The reign of France’s Louis XIV (1638-1715), known as the Sun King, lasted for 72 years, longer than that of any other known European sovereign. In that time, he transformed the monarchy, ushered in a golden age of art and literature, presided over a dazzling royal court at Versailles, annexed key territories and established his country as the dominant European power. During the final decades of Louis XIV’s rule, France was weakened by several lengthy wars that drained its resources and the mass exodus of its Protestant population following the king’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
Early Life and Reign of Louis XIV
Born on September 5, 1638, to King Louis XIII of France (1601-1643) and his Habsburg queen, Anne of Austria (1601-1666), the future Louis XIV was his parents’ first child after 23 years of marriage; in recognition of this apparent miracle, he was christened Louis-Dieudonné, meaning “gift of God.” A younger brother, Philippe (1640-1701), followed two years later. When the king died on May 14, 1643, 4-year-old Louis inherited the crown of a fractured, unstable and nearly insolvent France. After orchestrating the annulment of Louis XIII’s will, which had appointed a regency council to rule on the young king’s behalf, Anne served as sole regent for her son, assisted by her chief minister and close confidant, the Italian-born Cardinal Jules Mazarin (1602-1661).
During the early years of Louis XIV’s reign, Anne and Mazarin introduced policies that further consolidated the monarchy’s power, angering nobles and members of the legal aristocracy. Beginning in 1648, their discontent erupted into a civil war known as the Fronde, which forced the royal family to flee Paris and instilled a lifelong fear of rebellion in the young king. Mazarin suppressed the revolt in 1653 and by decade’s end had restored internal order and negotiated a peace treaty with Hapsburg Spain, making France a leading European power. The following year, 22-year-old Louis married his first cousin Marie-Thérèse (1638-1683), daughter of King Philip IV of Spain. A diplomatic necessity more than anything else, the union produced six children, of whom only one, Louis (1661-1711), survived to adulthood. (A number of illegitimate offspring resulted from Louis XIV’s affairs with a string of official and unofficial mistresses.)
Louis XIV Assumes Control of France
After Mazarin’s death in 1661, Louis XIV broke with tradition and astonished his court by declaring that he would rule without a chief minister. He viewed himself as the direct representative of God, endowed with a divine right to wield the absolute power of the monarchy. To illustrate his status, he chose the sun as his emblem and cultivated the image of an omniscient and infallible “Roi-Soleil” (“Sun King”) around whom the entire realm orbited. While some historians question the attribution, Louis is often remembered for the bold and infamous statement “L’État, c’est moi” (“I am the State”).
Immediately after assuming control of the government, Louis worked tirelessly to centralize and tighten control of France and its overseas colonies. His finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), implemented reforms that sharply reduced the deficit and fostered the growth of industry, while his war minister, the Marquis de Louvois (1641-1691), expanded and reorganized the French army. Louis also managed to pacify and disempower the historically rebellious nobles, who had fomented no less than 11 civil wars in four decades, by luring them to his court and habituating them to the opulent lifestyle there.
The Arts and the Royal Court Under Louis XIV
A hard-working and meticulous ruler who oversaw his programs down to the last detail, Louis XIV nevertheless appreciated art, literature, music, theater and sports. He surrounded himself with some of the greatest artistic and intellectual figures of his time, including the playwright Molière (1622-1673), the painter Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) and the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). He also appointed himself patron of the Académie Française, the body that regulates the French language, and established various institutes for the arts and sciences.
To accommodate his retinue of newly devoted nobles (and, perhaps, to distance himself from the population of Paris), Louis built several lavish châteaux that depleted the nation’s coffers while drawing accusations of extravagance. Most famously, he transformed a royal hunting lodge in Versailles, a village 25 miles southwest of the capital, into one of the largest palaces in the world, officially moving his court and government there in 1682. It was against this awe-inspiring backdrop that Louis tamed the nobility and impressed foreign dignitaries, using entertainment, ceremony and a highly codified system of etiquette to assert his supremacy. Versailles’ festive atmosphere dissipated to some extent when Louis came under the influence of the pious and orderly Marquise de Maintenon (1635-1719), who had served as his illegitimate children’s governess; the two wed in a private ceremony approximately one year after the death of Queen Marie-Thérèse in 1683.
Louis XIV and Foreign Policy
In 1667 Louis XIV launched the War of Devolution (1667-1668), the first in a series of military conflicts that characterized his aggressive approach to foreign policy, by invading the Spanish Netherlands, which he claimed as his wife’s inheritance. Under pressure from the English, Swedish and especially the Dutch, France retreated and returned the region to Spain, gaining only some frontier towns in Flanders. This unsatisfactory outcome led to the Franco-Dutch War (1672-1678), in which France acquired more territory in Flanders as well as the Franche-Compté. Now at the height of his powers and influence, Louis established “chambers of reunion” to annex disputed cities and towns along France’s border through quasi-legal means.
France’s position as the dominant power on the continent—coupled with a colonial presence that burgeoned under Louis XIV—was perceived as a threat by other European nations, including England, the Holy Roman Empire and Spain. In the late 1680s, responding to yet another spate of expansionist campaigns by Louis’ armies, they and several smaller countries formed a coalition known as the Grand Alliance. The ensuing war, fought on both hemispheres, lasted from 1688 to 1697; France emerged with most of its territory intact but its resources severely strained. More disastrous for Louis XIV was the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), in which the aging king defended his grandson Philip V’s inheritance of Spain and its empire. The long conflict plunged a famine-ridden France into massive debt, turning public opinion against the crown.
Louis XIV and Religion
It was not only decades of warfare that weakened both France and its monarch during the latter half of Louis XIV’s reign. In 1685, the devoutly Catholic king revoked the Edict of Nantes, issued by his grandfather Henry IV in 1598, which had granted freedom of worship and other rights to French Protestants (known as Huguenots). With the Edict of Fontainebleau, Louis ordered the destruction of Protestant churches, the closure of Protestant schools and the expulsion of Protestant clergy. Protestants would be barred from assembling and their marriages would be deemed invalid. Baptism and education in the Catholic faith would be required of all children.
Roughly 1 million Huguenots lived in France at the time, and many were artisans or other types of skilled workers. Although emigration of Protestants was explicitly forbidden by the Edict of Fontainebleau, scores of people—estimates range from 200,000 to 800,000—fled in the decades that followed, settling in England, Switzerland, Germany and the American colonies, among other places. Louis XIV’s act of religious zeal—advised, some have suggested, by the Marquise de Maintenon—had cost the country a valuable segment of its labor force while drawing the ire of its Protestant neighbors.
Death of Louis XIV
On September 1, 1715, four days before his 77th birthday, Louis XIV died of gangrene at Versailles. His reign had lasted 72 years, longer than that of any other known European monarch, and left an indelible mark on the culture, history and destiny of France. His 5-year-old great-grandson succeeded him as Louis XV.