Previously a seat of the royal family, Palais-Royal is a magnificent mansion, built in the 17th century, that used to be famous as a social and cultural centre of France, as well as for its court gatherings.
Currently the palace is partly registered at the historical monuments inventory, and it houses the Council of State, the Constitutional Council, the Ministry of Culture and older buildings of the National Library of France. It stands opposite the north wing of the Louvre and its famous forecourt (cour d’honneur), in one of the oldest areas of Paris.
Originally called the Palais-Cardinal, the palace was the personal residence of Cardinal Richelieu. Later it became a royal residence famed all around the capital as well as all of France for its court gatherings. It also used to be one of the most important marketplaces and a cultural centre of Paris.
The architect Jacques Lemercier began its design in 1629, and the construction was completed in 1639. Upon Richelieu’s death in 1642 the palace became the property of the King and gained the name it has held ever since – the Palais-Royal.
From 1649, the palace was the residence of the exiled Henrietta Maria and Henrietta Anne Stuart – wife and daughter of the deposed King Charles I of England. The two had escaped from England in the midst of the English Civil War and were sheltered by King Louis XIV.
Henrietta Anne was later married to Louis’ younger brother, Phillipe de France, thus becoming the new duchesse of Orléans. The Duchess created the ornamental gardens of the palace, which were said to be among the most beautiful in Paris. Under the new ducal couple, the Palais-Royal became the social center of the capital.
The court gatherings at the Palais-Royal were famed all around the capital as well as all of France. It was at these parties that the narrow social elite came to see and be seen. In 1692 new apartments were built and furnished. It was at this time that Philippe commissioned the gallery for his famous Orleans collection of paintings, which was easily accessible to the public. At the death of the king of France Louis XIV in 1715, his five-year-old great-grandson succeeded him. The Duke of Orléans became Regent for the young Louis XV, and set up the country’s government at the Palais-Royal. The palace housed the magnificent Orléans art collection of some 500 paintings, which was arranged for public viewing until it was sold abroad in 1791. After the Regency, the social life of the palace became much more subdued. Louis XV moved the court back to Versailles and Paris was again ignored. The same happened with the Palais-Royal
Louis Philippe II, who controlled the Palais-Royal from 1780 onward, expanded and redesigned the complex of buildings and the gardens of the palace. In 1784, the gardens and surrounding structures of the Palais-Royal opened to the public as a shopping and entertainment complex. The arcades surrounding its public gardens had 145 boutiques, cafés, salons, hair salons, bookshops, museums, and countless refreshment kiosks. The redesigned palace complex became one of the most important marketplaces in Paris. It was frequented by the aristocracy, the middle classes, and the lower orders. It had a reputation for being a site of sophisticated conversation (revolving around the salons, cafés, and bookshops), shameless debauchery (it was a favourite haunt of local prostitutes), as well as a hotbed of Freemasonic activity. The Palais-Royal also contained one of the most important public theaters in Paris, the Théâtre du Palais-Royal.
During the revolutionary period, Philippe d’Orléans employed the neoclassical architect Victor Louis to rebuild the structures around the palace gardens, and to enclose the gardens with regular colonnades lined with smart shops. Along the galleries, ladies of the night lingered and gambling casinos were lodged in second-floor quarters. There was a theatre at each end of the galleries; the larger one was the seat of the state theatre company.
The palace was the centre of Parisian political and social life and the site of the most popular cafés. The historic restaurant ‘Le Grand Vefour’ is still there.
During the Revolution of 1848, Parisian mob trashed and looted the Palais-Royal. Under the Second Empire the Palais-Royal was home to the cadet branch of the Bonaparte family.
Today the palace houses the Council of State, the Constitutional Council, and the Ministry of Culture. At the rear of the garden are the older buildings of the National Library of France, with a collection of more than 6,000,000 books, documents, maps, and prints; most of the collections have been moved to more modern settings elsewhere.