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.
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 Molière 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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