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The Reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715): An Overview

           Born in 1638, Louis XIV succeeded his father, Louis XIII, as king at the age of five.  He ruled for 72 years, until his death in 1715, making his reign the longest of any European monarch.  By the time he died, he outlived his son and his grandson, leaving the throne to his young great-grandson Louis XV. Louis XIV’s reign was important in French history not just because it lasted so long but because he was a strong-willed ruler who was determined to make his subjects obey him and to make his kingdom the predominant power in Europe.  He came closer than any other French king to making the political theory of absolutism a reality.

            Louis XIV’s childhood was marked by the upheaval of the Fronde (1648-1653), which left him with a lasting horror of disorder.  The Fronde had shown that the royal judges of the Parlement, the great nobles, the provincial political elites, and the common people could all pose threats to royal authority.  Louis XIV would attempt to insure that none of these groups would be able to oppose the central government as they had during the Fronde.

            During the early years of his reign, Louis XIV remained dependent on Mazarin, the minister who had loyally served his mother during the Fronde.  Mazarin transmitted to Louis XIV the practices that Henri IV, Sully, and Richelieu had developed in the early decades of the seventeenth century.  The treaty of the Pyrenees (1659) ended the long war between France and Spain, which had continued even after the settlement of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, on terms favorable to France.  France had clearly replaced Spain as Europe’s most powerful kingdom.

            As an adolescent, Louis XIV threw himself into the social whirl of the court and the pursuit of young women; he did not seem particularly serious about his political responsibilities.  When Mazarin died in 1661, everyone expected him to find a new principal minister to take on the burden of actually running the government.  To the court’s surprise, Louis announced that he intended to be his own principal minister.  There would be no equivalent to Sully, Richelieu, or Mazarin for the rest of his reign.  Soon after Mazarin’s death, Louis had the ambitious finance minister Fouquet, who had hoped to dominate the government, arrested, and his lavish estate confiscated.  Impressed by the architect and garden designer who had created Fouquet’s palace at Vaux-le-Vicomte, Louis later hired them to create his own palace at Versailles.

            Although Louis XIV tried to oversee all aspects of the government, he did rely on ministers for assistance in carrying out his policies.  The fate of Fouquet had shown these men, however, that they could not aspire to personal dominance in the style of Richelieu and Mazarin.  Louis was careful to divide his favor among competing ministers and encourage rivalries among them, so that he would always be in a position to make the decisions that mattered.

            The most important minister in the first half of Louis XIV’s reign was Colbert, a former assistant of Mazarin’s.  Colbert is remembered above all for his efforts to regulate the French economy.  He believed that an organized effort was needed to allow France to surpass its rivals, particularly the Netherlands and England.  French merchants and manufacturers were strictly regulated to avoid what Colbert regarded as wasteful competition and to make sure that their goods were of high quality.  Colbert tried to encourage the development of domestic manufactures to replace goods that France had had to import from abroad, especially expensive luxury products.  His mercantilist policies discouraged imports through high tariffs and tried to build up export industries whose sales abroad would increase the amount of money flowing into the kingdom.

            Building up France’s economy was just one part of Louis XIV’s program for increasing the country’s power.  In his view, the most important duty of a ruler was to seek gloire (glory) for himself and his country through military successes.  The war minister, Louvois, was put in charge of organizing an army that soon grew to be Europe’s largest.  In 1665, Louis XIV launched an attack on the Spanish provinces in the Netherlands, along France’s northern borders.  This War of Devolution (1666-68) added the important city of Lille to French territory.  In 1672, France attacked the Netherlands, an important commercial rival.  The French expected an easy victory over their much smaller opponent, but the Dutch succeeded in finding allies and put up a stiff resistance.  Although Louis XIV’s propagandists proclaimed the war a triumph, in fact it ended in 1678 with only minor gains for France.

            At home, Louis XIV continued his efforts to strengthen royal power.  He systematized Richelieu’s method of controlling the provinces through appointed officials by creating a system of permanent intendants, one for each of the country’s provinces.  The intendants, who could be moved or dismissed by the king, oversaw the enforcement of laws and the collection of taxes, and reported regularly to the king about events in their province.  French subjects became accustomed to the permanent presence of royal authority throughout the country.  In 1673, Louis curtailed the powers of the parlements, the royal courts.  They were forbidden to protest against the provisions of new laws until after they had registered them.  This greatly reduced the courts’ ability to obstruct royal policy and influence the population.

            Although he was determined to be obeyed, Louis XIV understood that he needed cooperation from his subjects to carry out his policies.  He offered the country’s noble elites a virtual monopoly on government offices and favors in exchange for their support.  In France’s towns, elected city councils were replaced with officials named by the king, who could be counted on to give him their loyalty.  To raise money, he created and sold an ever-increasing number of venal offices.  Louis XIV distrusted the lower classes, viewing them as a potential source of disorder.  He created large hopitaux (hospices) where beggars, orphans, criminals and the insane were forcibly locked up under tight supervision.

            Like his predecessors Henri IV and Louis XIII, Louis XIV wanted to see France achieve religious unity.  Although he was a devout Catholic, he resented the Pope’s efforts to control the French Church.  In 1682, he imposed the Gallican articles on the French hierarchy, giving the king almost total control over the naming of bishops and the internal affairs of the church.  Urged on by militant Catholics who convinced him that the Protestant minority was too weak to resist, Louis decided in 1685 that the time had come to revoke the edict of Nantes.  Protestant worship in France was forbidden, and drastic measures, such as quartering troops in Protestant homes, were used to pressure them to convert.  About one-third of France’s Protestants fled abroad to escape this persecution; others formed an underground movement, holding religious services in forests and remote mountain areas.  The Protestant exiles waged a propaganda campaign against Louis XIV from their refuges in the Netherlands and elsewhere, significantly damaging the king’s reputation abroad.

            Throughout the early 1680s, Louis XIV continued his aggressive drive to expand France’s borders, particularly along the Rhine river.  The annexation of the historically German city of Strasbourg in 1681 gave him control of the strategic province of Alsace.  France’s push toward the Rhine brought Louis XIV into conflict with the Austrian Habsburg dynasty, but Emperor Leopold I was distracted by a war against the Ottoman Empire, whose armies threatened his capital of Vienna in 1683.  Although the Austrians were fellow Christians, Louis XIV encouraged the Turks, further poisoning relations with the Habsburgs.

            Once the Austrians had defeated the Turks, they joined an alliance with France’s other enemies.  Leadership of this coalition came from the Dutch leader William of Orange, who became king of England in 1688 as William III, replacing James II who Louis XIV had supported.  In 1688, France found itself involved in a new round of warfare against an alliance that included all the other major European powers: England, the Netherlands, Austria, and Prussia.  Huguenot exiles driven out of France after 1685 waged an effective propaganda campaign against Louis XIV.  The war of the League of Augsburg lasted until 1697.  The death of the capable war minister Louvois in 1691 deprived Louis of a valuable advisor.  Although the French won some major battles, Louis XIV was unable to break up the enemy coalition, and the final peace settlement was a barely disguised defeat for him.

            The war of the League of Augsburg left France financially exhausted, and the aging king was not eager to start another conflict.  When Charles II, the king of Spain, died without an heir in 1700 and left his throne to a French Bourbon prince, however, Louis found himself in a dilemma.  France’s enemies refused to accept an arrangement that they feared would some day lead to a union of France and Spain.  Louis was unwilling to renounce such a significant gain in France’s diplomatic and military position.  Negotiations with William III and Leopold I broke down, and in 1701 France again found itself at war with the British, Dutch, and Austrians.

            The war of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713) was the largest and costliest European war up to that time.  At its height, the French army grew to more than 400,000 men, three times as large as it had been during the Thirty Years’ War.  The cost of maintaining this huge war effort was crippling.  Taxes increased to record levels.  The king’s effort to increase the capitation, a tax paid by all subjects regardless of their social status, put a strain on the alliance with the nobility that had been the basis of Louis’s system.  Protestants in the remote southern region of the Cévennes revolted in 1703, starting a guerilla war that became an additional drain on resources.  The French army also suffered several major defeats, most notably at the battle of Blenheim in 1704, when the British forces commanded by the Duke of Marlborough won a devastating victory.

            The disasters of the war generated increasing criticism of Louis XIV and his heavy-handed absolutist system.  Merchants and manufacturers complained about the rules and regulations that hindered their activities.  At the court, many high nobles resented their exclusion from any real political role and talked about the necessity of reducing the excessive powers Louis XIV had gathered into his hands.  One unhappy noble, the duc de Saint-Simon, documented their complaints in his extensive diaries.  His acid portrait of the aging king and his faction-ridden court was published after his and the king’s death, and has become both a literary classic and the source of much of our knowledge about French politics and opinion under Louis XIV.

           Devout Catholics objected to a church that had become an instrument of political control; some of them joined a dissident Catholic movement, Jansenism, that called for a purer, stricter form of piety.  Fearing that the Jansenists would weaken his authority over the church, Louis XIV pressured the Pope to issue a condemnation of their theological doctrines.  The Pope’s bull, Unigenitus, issued in 1713, only strengthened the Jansenists’ determination to resist both Papal and royal authority.  The Jansenist controversy would become one of the major divisions in France during the eighteenth century.

            French fortunes reached their low point in 1709, following more military defeats.  The winter of 1709-1710 was one of the coldest in French history, destroying crops and reducing much of the population to utter misery. Louis XIV was by now ready to make peace, but his enemies kept raising their demands as they saw France’s difficulties mounting.  Unwilling to accept demands that he regarded as humiliating for himself and dangerous for the country, Louis was driven to take the extraordinary step of appealing directly to his subjects for their support.  “I come to ask for your councils and your aid in this encounter that involves your safety,” he told them. 

            Divisions among France’s enemies and better fortunes on the battlefield finally made it possible to bring the war to an end in 1713.  The Bourbon Philip V remained king of Spain, but renounced any claim to the French throne, and France avoided having to cede territory gained earlier in Louis’s reign.  The war left France on the verge of bankruptcy, however, and the aged king was deeply unpopular.  In the meantime, the death of his son and grandson during the last years of the war had left a young great-grandson as heir, raising the prospect of another troubled regency.  Louis XIV’s attempt to ensure the survival of the dynasty by making his illegitimate sons eligible for the throne further alienated key court figures.  At his death in 1715, Louis XIV left behind a deeply troubled kingdom.  His critics hoped that France would now move in the direction of a less centralized government with a less aggressive foreign policy.