, in order not to disturb the rest of the festivities. The fact that he was buried on a cemetery, and not in an unmarked grave as it was common for people who committed the sin of suicide, hints and involvement or order of the King. The Prince de Condé was distraught over the passing of his steward and the King touched by it, possibly even flattered, that Vatel had killed himself. Louis XIV told Condé that all the effort and arrangements, which were always made for his visits, were the very reason he did not visit for such a long time and that, for him, setting up two simple tables would have done.
The fish was left untouched out of respect for Vatel this evening. Condé returned to favour and the King left the next day.
Vatel’s fictionalised story was put onto screen in 2000 by Roland Joffé, starring Uma Thurman, Tim Roth and Gérard Depardieu as Vatel. A lovely movie with spectacular scenery, check it out.