Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1701)

As you read, click on the play button and enjoy the sounds of Jean-Baptiste Lully, a composer and conductor to Louis XIV.

"The Sun King"
"The Sun King"

Louis the XIV came to power wanting to create something special, a legacy that
would be passed on to his children and future generations. Not only was
this a legacy for the monarch and his family, it was to be a legacy for all of
France and a model of success for Europe in its entirety. Louis' goal was to
be an absolute monarch, meaning that he wanted to achieve absolute power in
his nation. This meant control over every aspect of his subjects' lives. Louis wanted
to become as necessary to his people as the sun is to our entire planet. This
is why he chose the sun as an important symbol and advertised himself as
"The Sun King". As the sun would provide food, warmth and make the basic
existence of mankind possible, so to would Louis for his subjects. France would
revolve around Louis, their sun, and without him life would be dark, bleak, and impossible.

Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642)
Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642)
Louis, naturally, had some help in creating this absolute kingdom he craved. He was fortunate that following the death of his father, and during the rule of his mother Anne of Austria as Regent, there was continuity. This continuity was provided by Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu served as the First Minister to Louis XIII and is seen as the architect of absolutism. Although a catholic cleric Richelieu's first duty was to the French state. This led to some conflict with the papacy, but the papacy required the support of the French monarchy so their complaints came to little. Although successful in his efforts to centralize power, this success did not come without some costs. He opposed Protestant groups (French Huguenots), and his treatment of the nobles earned him thousands of enemies. Fortunately for the monarchs he served, he became a target of complaints and animosity, leaving them to reign in relative peace and popularity. Richelieu was also extremely poor with finances, losing control of expenditures, a habit which Louis the XIV and his successors would unfortunately continue. After his death in 1642, his successor was Cardinal Mazarin, a man he had brought into the King's council of state. Mazarin continued the ideals of absolutism, mainly while Louis was coming of age. It was rumoured that he was married to Anne of Austria, which may help to explain the longevity of his influence. After his death in 1661 Louis had learned the lessons of his teachers extremely well. Instead of replacing Mazarin, Louis XIV ended the practice of naming Cardinals as First Ministers taking on the role himself and thereby taking full control of his kingdom.

Bourbon Coat of Arms
Bourbon Coat of Arms

One of the most important aspects to this control was the manner in which it was defended. Prior to this the King of France depended upon the nobility for their armed forces. The King did have a small army, much like any other landowner would, but in order to have any success against foreign powers a larger force was necessary. The king would put out a call for support. Depending on the popularity of the ruler or the mood of the nobility, this support varied. If the nobles were content, there was no issue in sending troops. If the nobles were looking to make a point, or perhaps supported the foreign power, they would delay or refuse to send support. In order to avoid this problem Louis the XIV created his own standing army. This would consist of professional soldiers, trained with the latest tactics and outfitted with the latest weapons. This army would be available whenever Louis demanded it and he could be assured of their loyalty and effort. This was important since Louis was ambitious. He wanted to extend the boundaries of France to include the Rhine, Alps and the Pyrenees. This standing army approached 300 000 by 1688 and allowed Louis to bully not only foreign powers, which led to a fair bit of animosity between France and the rest of Europe, but also gave Louis security at home. Who would dare to oppose the king? Who would dare to march their own men, made up of mainly peasants and labourers against trained professionals? The ability to defend himself and his country was an important component of Louis XIV's absolute rule.

Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619-83)
Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619-83)
Of course, an army is an extremely expensive proposition, at peace or war. Moreso during peace since you cannot distribute the spoils of war amongst the men. Louis XIV was not very good with expenditures, frequently outspending what was provided for him. Although he took over the role of the Cardinals, he badly needed help in the economics of his rule. For this the main figure was Jean Baptiste Colbert. He was responsible, as Controller General of Finance, for keeping the coffers full for over twenty years. Colbert made some important reforms to the economic system. His first was to create a common currency. This made trade across the nation much easier. To the same end, he instituted standardized weights and measures. His next area was taxation; he reformed taxation by suppressing abuses and making it uniform throughout the country. The King would collect taxes directly, by-passing the nobles, and would then control not only the amount collected but the amount that would be delivered to the king's coffers. Unfortunately, when the nobles were in place this was not always the case. Colbert also wanted to encourage industry and commerce. He made funds available for expansion and new products. He also created a system for regulating quality and granted monopolies to ensure that competitors had clearly defined areas, in terms of both geography and product. All of this served to double the revenue for Louis in the first ten years. Colbert wanted to use the money to further economic development. Unfortunately, Louis used the funds to wage wars and for his own personal enjoyment and luxuries. The taxes did support the army and allowed for important infrastructure improvements such as roads and bridges. The amounts raised by Colbert should have went much further, but Louis spent as quickly as Colbert collected. This forced Colbert to look for other revenue sources.

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These other revenue sources came from outside France. This was an excellent idea since the majority of French citizens were taxed more than enough and to try and gain more would pose difficulties, even with a standing army. Colbert saw the opportunity presented through international trade and colonies. This concept of mercantilism, a policy by which the colonies existed for the sole economic benefit of the home country, was not used only by the French. Louis expanded the navy and encouraged the building of merchant ships to take advantage of the opportunity and to compete with the other powers, the British, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese. With mercantilism raw materials were collected and brought to the mother country. They would then create finished goods and products which would be sent to the colonies. All exports and imports were restricted to ships from the home nation. As the colonies grew so did their importance, as the conflicts between England and France illustrate. The system was to stimulate economic growth through trade and industrial development. French colonies and success internationally helped to ease the load of the French citizen. It also kept Louis XIV well heeled and Colbert employed. Although, again, Colbert had some logical and practical uses for the money, his sovereign had another use for the funds. In fact, his new project would require funds that even Colbert was at a loss to generate.

Vesailles: The Main Gate
Versailles: The Hall of Mirrors

Until this time in their history, the French Monarchy had been largely nomadic. They moved between various estates and palaces but lacked an identifiable home, basically a version of Buckingham Palace for the English. Louis XIV decided that a permanent palace, worthy of the Sun King was necessary. From this decision came the Palace of Versailles. Work began in 1669 and Louis was able to move the entire court there by 1682. It was placed outside of Paris to avoid any conflicts with the citizens of the city but close enough so that the King would be seen to be in touch with his subjects. Versailles was not only a residence to the royal family. It contained government offices and rooms that could house up to 10 000 semi-permanent guests. No expense was spared. The finest of materials, artisans and art itself was brought. Versailles was to shine, like the sun, and provide a symbol which would evoke pride and envy. Two of the hallmarks of the Palace were its gardens and the Hall of Mirrors. The gardens were seen as an extension of the Palace itself. Plants and trees from around the world were brought there, illustrating the power of France as a colonial power. The chief architect of the gardens, Andre le Notre, spent over fifty years altering the gardens and incorporating an extensive collection of sculptures. The gardens focal point is water, throughout it visitors are surrounded by the sounds of water either from ponds or from elaborate fountains. An outdoor ballroom, complete with cascading waterfall, shows the creativity of the designer. The Hall of Mirrors, begun in 1678, was designed to show wealth and architectural achievement. Mirrors were still a relatively rare possession and to have a hall, seventy three metres in length with floor to ceiling mirrors, would definitely leave an impression. The mirrors would face windows opening up to the gardens and fountains, the outdoors brought in and surrounding the visitors with light and water. The Hall of Mirrors became the focal point of the Palace during Louis reign, a role it continued to play throughout the history of Versailles.

To look at the Palace of Versailles as just an extravagance to satisfy Louis XIV's ego is to miss the main purpose of the Palace. Yes, in its simplist form it provided a home for both Louis and the court of France. However, it also provided for him a tool which he used extensively throughout his reign. The Palace became the home of the Sun, and visitors jockeyed for position to witness the rising/awakening of their King and his setting/retiring. The entire palace was consumed by ceremony, greatly created and encouraged by Louis himself. Nothing was simple, everything was complex and ornate, made to be witnessed by nobles and courtiers adding to the symbolic rule of the monarch. Louis also used the Palace as a political tool. It helped to keep nobles in check, as all of his actions towards absolute rule diminished their power and role in the nation. He used Versailles as a carrot, to keep the nobles contented and entertained. Those fortunate enough to be invited were catered to, had portraits painted by the finest artists while listening to the latest composer. Of course, while there they could not be causing problems for Louis at their estates. Louis was not above spying on them and reading all correspondence to ensure that this was the case.The Palace was also an important tool with foreign dignitaries. They would be invited to Versailles as well, receiving the same treatment as the nobles. They would also witness the power that Louis had over his nobility, his extensive wealth paraded before them. Louis, they would inform their own monarchs, was not to be taken lightly. Watch the video below to see a little of the interior and gardens of this amazing palace.

Louis XIV by Bernini
Louis XIV by Bernini

papal coat of arms.png
Papal Coat of Arms
The same advice could, and should, have been extended to the various popes during the rule of Louis XIV. Louis believed that as a nation France should only have one leader, which naturally would be him. The papacy attempted to maintain control over the catholic church within France, and to exert some political influence through it, an action not take kindly by Louis. His efforts to centralize and the church's attempts at influence came to conflict, especially during the pontificate of Innocent XI. Louis tried to expand some of the traditional powers of the French monarch within the church and Innocent basically opposed what he saw as an erosion of his own. Louis responded by appointing his own cardinals and taking church property. Innocent responded by threatening excommunication and refusing to accept Louis' appointees. Some of the animosity between the two may have stemmed from Louis blocking Innocent's first attempt at becoming pope and reluctantly accepting him at the second try. Despite all the political animosity between the french monarchy and the papacy, Louis XIV was a firm catholic. It is important to divide the church from the faith at this point. Louis went so far as to revoke the Edict of Nantes, a document which brought religious toleration for French Huguenots. Even this act was not enough for Innocent and animosity continued until his death. Louis' relationship with Innocent's successors, Alexander VIII and Innocent XII, was much better and the two sides returned to the traditional relationship between the two powers.

By the end of his rule Louis XIV had been very successful in creating for himself an absolute monarchy. This does not mean that it came without cost or was in any way ideal. As a large nation, that was not homogeneous, there were areas that still pushed back the attempts of Louis. His willingness to go to war to expand the territories of France in four separate wars, met with mixed success. He suffered defeats, especially in his attempts to take over the Netherlands, and these efforts were costly. His finances were usually strained, despite the best efforts of his ministers, and as wars continued his subjects' appetite for it waned. They became tired of the taxes and the rituals the aging king maintained. His major error, was that he became France, became the state. After his death, how could any of his successors, especially a great grandson, compare? After Louis XIV, the sun sets on the apex of French Monarchy and rule.

Louis XIV:  signature
Louis XIV: signature