Louis XIV


Louis XIV, known as “the Great” or “the Sun King”, born on September 5, 1638 at the Château Neuf de Saint-Germain-en-Laye and died on September 1, 1715 at Versailles, was a king of France and Navarre. His reign lasted from May 14, 1643 – under the regency of his mother Anne of Austria until September 7, 1651 – until his death in 1715. His 72-year reign was one of the longest in European history and the longest in French history.

Born Louis, nicknamed Dieudonné, he ascended the throne of France upon the death of his father, Louis XIII, a few months before his fifth birthday, making him one of the youngest kings of France. He became the 64th king of France, the 44th king of Navarre and the third king of France from the Bourbon dynasty.

Although he did not like the fact that his main minister of state, Colbert, referred to Richelieu, minister of Louis XIII and intransigent supporter of royal authority, he nevertheless joined his project of building a secular absolutism of divine right. Usually, his reign is divided into three parts: the period of his minority, troubled by the Fronde, from 1648 to 1653, during which his mother and Cardinal Mazarin governed; the period from the death of Mazarin, in 1661, to the early 1680s, during which the king governs by arbitrating between the major ministers; the period from the early 1680s to his death, where the king governs more and more alone, especially after the death of Colbert in 1683, then Louvois, in 1691. This period was also marked by a return of the king to religion, especially under the influence of his second wife, Madame de Maintenon. His reign saw the end of the great revolts of the nobility, parliamentarians, Protestants and peasants that had marked the previous decades. The monarch imposed obedience to all orders and controlled the currents of opinion (including literary and religious) more cautiously than Richelieu.

During his reign, France was the most populous country in Europe, which gave him a certain power, especially since, until the 1670s, the economy was doing well thanks to the country”s economic dynamism and to public finances in order. Through diplomacy and war, Louis XIV asserted his power, especially against the House of Habsburg, whose possessions encircled France. His “pré carré” policy sought to enlarge and rationalize the country”s borders, protected by Vauban”s “iron belt”, which fortified the conquered cities. This action allowed him to give France borders approaching those of the contemporary era, with the annexation of Roussillon, Franche-Comté, Lille, Alsace and Strasbourg. However, the wars weighed heavily on public finances and Louis XIV attracted the distrust of other European countries, which often allied themselves at the end of his reign to counter his power. It was also the time when, after the Glorious Revolution, England began to assert its power, especially maritime and economic, under the reign of a determined opponent of Louis XIV, William of Orange.

From a religious point of view, the 17th century was complex and not limited to the opposition between Catholics and Protestants. Among the Catholics, the question of grace gave rise to a strong opposition between the Jesuits and the Jansenists. Louis XIV had to decide between the various currents of religious thought, taking into account not only his own convictions, but also political considerations. Thus, if he had the Jansenists condemned, it was also because he was suspicious of their anti-absolutism. Concerning the Protestants, if the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 was generally well received in France, the reactions in Europe and in Rome were more unfavorable. Relations with the popes were generally bad, particularly with Innocent XI. Indeed, the king intended to preserve his independence and that of his clergy from Rome, which did not prevent him from being suspicious of the Gallicans, often impregnated by Jansenism. At the end of the reign, the quarrel of quietism also led to tensions with Rome.

From 1682, Louis XIV ruled his kingdom from the vast Palace of Versailles, whose construction he supervised and whose architectural style inspired other European castles. His court subjected the closely supervised nobility to a very elaborate etiquette. The cultural prestige of the court was enhanced by the royal patronage of artists such as Molière, Racine, Boileau, Lully, Le Brun and Le Nôtre, which favored the apogee of French classicism, described during his lifetime as the “Grand Siècle” or even the “century of Louis XIV”.

The end of his reign was marked by the exodus of persecuted Protestants, by military setbacks, by the famines of 1693 and 1709, which killed nearly two million people, by the Camisard revolt and by the numerous deaths of his royal heirs. All his dynastic children and grandchildren died before him, and his successor, his great-grandson Louis XV, was only 5 years old when he died. However, even after the rather liberal regency of Philippe d”Orléans, absolutism persisted, thus attesting to the solidity of the regime built.

After the death of Louis XIV, Voltaire was inspired in part by him to develop the concept of enlightened despotism. In the 19th century, Jules Michelet was hostile to him and insisted on the dark side of his reign (dragoons, galleys, famines, etc.). Ernest Lavisse was more moderate, even if his textbooks insisted on the despotism of the king, and on certain tyrannical decisions. In the second half of the XXth century, Marc Fumaroli considers Louis XIV as the “patron saint” of the cultural policy of the Fifth Republic in France. Michel de Grèce points out his insufficiencies, while François Bluche and Jean-Christian Petitfils rehabilitate him.

Birth of Louis-Dieudonné

Son of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, Louis was the fruit of the union of the two most powerful dynasties of the time: the Capetian house of Bourbon and the house of Habsburg.

To the traditional title of Dauphin de Viennois was added at his birth that of First Son of France. The unexpected birth of the heir to the throne, after almost twenty-three years of sterile marriage punctuated by several miscarriages, is considered a gift from heaven, which is why he is also called Louis-Dieudonné (and not -Désiré). Although some historians have suggested that the real father is Mazarin, this hypothesis has been invalidated by DNA examination. If the historian Jean-Christian Petitfils proposes the date of November 23 or 30, the week when the royal couple stayed at Saint-Germain, as the date of the “conception of the dolphin”, other authors say that the dolphin was conceived on December 5, 1637, in the Louvre palace (December 5 falls exactly nine months before his birth, on September 5, 1638).

For King Louis XIII as well as for the Queen (and later their son himself), this long-awaited birth was the fruit of Brother Fiacre”s intercession to Our Lady of Grace, to whom the religious made three novenas of prayer in order to obtain “an heir for the crown of France. The novenas were said by Brother Fiacre from November 8 to December 5, 1637.

In January 1638, the queen became aware that she was pregnant again. On February 7, 1638, the king and queen officially received Brother Fiacre to discuss with him the visions he said he had had of the Virgin Mary and the Marian promise of an heir to the crown. At the end of the meeting, the king officially commissioned the religious to go to the church of Notre-Dame-de-Grâces in Cotignac, in his name, to make a novena of masses for the birth of the dauphin.

On February 10, in thanksgiving to the Virgin for this unborn child, the king signed the Vow of Louis XIII, consecrating the kingdom of France to the Virgin Mary, and making August 15 a public holiday throughout the kingdom. In 1644, the queen called Brother Fiacre to her and told him: “I have not lost sight of the grace you have obtained for me from the Blessed Virgin, who has given me a son. And on this occasion, she entrusted him with a personal mission: to bring a present (to the Virgin Mary) to the sanctuary of Cotignac, in thanksgiving for the birth of her son. In 1660, Louis XIV and his mother went in person to Cotignac to pray and thank the Virgin Mary. In 1661 and 1667, the king had Brother Fiacre bring gifts to the church of Cotignac in his name. During his visit to Provence (1660), the king and his mother went on a pilgrimage to the grotto of the Sainte-Baume, in the footsteps of Saint Mary Magdalene.

The birth of Louis, is followed two years later by that of Philippe. The birth of a dauphin, so much hoped for, removed from the throne the unrepentant schemer Gaston d”Orléans, the king”s brother.


In addition to his ministerial duties, Mazarin, Louis XIV”s godfather (chosen as such by Louis XIII after Richelieu”s death on December 4, 1642), was given responsibility by the queen in March 1646 for the education of the young monarch and his brother, Duke Philippe d”Orléans (known as “le Petit Monsieur”). It was customary for princes raised by governesses to “pass to men” at the age of seven (the age of reason at the time), to be entrusted to the care of a governor assisted by a deputy governor. Mazarin thus became “superintendent of the government and conduct of the king”s person as well as that of the Duke of Anjou”, and entrusted the task of governor to the marshal de Villeroy. The king and his brother often went to the Hôtel de Villeroy, not far from the Palais-Royal. It was then that Louis XIV formed a lifelong friendship with the son of the marshal, François de Villeroy. The king had various tutors, including Abbé Péréfixe de Beaumont in 1644 and François de La Mothe Le Vayer. From 1652, his best educator was undoubtedly Pierre de La Porte, his first valet and the one who read historical accounts to him. Despite their efforts to teach him Latin, history, mathematics, Italian and drawing, Louis was not a very hard-working student. On the other hand, following the example of the great art collector Mazarin, he showed great interest in painting, architecture, music and especially dancing, which was, at the time, an essential part of a gentleman”s education. The young king also learned to play the guitar from Francesco Corbetta.

Louis would also have benefited from a particular sexual education, his mother having asked the baroness of Beauvais, nicknamed “Cateau la Borgnesse”, to “denoise” him at his sexual majority.


During his childhood, Louis XIV escaped death several times. At the age of 5, he almost drowned in one of the ponds in the garden of the Palais-Royal. He was saved in extremis. At the age of 9, on November 10, 1647, he was struck by smallpox. Ten days later, the doctors have no hope, but the young Louis recovers “miraculously”. At the age of 15, he had a tumor in his breast. At 17, he suffers from blennoragia.

The most serious scare for the kingdom occurred on June 30, 1658: the king, at age 19, fell victim to severe food poisoning (due to water infection) and typhoid fever, diagnosed as exanthematic typhus, during the capture of Bergues in the North. On July 8, he received the last rites and the court began to prepare the succession. But François Guénaut, Anne of Austria”s doctor, gave him an antimony and wine-based emetic, which once again “miraculously” cured the king. According to his secretary Toussaint Rose, it is on this occasion that he loses a good part of his hair and starts to wear temporarily the “window wig”, whose openings let pass the few remaining strands.

Regency of Anne of Austria (1643-1661)

At the death of his father, Louis-Dieudonné, who was four and a half years old, became king under the name of Louis XIV. His father Louis XIII, who was suspicious of Anne of Austria and her brother the Duke of Orleans – in particular for having participated in plots against Richelieu – established a council of regency including, in addition to the two people mentioned, Richelieu”s followers, including Mazarin. The relevant text was registered by the Parliament on April 21, 1643, but on May 18, 1643, Anne of Austria went with her son to the Parliament to have this provision overturned and to be entrusted with “the free, absolute and entire administration of the kingdom during his minority”, in short the full regency. Against all odds, she maintained Cardinal Mazarin as Prime Minister, despite the disapproval of the French political circles of the time, many of whom did not appreciate that an Italian, loyal to Richelieu, was leading France.

The Regent then left the inconvenient apartments of the Louvre and moved to the Palais-Cardinal, bequeathed by Richelieu to Louis XIII, to take advantage of the garden where the young Louis XIV and his brother could play. The Palais-Cardinal then became the Palais-Royal, where governesses abandoned the young Louis to their maids who gave in to all his whims, which gave rise to the legend, peddled by the Memoirs of Saint-Simon, of a neglected education.

In 1648, a period of strong contestation of the royal authority by the parliaments and the nobility, called the Fronde, began. An episode that left a lasting impression on the monarch. In reaction to these events, he applied himself to continue the work begun by Richelieu, which consisted in weakening the members of the sword nobility by forcing them to serve as members of his court and transferring the reality of power to a highly centralized administration headed by the nobility of dress. It all began when, in 1648, the Parliament of Paris opposed the taxes that Mazarin wanted to raise. The Day of the Barricades forced the regent and the king to move to Rueil-Malmaison. Although the court returned to the capital fairly quickly, the demands of the parliamentarians, supported by the very popular coadjutor of Paris, Jean-François Paul de Gondi, forced Mazarin to consider a coup de force. In the middle of the night, at the beginning of 1649, the regent and the court left the capital with the aim of returning to besiege it and bring it to obedience. The affair became more complicated when personalities of the high nobility brought their support to the Fronde: the Prince of Conti, brother of the Prince of Condé, Beaufort, grandson of Henri IV and some others wanted to overthrow Mazarin. After a few months of siege led by Condé, a peace agreement (peace of Rueil) was reached, which saw the triumph of the Parliament of Paris and the defeat of the court. However, it was a truce rather than a peace.

In 1649-1650, a reversal of alliances occurred, Mazarin and the regent got closer to the Parliament and the leaders of the Great Fronde and had Condé, their former ally, and the Prince of Conti locked up. On December 25, 1649, the king made his first communion in the church of Saint-Eustache and entered the council in 1650, when he was only twelve years old. From February 1650 onwards, the princely revolt developed, forcing Mazarin and the court to move to the provinces to conduct military expeditions. In 1651, Gondi and Beaufort, leaders of the Great Fronde, joined forces with the Parliament to overthrow Mazarin, who was forced into exile by a riot on February 8, 1651. The queen and the young Louis tried to escape from the capital but, alarmed, the Parisians invaded the Palais-Royal where the king was staying, now a prisoner of the Fronde. The coadjutor and the duke of Orleans will then make the king undergo a humiliation that he will never forget: in the middle of the night, they entrust the captain of the Swiss Guards of the duke to verify visually that he is indeed there.

On September 7, 1651, a court decision declared that the king had reached the age of majority (the royal majority is thirteen years old). All the great men of the kingdom came to pay homage to him, except Condé who, from Guyenne, raised an army to march on Paris. On September 27, to avoid being taken prisoner again in Paris, the court left Paris for Fontainebleau, then Bourges, where the four thousand men of Marshal d”Estrée were stationed. A civil war then began that “helped to clarify matters. On December 12, Louis XIV authorized Mazarin to return to France; in reaction, the Parliament of Paris, which had banished the cardinal, put a price on his head for 150,000 livres.

At the beginning of 1652, three camps faced each other: the court, freed from the tutelage established by the Parliament in 1648, the Parliament and finally Condé and the Grands. Condé was to dominate Paris during the first part of 1652, relying in particular on the people whom he manipulated in part. But he lost positions in the provinces, while Paris, which could not stand his tyranny any longer, forced him to leave the city on October 13 with his troops. On October 21, Anne of Austria and her son Louis XIV, accompanied by the deposed king Charles II of England, returned to the capital. The absolutism of divine right began to be established. A letter that the king addresses to the Parliament allows to perceive its substance:

“All authority belongs to Us. The functions of justice, arms and finance must always be separated; the officers of Parliament have no other power than that which We have deigned to entrust to them for the purpose of dispensing justice. Can posterity believe that these officers have claimed to preside over the government of the kingdom, to form councils and to collect taxes, to arrogate to themselves the fullness of a power which is due only to Us?

On October 22, 1653, Louis XIV, then fifteen years old, convened a court session where, breaking with tradition, he appeared as a military leader with guards and drums. On this occasion, he proclaimed a general amnesty, while banishing from Paris some of the great men, members of parliament and servants of the House of Condé. As for the Parliament, he forbade it “to take in the future any knowledge of the affairs of the State and finances”.

Louis XIV was crowned on June 7, 1654 in the cathedral of Reims by Simon Legras, bishop of Soissons. He left the political affairs to Mazarin, while he continued his military training with Turenne.

On November 7, 1659, the Spaniards agreed to sign the Treaty of the Pyrenees, which established the borders between France and Spain. For his part, Louis XIV agreed, willingly or unwillingly, to respect one of the clauses of the treaty: to marry the infanta Maria Theresa of Austria, daughter of Philip IV, King of Spain, and Elizabeth of France. The spouses are double first cousins: the queen mother Anne of Austria being the sister of Philip IV and Elizabeth of France the sister of Louis XIII. This marriage has however for goal to bring closer France of Spain. It took place on June 9, 1660 in the church of St. John the Baptist in St. Jean de Luz. Louis had only known his wife for three days and she did not speak a word of French, but the king “honored” her ardently in front of witnesses on the wedding night. According to other sources, this wedding night, contrary to the custom, would not have had any witnesses.

Let us note that at the time of this marriage, Marie-Thèrèse must give up her rights on the throne of Spain and that Philip IV of Spain, in counterpart, commits himself paying “500 000 gold ecus payable in three payments”. It is agreed that if this payment is not carried out, the renunciation becomes null and void.

Beginning of the direction of the government (1661-1680)

Upon Mazarin”s death on March 9, 1661, Louis XIV”s first decision was to abolish the office of chief minister and to take personal control of the government by a “coup de majesté” on March 10, 1661.

The worsening financial situation, of which Jean-Baptiste Colbert informed him, and the strong discontent of the provinces against the pressure are worrying. The causes were the ruinous war against the house of Spain and the five years of the Fronde, but also the unbridled personal enrichment of Mazarin, from which Colbert himself had benefited, and that of the superintendent Fouquet. On September 5, 1661, his 23rd birthday, the king had Fouquet arrested in broad daylight by d”Artagnan. At the same time, he abolished the post of superintendent of finance.

The reasons for Nicolas Fouquet”s imprisonment are numerous and go beyond a problem of enrichment. To understand the problem, it should be noted that Louis XIV, after the death of Mazarin, was not taken seriously and needed to assert himself. However, Nicolas Fouquet could be perceived as a political threat: he had his possession of Belle-Île-en-Mer fortified, he tried to build up a network of followers and did not hesitate to put pressure on the king”s mother by bribing her confessor. He even tried to bribe Louis XIV”s friend, Mademoiselle de La Vallière, to support him, which shocked her deeply. Moreover, he was close to the devout, at a time when the king did not adhere to this doctrine. Finally, for Jean-Christian Petitfils, it is necessary to take into account Colbert”s jealousy of Fouquet. The first named, if he is a minister of quality that radical historians of the Third Republic have honored, is also “a brutal man … of an icy coldness”, to whom Madame de Sévigné gave the sobriquet “The North” and, therefore, a formidable opponent.

Louis XIV created a chamber of justice to examine the accounts of financiers, including those of Fouquet. In 1665, the judges condemned Fouquet to banishment, a sentence that the king commuted to life imprisonment in Pignerol. In July 1665, the judges gave up prosecuting the farmers and traders (financiers involved in the collection of taxes) who were friends of Fouquet, in exchange for the payment of a fixed tax. All of this allowed the state to recover a hundred million pounds.

The king governed with various trusted ministers: the chancellery was occupied by Pierre Séguier, then by Michel Le Tellier, the superintendence of finances was in the hands of Colbert, the Secretary of State for War was entrusted to Michel Le Tellier, then to his son, the Marquis of Louvois, the Secretary of State for the Royal Household and the Clergy was in the hands of Henri du Plessis-Guénégaud, until the latter”s dismissal.

The king had several mistresses, the most notable being Louise de La Vallière and Madame de Montespan. The latter, who shared with the king “a taste for pomp and grandeur”, advised him in the artistic field. She supported Jean-Baptiste Lully, Racine and Boileau. Louis XIV, then in his forties, seems to be caught in an intense sensual frenzy and leads a sentimental life not very Christian. Things change in the early 1680s, when, after the death of Madame de Fontanges, under the influence of Madame de Maintenon, the king gets closer to the queen and then, after the death of his wife, secretly marries Madame de Maintenon. The affair of poisons also contributes to this conversion.

The Jesuits succeeded one another in the position of royal confessor. It was first occupied from 1654 to 1670 by Father Annat, a fierce anti-Jansenist attacked by Pascal in Les Provinciales, then by Father Ferrier from 1670 to 1674, who was succeeded by Father de la Chaize from 1675 to 1709 and finally by Father Le Tellier.

During this period, Louis XIV led two wars. First the War of Devolution (1667-1668), provoked by the non-payment of the sums due for the renunciation of the Queen to the Spanish throne, then the Dutch War (1672-1678). The first was concluded by the Treaty of Aachen (1668), by which the kingdom of France retained the strongholds occupied or fortified by the French armies during the campaign of Flanders, as well as their dependencies: cities of the county of Hainaut and the fortress of Charleroi in the county of Namur. In return, France gave back to Spain Franche-Comté, a territory that would be returned to it ten years later by the Treaty of Nijmegen (August 10, 1678), which concluded the Dutch War.

Louis XIV practiced a strong repressive policy towards Bohemians. In line with the king”s decree of 1666, the ordinance of July 11, 1682 confirmed and ordered that all male Bohemians, in all provinces of the kingdom where they lived, be condemned to the galleys for life, their wives shaved and their children locked up in hospices. The nobles who gave them shelter in their castles had their fiefs confiscated. These measures also aimed to fight against cross-border vagrancy and the use of mercenaries by some nobles.

Maturity and period of glory (1680-1710)

Around 1681, the king returned to a decent private life, under the combined influence of his confessors, the poisons affair and Madame de Maintenon. The year 1683 was marked by the death of Colbert, one of his main ministers and the “agent of this rational absolutism which was developing at that time, fruit of the intellectual revolution of the first half of the century”. Queen Marie-Thérèse died the same year, which allowed the king to secretly marry Madame de Maintenon, in an intimate ceremony that probably took place in 1683 (dates of January 1684 or January 1686 have also been suggested). In 1684, the devotion settles in force at the court, which moved in Versailles since 1682. In 1685, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which granted religious freedom to French Protestants, restored Louis XIV”s prestige with respect to the Catholic princes and gave him back “his place among the great leaders of Christendom.

For thirty years, until 1691, the king governed by arbitrating between his main ministers: Colbert, Le Tellier and Louvois. Their death (the last one, Louvois, died in 1691) changed the situation. It allows the king to distribute the Secretary of State for War among several hands, which allows him to be more involved in the daily government. Saint-Simon notes that the king then took pleasure “in surrounding himself with ”strong young men” or obscure clerks with little experience, in order to emphasize his personal abilities. From this date on, he became both head of state and head of government.

The War of the Reunions, which between 1683 and 1684 pitted France and Spain against each other, ended with the truce of Regensburg, signed to allow Emperor Leopold I to fight the Ottomans. From 1688 to 1697, the war of the League of Augsburg pitted Louis XIV, then allied with the Ottoman Empire and the Irish and Scottish Jacobites, against a large European coalition, the League of Augsburg led by the Anglo-Dutch William III, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire Leopold I, the Spanish King Charles II, Victor-Amédée II of Savoy and many princes of the Holy Roman Empire. This conflict took place mainly in continental Europe and in the neighboring seas. In August 1695, the French army, led by Villeroy, proceeded to the bombardment of Brussels, an operation that aroused the indignation of European capitals.

The conflict did not spare the Irish territory, where William III and James II disputed the control of the British Isles. Finally, this conflict gave rise to the first inter-colonial war, opposing the English and French colonies and their Amerindian allies in North America. Finally, the war led to the Treaty of Ryswick (1697), by which France recognized the legitimacy of William of Orange to the English throne. If the English sovereign emerged strengthened from the ordeal, France, watched by its neighbors of the League of Augsburg, was no longer able to dictate its law. Overall, this treaty was not well received in France. The War of the Spanish Succession, meanwhile, still pitted France against almost all of its neighbors, with the exception of Spain. It was concluded by the treaties of Utrecht (1713) and Rastatt (1714). These treaties were written in French, which became the diplomatic language, a situation that lasted until 1919.

Last years (1711-1714)

The end of the reign was overshadowed by the loss, between 1711 and 1714, of almost all his legitimate heirs and by declining health. In 1711, the Grand Dauphin, the only surviving legitimate son, died of smallpox at the age of 49. In 1712, an epidemic of measles deprived the family of the eldest of its three grandsons. The new dauphin, the ex-Duke of Burgundy, died at 29 with his wife and 5 year old son (a first child had already died in infancy in 1705). Only a two-year-old boy, Louis, survived the epidemic (and the doctors), but he remained weakened: he was the last legitimate great-grandson of the reigning king, all the more isolated because in 1714, his uncle, the Duke of Berry, the youngest of the king”s grandsons, died without an heir, following a fall from a horse. In an attempt to cope with the lack of a legitimate heir, Louis XIV decided to strengthen the royal house by granting, by an edict of July 29, 1714, the right of succession, “in default of all princes of royal blood,” to the Duke of Maine and the Count of Toulouse, two legitimate bastard sons he had had from Madame de Montespan. This decision violated the fundamental laws of the Kingdom, which had always excluded bastard children from the throne, and was met with great misunderstanding. It seems that the king is ready to deny the old laws of succession to remove from the throne and regency his nephew Philippe d”Orleans, his potential successor, whom he finds lazy and debauched.

Death of the king and succession

On September 1, 1715, around 8:15 am, the king died of an acute ischemia of the lower limb, caused by an embolism related to a complete arrhythmia, complicated by gangrene, at the age of 76 years. He was surrounded by his courtiers. The agony lasted several days. His death put an end to a reign of seventy-two years and one hundred days of which fifty-four years of effective reign…

The Parliament of Paris broke his will on September 4, ushering in an era of resurgence of the nobles and parliamentarians. For most of his subjects, the aging sovereign became an increasingly distant figure. The funeral procession was even booed or mocked on the road to Saint-Denis. However, many foreign courts, even those traditionally enemies of France, were aware of the disappearance of an exceptional monarch; thus Frederick William I of Prussia did not need to give any name when he solemnly announced to his entourage: “Gentlemen, the king is dead.

The body of Louis XIV was placed in the Bourbon vault in the crypt of the Saint-Denis basilica. His coffin was desecrated on October 14, 1793 and his body was thrown into a common grave adjacent to the basilica, to the north.

In the 19th century, Louis-Philippe I commissioned a monument in the memorial chapel of the Bourbons in Saint-Denis, in 1841-1842. The architect François Debret was commissioned to design a cenotaph, replacing several sculptures of various origins: a central medallion representing a portrait of the king in profile, made by the workshop of the sculptor Girardon in the seventeenth century, but whose precise author is not known, surrounded by two figures of Virtues carved by Le Sueur and from the tomb of Guillaume du Vair, bishop-count of Lisieux, and surmounted by an angel carved by Jacques Bousseau in the eighteenth century, from the church of Picpus. On either side of this group of sculptures are four red marble columns from the church of Saint-Landry, and bas-reliefs from the tomb of Louis de Cossé in the church of the Célestins de Paris (the funerary genii from the same tomb were moved by Viollet-le-Duc to the Louvre).

Under Louis XIV, sometimes called the Sun King (a late appellation that dates back to the July Monarchy, although the king took this emblem at the Grand Carrousel celebration on June 5, 1662), the monarchy became absolute of divine right. Legend has it that he then said to reluctant parliamentarians the famous words “The State is me!”, but the fact is wrong. In reality, Louis XIV dissociated himself from the State, of which he defined himself as only the first servant. Moreover, on his deathbed, he declared in 1715: “I am leaving, but the State will always remain”. Yet the phrase “l”État, c”est moi” (the State is me) sums up the idea that his contemporaries had of the king and his centralizing reforms. From a more philosophical point of view, for the theorists of absolutism in 17th century France, steeped in neo-Platonism, this formula meant that the king”s interest was not only his own, but also that of the country he served and represented. Bossuet notes in this regard: “the king is not born for himself, but for the public”.

Practice of absolutism

The Memoirs for the instruction of the dauphin give a glimpse of Louis XIV”s thinking on absolutism. The book was not written directly by the king. It was “partly dictated to the president Octave de Prérigny and then to Paul Pellisson”, while for the other part, the king just indicated in notes what he wanted to see in the book. If these Memoirs constitute a rather disparate set “of military pictures and thoughts without any other thread than chronology”, it nevertheless allowed to give to Louis XIV “the figure of the writer-king” that Voltaire took up and amplified, by making Louis XIV a Platonic philosopher-king, precursor of enlightened despotism. If one considers the text itself, it is strongly impregnated, as is the cultivated society of the Grand Siècle, with neo-Stoic thought.

This book shows the attraction of Louis XIV for the concentration of power. For him, power was first and foremost synonymous with freedom of action, both with respect to ministers and to any other constituted body. The thought of Louis XIV, close to that of Richelieu, is summarized by the formula “When one has the State in view, one works for oneself”, a formula which is opposed to the thought of Thomas Hobbes who puts more emphasis on the people and the multitude. However, in Louis XIV, freedom is limited by Stoic themes: the need to resist passions, the will to surpass oneself, the idea of “quiet balance (the euthymia of Seneca)”. In his Memoirs, Louis XIV notes:

“It is that in these accidents which sting us strongly and to the bottom of our hearts, we must keep a middle ground between timid wisdom and carried away resentment, trying, so to speak, to imagine for ourselves what we would advise to another in such a case. For, however hard we try to reach this point of tranquility, our own passion, which presses and urges us on the contrary, gains enough on us to prevent us from reasoning with too much coldness and indifference.”

To reach this balance supposes a fight against oneself. Louis XIV remarked, “one must guard against oneself, beware of one”s inclination and always be on guard against one”s nature”. To achieve this wisdom, he recommends introspection: “it is useful to put before our eyes from time to time the truths of which we are convinced”. In the case of the ruler, it is not only necessary to know oneself well, it is also necessary to know others well: “This maxim which says that to be wise it is enough to know oneself well, is good for private individuals; but the ruler, to be skilful and well served, is obliged to know all those who can be within sight”.

At the coronation of Reims, the king “was placed at the head of the mystical body of the kingdom” and became, at the end of a process begun under Philip the Fair, the head of the Church of France. The king is God”s lieutenant in his country and, in a certain way, depends only on him. In his book Mémoires pour l”instruction du dauphin, he notes “He who gave kings to men wanted them to be respected as his lieutenants, reserving for himself alone the right to examine their conduct. For Louis XIV, the relationship to God is primary, his power coming directly from Him. It is not primarily human (de jure humano) as in Francisco Suárez and Robert Bellarmin. In the Great King, the relationship to God is not only “utilitarian”. He declares to the dauphin “Beware, my son, I implore you, of having of religion only this view of interest, very bad when it is alone, but which moreover would not succeed you, because the artifice is always contradicted and does not produce for a long time the same effects as the truth”.

Louis XIV is particularly attached to three men of God: David, Charlemagne and Saint Louis. He exhibited the painting David playing the harp in his apartment in Versailles. Charlemagne was represented at the Invalides and in the royal chapel of Versailles. Finally, he had relics of Saint Louis deposited in the Château de Versailles. On the other hand, he did not like to be compared to Constantine I (Roman emperor) and had the equestrian statue that Bernini had made of him as Constantine, transformed into an equestrian statue of Louis XIV under the features of Marcus Curtius.

Contrary to the vision of Bossuet who tends to assimilate the king to God, Louis XIV considers himself only as the lieutenant of God for what concerns France. As such, he saw himself as the equal of the pope and the emperor. God is for him a vengeful God, it is not the God of softness that François de Sales starts to promote. It is a God who, through his Providence, can punish in an immanent way those who oppose him. In this sense, the fear of God limits absolutism.

Even for Bossuet – a pro-absolutist for whom “the prince is accountable to no one for what he orders” – royal power has limits. In his book Politique tirée des propres paroles de l”Écriture sainte, he writes: “Les rois ne sont pas pour cela affranchis des lois. Indeed, the path that the king must follow is, so to speak, marked out: “Kings must respect their own power and use it only for the public good”, “the prince is not born for himself but for the public”, “The prince must provide for the needs of the people”.

Louis XIV was more political and pragmatic than the great ministers who assisted him during the first part of his reign. He was also suspicious of their pre-technocratic absolutism. Speaking about them, he notes in substance: “we do not deal with angels but with men to whom the excessive power almost always gives in the end some temptation to use it”. In this respect, he reproaches Colbert for his repeated references to Cardinal Richelieu. This moderate practice is also visible in the intendants who seek consensus with the territories they are in charge of. But this moderation had its downside. Not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the Fronde, Louis XIV had to deal with traditional institutions, which had the consequence of preventing a thorough modernization of the country and of allowing a number of “obsolete and parasitic institutions” to remain. For example, if the magistrates had to “rigorously keep away from sensitive areas of royal policy such as diplomacy, war, taxation or pardons”, the body of magistrates was neither reformed nor restructured: on the contrary, its prerogatives were reinforced. In the same way, while he wanted to rationalize the administration, financial needs pushed him to sell offices, so that, for Roland Mousnier, the “monarchy was tempered by the venality of offices”. Let us note here that, if for Mousnier, in spite of everything, Louis XIV is a revolutionary, i.e. a man of change, of deep reforms, Roger Mettan in Power and Factions in Louis XIV”s France (1988) and Peter Campbell in his Louis XIV (1994), see him as a man devoid of reforming ideas.

The court allows to domesticate the nobility. Of course, it attracted only 4,000 to 5,000 nobles, but they were the most prominent figures in the kingdom. Back on their land, they imitated the Versailles model and spread the rules of good taste. Moreover, the court allows to keep an eye on the great ones and the king takes care to be informed of everything. The rather subtle etiquette that governed it allowed him to arbitrate conflicts and to spread a certain discipline. Finally, the court provided him with a pool from which to select the personnel of the civil and military administration. Byzantine rules of precedence reinforced the king”s authority by letting him decide what should be, while a royal liturgy was established which contributed to the affirmation of his divine power.

For Michel Pernot, “The Fronde, all things considered, is the conjunction of two major facts: on the one hand, the weakening of royal authority during the minority of Louis XIV; on the other hand, the brutal reaction of French society to the modern state desired by Louis XIII and Richelieu. The great nobility, as well as the small and middle nobility and the Parliaments, had objections to put forward to the absolute monarchy, as it was constituted. The great nobility was divided by the ambitions of its members, who had no intention of sharing power and did not hesitate to fight the lesser and middle nobility. This one aims at “establishing in France the mixed monarchy or Ständestaat, by giving the first role in the kingdom to the States General”. In this, it was opposed to the Great Ones, who wanted above all to keep a strong influence in the main bodies of the State – by sitting there themselves or by having their followers sit there – and to the Parliaments, which did not want to hear anything about the States General.

Parliament is not a parliament in the modern sense at all. It was a “court of appeal with final judgement”. Parliamentarians owned their office, which they could pass on to their heirs upon payment of a tax called the paulette. Laws, ordinances, edicts and declarations had to be registered before being published and enforced. At this time, parliamentarians could voice objections or “remonstrances” as to the content, when they felt that the fundamental laws of the kingdom were not being respected. To bend Parliament, the King could send a letter of jussion, to which Parliament could reply with repeated remonstrances. If the disagreement persisted, the king could use the procedure of the bed of justice and impose his decision. The magistrates aspired to “compete with the government in political matters”, especially since, like the king”s council, they issued judgments. Many magistrates were opposed to absolutism. For them, the king must use only his “regulated power, i.e. limited to the only legitimate one”. At the time of the bed of justice of May 18, 1643, the lawyer general Omer Talon asks the regent “to nourish and raise without hindrance his majesty in the observation of the fundamental laws and in the restoration of the authority that this company must have (it is the Parliament that it is about), annihilated and as dissipated since a few years, under the ministry of the Cardinal of Richelieu”.

The financial crisis of the mid-1970s was accompanied by a sharp rise in taxation, both through increased rates and the creation of new taxes. This led to revolts in the Bordeaux region and especially in Brittany (the stamp paper revolt), where the armed forces had to restore order. The Languedoc and Guyenne regions experienced a conspiracy led by Jean-François de Paule, Lord of Sardan, supported by William of Orange. This conspiracy was quickly suppressed. However, if we consider that in France revolts have always been common, it is clear that they are rare during the reign of Louis XIV. This was largely due to the fact that, unlike during the Fronde, they received little support from the nobility – apart from the Latréaumont conspiracy – because the latter were employed in the king”s armies or occupied at court. On the other hand, the king had an armed force that he could deploy quickly and repression was rigorous. In spite of this, the weight of public opinion remained strong. In 1709, a period of famine and military defeat, it forced the monarch to separate from his Secretary of State for War, Michel Chamillart.

Royal Government

The king was soon obeyed by the provinces: in response to the revolts in Provence (Marseille in particular), the young Louis XIV sent the Duke of Mercœur to reduce resistance and suppress the rebels. On March 2, 1660, the king entered the city through a breach in the ramparts and changed the municipal system and subdued the Parliament of Aix. The protest movements in Normandy and Anjou ended in 1661. Despite the deployment of force, obedience was “more accepted than imposed”.

The young sovereign imposed his authority on the parliaments. As early as 1655, he impressed the parliamentarians by intervening, in hunting costume and whip in hand, to stop a deliberation. The power of the parliaments was diminished by the establishment of judicial beds without the presence of the king, as well as by the loss of their title of “sovereign court” in 1665, and by the limitation, in 1673, of their right of remonstrance.

The first part of the reign of Louis XIV was marked by major administrative reforms and especially by a better distribution of taxation. The first twelve years saw the country at peace regain a relative prosperity. The country gradually moved from a judicial monarchy (where the main function of the king was to render justice) to an administrative monarchy (major administrative orders accentuated royal power: lands without lords became royal lands, which allowed for the reorganization of taxes and local rights. The king created the Code Louis in 1667, stabilizing the civil procedure, the criminal ordinance in 1670, the ordinance on the fact of waters and forests (a crucial step in the reorganization of Waters and Forests) and the edict on the classes of the Navy in 1669, the ordinance of commerce in 1673…

The Royal Council was divided into several councils of varying importance and roles. The Conseil d”en haut dealt with the most serious matters; the Conseil des dépêches, with the provincial administration; the Conseil des finances, with finances as its name indicates; the Conseil des parties, with legal cases; the Conseil du commerce, with commercial matters and finally the Conseil des consciences was in charge of Catholic and Protestant religions. Louis XIV did not want princes of the blood or dukes on the councils, remembering the problems encountered during the Fronde when they sat on these councils. The decisions of the king were prepared in a certain secrecy. The edicts were quickly registered by the parliaments and then made public in the provinces, where the intendants, his administrators, increasingly took precedence over the governors, who came from the sword nobility.

From the creation of the Royal Council of Finance (September 12, 1661), finance, henceforth directed by a general controller, in this case Colbert, supplanted justice as the primary concern of the Council from above. The one who should normally have been in charge of justice, the chancellor François-Michel Le Tellier de Louvois, ended up abandoning justice to devote himself essentially to matters of war. Over time, two clans in the administration were formed, competing and cohabiting. The Colbert clan managed everything related to the economy, foreign policy, the navy and culture, while the Le Tellier-Louvois clan had control over the Defense. The king thus adopted the motto “divide and conquer”.

Until 1671, when the preparations for the Dutch war began, the Colbert clan dominated. However, Colbert”s reticence, once again resistant to large expenditures, began to discredit him in the eyes of the king. Moreover, the age gap between Colbert (52 years old at the time) and the king (33 years old) almost naturally pushes the sovereign to get closer to Louvois, who is only 30 years old and has the same passion: war. Until 1685, the Louvois clan was the most influential. In 1689, Louis II Phélypeaux de Pontchartrain, who was appointed controller general before becoming secretary of state (1690), took the top position. In 1699, he was elevated to the dignity of chancellor, while his son Jérôme succeeded him.

In 1665, the civil service had only 800 appointed members (members of the councils, secretaries of state, councillors of state, masters of requests and clerks) while it had 45,780 officers of finance, justice and police who owned their offices.

The founding edict of the Paris General Hospital (April 27, 1656), known as the “Grand Renfermement”, aimed to eradicate begging, vagrancy and prostitution. Designed on the model of the Hospice of Charity established in 1624 in Lyon, it was served by the Company of the Blessed Sacrament in three establishments (the Salpêtrière, Bicêtre and Sainte-Pélagie). But, in spite of the penalties and expulsions foreseen for those who did not return to the hospital, this measure, which horrified Vincent de Paul, was a failure, for lack of sufficient manpower to enforce it. Moreover, the police are scattered in different factions that compete with each other. The situation, poorly controlled, worsened and “it was reported that the king did not sleep at night”.

On March 15, 1667 Colbert appointed one of his relatives, La Reynie, to the newly created position of Lieutenant General of Police. An honest and hard-working man, La Reynie had already participated in the council for the reform of justice. The civil ordinance of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (April 3, 1667) organized a precise control of internal affairs. It aimed at a global approach to crime, notably by merging the four police departments of Paris. The powers of La Reynie, who was appointed Lieutenant General of Police in 1674, were extended to include the maintenance of public order and morality, supplies, sanitation (garbage disposal, street paving, water fountains, etc.), security (patrols, lighting, etc.) and the protection of the environment. His service had the confidence of the royal government, and therefore also dealt with large and small criminal cases in which high aristocrats could be involved: the Latréaumont plot (1674), the poisons affair (1679-1682), etc.

La Reynie carried out this exhausting task with intelligence for 30 years, until 1697, and established an “unknown security” in Paris. But shortly before his retirement, the situation began to deteriorate. The Marquis d”Argenson, who succeeded him, was a rigorous and severe man who undertook an uncompromising reorganization of the royal administration, which became more repressive. He set up a kind of secret state police, which seemed to serve the interests of the powerful and accentuated the despotism of an aging reign. His services earned him, in 1718, during the Regency, the enviable position of Keeper of the Seals.

The reorganization of the army was made possible by the reorganization of the finances. If Colbert reformed the finances, it was Michel Le Tellier and then his son, the Marquis de Louvois, who helped the king to reform the army. The reforms included the unification of salaries, the creation of the Hôtel des Invalides (1670) and the reform of recruitment. This had the effect of reducing the rate of desertions and increasing the standard of living of military personnel. The king also commissioned Vauban to build a belt of fortifications around the territory (the “pré carré” policy). In total, at the heart of his reign, the kingdom had an army of 200,000 men, which made it by far the largest army in Europe, capable of standing up to coalitions of many European countries. During the Dutch War (1672-1678), the army fielded about 250,000 men, and 400,000 during the Nine Years” War (1688-1696) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). The financing of the armies on campaign is ensured, for about a quarter, by the contributions paid by the foreign territories where they intervene.

When Mazarin died in 1661, the royal navy, its ports and its arsenals were in a sorry state. Only a dozen ships of the line were in working order, while the English navy had 157 ships, half of which were large vessels with 30 to 100 guns. For its part, the fleet of the Republic of the United Provinces had 84 vessels.

Contrary to popular belief, Louis XIV took a personal interest in naval matters and contributed with Colbert to the development of the French navy. On March 7, 1669, he created the title of Secretary of State for the Navy and officially appointed Colbert as the first holder of the post. Nevertheless, for the king, the most important thing in the end is not the sea, but the land, because it is there, according to him, that one acquires greatness.

Colbert and his son mobilized unprecedented human, financial and logistical resources, allowing the creation of an almost ex nihilo naval power of the first rank. At the time of the minister”s death in 1683, the “Royale” numbered 112 ships and outnumbered the Royal Navy by forty-five, but the officers, due to the relative youth of the fleet, often lacked experience.

If the navy intervened in conflicts and played an important role in the attempts to restore James II of England, it was also used in the fight against the barbarians. While the Djidjelli expedition of November 1664, intended to put an end to Barbarian piracy in the Mediterranean, ended in bitter failure, the expeditions of 1681 and 1685 by Abraham Duquesne”s squadron destroyed many ships in the Bay of Algiers.

Louis XIV engages the kingdom in a multitude of wars and battles:

These wars considerably expanded the territory: under the reign of Louis XIV, France conquered Upper Alsace, Metz, Toul, Verdun, Roussillon, Artois, French Flanders, Cambrai, the county of Burgundy, Saarland, Hainaut and Lower Alsace. However, on the other hand, this policy pushed other European countries, worried about this will of power, to ally themselves more and more often against France. Although France remained powerful on the continent, it was relatively isolated, while England experienced growing economic prosperity and a national feeling began to emerge in Germany.

Louis XIV first pursued the strategy of his predecessors since Francis I to free France from the hegemonic encirclement of the Habsburgs in Europe, by waging a continuous war against Spain, especially on the Flanders front. However, the wars after the treaties of Westphalia took place in a different framework. France was perceived as a threat by other countries and had to face two new rising powers: Protestant England and the Habsburgs of Austria.

Reserved domain of the king

Foreign policy is an area where the monarch is personally involved. He wrote in his memoirs: “I was seen dealing immediately with foreign ministers, receiving dispatches, making some of the replies myself and giving my secretaries the substance of the others. One of the great motors of the foreign policy of Louis XIV is the search for glory. For him, glory was not only a matter of self-esteem, but also the desire to be part of the lineage of men whose memory lives on through the centuries. One of its first objectives is to protect the national territory, the Vauban square. The problem is that this policy is seen, especially after 1680 when the power of France asserts itself, as a threat by the other European countries.

To carry out this policy, the king surrounded himself with talented collaborators, such as Hugues de Lionne (1656-1671), then Arnauld de Pomponne (1672-1679), who was succeeded by the more brutal and cynical Charles Colbert de Croissy (1679-1691), before Pomponne returned in 1691, when a more accommodating policy was deemed necessary. The last person in charge of foreign affairs, Jean-Baptiste Colbert de Torcy, son of Colbert, is considered by Jean-Christian Petitfils as “one of the most brilliant ministers of foreign affairs of the ancien régime”.

France then had fifteen ambassadors, fifteen envoys and two residents, some of whom were excellent negotiators. Around them gravitated unofficial negotiators and secret agents, among whom were a number of women, such as the Baroness of Sack, Madame de Blau and Louise de Keroual, who became the mistress of Charles II (King of England). The financial weapon is also used: jewels offered to the wives or mistresses of powerful people, allocation of pensions, etc. Two ecclesiastics, Guillaume-Egon de Fürstenberg, who became abbot of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and his brother, are at the top of the list of pensioners.

Although the king was primarily concerned with European affairs, he was also interested in the French colonies in America, without neglecting Asia and Africa. In 1688, he sent French Jesuits to the Chinese emperor and thus initiated Sino-French relations. In 1701, after receiving a letter from the Negus Iyasou I of Ethiopia following the journey of Jacques-Charles Poncet, he sent an embassy under the leadership of Lenoir Du Roule in the hope of establishing diplomatic relations. The latter and his companions were however massacred in 1705 in Sennar.

Traditional alliance against the Habsburgs (1643-1672)

At first, in order to free himself from the Habsburg encirclement, the young Louis XIV with his minister Mazarin made an alliance with the main Protestant powers, thus taking up the policy of his two predecessors and of Richelieu.

This Franco-Spanish war had several phases. When the reign began, France directly supported the Protestant powers against the Habsburgs, especially during the Thirty Years War. The treaties of Westphalia signed in 1648 saw the triumph of Richelieu”s European plan. The Habsburg Empire was cut in two, with the House of Austria on one side and Spain on the other, while Germany remained divided into multiple states. Moreover, these treaties sanctioned the rise of national states and established a strong distinction between politics and theology, which is why Pope Innocent X was strongly opposed to this treaty. The processes that led to these treaties would serve as the basis for the multilateral congresses of the next two centuries.

During the Fronde, Spain tried to weaken the king by supporting the military revolt of the Grand Condé (1653) against Louis XIV. In 1659, French victories and an alliance with the English Puritans (1655-1657) and the German powers (League of the Rhine) forced Spain to sign the Treaty of the Pyrenees (welded together by the marriage between Louis XIV and the Infanta in 1659). The conflict resumed at the death of the King of Spain (1665) when Louis XIV began the War of Devolution: in the name of his wife”s inheritance, the King demanded that the border towns of the Kingdom of France, in Spanish Flanders, be devolved to him.

At the end of this first period, the young king was at the head of the first military and diplomatic power in Europe, even imposing himself on the Pope. He enlarged his kingdom to the north (Artois, purchase of Dunkirk from the British) and kept, in the south, the Roussillon. Under the influence of Colbert, he also built a navy and enlarged his colonial domain to combat Spanish hegemony.

Dutch War (1672-1678)

The Dutch war is often considered as “one of the most serious mistakes of the reign” and historians have much to say about the reasons of this war. Did Louis XIV go to war with Holland because it was one of the focal points of anti-French propaganda and because of the writings on its scandalous life and arbitrariness? Or was it because Holland was the dominant maritime power and a major financial center? Was it a conflict between the Protestant Dutch and the Catholic French? For the American author Paul Somino, it was above all a question of the king pursuing a dream of glory.

Neither Le Tellier nor Louvois were the instigators of this war, even if they rallied to it. Also Colbert was opposed to it at the beginning, because it threatened the economic stability of the kingdom. In fact, the evil genius could well have been Turenne who thought that the war would be short, which Grand Condé doubted.

At the beginning, victories followed victories until the Dutch opened the locks and flooded the country, stopping the progression of the troops. The Dutch then proposed peace under conditions advantageous to the French, who nevertheless refused. The stalemate led to a revolution of the Dutch people against the temporizing oligarchy and brought William of Orange to power, an opponent all the more formidable because he would become King of England. Spain and several German states then began to help Holland. The massacres of the population which the marshal of Luxembourg let his troops indulge in, served the anti-French propaganda of William of Orange.

At sea, the Anglo-French allied forces were not very successful against the Dutch navy; on land, on the other hand, the king won a victory by taking the town of Maëstricht. But this victory strengthened the determination of other countries who began to fear French power. In England in 1674, Charles II, threatened by the English Parliament, defected. As early as 1674, negotiations were envisaged, which did not really begin until May 1677 in Nijmegen.

By the Treaties of Nijmegen, France received “Franche-Comté, Cambrésis, part of Hainaut with Valenciennes, Bouchain, Condé-sur-l”Escaut and Maubeuge, part of maritime Flanders with Ypres and Cassel, and the rest of Artois which was missing”.

But this treaty, which was unfavorable to the Emperor, broke the policy of Richelieu and Mazarin, who had aimed to spare the Germanic states. Consequently, if the French people as well as the great lords applauded the king and if the Parisian elected officials awarded him the title of Louis the Great, this peace brought future threats.

Meetings (1683-1684)

Since the previous treaties did not define the exact boundaries of the new possessions, Louis XIV wanted to take advantage of his power to attach to France all the territories that had once been under the sovereignty of the newly acquired cities or territories. To this end, magistrates studied past acts in order to interpret treaties in the best interests of France. In Franche-Comté, for example, a chamber of the Parliament of Besançon was charged with this task. The most delicate case is that of Strasbourg, a free city. At first, Louis XIV moderated his jurists on this case. However, when a general of the Empire visited the city, he changed his mind and, in the fall of 1681, decided to occupy it. This policy caused concern. In 1680, Spain and England signed a mutual aid pact. Louis XIV threatened Charles II of England to publish the terms of the secret treaty of Dover that bound him to France and granted him cash, which made him change his mind. The concern persists in Germany, even if France grants subsidies to states like Brandenburg. Finally, Louis XIV did not really play fair with Austria, which he officially supported, while at the same time sparing the Ottoman enemy, which threatened Vienna in 1683. Finally, the Truce of Regensburg confirmed for twenty years most of the French advances, especially in Strasbourg. Among Spain”s allies, Louis XIV took a dislike to the Republic of Genoa, which did not treat the French ambassador with the respect he was due. He had the city bombarded by the French fleet of Duquesne and partly destroyed it. In 1685, the doge of Genoa had to come to Versailles to bow to the king.

Nine Years” War or War of the League of Augsburg (1688-1697)

The causes of the outbreak of the new war are multiple. For the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, the Treaty of Regensburg was only temporary. It should be reviewed when he had defeated the Turks in the east. On the contrary, Louis XIV insisted that the truce of Regensburg be extended. Moreover, the attitude of Louis XIV towards the Protestants irritated the Dutch who flooded France with libels against the tyrannical regime of Louis XIV and against a king qualified as Antichrist. In England, the Catholic king, James II, an unreliable ally of Louis XIV, was overthrown during the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689 and replaced by the Protestant William of Orange. In Savoy, Louis XIV treated Duke Victor-Amédée as a vassal. In Germany, the king wanted to assert the rights of the Palatine princess over the Palatinate, so as to prevent the new elector from being a faithful of the emperor. In July 1686, fearing a new extension of the “meetings”, the German princes formed the League of Augsburg, which included the Emperor, the King of Spain, the King of Sweden, the Elector of Bavaria, the Elector of the Palatinate and the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp. During the same period, the relations of France with Innocent XI, already tense since the affair of the regal, did not improve.

On September 24, 1688, the king, feeling threatened by the League of Augsburg and tired of the procrastination concerning the truce of Regensburg, declared himself obliged to occupy Philippsburg if, within three months, his adversaries did not accept a conversion of the truce of Regensburg into a definitive treaty and if the bishop of Strasbourg did not become elector of Cologne. At the same time, without waiting for the answer, he had Avignon, Cologne and Liège occupied and laid siege to Philippsburg. In 1689, in order to intimidate his opponents, Louvois provoked the sack of the Palatinate, an action which, far from frightening his opponents, had the effect of strengthening them, since the Elector of Brandenburg, Frederick I of Prussia, the Elector of Saxony, the Duke of Hanover and the Landgrave of Hesse joined the emperor”s coalition.

The French armies first experienced setbacks, so much so that in 1689, Madame de Maintenon, the Dauphin and the Duke of Maine pushed Louis XIV to change his generals. Back in grace, Marshal de Luxembourg won the battle of Fleurus (1690), a success that Louis XIV and Louvois, unaccustomed to the war of movement, did not exploit. At sea, Tourville dispersed an Anglo-Dutch fleet on July 10 at Cap Bézeviers. On the other hand, in Ireland, the troops of Jacques II and Lauzun were defeated by William III of Orange-Nassau, the new king of England. On April 10, 1691, Louis XIV took Mons after having besieged the city; he then undertook the siege of Namur (1692), while Victor-Amédée II invaded the Dauphiné.

The year 1692 was also the year of the failure of the battle of La Hougue, where the French fleet, which was to help James II to reconquer his kingdom, was defeated. This defeat made France give up the practice of naval warfare and prefer to use privateers. In 1693, the battle of Neerwinden, one of the bloodiest of the century, saw the victory of the French who seized a large number of enemy flags. In Italy, Marshal Nicolas de Catinat defeated Victor-Amédée at the Battle of La Marsaille (October 1693). At sea in 1693, the Mediterranean fleet helped the French army in Catalonia to seize Rosas, and then, together with Tourville”s fleet, sank or destroyed 83 ships of an English convoy which, escorted by the Anglo-Dutch, was on its way to Smyrna. In spite of everything, the war bogged down when Charles XI of Sweden decided to propose a mediation.

Savoy was the first to make peace with France, forcing its allies to suspend hostilities in Italy. Finally England, Holland and Spain signed an agreement in September 1697 and were joined on October 30 by the Emperor and the German princes. France received Santo Domingo (now Haiti) and kept Strasbourg, while the Dutch gave back Pondicherry. On the other hand, France had to give back Barcelona, Luxembourg and the strongholds of the Netherlands occupied since the treaty of Nijmegen. Louis XIV recognized William of Orange as king of England, while the Dutch obtained commercial advantages from France. France certainly obtained more linear borders, but it was placed under the surveillance of the other countries. William of Orange and England came out stronger and imposed their concept of the “balance of Europe”, i.e. the idea that it was necessary to avoid having a dominant power in continental Europe. Peace was not well received in France. The French did not understand that after so many proclaimed victories so many concessions had been made. Vauban even estimated that it was the “most infamous peace since that of Cateau-Cambrésis”.

War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714)

The fragile health of Charles II of Spain, left without children, poses very early the problem of his succession, which is disputed by the Bourbons of France and the Habsburgs of Austria. The problem is almost insoluble: as well the French solution as the Austrian one has for effect to create an imbalance of the forces in Europe. There followed a number of talks in order to work out a balanced division, which did not lead to anything concrete. Finally, the Spaniards convinced Charles II that the best would be a French candidate to the throne, a position that, for reasons internal to Italy, Pope Innocent XII supported. Louis XIV was very reluctant to accept the inheritance offered to him by Charles II. The Council from above, which he consulted, was divided. Indeed, to accept the will is to put a Bourbon on the throne of Spain and not to enlarge France as a treaty would allow. It is besides the position defended by Vauban. On the other hand, leaving Spain to the Habsburgs meant risking encirclement. Finally, economically, Spain was then an exsanguinated country, with less than 6 million inhabitants in the metropolis, and difficult to recover, as the French would notice for a while employed to this task. Finally, Louis XIV accepted because he could not help seeing the will as an “order from God”.

The Austrians took this decision as a casus belli and formed an alliance with the Elector Palatine, the Elector of Hanover and the Elector of Brandenburg, whom the Germanic princes authorized to appoint themselves King of Prussia. William of Orange in England and Anthonie Heinsius in Holland were not in favor of the will, but came up against public opinion that did not want war. If the war is nevertheless engaged, it is partly following the blunders of Louis XIV, who wants to preserve to the new king of Spain rights on the kingdom of France and who “pushes” Dutch garrisons in Belgium without respecting the clauses envisaged in the treaties.

For his part, the new king of England, William of Orange, was busy rearming his new country and was all the more opposed to Louis XIV because he had supported the deposed king James II. Although the “Great King” tried to talk to him, on May 14, 1702, England, Holland and the Emperor declared war on him, joined by Denmark, the King of Prussia and many German princes and bishops. The military leaders of this coalition were Prince Eugene of Savoy, Anthonie Heinsius and the Duke of Marlborough. For its part, if France had mediocre marshals such as Villeroy or Tallard, it also had two leaders, Vendôme and Villars, whose military capabilities were equal to those of their opponents, Marlborough and Prince Eugene.

The war began with a series of defeats, except for the victorious breakthrough of Claude Louis Hector de Villars in Germany. Provence was invaded and Toulon was besieged in 1707. In Flanders, the disagreement between the Duke of Vendome and the Duke of Burgundy led to a disastrous retreat in 1708. In the Conseil d”en haut, differences of opinion arose while the financial situation deteriorated. In 1709, Louis XIV asked for a suspension of fighting and the opening of peace negotiations. The problem was that his opponents made many demands. They wanted to force him to recognize a Habsburg as the sovereign of Spain.

Faced with this difficult situation, Louis XIV wrote or had Torcy write an appeal to the people, where he explained his position. He writes in particular:

“I pass over in silence the insinuations they made to join my forces to those of the League, and to force the king, my grandson, to come down from the throne, if he did not voluntarily consent to live from now on without States, to reduce himself to the condition of a simple private individual. It is against humanity to believe that they even had the thought of committing me to form such an alliance with them. But, although my tenderness for my peoples is no less lively than that which I have for my own children; although I share all the evils which war makes such faithful subjects suffer, and although I have made it clear to all of Europe that I sincerely desired to have them enjoy peace, I am convinced that they themselves would oppose receiving them on conditions equally contrary to justice and to the honor of the name FRENCH.”

The French word, capitalized in the original text, is an “appeal to patriotism”. The king, in opposition to the absolutist thinking, does not ask for obedience but for the support of the people. The letter, read to the troops by Marshal de Villars, provoked an awakening among the soldiers, who, during the battle of Malplaquet, showed a great combativeness. Although they had to retreat, they inflicted twice as many losses on their enemy as they had suffered.

In April 1710, the Tories came to power in England and, under the impetus of Viscount Bolingbroke, considered that the primary objective of English foreign policy was now at sea and in the colonies. According to J.-C. Petitfils, this decision really made this country enter “in the concert of the great world powers”. The English, who did not want either a French Spain or an Austrian Spain, accepted, during the London Preliminaries, that Philip V of Spain remained king of Spain, provided that Louis XIV undertook that the king of Spain could not also be king of France. The other belligerents find that insufficient. But the English are determined and exert a pressure in particular financial on their allies. As on his side the marshal of Villars wins the battle of Denain and triumphs of an army which threatened to invade France, the members of the Great Alliance finally agree to negotiate and to sign the Treaties of Utrecht (1713). Philip retained the Spanish throne, the English received St. Christopher”s Island, Hudson Bay and Strait, Acadia and Newfoundland, and France agreed to the “friendly nation” clause for trade. The Dutch returned Lille to France, which kept Alsace. The Habsburgs were confirmed in their possession of the former Spanish Netherlands, Milan, the kingdom of Naples and Sardinia. Victor-Amédée II recovered the sovereignty of Savoy and the county of Nice.

From an economic point of view, two periods can be distinguished: the one before 1680, which was quite brilliant, and the one from 1680 to 1715, when the increasingly solitary government of Louis XIV deprived the economic forces of the means to make themselves heard, which penalized the economy all the more as the state of the finances became worrying.


The term “Colbertism” only dates from the 19th century, when the school textbooks of the Third Republic made it an “obligatory reference”. Colbert, Sully and Turgot served as a counterpoint to the many warrior heroes of French history. The works of this period support the idea developed by Ernest Lavisse according to which Colbert had proposed to King Louis XIV an entirely new economic policy, a policy that they believe could serve as a model for the industrialization of France at the end of the 19th century. In opposition to this version, in 1976, Alain Peyrefitte made Colbertism the origin of what he called Le Mal français. Colbert, for the historians of the late twentieth century, follows the dominant economic policy between 1450 and 1750, called mercantilism in the nineteenth century. According to Poussou, rather than mercantilism, France then practiced a catch-up economy aimed at bringing itself up to the level of the Dutch, who, around 1661, were the dominant maritime and commercial power, Colbert would invent a “Gallic style” of economic governance mixing state, corporations and market forces, and Herbert Lüthy indicate: “The tragedy of Colbert, in his successes as well as in his failures, is to have had to replace everywhere the capitalist spirit, absent by bureaucratic intervention and by the artifices of privileges, monopolies, concessions, state-supplied capital and official regulation. From this point of view, Colbertism appears as a substitute for Calvinism in the field of social organization.

Colbert, like Louis XI, Sully and Richelieu before him, wanted to reduce the existing gap between the economic potential of France and the rather mediocre activity of the real economy. Colbert conceived foreign trade as a state-to-state trade: he wanted to put an end to the deficit in foreign trade. To reverse this trend, he wanted to reduce imports of Italian or Flemish luxury goods and to create or promote domestic industries. Colbert did not hesitate to practice industrial espionage, especially to the detriment of Holland and Venice, from whom he “borrowed” the secrets of glassmaking. In October 1664, he was able to create the “Manufacture de glaces, cristaux et verres”, which would later become Saint-Gobain. An edict of 1664 authorized the establishment of royal tapestry factories of high and low lice in Beauvais and Picardy. This policy of companies created outside the guilds had some success; on the other hand, his desire to control the guilds was a failure, especially since he intended in this way to group workshops and achieve a greater rationalization of production. Colbert also tried to improve the quality of the textile industry, which had been established for a long time in Picardy and Brittany, by issuing several edicts. He also favored the communication routes, especially the river routes (Orleans canal, Calais to Saint-Omer canal, Midi canal).

From the beginning of the 17th century, France was displeased to see maritime trade dominated by the Dutch, Flemish, English and Portuguese. So the king undertook to build a fleet and to create commercial companies: the East India Company (Indian Ocean), the West India Company (Americas), the Levant Company (Mediterranean and Ottoman Empire) and the Senegal Company (Africa) to promote the triangular slave trade. But this only led to “half successes” (such as the East India Company, which died out a century after its foundation) or “obvious failures” (such as the West India Company, dissolved ten years after its birth).

If private economic agents were reluctant to join the big companies, they nevertheless showed dynamism. At the end of the reign, the Bretons sold their paintings in Spain and the Malouins during the War of the Spanish Succession were active in the South Atlantic. Moreover, it was at this time that champagne was invented. Finally, the manufacture of fine cloth developed in the Carcassonnais region, while silk from Lyon became more popular at the expense of Italian production. However, “the merchants and traders did not take kindly to Colbert”s dirigisme” and were more dynamic when Pontchartrain took over, even if the revocation of the Edict of Nantes deprived France of traders and especially of Protestant craftsmen and skilled workers who contributed to the emergence of competitors in the countries that welcomed them. It should also be noted that during this period, military spending and the large number of construction projects undertaken in the kingdom maintained a strong domestic demand that favored production and trade.


In 1663, Louis XIV made New France a royal province by taking control of the Company of New France. At the same time, the Société Notre-Dame de Montréal ceded its possessions to the Company of the Priests of Saint Sulpice. To populate the colony, the government paid for the travel of future settlers. At the same time, to encourage the birth rate in the colony itself, it organized the “King”s Daughters” operation to send young orphan girls to Canada: between 1666 and 1672, 764 to 1,000 orphan girls arrived in Quebec. With this policy, the population quickly grew to 3,000. In addition, from 1660 to 1672, the government made a major budgetary effort and sent a million pounds to develop industry and commerce. After 1672, the royal finances no longer allowed for significant investment in the colony.

In 1665, Louis XIV sent a French garrison, the Carignan-Salières Regiment, to Quebec. The government of the colony was reformed and included a Governor General and an Intendant, both of whom reported to the Ministry of the Navy. That same year, Jean Talon was chosen by the Minister of the Navy, Colbert, to become the Intendant of New France. In the years 1660-1680, a reflection on the future of this colony took place. On this occasion, two theses clashed: for Talon and the Count of Frontenac, it was appropriate to create a state that would go as far as Mexico; in Paris, Colbert supported the thesis of a settlement and development of a limited territory between Montreal and Quebec. It was the thesis of the people of Quebec that triumphed. There were several reasons for this outcome. Trappers and hunters in search of furs and mineral wealth pushed for an expansion of the territories not desired by Paris. The missionaries, driven by their thirst to convert, also went in the same direction. Thus, in 1673, Father Marquette and Louis Jolliet, after having reached the Mississippi, went downstream to the mouth of the Arkansas River. It was at this time that Fort Frontenac was built, followed in 1680 by Fort Crèvecœur and then Fort Prud”homme. Finally, in 1682, the explorer René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle reached the Mississippi Delta and took possession of it in the name of Louis XIV, naming this vast region Louisiana in honor of the king. This expansion provoked a change in the economic balance of the colony, which, dominated until 1650 by fishing, became from that date more and more focused on furs. Trade from New France to the European continent was mainly conducted through La Rochelle, whose fleet tripled between 1664 and 1682.

During the war of the League of Augsburg, the French had to face the Iroquois until a peace treaty was signed in 1701. That same year, Louis XIV asked that New France and Louisiana serve as a barrier to English expansion in the interior of the American continent and that a chain of posts be created for this purpose, an idea that would not materialize until after the end of the War of Spanish Succession. At the time of the Treaties of Utrecht (1713), which put an end to this war, New France was amputated of Acadia and Newfoundland. From 1699, France was very interested in Louisiana for both geopolitical reasons, to contain England, and economic reasons: it was hoped that this territory would be as rich in minerals as Mexico. As in Canada, the French allied themselves with the Indians. In this case with tribes of the Gulf of Mexico themselves in struggle with the Creeks and the Chicachas allied with the English. In the grip of financial difficulties, the government wanted to entrust the territory to private initiative, but the French commercial bourgeoisie was not very enthusiastic. Finally, Antoine de Lamothe-Cadillac, the founder of Detroit, managed to convince the financier Antoine Crozat to take an interest in the colony by showing him the possibility of mines. In 1712, a fifteen-year lease was signed with Crozat, who was mandated to send two ships loaded with food and settlers each year. Although the explorers found neither gold nor silver, only lead, copper and tin in Louisiana, the search for mines contributed to the settlement of the Illinois Indians” country. Moreover, the Indians” revolt against the English in Charleston and South Carolina allowed the French, between 1715-1717, to extend their influence in Louisiana.

In 1659, a first French trading post, named “Saint-Louis” in honor of the king, was established on the island of Ndar in Senegal. Following the failure of the West India Company, the country was ceded to the Senegal Company in 1673 to transfer black slaves to the West Indies. The king provided much of the capital for the slave trade, also lending warships and soldiers. Possessions were taken from the Dutch, such as Gorée in 1677 by Vice Admiral Jean d”Estrées, and treaties were established with the local kings. Appointed by the king, André Bruë established diplomatic relations with Lat Soukabé Ngoné Fall and other sovereigns such as the king of Galam.

According to the historian Tidiane Diakité, Louis XIV was the only one of all the kings of France and Europe to be so interested in Africa: he was the one who had the most extensive correspondence with African kings, the one who sent the most emissaries and missionaries to them, and he received Africans at court. Some sons of black kings, such as Prince Aniaba, were brought up at Versailles, baptized by the king who cherished the hope of an evangelization of Africa; he favored the sending of missionaries, including to Ethiopia, a Christian kingdom that was nevertheless “infected with several heresies”. This objective of evangelization is moreover associated with the development of trade with Africa; the kingdom of France was then in competition with the trading nations of Northern Europe in this field.

Still according to Diakité, Louis XIV seems to have been attracted by this mysterious continent, dominated by unknown kings, themselves fascinated by the prestige of the one that French explorers were keen to present as the “greatest king of the Universe”. For Louis XIV, Africa was one of the stakes of the influence of the French monarchy, beyond economic and religious questions. The Dutch tried in vain to ruin this image by pointing out the mediocrity of the French in trade, their pretensions and their bad manners.

The reign of Louis XIV marked a profound territorial, economic and demographic expansion of the French presence in the West Indies. The seigneurial possessions came under the direct control of the monarchy; the monoculture of sugar cane gradually replaced the production of tobacco and the population grew from approximately 12,000 to between 75,000 and 100,000. The expansion was very strong in Haiti, which went from 18 plantations in 1700 to 120 in 1704.

In 1664, by order of the king, Joseph-Antoine Le Febvre de La Barre took back French Guiana from the Dutch even though France was allied with them. The following year, Colbert bought Guadeloupe from Charles Houël, former director of the Compagnie des îles d”Amérique and the island of Martinique from Jacques Dyel du Parquet. All these territories were entrusted to the management of the West India Company. When the latter went bankrupt in 1674, these territories were attached to the royal domain. In 1697, the Treaty of Ryswick granted France the western half of the island of Saint-Domingue (today Haiti). In 1676, Jean II d”Estrées really reconquered French Guiana, which was from then on a recurrent issue of international politics because of the disputes with the Portuguese.

In order to provide slave labor for the plantations, and as part of the absolutist codification of the Kingdom, Louis XIV, in March 1685, promulgated the “Black Code. With this ordinance, Louis XIV improved the condition of slaves: Sundays and Christian holidays were to be mandatory days off; sufficient food was required; masters had to adequately clothe their slaves; spouses and children were not to be separated during a sale; torture was prohibited; to avoid rape, sexual relations with slaves were forbidden; masters could not kill their slaves; and limits were set on corporal punishment. The Black Code also recognized certain forms of rights for slaves, albeit very limited, including religious, legal, property, and pension rights. But all these provisions were poorly enforced, due to pressure from the colonists on the judiciary.

In addition, the ordinance expelled the Jews from the West Indies, defined the rules of miscegenation and regularized the full use of slaves in the colonies, to which it gave a legal framework. The Code Noir ratified a differentiated legislation on the territory, because a slave in France was in principle freed, and imposed their Christianization. The edict was extended to Saint-Domingue in 1687, to French Guiana in 1704, and later to the Mascarene Islands and Louisiana.

At the end of the twentieth century, many critics denounced the ordinance as responsible for the institutionalization of slavery, and for its abuses in terms of corporal punishment (the Black Code is considered by the philosopher Louis Sala-Molins as “the most monstrous legal text that modern times have produced. The theses of Sala-Molins are however criticized by historians, who accuse him of lacking rigor and of having a partial reading of the Black Code. Jean Ehrard points out in particular that corporal punishment, which was limited by the ordinance, was the same as in metropolitan France for any non-noble person. The historian recalls that at that time, there were provisions equivalent to those of the Code Noir for categories such as sailors, soldiers or vagrants. Jean Ehrard finally recalls that the colonists even opposed the Black Code, because they were now supposed to provide slaves with means of subsistence, which they normally did not guarantee.

Important agriculture that does not prevent famines

French agriculture was then the most important in Europe, with a primacy given to cereals: rye, associated or not with millet as in the Landes de Gascogne, buckwheat in Brittany, and obviously wheat. Under Louis XIV, corn was introduced in the southwest and in Alsace. Bread was then made of either meture (a mixture of wheat, rye and barley) or meteil (wheat and rye). The culture of the vine and the breeding also contribute to the predominance of the French agriculture. Vines were cultivated as far away as Picardy and the Ile-de-France, while the production of brandies developed in the Charente, the lower Loire Valley, the Garonne Valley and Languedoc. The Dutch exported brandies and grain surpluses from the Toulouse region. Animal husbandry was a vital resource in the mountains where transhumance took on spectacular dimensions. Livestock farming is used by mountain populations to buy cereals and wine. In the cereal farms, sheep farming predominates. On the other hand, except for the breeding regions such as Auvergne, Limousin and Normandy, horses and horned animals are rare in the countryside and are rather concentrated around the cities.

French cereal farming is practiced in small farms. According to historian Gérard Noiriel, under the reign of Louis XIV, half of the peasants were day laborers (farm workers). They had a plot of land of a few acres, on which they built a one-room house. They also cultivate a vegetable garden, with a few chickens and a few sheep for wool. The poorest part of the peasantry is made up of laborers who have only a few hand tools (sickle, fork). From spring to early autumn, they worked on the land of a lord, a member of the clergy or a rich farmer. They participate in the harvest, haymaking and grape harvest. In winter, they sought employment as labourers. More than half of the peasants” income was taken from them by various taxes: taille, tithes, plus taxes on salt, tobacco, alcohol and seigneurial rights. However, the peasant misery was not general, and there was a “well-to-do peasantry”, including large farmers, ploughmen, small winegrowers in the Seine Valley, or “haricotiers” in the North.

Under Louis XIV, France will experience two great famines. The one of 1693-1694 was not related to a harsh winter but to a rather cold summer, marked by torrential rains that spoiled the crops. The government having given priority to supplying Paris and the army, seditions broke out while the population flocked to the cities. The death toll was 1,300,000, almost as many as during the 1914 war. During the great winter of 1709, the Seine, the Rhone and the Garonne were frozen over. The olive trees died and the seedlings gave little fruit. A severe famine ensued, despite imports of foreign wheat. The death toll from the famine reached 630,000.

Financial problems and taxes

When he took power on April 13, 1655, the king, then 16 years old, decreed seventeen edicts aimed at replenishing the state coffers, which had the effect of increasing the kingdom”s total tax revenues from 130 million livres in 1653 to more than 160 million in 1659-1660. From 1675 onwards, the war led to an increase in the public deficit, which rose from 8 million in 1672 to 24 million in 1676. To cope with this, Colbert increased existing taxes, resurrected old ones and created new ones. He also invented a kind of treasury bonds and created a loan fund. The Dutch war marked the end of Colbertism, because the State was no longer able to support industry either directly by aid or indirectly by its orders.

In 1694, in order to meet expenses, especially military expenses, Louis XIV created a tax on income that affected everyone, including the dauphin and the princes: the capitation tax. This tax distinguished twenty-one classes of taxpayers based on a multi-criteria analysis that took into account not only the three classes (nobility, clergy, third estate), but also the actual income of individuals. The capitation was abolished in 1697 and then re-established in 1701, but it then lost its function as an income tax, since it was taken over by the tenth denier (“dixième”) inspired by the royal tithe, advocated by Vauban. In 1697, the monarchy established a tax on foreigners and their heirs, which was abandoned after a few years and whose financial result was disappointing.

According to Jean-Christian Petitfils, the weight of taxes in France under Louis XIV should not be exaggerated. An English study has indeed shown that, in 1715, the French were less taxed than the English. Taxes represented only 0.7 hectoliters of wheat grain per taxpayer in France, compared to 1.62 in England. In fact, France was then a country that hoarded a lot of money, and from this point of view it was not so much the subjects as a whole who were poor, but the State, which had not really modernized its tax system. Studies conducted in the 1980s questioned the question of state financing. In particular, two things struck them: first, taxes were still paid and second, the country, at least until the 1780s, was increasingly prosperous.

Studies show that the king and the state apparatus delegate to financiers the collection of taxes while demanding from them in return the payment of lump sums. In this way, they make the financiers bear the economic risks. These financiers, who for a long time were thought to be of low extraction, are in fact very well integrated into society and serve as nominees for wealthy aristocrats. So that, as Françoise Bayard writes, “the State succeeded in this unprecedented feat of making the rich pay voluntarily” even if they received interest in compensation. In addition, the King”s Council kept control of the financiers and if necessary did not hesitate to resort to justice, as was the case with Fouquet. It was at this time that the notion of annuity was developed. That is to say, a loan to the State which yields a fixed, relatively well-insured income. Annuities quickly became a significant part of the patrimony not only of businessmen but also of the dowry of their wives.

At the death of Louis XIV, France experienced an “unprecedented financial crisis” as a result of constant wars and major works. The financial embarrassments of the state became “the most unfortunate element of the situation of the kingdom” in 1715, which will complicate the task of the regent Philippe d”Orleans. At the death of Louis XIV, the debt amounted to 3.5 billion pounds – or between 25 and 50 billion euros in 2010 – equivalent to ten years of tax revenue. Louis XIV did not know how to give France a central bank as the English did with the Bank of England, which would have rationalized the financing of the state. Under the regency, John Law created a nebulous group of companies around the Banque générale, with a capital of 6 million pounds, founded on May 2, 1716 on the model of the Bank of England, with shares exchangeable for claims on the state, but which ended in financial failure.

King of divine right, Louis XIV was deeply imbued with the religion instilled in him by his mother.

Most Christian King

From his childhood, his day, his week and his year are punctuated with numerous religious rites in order to signify to the public the greatness of the royal function. Anne of Austria imposed on her regular exercises of piety, from her first religious education, entrusted to Hardouin de Péréfixe. According to the Abbé de Choisy, she used rigorous methods to instill in him a religious spirit: “There was only on the chapter of religion that he was not forgiven anything; and because one day the queen mother, then regent, heard him swear, she made him put in prison in his room, where he was two days without seeing anyone, and made him so much horror of a crime that will insult God until Heaven, that he almost never fell back since, and that at his example blasphemy was abolished by the courtiers who then made a boast of it.” The king went to confession at the age of 9 – to Father Charles Paulin – and he made his first communion on Christmas Day 1649 (in memory of the baptism of Clovis, instead of the traditional date of Easter) a few days after his confirmation. The day after the coronation ceremonies of June 7, 1654, he became Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Spirit.

Before getting out of bed, and in the evening at bedtime, the king receives the holy water brought by his chamberlain, signs himself and, sitting down, recites the office of the Holy Spirit, of which he is grand master. Dressed, he kneels and prays in silence. When he gets up, he indicates the time he wishes to attend daily mass, which he only misses in exceptional cases, in case of a military campaign. Taking into account the days when he attended several Masses, it is estimated that he attended about thirty thousand Masses in his life. In the afternoon, he regularly attended the liturgical service of Vespers, celebrated and sung on solemn days.

Each royal residence had a two-story palatine chapel with an interior gallery that allowed the king to attend mass without having to go down to the first floor. The king received communion only on certain occasions, on the “good days of the king”: Holy Saturday, the vigils of Pentecost, All Saints” Day and Christmas, the day of the Assumption or the Immaculate Conception. He attends the salute of the Blessed Sacrament, celebrated every Thursday and Sunday in the late afternoon, as well as during the entire octave of Corpus Christi.

Because of the coronation, certain religious rites are applied to the king of France to remind him of his special status as a very Christian king. Louis XIV assumed them with increasing devotion. First of all, the presence of the king at mass entailed liturgical actions similar to those expected in the presence of a cardinal, a metropolitan archbishop or a diocesan bishop. He is assimilated to a bishop without ecclesiastical jurisdiction. In addition, from the age of four, every Holy Thursday, like all Catholic bishops, the king proceeds to the ceremony of the washing of the feet or royal mandate (Mandatum or de Lotio pedum). Selected the day before, examined by the king”s first physician, washed, fed and dressed in a small red cloth robe, thirteen poor boys are brought to the large guard room at the entrance to the queen”s apartment. Finally, by virtue of a thaumaturgical power derived from the coronation, the king of France was supposed to be able to cure écrouelles, a ganglionic form of tuberculosis. This quasi-sacerdotal dimension is the sign that the kings of France, who thus “perform miracles during their lifetime, are not purely secular, but that participating in the priesthood, they have particular graces from God, which even the most reformed priests do not have. The king, who appears as an intermediary of God”s power, pronounces the formula “the King touches you God heal you” (and no longer “God heals you”), the subjunctive, leaving to God alone the freedom to heal or not. Versailles thus became a place of pilgrimage and the sick were welcomed under the vaults of the Orangery. During his reign, the king touched nearly 200,000 crofuleux, but he did not complain about it, according to the chronicler of the Mercure Galant.

The king attended sermons, orations and at least twenty-six preachings during Advent and Lent. The preachers came from various backgrounds, Don Cosme belonged to the order of the Feuillants, Father Seraphim was from the Capuchin order. The themes of the preaching are free, even if traditionally the sermon of November 1st is about holiness, the one of February 2nd about purity. It is one of the only possible spaces of criticism under absolutism: the sermonists are not complacent and regularly question certain behaviors of the king or the court, and the link between the virtue of the king and the happiness of his people is regularly put forward. Bossuet, defender of divine right and theorist of the superiority of the monarchy, advocated a royal policy in favor of the poor, insisted on the duties of the king and defended a program of Christian policy: protection of the Church and the Catholic faith, eradication of Protestant heresy, repression of blasphemy and public crimes, practice of virtues and especially of justice.

From libertinism to devotion

However, the young king did not allow himself to be dictated to by the religious. Thus, he knew how to maintain secrecy, even from his confessor, as was the case during the arrest in 1652 of the coadjutor of Paris involved in the Fronde. He did not spare the devout either, following Mazarin who was unfavorable to this party supported by the Queen Mother; he is even suspected of having inspired Molière to write Tartuffe, a comedy aimed at “false devotees”. Until the end of the 1670”s, the king and the court indulged in a strong libertinism that shocked the devout. The king converted when he secretly remarried Madame de Maintenon.

As soon as he really came to power, from 1661 onwards, Louis XIV declared that he wanted to subdue the religious factions of the kingdom into a unity of obedience. On December 13, 1660, he informed the Parliament that he had decided to eradicate Jansenism, because he saw it as a rigorism that made impossible the boldness required of a head of state in the exercise of his authority and the obedience owed by the subjects. In addition, he asserted his authority and the independence of the French clergy from the pope. Alexander VII was even threatened with war in 1662, because he wanted to reduce the extraterritoriality of the French embassy in Rome for diplomatic and police reasons. On this occasion, the king had Avignon occupied.

In 1664, he dissolved the secret congregations, notably the Company of the Blessed Sacrament, which included both Jesuit and Jansenist devotees. This dissolution was not only related to the devotion of its members, but also to the fact that the king was worried about the constitution of a group that was beyond his control.

Relations with the Jansenists

Two visions of grace have opposed each other within Christianity since Pelagius and Augustine of Hippo. For Pelagius, man can work out his salvation by himself, without recourse to divine grace. For Augustine, on the other hand, the corrupt nature of human beings does not allow for salvation without the intervention of God. Traditionally, the Church opts for a middle ground between the two. The Renaissance, betting on human freedom, tended to return to Pelagianism, which led to the reactions of Luther and Calvin, who were close to Augustinianism on this point. The Jesuits, under the influence of Molina in particular, developed the notion of sufficient grace, which was close to the Pelagian vision of grace and led to a human religion that denied the tragic side of life. This led, in reaction, to a more Augustinian Catholic reformation in which many French churchmen, such as Pierre de Berulle, François de Sales and Vincent de Paul, became prominent. At the beginning, the Jansenists can be seen as participating in this current of reform.

Richelieu knew Saint-Cyran, one of the founders of Jansenism. Seeing in him the successor of Berulle at the head of the devout party, he had him locked up. In 1642, the bull In eminenti (1642) condemned some of the theses of the Augustinus, a book by Jansenius. Paradoxically, Jansenism was strengthened because it gave Antoine Arnauld the opportunity to write De la fréquente communion (1643), a clear and understandable book that opposed the worldly religion of the Jesuits. In 1653, Pope Innocent X issued the bull Cum occasione, which condemned five propositions that were implied to be in Jansenius” book. Mazarin, wishing to conciliate the pope, decreed, after having consulted the bishops, that these propositions were indeed in the Augustinus. The Jansenists then began to fall victim to rumours and pressure from the state apparatus. The beginning of the personal government of the king saw the persecutions intensify. The nuns of Port-Royal were dispersed in 1664. This marked the beginning of an underground Jansenism that would continue throughout the 18th century. If Mazarin”s policy was marked solely by political considerations, Louis XIV”s decisions were more concerned with fundamental questions. He distrusted the Jansenists because their desire for autonomy led them to oppose absolute power by divine right. Moreover, they were inclined to austerity while the king liked entertainment, pomp and art.

From regal law to Gallicanism

The right of regal is based on a custom that allows the king of France to collect “the revenues of vacant bishoprics and to appoint to the canonry of chapters, until the new bishop has had his oath registered by the Court of Accounts. Based on the jurisprudence of the Parliament of Paris, the king decided in February 1663 to extend this practice to the entire kingdom, whereas it had only affected half of it. The Jansenist bishops of Pamiers and Alet-les-Bains appealed to the Pope in the name of the freedom of the Church from secular power. Pope Innocent XI agreed with them in three writs. In July 1680, the clergy assembly supported the royal position. Following various incidents, the pope excommunicated one of the bishops appointed by the king. A new assembly of the clergy in June 1681 tries to spare the parties. The king also sought a compromise by giving up certain prerogatives. The pope remaining on his positions, the assembly of the clergy adopts in March 1682 the four articles which will be used as a basis for the Gallicanism. Article 1 asserted the sovereignty of the king over temporal affairs; article 2 granted “full power” to the pope over spiritual affairs, while placing restrictions on it; article 3 recalled the basic principles of Gallicanism concerning the specificity of the rules, morals and constitutions of the kingdom of France; the fourth article subtly expressed doubts about the doctrine of papal infallibility. Faced with the Pope”s refusal to accept these articles, the French bishops declared that “the Gallican Church governs itself by its own laws; it inviolably guards the use of them. The Parliament of Paris registered the articles in March 1682.

This showdown had two consequences: the pope refused to approve the bishop appointments proposed by the king, causing many vacancies; the support of the French clergy for the king forced him to adopt the hard line of the Church of France against the Protestants. Despite his opposition to Pope Innocent XI, Louis XIV did not think of establishing a Gallican Church independent of Rome, on the model of the English Anglican Church. According to Alexandre Maral, he wanted “to be considered more as a collaborator than as a subordinate” of the pope. His approval of the four articles of Gallicanism is linked to the strong feeling of injustice felt in front of a pope “using and abusing spiritual weapons to support temporal interests contrary to those of France”. The Gallicanism of the “Great King” was not driven by a desire for independence as with the Anglicans, but by a desire not to be a vassal of Rome.

The affair of the regal is complicated from 1679 by the quarrel of the Franchises: Innocent XI wishes to put an end to the privileges that the ambassadors of the European courts hold in Rome, in their respective districts. Upon the death of the Duc d”Estrées, in January 1687, the papal police entered the Farnese Palace district to put an end to the customs and police rights of French diplomats, and the pope threatened with excommunication those who tried to raise the franchises. The new ambassador, the Marquis de Lavardin, received from the king the mission to maintain the French franchises, which he did by having part of Rome occupied militarily.

At court, the Protestant noble party was on the way out: the conversion of Henri IV and the Edict of Ales had weakened it. Louis XIV, by “domesticating” the nobility, also “domesticated” religion: many Protestant nobles had to convert to the king”s religion, Catholicism, in order to acquire a position.

At the local level, through Council decisions, Louis XIV gradually restricted the freedoms granted to Protestants by the Edict of Nantes, emptying the text of its substance. The logic of “everything that was not authorized by the edict is forbidden” led to the prohibition of all proselytizing and of certain trades for members of the so-called reformed religion. With the arrival of Louvois to power, the pressure on Protestants increased with the obligation to house troops, the dragonnades. The dragoons were first used in Brittany in 1675, to put down the revolt of the stamped paper, but the radicalization of this policy accelerated the forced conversions. Louis XIV, who received lists of conversions from his administration, saw this as “the effect of his piety and authority. If the king was misinformed by his services and his courtiers, who hid the cruel reality from him, the fact remains that he, “trained by Jesuit confessors, nourished from childhood with anti-Protestant sentiments,” only wanted to believe what he was told.

On October 17, 1685, the king signed the Edict of Fontainebleau, countersigned and inspired by the chancellor Michel Le Tellier. It revoked the Edict of Nantes (promulgated by Henry IV in 1598) and made the kingdom an exclusively Catholic country. Protestantism was banned throughout the country and temples were transformed into churches. Failing to convert to Catholicism, many Huguenots chose to go into exile in Protestant countries: England, the Protestant states of Germany, the Protestant cantons of Switzerland, the United Provinces and its colonies, such as the Cape. The number of exiles is estimated at about 200,000, many of whom were artisans or members of the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, recent works by Michel Morrineau and Janine Garrisson have qualified the economic consequences of the revocation: the economy did not collapse in 1686 and the formation of a French diaspora in Europe favored the export or the European expansion of the French language, but the human and religious consequences were nonetheless serious.

This political gesture was desired by the clergy and by the group of anti-protestants, close to Michel Le Tellier. It seems that they only partially informed the king of the situation of the Protestants, taking advantage of the fact that the camp of the moderates was weakened by the death of Colbert.

At the time, religious unity was considered necessary for the unity of a country, in accordance with the Latin adage “cujus regio ejus religio (to each country its religion)”, put forward by Guillaume Postel. Such a fusion of the political and the religious was not unique to France: in England, after the execution of Charles I – whom Louis XIV had known during the Fronde – the Test Act was imposed in 1673, prohibiting Catholics from entering public office and the Houses of Lords and Commons, a measure that remained in force until 1829.

The edict of Fontainebleau was well received in general and not only by the “papists” and the devout: “La Bruyère, La Fontaine, Racine, Bussy-Rabutin, the Great Arnauld, Madeleine de Scudéry and many others applauded”, just like Madame de Sévigné. This decision restores the prestige of Louis XIV towards the Catholic princes and restores him “his place among the great leaders of Christendom”. Bossuet described the king, in an oration of 1686, as “the new Constantine”.

Pope Innocent XI was not enthusiastic about the action of the king. According to Alexandre Maral, this pope, who was not hostile to the moral rigor of the Jansenists, seems to have wanted the reunification of the two separate branches (Catholics and Protestants) of the Church. This thesis is supported by the fact that in 1686 he made the bishop of Grenoble, Étienne Le Camus, a supporter of this policy, a cardinal.

Among many Protestant converts, adherence to Catholicism remained superficial, as evidenced by the uprisings of Protestants in Languedoc, of which the war in the Cévennes between the Camisards and the royal troops was the climax.


Louis XIV was less hostile to the Jews than his predecessors. The beginning of his reign marked an evolution in the policy of royal power towards Judaism. In the spirit of Mazarin”s pragmatic policy, when in 1648 the treaties of Westphalia attributed the Three Bishoprics, Upper Alsace and the Decapolis to France, the government chose not to exclude the Jews who lived there, even though the edict of 1394 which expelled them from France was still theoretically applicable. In 1657, the young Louis XIV was solemnly received, with his brother, in the synagogue of Metz. Concerning the Alsatian Jews, if at the beginning they kept the same status as under the Germanic Empire, little by little things improved with the letters patent of 1657. Finally, the ordinances of 1674, published by the Intendant La Grange, brought the status of the Jews of royal Alsace into line with that of the Jews of Metz, and abolished corporal tolls for them. Those in the rest of the province, however, remained assimilated to foreigners, and thus subject to the body tax. Since the Jews of Alsace Royale had the same status as the Jews of Metz, a rabbinate of the Jews of Alsace was created in 1681.

A number of Dutch Jews, who had immigrated to Pernambuco, Brazil, under Dutch rule from 1630 to 1654, had to leave that country when the Portuguese regained control and re-established the Inquisition. Some of them then settled in the French West Indies and tradition has it that the capital of Guadeloupe, Pointe-à-Pitre, owes its name to a Dutch Jew, called Peter or Pitre according to the French transcription. However, the Jews left Martinique when they were expelled in 1683, an expulsion extended to all the French West Indies by the Code Noir of 1685, the first article of which enjoins “all our officers to expel from our said islands all the Jews who have established their residence there, to whom, as to the declared enemies of the Christian name, we command to leave within three months from the day of publication of these presents.

Royal opposition to Fenelon”s quietism

Oraison (or prayer of adoration) was in vogue in the 16th and 17th centuries, notably with Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross and in France, Pierre de Berulle and François de Sales. In Spain, Miguel de Molinos published a Spiritual Guide (1675), in which he supported an extreme vision of prayer in which the soul could be annihilated in God and escape sin. Initially favorable to this position, Pope Innocent XI ended up condemning 68 of the propositions of this book, by the bull Caelestis Pastor (1687). In France, this thought inspired Madame Guyon, who in turn influenced not only the ladies of the court, but also Fenelon, tutor of the Duke of Burgundy, son of the Grand Dauphin.

It was the spiritual director of Saint-Cyr, where the secret wife of Louis XIV was in charge of the education of the young girls, who, in May 1693, was the first to be worried about the progress of Madame Guyon”s doctrine in this establishment. When he was informed, the king suspected a cabal and ordered his wife to break off relations with the lady in question. Moreover, the king appealed to the arbitration of Bossuet who was then considered the head of the Catholic Church in France. On his side, Fénelon, who had written in December 1693 in an anonymous way a violent diatribe against the royal policy, was refused the bishopric of Paris. The religious affair was now coupled with a political one. The Jesuits, who had condemned the theses of Miguel de Molinos, the inspiration of quietism, now supported Madame Guyon, his disciple. This attitude is dictated by their will to oppose the gallicans who lead the attack against her and against Fénelon. Let us specify here that the gallicans are partisans of a certain independence of the Church of France with regard to the pope, whereas the Jesuits who support the pope are ultramontane. Finally, the pontiff was careful not to formally condemn Madame Guyon and was satisfied with vaguely reproving some theses.

The things could have remained there if Fénelon had not published, in 1699, The Adventures of Télémaque, composed for the royal children and exposing a criticism of the royal absolutism. The king made seize this work which strengthens him in his will to never make return its author to the court. Fénelon”s opposition to the politics of Louis XIV seems to be based on a strong anti-machiavellian feeling which refuses “the separation between religion and politics, Christian morality and state morality”. The thought of Fénelon will nourish a whole aristocratic current marked by the idea of a “patriarchal and tempered monarchy, enemy of the war, virtuous, philanthropic”.

Religious problems at the end of the reign

The rapprochement between Louis XIV and Innocent XI was very difficult if not impossible, because of a fundamental opposition. When he was elected, the pope had ambitions to become the spiritual director of the king. In a letter of March 1679, he asked the chargé d”affaires of the nunciature that, through the intermediary of Father de La Chaize, the king”s confessor, Louis XIV be advised to “reflect for at least ten minutes and bless the Lord, while at the same time endeavouring to meditate often on eternal life and on the obsolescence of glory and temporal goods. Moreover, this pope was not without sympathy for the austerity and rigor of the Jansenists. In the affair of the regal, he gave reason to two Jansenist bishops, which pushed the king to adopt a strictly Gallican attitude. Finally, their respective policies towards Muslims and Protestants were radically different: the Pope wanted the King to support the Emperor in his fight against the Turks, which Louis XIV did only reluctantly, because it was not in the interest of France. Also at the time of the Nine Years War, this pope will favor the interests of the emperor during the succession to the bishopric of Cologne. With regard to the Protestants, this pope is rather in favor of the concord and hardly favorable to the edict of Fontainebleau.

The election of Alexander VIII in 1689 changes the situation. He made Forbin-Janson cardinal, whom the king supported and who, out of gratitude, restored Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin to him. His successor Innocent XII, elected in July 1691, began to settle the question of bishops whose appointment had not been validated by the Vatican since 1673. In 1693, the king obtained from the French bishops the withdrawal of the four founding articles of Gallicanism and then, little by little, the affair of the regal died out. In 1700, at the beginning of the War of the Spanish Succession, the new Pope Clement XI helped Louis XIV by supporting his candidate for the archbishopric of Strasbourg, against that of the Emperor.

At the end of the reign of Louis XIV, the French clergy was mostly close to a moderate Augustinianism tinged with Jansenism, led by the Archbishop of Paris Louis-Antoine de Noailles, by the Archbishop of Rheims Charles-Maurice Le Tellier (brother of Louvois), and by Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux, preacher and writer of the Four Articles of the Gallican Church. Father Pasquier Quesnel, seen as a continuator of Jansenism, interrupted this slow progression of Jansenism, by defending theses of a radical Gallicanism in the continuity of the thought of Edmond Richer. In particular, he wanted the election of bishops and priests by Christians. At the same time, the hard-line Jansenists launched the “case of conscience”, concerning the absolution to be given or not to a priest who did not admit that the five propositions of Jansenism condemned by the pope appeared in the Augustinus. Fénelon, who wanted to impose himself against Bossuet, adopted the Jesuit theses and insisted that Rome pronounce itself in favour of the refusal of absolution, which the pope did by promulgating the bull Vinean Domini Sabaoth in 1705. At the same time, there was a hardening of the attitude of the last sisters of Port-Royal, who refused to accept the conciliatory position of the archbishop of Paris. They were then excommunicated and the king had the abbey razed to the ground by a decree in January 1710.

Father Le Tellier, new confessor of the king, and Fénelon, want to obtain a frank condemnation of the theses of father Quesnel, at the same time for religious reasons and perhaps by personal ambition. Indeed, they hoped to obtain the dismissal or the resignation of the cardinal of Noailles, archbishop of Paris close to the Gallicano-Augustan theses. The Pope, at first reluctant for fear of reigniting a conflict among the French clergy, finally gave in and published the bull Unigenitus (1713), which developed a hierarchical and dogmatic vision of the Church. The French instigators of the bull then imposed a harsh interpretation of the text on the French clergy. Cardinal de Noailles was opposed to it, as were a large part of the lower clergy and the faithful. The king and the pope could not agree on how to make the cardinal obey, because the king was opposed to any act of papal authority that would challenge Gallican liberties. The Parliament and the high administration are opposed on their side to the recording of the bull, and the king dies without having been able to force them.

Louis XIV”s search for glory did not only involve politics and war: it included the arts, letters and sciences as well as the construction of sumptuous palaces and large-scale spectacles. Even if the success and the political instrumentalization of ancient references intensified from the Renaissance onwards, Greco-Roman mythology was particularly solicited for the purposes of prestige and royal propaganda.


The king attached great importance to spectacular festivities (see “Fêtes à Versailles”), having learned from Mazarin the importance of spectacle in politics and the need to show one”s power in order to reinforce popular support. As early as 1661, when Versailles had not yet been built, he detailed, in a precise manner for the instruction of the newly born Grand Dauphin, the reasons that should drive a sovereign to organize festivities:

“This society of pleasures, which gives the people of the Court an honest familiarity with us, touches and charms them more than one can say. The people, on the other hand, enjoy the spectacle where, basically, we always aim to please them; and all our subjects, in general, are delighted to see that we like what they like, or what they are most successful at. By this we hold their minds and hearts, sometimes more strongly perhaps, than by rewards and benefits; and with regard to foreigners, in a State which they see otherwise flourishing and well regulated, what is consumed in these expenses which can pass for superfluous, makes on them a very advantageous impression of magnificence, power, wealth and greatness .

In order to dazzle the court and the favorite of the moment, he organizes sumptuous parties, for which he does not hesitate to bring animals from Africa. The most famous and best documented of these parties is undoubtedly Les Plaisirs de l”île enchantée, in 1664. The historian Christian Biet describes the opening of these feasts as follows:

“Preceded by a herald dressed in antique style, three pages including the king”s page, M. d”Artagnan, eight trumpeters and eight timpanists, the king showed himself as he was, in a Greek disguise, on a horse with a harness covered in gold and gems. The actors of Molière”s troupe were particularly admired. Spring, under the features of Du Parc, appeared on a horse of Spain. One knew her very beautiful, one liked her as a coquette, she was superb. Her haughty manners and her straight nose enthused some, her legs that she knew how to show and her white throat put the others in all their states. The fat Du Parc, her husband, had left his grotesque roles to play the Summer on an elephant covered with a rich cover. La Thorillière, dressed as Autumn, rode a camel, and everyone marveled at the fact that this proud man imposed his natural presence on the exotic animal. Finally Winter, represented by Louis Béjart, closed the march on a bear. Some people said that only a clumsy bear could be attached to the claudication of the valet. Their suite was composed of forty-eight people, whose heads were adorned with large basins for snacks. The four actors of Molière”s troupe then recited compliments for the queen, under the lights of hundreds of candlesticks painted green and silver, each loaded with twenty-four candles.”


In the mind of the king, the greatness of a kingdom should also be measured by its beautification. On the advice of Colbert, one of the king”s first projects was the restoration of the Tuileries palace and garden, entrusted to Louis Le Vau and André Le Nôtre. The interior decorations are the work of Charles Le Brun and the painters of the brilliant Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture.

After the arrest of Fouquet, whose sumptuous life symbolized by the castle of Vaux-le-Vicomte he seemed to want to imitate, the king spent large sums of money on the embellishment of the Louvre (1666-1678) – the project of which was entrusted to Claude Perrault, to the detriment of Bernini, who had come expressly from Rome. He entrusted the restoration of the gardens of the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, his main residence before Versailles, to Le Nôtre. Louis XIV moved to the Palace of Versailles in 1682, after more than twenty years of work. This castle cost less than 82 million pounds, barely more than the budget deficit of 1715. In 1687 the construction of the Grand Trianon was entrusted to Jules Hardouin-Mansart. In addition to the Palace of Versailles, which he had enlarged little by little throughout his reign, the king also had the Palace of Marly built in order to receive his intimates.

Paris also owes him, among other things, the Pont Royal (financed on his own money), the Observatory, the Champs-Élysées, the Invalides, the Place Vendôme as well as the Place des Victoires (commemorating the victory over Spain, the Empire, Brandenburg and the United Provinces). Two triumphal arches, the Porte Saint-Denis and the Porte Saint-Martin, celebrate the victories of the Sun King during his European wars.

To facilitate the development of the royal navy, he developed the ports and arsenals of Brest and Toulon, created a war port in Rochefort, commercial ports in Lorient and Sète and built the free port and the galley arsenal in Marseille.

French language and literary classicism

Under Louis XIV, the process initiated by Louis XIII continued, leading French to become the language of the educated in Europe as well as the language of diplomacy, which it continued to be in the 18th century. This language is then little spoken in France, outside the circles of power and the court, which plays a central role in its dissemination and development. The grammarian Vaugelas defined good usage as “the way of speaking of the healthiest part of the court”. Following in his footsteps, Gilles Ménages and Dominique Bouhours (author of the Entretiens d”Ariste et d”Eugène) insist on clarity as well as on the correctness of expression and thought. Among the great grammarians of this century are also Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot, authors in 1660 of the Grammaire de Port-Royal. Women played an important role in the development of the French language, as shown, in a way, by Molière”s play Les Précieuses ridicules. They are the ones who bring him his concern for nuance, his attention to pronunciation and his taste for neology. La Bruyère writes about them: “They find under their pen turns and expressions which often in us are the effect only of a long work and a painful research; they are happy in the choice of the terms, which they place so right that, all known that they are, they have the charm of the novelty, seem to be made only for the use where they put them “. On his side, Nicolas Boileau, in his Art poétique, published in 1674, summarizes according to Pierre Clarac, “the classical doctrine such as it had been elaborated in France in the first half of the century. The work has nothing – and could have nothing – original in its inspiration. But what distinguishes it from all the treatises of this kind, it is that it is in verse and that it seeks to please more than to instruct. Composed for the use of the people of the world, it obtains with them the most brilliant success “. Around 1660, the heroic novel, which goes back to Henri IV, declines, while new forms of writings, news, letters develop and are the object of theorization through in particular the Treaty of the origin of the novels of Pierre-Daniel Huet (1670) and the Sentiments on the letters and on the history, with scruples on the style of Du Plaisir (1683)

In the 18th century, Voltaire celebrated in two of his books, Le Temple du goût (1733) and Le Siècle de Louis XIV, the literature and the French language of that period, symbols of French excellence. At the end of the 19th century, when the Third Republic began its work of mass schooling, Gustave Lanson saw the French language and literature of the time of Louis XIV as an instrument of “French preponderance. If, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the authorities were suspicious of Louis XIV, they nevertheless magnified the classical authors that they gave massively to read to high school students.

Patron of the arts and sciences

In his youth, Louis XIV danced at the ballets given at court, such as the Ballet des Saisons, in the summer of 1661. He danced his last ballet in 1670, followed by comedy-ballets such as Le Bourgeois gentilhomme by Molière. In 1662 the Royal Academy of Dance was founded. The king also sang while accompanying himself on the guitar. Robert de Visée, musician in the King”s Chamber, composed two books of pieces for the guitar dedicated to the King. Music is part of the court life. Not a day goes by without music at Versailles. Every morning, after the council, Louis XIV listens to three motets in the royal chapel.

A great lover of Italian music, Louis XIV made Jean-Baptiste Lully the superintendent of music and the master of music of the royal family. Always on the lookout for new talent, the king launched music competitions: in 1683, Michel-Richard de Lalande became sub-master of the Chapel Royal and later composed his Symphonies pour les Soupers du Roy.

Giving a great place to the theater, Louis XIV “directed some writers, less by his taste and his culture than by his prestige, towards decency and nobility, towards good sense and accuracy”. His influence was considerable because he behaved as a patron and financed the great cultural figures of the time, with whom he liked to surround himself. Artists and writers vied with each other in their efforts and talent to earn his appreciation. Having discovered the comic genius of Molière very early on, he had the hall of the Palais-Royal restored for him in 1661, where the actor would perform until his death. To reward him, the king granted his troupe a pension of six thousand pounds, which officially became “La Troupe du Roi au Palais-Royal” (the same year, he became the godfather of his first child.

At the same time that comedy acquired its letters of nobility with Molière, tragedy continued to flourish and “tended to become a state institution”, reaching a peak with Racine, whom the king rewarded for the success of Phèdre (1677) by appointing him his historiographer. According to Antoine Adam,

“The historical greatness of Louis XIV had been to give the kingdom a style. Whether Bossuet or La Rochefoucauld, or Mme de Lafayette, or the heroines of Racine, all of them have in common a sense of attitude, not theatrical, but magnificent. They are as if carried to this high level by the pride of race or social rank, by the feeling of their duties and their rights. It was around 1680 that this style asserted itself with the most force, it was at this time that monarchical France was most aware of living an exceptional moment in history.”

The reference to Roman antiquity is imposed in art. The king is represented by the painters as being the new Augustus, as Jupiter, conqueror of the Titans, as Mars, god of the war or Neptune. The new cosmology is opposed to the heroic morality of Corneille. It aims at “redefining around the monarchy a new order, a new set of values”. From 1660-1670, Nicolas Boileau makes the praise of the good sense and the reason, what contributes to ruin ” the tragic emphase to the Corneille ” characteristic of the rebellious aristocracy of the beginning of the century. Art aims then at imposing to the aristocracy of the more “Roman” values intended to “discipline its insane impulses”. Towards the end of the century, tragedy ran out of steam and suffered from the disaffection of the public.

In 1648, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was founded, where all the great artists of the reign were trained. Placed under the protection of Colbert, it was directed by Charles Le Brun and counted among its founders the greatest figures of French painting in the middle of the century, such as Eustache Le Sueur, Philippe de Champaigne, and Laurent de La Hyre. Designed on the model of the Italian academies, it allowed artists holding a royal patent to escape the restrictive rules of the urban corporations, which had governed the profession of painter and sculptor since the Middle Ages. The members of the Academy set up an elaborate system of teaching, copying from the masters, and lectures aimed at theorizing the “beautiful” in the service of the monarch, and even created an Academy of France in Rome, where the most deserving students were sent. Most of the great commissions of the reign, including the painted and sculpted decorations of the Palace of Versailles, were carried out by the students trained in this new Royal Academy. In 1664, Colbert invited Le Bernin, then at the height of his fame, to restructure the Louvre; although his project was rejected, the Italian architect-sculptor nevertheless produced a bust of the king in white marble and an equestrian statue that he delivered twenty years after his return to Rome: initially “exiled” to a less prestigious corner of the park at Versailles, it is now preserved in the Orangery of the château (while a copy currently adorns the square in front of the Pyramid of the Louvre in Paris). This last statue was unveiled at Versailles at the same time as the Perseus and Andromeda by the French sculptor Pierre Puget, whose famous Milon of Crotone has adorned the park since 1682.

In 1672, Louis XIV became the official protector of the French Academy: “On the advice of Colbert, the king offered him a home – in the Louvre – a fund to cover his needs, tokens to reward attendance at meetings; he also offered him forty chairs – a sign of total equality between academicians.” In 1688, he founded the Academy of Sciences, intended to compete with the Royal Society in London. His reign also saw the reorganization of the Jardin des plantes and the creation of the Conservatoire des machines, arts et métiers.


The “portrait of Louis XIV” occupies a prominent place in Saint-Simon”s Memoirs (381 pages in the Boislisle edition of 1916). For the memoirist, the whole “character” of the king stems from his fundamental trait, pride, fueled by the flattery of which he is constantly the object, and by his mind which is, he says, “below mediocre but capable of forming and refining itself. According to the modern historian Thierry Sarmant, the pride of Louis XIV comes from the feeling of belonging to the oldest, the most powerful and the noblest dynasty of Europe, the Capetians, as well as the great confidence in his capacity to govern that he gains after hesitant beginnings.

Some of his contemporaries such as the marshal of Berwick underlined his great politeness, and his sister-in-law Madame Palatine his affability. He treated his servants with respect, Saint-Simon notes moreover that his death was regretted “only by his inferior valets, by few other people”. His main trusted man was his faithful valet Alexandre Bontemps, who organized his secret marriage with Madame de Maintenon and was one of the few witnesses of this remarriage.

Despite his nickname of “Sun King”, he was shy by nature, reminiscent of his father Louis XIII and his successors Louis XV and Louis XVI. He feared conflicts and scenes, which led him to surround himself more and more with self-effacing and docile ministers such as d”Aligre, Boucherat, but especially Chamillart, one of his favorites. In any case, he was only trusted by a small circle of relatives, servants, long-time ministers and some great lords.

Over the years, he has mastered his shyness, without overcoming it, and makes it appear as self-control. Primi Visconti, a 17th century chronicler, relates that “in public he is full of gravity and very different from what he is in his private life. Being in his room with other courtiers, I have noticed several times that, if the door is opened by chance, or if he goes out, he immediately composes his attitude and takes on another expression of figure, as if he were to appear on a stage”. Expressing himself laconically and preferring to think alone before making a decision, one of his famous lines is “I”ll see”, in response to requests of all kinds.

The king reads less than the average of his educated contemporaries. He prefers to have books read to him. On the other hand, he loved conversation. One of his favorite interlocutors, Jean Racine, is also one of his favorite readers. Louis XIV finds him “a particular talent to make feel the beauty of the works”. Racine read to him in particular the Life of the famous men of Plutarch. From 1701, the king began to build a library of rare books, including: The Elements of Politics by Thomas Hobbes, The Perfect Prince by J. Bauduin, The Portrait of the Political Governor by Mardaillan and the Royal Tithe by Vauban.

Emblem, motto and monogram

Louis XIV chose the sun as his emblem. It is the star that gives life to everything, but it is also the symbol of order and regularity. He reigned as the sun over the court, the courtiers and France. The courtiers watched the king”s day as if it were the daily course of the sun. He even appeared disguised as the sun at a court party in 1653.

Voltaire recalls, in his Histoire du siècle de Louis XIV, the genesis of the motto of the Sun King. Louis Douvrier, a specialist in ancient coins, in anticipation of the 1662 carrousel, had the idea of attributing an emblem and a motto to Louis XIV, who did not have one. This set does not please the king who finds it ostentatious and pretentious. Douvrier, in order to ensure the success of his production, promotes it discreetly to the court, which is enthusiastic about this find and sees the opportunity to show its eternal spirit of flattery. The coat of arms features a globe illuminated by a shining sun and the Latin motto: nec pluribus impar, a formula constructed as a litote whose meaning has been debated, literally meaning “without its equal even in a large number”. However, Louis XIV refused to wear it and never wore it in carousels. It seems that, afterwards, he only tolerated it, in order not to disappoint his courtiers. Charles Rozan reports the words that Louvois addressed to the king when the latter deplored the fate of James II of England who had been expelled from his country: “If ever the motto was right in all respects, it is the one that was made for your Majesty: Alone against all.

The monogram of Louis XIV represents two letters “L” facing each other:


Louis XIV worked about six hours a day: from 2 to 3 hours in the morning and in the afternoon, without counting the time devoted to reflection and extraordinary affairs, to the participation in the various councils and to the tête-à-tête with the ministers or ambassadors. The king is also keen to keep himself informed of the opinion of his subjects. It is him who treats directly the requests of grace because, in this way, he can learn about the state of his people. After ten years of exercise of the power, he writes:

“This is the tenth year that I have been walking, as it seems to me, fairly constantly in the same road; listening to my least subjects; knowing at all hours the number and quality of my troops and the state of my places; incessantly giving my orders for all their needs; dealing immediately with foreign ministers; receiving and reading dispatches; making part of the replies myself and giving my secretaries the substance of the others.”

If the historian François Bluche admits the existence of “instinctive, implicit or intuitive agreements between the sovereign and his subjects”, he points out nevertheless “the relative insufficiency of relations between the government and the subjects of His Majesty”.


It has often been said that the king was not tall. In 1956, Louis Hastier deduced from the dimensions of the armor given to him in 1668 by the Republic of Venice that the king could not have been more than 1.65 m tall. This deduction is now disputed because this armor could have been manufactured according to an average standard of the time. Indeed, it was an honorary gift that was not intended to be worn, except in painted pictures with an ancient subject. Some testimonies confirm that the king was of a fine bearing, which suggests that, for his time, he had at least an average height and a well-proportioned figure. Madame de Motteville relates, for example, that during the interview on the Isle of Pheasants in June 1660 between the young promises presented by the two parties – French and Spanish – that the Infanta Queen “looked at him with eyes quite interested in his good looks, because his good height made him exceed the two ministers [Mazarin, on the one hand, and Don Louis de Haro, on the other] by a whole head.” Finally, a witness, François-Joseph de Lagrange-Chancel, butler to the Princess Palatine, the king”s sister-in-law, gave a precise measurement: “Five feet, eight inches high”, or 1.84 m.


If the reign of Louis XIV was exceptionally long, despite everything his health was never good, which is why he was followed daily by a doctor: Jacques Cousinot from 1643 to 1646, François Vautier in 1647, Antoine Vallot from 1648 to 1671, Antoine d”Aquin from 1672 to 1693, and finally Guy-Crescent Fagon until the death of the king. All of them made extensive use of bloodletting, purgations and enemas with clysters – the king is said to have received more than 5,000 enemas in 50 years. In addition, as explained in the health notes, he had many unroyal problems. Thus, Louis sometimes had very bad breath because of his dental problems, which appeared in 1676 according to the diary of his dentist Dubois; his mistresses sometimes placed a perfumed handkerchief in front of their nose. Moreover, in 1685, while one of the numerous snags of his left jaw was being removed, a part of his palate was torn off, causing a “mouth-nose communication”.

Reading the health journal of King Louis XIV, meticulously kept by his successive physicians, is edifying: few days go by without the sovereign being subjected to a purgation, an enema, a plaster, an ointment or a bloodletting. One finds there among others consigned:

Mistresses and favorites

Louis XIV had many mistresses including Louise de La Vallière, Athénaïs de Montespan, Marie-Élisabeth de Ludres, Marie Angélique de Fontanges, and Madame de Maintenon (whom he married secretly after the death of the Queen, probably during the night of October 9 to 10, 1683, in the presence of Father de La Chaise who gave the nuptial blessing).

At the age of 18, the teenage king met Marie Mancini, a niece of Cardinal Mazarin. A great passion ensued between them, which led the young king to consider a marriage, which neither his mother nor the cardinal agreed to accept. The monarch then threatens to abandon the crown for this Italian, French in his culture. He broke down in tears when she was forced to leave the court, due to the insistence of the girl”s uncle, who was also the king”s godfather, Prime Minister of the kingdom and prince of the Church. The primate prefers to make the king marry his ward, the infanta of Spain. In 1670, Jean Racine was inspired by the story of the king and Marie Mancini to write Bérénice.

Later, the king had secret staircases built in Versailles to reach his various mistresses. These liaisons irritate the company of the Blessed Sacrament, a party of devotees. Bossuet, as well as Madame de Maintenon, try to bring back the king to more virtue.

Louis XIV, if he loved women, was aware that he had to look after the affairs of state first. He notes in his memoirs “the time we give to our loves must never be taken to the detriment of our business”. He has a certain distrust towards the influence that women can exert on him. Thus, he refuses a benefit to a person supported by Mrs. de Maintenon saying “I absolutely do not want her to interfere”.

There are at least fifteen favorites and supposed mistresses of the king, before his marriage with Madame de Maintenon:

About the king”s mistresses, Voltaire remarked in Le Siècle de Louis XIV: “It is a very remarkable thing that the public, which forgave him all his mistresses, did not forgive him his confessor”. By this, he alludes to the last confessor of the king, Michel Le Tellier, to whom a satirical song attributes the bull Unigenitus.


Louis XIV has many legitimate and illegitimate children.

From the queen, Maria Theresa of Austria, the king had six children (three girls and three boys) of which only one, Louis of France, the “Grand Dauphin”, survived childhood:

From his two main mistresses, he had 10 legitimate children of which only 5 survived childhood:

From the union of the king with Louise de La Vallière were born five or six children, two of whom survived childhood.

From Madame de Montespan are born :

In 1679, the poisons affair consummated the disgrace into which Madame de Montespan, ex-favorite of the king, had fallen a few months earlier.

The king would have had other children, but he did not recognize them, like Louise de Maisonblanche (1676-1718), with Claude de Vin des Œillets. It is also possible to note the mysterious case of the origins of Louise Marie Thérèse, known as the Mauresse de Moret. Three hypotheses have been put forward, all of which have in common that she was the daughter of the royal couple. It could be the adulterous daughter of Queen Maria Theresa, a hidden child of King Louis XIV with an actress or simply a young woman baptized and sponsored by the king and queen.

Louis XIV appears in many works of fiction, novels, films, musicals. Cinema and television, depending on the period, have shown very diverse images of the king, with a predilection for the episode of the iron mask.

Historians” points of view

Historians are divided as to the personality of Louis XIV and the nature of his reign. The divergences exist since his time, because the tendency is to confuse what belongs to the individual and what has to do with the state apparatus. Also, historiographies oscillate between an apologetic temptation, exalting the period as a French golden age, and a critical tradition attentive to the harmful consequences of a bellicose policy.

In France, as the historical discipline became institutionalized in the 19th century, Louis XIV was the subject of contradictory biographies. Jules Michelet was hostile to him and insisted on the dark side of his reign (dragoons, galleys, famines, etc.). The historiography was renewed during the Second Empire through the intermediary of political opponents, whether Orleanists or Republicans. For the former, it made it possible to minimize the place of the Revolution and the Bonapartist dynasty within French history, for the latter to oppose the grandeur of the past to the vulgarity of the present. Studies on the administration are widely represented, as shown by the works of Adolphe Chéruel and Pierre Clément, as well as, to a lesser extent, those devoted to religious politics and aristocratic figures. The general denunciation of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes is associated, among liberal historians such as Augustin Thierry, with the valorization of the established sovereign as a major actor in the construction of the modern nation-state. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Ernest Lavisse added nuances, insisting, in his textbooks as well as in his lectures, on its despotism and cruelty. In a similar way to his French academic colleagues, he points out the authoritarianism, the pride of the monarch, the persecution of the Jansenists and Protestants, the excessive expenses of Versailles, the subservience of cultural patronage to the royal glorification, the number of revolts and the continuous wars. However, he remained sensitive to the fame and initial successes of the reign. Under the Third Republic, the subject is sensitive because monarchism is still alive in France and always constitutes a threat for the republic. Between the wars, the biased book of the academician Louis Bertrand was answered by a book of indictment by Felix Gaiffe, l”Envers du Grand Siècle. In the 1970s, Michel de Grèce pointed out the shortcomings of Louis XIV, while François Bluche rehabilitated him. Since the 1980s, the reign of Louis XIV has been studied from the perspective of the origins of the modern state in Europe and of economic and social agents. This research allows for a better understanding of the aristocratic opposition to Louis XIV during the Fronde. Studies carried out on the themes of finance and money, by Daniel Dessert and Françoise Bayard in particular, lead to a better understanding of how the monarchy financed itself and to questioning the very favorable approach to Colbert adopted under the Third Republic. Finally, historians such as Lucien Bély, Parker, Somino and others shed new light on the wars waged by Louis XIV.

The dominant British and American approach to the monarch, until the nineteenth century and even until the beginning of the twentieth century, was marked by a hostility tinged with fascination. He was seen both as a despot starving his subjects in order to wage his wars, and as the uncompromising propagator of Catholicism. In 1833, Thomas Babington Macaulay, a Whig historian, highlighted his cruelty and tyranny in his analysis of the War of the Spanish Succession. The black legend attributed to Louis XIV reached its peak in the writings of David Ogg, who made him the precursor of William II and Adolf Hitler in 1933. Nevertheless, between 1945 and 1980, Anglo-American historians contributed to renewing the approach to the nature of the regime and its place in Europe, while in France, specialists of this period tended to abandon the political field in favor of social and cultural issues. They bring new analyses on the extension of the role of the state as well as on the deconstruction of propaganda and informal power relations. Despite the existence of the American Society for French Historical Studies and the British Society for the Study of French History, interactions with French research remained rare until the 1990s. Jean Meyer is among the scholars who promoted Anglo-American works among the French public. Of course, there was no homogeneity of views within the scientific community, with Guy Rowlands, for example, agreeing with Roger Mettam on the conservative character of the regime, but denying it a reactionary dimension and affirming a sincere desire for institutional reform.

Between the middle of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and especially after the French history of Leopold von Ranke, German historiography took a notable interest in Louis XIV, essentially for his foreign policy, and this from a point of view permeated by the rise of nationalism. The king was stigmatized as an aggressor against Germany, a despot and a debauchee, guilty of three wars of brigandage (Raubkriege). He was described as a threat to Frederick William I, teleologically perceived as a harbinger of German unification. The image became more complex at the end of the 19th century: the racialist anthropologist Ludwig Woltmann counted him among the prestigious statesmen; Richard Sternfeld recognized his administrative qualities despite his appetite for conquest. In the interwar period, apart from revanchist pamphlets, German historians such as Georg Mentz integrated French authors into their work and tended to depersonalize the results of the reign. During the Third Reich, the condemnation of the wars was combined with a certain esteem for royal absolutism. After 1945, and under the influence of the Franco-German rapprochement, university historiography adopted a less passionate style and work was carried out jointly with foreign countries, as illustrated by Paul-Otto Höynck, Fritz Hartung, and Klaus Malettke. Research then tended to become more international, to study the sovereign in the context of the seventeenth century, independently of the present, and to incorporate the methodological innovations of economic and social history.


: document used as a source for the writing of this article.


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