‘For monarchists everywhere, the turbulent 1640s proved to be the darkest decade before the dawn of a new era of authoritarian government often characterized by historians as “the age of absolutism”. Tim Blanning, The Pursuit of Glory (Penguin, 2007, 207).The inheritance of Louis XIV
Louis was born 5 September 1638, the ‘God-given’, ‘miraculous’ child of Louis XIII and his Habsburg wife, Anne of Austria, after twenty-two years of marriage; he was baptised Louis-Dieudonné. He succeeded his father in May1643 aged four. From the start he was treated as a king. He was taught that if he ruled in accordance with the will of God, his reign would be numbered as one of the most glorious in the history of France.
Throughout his reign he was acutely aware of his inheritance. French jurists had defined that the line of kings had followed each other in legitimate succession from Hugh Capet (987-96). This succession had to be male. The Salic law had the advantage of keeping foreigners off the throne but it created problems if there was no male heir. Before Louis’ birth the Bourbon line had come uncomfortably close to extinction. Louis himself only raised one legitimate child and was succeeded by his great-grandson (his son, grandson and one great-grandson predeceased him).
In his Memoirs, begun in 1661 for his son, the Dauphin. Louis set out a view of himself as a wise ruler, appointed by God, a glorious prince, dedicated to the pursuit of la gloire (glory, reputation). His reign coincided with the greatest period of French cultural and political dominance – le grand siècle.
The early life of Louis XIV
On 5 September 1651 he officially came of age (his thirteenth birthday). His early life was a baptism of fire because of the Fronde revolts, which twice caused him to flee from the capital. But with the king’s majority, the Fronde came to an end, finishing with Louis’ state entry into Paris in 1652 though continuing in Bordeaux until 1653. In 1653 a ballet was performed to celebrate the end of the Fronde, in which Louis appeared as the Rising Sun, wearing a diadem with golden rays. 7 June 1654 he was crowned at Rheims, where he was anointed with the holy oil, received the homage of the nobility and was acclaimed by the people. Two days later he touched 2000 people infected with scrofula. He had now taken up official residence at the Louvre. On 13 April 1665 he went in person to the Parlement of Paris, which had sought to delay registering some financial edicts and is reputed to have proclaimed, ‘L’Etat, c’est moi’.
Louis’ political education was in the hands of Cardinal Mazarin. From the mid 1650s Mazarin met him almost every day and trained him carefully in the art of government and decision-making. He spent long hours reading reports and attending council meetings. He emerged as a shrewd politician, never doubting for a second that he would be a great king. To the king’s training in government, Mazarin added training in war. On several occasions Louis accompanied him and the Maréchal de Turenne on campaigns against Spain.
With the death of Mazarin on 9 March 1661, he was as well-prepared as any king to rule. On 10 March Louis met the Archbishop of Rouen, who asked him to whom he and others should now go for instruction. Louis replied: ‘A moi, Monsieur l’archevêque!’ Louis:
‘I realised that I was king; for that I had been born. I was transfused with sweet exaltation'.The fall of Fouquet
In his memoirs, Louis wrote that after Mazarin’s death,
‘I determined, above all, not to have a Prime Minister’.A few hours after Mazarin died, he summoned his first Council. This was the first meeting of the Conseil d’en Haut, a compact body whose members attended at the king’s invitation not as of right. Only three ministers attended the first meeting: Michel Le Tellier (1603-85) (Secretary for War), Hugues de Lionne (1611-71) (acting Secretary for Foreign Affairs); Nicolas Fouquet (1615-80) Attorney-General and Superintendent of Finances).
The Council assumed that the king would continue as before and let his Council govern the country. But the next day Louis announced that he would be his own Prime Minister. However, Fouquet and his friends continued to hope that he would be made prime minister.
Fouquet was forty-five and brilliantly versatile, well aware of his abilities. His motto was ‘How high shall I not climb?’ Two marriages to heiresses had made Fouquet very wealthy. He had been appointed by Mazarin to raise funds for the war against Spain. In doing this he had built up a network of financial contacts, some of them dubious. He lived very lavishly, partly because of vanity, partly because he needed to convince potential creditors that he was credit-worthy. One of his major debtors was the Crown, to whom Fouquet had loaned between 6 and 12 million livres on his personal credit.
Louis appointed as Fouquet’s deputy Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-83), who had managed Mazarin’s, and gave him the brief to keep an eye on Fouquet. Colbert ‘proved’ conclusively that Fouquet was giving the king falsified accounts.
The king took Fouquet’s architect (Le Vau), his painter (Le Brun) and his garden designer (Le Nôtre, Le Brun) and set them to work to produce a larger Vaux - Versailles.
The arrest of Fouquet proved that the king could be ruthless, determined and discreet. It showed, too, that he was determined to be his own first minister, though in Colbert, Le Tellier and de Lionne, he had very able ministers. The affair showed the king in a poor light, but Louis did not suffer politically. Free from overriding needs, the monarchy could turn to the policies of grandeur.
In 1662 a year after Mazarin’s death, Louis adopted his own symbol: the sun.
Louis’ minister Colbert wrote in 1663:
‘Your Majesty knows that in lieu of magnificent acts of warfare, nothing betokens more the grandeur and spirit of princes than buildings; and all of posterity measures them by the standards of these superb buildings that they have erected during their lives.’ (Quoted Thomas Munck, Seventeenth-Century Europe (London, 2005, 347).
The symbolism of Versailles reflected Louis’ image as the sun king. The emblem of the sun, or of Apollo, the sun god, is everywhere. The ceiling of the throne room shows Apollo on his chariot accompanied by France and the seasons. Other images depict Louis as the heir of Hercules. The Salle de Guerre links Louis to the Roman heroes, Augustus and Coriolanus. The Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), which was used for important receptions, has nemean lion skins, alternating with the heads of Apollo, draped over the arches. The vaulted ceiling, painted by Le Brun between 1681 and 1684 depicts the victories and achievements of Louis XIV – he crosses the Rhine in a chariot resembling that of Apollo and hurls a thunderbolt like Jupiter.
‘Versailles was…the most spectacular manifestation of a much wider cultural project which aimed at nothing less than the hegemony of French culture in Europe.’ Blanning, The Pursuit of Glory, 434.French became the universal European language and other princes attempted to imitate Louis by building their own copies of Versailles.
An absolute monarch?
Advocates of absolute monarchy were careful to make a distinction between an absolute king and an arbitrary tyrant. Even the court preacher Bossuet argued that the king could not do just as he pleased. Louis always believed that he was subject to the judgement of God: in the last lines of Racine’s play Athalie, the high priest Joad says: ‘Never forget that kings have a severe judge placed above them in heaven’. Louis could not abolish the Salic law or alienate the kingdom’s land. In July 1714, towards the end of his life, he broke with convention in a decree bringing his legitimized bastards into the succession. This decree caused much consternation and was abrogated - but only on his death.
Louis had a monopoly of decision-making. The Parlement of Paris tamely ratified royal decrees. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (discussed later) was an act of pure royal will. He possessed a standing army and imposed his will in the provinces through his intendants, men appointed solely by the king.