Lop Buri is most famous these days for the monkeys which inhabit the Phra Kan shrine, located on a traffic roundabout on the way into town. But Lop Buri is in fact an ancient town with some fascinating history linking it to King Louis XIV of France.
King Narai was the king of Siam from 1656 to 1688 but rather than dwelling in the capital city Ayutthaya he preferred to spend his time in Lop Buri some 60km further north. At this time Ayutthaya was a significant centre for trade and attracted merchants from China, Persia, Portugal, Holland and England. These merchants all jostled for influence and opportunities within the court of King Narai which ultimately controlled all trade. In 1662 the first French representative arrived in Siam, Monsignor de la Motte Lambert, Bishop of Bérythe and two years later the French Bishop of Heliopolis arrived with more French missionaries. These Frenchman bought useful engineering and architectural skills with them which King Narai took notice of. But he also saw the potential to use the French to counter-balance the growing power of the Dutch in Siam.
The relationship between Siam and France flourished culminating in a series of “embassies” or diplomatic missions being exchanged. In 1685 an embassy from Louis XIV arrived in Siam carrying spectacular gifts for King Narai and his court. The embassy was headed by the Chevalier de Chaumont who carried with him a letter from Louis XIV. Chaumont presented this letter to King Narai with considerable pomp on 18th October 1685 in the royal throne hall, which still stands today. The King would have been seated in the upper window hidden from his guests by a curtain. At the appointed moment the curtain would have been drawn back to the sound of trumpets and bells.
This official audience is captured in a marvellous contemporary drawing commissioned by Chaumont himself. It shows Chaumont, with Bishop Louis Laneau in the foreground, presenting the letter from Louis XIV. The fact that the French ambassadors are in audience with the King standing up was a huge concession against protocol by the Siamese. The Siamese nobles can be seen crouching in the King’s presence on the left.
Chaumont presents the revered letter using a golden bowl on the end of a stick. This method of presentation had been the outcome of much prior debate and negotiation. But in a small and typical power play, Chaumont held the letter just out of the King’s reach, forcing Narai to reach down for it. Narai’s chief adviser Phaulkon is seen on the floor at the head of the Siamese nobles, urging Chaumont to raise the letter higher.
The French delegation stayed in Siam until the end of 1685 as guests of King Narai, entertained some times in the Phra Chao How banqueting hall which can also still be seen today. The styling of the windows in both this hall and the throne hall shows the artistic influence of the Persians who were well established in the court of Siam at this time.
Chaumont returned to Versailles in 1686 with an extravagant Siamese embassy headed by the urbane Kosa Pan, a high ranking official in King Narai’s court. The Siamese delegation were received by Louis XIV on September 1st that year with all the splendour that the court of the Sun God in Versailles was renown for. Louis seated upon a silver throne received with great ceremony a letter from King Narai written on a rolled sheet of gold carried by Kosa Pan crouching in utmost respect. Beyond this highly formal audience the intelligent and witty Kosa Pan was a huge hit in the court of Versailles and for some time all things Siamese were the fashion at court and in the salons.
But within two years from these dizzying heights all came crashing down. The French had harboured desires to convert the intellectually curious King Narai to Christianity but Chaumont failed in this mission. In 1687 many in King Narai’s court were alarmed when another much larger embassy arrived from France which included three men-of war and 600 troops. The French had secretly developed plans with the advisor Phaulkon to seize Siam by military force. When King Narai fell ill in 1688 he was deposed by forces within the court opposed to his pro-French policies. The French were ignominiously chased from Ayutthaya and expelled from Siam, abruptly closing this fascinating era of cultural exchange.
After King Narai’s death the palaces at Lop Buri were abandoned and fell in to ruin. But these ruins still give some glimpses into the life and times of King Narai.
Where To Go
- Siam and the West 1500-1700 Dirk Van Der Cruysse English Translation 2002 Silkworm Books
- Finding the Key for the Lop Buri Palace in Meeting a Higher Expectation, Jin Tian, Silpakorn University, 2004