Louis XIV i introduction

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Louis XIV

I INTRODUCTION  Louis XIV (1638-1715), king of France (1643-1715), known as the Sun King. Louis, third monarch of the Bourbon family, ruled for 72 years, the longest reign in European history. His rule typified the period of absolute monarchy in the second half of the 17th century, during which time kings ruled without the restraint of representative institutions. This epoch is widely known as the age of Louis XIV because other European monarchs imitated and competed with developments in France. Louis inherited a kingdom that was internally divided, militarily exhausted, and nearly bankrupt. He left to his heirs the greatest power in the Western world.

Louis’s main achievements were expanding the effectiveness of the central government, increasing the boundaries of France to the north and east, and placing one of his grandsons on the throne of Spain. But these successes cost the nation dearly. The economy suffered during the long years of war, taxes increased, and the countryside was left vulnerable to punishing famines.

Louis XIV was born at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. He was the unexpected child of King Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, who had not had children in their 22-year marriage. He was christened Louis Dieudonné (literally, “gift of God”). In 1643, before his fifth birthday, his father died, and Louis inherited the crown of France. While Louis was a child, his mother served as regent, ruling France in his place. She was assisted by Jules Cardinal Mazarin, the Italian financier who had been the principal minister of Louis XIII. Mazarin had guided the nation through the later stages of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). In this war France struggled against the Habsburg dynasty that ruled Spain for military supremacy in Europe. The roots of the war stretched back to the 16th century, and the two countries fought for decades, each seeking to enlarge its territories and influence.

Mazarin understood the intricacies of foreign policy and diplomatic relations as well as anyone in Europe. He attempted to pass his knowledge and skill on to the new king. Coming to power at a young age, Louis did not have the conventional humanist education of most princes, who learned Latin, ancient history, rhetoric, and the arts. Instead his instruction focused on the practical necessities of kingship, such as the history of France and its monarchy and military affairs. As a teenager Louis was allowed to take part in sieges and to watch battles from a safe distance. He also studied what Mazarin regarded as the political arts: dealing with foreign ambassadors, judging the character of men from their behavior, and concealing one’s true opinions and ideas from others. From his mother, a Roman Catholic, Louis received a spiritual education. Throughout his life Louis remained devoutly religious and attempted to eliminate Protestantism in France.

During Louis’s early years, France was dominated by a series of rebellions known as the Fronde (1648-1653). These rebellions took place mainly in major cities and consisted largely of aristocrats attacking the government of Mazarin and Louis’s mother. At one point Louis, in danger of being captured, was unceremoniously hustled out of Paris and hidden in the countryside. The Fronde made a lasting impression on Louis, creating a lifelong fear of rebellion. It also left him with a distaste for Paris, the largest city in his kingdom and the center of royal government. When he came to rule France in 1661, Louis decided to build a royal palace away from Paris. In 1682 he moved his government to Versailles, southwest of Paris (See also Palace of Versailles).

Louis married out of diplomatic necessity. Most of the nations of Europe had agreed to peace in 1648, ending the Thirty Years’ War. However, the war between France and Spain dragged on for another decade because neither side was willing to accept the gains made by the other. In 1659 Mazarin finally succeeded in concluding a pact, the Peace of the Pyrenees, which recognized French territorial gains. The pact was sealed in 1660 by the marriage of Louis to Marie-Thérèse, the eldest daughter of King Philip IV of Spain. The marriage was arranged via a treaty that explicitly excluded Marie’s heirs from inheriting the Spanish crown once Philip had paid her dowry. However, the full dowry was never paid. Consequently, Louis refused to relinquish his family’s claim to the Spanish inheritance, a claim that was to influence French policy later in Louis’s reign.


After Mazarin died in 1661, Louis declared that henceforth he would rule France without a chief minister, something no French king had done in living memory. He intended to rule as an absolute monarch, believing that his power as king was derived from God and that he was responsible to God alone. An absolute monarch did not share power with representative institutions such as the Estates-General, which was never summoned to meet during Louis’s reign, nor with the law courts known as Parlements. Even so, he was obliged to rule for the benefit of his people. While Louis assumed responsibility for decision making, he understood that he must rule within the constraints of the laws and customs of his kingdom. Louis consulted widely with his nobles and ministers, and he met weekly with members of his high council. He created an informal cabinet, which was eventually led by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, chief minister of finance.

Nevertheless, the system of absolute monarchy emphasized the role of the king, and no monarch was more successful in creating the image of monarchy than Louis XIV. He took the sun as his emblem and connected himself to its radiant image. Portraits, woodcuts, and engravings of the king portrayed as the Greek sun god Apollo poured from Parisian workshops. The grandeur of the king was the theme of sermons, poems, and drama.

The exquisite palace built at Versailles between 1661 and 1689 was filled with images of Louis’s glory. Over 30,000 men worked on the palace, a project that drained the royal treasury for decades. Expenses included not only building but also diverting rivers, piping in fresh water, and planting thousands of orange trees to mask the smell of sewage that could not be properly drained away. No foreign ambassador, nobleman, or ordinary citizen could enter this new center of government without being overwhelmed by representations of the power of Louis XIV. The king moved to the Palace of Versailles in 1682, occupying it with his growing family, his courtiers, and his mistresses.

Though Versailles constituted a seat of power, it was also part of an artistic renaissance that flourished under Louis. Despite his lack of formal artistic education, Louis sponsored the work of a remarkable generation of artists, playwrights, and architects. Though he abandoned Paris for Versailles, he nevertheless contributed to rebuilding Paris after the Fronde had been suppressed. Construction projects included adding a new wing to the Louvre palace, building Les Invalides as housing for army veterans, and constructing the Observatory as a site for new scientific inquiry. All were designed by French architects in the classical tradition. Among literary figures, the great playwrights Molière and Jean Baptiste Racine received royal patronage. Perhaps most importantly, under Colbert’s influence, Louis created three French academies, later part of the Institut de France, to support the study of fine arts, languages, and sciences: L’Académie des Beaux Arts (1648), the L’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (1663), and L’Académie des Sciences (1666). The latter supported the experimental work of French astronomers, chemists, and physicists and helped coordinate and disseminate their discoveries.

In the early part of his reign, Louis had three objectives: to reorganize the administration of government, to replenish his empty treasury, and to establish borders that he could defend against attack from his enemies.

In the first instance, Louis worked to tighten central control over the array of departments, regions, and duchies that together made up France. To this end, he revived the use of regional intendants, officials who were sent to the provinces with instructions to establish order and effective royal justice. Although agents of the central government, intendants worked closely with the local nobility and legal institutions to establish efficient administration. The oppressive power of local aristocrats was challenged by the intendants, who meted out justice more equitably because they had no local interests of their own to advance. The intendants also organized local forces to suppress riots and rebellions, which were a constant part of 17th-century political life.

In the area of finance, Louis left matters in the hands of Colbert. The finance minister was faced with the daunting task of raising revenue for a king who had the expensive tastes of war making and building. Realizing that traditional taxation was already too high, Colbert worked to find new sources of royal revenue, especially those derived from trade. One such revenue source was a tariff on imports. A tariff would raise revenue and also protect French goods against foreign competition by making imports more expensive. Colbert also saw French colonies as a market for French products.

This set of beliefs, known as mercantilism, formed the basis for an economic recovery in the middle years of Louis’s reign. The protective tariff enabled new industries to develop. These, in turn, demanded skilled workers, raising wages for these workers. Higher wages eased the burden of taxation, especially for the poorer segments of society. Support of domestic manufacturing led to improvements in transportation. Thus roads were constructed, rivers were dredged to keep them navigable, and the first French canals were built.

To expand overseas trade, Colbert encouraged French citizens to establish private merchant companies as the Dutch and English had already done. For example, in 1664 the West Indies Company was established to exploit French colonies in the Caribbean, and the East Indies Company was established to trade in India. Though France was a latecomer in the quest for the products and markets of the long-distance trade, French companies slowly carved out a piece of the colonial pie. To facilitate overseas trade, Colbert expanded the French navy, which grew almost tenfold in a quarter century.

The navy was also a weapon of war. Throughout the 17th century, France struggled for military supremacy. Although the largest state on the continent, with a population of around 19 million, France was surrounded by the dominions of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs. The Habsburg family controlled Spain, Austria, and most of the Low Countries (what is today Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) as well as most of Germany and Italy. Although Habsburg power was past its peak, it still threatened French security.

As a result, Louis lavished attention on military affairs. Louis worked with his ministers Michael Le Tellier and Le Tellier’s son, the Marquis de Louvois, to build up French defenses. They expanded the size of the French army from 100,000 in 1661 to 300,000 in 1688 and then to 400,000 in 1702. They also built fortifications at river crossings and conquered strategically placed towns, especially along the Rhine.

VI EXPANSION OF FRENCH POWER IN EUROPE  Although Louis dreamed of a Spanish inheritance for his heirs, his military policy was not to expand French territory. He fought his early wars for defensive purposes—to secure France’s northern border and to dislodge the Spanish from strategic towns.

Louis fought the War of Devolution (1667-1668) to assert his claims to a portion of Spain’s possessions after his wife’s father, Philip IV, died. Louis claimed the Spanish Netherlands in place of the dowry that Philip IV had never paid. In an attempt to secure more defensible borders for France, he invaded the Spanish Netherlands, intending to establish French control of important fortresses. He succeeded in capturing numerous towns before the Treaties of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the fighting in 1668. Louis returned much of the territory he had captured, although not the most important towns near the French border. The treaty promised France control of the Spanish Netherlands after the death of Charles II, who had succeeded Philip IV.

The French aggression in the Spanish Netherlands caused relations between France and Holland to deteriorate. The Dutch had already fought the Spanish for generations to protect against an invasion of their country. They had no intention of allowing the French to pose the same threat by occupying the territories on their border. The result was war in the Netherlands from 1672 to 1678, during which Louis again demonstrated the effectiveness of French might. In a sweeping campaign, Louis almost succeeded in conquering Holland. To protect themselves, the Dutch opened their dikes, flooded the countryside, and turned Amsterdam into a virtual island.

Louis’s armies could not advance farther, and they began negotiating a truce. War resumed, however, when Spain and Austria allied themselves with Holland, and Louis signed a treaty with England in 1670 to keep the English navy neutral. Now the war settled into a pattern of surge and retreat. Neither side could win a decisive victory, and both suffered from financial exhaustion, which ultimately led to a treaty to end the war. When peace came at Nijmegen in 1678, Louis had achieved a defensible perimeter around the core of his inheritance. In addition to the strategic acquisitions in the Netherlands, French forces had wrested the Franche-Comté region in the east from Spanish control.

The end of the war marked the height of Louis’s power, but it came at the price of uniting most of Europe against him. The attack on Holland created grave consequences for France when Dutch leader William of Orange also became King William III of England in 1689.

In 1685 Louis took a step that shocked the Protestant nations of Europe and profoundly affected France. Although France was a Catholic nation, it contained a sizable Protestant minority, known as Huguenots. In 1598 French king Henry IV had issued the Edict of Nantes, which allowed Huguenots to hold religious services and granted them civil rights. It also gave the Huguenots certain fortified cities as a means of protection. Although relations between Catholics and Protestants were always uneasy, the cities protected by the Edict of Nantes flourished. Within these cities dwelled highly skilled Huguenot craftsmen, who were an integral part of Colbert’s economic program.

Louis’s personal Catholicism, however, opposed tolerance. From the beginning of his reign, he attempted to enforce conversions by demolishing Protestant churches and schools and by allowing Catholic violence against Protestant communities. In 1685 Louis suddenly revoked the Edict of Nantes and banned Protestant worship. Consequently, about 200,000 Huguenots fled France rather than convert to Catholicism. They resettled all around the globe, but most went to Holland and England, where they were greeted as martyrs. The loss of many highly productive citizens depressed the French economy.

By the middle of the 1680s the Sun King was losing much of his shine. Mazarin had taught him to work rigorously, and Louis maintained a punishing schedule throughout his life, shrugging off a series of minor illnesses and ignoring the advice of his physicians. Eventually a broken arm put an end to his vigorous horseback riding, and gout ended his long walks around Versailles. He was wheeled to the throne room or carried to his carriage. In 1683 his first wife died, and Louis secretly married his longtime mistress, Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon. In 1711 he endured the tragedy of the death of his eldest son and the following year that of his eldest grandson.

VIII THE EUROPEAN WARS  The last three decades of Louis’s reign were a time of constant warfare. France was recognized as the dominant continental power, and its strength threatened other European nations. The Catholic powers, especially Austria, were fearful of Louis’s designs upon Spain’s possessions. Meanwhile, the Protestant states, especially England and Holland, worried about the revival of religious warfare.

A The War of the League of Augsburg  To oppose French aggression, England, Holland, Denmark, and Austria formed the League of Augsburg, called the Grand Alliance, in 1689. The War of the League of Augsburg (1688-1697) began over a complicated inheritance dispute between Louis and the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I. Ultimately, French forces stormed across the Rhine River and captured strategic German towns. The European allies struck back, and soon both sides had massive armies of over 400,000 soldiers in the field. The main areas of fighting were again in the Spanish Netherlands, where fortified towns were besieged for years and townspeople were literally starved into submission. Although Louis had some important successes—his forces invaded Spain and occupied Barcelona—the fighting was largely a stalemate. William of Orange prevented a French breakthrough into Holland and relieved several of the most important fortress towns from French siege.

The war strained French resources nearly to the breaking point. Louis shifted resources to the military and stripped laborers from the countryside for service in the army. Famine resulted in both 1692 and 1694, and the war’s demands on the treasury made relief operations impossible. Riots broke out in the countryside, and the intendants reported widespread discontent. Finally, Louis was forced to seek peace. The Peace of Ryswick in 1697 gave France the territory of Alsace, but France had to return all the towns it had occupied in the Netherlands and Spain.

B The War of Spanish Succession  
Louis was willing to return the towns in part because it was becoming clear that his family would inherit some portion of Spain’s possessions. King Charles II of Spain had no male heirs, and his health suggested that he would not live much longer. He controlled a vast empire that included Latin America and numerous Caribbean islands, the Low Countries with the exception of Holland, and parts of Italy as well as Spain itself. Louis’s interest in the Spanish inheritance went beyond money or glory. His concern was that if the Spanish possessions passed intact to the Austrian Habsburgs, France would face a major threat to its security. The threat would arise because Austria would become the largest territorial power in Europe, with possessions on three sides of France. Thus when Charles II bequeathed his empire to Louis’s grandson Philip, duke of Anjou, Louis was determined that France would fight to help him keep it. Philip became Philip V of Spain in 1700.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) was the most brutal and costly of Louis’s military endeavors. For the first time in over a century, French armies lost battles, most notably by John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, at the Battle of Blenheim (in what is now Germany) in 1704 and at Ramillies (in what is now Belgium) in 1706. The fighting made it clear that France would not gain control of the Spanish Netherlands (they were ultimately ceded to Austria). However, it also revealed that the allies could not dislodge Philip from the Spanish throne.

Realizing a stalemate, the warring nations worked to find an acceptable formula for peace, which took nearly as long as did the fighting. The Peace of Utrecht recognized Philip as king of Spain but dismembered the Spanish inheritance to balance power among France, Spain, Austria, and Great Britain. It was also agreed that France and Spain would never be united as one monarchy. Louis XIV died in 1715, just after the war ended. He was succeeded by his great-grandson, Louis XV.

In a world that regarded territory, power, and wealth as paramount, Louis XIV was recognized as a great king. He transformed France into the dominant nation in Europe, expanded its boundaries, and left his heirs secure in their possessions. Louis reached the height of his power in the 1670s, and he protected what he had achieved for the next four decades in the face of a Europe united against him. Moreover, he eventually realized his dream of seeing a Bourbon on the Spanish throne. During Louis’s reign, France also consolidated the administration of its colonial possessions and commerce, becoming a world power.

On the domestic front, Louis strengthened the central government’s control over the diverse regions of France, incorporating his territorial gains into a united state. On the other hand, he provoked controversy when he restored Catholic religious unity by revoking the Edict of Nantes and repressing Protestantism. Unfortunately many of Louis’s policies, both domestic and foreign, caused great hardship to ordinary people, many of whom suffered starvation, fled their homeland, or lived in terror of persecution. Ultimately, Louis XIV wished to bring glory to France and to his dynasty, and he died believing that he had.

Contributed By:
Mark Kishlansky

1"Louis XIV."Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2001. © 1993-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

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