When Louis XIV came to the throne as a five-year-old boy (actually four years, eight months) on 14 May 1643, the Thirty Years’ War was still in progress, and Cardinal Richelieu, the French éminent grise, had died the preceding year. The situation did not look good for France, but the young boy became one of the world’s great monarchs and the embodiment of the divine-right, absolute monarch (“L’état, c’est moi”). Louis (5 September 1638-1 September 1715) ruled France for seventy-two years, one of the longest reigns in recorded history, and dominated European cultural and political affairs.

The roi du soleil (sun king) was the son of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, born at the royal chateau in Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1638. Since his parents had been married for twenty-two years without a child, they called him “Louis the God-Given.” When his father died, the regency fell to the hands of the intensely-disliked queen and Cardinal Jules Mazarin.

Mazarin (Giulio Mazarini, 1602-1661) played a role similar to that of Cardinal Richelieu, who had been the chief advisor (sometimes called l’eminent grise) to King Louis XIII. Mazarin, a Sicilian by birth, had studied in Spain and then in Rome before embarking on a career as a captain of an infantry regiment and then later as a diplomat for the pope. While serving in France, he came to the attention of Richelieu and, around 1638, accepted the cardinal’s offer to work for France. As regent, although careless about state finances-especially at his profit-and antagonistic towards the nobles, Mazarin did steer France through the torturous problems of war, civil war, the negotiations at Westphalia and internal chaos.

The first major challenge for Mazarin was La Fronde (1648-1653), a confused revolt that included many different groups.

  • Nobles
  • Parisian bourgeoisie
  • The Parlement of Paris

There were a variety of complaints, such as the noble’s suspicions of the growing power of the king and the Parisian mob’s unrest because of famine, but the key unifying ground of all the discontents was hatred for Mazarin as a foreign intriguer. The Fronde left a deep impression on young Louis, who had to flee Paris on a number of occasions for his safety–In 1651, rebels even entered the king’s bedroom; Mazarin had to flee France twice. Louis felt humiliated by the nobles and threatened by Parisians, and he never forgot it.

In order to ratify the peace treaty ending the war that had begun in 1635 between France and Spain, in 1660 Louis XIV married Marie Thérèse of Austria, daughter of the King of Spain-despite his love for Mazarin’s niece, Marie Mancini. When Mazarin, his godfather and prime minister, died on 9 March 1661, the 23-year-old king seized the moment and announced that he himself would govern-something that had not happened since the reign of Henry IV. He obtained support from key ministers, such as Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), the Marquis de Louvois (1639-91), Hugues de Lionne (1611-1671) and Michel Le Tellier (1603-85)–all expert administrators who had been groomed by Mazarin.

Louis was dignified and imposing with charming manners, but he was also hard working, patient and self-disciplined with an iron physical constitution. He maintained a strict routine of official business, every day. Short of height, he was of modest intelligence (not much helped by his upbringing undertaken largely by his servants) and lacking of a sense of humor. Possessed of a colossal pride, he loved grandeur, glory, military reviews and petty details (uniforms, equipment, drill).

Louis was the epitome of the absolute monarch and embodied the idea of divine right monarchy. As God’s representative on earth, he felt that he was due respect and that his word was law; he was responsible to God alone. As an absolute monarch, Louis XIV wielded unlimited authority with all decisions made by him; however, it was not despotism nor arbitrary power, as kings still had to justify their actions to churchmen, entrepreneurs and nobles.

Having taken the reigns of government, Louis now had to contend with the nobility, church, bureaucracy and the rest of Europe to achieve his idea of France.

The chief opposition to the central monarchy was the French, feudal nobility. The king continued the process of destroying the nobility as a class by increasing the use of commoners to run the state and by establishing Versailles as a seventeenth-century “Disneyland” to keep the nobility occupied with non-political amusements after the court moved there in 6 May 1682.

To solidify support from the church, Louis acted in a highly favorable manner. In 1685, the L’Edit de Fountainbleau revoked the Edict of Nantes, and Huguenots, forbidden to practice, left France in droves. On one hand, this created religious unity within France and secured the friendship of the church, but, on the other hand, it aroused the implacable hatred of Protestant states and deprived France of some of its most industrious citizens.

To create a more responsive and effective bureaucracy, Louis instituted new administrative methods to strengthen his control.

  • Weekly ministerial conferences
  • Continuity in the top four ministries (finance, army, navy, public works), only sixteen ministers in fifty-four years of his personal reign
  • Ministers chosen by ability not birth
  • Intendants continued to rule the 36 generalités (provinces)–but they never served where they were born
  • Financial reform of taxes

Colbert, as controller general, worked to improve the French economy through a policy called mercantilism–state intervention to create a self-sustaining economy. Colbert used an aggressive tariff policy to manipulate the import of raw materials and the export of manufactured goods to improve the balance of payments. He also fostered domestic trade and industry by improving communications (roads and canals), eliminating internal tolls, expanding the navy, increasing colonial trade through the East India Company and by subsidizing certain industries (tapestries and furniture).

The economic gains wrought by Colbert and the administrative improvements allowed Louis to pursue an activist foreign policy. Over the course of his long reign, the Sun King essentially confronted all of Europe at one time or another over his ambitions to secure the “natural” boundaries (Alps, Pyrenees, Rhine, Atlantic Ocean) of France. At his disposal, Louis had the largest and best standing army of the day (increased from a peacetime force of 20,000 to a wartime machine of 400,000 professionally-organized men).

The War of Devolution (1667-68) was an attempt to gain the Spanish Netherlands (Belgium). Louis had married Marie Thérèse, the daughter of King Philip IV of Spain, and when her brother died, Louis claimed that his wife should inherit the Netherlands, based on the custom of “Devolution” (Property passes to the children of a first marriage in precedence of later marriages). After a brilliant military campaign, Louis had to retreat in the face of English and Dutch pressure–He never forgave the Dutch-and in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1668), Louis did get part of Belgium, including Charleroi, Tournai and Lille.

The Dutch War, 1672-78, resulted from Louis’ irritation with Dutch commercial power, the perceived Dutch treachery in the War of Devolution and Dutch Protestantism. The long war ended with the Treaties of Nijmegen (1678) in which Spain gave France the Franche Comté (the area to the northeast of Switzerland), and France kept the province of Lorraine.

Louis XIV was at his peak. He had defeated a formidable coalition (Spain and the Holy Roman emperor had joined the Dutch against him) and dictated terms to the enemy. He had extended the frontier of France in the north and in the east. His fleet now equaled those of England and Holland.

Meanwhile, great changes had taken place in his private affairs. In 1680 the Marquise de Montespan, who had replaced Mme de La Vallière as Louis’s mistress in 1667, was implicated in the Affair of the Poisons, a scandal in which a number of prominent people were accused of sorcery and murder. Fearful for his reputation, the King dismissed Mme de Montespan and imposed piety on his entourage. Although the king openly renounced pleasure, he still found solace in the arms of his newest favorite, the pious Mme de Maintenon, widow of the satirist Paul Scarron and former governess of the king’s illegitimate children. In 1682 the court moved to Versailles. The following year, the Queen died, and the Louis secretly married Mme de Maintenon, to whom he remained devoted for the rest of his life.

The War of the League of Augsberg (1688-97) resulted from the formation in 1686 of the League of Augsberg by Emperor Leopold (Holy Roman Empire) with Spain, Sweden and some German princes to resist further French expansion. When in September 1688, Louis invaded the Palatinate on a trumped up claim and occupied Cologne, the English, Dutch and the League united in a grand alliance to resist the French in a war lasting almost nine years. In the Treaty of Ryswick (1697), Louis gave up all lands, including the Palatinate, that he had seized, except Strasbourg, with Lorraine restored to its duke.

This set the stage for the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14). When Charles II, the last Habsburg king of Spain and Louis’ brother-in-law, died in 1700, the nearest male heir was Leopold of Austria, who wanted the Spanish throne for his son the Archduke Charles. Having foreseen the forthcoming conflict over succession to the Spanish throne, European diplomats had earlier worked out an agreement for Prince Joseph of Bavaria, a grandnephew of Leopold, to inherit the throne, but Prince Joseph died in 1699 before Charles II. French diplomats then persuaded Charles II to name a French heir, and a month before his death, Charles II did so, agreeing to leave his undivided lands intact to Philip of Anjou (Philip V), the grandson of Louis XIV. After brief hesitation, Louis accepted on Philip’s behalf even though he knew the decision meant war (Louis did not have many options with both England and the Holy Roman Empire already hostile to France.).

A new grand alliance of England, Holland, Savoy, Brandenburg-Prussia, Hannover, the Palatinate, Portugal and the Holy Roman Empire united against France. Although the French army fought bravely, the tide began to turn at Blenheim (13 August 1704) on the Danube River, the first major French defeat in decades. By 1709, France had come perilously close to losing all the advantages gained over the preceding century, but a French victory at the Battle of Denain combined with the Tories coming to power in England led to the end the war. According to the far-reaching treaties of Utrecht, Rastatt, and Baden (1713-14), Philip became king of Spain on the condition that the French and Spanish crowns never unite. France retained its conquests in Flanders and on the Rhine.

The wars had cost France an enormous sum in both financial and human terms. There was bankruptcy, depression, heavy taxation and dissatisfaction. Moreover, a series of deaths in the royal family deprived the king of his son (the Grand Dauphin), two of his grandsons (the Ducs de Bourgogne and Berry), his great grandson (the Duc de Bretagne) and the Duchesse de Bourgogne.

When Louis XIV died in 1715, at the age of seventy-seven, there was great rejoicing in France that he was finally gone. His heir, Louis’ great-grandson, was a five-year-old child not expected to live long. Louis had wanted to leave actual power in the hands of the Duc du Maine, his son by Mme de Montespan and had drawn up a will to that effect, but the Parlement of Paris nullified the will after his death, thus setting in motion the course of events that led to the revolution of 1789.

Under Louis XIV, France, had, at a heavy price, become a modern state with an effective armed forces, able bureaucracy and a practical theory of politics. France had added territory and supplanted Spain as the most powerful continental power. In addition, Louis encouraged an extraordinary blossoming of French culture that ensured French cultural predominance for centuries.

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