On the day before the operation, the king inspected his gardens (Figure 3), monitored the ongoing works, ate his evening meal with his family, and after another round of excruciating pain made the final decision to undergo surgery the next day. On 18 November 1686 at seven a.m., His Majesty was accompanied into «le salon de Bassans» as it was known before the reconstruction in 1701 – today it is equivalent to «le salon de l‘Oeil de Boeuf» (the Bull’s Eye salon), the antechamber of the king’s bedroom.
The parties involved were already in place. His doctor, chief physician Antoine Daquin and his successor Guy Crescent Fagon (1638 – 1718), chief surgeon Félix as well as four apothecaries had arrived at five in the morning through different doors, so as not to arouse suspicion. The king had been administered a pre-operative enema. He appeared to have his nerves under control and took a great interest in the various instruments that were to be used.
He was then placed on a bed with his face towards the window. A pillow was placed under his stomach while his thighs were spread and held up by two apothecaries. Towards the end of the operation he asked: «Is it over, gentlemen? Finish. Do not treat me like a king, I want to recover as though I were a peasant» (4).
Although this was to become the most famous surgical operation of the 17th century, it was not granted more than one sentence, admittedly running to half a page, in the king’s health records (3). Daquin, with his condescending attitude to surgeons, would most likely have preferred not to mention this episode at all. He made sure to add that a blood-letting was also performed.
That Félix, the operating surgeon himself, felt the need to write a more detailed description of this spectacular operation is more understandable. On the following day he wrote a full 18 pages. The whereabouts of this document in subsequent years is unknown, but in 2007 the papers resurfaced and were put up for auction with an asking price of EUR 4000 (7). Given the present interest in objects with a connection to royalty, the final price is likely to have been far higher.
The three-hour long operation was performed without any form of anaesthetic. Louvois, the war minister, held the patient’s hand during the entire procedure, while Mme de Maintenon stood next to the fireplace. The king is said not to have complained of any pain, but on two occasions he is reported to have exclaimed «Mon Dieu». The pain must have been excruciating, but Louis needed to keep a brave face for the sake of his own and the nation’s dignity.
And not only did the king survive – the operation must be called a success, because he was cured. Admittedly, he needed two repeat surgeries, but he was quite naturally very relieved and happy after the first major operation. At ten o’clock the news had spread through the palace and the king himself held council from his bed, «singing all day and in surprisingly good spirits» (4). He was back on his feet no more than two days later.