Today marks the 300th anniversary of the death of Louis XIV. It is almost impossible to fully comprehend the extent of the influence Louis XIV had on not just French history, but on European and world history as well.
Louis’ death on 1 September 1715 brought to an end the longest reign of a European monarch – a feat that has not been matched yet, although Elizabeth II just may pull it off, much to the undoubted consternation of the Prince of Wales. But even still, Elizabeth has another 10 years before surpassing Louis’ reign.
But Louis’ long reign was by far only a minor aspect of his accomplishments. He came to the throne at the age of 8 when his father Louis XIII died peacefully, although France was still in a state of turmoil. The Wars of Religion had ended a generation earlier, but the last years of Louis XIII’s reign were marked by the social upheavals of the Frondes (a complex mix of grievances felt by the nobility and the merchant class) which spilt over in a very physical way into the child king’s life. According to contemporaries, the crowds of Paris stormed the Louvre which was still one of the royal residences in the city and entered Louis’ bed chambers. When confronted with the king, the crowds halted their rampaging in deference to their sovereign. As recounted, though terrified, Louis played his part well and commanded the people to leave his chambers, which they duly did. Whether or not this story is apocryphal, the Frondes of the 1640s intensified Louis’ dislike for Paris.
Not only was it a hotbed of sedition and rebellion, it was dirty and smelly and medieval and therefore was considered to be inadequate to the capital of France. This dislike of Paris prompted Louis to embark on one of the best known remnants of his time – Versailles. Today Versailles is a hot tourist location and represents the glitter of Ancièn Regime France. But the location initially was less promising.
The town of Versailles was a small town located along a swamp, but it had the advantage of being far enough away from Paris to escape the chaos, but close enough for Louis to keep an eye on things.
Once referred to as a glittering spider web, the château was one of the tools Louis used to tame his nobility. The famous diarist, St Simon provided a snarky and revealing window into the life at the court of Louis XIV. For example, his recollection of the 80 year old marquise who was an object of ridicule for her penchant for dressing as if she were 60 years younger in a sad attempt to keep with women who were young enough to be her great granddaughters.
Under Louis XIV, France became a global power, expanding its overseas empire in direct competition with England’s own imperial ambitions. This colonization race had unforeseen consequences for French global power. However, during the middle of the 17th century France was the global power of the day. French culture and language dominated the international stage. And to some extent the reputation of French culture, especially represented by its cuisine and fashion dates to the reign of Louis XIV.
In an effort to keep with the English, Louis established the French Academy of Sciences in 1666. Though never quite achieving the prestige of its English counterpart, its work was important for the next century and it was responsible for some important scientific discoveries.
It was also during his reign that the boundaries of modern day France finally came into being which was the culmination of nearly 600 years of royal efforts to assert the power of the crown.
To be sure, there were some very serious missteps. Louis’ love of women is legendary and his mistresses are well known, especially Madame de Maintenon. Madame de Maintenon was a pious educator (the discrepancy of being the royal mistress and a pious and moral educator was not difficult to sustain at the Bourbon court). Maintenon used her influence to “improve” the king with the result of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Whatever Louis’ faults, he regarded himself as a good Catholic and the presence of Protestants who had been granted certain rights in the Edict of Nantes of 1598 was an affront to the Catholic identity of the kingdom. Since the reign of Louis XIII, the Protestant presence in France was always tenuous, but with the prompting of Madame de Maintenon whose own Catholicism was of the strident variety that had come into vogue during the middle of the 17th century, Louis expelled the Protestants from France. This act put him in good standing with the Pope, but it severely damaged French economic vitality since the Protestants made up the majority of the mercantile class though they represented no more than 10% of the population.
The last years of Louis’ reign were blood soaked as he embarked on numerous wars to advance France’s interests and his own dynastic ambitions. The War of Spanish Succession can be considered one of the first truly world wars as European powers and their colonies sought to prevent Louis from putting his children on the Spanish throne. The cost in lives and treasure was immense and in the end it help put France into financial straits that were never really solved until the French Revolution in 1789. Supposedly, on his death bed Louis lamented that he “loved war too much.” Tragically, he had to wait to then to figure that out.
When Louis finally died, he had outstayed his welcome. France was reeling from the hardships his foreign adventures had imposed and there would have been very few people who would have known any other king. Accounts of his funeral procession paint a picture of a people feeling a sense of relief that he was gone, like one’s boorish uncle who doesn’t have the grace to know when they are no longer welcomed.