All of Versailles was initially an immense hunting area, with the original chateau grounds being ten times larger than they are today. In the area now called the Grand Park, the royal family and the court continued this hunting tradition, both on horseback and on foot.
Around the perimeter of the park were deep ditches called “wolf plunges,” which prevented wolves from entering the area. Wolves not only competed for deer, boar, and other prey but posed a serious threat to human life. Indeed, along with brigands and highwaymen, wolves were the greatest threat to rural life in France.
Versailles's "wolf plunges" are an example of the kind of advanced technology that the King's resources could bring to bear on a problem that plagued ordinary people in their villages. Thanks to military engineering, Versailles could be a kind of fortress against nature without the high walls or armed guards that would have shattered the illusion of peace and tranquillity that the park was meant to create.
Hunting on horseback was an activity reserved to the nobility in prerevolutionary France, truly the sport of kings. Gifts of fresh game were one way in which nobles showed their generosity to those who did not share their privileges. Such gifts reminded the recipient of his lower place in the social order while demonstrating the nobility of the giver.
For the king and his retinue, the Royal Hunt was a noble pursuit. Invitations to the Royal Hunt were greatly coveted, and the King used these invitations to show favor and gain support.
Hunts were generally followed by elaborate dinners, sometimes with guest lists in the hundreds. But by end of the eighteenth century, the monarchy was a huge administrative bureaucracy, and these sorts of recreations and marks of favor were increasingly seen as archaic and inappropriately frivolous.
For Louis XVI, the Royal Hunt became a form of escape from the crises that came to overwhelm him and his government. Much has been made of the fact that on July 14, 1789, the day that the Bastille fell in Paris, the king's entry in his diary read: "Today. Nothing." He had spent the day hunting.
In her early years at Versailles, when she was still in her teens, still the dauphine, and still without children, Marie Antoinette took up the idea of hunting enthusiastically. She loved to ride and found the outdoor activity liberating. However, the sport of hunting was considered too dangerous and too masculine for a young lady.
Marie Antoinette continued to ride however, and defied both her mother and the advisors by donning breeches and riding like a man. When Maria Theresa asked her to have her portrait painted, she posed radiantly in her riding habit. Despite her disapproval, Maria Theresa had to admit that this portrait showed her daughter happy and enjoying herself. She demanded a more appropriate portrait, but hung the one of Marie Antoinette "as an Amazon" in her private quarters because it captured her spirit better than any other.