Monday, February 9, 2015
Monarch Profile: King Louis XIV of France
From the day he came into this world, Louis was upheld as being Heaven-sent. He was born to King Louis XIII of France and Queen Anne of Austria September 5, 1638. His parents had been married for 23 years and had had no luck producing an heir to the throne. When little Louis was finally born, it is not then surprising that he was immediately called “Louis the God-given”. Literally from the day he was born the future King Louis XIV was being told that he was God’s gift to the world which is certainly revealing for those amazed at the heights of arrogance he was to achieve. Yet, what may be most frustrating for his enemies and critics is that the arrogance of Louis XIV was not unjustified; he had achievements to back it up. He learned early in life and learned quickly how to play the game of power politics. In 1643 his father died and the young child became officially King Louis XIV of France with his beloved mother Queen Anne as regent and the Italian Cardinal Jules Mazarin as the power behind the throne. No doubt Cardinal Mazarin expected to occupy the same position with Louis XIV that Cardinal Richelieu had occupied under King Louis XIII. At first, that was true, in fact, Mazarin probably had even more power than his predecessor but it was not to endure.
For his part, King Louis XIV proved a remarkably capable ruler. He reformed the tax system, bringing in more revenue and putting France back on stable economic ground, improved the army and greatly streamlined the legal system, making it more uniform compared to the myriad of laws that varied from area to area that had existed before. The refurbishment he brought to the economy was necessary but probably still wasn’t enough considering how free-spending Louis was in both his domestic and foreign policies. One thing that would characterize his reign was his lavish building programs and almost constant succession of wars. He was a great patron of the arts on a fantastic scale, covering painters, musical composers and literary authors. The great works of art, music and literature as well as the magnificent buildings that emerged in the reign of Louis XIV made the Kingdom of France the center of the artistic and intellectual world. There were advances in medical science, urban beautification and design, military and civil engineering and architecture. The Kingdom of France flourished and became the envy of the world. Like its larger-than-life monarch, France was also a combination of terrible sin and great piety. A demonic fascination with the occult as well as often degenerate personal behavior spread throughout much of high society while at the same time great saints emerged spreading fervent religious devotion, founding new orders, new symbols of popular piety and doing immense works of charity.
While his foremost focus was always on Europe, King Louis XIV expanded French control or at least influence in America, Africa and Asia. French frontiersmen and missionaries made advances in Canada, Louisiana and the Mississippi basin and, after a shipwreck, the French explorer LaSalle laid claim to Texas for Louis XIV. The first significant footholds for France in India were established and the French presence in south Asia would allow for further moves into southeast Asia. French missionary activity in China was increased, breaking into what had previously been almost the exclusive domain of Portugal. The extension of diplomatic relations with Morocco increased French influence in North Africa, the renewal of the Franco-Turkish alliance with the Ottoman Sultan against Hapsburg Austria strengthened the hand of France in the eastern Mediterranean and Near East and diplomatic exchanges with the King of Siam (Thailand) ultimately resulted in the granting of a Siamese port to France though this was later revoked. Still, under King Louis XIV the reach of France was extending in western Europe as well as around the world. It was thanks to these beginnings that, despite significant setbacks to come, France would emerge as master of the second largest colonial empire on earth.
Because of this, Europe was treated to the odd spectacle of the Pope supporting zealously Protestant powers such as the Dutch against the Catholic King of France and his efforts to restore a Catholic monarchy to the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. King Louis was tied by blood, religion and royalist sentiment to the Catholic Stuarts of Great Britain. He secretly pledged to send French troops to England if the Protestants tried to depose King Charles II (a deathbed convert to Catholicism) and it was the financial support of Louis XIV that enabled Charles II to rule without Parliament for the final years of his reign. When the openly Catholic King James II came to the throne after the death of Charles, trouble seemed unavoidable. King Louis XIV and King James II were alike in many ways; lustful, pious and proud but Louis was much more willing to put political self-interest first. When King James II was overthrown in 1688 by his Protestant daughter and son-in-law (the Dutch Prince of Orange), King Louis XIV was not to deliver as much support as he promised. Still, he was about the only sovereign willing to give tangible support to the Catholic Stuarts. The result was an unsuccessful effort at a Stuart restoration in Ireland which set the stage for centuries of sectarian conflict, though, again, it was an odd sort of religious struggle which saw the Pope supporting the Protestant Prince of Orange against the Catholic King James II, and that mostly because he was so closely allied to the staunchly if not devoutly Catholic King Louis XIV of France.
This finally brought home to the Spanish the fact that their empire could only be preserved intact if the candidate of the King of France would be the next King of Spain. In other words, Louis XIV had so arranged things that Spain could either name the Duke of Anjou heir to the throne and see the French brought on side to fight to preserve the Spanish Empire or name some other candidate and see the empire divided no matter who emerged victorious. It was a masterful arrangement for King Louis XIV though it would mean that the War of Spanish Succession (or Queen Anne’s War in America) was inevitable and the struggle began in 1701 with almost the whole of Europe aligned against Louis XIV of France. The Spanish themselves, however, sided with Louis XIV. The Duke of Anjou, finally King Felipe V of Spain, seemed a capable enough fellow and the Spanish public felt more comfortable with the more Latin Gallic candidate than a German Hapsburg. So, on one side was the “Grand Alliance” consisting of Austria (HRE/Germany), Britain, Holland, Savoy, Prussia, Portugal and those Spaniards who were pro-Hapsburg all opposed to the “Party of the Two Crowns” namely the Kingdoms of France and Spain (along with support from minor powers such as the Electorates of Bavaria and Cologne and the Duchy of Mantua).
Nonetheless, King Louis XIV, through determination if nothing else, was able to preserve the Spanish Empire and efforts to see Spain divided by the Allies all came to nothing. Despite many lost battles, the persistence of Louis XIV and French forces began to take a toll on the Allies whose political unity began to crack. When the war finally ended in 1714 King Louis XIV came out of it quite well. The Spanish Empire lost some territory but the Duke of Anjou was confirmed as King Felipe V of Spain by the Allied powers so long as it was agreed that one Bourbon monarch would never rule both countries. France even gained some territory in the final agreement. Despite losing the war on the battlefield, King Louis XIV had essentially succeeded in what the whole conflict had ultimately been about which was who the next King of Spain would be. Because of his determination and shrewd political moves, Spain would have a Bourbon monarch and, as everyone knows, while the French monarchy ultimately fell victim to republicanism, it is a Bourbon monarch who still reigns over the Kingdom of Spain to this day in the person of Felipe VI. Against very long odds, King Louis XIV had managed the seemingly impossible; being victorious in a war that his armies lost. Still, it was a close call by any measure and Louis XIV was adept enough to recognize this and advised his great-grandson, who would succeed him as Louis XV, to be, “a peaceful prince”.
Looking back, the reign of King Louis XIV was a glorious success and yet, though hard to see, there were very serious cracks in the façade as well. His centralization of power and enforcement of Catholic uniformity led to internal peace and stability but it also created a bureaucratic monster that only a man as exceptional as Louis XIV could master. His successors would have a much more difficult time. Likewise, while ending the threat of aristocratic rebellion, his policies turned much of the nobility of France into listless, debauched courtiers who stopped taking care of their people and devoted themselves to court gossip, court scandal and licentious escapades. His military and foreign policy had stalled his enemies, expanded French power around the world and put a Bourbon on the throne of Spain. All of these grand achievements had also made France plenty of enemies and left the government in dire financial straits. Again, it was a situation not beyond the abilities of someone like King Louis XIV to overcome but the great-grandson who succeeded him would not inherit all of the best qualities of his predecessor. It has been said that Caesar Augustus ‘found Rome brick and left it marble’ and something similar could be said for Louis XIV. However, while the great Augustus had left behind a system which managed to carry on functioning even with the occasional Caligula at the top of it, Louis XIV had left a state that was molded to his own hands, his own unique set of talents and vices which did not endure in the hands of others.