The Political Background

When Louis XIV took control of his country’s government in 1661 there was a good chance he might not last long. Kingship in the seven­teenth century was a dangerous occupation. For evidence he had only to look at his own family. Louis’ grandfather IV Henry IV had been assas­sinated by a mad monk in 1610. Henry’s predecessor and cousin had met a similar fate. Across the channel in England Louis’ uncle, Charles I had been beheaded as a climax to a revolt by his not so loyal sub­jects.

Even without the threat of violent death, kingship in France was difficult. The country covered a wide area geographically, and had a large, culturally diverse population. Politically it was a mixture of prov­inces and towns. Some of these had been ruled by the French Crown for only a short time. For five to six hundred years the French kings had been trying to extend their control over the whole of the country. But progress towards this goal was slow. The farther a person traveled from Paris the weaker was the power of- the central authority. In some of the remote mountainous areas, the king’s power was almost non-ex­istent. Unity had been strained also by conflicts such as the wars of reli­gion which ravaged French society in the sixteenth century.

In the years before Louis became king, the challenge to royal power had come from four groups. Each one was anxious to protect its privi­leges and increase them if possible at the expense of royal authority. The provincial governments were a source of opposition, especially the provinces of Brittany, Burgundy and Provence. In some of these areas Louis was not even officially king. He was merely the Duke of Burgundy and the Count of Provence. These provinces still maintained their regional governments, called Estates-General. The Estates-Gen­eral held the right to set their own taxes and appoint their own tax col­lectors. Within the provinces there were towns and cities whose officials were just as determined to protect their rights. Then, in some provinces there were law courts or parlements composed of wealthy lawyers who asserted their right to approve royal proposals for legislation before they became law. The parlement of Paris which claimed to have juris­diction over half the country was the most influential of these. And last­ly, there was the challenge posed by the upper levels of the second es­tate. Nobles, dukes and counts insisted that they were the king’s natural advisers. Therefore they should be represented in his government coun­cils.

The nobility had been particularly troublesome in the first half of the seventeenth century. Their opposition to the royal government cli­maxed in 1648 in an uprising called the Fronde. At this time Louis XIV was a young boy of about ten with no responsibility in running the gov­ernment. His mother, Queen Anne, was regent. She was assisted by Cardinal Mazarin who was the equivalent of a prime minister. The no­bles and parlements hated Mazarin and wanted him removed from office. In addition there was a great deal of discontent with the way taxes were being collected. Too large a proportion was ending up in the pockets of the tax collectors instead of in the royal treasury.

At the high point of the revolt the Queen, Mazarin and the young Louis were forced to flee Paris for safety. For a while it looked as if the institution of monarchy might he abolished. That very thing happened in England with the execution of Charles I in 1649. But the Frondeurs, as the rebels were called, were unable to agree among themselves on the form of government that they wanted. Rival hands of troops roamed the countryside, destroying crops and property as they went. The various factions quarreled among themselves and switched sides, and the revolt collapsed in 1653. The royal family cautiously returned to Paris and Cardinal Mazarin resumed control of the government. He remained in power until his death in 1661.

In contrast to other European states, France had some cause for comfort. A conflict known as the Thirty Years’ War had ravaged Eu­rope from 1618 to 1648. It had left the German states in a shambles economically and politically. In Fact there was no such place as Ger­many, although there was a German language and a cultural unity among the people in the three hundred tiny states that occupied that part of Europe. Nor was there an Italy. As yet the Italian peninsula was still divided into city-states, like Venice or Milan, along with some small bits and pieces that belonged to Austria or Spain or the Pope. And the tiny Dutch republic was more interested in expanding her eco­nomic power than in extending her borders.

France had emerged from the Thirty Years’ War with her boundaries enlarged. She had gained some territory from Spain along the Pyrenees and had taken Alsace in the north. The peace between France and Spain was marked by Louis’ marriage to the Spanish princess, Marie Therese, in 1660. In addition France had the strongest army in Europe, the best generals and the best diplomatic service. The question in 1661 was whether Louis XIV could maintain his advantages and solve France’s many internal problems. The answer was somewhat in doubt.

The Upbringing and Personality of the King

Louis XIV was twenty-two when he came to power. He had been king since the age of four, although his mother and Cardinal Mazarin had been in charge of the government for most of that time. When the Car­dinal died, Louis decided to take complete control of the country’s affairs. No doubt the people of the court looked at him with renewed interest and speculated as to the kind of king he might he. Louis was courteous and charming especially to the ladies. He knew how to be­have and look like a majestic king. He seemed intelligent enough. At the same time, there was nothing about Louis XIV which made his courtiers think that he was an exceptional person or that he would make a great monarch.

Under the guidance of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis had received a thor­ough education for the time. His studies included foreign languages, drawing, music and riding the skills and knowledge that a young no­ble should know. When he entered his teens Louis went to the royal council meetings with the Cardinal so that he could learn firsthand about the workings of government. Apparently he was not too inter­ested in what went on there. He would slip off to a nearby waiting room to play the guitar and talk about the latest dances with his servant.

Louis’ most effective education did not come from his formal studies, but from his early experiences. As a young child during the Fronde, he was surrounded by violence and uncertainty. Likely, the memories of fleeing from Paris, of sleeping on straw between torn sheets, and going hungry made a strong impression on the young boy. Even after the civil war ended, there was always scheming behind the scenes at court. Much of this was the work of the aristocrats who wished to share Louis’ power. From all this intrigue Louis learned not to trust anyone, especially the nobility, to say very little and never to commit himself. The final product of all these experiences and impressions was a young man who knew how to hide his true feelings, who watched and waited before acting. “I’ll see” was his standard response to a problem.

Most important, Louis knew what kind of king he wanted to be. He was to be an absolute monarch, firmly in control of all aspects of French society. In this goal he was echoing the ideas of kingship com­mon in die seventeenth century. A king, was “the very image of God,” entrusted by God to rule his people and accountable only to God for his actions. This was the theory of Divine Right, which could be sup­ported by numerous references to the Bible and also by the teachings of Roman law. The Romans had devised a system of law and government that gave the emperor or king absolute authority to make new laws for his people.

As for Louis’ subjects, their duty was to obey without question the king’s orders. If they rebelled for any reason, they could expect prompt punishment. God, alone had the right to punish an evil monarch, even if He took a long time to do it. The Divine Right theory did not give a king complete leeway to do as he liked. He was obliged to rule his peo­ple well. The king had to determine what policies were most in the pub­lic interest and to make sensible, reasonable laws accordingly. Nor could he ignore the customary laws of the people. This was a heavy role to assume, but Louis did not fear it. Kingship was a glorious occupa­tion which Louis enjoyed thoroughly. Moreover, he worked hard at it for sixteen to eighteen hours a day. He was so punctual in his attention to business that it was possible to predict exactly what he was doing merely by looking at the clock.

One of Louis’ first concerns was to make royal power felt all over the country. The parlements, the nobility, the towns, the church and even the lower classes had to be brought firmly to heel.

The Early Years

The country soon felt the effects of the king’s rule. One change he made pleased everyone. No person was appointed to the position of prime minister when Cardinal Mazarin died. Louis recalled the hatred people felt towards Mazarin. Besides, Louis was determined never to share power with anyone else. At the same time Louis purged the royal coun­cil. Everyone was fired except for three men whom he knew he could trust. No nobleman, not even his brother, was allowed to share in the making and carrying out of government decisions. The nobility gener­ally were given high-paying jobs in the king’s household, and obliged to stay at court at all times. Even those who had positions as governors of provinces had their terms of office cut to three years and were not per­mitted to live in their provinces. Louis remembered only too well the disorder of the Fronde and the disobedience of the aristocracy. He did not intend to let this kind of disorder happen again.

The parlements, too, were trimmed of their powers. By 1673, they were ordered to register Louis’ laws without question. If they disagreed with the laws for some reason, the parlement of Paris had a week, and the provincial parlements six weeks, to make their complaints known. The king would consider their objections and give a yes or no answer, nothing more. The provincial Estates-General were bullied into sub­mission. Louis insisted that they pay their taxes first and present com­plaints afterwards. The amounts he demanded rose constantly. No one had the nerve to protest. The king began to nominate members to the Estates and to dictate the times when they met. To reinforce his lessons in obedience, Louis used punishment when necessary. When the Es­tates of Brittany failed to put down a revolt in 1675, Louis exiled them. As for the rebellious peasants, they too felt the effects of the king’s displeasure. In 1662 special forces were organized to deal with roving hands of beggars and those who refused to pay the taille. Louis had no sympathy even in this year of mortality. He said, “Such harsh­ness is the greatest kindness I could give my people.”

Towns found their liberties whittled away little by little. No more ex­emptions were given for billeting troops or for quartering the army in wintertime. Towns no longer had the right to have walls around them, walls that could keep out royal officials. In some cases Louis canceled the historic town charters and offered them back at the price of increased taxes. Royal officials also became representatives on town councils which further decreased the powers of local governments. The king began to appoint municipal magistrates. Eventually in some cities the formal election of mayors no longer took place. The position of mayor was bought and sold like a piece of property. In Paris, a lieuten­ant-general for police was appointed and he created a police force to help him with any potential disorder. Rebellious cities in the provinces were kept in line by royal troops.

The desire to control reached to religious matters. With the approval of the pope, Loins dispersed the Jansenist group near Port Royal, a vil­lage outside Paris. The Jansenists were Catholics, but some of their be­liefs were close to those of the Calvinists. As a result they had earned the disapproval of the Jesuits and other sections of the Catholic church. Louis disapproved of them too. He did so, not so much because they were preaching wrong ideas, for Louis was not interested in the line points of theology, but because he did not like disunity. The Company of the Holy Sacrament was also ordered to disband in 1665. There were far too many powerful families in it, families who had been anti-royal during the Fronde. The General Assembly of the church was told to obey the king. Persecution of the Huguenots began, although at this point Louis did not attack them openly. From 1669, every freedom not specifically guaranteed in 1598 by the Edict of Nantes was forbidden. This meant that new churches built after 1598 were to be destroyed. No more than twelve people could be present at a Huguenot wedding. The Protestant community had to respect the Catholic feast days. This kind of treatment was a foreshadowing of much worse to come. Some began leaving the country quietly while it was still possible to do so.


Despite his commitment to work and attention to detail, Louis realized that he could not do everything himself. Competent advisers were an absolute necessity. The men whom Louis trusted were a small handful drawn mainly from the noblesse de robe. They were all hardworking like himself, intelligent and absolutely loyal to the monarchy.

Of’ these officials, the intendants were among the most important. There were thirty of them for the whole country. The intendant was charged with maintaining law and order. This meant that he had to keep a watchful eye on anyone who might disobey royal authority. The suppression of riots or rebellions was also his duty. He had the right to preside over any court and try cases himself, if he felt it necessary. Such a role meant that more and more judicial power was being taken away from the local seigneur. In the area of finance, the intendant became re­sponsible for collecting the taille. He directed the levy to make sure that everyone paid their fair share and checked the lists of collectors. Inten­dants even intervened in town governments. Their positions were not permanent and they could be recalled at any time. They could also be moved all over the country. If he did a good job, the intendant was re­warded with a good salary and prestige for himself and his family. Thus these men were loyal to the king and spread his power throughout the provinces.

At the higher levels were people whom Louis had inherited from Car­dinal Mazarin, such as Jean-Baptiste Colbert. This man, whose ances­tors had been in the textile trade in the city of Rheims, was a perfect complement to Louis. Whatever the king wanted, Colbert struggled to provide. Known as “Monsieur du Nord” because of his cold, rational personality, Colbert loved work, especially paperwork. He could, and did, sit in his office for up to eighteen hours a day, from five-thirty in the morning, reading, writing memoranda, making plans, supervising officials and reorganizing finances. From 1664 to 1682 he did the work of six ministers. There was hardly an area where he did not have some influence, whether it was justice, law, buildings, customs, ports, work­shops or the state of the harvests. He was a first-class accountant. He even managed to impress the king with the need to keep an account of his spending, which Louis did for a while. For his efforts Colbert was generously rewarded. In the king’s service he had many opportunities for making himself rich. Such behavior was not unusual at the time, and people saw nothing wrong with it.

Colbert accepted the main economic theory of the day, which was mercantilism, though it did not receive that unite until much later. The goal of mercantilist policy was to make a nation self sufficient and pow­erful. This was done by amassing a store of wealth greater than that of any other state. It was assumed that there was only a fixed amount of wealth in the world in the form of gold and silver. Mercantilist theory called for a great deal of government intervention, and under Colbert the government played a direct and active part in the French economy.

It was necessary to build up the productivity of the French economy. In this way the people would not he dependent on foreign sources, and exports could be increased to gain more revenue. New industries were created and existing ones given support. The production of luxury goods was especially encouraged since these could command higher prices. High standards of craftsmanship were established so that all might admire French handiwork. Thus prosperity of the country and the glory of the monarchy went together. Craftsmen from other Euro­pean countries were encouraged to Conte to France and devote their skills to the growth of French industry. This is what happened in the case of the Van Robais brothers whose story is given here.’

The Van Robais were a family of Dutch origin. They were invited in 1665 to establish at Abbeville a new manufactory of fine cloth, of a texture made earlier in Holland, Spain and England. The busi­ness was a large one. Before the end of the seventeenth century, the Van Robais employed some fifteen hundred workers. About half of them were women and girls who spun yarn in their spare time from domestic chores.

Most of the work was done under the putting-out system or “do­mestic system,” which had been common in clothmaking in medie­val Europe and which had developed extensively in England dur­ing the early “industrial revolution” from 1540 to 1640. Under this system weaving as well as spinning was carried on in rooms or cel­lars scattered all through the town of Abbeville and in cottages along the rutty roads and towpaths leading into it. Fathers, mothers, and children worked side by side. Scouring and shearing alone were concentrated in buildings erected by the new businessmen.

At Abbeville in 1690 there were, in addition, two other central buildings, both small. One was a brewery; in the other the soap needed for scouring the wool and the cloth was manufactured.

Excellent designs and good products were copied from abroad. To pro­tect the new industries, tariffs were placed on goods coining into the country.

Colbert also enacted policies to improve standards of workmanship. Inspectors were sent around to see that the rules were enforced. He tried to change attitudes towards business and industry. A recommen­dation was made that ambitious industrialists be ennobled by the king. Attempts were made to make people work harder and more efficiently by cutting the number of saints’ days during which no work was done. Religious services were encouraged to inspire workers, as were royal visits from time to time. The transportation system was improved. The Canal du Midi joining the Mediterranean Sea with the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic was Colbert’s pride even though it was expensive to build. Colbert even attempted to equalize the tax structure by reduc­ing, the amount of Taille paid by the peasants. But this measure did not help the peasants very much since the seigneurs increased their de­mands.

Some of Colbert’s plans were never carried out. He would have done away with monasteries, because he thought that they were useless and non-productive institutions. He would have reformed the legal system which made so many lawyers rich at the public’s expense. And he would have ended the practice of buying and selling government jobs. However the king did not approve of these goals arid there was too much resistance from the rest of society.

The king’s minister turned his attention to the colony of New France. He felt that the English and Dutch were prosperous because of their colonies. For a few years, until 1672, the St. Lawrence settlement received all the money, craftsmen and government support Colbert could spare. Colbert also began a merchant navy to carry French pro­ducts to outside markets.

All this frantic reform was accomplished within the first ten years of Louis’ rule. Louis’ reputation as a good king became known abroad, even as far as China. To a great extent he succeeded because he had the support of the French people who were tired of war and appreciated the firm control of the king. Moreover, the economic situation im­proved. Harvests were good and people were able to make a living. Such goals did not satisfy Louis completely. Internal changes were all very well. But a king had to look like a king. For this he would have to achieve a glorious reputation on the battlefield. In seventeenth century terms, success in war was what made a king great. But to fight war Louis had to have good reasons. To this end he justified his aggression by claiming that he was fighting to gain for France her “natural frontiers.” This meant that France had to have the Pyrenees Mountains, the Alps and the Rhine River as boundaries.


At first Colbert went along with the king’s desire for war. Despite Col­bert’s efforts at economic reform, the Dutch remained foremost in trade and commerce. Their navy still ruled the oceans and their goods still undersold the French. If the Dutch were subdued, then France could become the leading nation. In a memo to the king, Colbert suggested that ‘if all the united provinces of the Netherlands were to become subject to the king, then their trade being the trade of His Majesty’s subjects would leave nothing more to be desired.” Beating the Dutch in a war did not appear to be very difficult. The Netherlands was a small country compared to France. Its army was quite inferior to the French forces. A few quick campaigns and it should be all over.

Louis did not even bother to make a formal declaration of war. In 1672 the king and his army marched over the bolder and besieged and captured four cities. He ignored his general’s advice to take Amster­dam. Then the Dutch opened their dikes and the nature of the war changed almost completely. Their navy defeated the French. And un­der the leadership of the young prince William of Orange, they began to rally other European powers to their side. They even reorganized their army and marched into France. Louis’ dreams of a quick and glo­rious campaign disappeared. The war dragged on until 1678. Neither Colbert nor Louis were able to achieve their goals. The Dutch had not been humbled. Their fleet was as strong as ever and they had found a new leader, William of Orange, whose dislike of Louis made him that king’s strongest enemy.

The Dutch war began a whole series of troubles that marred the suc­ceeding years of Louis’ reign. In pursuit of his military goals, Louis alarmed the rest of Europe. They began to wonder if he would stop at the “natural frontiers.” Small countries worried lest they be gobbled up by France. Larger nations were afraid that some of their territories might be stripped away. Thus Louis ended by uniting Europe against him. Financial reforms came to an end. Colbert round himself forced into had decisions. He raised taxes and levied new ones. He started sell­ing tax exemptions, and even offices. Discontent grew among the peo­ple, especially in the south and west of the kingdom. Riots and then re­bellions broke out. In Brittany a whole army had to he raised to deal with the rebels. Peace was only restored in 1675 after several thousand were hanged.

The financial demands of war put all of Colbert’s other undertakings into danger. The Canal du Midi and the Van Robais textile works man­aged to survive, as did his arsenals, foundries and road-building schemes. But there were no more funds available for supporting and encouraging industry. Nor was there anything, available for Canada after 1672. In June of 1673 Colbert admitted this to Governor Fronte­nac: “His Majesty can give no assistance to Canada this year on ac­count of the great and prodigious expense to which he has been put for the maintenance of more than 200,000 Men and a hundred ships.”

Versailles and the World of Art

Louis saw himself as a great soldier king. And a great soldier king had to have a setting grand enough for his talents and achievements. The palace at Versailles was built to provide this setting. Nothing was spared to make it the most lavish royal court on the continent. Louis had already adopted as his symbol the sun, the brightest body in the heavens. The whole fantastic palace was keyed to this symbol. The site at Versailles which was twenty-three kilometers from Paris was swampy and unhealthy. But Louis was determined to control nature as much as he intended to reorder France.

The expenditure on the palace was enormous. Louis indulged every whim. Its costs were high in human terms as well. Thirty thousand workmen were required to build it. The workers used to construct a ca­nal that was to bring water to the royal fountains died by the thousands of marsh fever. Carts moved the dead at night from hospitals so that the other workmen would not be frightened.

Some statistics give an idea of the magnificence of the palace. There were 10,000 rooms, 1,200 orange trees in containers, 10,000 servants plus the servants of the nobles who lived there. The palace was overflowing with all kinds of beautiful things. These included sculp­tures imported from Italy and trees and flowers from every part of France. The Hall of Mirrors was one of the high points and an illustra­tion of the king’s disregard of expense. In those times it took thousands of man hours to produce a mirror measuring three square metres and the walls of the Hall of Mirrors were lined with seventeen of them. The Hall was created to properly reflect the Sun King’s glory. In the gar­dens lines of perfectly pruned trees and beautifully trimmed bushes were symmetrically arranged to converge on the palace. Everywhere on the grounds were statues of Louis in one role or another. Their pres­ence served to remind viewers of his greatness.

Besides the magnificent gardens, there was a zoo, a Grand Canal and other smaller palaces built in the area. The additional buildings were necessary for sanitary reasons! After the king and his court lived at Versailles for a few days, the halls were filled with garbage and other filth. There were almost no bathrooms. The residents had to leave to get a change of air.

In 1682 Louis decided to move into Versailles although it was not quite finished. Here he conducted his government. He also kept an eye on the nobles of the country. They were to be the supporting cast for his great drama. In this role they had to spend quantities of money on such items as dress and entertainment. This was a style of living that bankrupted and impoverished many. There were some who chose to live on their estates. But anyone who was ambitious had to stay near the king if he wanted to get ahead. “I don’t know him” was Louis’ re­sponse to any request to help a gentleman who did not attend court regularly. Court routine was like an extremely complicated dance with the Sun King at its centre. When he awoke in the morning, there was a formal ceremony (Levee) at which princes and dukes handed him his un­derwear, shoes and other clothes. Even to be present and watch was a great honour. There was a similar ceremony when he went to bed at night. Throughout the day, at meals or when he went out, Louis’ life was marked by equally public rituals.

To entertain the court, Louis gathered around him the great artists, musicians and writers of his time. Great names in French drama and art were sponsored by the king. There were dramas by Jean Racine, and comedies by Moliere, who poked fun at religious hypocrites, doc­tors and their useless medicines, and other pretenders in society. There were concerts arranged by Jean Baptiste Lully, the king’s favourite mu­sician. The purpose of art, like war, was to glorify the monarchy and enhance the prestige of the French nation.

All Europe was impressed by Versailles to Louis’ great satisfaction. Throughout the continent dukes and princesses and kings attempted to copy this magnificent creation and the kind of life that went on there.

The Huguenot Persecution

Louis’ policy of persecuting the Huguenots gained momentum as the years of his reign progressed. This was not a policy with which Colbert agreed. He realized that many Protestants, like the Van Robais broth­ers, were among the most enterprising and progressive leaders in the business and industrial community. But by 1680, Colbert no longer had the influence with the king that he once had had. Also, as Louis grew older he seemed to become more religious, outwardly at any rate, and he may have thought that religious unity would he a fitting accomplish­ment at the height of his reign. In any case, a policy of religious toler­ance was not in effect anywhere else in Europe.

The pressure to change to the Catholic religion was sometimes sweet­ened with bribes such as exemption from taxation. Harsher measures were used as well, such as the dragonnades. It was customary to quarter troops (dragoons) in people’s homes for there were no army barracks or camps to hold them. The prospects of the dragonnade were terrifying. Seventeenth century soldiers were an ill-disciplined, rough hunch who did not hesitate to destroy their host’s property and molest his family. Many chose conversion over the dragonnade.

By 1685 Louis persuaded himself that there were no more Protes­tants in the kingdom. Thus he revoked the Edict of Nantes that had guaranteed freedom of worship. Protestants were not allowed to have their own churches or services or pastors and their children were made to attend Mass. Any remaining Protestants were forbidden to meet to­gether or to leave the country. Many left anyway. Two hundred thou­sand people, perhaps a fifth of the total Protestant population, sought refuge in Holland, England, Germany and as far away as Russia. They were mostly merchants, craftsmen, soldiers, intellectuals–people whose abilities were needed in their homeland. Instead their skills enriched French enemies in the rest of Europe.

Most of Catholic France supported Louis’ actions. A few were brave enough to speak out against it, such as Le Camus, a priest, and Sebas­tien Vauban, one of France’s best generals. Vauban thought that the whole operation was a useless one. He said, “Kings are indeed masters of their subjects’ lives and goods, but never of their opinions, for men’s inmost feelings are beyond their power and God alone can direct them as he wills.” His comment was borne out by the actions of those Protestants who remained and continued to practice their religion in secret.

Within a short time many resumed then worship openly, even in Paris right under the eye of the royal government. Some rebelled openly in 1703 in southern France. The government was unable to quell the up­rising. In the end it was forced to pardon the rebels.

Louis XIV: A Summary

On September 1, 1715, Louis XIV died. He had been a reigning mon­arch for fifty-four years, longer than the average lifetime of most of his subjects. How are we to judge this man whose exploits dominated the European scene for so long? Early in his reign Louis had written, “Be­fore all things, before life itself, I placed firmly in my heart a lofty reputation.” Did he in fact achieve a lofty reputation? The answer to this question depends on who is asked to decide–Louis himself, the French people or succeeding generations.

To Louis, a great name meant being a warrior king, a Catholic who served his religion, and an absolute ruler. The last goal he achieved as well as he could in an age when poor transportation and communica­tion systems hindered effective government. The government was cen­tralized in Paris to a greater degree than ever before, even though rebel­lions challenged that authority. As for his exploits in war, Louis did extend France’s borders as he had set out to do. But in his last years even he himself wondered whether it had been worth the effort. “I have loved war too much,” he wrote to his great-grandson. As for his policy of religious unification, he seemed to think that he had been successful.

What of the French people? Did they have a good opinion of their monarch? If only the first ten or twelve years of Louis’ reign are consid­ered, the answer to that question would be an unqualified Yes. But by 1715, his reputation both at home and abroad was at a very low point. The persecution of the Huguenots and the wars which drained the country’s economy were a stain on his reputation. “All France is but a great poor house without provisions,” wrote the Archbishop Fenelon about the economic condition of France at the end of Louis’ reign. The nobility had become a useless class. They resented their powerlessness even as they accepted the high-sounding titles and generous allowances that the king gave them. They disliked too the “vile bourgeoisie” (the upper levels of the third estate) who helped Louis establish his absolute system of government. When Louis died all France breathed a sigh of relief. His funeral coach was booed as it rumbled through the streets of Paris.

And then there is the judgment of those who came after. France was the largest, strongest country in Europe. Her language, literature and arts were admired and imitated throughout Europe. But it seems that Louis missed opportunities to build an empire which would have brought great glory to his reputation. French explorers were ranging throughout the North American continent, laying claim to an empire which might well have included the whole continent. Yet they were not encouraged. To Louis XIV the centre of attention was Europe. It was European dominance which he wanted. In fact, the Treaty of Utrecht which ended his last war, gave to England the territories of Newfoundland and Acadia. This, as it turned out, was merely the first stage in an almost complete withdrawal of France from the North American scene. Increasingly, it was England who took the leadership in the race for empire. Louis’ internal policies were seen as one of the long-range causes of a political revolution in 1789. This revolution would sweep away kings and many features of the culture that he had made re­nowned.

There was, however, the one monument to Louis XIV which out­shone Versailles or his military exploits in Europe. This was the colony of New France whose survival in the seventeenth century at least was assured by Louis’ support and direction.

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