Louis XIV (France) (1638–1715; Ruled 1643–1715)

views updated Jun 11 2018

LOUIS XIV (FRANCE) (16381715; ruled 16431715)

LOUIS XIV (FRANCE) (16381715; ruled 16431715), king of France. Hailed as le Dieudonné, 'the God-given', Louis XIV was the first child of Louis XIII (16011643) and Anne of Austria (16011661), born twenty-three years into their marriage.

THE EARLY YEARS (16381661)

Ascending the throne at the age of four, Louis XIV was educated under the tutelage of his godfather and chief minister, Jules Cardinal Mazarin (16021661), and under the day-to-day watch of his governor, Nicolas de Neufville, first marshal-duke de Villeroi (16441730). The young king received not a scholarly education in the classics, but a practical education in history, diplomacy, war, and the arts, while his preceptor Hardouin de Péréfixe guided his spiritual development under the direction of the Queen Mother Anne, imbuing in Louis a distaste for heterodoxy, and associated disorder, of any kind. His formative experiences came during the Fronde (16481653), when he was directly awakened to the potential instability lurking in the kingdom as other forces sought to share in the crown's sovereign powers and remove Mazarin from the government and the kingdom. The events of these years, and Louis's exposure to the wider social and economic problems of France during his military progresses, taught him to mistrust the ambitions of peers and of senior princes of the blood and bred an awareness in him of the need for far tighter regulation of the leading institutions of the kingdom. The declaration of the young king's majority, two days after his thirteenth birthday on 7 September 1651, produced some rallying of support for the crown. But it was not until 1654, the year of the coronation (7 June), that the government reestablished military control over France. For the rest of the 1650s Mazarin led the government, while Henri de La Tour d'Auvergne, marshal-vîcomte de Turenne (16111675), trained the king in the art of war. In these years Mazarin did not involve Louis in the details of administration but did seek to keep him informed of developments, particularly on diplomatic and strategic issues, while encouraging him to establish his chivalric leadership of the kingdom.


By the time of Mazarin's death on 9 March 1661, Louis XIV had already shown himself to be an astute military commander, a skill that he would retain all the way up to his last personal campaign in 1693. He was also regarded as an excellent horseman, a noted conversationalist with an extraordinary memory for people, and, in the cultural sphere, a good musician and one of the very best dancers at court. Furthermore, he had been married to the Infanta Marie-Thérèse of Spain since June 1660 as part of the peace settlement of the Pyrenees, and she was now one month pregnant with the future dauphin (16611711). But Louis had little experience of governing, and it was expected that Mazarin would be succeeded as minister-favorite, most probably by Michel Le Tellier (16031685). What nobody anticipated was Louis's decision to assume control of the reins of government himself and his determination to maintain a grip on affairs (albeit a fluctuating grip) for the rest of his reign. Between March and September 1661 there was a minor revolution in French government during which the person of the king assumed center stage: the inner council (conseil d'en haut) was reduced in size to include only a handful of senior ministers whose advice was given candidly and accepted with almost perennial good grace. After the fall of Nicolas Fouquet (16151680), the surintendant of finances, there was greater transparency in financial transactions, with the king reserving to himself the right to approve every financial decision of the central government, even if successive controllers general of finance continued to dominate financial business.

Louis XIV did not favor major overhauls of the system of government that would unsettle the kingdom, but he was willing to entertain considerable administrative reforms insofar as they diminished disorder, encouraged stability, and enhanced his own regal power. Indeed, it is fair to say that some very dramatic changes occurred during his reign not through any increase in state bureaucracy but through changes in regulations and financial arrangements. Using the provincial intendants as a tool for preventing abuses and malpractice by the venal officeholders, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (16191683), as senior intendant of finances from September 1661 and then controller general from 1665 until his death in 1683, managed to bring the chaotic fiscal system of taxation and borrowing to its optimum efficacy. However, when the demands of war grew in the 1690s and 1700s and net revenue as a proportion of gross revenue declined once again to the dismal levels of the 1640s, two major reforms had to be introduced that did challenge the social basis of the country, undermining the entire system of lay privileged exemption from direct taxation. In 16951698 the capitation imposed a graduated poll tax upon all French subjects from the dauphin down, and this was reintroduced permanently in 1701. And then in 1710 the dixième, a tax of one-tenth of personal income regardless of status, was brought in, lasting until 1721.


In spite of setbacks in the 1700s, the reforms of finance in an era of economic stagnation enabled the crown to sustain stronger and larger armed forces than ever before during Louis XIV's "personal rule." France had almost no navy to speak of in 1661 (ten warships and twelve frigates), but Colbert was immediately given the task of working with the grand master of navigation, the duke de Beaufort, to increase the number of vessels; and by the end of 1663 he had brought the galley fleet in the Mediterranean within his own orbit. The great leap forward in the size of the fleet and in administrative and port infrastructure came in the years 1669 to 1673, and in spite of the belief that Louis XIV lacked personal interest in the navy, he gave considerable support both to Colbert and then his son Seignelay in their efforts to create and maintain by 1689 the largest battle fleet in Europe. Only during the final years of the War of the League of Augsburg (16881697) after 1695, and during the War of the Spanish Succession (17011714) after 1705, did it prove impossible to sustain such a navy. The crown was consequently forced to rely much more on privateering at sea.

Louis took a far stronger interest in the reforms of the army. With the king's close involvement, Michel Le Tellier and particularly his son, the marquis de Louvois, gradually overhauled a highly complex system of regulations and financial structures to equip France with an army that, by 1693, stood at around 330,000 men. Their sheer attention to detail prevented on occasion what would otherwise have been a series of logistical breakdowns. That the extreme difficulties of the War of the Spanish Succession did not produce a military collapse can be attributed to the earlier structural and administrative reforms that had transformed the ramshackle forces of Louis's minority into, for all its defects, the most admired and feared army on the Continent.


The developing army and navy of France were there essentially to enhance the interests of the Bourbon dynasty internationally, and French foreign policy was very much the king's own, albeit based on advice from his inner ministers. Throughout his reign Louis XIV aimed at securing for himself the most senior status among European princes in an age when the concept of an equality of sovereign states did not exist, and when most rulers pushed claims that others found outrageous at one time or another. In the first part of the "personal rule," between 1661 and 1674, Louis pursued a foreign policy of single-minded vainglory in a determined effort to facilitate further dismemberment of the Spanish Habsburg empire and, after 1668, reduce the United Provinces of the Netherlands to humble submission. But the failure to conquer the United Provinces, the entry of Emperor Leopold I (ruled 16581705) into the Dutch War in August 1673, a difficult winter in the Rhineland, and the subsequent French retreat into the southern Netherlands seems to have been a sobering experience for Louis, who after 16731674 sought to consolidate and strengthen his hold in and around Alsace while rebuilding and constructing anew a chain of fortifications on his northern and northeastern frontiers to defend against invasion. Such apparently defensive concerns were, however, not satisfied by the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678, precipitating Louis over the following six years into highly aggressive seizures of strategically vital territory based on dubious legal titlethe réunions that antagonized German princes and drove them to seek support against France from the imperial Habsburg court in Vienna.

The growing influence of the Austrian Habsburgs within the Holy Roman Empire, both in Germany and northern Italy, in turn compelled Louis to engage from the early 1680s in heavy-handed political manipulation at smaller European courts to secure Bourbon influence and indirectly to protect the gains he had made and the status he now enjoyed as head of Europe's leading dynasty. Failing to entrench his territorial gains in the brief War of the Réunions (16831684), Louis, encouraged by Louvois, became increasingly anxious about growing Habsburg strength. In a desperate attempt to secure greater security for Alsace, in September 1688 Louis seized the key Rhine fortress of Philippsburg in the hope that this would force the empire to negotiate a definitive settlement of Rhineland territorial issues. Instead it precipitated the greatest conflict of the reign thus far. Having subsequently forced the Dutch Republic, Spain, and Great Britain also to declare war upon him between November 1688 and May 1689, Louis's insensitive attack on the interests of the duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II, a year later earned him another theater of operations he could ill afford. The pressure of the war by June 1693 forced Louis, under the influence of increasingly moderate and chastened advisors, to abandon his excessive demands and to consider returning most of the réunion territories to their owners; to negotiate with William III about his succession in Great Britain after the Glorious Revolution; and to make huge concessions to Savoy in order to neutralize Italy. Even so, over three more years of demanding and exhausting war were required, in the context of a catastrophic famine that pushed the French population down by perhaps 10 percent, before Savoy could be bought off in the Treaty of Turin (June 1696) and a general peace signed with France's other enemies at Ryswick (September and October 1697).

All this left France ill equipped to deal with the looming issue of the Spanish succession, as the ailing Charles II moved toward his death in November 1700. To try to avert war, Louis XIV and William III signed two successive partition treaties for the Spanish empire in October 1698 and March 1700, but Charles II himself wanted instead to maintain the unity of his territories, so the dying Spanish king willed them all to the one power that might be able to hold them together: France, in the person of Philippe, duke d'Anjou, second grandson of Louis XIV. A conflict with the Austrian Habsburgs was inevitable, but the decisions to seize fortresses in the Spanish Netherlands and exclude the British from the lucrative Spanish slave trade in the early spring of 1701 ensured that any war would once again include Britain and the United Provinces among the anti-French belligerents. France was pushed out of southern Germany and lost her Bavarian ally in 1704, and Philip V of Spain faced allied campaigning on the Iberian mainland from that year on. The Bourbons were expelled from northern Italy and Naples in 17061707 and from the southern Netherlands in 1708, while in 17091710 another somewhat less disastrous but still severe famine struck France. But the tide turned in 17101711 with Bourbon successes in Spain, and with changes of regime in Britain and Austria that affected the geostrategic considerations of the various powers. The War of the Spanish Succession consequently ended in 17131714 with France securing Spain itself and her overseas colonies for Philip V, while the Austrians received most of the rest of the Spanish European possessions, and Savoy was temporarily awarded Sicily.

Territorially, France emerged considerably larger and more secure from Louis XIV's reign, acquiring most notably Roussillon (1659), Franche-Comté (1674), and Alsace (1648 and 1678), as well as establishing serious colonies and trading posts in the Americas and western Africa. It is true that Louis XIV's foreign policies had brought hundreds of thousands of deaths, but this cannot be put down to a callous disregard for the fate of his own or foreign subjects. In fact, Louis was genuinely anxious to minimize casualties in warfare. But he was the most assertive and best-resourced individual in an international and cultural system that had an inbuilt tendency to resolve differences through arms, and in which its sovereign players could not afford to show too much understanding for the legitimate economic or dynastic interests of their rivals.


A similar problem afflicted domestic state management during the mid- to late-seventeenth century. The rivalries of families and the personal ambitions of individuals, articulated in social and legal terms at all levels of the propertied hierarchy, militated against an easy resolution of disputes. Colbert's determined campaign in the 1660s to emphasize that all privileges and rights stemmed from the will of the king (and could be just as easily revoked) certainly helped to encourage a sense of strong royal authority in the legal sphere. This was aided by the 1665 Grands Jours investigations into lawless nobles and bandits in the Auvergne in tandem with the Parlement of Paris, and it was carried forward after 1679 by repeated edicts against dueling and in favor of litigation before royal officials to settle disputes. But Louis XIV had come to realize full well by 1661 that the instability of France was rooted primarily in her political culture. The Fronde was not the last gasp of a feudal noble class but a struggle for political and military precedence within the upper noble elites who, in the context of a breakdown in state finances during a royal minority, had no other choice but to assert their own status claimsbacked up, if necessary, by military force.

Removing the exposed figure of a chief minister after 1661 was but a partial solution to the difficulties. Louis remained well aware that his ministers had their own private interests to further, and this was as much the case with court appointments, or military commands, as it was with architectural projects, so the active balancing of ministers and great nobility required considerable effort that this king was prepared to make. Far more likely to entrench political quiescence in the long run was a remodeling of the system of patronage and clientage and a concerted effort to break the automatic link between service and expectation of reward. Even if he still relied on other people's recommendations, by 1672 Louis insisted that virtually all military, naval, and ecclesiastical commissions come from his own person. Furthermore, by maintaining multiple channels of access to his person at court for different groups, families, and individuals, he ensured that no one faction or person (including ministers) could dominate his decisions over patronage. On top of this, he expanded the amount of largesse, both monetary and honorific, disbursed by the crown, while widening the pool of potential recipients. All this contributed to a serious dilution of the patronage power of individual grandees. With the partial exception of his own brother Orléans, for the most part the dukes, peers, and senior military officers now became patronage brokers for the crown rather than direct providers of opportunities for the lesser nobility. Always concerned for the future of the monarchy, Louis allied this policy of supervising patronage distribution with closely managing the upbringing of his offspring and descendants to an extreme extent in controlling their households. And if he made extensive military use of illegitimate princes (of his own body and those of his ancestors), he was loath to trust the erstwhile Frondeur branches of the Bourbon, the Condé and Conti, whose interests he encouraged only so far as was commensurate with the interests of the wider Bourbon dynasty. The aim in all this was to prevent another Fronde from ever happening again. Only at the very end of the reign, in 1714, when he had lost his son, two of his three grandsons (the dukes of Burgundy and Berry), and one of his great-grandsons to smallpox, did Louis XIV depart from the established dynastic rules when he wrote the bastard lines of the House of France into the succession. Although there was some sense in trying to avoid future succession wars by laying down an order of precedence in the event of the disappearance of all the legitimate Bourbon branches, this was bitterly resented by the great nobility and was overturned by the regent Philippe II, duc d'Orléans, in 1717.


The royal urge to preserve and impose order in the political field was also manifested in the arena of high culture. The growing presence of royal patronage in the arts and sciences after 1661 is better attributed to Colbert than the king himself, with the most notable advances being the foundation of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belle-Lettres in 1663 and the reform of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture the same year, followed by the foundation of the Academy of Sciences in 1666, and three years later that of the Royal Academy of Music. Moreover, between 1667 and 1672 Colbert oversaw the building of the Paris Observatory. Yet, if Colbert was the driving instrument who encouraged intellectuals and artists to view the crown as the foremost patron, it was Louis who set the tone and the taste and was the leading collector of objets d'art of his age. The king also took a very close interest in architectural projects, in particular the transformation of Versailles after 1669 from a relatively small hunting retreat to the largest palace complex in Europe by the mid-1680s. By and large Louis favored the classical over the baroque, in sculpture, architecture, and garden design, and in spite of the growing vogue for portraits of all manner of people, the king himself set great store by religious art.


Louis XIV's preference for religious art was hardly surprising, for he was a devout Catholic, in spite of his several mistresses (most notably Louise de La Vallière [16441710] and Françoise, marquise de Montespan [16411707]) and the numerous bastards he fathered before 1680. Louis was sincere about protecting his subjects' souls and throughout his reign encouraged charitable giving. In 16931694, at the height of the famine, Pontchartrain, the controller general of finance, was ordered to organize grain imports from abroad and facilitate food transport within the country on a scale never previously attempted by France. But Louis was not just a charitable Christian prince. He was also instinctively hostile to anything that smacked of the heterodox, in particular Jansenism, which, under strong Jesuit influence, he equated with rebellion. By the early 1680s the king's increasingly devout attitude to personal morality and worship, encouraged by his second wife, Françoise d'Aubigné, marquise de Maintenon (16351719), whom he married in 1683, had become allied to his fear of religious disorder as manifested by Jansenism and the Huguenots. This combination of attitudes flowed together with a desire to live up to his title of "Eldest Son of the Church" at a time when Emperor Leopold I was pushing the Turks back in the Balkans and when relations between France and the papacy were in tatters over the régale dispute (when Louis extended the royal right to gather the revenues of vacant episcopal sees to areas of the kingdom that had previously been immune). Despite attempts by Colbert and Louvois to restrain persecution of Protestants by some intendants, Louis became increasingly convinced that forced conversions were effectual, an approach that culminated in the Edict of Fontainebleau in September 1685, which revoked all rights for Huguenots. Even when it became clear to ministers and generals by 1689 that this revocation had created a potentially dangerous fifth column inside France (which erupted in the vicious revolt of the Camisards in 17021705), the king's religious conscience would not allow him to restore Huguenot rights. Thus far, Louis XIV's religious policies were coherently Catholic and Gallican, zealous in defense of the temporal independence of the French church from Rome. But the repair of relations with the papacy in the 1690s, plus the resurfacing of the Jansenist controversy after 1703, pushed him into accepting ultramontane, pro-papal positions held by the Sorbonne. Eventually he solicited and accepted the 1713 papal bull Unigenitus, which condemned Jansenism but simultaneously mounted a full-scale attack on Gallican liberties, a move that did immense long-term damage to the Bourbon monarchy's image as the defender of France and French interests.

If order could be consciously pursued through state policies, Louis XIV was nevertheless also the beneficiary of changing attitudes to social and political life in the mid-seventeenth century, and in particular a growing distaste for personal violence. The need to display honnête behavior was not merely restricted to domestic social situations, but applied equally to public social behavior. The need for restraint, politeness, and self-discipline in deportment as well as language was emerging as the cornerstone of an ethical order to which one simply had to subscribe if one wished to remain a sociable being. What is more, the disorderly and chaotic Fronde, erupting just as such ideals were entering French cultural life, had the effect of reinforcing enthusiasm for obedience and decorum in both the social and the political fields. Louis XIV personally encouraged stronger discipline and self-control at court, in his armies and fleets, and in the church, so that such nostrums percolated through noble society and contributed to growing domestic stability in this period.


Throughout his reign, Louis XIV had placed the Bourbon dynasty, the Catholic faith, and the royal court at the center of his existence, and he had been highly mindful of the interests and outlooks of his propertied subjects. Nevertheless, compromise and cooperation had its limits, and it would be a misleading oversimplification to see this as a monarchy engaged in the revivification of feudalism in conjunction with a landed noble "class." In the first instance, the French nobility was in no sense a coherent class, andsociety as a whole was pervaded bymyriadcorporate andfamilial loyalties andinterests. Moreover, for all the king's skill in trying to harmonize his own interests with those of his propertied subjects, Louis's reign was marked with a highly authoritarian stamp that pressed the imposition of firmer discipline in the armed forces, the curtailment of judicial independence and privileges, and a demand for religious conformity and subordination that aroused hostility across Europe. On his death, on 1 September 1715, Louis XIV left a kingdom in an unprecedented state of domestic tranquillity that was to last throughout the regency for his five-year-old great-grandson, Louis XV; this can in large part be attributed to firm royal control of the military, more sophisticated poor relief strategies, and a general ethos of political obedience. But the destabilization of the credit markets wrought by the previous thirty years of unprecedented military mobilization, the unresolved issue of tax privileges, the example of baroque kingship that Louis XIV brought to its apogee as a model for rule, and the legacy of Jansenism were to bedevil his successors' governments for the rest of the eighteenth century.

See also Bourbon Dynasty (France) ; Camisard Revolt ; Colbert, Jean-Baptiste ; France ; Fronde ; Gallicanism ; Habsburg Dynasty ; Jansenism ; League of Augsburg, War of the ; Louvois, François-Michel Le Tellier, marquis de ; Mazarin, Jules ; Poisons, Affair of the ; Spanish Succession, War of the ; Versailles .


Black, Jeremy. From Louis XIV to Napoleon: The Fate of a Great Power. London, 1999. Chapter 2 gives a clear and accurate survey of French foreign policy in this period.

Bluche, François. Louis XIV. Oxford, 1990. Translated by Mark Greengrass. A highly conservative biographical interpretation by a French scholar.

Sturdy, David J. Louis XIV. New York, 1998. A clear, thematic survey of the reign and of the problems faced by the king.

Wolf, John B. Louis XIV. New York, 1968. The best biography in any language.

Guy Rowlands

Louis XIV

views updated May 21 2018

Louis XIV

Louis XIV (1638-1715) was king of France from 1643 to 1715. He brought the French monarchy to its peak of absolute power and made France the dominant power in Europe. His reign is also associated with the greatest age of French culture and art.

After the chaos of the Wars of Religion, the French monarchy had been reestablished by Louis XIV's grandfather, Henry IV. Successive rulers and ministers (Henry himself, Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu, and Cardinal Mazarin) had done all in their power to make the king absolute ruler within France and to make France, instead of the Hapsburg coalition of Spain and the empire, the dominant power in Europe. By the time Louis assumed personal control, the groundwork for final success had been laid. It was Louis who brought the work to completion, enforcing his will over France and Europe to an unprecedented extent and establishing the administrative machinery that made France a modern state.

Louis was born at Saint-Germain on Sept. 5, 1638, the son of Louis XIII and his wife, Anne of Austria. His birth was greeted with immense national rejoicing, and he was hailed as le Dieudonné, "the God-given." On May 16, 1643, his father died, and Louis became king. As he was only 4, the country was governed by his mother as regent; this meant, in effect, by Cardinal Mazarin, with whom Anne was in love. The successive rebellions known as the Fronde failed to dislodge Mazarin, although they left the boy king with a lifelong horror of rebellion and a resentment of Paris, where the uprising had started. Mazarin remained in power for the rest of his life, and only when he died, on March 9, 1661, did Louis astonish the court by announcing that hence-forward he would direct his government himself. He meant what he said. The government remained under Louis's personal control for the next 54 years.

His Character

Unlike his father, Louis enjoyed excellent health almost all his life. His appetites for food, hunting, and sex were enormous, and he had a passion, unusual in those days, for fresh air and walking. Though not tall, he was extremely impressive in appearance due to his great dignity and royal presence, particularly as he grew older and left his youthful exuberance behind. While he frequently displayed gross and even brutal selfishness, he was courteous, considerate, and good-natured, and he showed great loyalty to his friends and his servants. His concept of his royal position was undoubtedly arrogant, but he was always conscious of his duty as king and sincerely believed that he was devoting himself to the wellbeing of his subjects. He detested inefficiency, corruption, and the abuse of privilege and stamped them out wherever he encountered them. However, his own passion for personal glory led him to drag France into a series of wars, ultimately at appalling cost to his people. On his deathbed he confessed to having loved war too much, but there are no signs that he really understood what his passion had cost his country.

Louis began with a team of excellent ministers inherited from Mazarin, but only now put to full and proper use. The most important were Michel Le Tellier, in charge of military affairs (assisted, and ultimately succeeded, by his son the Marquis de Louvois), and Jean Baptiste Colbert, whose immense sphere included the navy, the royal household, religion, cultural activities, colonies, and the whole direction of the economy. Nicolas Fouquet, who as superintendent of finances had been Mazarin's most important lieutenant, was regarded by Louis as dangerous. He was charged with peculation, found guilty, and imprisoned; Louis intervened to change his sentence from banishment to imprisonment for life. This uncharacteristic act of injustice reveals Louis's fear of another Fronde.

There was no first minister. Louis had resolved to allow no minister primacy after Mazarin, and in fact he preferred to keep his ministers divided into mutually hostile groups. He himself supported his ministers without reservation if he thought them right and never yielded to pressure to get rid of them; but he never allowed them to become presumptuous. Always suspicious of any subject who might grow too powerful, he would not allow any great nobles, even his own brother, onto the council.

Military Activities

For the next 11 years Louis's primary commitment was the restoration of the French economy to health and vigor after the neglect of Mazarin's time. In 1672, however, exasperated at his failure to destroy the economic supremacy of the Dutch, he invaded their country, assisted by England whose king, Charles II, was on his payroll. Instead of the easy triumph he had expected, he found himself faced by dogged Dutch resistance, resolutely led by William of Orange and supported by a growing number of allies. The war lasted for 6 years and ended with Dutch economic ascendancy as strong as ever. France had acquired Franche-Comté from Spain and useful gains in the Spanish Netherlands, but at the cost of permanently abandoning the economic and fiscal progress made by Colbert down to 1672. For the rest of the reign the economic progress of France was first halted and then reversed.

Louis then pursued a policy of deliberate, though limited, aggression, bullying his neighbors and encroaching on their territory. This aroused increasing fear and resentment in Europe, and Louis was finally confronted by a coalition which plunged him into the War of the League of Augsburg. This war, which lasted from 1689 till 1697, left France in possession of Strasbourg, which Louis had seized in 1681, but exhausted and in no shape to meet the still greater war that was about to break out.

This was the War of the Spanish Succession. The last Spanish Hapsburg, Charles II, was certain to die without children and would leave a vast inheritance. To avoid conflict, the two claimants to the inheritance, Louis and the Emperor, had already reached an agreement to divide this inheritance between them. Just before his death, however, Charles offered to make Louis's grandson Philip his sole heir, with the stipulation that if Louis refused, the inheritance was to pass undivided to the Emperor's younger son. Louis considered that this offer made his previous agreement invalid and against the advice of his council accepted it. This inevitably meant war with Austria, but it was owing to Louis's greed and tactlessness that Britain and Holland were brought in as well. Once again France found itself facing an immense coalition, and this time it had only begun to recover from the last war.

This final war lasted from 1701 to 1714 and did France incalculable damage. Thanks to the courage and determination of Louis and his people, the fighting did not end in disaster. Philip retained the Spanish throne, and the only losses of territory France suffered were overseas. But the country had suffered years of appalling hardship; the population was sharply reduced by famine; industry and commerce were at a standstill; and the peasantry was crushed by an unprecedented load of taxation. The King's death the next year was greeted with a relief almost as great as the joy that had welcomed his birth.

Domestic Policy

Louis's religion was a rather unintelligent and bigoted Catholicism. At the same time he regarded himself as God's deputy in France and would allow no challenge to his authority, from the Pope or anyone else. As a result, he was involved in a series of unedifying quarrels with successive popes, which dragged on for years of futile stalemate and gave rise to the probably baseless suspicion that he might be contemplating a break with the Church on the lines of Henry VIII.

To reassure Catholic opinion as to his orthodoxy, Louis kept up a steady pressure against the Protestants in France. Finally, in 1685, he revoked the Edict of Nantes (by which Protestants had been granted toleration in 1598), forbade the practice of the Calvinist religion in France (he was less concerned about Lutherans), expelled all Calvinist pastors, and forbade lay Protestants, under savage penalties, to emigrate. There was great indignation abroad, even in Catholic circles, but in the intolerant atmosphere then prevailing in Catholic France, Louis's action was very popular.

At intervals throughout his reign Louis mounted a campaign against the Jansenists, a rigorist sect within the Catholic Church. He became so bitter toward them that he ended by reversing his antipapal policy in the hope of enlisting the Pope's support. This was forthcoming, and the Jansenists were condemned by the bull Unigenitus in 1713; but this interference outraged French national feeling, and the Jansenist cause gained considerably in popularity as a result.

Neither the government of France by a group of overlapping councils nor the administration of the provinces by intendants (royal agents equipped with full powers in every field) originated with Louis, but he took over these systems, making them more comprehensive and efficient, and extending the system of intendants for the first time to the whole of France. Government became much more efficient in his day, but much of this efficiency was lost after his death. It also became more bureaucratic, and this change was permanent. Increasingly, the affairs of provincial France came to be decided by the council, and local initiative was discouraged. Remembering the Fronde, Louis no doubt believed that anything was better than the semianarchy of the old days; but it can be argued that he carried the spirit of regimentation a good deal too far. Governmental overcentralization is a source of endless friction in France to this day. Louis neither initiated this centralization nor carried it to its final completion, but he certainly accelerated it.

The basic factor in the Fronde had been noble anarchy, and Louis was determined to keep the nobility in line. All through his reign he did his best to undercut the independent position of the nobles and turn them, particularly the richer and more powerful of them, into courtiers. In this he was largely successful. Versailles, which became the seat of government in 1682 (although the palace was still far from completion), became the magnet to which the nobility were attracted. No nobleman could hope for appointment to any important position without paying assiduous court at Versailles. The cult of monarchy, which Louis deliberately strengthened to the utmost of his ability, made them in any case flock to Versailles of their own free will; exclusion from the charmed circle of the court came to be regarded as social death. Louis has been criticized by some historians for turning the French nobility into gilded parasites, but it may be doubted, as the Fronde demonstrated, whether they were fit to play any more constructive role. Although he preferred to select his generals, his bishops, and (contrary to legend) his ministers from the nobility, Louis did not make the mistake of his successors and exclude the Third Estate from all the best positions. He made some of his appointments from the bourgeoisie.

Culture and Art

The reign of Louis XIV is often equated with the great age of French culture. In fact, this age began under Richelieu and was clearly over some years before Louis died. Nor did he do very much to help it. In the 1660s he indulged in some patronage of writers, but his benevolence was capriciously bestowed, frequently on secondrate men, and it dried up almost entirely when economic conditions worsened after 1672. Nevertheless, Jean Racine and Molière were substantially helped by Louis, and it was largely thanks to the king that Molière's plays were performed in spite of conservative opposition. The King's enthusiasm for building (Versailles, Marly, Trianon, and others), while costing the country more than it could afford, certainly furnished artists and architects with valuable commissions, and the King's love of musical spectacles offered a golden opportunity for composers. The flowering of painting, architecture, music, and landscape gardening in France at this time must be largely credited to Louis.

Personal Life

Louis was married to Maria Theresa, daughter of Philip IV of Spain, as part of the settlement by which Mazarin ended the Spanish war. He married her reluctantly (he was in love with Mazarin's own niece at the time) and made no pretense of being faithful to her; but he was fond of her after his fashion, and at her death observed, "This is the first sorrow she has ever caused me. " Overcharged with sexual energy practically all his life, he had a number of mistresses, whose jealousy of each other was a principal topic of court gossip. By the two bestknown, Louise de La Vallière and Athénaïs de Montespan, he had a number of illegitimate children, of whom he was very fond; his fatherly attempts to secure for them, after his death, a position above their station caused a good deal of trouble. His attention was finally caught by Françoise Scarron, who had become the governess of these children; he made her Marquise de Maintenon and settled down in domestic respectability with her. In later life he became very puritanical, and Madame de Maintenon has sometimes been blamed for this, but it seems likely that the change was inherent in Louis's own nature.

Louis did not allow the pursuit of pleasure to interfere with his professional duties; all his life he worked indefatigably at the business of government. He also fancied himself, without justification, as a soldier and derived much pleasure from conducting lengthy sieges of towns that were bound to surrender in any case and giving his generals unsought and unwelcome advice as to how to conduct their campaigns.

The King's last years were darkened not only by the successive disasters of the war and the desperate condition of his people but by a series of personal tragedies. In quick succession his son, the two grandsons still with him, and one of his two infant great-grandsons died. With them died his grandson's wife, the young Duchess of Burgundy, whom Louis adored. Only his other greatgrandson survived, to succeed him at the age of 5 as Louis XV. When Louis died, France had long been sick of him, and his funeral procession was insulted in the streets.

History can see him in a fairer perspective. He was not "Louis the Great, " as he was sycophantically hailed in his lifetime; he was a man of average intelligence and human failings who committed many blunders and several crimes. Nevertheless, he did his duty as he saw it, with a quite exceptional conscientiousness and devotion. He saw himself as responsible to God for the well-being of his people, and though his interpretation of this responsibility was often strange, it was always sincere. More than any other man except Richelieu, he was the architect of the French national state. The greatness which France achieved in his lifetime was largely his doing.

Further Reading

There is no definitive biography of Louis. John B. Wolf, Louis XIV (1968), is in general satisfactory for Louis himself but leaves gaps in its coverage of the reign. A valuable recent work, with emphasis on France rather than on Louis and with an immensely useful picture of the economic and social situation in his reign, is Pierre Goubert, Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen, translated by Anne Carter (1970). W. H. Lewis, Louis XIV: An Informal Portrait (1959), does not purport to give the whole picture but brings Louis to life as a man and is written in a delightful style. For background reading on the period, Lewis's The Splendid Century (1953) presents a series of fascinating insights into the France of Louis XIV, as well as filling out the picture of Louis himself. A more complete presentation of the entire period is in Geoffrey Treasure, Seventeenth-century France (1966). □

Louis XIV

views updated May 23 2018

Louis XIV


King of France

A Five-Year-Old King.

Born the only child of King Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, Louis succeeded to the throne when he was only five years old. He spent his early years, then, in a long period of regency in which his mother and Cardinal Mazarin wielded power in France. The experience of the Fronde, a series of rebellions staged by members of the Parlement of Paris and French nobles that occurred between 1648 and 1653, left a lasting impression on the king. At one point in these disturbances Louis and his mother had to flee the capital, an insult that the king never forgot and that continued to color his relationships with many members of the nobility years later. In 1661, Louis finally assumed his royal powers, and shortly thereafter, his confidante and chief minister Cardinal Mazarin died. As a result, the king took his royal duties more seriously. The key features of his policies as they developed in the following years aimed to focus all political authority in France firmly in the hands of the king and his ministers, to assault the lingering power of the nobility and local assemblies throughout France, and to accrue glory for the state through wars waged against other powers in Europe. The legacy of Louis XIV's reign thus established royal authority on a firmer footing than it had been previously, even as it bred financial and administrative corruption and other problems that lingered long after Louis' death.

Art and Architecture.

The visual arts and building were also key to the king's plans to enlarge royal power. Over the course of Louis' reign the arts played a central role in the monarch's efforts at self-promotion, even as his lavish commissions and expenditures on art, jewelry, and buildings became increasingly symptomatic of the king's tendency toward indulgence. In the prosperous years of the 1660s and 1670s, Louis managed to satisfy both his tastes for lavish consumption and display and his appetite for foreign wars. As the seventeenth century drew to a close, however, the increasing military burdens that Louis' international intrigues placed on France required the king to curb his expenditures on art and building. The lion's share of Louis' great architectural achievements thus date from the first half of his reign, the period of France's greatest prosperity. During these years royal bureaucracy defined and executed Louis' commissions. A series of ministers, including Jean-Baptiste Colbert and later the architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart, held the position of Superintendent of Fortifications, Art, and Royal Manufactories, the chief post entrusted with supervising all aspects of the king's commissions of furniture, tapestries, buildings, and forts. Two other positions, the King's First Artist and the King's First Architect, were entrusted with defining a suitable style for the monarch's consumption, while within the royal household a number of other posts oversaw entertainment and supervised the running of Louis' various palaces. Beyond these institutions concentrated in the monarch's household, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and the Royal Academy of Architecture defined the training of artists as well as the theory of art and architecture that prevailed during the king's long reign. These heavily encrusted layers of bureaucracy and royal administration make it difficult to discern the precise contours of Louis XIV's own artistic and architectural tastes. His mother and Cardinal Mazarin, formative influences on the young monarch, were sophisticated admirers of art, but the king sometimes confided in his ministers later in life that the press of royal duties had prevented him from becoming a true connoisseur. The styles favored in the court in the commissioning of buildings and the visual arts demonstrated an undeniable propensity for projects that were sumptuous and served the monarch's grand pretensions.

Major Architectural Projects.

The early period of Louis' reign saw most of the king's efforts as a builder concentrated in the city of Paris. Chief among the projects undertaken at the time was the completion of the remodeling of the Palace of the Louvre, a project that had preoccupied many French kings since the early sixteenth century. Francis I, a great connoisseur of art and architecture, had originally desired to transform this defensive fortress that lay outside Paris' walls into a stylish palace, and the work on this transformation had continued for much of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. In the reign of Louis XIII much had been done to bring a sense of order to the tangled web of confused wings that Francis, Catherine de' Medici, and Henri IV had built at the site, and the project of constructing the huge palace continued during the early years of Louis XIV's reign. The culmination of this work consisted in the commissioning of the East Wing, the structure's most important façade, since it faced toward the city of Paris. While Louis XIV's ministers originally imported the accomplished Italian architect Bernini to guide the project, they eventually decided to follow a native design apparently set down by Claude Perrault and Louis Le Vau, figures later key in the establishment of the Royal Academy of Architecture. The style chosen for the work, a severe but monumental classicism, defined French public buildings over the course of the century that followed.


The most imposing project that the king undertook continually throughout his reign was the construction of the new royal palace at Versailles. As at the Louvre, Louis followed the time-honored principle among French kings of adding on to an existing structure—in this case, a hunting lodge his father had built at this site about twelve miles southwest of Paris. During the 1660s Louis began to concentrate more of his architectural attentions at this palace, an area that was always unsuitable for the construction of a grand country estate due to the marshy land and lack of a secure source of water. To solve the latter problem, Louis' architects designed a complex set of machinery to pump water from the Seine, which lay miles away, to feed Versailles' gardens and palace. In the 1660s the designer Le Nôtre began to expand the gardens to meet Louis' demands for a place suitable for staging royal spectacles, while the royal architect, Louis Le Vau, greatly expanded the small hunting lodge beginning in 1668. Le Vau added three new wings to surround the original building, although the character of Versaille's original hunting lodge—constructed from brick, stucco, and stone—was carefully preserved at the center. The expansion of the gardens continued throughout the late seventeenth century, and one of the key elements there was the construction of the Grand Canal, an enormous reservoir, the perimeter of which is more than four miles long. Here mock sea battles and entertainments were sometimes staged. Beginning in 1678, another round of additions greatly expanded the palace to provide sufficient housing for royal ministers and government officials. In 1682, Louis transferred his government to the site, making Versailles his official residence, a role it served for the monarchy almost continually until the French Revolution. In embracing this site outside Paris Louis aimed to exercise greater control over his fractious nobility. To entice noble courtiers to take up residence at his splendid new court, he awarded freedom from bankruptcy prosecution to those who lived at Versailles, sparking a building boom in the small town. Such plans, though, enticed only about 3,000 of France's 200,000 nobles to live there. Still, all roads to the government—to the awarding of contracts and key positions in the government—more and more led to the palace. Nobles who desired preferment from the crown increasingly had to journey to Versailles. The system of etiquette and protocol that developed in this highly artificial court also played a key role in taming the once rebellious French nobility.

Influence of Versailles.

Although it was just one of many royal residences that Louis maintained during his long reign, Versailles became a potent symbol of absolute monarchy in the seventeenth century. Kings and princes throughout Europe often tried to imitate the palace's elaborate courtly etiquette and imposing grandeur. Comfort was of little importance in the grand palaces that became increasingly common in Europe during the Baroque period, and Versailles was perhaps one of the most forbidding and draughty of the many architectural creations of the age. Its scale, too, meant that the royal family and courtiers who took up residence there spent a great deal of their lives in a palace that was continually under construction. But while hardly approaching modern standards of comfort, the château still manages to astound its visitors with the grand pretensions of its builder.


Robert W. Berger, Versailles: The Château of Louis XIV (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985).

Guy Walton, Louis XIV's Versaille (Harmondsworth, Enlgand: Penguin, 1986).

Andrew Zega, The Palaces of the Sun King (New York: Rizzoli International, 2002).

Louis XIV

views updated Jun 08 2018

Louis XIV (1638–1715) King of France (1643–1715). Cardinal Mazarin dominated the early part of his reign. From 1661, Louis ruled as the epitome of absolute monarchy and became known as the ‘Sun King’ for the luxury of his court. As ministers, he chose men of low rank or the junior nobility, such as the able Colbert. Louis' wars of aggrandisement in the Low Countries and elsewhere drained the treasury. His revocation of the Edict of Nantes drove Huguenots abroad, weakening the economy. In the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), a European coalition decisively defeated the French armies.

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