King Louis XIV the Young Sun King

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King Louis XIV
The Young Sun King

Louis XIV's parents, King Louis XIII and his wife Anne of Austria, hated each other. Their marriage remained unconsummated for at least four years; it was 23 years before their first child, Louis, was born in 1638. Apparently encouraged by this success, the royal couple produced another son, Philippe, in 1640.

When young Louis was four, his father fell gravely ill with tuberculosis. Knowing that he was about to die, the king ordered that his eldest son be baptised (which normally would have taken place when the prince was seven). At the ceremony the boy was given the name Louis Dieudonne, or "Gift of God," because his birth had seemed so miraculous. Afterward he was brought to his father's deathbed. "What is your name?" Louis XIII asked.

"Louis XIV," the little boy replied.

"Not yet, not yet," said the king. But less than a month later he died, and his four-year-old son did indeed become King Louis XIV of France.

For 18 years, Anne of Austria (who despite her name had been born a Spanish princess) served as her son's regent, advised by Cardinal Mazarin. The cardinal may have been the queen's lover or even her secret husband. Whatever the truth of that, Mazarin's relationship with Louis was like that of father and son.

Family life was less sunny for Louis's only sibling, Philippe, who was called Monsieur at court and eventually became Duke of Orleans. Treated with suspicion by his mother and the cardinal, constantly shunted aside and poorly educated to keep him from outshining his elder brother, Philippe grew up to be a frivolous man, more interested in fashion and society than politics and government. He was also openly homosexual, which made him an object of scorn, even to his womanizing brother.

But there was more to Philippe than met the eye. He was an able military leader, a keen collector of art, and perhaps a shrewd investor (as Nancy Nichols Barker suggests in her book Brother to the Sun King). Given a chance, he might have made a fine king -- which was just why his mother went to such lengths to keep him in his place.

When King Louis was in his teens he fell in love with Marie Mancini, a niece of Cardinal Mazarin. The two secretly became engaged, but Louis's mother refused to allow the match. Marie Mancini was packed off to Italy to marry a nobleman, and Louis reluctantly agreed to a political marriage with Maria Theresa, the daughter of the king of Spain. The couple would have seven children, but only one -- a son named Louis -- survived to adulthood.
A Glorious Reign

Cardinal Mazarin died in 1661, when Louis XIV was 22 years old. From that time on, Louis XIV was the sole ruler of France. He reigned for 72 years, longer than any other ruler in European history. Under his leadership France became a world power and a leader in the arts. He was an absolute monarch, as expressed in the famous quote attributed to him, "L'etat c'est moi" (I am the state). Identifying himself with Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, Louis XIV came to be called "the Sun King."

Today Louis XIV is perhaps best remembered as the king who built Versailles. When he became king he inherited several palaces, including the Fontainebleau and the Louvre. But after visiting the beautiful home of his minister, Nicholas Fouquet, he decided to build something even more magnificent.

He moved his court to the little village of Versailles, where he owned a quaint hunting lodge. First he improved the grounds with lavish gardens, sculptures, terraces, a lake, a zoo, and 1,500 fountains. In 1668 work started on the main chateau. The old buildings were surrounded by grand new ones designed by Louis Le Vaux and Francois Dorbay. Francois Mansard created the opulent Hall of Mirrors.

Smaller palaces were added nearby, including Marly-le-Roi, the Grand Trianon, and the Petit Trianon. The entire project cost 66 million livres.

After Louis's death, Versailles was used as a royal residence by his great-grandson Louis XV. The Sun King's great-great-great-grandson Louis XVI also lived there, along with his wife Marie Antoinette. Badly damaged in the French Revolution, the palace was restored by subsequent rulers and eventually became a museum, which it remains to this day.

The King's Mistresses

Although Louis was unfailingly kind to Queen Maria Theresa, he was far from a faithful husband. For a while he even pursued Madame, the first wife of his brother, Philippe. Louis's mother ordered him to stop spending so much time with Madame, so the king and Madame concocted a scheme. Louis would pretend to be in love with one of Madame's maids-of-honor, Louise de la Valliere; that way he could visit Madame's apartments without anyone suspecting that it was Madame he wanted to see. But soon Louis really did fall in love with La Valliere, and Madame was forgotten.

La Valliere lived openly as the king's mistress for six years. In 1667 she was made a duchess and her two children by the king were legitimized. (One of them, the Comte de Vermandois, was later rumored to be the Man in the Iron Mask.) But that same year the fickle king fell in love with La Valliere's friend Athenais, the future Marquise de Montespan. She replaced La Valliere as the king's mistress, and in 1674 La Valliere retired to a convent.

Madame de Montespan had several children with the king. In 1669 she hired a governess, Madame Scarron. A bad move because, true to form, Louis fell in love with Madame Scarron! Now it was Montespan's turn to be discarded in favor of another woman. She allegedly turned to black magic in an attempt to win the king back, but all her efforts failed and in time she, too, retired to a convent.

Madame Scarron took Montespan's place as the king's mistress and was given the title Madame de Maintenon. Unlike the king's previous mistresses, Madame de Maintenon was a matronly woman; also unlike the others, she managed to hold on to the king's affections. She and Queen Maria Theresa became good friends.

In 1683 the queen died in Madame de Maintenon's arms. Six months later, Louis secretly married Madame de Maintenon. It was a morgantic marriage, meaning his new wife could never become queen. Few of the king's courtiers were aware of the marriage; most continued to view Madame de Maintenon as the king's mistress.

It was partially due to Madame de Maintenon's influence that Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The edict had given French Protestants the right to worship as they chose; after the revocation thousands of Huguenots (Protestants) fled the country, which seriously weakened France's economy. Europe's protestant rulers turned against Louis and war ensued.
Life at Versailles

Ten thousand people lived at the chateau of Versailles. The court revolved around Louis like planets around the sun.

Every aspect of the king's life was conducted with pomp and ceremony. He was awakened each morning at eight by his First Valet de Chambre, who slept on a folding bed in the king's room. Then the First Physician, the First Surgeon, and Louis's former nanny entered the room to check the king's health. Fifteen minutes later the Grand Chamberlain and other favored courtiers were admitted to watch the king dress. The valet always handed the royal shirt to the most important courtier in the room, who had the honor of handing it to Louis.

Next it was time for the king to kneel and pray, again with the crowd of courtiers watching attentively. Soon Louis made his way to mass with the entire court trailing behind him.

Sometimes Louis even dined in public; anybody who was properly dressed could stand in line to file past the king's table. At "private" dinners he was observed by a crowd of servants and courtiers. Only Louis's brother was allowed to eat with the king on these occasions; everyone else had to stand and watch. No women were present; the king's wife had her own (equally ceremonial) dinners separately. The king's supper was somewhat more informal. It took place in the presence of the entire court, and the king's family members were allowed to sit and eat with him.

Louis's life was not entirely ruled by ritual. He worked six to nine hours a day, and is said to have relaxed a bit in the company of his ministers, although his insistence on etiquette never wavered. He also found time for hunting, strolling through his gardens, and spending time with his family. At night he enjoyed concerts, comedies, operas, parties, and gambling.

Death of the Sun King

The final years of Louis XIV's reign were marred by his persecution of Protestants and bitter losses in war. His personal life was also marked by tragedy. Between 1701 and 1712 his brother, son, grandson, and beloved granddaughter-in-law all died. Louis himself died an agonizing death from gangrene on September 1, 1715. He was succeeded by his great-grandson, King Louis XV.

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