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
This painting, from 1655, is currently on display at the Palace
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
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
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.
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
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
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 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
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
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
Louis XIV in 1684
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
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.”