Spies and spying are much in the news these days. Here we let the duc de Saint-Simon, the famed diarist who chronicled the court of the Sun King in innumerable volumes, take the floor:
Not only did Louis XIV expect everyone of distinction to be continually in attendance at Court, but he was quick to notice the absence of those of lesser degree; at his lever, his coucher, his meals, in the gardens of Versailles (the only place where courtiers could follow him), he would cast his eyes left and right—nothing escaped him; he saw everybody.
If anyone at Court absented himself, he insisted on knowing the reason; those who appeared unexpectedly also had to proffer a satisfactory explanation. Anyone who seldom or never attended him was sure to incur his displeasure. If asked to bestow a favor on such persons, he would reply haughtily: "I do not know him." Of those who rarely presented themselves, he would say, "He is a man I never see"; and all these judgments were rendered without appeal.
He always took great pains to learn what was going on in public venues—in society, in private houses, even family secrets—and he maintained an immense number of spies and informants. These were of all sorts; some had no idea that their reports were brought to him, though others knew. There were others, again, who would write to him directly, through prescribed channels; and then there were others who were admitted by the backstairs, and who saw him in his private rooms. Many a man of all classes was ruined by these methods, often quite unjustly, without ever being able to discover the reason for it, for the King, once prejudiced, never altered his opinion, or so rarely that nothing could be more rare.
The most cruel means by which the King was informed of current events—which continued for many years, before anyone had any inkling of it—was by reading opened letters. The swiftness and dexterity with which they were opened defies all credulity. He saw extracts from all correspondence which the chiefs of the post office, and the minister who governed it, thought that he should read; entire letters, too, were sent to him, when their contents seemed to justify the sending.
Thus the chiefs of the post—nay, the principal clerks—were in a position to propose what they pleased and attack whom they pleased. A word of contempt against the King or the government—a joke, a detached phrase—was enough. It is incredible how many people, justly or unjustly, were ruined—always without resource, without trial, and without knowing why. The secret was impenetrable; for nothing ever cost the King less than profound silence and dissimulation.