Louis XIV

Louis XIV was born in 1638, the son of King Louis XIII and his wife, Anne of Austria, from the Habsburg dynasty. Anne served as regent until Louis XIV began to govern in his own name in 1651.

However, he was carefully guided by Cardinal Jules Mazarin, who had been the protégé of Cardinal Richelieu. Anne’s loveless marriage to Louis XIII fueled the rumor that Louis XIV’s father was actually Jules Mazarin, with whom the love-starved Anne shared a romance.

As he settled into his reign, he increased the size of his bureaucracy. To fill expanding government positions, Louis XIV turned toward the middle class. These men, rather than owing their positions to ancestral power, were truly “the king’s men”; everything they gained was from the king, and they knew the king could take it away if he became displeased with their service.

Louis XIV began construction outside Paris of his Palace of Versailles, which earned him the name “Sun King.” This not only was a reflection of his wealth and power, but also served to provide distance from the danger of rebellious Paris mobs.

The palace itself and its grounds are huge. Under the scepter of the Sun King, Versailles became the cultural capital of Europe. Among many creative personalities stimulated by the cultural atmosphere was the playwright Molière, who, in October 1658, staged his first royal performance before the king.

Absolutist Policies

Louis XIV continued pursuing the absolutist policies of Richelieu and Mazarin. In domestic affairs, Jean-Baptiste Colbert assured a steady and reliable system of finance for the king, while overseeing spending by the various departments of the French government’s budgets.

Colbert also became the father of the French navy, establishing a fleet of the best-designed warships in the world, a distinction they would hold until the Napoleonic Wars. What Colbert did for the French navy, Michel Le Tellier, and his son Michel Le Tellier, marquis de Louvois, did for the French army. The combined efforts of these men gave France military might.

The sun king

In one of the last state acts before he died, Mazarin negotiated peace between France and Habsburg Spain. However, eight years later, Louis XIV began a series of wars that consumed most of the rest of his reign, and the royal treasury.

When Philip IV of Spain died, territory in the Spanish Netherlands was ceded to Charles II of Spain and not to Louis XIV’s wife, Marie-Thérèse, who was Charles’s half sister. Louis XIV went to war in 1667 under a claim for the territory in the Spanish Netherlands. Once again, Spain and France were at war.

The Dutch feared that Louis XIV could easily lay claim to Holland, because it too had once been ruled by Spain. In 1668, the Dutch formed the defensive Triple Alliance with England and Sweden against Louis XIV. But Charles II of England signed a separate peace with Louis XIV in 1670 guaranteeing Charles a secret subsidy, which freed him from dependence on the money annually voted him by the British parliament.

In 1672, Louis XIV and Charles smashed into the Dutch United Provinces in one of the most devastating invasions in European history. Although Charles left the war in 1674, Louis XIV continued until 1678. He gained more territory in Spanish Netherlands and the strategic border region of the Franche-Comte but was still not satisfied with his territorial enlargement.

Edict of Nantes Revoked

A decade of peace followed, in which Louis continued to assert his royal power both in France and in its colonies. In 1685, Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had granted religious toleration to the Huguenots; this caused thousands of them to flee.

Consequently, the Huguenots and their children became some of France’s most bitter enemies during the wars of the 18th century. Since Jansenist (a sect of the Roman Catholic Church) ideas bore some resemblance to Calvinism, Louis waged war against the Jansenists, even closing their spiritual center, the Abbey of Port-Royal.

Louis XIV receiving the submission, the Doge of Genoa in May 1685
Louis XIV receiving the submission, the Doge of Genoa in May 1685

In 1688, the diplomatic balance of power in Europe suddenly shifted against Louis XIV. His ally, Charles II of England, had died in 1685 to be succeeded by his Catholic brother, James II. James’s religious stance brought on the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

James was forced to flee, to be supplanted by his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, the stadtholder of the Dutch Netherlands, who had come to power as a result of Louis’s Dutch War.

William in the same year brought England into the League of Augsburg with the Dutch Netherlands, then known as the United Provinces, the Holy Roman Empire, and other European powers. With England now part of the coalition to frustrate Louis XIV’s European ambitions, the War of the Grand Alliance broke out in 1688; it would continue until 1697.

A major series of battles was fought in Europe, but Louis XIV neglected to support James II fully when James II attempted to regain his English throne in 1688. A victory by James could have removed William from the throne, thus taking the most relentless adversary out of the coalition. However, the death of Charles II of Spain led Louis XIV to pursue seeing his grandson become King Philip V of Spain.

Louis succeeded, only to wreck his diplomatic triumph by decreeing in 1701 that the future rights of Philip and his line were to go to the French Crown. The prospect of a French-Spanish union was something the other powers in Europe could never accept, and the War of the Spanish Succession broke out.

The war devastated both Europe and the European colonies until 1713. Two years later, in September 1715, Louis XIV died. Although he had lived to see his ultimate diplomatic triumph, his Bourbon grandson Philip on the throne of Spain, the cost of his wars had inflicted such a toll that the royal treasury never really could recover before the French Revolution swept the monarchy away entirely in 1789.