The Greatest Age in French History
Louis xiv had been King of France since 1641 when he was five. In 1661 he decided to take all power into his own hands and he created the Absolute Monarchy, a form of government which was to last in France until 1789, the time of the French Revolution. Under Louis XIV, France became the most powerful nation in Europe.
In 1660, when Charles II was restored to the throne of England to the great joy of his subjects, his cousin, Louis XIV, aged twenty-three, gave few signs of being an outstanding figure. Like his English cousin, he was much addicted to women, loved the theatre and dancing, hunting and amusements of all kinds; unlike Charles, he appeared solemn, even a little pompous, a stickler for formality; and not very intelligent. He seemed destined to preside rather than to rule.
During his minority, France had been governed by his mother, Queen Anne, and Cardinal Mazarin whom the world said was her lover. His father, Louis XIII, had entrusted the care of the kingdom to another cardinal, Cardinal Richelieu; and his renowned grandfather, Henry IV, whose reign coincided roughly with that of Queen Elizabeth, had allowed great power to his principal minister, Sully.
The French monarchy had not been very strong for nearly a hundred years. The kings of France had been chased about by Catholic and Protestant armies during the Wars of Religion at the end of the sixteenth century. Many great nobles were richer than the king and with large private armies. The Parliaments of the Provinces and also the Parliament of Paris, assemblies dominated by lawyers and great merchants, constantly challenged the royal authority.
Under Mazarin, Louis XIV had seen his palace invaded by the Paris mob, and during the Civil Wars, known as Les Frondes, which lasted from 1649-53, nobles and Parliaments, in constantly shifting alliances, had rebelled against Mazarin and the royal power which supported him. The king had been driven out of Paris and his cousin La Grande Mademoiselle, the daughter of the Duke of Orleans, had fired the cannons of the Bastille against his army. Queen Anne and Mazarin had won in the end, but the royal power was on shaky foundations. It would be shaky so long, as Louis XIV had gradually learnt, as a minister controlled the finances of the kingdom and not the king.
Cardinal Mazarin died in 1661; everyone imagined that Louis would find another minister and that this would be Nicolas Fouquet, a vigorous and highly intelligent man of forty-five, who for many years had managed the finances of the realm under Mazarin. He had become extremely rich in doing so and, in addition to many great houses, he possessed a fortified island off the coast of Brittany with twenty-five armed whaling vessels and six warships bought from the Dutch, all sailing under his personal flag. Fouquet was allied by marriage to several great French families.
He had his friends, agents and spies in every department of State, including the friar who acted as the confessor to the king’s mother. Fouquet had himself made Attorney-General to the Paris Parliament, a position of considerable political power from which he could put pressure if need be on the king.
Immediately after Mazarin’s death, the young king slightly surprised his Council by telling them straight away that he would be his own Prime Minister. He told the Archbishop of Rouen who asked him to whom he should refer the affairs of the Church, hitherto in Mazarin’s hands, that he himself would decide them. He closely questioned Fouquet about finances and, to the astonishment of all, spent five to eight hours each day on business. Fouquet was a little uneasy for he had much to hide; but he was confident that the king’s interest in a new mistress, Louise de la Valliere, would distract him in the long run from serious matters. Fouquet entertained Louis, his mother and Louis’s mistress to a most magnificent fete at his new Palace at Vaux-le-Vicomte, which was full of Old Masters and tapestries of great value and had a park with long alleys and 150 fountains, with orangeries, conservatories and so on, enclosed in a gilded iron fence.
In September the king decided on Fouquet’s disgrace. He travelled to Nantes in Brittany, where he presided over the Breton Parliament, and then, with many precautions because a false move could have touched off a revolt, he arranged for a Captain D’Artagnan of the Company of Musketeers to arrest Fouquet as he came to the castle of Nantes. When D’Artagnan stopped Fouquet in his sedan chair and showed him the king’s warrant, Fouquet was dumbfounded.
“I thought I stood as high with the king as any man in France,” he said. He was to spend the rest of his life in a fortress. The French were also dumbfounded at Fouquet’s fall and the manner of it. It was then that Louis could have uttered the celebrated phrase attributed to him: “L’Etat c’est moi” (“I, the Monarch, am the State”).
Louis XIV was able to create his regime because, tired of incessant disorder and civil war, the French people had the opposite wish of the people of England; they wanted an Absolute Monarchy capable of ruling firmly and coherently. In the nature and abilities of the young Louis the right instrument was undoubtedly to hand. With a belief in his right and duty to rule, he had all the qualities of an efficient Head of State.
Brought up under the direction of his mother, he had learnt from her the habit of careful performance of religious duties and invariable courtesy. Even as a child he had something majestic about him and as a young man there seemed to be in his countenance something calm, proud and slightly intimidating. His health was excellent. Neither his love affairs nor his constant attendance at court ever interfered with the conduct of public business; at that, he was assiduity itself.
If no genius, he had so much common sense and clarity of mind and application that it amounted to genius. His common sense made him choose good ministers, at least until the closing years of his reign, and to stick to them. Colbert was the king’s principal minister from 1669 to his death in 1685. Colbert at one time or another reformed or created most sections of the administration; he codified the laws, brought into being a workable system of taxation which only failed when the king’s wars became too costly and frequent, vastly improved roads, river navigation and canals, rebuilt a powerful French navy and organized French possessions in Canada, the West Indies, Madagascar and India.
But neither Colbert nor Vauban, who built the great French fortifications, nor Louvois, the organizer of the army, were ever given imposing titles. They were simply the agents of the king. With Louis’s common sense went considerable cunning and an easy absorption of the Machiavellian attributes necessary to a monarch.
In dealing with people he was astonishingly self-controlled, aloof but invariably affable and polite even to those who dared to cross him. A preacher once seized the opportunity of lecturing the king when he met him in a corridor in the Palace of Versailles.
Louis contented himself with saying mildly, “My father, I like to take my share of a sermon but I do not like to have it forced on me. “Once the Duke of Lauzun flew into a passion with the king. The king listened impassively; then he opened a window and threw out the stick he always carried, saying that he would be unhappy to strike a man of Lauzun’s rank.
Rigorous application, common sense, ability to choose his agents, and self-control, the qualities of a professional king: “The profession of a king”, he wrote, “is great, noble and delicious”; and he stated too that, in his youth, when the names of ineffective kings of France were mentioned in his presence, he felt uncomfortable.
In the character of a really great man, all his qualities seem to work together. Louis loved magnificence and pomp of which he was a central object; he had too great a taste for it, no doubt. What more natural to him than the creation of the Court of Versailles to which all the princes and nobles of France were obliged to resort for most of the year.
Versailles had also a wide political purpose. It was a gilded prison for the nobility where instead of plotting against the royal power, it scrambled for privileges and favours. Yet with all its over-elaborate ritual, its constant scandals and intrigues, the Court assembled in one place many of the most able and all the most charming men and women of the time. Some of the best music, literature, painting would not have been composed without the existence of this immense cauldron of intellectual energy, ever on the boil. To live at the Court would have been disastrous for a Moliere or a Racine; to frequent it was an immense stimulus.
The nobles and courtiers imprisoned in Versailles had one use, to serve in time of war. Great generals and captains came from this elegant throng. For war was the principal occupation of Le Grand Monarque. Louis XIV waged war with certain well-defined objects, the security of France’s frontiers by small aggrandizements of territory. Until the War of the Spanish Succession, his last war, Louis was exceptionally well served by his generals. At the beginning of his reign, Conde and Turenne led his armies and to follow them were men such as the Marshal of Luxembourg, Catinat, Bouflers, whilst princes of the blood and the king himself, at times, took charge of the armies with remarkable success.
Louis did not make Napoleon’s mistake of threatening English maritime interests. Until 1689, except for one short period when Charles II allied himself with the Dutch, France could count on the support or the friendly neutrality of England. The third of his wars, begun against the Dutch Republic with English aid, took much longer and cost more than he had expected; yet at the Treaty of Nimwegen in 1678, Louis showed great moderation and renounced the total conquest of Belgium. He had obtained most of France’s present northern frontier. Louis XIV was now at his apogee. When, in 1688, he had a serious illness, an infection of the great intestine, fervent prayers were said on his behalf by the people of France.
Men at their height are ready to decline. In 1688 Louis had to fight a coalition of England, under the realistic William III, and Holland, the Holy Roman Emperor of Austria with many German States, Sweden, Spain and Savoy. In ten years of warfare, Louis gained some of his most striking victories, yet the Treaty of Ryswick, made because all combatants were exhausted, was a semi-defeat.
France was to lose pre-eminence in the War of the Spanish Succession which began in 1701. It was a war which Louis XIV had consented to many sacrifices to avoid, even though he precipitated its outbreak by a sudden invasion of the Netherlands when he saw war was inevitable. The prize was Spain and the Spanish Empire.
The Allies, as might be expected, were not particularly united about their objects and quarrelled fiercely during the course of the war. But the Duke of Marlborough, who commanded the English armies, and Prince Eugene of Savoy, who commanded those of the Emperor of Austria, were not only great generals but born diplomats. Indeed they tricked their own governments into prosecuting the war with efficiency and to making the necessary sacrifices.
At Blenheim, fought on the Danube, where by a miracle Marlborough had conducted a British and Dutch force, the coalition won a most striking victory; the French threat to Vienna was completely shattered. After Ramillies in the Netherlands, in 1706, Marlborough was master of the Spanish Netherlands and entered Antwerp and Brussels, captured by the French at the beginning of the war. Defeated in Italy, in Spain and in Portugal, though gaining some brilliant successes in Germany, Louis XIV sued, in vain, for peace. Foolishly, the Allies were not ready to end the war.
In 1708 the French were beaten at Oudenarde and the invasion of France began. In 1709 the bloody battle of the Malplaquet, near Lille, was a draw; the French left the battlefield but the Allies had suffered far heavier losses. The fortune of France changed at the battle of Denain, followed by a victorious campaign in which was recovered all territory in France which had been lost.
The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 gave France the first prize in the war, a French King of Spain, but one forbidden to inherit the French throne. She lost Nice, Savoy and all her possessions in Italy and was forced to raze the fortifications of Dunkirk to the ground and to block the harbour. It was a humiliating peace but it left France still the strongest power in Europe, with all the fortified places won in the early wars intact.
The closing years of the reign of Louis XIV were sombre. Long before the close of the War of the Spanish Succession the country was exhausted. In 1709 a bitter winter killed the olive and fruit trees of southern France and ruined much of the following year’s harvest; black bread was eaten at the Court of Versailles and Louis XIV had to sell much of his gold plate to finance the war and to exact ever larger sacrifices from his now grumbling people. In 1715, two years after the Treaty of Utrecht, Louis, to finance the attempt of the Pretender to overthrow George I who had succeeded Queen Anne on the English throne in 1814, had to borrow money from his nephew the King of Spain.
Life in Versailles even before the victories of Marlborough had become far less gay. The last of Louis’s mistresses, Madame de Maintenon, whom he had married morganatically, in her time beautiful and witty, brought a severely religious atmosphere into an already heavily formal routine. The life of the Court in Louis’s last years did not appeal even to Madame de Maintenon. She wrote to a friend: “Oh that I could tell you of my trials, that I could reveal the boredom which attends the great and the difficulty they have in passing their time.” Madame de Maintenon complained once to her brother of the monotony of her life with the Great King. “I cannot endure it any longer; I wish I were dead,” she said. His reply to her was: “I suppose you have been promised the Almighty as a husband.”
A series of domestic calamities fell on Louis. Having lost his wife when he was forty-five and his only legitimate son at the age of fifty, he was now to see his grandson and heir, the Duke of Burgundy, his Duchess and their elder son, carried to the royal vault at St Denis in April, 1712, victims of an infectious disease known as the purple fever. In less than a month more than five hundred people succumbed to this disease in Paris alone, among them many other great personages of the Court. In August, 1715, Louis’s legs swelled and signs of gangrene appeared. The courtiers began to gather around the Duke of Orleans, who was to be Regent, and who was not normally one of the centres of attraction. When the king appeared to revive through the treatment of a quack, and took foods (the throng at the Duke’s levee in the morning fell away. “If the king eats another mouthful”, said the Duke, “we shall have no one left.”
The Absolute Monarchy which Louis XIV created in 1661 was to give France peace from internal strife until 1789, when the French Revolution began. A great French historian, Jacques de Bainville, has pointed out that there were only two events at home of any importance during the whole of Louis’s long reign, the arrest of Fouquet and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 by which Louis annulled the guarantees given to the Protestants for freedom of worship by his grandfather Henry IV. It was an act performed against his better judgment for which Madame de Maintenon, with her exaggerated piety, and public opinion which disliked and envied the French Huguenots, were jointly responsible. Louis very rarely yielded either to women or public opinion; but in this case he did.
The merits of the Absolute Monarchy can be contested. It can be considered a pity that Louis’s despotic form of government served as an example to Europe during the eighteenth century instead of (the democratic growth which took place in England. But it must be doubted if any other form of government was capable of restoring order and stability in France.
Of the greatness of Louis’s reign there can be no doubt. He made war too much, but on the whole he made it prudently, aiming at and succeeding in giving France her natural frontiers. Napoleon’s gigantic conquests were quickly lost: France kept what Louis had won. Louis’s achievement is not to be measured by its political or martial successes. The monarchy of Louis XIV was the framework lor a great age of the French spirit in the arts, particularly literature, and sciences, and Louis himself not only provided the framework but was a man of discernment, protecting, for example, Moliere and Racine against their lesser rivals and discovering the musical genius of Lully. As H. A. L. Fisher has written in his history of Europe:
“The intellectual and social prestige of the French monarchy, so far from being lowered in the eyes of its adversaries by the martial ambitions of Louis XIV, received from them an added lustre. French books were not the less read, French science not the less honoured, French fashions not the less followed because half Europe was coalesced against the French monarchy. French civilization, illustrated by the brilliance and learning of its authors, ruled supreme and gave the law to every social group which aspired to the faintest tincture of culture from the Russian border to the Atlantic Ocean.”
- Works by or about Louis XIV at Internet Archive
- Works by Louis XIV at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Louis XIV at History.com
- Full text of marriage contract, France National Archives transcription (in French)
- Le Siècle de Louis XIV by Voltaire, 1751, hosted by French Wikisource
- The Story of Civilization VIII: The Age of Louis XIV online ebook by historians Will Durant and Ariel Durant.