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16th - 18th century


The smooth transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age is conventionally fixed on such events as the Reformation and the discovery of the "New World," which brought about the emergence of a new image of man and his world. Humanism, which spread out of Italy, also made an essential contribution to this with its promotion of a critical awareness of Christianity and the Church. The Reformation eventually broke the all-embracing power of the Church. After the Thirty Years' War, the concept of a universal empire was also nullified. The era of the nation-state began, bringing with it the desire to build up political and economic power far beyond Europe. The Americas, Africa, and Asia provided regions of expansion for the Europeans.

Proportions of the Human Figure by Leonardo da Vinci (drawing, ca. 1490)
is a prime example of the new approach of Renaissance
artists and scientists to the anatomy of the human body.



France: From the Wars of Religion to the Eve of the Revolution


Historical Context

1589 - 1610 Henry XIV King of France
1610 - 1643 Reign of Louis XIII
1643 -1715 Reign of Louis XIV
1715 - 1774 Reign of Louis XV
1774 - 1792 Reign of Louis XVI
1793 Loius XVI & Marie Antoinette tried for treason and beheaded


see also text

VOLTAIRE "Age of Louis XIV"


The reign of the the "Sun King" Louis XIV

Cardinal Mazarin continued Richelieu's policies and established the foundations of the absolutism of Louis XIV. During his reign France became the leading European power, both culturally and politically. The opulent royal court at Versailles became a model for rulers throughout the continent.


Though the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 marked a major success for Mazarin, his domestic power base was weak.

In a series of armed uprisings known as the Fronde, dissident French nobles 6 revolted against the authority of the king and his ministers between 1648 and 1653.

6 Inciting a crowd against Mazarin, the Louvre of Paris
in the background, etching, 1 7th century

The Fronde

Episode of the Fronde at the Faubourg Saint-Antoine by the Walls of the Bastille

France [17th century]
French La Fronde, Main
series of civil wars in France between 1648 and 1653, during the minority of Louis XIV. The Fronde (the name for the “sling” of a children’s game played in the streets of Paris in defiance of civil authorities) was in part an attempt to check the growing power of royal government; its failure prepared the way for the absolutism of Louis XIV’s personal reign.

The Fronde was a reaction to the policies begun under the Cardinal de Richelieu, chief minister of Louis XIII from 1624 to 1642, who weakened the influence of the nobility and reduced the powers of the judicial bodies, called Parlements. Opposition to the government from these privileged groups gained momentum from 1643 under the “foreign” rule of the queen regent Anne of Austria (Louis XIV’s mother) and her Italian-born chief minister, Jules Cardinal Mazarin.

The refusal of the Parlement of Paris to approve the government’s revenue measures in the spring of 1648 set off the first phase, the Fronde of the Parlement. The Parlement sought to put a constitutional limit on the monarchy by establishing its power to discuss and modify royal decrees. From June 30 to July 12 an assembly of courts made a list of 27 articles for reform, including abolition of the intendants (officials of the central government in the provinces), tax reductions, approval of all new taxes by the Parlement, and an end to arbitrary imprisonment. On July 31, Mazarin’s government—at war with Spain—reluctantly agreed to many of the demands. With news of a victory over the Spanish, however, Anne and Mazarin felt strong enough to arrest two outspoken parlementaires on August 26, but an uprising in Paris forced the queen and her minister to release them two days later.

The conflict broke into war in January 1649. A blockade of Paris was not enough to force the surrender of the Parlement, which was supported by Parisian leaders and by some of the high nobility. Faced with disturbances in the provinces and the continuing foreign war, the government negotiated the Peace of Rueil (ratified April 1, 1649), which granted amnesty to the rebels and confirmed the concessions to Parlement.

The Fronde of the Princes, the second phase of the civil war (January 1650 to September 1653), was a complex of intrigues, rivalries, and shifts of allegiance in which constitutional issues gave way to personal ambitions. One common factor among the aristocratic rebels was opposition to Mazarin, who, throughout the Fronde, was the target of fierce attacks by pamphleteers. The Great Condé, a great military leader and cousin of the king, had helped the government in the war against the Parlement. Disappointed in his hope for political power, he became rebellious. When he was arrested, on Jan. 18, 1650, his friends took up arms in a series of uprisings in the provinces, called the first war of the princes. By the end of 1650 the government had dealt successfully with the revolts. In reaction, the supporters of Condé and the Parisian party (sometimes called the Old Fronde) united to bring about the release of Condé and the dismissal of Mazarin (February 1651). Condé was dominant for a brief period.

Anne, however, knew how to exploit the divisions among the Frondeurs. She joined with the Old Fronde and ordered an indictment of Condé in August 1651, an act that decided Condé on war—the second war of the princes (September 1651 to September 1653). A main event of the war was Condé’s entrance into Paris in April 1652. Despite Spanish aid, his position soon weakened: he was almost defeated by royal troops outside the walls of Paris (July 2, 1652), lost the support of the Parisian bourgeoisie, and never gained the approval of the Parlement. In the face of opposition, Condé left Paris on October 13 and eventually fled to the Spanish Netherlands. The king entered Paris in triumph on Oct. 21, 1652, followed by Mazarin on Feb. 3, 1653. With many of the nobles in exile and with the Parlement forbidden to interfere in royal administration, the Fronde ended in a clear victory for Mazarin.

Beyond the immediate victory, the Fronde had an impact on French history of the last half of the 17th century: by revealing the selfish interests of the nobility and the Parlement and their inability to offer effective leadership, the Fronde lost for these groups a role as a counterbalance to the king. The Fronde was the last serious challenge to the supremacy of the monarchy in France until the Revolution of 1789.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Eine adelige Familie, zur Zeit der Fronde 1649.

It proved to be the last revolt of the French nobility, and henceforth they would be subordinate to the power of the ruling monarch and his royal court.

Upon the death of the cardinal in 1661, 7 Louis XIV took personal charge of the affairs of state.

King Louis XIV of France, painting by Rigaud, 1701

see also text

VOLTAIRE "Age of Louis XIV"

The 9 Palace of Versailles, the new roval residence located outside the capital Paris, became a symbol of the king's alleged claim "L'etat c'est moi" ("lam the state").

Woods and 10 landscaped parks ran up to the palace, with the Hall of Mirrors and the 8 Royal Bedchamber as its center.

The vast court of almost 20,000 people was the physical embodiment of Louis XI V's claim to rule by "divine right." His palace and his court were imitated by princes throughout Europe.

As in Versailles, everything in the state was supposed to be concentrated on the monarch known as the "Sun King." He did not tolerate overweening ministers like Richelieu or Mazarin. Several ministers together saw to the details of government for him. The finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, was also in charge of building up the fleet and an active colonial policy focussed on North America and India. Under his supervision the royal coffers swelled. His rival, the Minister of War, Francois Michel Louvois, built up one of the mightiest armies in Europe and pressured the king into an expansionist foreign policy. Despite fighting a series of wars both in Europe and the New World, France made few territorial gains.

The French Protestants suffered as Louis XIV sought to establish the supremacy of the French Huguenots from France. The flight of the Huguenots was a major loss to the French economy because the Protestants had played a significant role as merchants and skilled manufacturers. These refugees successfully established themselves in neighboring Protestant countries, building thriving communities in both Amsterdam and London.

9 The Palace of Versailles, originally a hunting lodge but  by 1682 Louis XIV's main residence


10 View from the Palace of Versailles, across the formal gardens, down towards the Grand Canal


8 The lavishly decorated royal bedchamber in the Palace of Versailles, near Paris


The Palace of Versailles


The Palace of Versailles


Louis XIV, marble
bust by Bernini,

Political Philosopher
on King Louis XIV:

"He had failings and afflictions and he made mistakes - but would those who judge him have equaled him, if they had been in his place? One will not be able to speak his name without awe."

see also text


"Age of Louis XIV"

A young Louis
XIV as the "Rising
Sun," sketch fora
ballet costume


Charles Le Brun
Chancellor Seguier at the Entry of Louis XIV into Paris in 1660


Charles Le Brun
Louis XIV in 1666


Charles Le Brun
The Resolution of Louis XIV to Make War on the Dutch Republic


Charles Le Brun
Louis XIV représenté en Alexandre le Grand


see also collection

Charles Le Brun


Louis XIV

Louis XIV 1648 by Henri Testelin

king of France
byname Louis The Great, Louis The Grand Monarch, or The Sun King, French Louis Le Grand, Louis Le Grand Monarque, or Le Roi Soleil

born Sept. 5, 1638, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
died Sept. 1, 1715, Versailles

king of France (1643–1715) who ruled his country, principally from his great palace at Versailles, during one of its most brilliant periods and who remains the symbol of absolute monarchy of the classical age. Internationally, in a series of wars between 1667 and 1697, he extended France’s eastern borders at the expense of the Habsburgs and then, in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), engaged a hostile European coalition in order to secure the Spanish throne for his grandson.

Portrait of Louis, the Victor of the Fronde, portrayed as Jupiter.
This painting, from 1655, is currently on display at the Palace of Versailles.

Early life and marriage
Louis was the son of Louis XIII and his Spanish queen, Anne of Austria. He succeeded his father on May 14, 1643. At the age of four years and eight months, he was, according to the laws of the kingdom, not only the master but the owner of the bodies and property of 19 million subjects. Although he was saluted as “a visible divinity,” he was, nonetheless, a neglected child given over to the care of servants. He once narrowly escaped drowning in a pond because no one was watching him. Anne of Austria, who was to blame for this negligence, inspired him with a lasting fear of “crimes committed against God.”

Louis was nine years old when the nobles and the Paris Parlement (a powerful law court), driven by hatred of the prime minister Cardinal Jules Mazarin, rose against the crown in 1648. This marked the beginning of the long civil war known as the Fronde, in the course of which Louis suffered poverty, misfortune, fear, humiliation, cold, and hunger. These trials shaped the future character, behaviour, and mode of thought of the young king. He would never forgive either Paris, the nobles, or the common people.

In 1653 Mazarin was victorious over the rebels and then proceeded to construct an extraordinary administrative apparatus with Louis as his pupil. The young king also acquired Mazarin’s partiality for the arts, elegance, and display. Although he had been proclaimed of age, the King did not dream of disputing the Cardinal’s absolute power.

The war begun in 1635 between France and Spain was then entering its last phase. The outcome of the war would transfer European hegemony from the Habsburgs to the Bourbons. A French king had to be a soldier, and so Louis served his apprenticeship on the battlefield.

In 1658 Louis faced the great conflict between love and duty, a familiar one for princes of that period. He struggled with himself for two years over his love for Mazarin’s niece, Marie Mancini. He finally submitted to the exigencies of politics and in 1660 married Marie-Thérèse of Austria, daughter of the King of Spain, in order to ratify peace between their two countries.

The childhood of Louis XIV was at an end, but no one believed him capable of seizing the reins of power. No one suspected his thoughts. He wrote in his Mémoires:

In my heart I prefer fame above all else, even life itself . . . Love of glory has the same subtleties as the most tender passions . . . In exercising a totally divine function here on earth, we must appear incapable of turmoils which could debase it.

Louis XIV, King of France, in 1661.

The young king
Mazarin died on March 9, 1661. The dramatic blow came on March 10. The King informed his astonished ministers that he intended to assume all responsibility for ruling the kingdom. This had not occurred since the reign of Henry IV. It cannot be overemphasized that Louis XIV’s action was not in accordance with tradition; his concept of a dictatorship by divine right was his own. In genuine faith, Louis viewed himself as God’s representative on earth and considered all disobedience and rebellion to be sinful. From this conviction he gained not only a dangerous feeling of infallibility but also considerable serenity and moderation.

He was backed up first by the great ministers Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Marquis de Louvois, and Hugues de Lionne, among whom he fostered dissension, and later by men of lesser capacity. For 54 years Louis devoted himself to his task eight hours a day; not the smallest detail escaped his attention. He wanted to control everything from court etiquette to troop movements, from road building to theological disputes. He succeeded because he faithfully reflected the mood of a France overflowing with youth and vigour and enamoured of grandeur.

Despite the use of pensions and punishments, the monarchy had been unable to subdue the nobles, who had started 11 civil wars in 40 years. Louis lured them to his court, corrupted them with gambling, exhausted them with dissipation, and made their destinies dependent on their capacity to please him. Etiquette became a means of governing. From that time, the nobility ceased to be an important factor in French politics, which in some respects weakened the nation.

 Louis XIV

Patronage of the arts
Louis’s great fortune was in having among his subjects an extraordinary group of men in every area of activity. He knew well how to make use of them. He was the protector of writers, notably MOLIERE and  JEAN RACINE, whom he ordered to sing his praises, and he imposed his own visions of beauty and nature on artists. France’s appearance and way of life were changed; the great towns underwent a metamorphosis, the landscape was altered, and monuments arose everywhere. The King energetically devoted himself to building new residences. Little remains of his splendid palaces at Saint-Germain and Marly, but Versailles—cursed as extravagant even as it was under construction and accused of having ruined the nation—still stands.

Versailles was approximately the price of a modern airport; it was an object of universal admiration and enhanced French prestige. All the power of the government was brought to bear in the construction of Versailles. Louis XIV was not wrong, as some have claimed, to remove himself from unhealthful and tumultuous Paris, but he erred in breaking with the wandering tradition of his ancestors. The monarchy became increasingly isolated from the people and thereby assumed a decidedly mythical quality.

While Louis watched his buildings going up, Colbert, who supervised the construction, obtained from him the means to carry out an economic revolution aimed at making France economically self-sufficient while maximizing exports. Manufacturers, the navy and merchant marine, a modern police organization, roads, ports, and canals all emerged at about the same time. Louis attended to every detail, while at the same time giving dazzling entertainment and carrying on a tumultuous love affair with Louise de La Vallière.

In 1667 he invaded the Spanish Netherlands, which he regarded as his wife’s inheritance, thus beginning a series of wars that lasted for a good part of his reign. Louis himself on his deathbed said, “I have loved war too much,” but his subjects, who often complained of his prudence and moderation, would not have understood had he not used force to strengthen the frontiers of France. After a brilliant campaign, the King had to retreat (1668) in the face of English and especially Dutch pressure. He never forgave the Dutch and swore to destroy their Protestant mercantile republic. To this end he allied himself with his cousin Charles II of England and invaded the Netherlands in 1672. The long war that ensued ended in 1678, in the first treaty of Nijmegen with Louis triumphant.

Louis XIV in 1673

Zenith and decline
The Sun King was at his zenith. Almost alone 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 by annexing part of Flanders and in the east by seizing Lorraine and the Franche-Comté. His fleet equaled those of England and Holland. Paris called him “the Great.” In his court he was an object of adoration, and as he approached the age of 40 he could view himself as far surpassing all other men.

At the same time, great changes were occurring in his private life. 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. The ostentation, gambling, and entertainments did not disappear, but the court, subjected to an outward display of propriety, became suffused with boredom. Hypocrisy became the rule.

The King had openly renounced pleasure, but the sacrifice was made easier for him by his new favourite, the very pious Mme de Maintenon. She was the widow of the satirist Paul Scarron and the former governess of the King’s illegitimate children.

In 1682 the seat of government was transferred to Versailles. The following year marked a turning point in the life and reign of Louis XIV. The Queen died, and the King secretly married Mme de Maintenon, who imperceptibly gained in political influence. He remained devoted to her; even at the age of 70 she was being exhorted by her confessor to continue to fulfill her conjugal duties, according to letters still extant.

Colbert also died, leaving the way free for the bellicose Louvois. The repulse of a Turkish invasion of his Austrian domains left the Emperor free to oppose France in the West. In 1688-89 the fall of the Stuarts and William of Orange’s accession to the throne of England further reversed the situation to the detriment of France.

Louis XIV in 1701, by Hyacinthe Rigaud

Revocation of the Edict of Nantes
To his traditional enemies Louis now added the entire Protestant world. His mother had inculcated in him a narrow and simplistic religion, and he understood nothing of the Reformation. He viewed French Protestants as potential rebels. After having tried to convert them by force, he revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had guaranteed their freedom of worship, in 1685. The revocation, which was accompanied by a pitiless persecution, drove many artisans from France and caused endless misfortune.

Thus began the decline.

England, the Dutch, and the Emperor united in the Grand Alliance to resist Louis’s expansionism. The resulting war lasted from 1688 to 1697. Despite many victories, Louis gave up part of his territorial acquisitions when he signed the Treaty of Rijswijk, for which the public judged him harshly. He reconciled himself to another painful sacrifice when he recognized William of Orange as William III of England, in violation of his belief in the divine right of the Stuart king James II to William’s throne.

Three years later, in 1700, Charles II, the last Habsburg king of Spain, died, bequeathing his kingdoms to Louis’s grandson, Philip of Anjou (Philip V). Louis, who desired nothing more than peace, hesitated but finally accepted the inheritance. He has been strongly criticized for his decision, but he had no alternative. With England against him, he had to try to prevent Spain from falling into the hands of the equally hostile Holy Roman emperor Leopold I, who disputed Philip’s claim.

Louis XIV in 1684

Final years
In the War of the Spanish Succession the anti-French alliance was reactivated by William of Orange before his death. The disasters of the war were so great that, in 1709, France came close to losing all the advantages gained over the preceding century. Private griefs were added to Louis’s public calamities. Almost simultaneously he lost 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, who had been the consolation of his declining years.

An excess of flattery from within and an excess of malediction from without had created an artificial image of the King. He was viewed as an idol who would collapse under the blows of ill fortune, but the opposite occurred. Having first been the embodiment of a triumphant nation, Louis surpassed himself by bearing his own suffering and that of his people with unceasing resolution.

Finally, a palace revolution in London, bringing the pacific Tories to power, and a French victory over the imperial forces at the Battle of Denain combined to end the war. The treaties of Utrecht, Rastatt, and Baden, signed in 1713–14, cost France its hegemony but left its territory intact. It retained its recent conquests in Flanders and on the Rhine, which were so much in the order of things that neither later defeats nor revolutions would cause it to lose them.

Louis XIV died in 1715, at the age of 77. His body was borne, amid the jeers of the populace, to the Saint-Denis basilica.

His heir, the last son of the Duc de Bourgogne, was a five-year-old child who was not expected to live. Louis had distrusted his nephew, the Duc d’Orléans, and wanted to leave actual power in the hands of the Duc du Maine, his son by Mme de Montespan. In attempting to accomplish this, he had drawn up a will that was to help destroy the monarchy. The Parlement of Paris, convened to nullify the will after his death, rediscovered a political power that it used to prevent all reforms during the ensuing reigns, thus making the Revolution inevitable.

Louis XIV at the Siege of Namur, 1692.

During his lifetime, Louis was flattered ceaselessly by his subjects, while foreign journals compared him to a bloodthirsty tiger. Voltaire portrayed his grandeur in his Age of Louis XIV. The Duc de Saint-Simon, a member of his court whose Mémoires show equal proportions of literary genius and insincerity, dealt with him quite harshly, without denying his admiration for him. Later judgments of Louis varied according to the author’s political views.

Louis XIV was the foremost example of the monarchy that brought France to its pinnacle. He has been accused of having dug the grave of that monarchy, particularly through his religious policy, his last will, and his isolation of the court from the people. These mistakes could have been corrected. His irremediable error was to have concentrated all the machinery of the state in his own person, thus making of the monarchy a burden beyond human strength.

His reign, compared by Voltaire to that of the Roman emperor Augustus, had both its strong and its weak points. Despite his victories and conquests, France lost her primacy under him. Yet the brilliance of his reign made up for his military policies. The aristocracy of Europe adopted the language and customs of the France where the Sun King had shone, although resentments lingered for a long time.

The King identified with his office to such an extent that it is difficult to find the individual. His harshness and courage, despotism and stoicism, prodigious pride and passion for order, megalomania and religion, intolerance and love of beauty can be understood only as a function of the exigencies of governing. He wanted France to be powerful, prosperous, and magnificent but was not overly concerned with the well-being of the French people. His armies committed atrocities, but the horrors of today have eclipsed them, and under his reign one did not see whole nations reduced to slavery, mass deportations, and genocide. When an Italian chemist offered him the first bacteriological weapon, he gave him a pension on condition that he never divulge his invention.

Louis was sometimes a tyrant, but in the words of Voltaire: “His name can never be pronounced without respect and without summoning the image of an eternally memorable age.”

Philippe Erlanger

Encyclopaedia Britannica



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