Louis XIV of France
''Louis XIV, by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1701)
Louis XIV (the Sun King) (September 5, 1638 - September 1, 1715) reigned as King of France from May 14, 1643 to September 1, 1715. Louis did not effectively become ruler until after the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661. His reign generally epitomises European absolutism; in fact, he sometimes has the reputation of "the greatest absolute monarch."
Birth & Childhood
His birth at Saint-Germain-en-Laye appeared miraculous, occurring twenty-three years after the marriage of his parents, Louis XIII and Anne of Austria. At the age of 4 (1643), Louis technically became King, although Cardinal Mazarin would rule France as regent for another 18 years. His real assumption of power came after Mazarin's death, in 1661.
Louis XIV as King
During Louis's adolescence, a class uprising called the Fronde (1648 - 53) took place in France, sparked by the policies of Cardinal Mazarin. This event presumably had an impact upon Louis, as he became determined never to allow such an uprising to occur again.
Louis XIV and his advisor Colbert believed strongly in mercantilism and worked to increase France's resources in precious metals. During this period, France fought four major wars -- the War of Devolution (1667 - 1668), the Dutch War (1672 - 1678), the War of the Grand Alliance (1688 - 1697) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1702 - 1713) -- resulting in an almost crippling national debt.
At the time of the Louis XIV's death, France's territory had increased and France had become arguably the most powerful state in Europe, as well as its cultural capital. French served as the language of good taste in the 17th and 18th centuries just as English later became the global language of business. In the 18th century, for example, the Russian nobility adopted French habits and generally spoke French rather than Russian. On the other hand, the country had sunk deeply into debt, the poor found themselves heavily taxed and living in worsening conditions, and Louis's successors lacked the powerful memory necessary to run his court.
The French treasury stood close to bankruptcy when Louis XIV assumed power in 1661. He proved an incredibly extravagant spender, dispensing huge sums of money to finance his wars and his court. Some estimates suggest that by the end of Louis' reign half of France's annual revenue went to maintaining Versailles. Also, large amounts of money went missing due to corruption within the large French bureaucracy.
At this time the principal French taxation devices included the aides, the douanes, the gabelle, and the taille. The aides and douanes taxed trade through customs duties, the gabelle taxed usage of salt, and the taille taxed land. The nobles and clergy claimed exemption from these taxes, so the peasantry and the emerging middle class (the bourgeoisie) had to pay for all -- a remnant of feudal France. The outrage over this taxation would eventually fuel the French Revolution.
Louis would appoint the ingenious Colbert as his Minister of Finance. Colbert's efforts to reduce bureaucratic corruption and reorganize the bureaucracy began to generate revenue, although this did not suffice to begin to reverse France's growing national debt.
Reining in the Nobles: Versailles
The construction of Versailles formed one of Louis XIV's strategies to centralize power. Continuing the work of Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, Louis XIV worked to create a centralised, and absolutist nation-state. He weakened the nobility by ordering them to serve as members of his court, rather than as regional governors and ministers. To this end, he built Versailles, an enormous and lavish palace outside Paris. On May 6, 1682, the court moved to Versailles. Court etiquette compelled noblemen to spend incredible sums of money on their clothes, and to spend most of their time attending the whirlwind of masses, balls, dinners, performances, and celebrations which made up the routine of the court. Louis XIV allegedly had a memory so acute that he could scan a ballroom on entry and determine exactly who was not there -- so no aristocrat who depended on his favor could risk an absence. The aristocracy necessarily became dissolute, more focused on winning the King's favor, as evidenced by trivial details such as who would have the honor of helping him dress, rather than their own regional affairs or even retaining their power. This allowed Louis to choose less aristocratic individuals to fill those positions once occupied by the traditonal nobility, and to ensure that political power remained firmly in the hands of the king.
Reining in the Protestants: The Edict of Fontainebleau
Believing that in order to achieve absolute power he must first achieve religious unification, Louis XIV made trouble for the Protestant population, most notably through the Edict of Fontainebleau (1685). This revoked the religiously tolerant Edict of Nantes (1598) of Henri IV and ordered the destruction of (Protestant) Huguenot churches, as well as the closing of Protestant schools. His actions drove many Huguenots to the Low Countries, Prussia, England and North America -- a mistake, for the Huguenots tended to practise highly skilled crafts and, of course, their skills went with them. (In later centuries the Protestant work ethic of the Low Countries, influenced by these French refugees, would increase that region's already considerable wealth.) For Louis XIV and his cardinals, a unified France meant a Catholic France.
King Louis XIV died on September 1 1715 and was buried in Saint Denis Basilica in Paris. He outlived his son, the dauphin Louis, and eldest grandson. His great-grandson, who became King Louis XV of France, and who spent his minority under the regency of Philippe II of Orléans, succeeded him as king.
Grave robbers stole Louis's heart, which came into the possession of Lord Harcourt, who sold it to the Very Reverend William Buckland, the Dean of Westminster. His son, Francis Buckland, inherited the purloined heart, and eventually ate it.
Influence on the French Revolution (1789)
Louis XIV remains beloved in France for his vigorous promotion of French national greatness. However, his intensive waging of war bankrupted the state, forcing him continually to levy high taxes on the peasantry. According to the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, Louis XIV's weakening of the nobility, coupled with his oppression of the peasantry, contributed to the political, social and economic instabilities that eventually led to the French Revolution.
Quotations Attributed to Louis XIV
Quotations about Louis XIV
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