Louis the Fourteenth (XIV) was the King of France for seventy-two years, from 1643 to 1715. He is the great monarch who still startles lighter-minded history students by his best-known quote; “Après moi, le deluge”. He was quite right. The Flood in the form of wars, famine, bloodshed, the French Revolution (q.v.) – all kinds of unrest, came after him. It would not be unfair to state that most if not all of these could have been avoided if Louis had been a different kind of king.
Louis became king on his father’s death in 1643, at the age of five. His mother Anne of Austria was made Regent during most of the boy’s childhood, which passed peacefully enough, with Cardinal Mazarin (q.v.) in charge of France after the revolutionary Fronde had been dealt with. Louis was proclaimed as being of age in 1651, when he was thirteen. Memories of his own father were dim, though he did remember to put in his diaries that Louis the Thirteenth created The Musketeers, was an honorary one himself.
Marriage came to this decidedly heterosexual boy in 1660, when he was twenty-two. The girl chosen for him was an Infanta of Spain, María Teresa. When tired of Mazarin he dismissed him and took over government himself in 1661. He had launched himself on a very long period of personal and virtually autocratic government.
Louis’s principal policy was to maintain his system of personal power. He ruled absolutely. As this was the seventeenth century he enjoyed even more power than a modern President who has won an election with an absolute majority. He was backed by the Army, whose officers and men liked him. Therefore he ruled unhindered by challenges from any kind of representational institution, as the word and true meaning of democracy had yet to be discovered in this large part of Europe. He managed all this with the help of a few specially chosen ministers and advisers, well advised to think carefully before opening their mouth.
Any potential danger from aristocrats or royal cousins was minimised by making them all live with the King and Queen in a kind of permanent Court, where Louis could keep a wary eye on them, especially if they were called Orléans.
He ignored the Parlement, just as he ignored the States-General (not summoned in any case). He would not allow any of the great nobles living in some discomfort in Paris to be employed in any kind of significant job. Meanwhile he encouraged members of the bourgeois (moneyed middle–class) to take jobs in government. Many bourgeois suddenly found themselves promoted and given titles. Dozens of new marquises appeared from the woodwork, but they too were forced to join the Court and mind their p’s and q’s.
The French Army became infinitely larger, more efficient, and raring to go. Louis was soon able to put more than 400,000 men in the field of battle if he chose. There were few wars to entertain the soldiers, apart from the ‘War of Devolution’, and of course a good war against Holland, a nation of honest burghers (like the Spanish) not noted for love of the French.
Then there was the Nine Years’ War, followed by the War of the Spanish Succession. The latter was not an easy proposition, because other great powers in Europe were not taking kindly to Louis’ attitudes as to who should rule Spain. In fact after 1700 France suffered a series of demoralising defeats, and things were not improved by bad harvests and increasingly crippling taxation. Louis needed money for wars and architecture: he was involved in building the greatest royal palace in the world at Versailles: he rightly thought it would become a suitable monument to him.
Louis then turned his gaze on Religion. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes re-established France as a strongly Catholic nation, and French Protestants, known as Huguenots began leaving the country (mostly in the direction of Germany and Britain)) It is known that at least 200,000 Huguenots quit France for ever.
On the positive side Louis’ period was of great importance in literature and the arts in general; architecture too: this was the period when most of the grand chateaux were built on or beside the rivers of France. Louis XIV died in 1715 leaving a legacy consisting of an almost empty treasury, debts that could hardly be paid, and serious economic, religious and political problems which would inevitably lead to the Revolution of 1789. These and other serious problems were inherited by his great-grandson, Louis XV. Not even with the help of his mistresses La Marquise de Pompadour and Madame du Barry could Louis XV improve matters. Nevertheless, his great-grandfather remains a popular king in the minds of the French, who do not all mind him being remembered as The Sun King (Le Roi Soleil)