Monday, February 9, 2015

Monarch Profile: King Louis XIV of France

King Louis XIV of France, despite reigning more than 370 years ago, remains an iconic figure. For most he was the quintessential absolute monarch, everyone remembering his famous quote, “The State? I AM the State!” His words were certainly accurate, whether one likes it or not. King Louis XIV was ambitious, extravagant, glamorous, immoral and powerful just as the Kingdom of France was under his rule. He was grandeur personified and yet, beyond that, it is hard to generalize him. He was supremely arrogant and yet would receive the poorest of his subjects in audience. He was a flagrant adulterer and often at odds with the Church yet was always a staunchly loyal Catholic even if not a devout one. He was not always successful in his undertakings and yet he never seemed to be out of his depth. Nothing seemed to be beyond him and during his rule France was the envy of the world. Certainly other monarchs were likely to be jealous of his position, his rule was absolute, his word was law and he seemed immune from any internal opposition or bickering. Of course, appearances can be misleading in that regard. He seemed to have a natural talent for exercising and holding on to power.

The good and bad points of King Louis XIV can be debated but what certainly stands above all doubt is that he was a colossus in world history. He gave his name to an era and was known by various names alluding to his powerful and grandiose status such as “Louis the Great” or “the Grand Monarch” but perhaps none were so illustrative or accurate as “the Sun King”. The name reveals quite fittingly the pomposity of King Louis XIV and yet, to the frustration of his enemies, it was also almost eerily accurate. Like the sun, he seemed an eternal fixture in the firmament; he was King of France for an astounding 72 years. He was certainly as radiant as the sun, nothing standing out more than the lavish, monumental and breath-taking palace of Versailles (which was even laid out in such a way that his daily routine would follow the course of the sun). Like the sun, he could give vital warmth but could also burn and devastate. Finally, like the sun in the sky, Louis XIV was the monarch that all others revolved around. Almost everything that happened in all the world around him happened because of some action he initiated or was a response to him. Few national leaders in the history of the world have achieved a status similar to Louis XIV. He was, as I have often said, a monarch who was hard to like but hard not to admire at the same time.

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.

The French nobility immediately rose in revolt against the centralizing policies of the Cardinal but Mazarin was successful in suppressing them. The Thirty Years War was ended on terms quite beneficial to France with the Hapsburgs ceding Alsace along with other concessions and the lesser German states followed the shift in the wind and began to align with France rather than Austria. A second revolt by the nobility achieved even less than the first and after the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661 the 23-year old Louis XIV became sole master of his kingdom in fact as well as name. He would have no chief minister but would rule as well as reign himself and the policy of centralization of power under the monarch would continue. Under King Louis XIV the nobility of France would become, effectively, courtiers while his appointees saw that his edicts were put into effect throughout the kingdom. It is almost unfortunate that it tended to work so well because it gave many people a false impression about the efficacy of centralized power. It worked because King Louis XIV was such a remarkable man, strong enough and shrewd enough to carry it off rather than because it was wise policy on its own. Other monarchs who lacked the qualities of Louis XIV, good and bad alike, would not be so successful with it.

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.

There was also plenty of conflict to capture the attention of Louis XIV and one of his first adversaries was the Dutch Republic, at the time certainly no military weakling but which was also troubled by the division between the republicans and the royalists of the Orange party. War with France was prompted in part by the marriage of King Louis to Infanta Maria Theresa, daughter of King Felipe IV of Spain. A war between France and Spain quickly came to include the Dutch and many other powers allied against France as King Louis XIV pursued the long-established French dream of expansion to the Rhine. French troops were able to overrun Belgium without undue difficulty and were aided for a time by England under King Charles II (a cousin of King Louis) in return for French financial support. Yet, they were not steadfast allies (the Protestant ruling class being very opposed to any alliance with France) and as more countries joined in opposition to France, the war had to be ended with King Louis giving back the Dutch territory he had conquered. Still, he certainly came out ahead with France gaining territory and a position to gain more which was of even greater strategic value.

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.

In Europe itself, French foreign policy often intersected with religious struggles. At home, King Louis XIV worked to strengthen royal authority over the Church and gave support to the suppressed Catholics of Great Britain and Ireland. He also began to crack down on Protestantism in France, ultimately taking the step of revoking the Edict of Nantes which had granted religious freedom to Protestants. King Louis wanted unity and stability at home and no more religious wars. For the King, to be a loyal Frenchman was to be a Catholic. However, while French clerics praised the King for this, he received no support from the Pope who objected to using coercion against the Protestants. Even most Catholics have since agreed that the suppression of Protestantism was wrong as many simply fled the country or became religious skeptics rather than embrace Catholicism. However, the Catholic Church remained something of a problem for King Louis XIV as well as a major support within France itself. Local bishops upheld the “Divine Right” of the King and royal absolutism but the Pope was constantly at odds with King Louis because of his efforts to make the Church in France subordinate to royal control. The Pope also opposed Louis XIV for political reasons. To maintain papal political power over Rome and central Italy, the popes had a long history of playing off the French and Germans against each other. As French power was on the rise, the Pope shifted to supporting the Austrians, just as others had supported the French when the Holy Roman (German) Emperor became more powerful.

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.

As adamantly Catholic as King Louis was, his private life was nothing short of scandalous. His wife was Queen Maria Theresa of Spain by whom he had six children, though only one of which survived to adulthood. Although he seemed to have a genuine sort of affection for his queen, Louis XIV soon took on a very long succession of mistresses by whom he had a small horde of illegitimate children, all of which he tried to do right by. His court chaplain, Bishop Bossuet, renowned as a Biblical scholar and the greatest orator since Cicero, was just as often chiding the “Sun King” for his irregular private life as he was defending and extolling the absolute power of kings (that is “absolute” and not “arbitrary” as Bossuet was careful to explain). Some of his mistresses had official recognition and many came to be quite well-known in the pages of history such as Catherine Charlotte de Gramont, the wife of Prince Louis I of Monaco, the famous Madame de Montespan who bore him seven children and was accused of sorcery and probably the most famous of all, Madame de Maintenon whom the King ended up privately marrying toward the end of his life. Louis XIV seemed to go through a regular routine of taking up with a mistress, being scolded by Churchmen like Bossuet, expelling them from court but finally, usually after growing tired of that particular mistress, breaking off the relationship, reconciling with the Church and staying on the ‘straight and narrow’ until some other pretty thing caught his eye and the process began again. It was a constant struggle for him but despite his weakness for the ladies and his efforts to assert royal control over the Church, the idea of following the example of King Henry VIII and breaking with Rome would have been unthinkable to Louis XIV as it would have undermined one of the primary foundations of his authority and would have been a repudiation of the faith of his ancestors which is something he was not prepared to do no matter how exasperated he became with the political opposition of the Pope or the disapproving lectures from his chaplains.

Back on the world stage, the death of the Elector Palatine Charles II caused turmoil as Louis XIV struggled to ensure that France continued to have prevailing influence in the Rhineland. This was not so remarkable but given how successful the “Sun King” had been in the past, the other monarchs of Europe were rather nervous about how powerful France was becoming. So, in response, the Holy Roman (German/Austrian) Emperor, Elector of Bavaria, Elector of Saxony, the King of Sweden and the King of Spain all joined together to oppose Louis XIV in the League of Augsburg. With the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 in England the Prince of Orange joined in as well and the War of the Grand Alliance began. There were setbacks for France such as the aforementioned defeat in Ireland of King James II, the Dutch seizure of the main French outpost in India but, on the whole, it was King Louis XIV who won victory after victory, many of which were thanks to his chief commander the Duke of Luxembourg. In the north, Mons and Namur fell, in the south, Savoy was conquered and by 1694, when the opportunity presented itself, French forces invaded Spain and captured Barcelona. The Allies were pressed to the limit and finally the Duke of Savoy agreed to defect to Louis XIV with the Treaty of Turin, after which the dominos fell quickly as one country after another abandoned the Grand Alliance to seek better terms from the King of France. King Louis XIV had succeeded brilliantly at the age old tactic of “divide and conquer”.

One war was over but another was already taking shape and Louis XIV shrewdly kept his demands for peace moderate, particularly in regards to the Spanish. King Carlos II of Spain was tragically handicapped (the horrifying result of generations of inbreeding) and was not expected to live long, though he did live longer than anyone would have thought possible. Everyone knew that when the childless Carlos II died there would be trouble over the succession and King Louis XIV was planning ahead so as to help further the cause of his grandson, the Duke of Anjou, who he hoped to make the next King of Spain. Naturally, the Austrians expected another Hapsburg to be King of Spain while the British and Dutch were worried about either possibility; if a Bourbon or a Hapsburg became King of Spain it would in any case mean that one of the two most powerful Catholic dynasties would become more powerful still. There was nothing Louis XIV could do about Austria but he did try to alleviate the fears of Britain and Holland by taking Italy off the table, dividing it ahead of time between France and Austria. However, the Spanish did not appreciate having their hold on Italy signed away without them and an embittered Carlos II named the Bavarian Prince Joseph Ferdinand (grandson of the Austrian [HRE] Emperor Leopold I) as his heir. King Louis XIV paid little mind to this and instead concluded a new agreement with the Dutch King William III of England for a division of Spanish lands that was more beneficial to them.

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).

The war would be the climax of the reign of King Louis XIV and with such an array of countries allied against him, the odds were certainly not in his favor and yet, given that, it is amazing that the Franco-Spanish forces managed to do as well as they did. The decisive factor proved to be the superior military leadership of the Allies compared to the Franco-Spanish forces. The Allies boasted two of the greatest captains in military history; the Duke of Marlborough for Great Britain and Prince Eugene of Savoy who was fighting for the Hapsburgs. King Louis XIV simply had no commander who proved capable of matching these exceptional leaders. France had the larger armies but ultimately this was not enough to overcome British naval dominance and the skill of Marlborough and Savoy on the land. Still, the French forces put up a good fight early on and King Louis XIV adeptly managed the political situation in his favor many times, taking advantage of anti-Hapsburg revolts in Hungary and parts of Germany. Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria was one of the more able commanders on the French side, but he was ultimately defeated by Marlborough. Prince Eugene checked the French in Italy and his previous victories over the Turks meant the Austrians could focus on the western front. At the Battle of Blenheim the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy came together to win a decisive victory over a larger Franco-Bavarian army, effectively putting Bavaria out of the war, ending any French threat to the Hapsburg heartland as well as ending the mentality that France under Louis XIV was unbeatable.

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”.

Of course, King Louis XIV remained involved in various enterprises to advance the interests of France right up to the very end of his life such as another effort to restore the Stuarts to the British throne with the Jacobite rising of 1715 though the King of France did not leave to see it defeated. “His Most Christian Majesty Louis XIV, by the Grace of God, King of France and of Navarre” died on September 1, 1715 at the Palace of Versailles at the age of 76. He had always appeared more robust than he actually was and finally succumbed, painfully, to gangrene. He had reigned over France for 72 years, 110 days and ruled it for the vast majority of those years as well, coming to the throne as a child, coming to power as a teenager and gaining full power as a young man with the passing of Mazarin. He had known victories and defeats but even his losses seemed rather inconsequential. France had risen quickly under King Louis XIV but though he left the country stronger than he found it, in some ways his very success worked against him. His reign marked the zenith of power and prestige for the Kingdom of France and things would never be quite the same again. For such a larger-than-life figure, the whole of Europe seemed somehow emptier after his passing, and somewhat less glamorous.

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.

Whether Louis XIV was a “good” or “bad” king can, I suppose, be debated. He was, on the whole, a successful king, making France more powerful, more prosperous, the leader in every field from art, literature and science  to trade, diplomacy and war and putting France at the center of world affairs. One can argue whether he was “good” or “bad”, whether his faults were greater than his talents or his vices more serious than his virtues but no one can deny that he was a “great” King. More than anything else, King Louis XIV exuded greatness, grandeur and glory. One cannot think of him without thinking of huge, lavish palaces, glamorous and elaborate fashions, finery and meticulous etiquette (in fact, the rules of behavior for the court at Versailles is where most of what the western world considers ‘good manners’ came from). While there was always a dark side, Louis plastered over it with layers of beauty. He wore beautiful clothes, admired beautiful art, lived in beautiful buildings, listened to beautiful music and loved plenty of beautiful women. His court chaplain, Bossuet, wrote that the outward glory of kings was a reflection of the glory of God and one could say that the outward glory of France was a reflection of the glory of Louis XIV. He made France the country everyone looked to as the most fashionable, the most ornate and beautiful, truly the envy of the world. In terms of sheer magnificence, even King Solomon in all his glory would have had to be impressed by the France of Louis XIV.


  1. I just can't stop loving the grandness of Louis XIV.

  2. I remember studying about Louis in the college history and he was one of the great kings. He should have signed treaties with the empires throughout Europe to stop the fighting but he did back up his reign with great works and was great leader. Makes u wonder how things could be if France, Spain and Portugal had formed a new empire because things could be so different today. Truth is that Louis was in the mold of Alexander the Great and that is what is images and photos remind me of. France has a long history starting with the Romanizing of the Gauls, then Franks and finally the Normans. Makes u wonder if the Catholic empires could have retaken Turkey if they all were allied as one. The world needs more rulers like Louis the 14th.

  3. I really love the pomp of his court

  4. Hey, can you do a movie review on "The Man in the Iron Mask"?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...