On September 1, 1715, King Louis XIV died of gangrene just days shy of his 77th birthday. Though not so popular at the moment—crowds purportedly jeered his funeral carriage as it passed from Versailles to the church burial grounds—he has since come to symbolize the French monarchy at its peak. Three centuries after his demise, explore some illuminating facts about the Sun King and his lengthy reign of absolutism.
Few monarchs have ruled for longer.
Born in 1638, Louis XIV became king at age 4 following the death of his father, Louis XIII, and remained on the throne for the next 72 years. This marks him as both the longest-reigning French monarch in history and the longest-reigning monarch of any extant European nation.
Louis’ mother served as his regent.
In his will, Louis XIII arranged for a regency council to rule on his young son’s behalf. But his Habsburg wife, Anne of Austria, orchestrated an annulment of the council and took over as sole regent. In that capacity, she and her chief minister, Italian-born Cardinal Jules Mazarin, ran afoul of the country’s nobles and judges, who rose up against the crown in a series of rebellions from 1648 to 1653. Mazarin was eventually able to crush the dissenters, but not before Louis XIV suffered numerous perceived humiliations, including twice having to flee Paris. From then on, Louis XIV distrusted not only aristocrats and commoners alike, but also Paris itself.
He ruled without a chief minister.
As a young man, Louis XIV largely left the decision-making to Mazarin, his mentor and godfather. But when Mazarin died in 1661, the 22-year-old immediately informed his astonished court that he would henceforth rule without a chief minister—something no French king had done for generations. Though many officials apparently expected him to soon bore of this role, he continued carrying out the routine, monotonous affairs of government for the rest of his life. Sitting in on council meetings, writing letters, reading documents, hosting foreign representatives and planning military strategy, he all the while consolidated power in his own hands.
Louis considered himself God’s representative on Earth.
Although Louis XIV did not invent the “divine right of kings” doctrine, which held that monarchs derived their authority from God and were therefore entitled to wield absolute power, he was certainly an adherent. He made a particular point of associating himself with the Greek and Roman sun god Apollo, adopting the sun as his emblem and even playing Apollo in a royal ballet. Like many other kings, Louis XIV also claimed to possess miraculous healing powers. On major holidays he went around touching those infected with scrofula (also known as tuberculosis of the neck).
He was quite open about his infidelities.
In 1660 Louis XIV married Marie-Thérèse, the daughter of Spain’s king, a politically expedient move that cemented peace between the two nations. Yet he also took on a string of mistresses, three of whom gained semi-official status, appearing next to him at church and even going off with him to war. Among other benefits, the first of those three became a duchess, the second received a chateau with 1,200 gardeners, and the third wed Louis XIV in a secret ceremony following the death of the queen. Many of his illegitimate children, meanwhile, were given a proper education and considered part of royal society.
He was a religious bigot.
A devout Catholic, Louis XIV believed in the motto, “one king, one law, one faith.” To that end, he mercilessly cracked down on the country’s Protestants, known as Huguenots, who made up roughly 5 percent of the population. The coup de grâce came in 1685, when, in revoking the nearly century-old Edict of Nantes, he stripped them of all religious and civil liberties. Hundreds of Huguenots who continued practicing their religion were put to death and at least 200,000 others fled France for more tolerant lands. At around the same time, Louis XIV expelled all Jews from the French West Indies. He even went after other Catholics who didn’t adhere to his narrow view of the faith, such as the Jansenists, who believed that humankind was inherently corrupt and that God bestowed salvation arbitrarily. In 1709 he banished the nuns from the movement’s main convent and soon after ordered its destruction, all the while lobbying the pope to condemn Jansenism as heretical.
He was constantly at war.
Disingenuously claiming the Spanish Netherlands (roughly corresponding to present-day Belgium) as the inheritance of his wife, Louis XIV launched the War of Devolution in 1667. This invasion, along with the Dutch War (1672-1678) and the War of the Reunions (1683-1684), netted him a number of new territories that remain part of France to this day. Yet in aggressively expanding his borders, he attracted the enmity of much of the rest of Europe, which united in a “Grand Alliance” against him during the next two conflicts: the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). With countless lives lost, disease and famine rampant, the economy in shambles and taxes high, Louis XIV had an apparent change of heart late in life. “Do not follow the bad example that I have set for you,” a dying Louis told his heir. “I have often undertaken war too lightly and have sustained it for vanity. Do not imitate me, but be a peaceful prince.”
Louis owned the Hope Diamond.
As one might expect from the creator of the 700-room Palace of Versailles, Louis XIV knew a thing or two about luxury. One of his prized possessions was an immense diamond, then called the French Blue, which purportedly produced the dazzling illusion of a sun at its center when positioned against a gold background. Stolen during the French Revolution, well after Louis XIV’s death, it reemerged in Great Britain years later with a new cut and then bounced around from one owner to another. Now known as the Hope Diamond, this 45.52-carat stone, arguably the most famous jewel in the world, is housed at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. Not until 2009, when a lead replica of the French Blue turned up, did experts confirm definitively that the French Blue and the Hope Diamond are one and the same.
His successor was France’s second-longest-reigning monarch.
In the last few years of his life, Louis XIV suffered through a series of family tragedies. First, in 1711, his son and heir apparent died of smallpox. Then, the following year, measles claimed the lives of a grandson and a great-grandson, as well as a beloved granddaughter-in-law. Two grandsons still remained alive. But one died in the aftermath of a 1714 hunting accident, and the other was forced to renounce the French throne as part of a deal in which he remained ruler of Spain. Louis XIV was now down to just one potential heir: a sickly great-grandson. Though in desperation he declared that two of his illegitimate sons could become king if his direct line died out, it never came to that. Taking over at age 5, his great-grandson would go on to govern France for the next 59 years as Louis XV.