Louis XIV of France was born on 5 September1638, to King Louis XIII and his Habsburg Queen Anne of Austria. He was the first child of the couple, after 23 years of their marriage. As his mother had experienced four stillbirths between 1619 and 1631, his birth was regarded as a divine gift and he was christened Louis-Dieudonné, which means ‘gift of God’. Before his death Louis XIII decreed that a regency council, headed by Queen Anne, would rule on his son's behalf and when the king died on 14 May 1643, his 4 year old son inherited the crown of a fractured, unstable and nearly insolvent France.
As Anne wanted to give her son absolute authority and a victorious kingdom, she exiled some of her husband's ministers and nominated the Italian-born Cardinal Jules Mazarin as her chief minister. In 1648, Anne and Mazarin successfully negotiated the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the brutal Thirty Years’ War in Germany. However, as the Thirty Years' War came to an end, a civil war known as the ‘Fronde’ erupted in France. In fact, Anne and Mazarin introduced certain policies that consolidated more power to the monarchy. That angered the nobles and the members of the legal aristocracy and beginning in 1648 their discontent erupted as the Fronde. It forced the royal family to flee Paris and installed a lifelong fear of rebellion in the heart of the young king. Nevertheless, Mazarin suppressed the revolt in 1653 and by the end of the decade, he had restored internal order and negotiated a peace treaty with Hapsburg Spain, making France a leading European power.
In June 1660, Louis married his first cousin Marie-Thérèse, daughter of King Philip IV of Spain, with the sole purpose of ending the long-standing war between France and Spain. Famed for her virtue and piety, Marie suffered throughout his married life, as she had no other choice but to tolerate his many love affairs.
On the death of Cardinal Mazarin in March 1661, Louis took personal control of the reins of the government and declared that he would rule without a chief minister. He made it very clear that, as the direct representative of God, he is endowed with the divine right to wield the absolute power of the monarchy. He chose the sun as his emblem and cultivated the image of an almighty and flawless ‘Sun King’ (Roi-Soleil) around whom the entire realm orbited. In fact, he is infamous for his bold declaration of describing himself as the state.
During that time the treasury of France verged on bankruptcy. As a move to rectify the situation, Louis chose Jean-Baptiste Colbert as his finance minister, who reduced the national debt through more efficient taxation. The principal taxes included the ‘aides’ and ‘douanes’ (custom duties), the ‘gabelle’, tax on salt and the ‘taille’, a tax on land. These reforms had surprising effects, as the deficit of 1661 turned into a surplus in 1666, which fostered the growth of industry in the country. In the meantime, the war minister, Marquis de Louvois, expanded and reorganized the French army and Louis also managed to pacify the historically rebellious nobles, who had incited no less than 11 civil wars in four decades, by luring them to his court and make them habituated with the luxurious lifestyle.
Louis XIV began his aggressive foreign policy in 1667, when he launched the War of Devolution by invading the Spanish Netherlands, claiming it as his wife’s inheritance. However, under pressure from the English, Swedish and especially the Dutch, France had to retreat and returned the region to Spain, gaining only some frontier towns in Flanders. The Franco-Dutch War ended in 1678 with the Treaty of Nijmegen and although Louis had to return all the Dutch territory he had captured, he retained the Franche-Comté and gained more land in the Spanish Netherlands. He established ‘chambers of reunion’ to annex the disputed land along France’s border through quasi-legal means.
However, the position of France as a dominant power in the continent was viewed as a possible threat by the other European nations, including England, the Holy Roman Empire and Spain. In the late 1680s, along with several other smaller countries, they formed a coalition known as the Grand Alliance. In the ensuing war, lasted from 1688 to 1697, France emerged with most of its territory intact but its resources severely strained. The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) proved to be more disastrous for Louis XIV, in which the aging king defended his grandson Philip V’s inheritance of Spain and its empire. Due to the long conflict, famine-ridden France plunged into the abyss of a massive debt, which turned public opinion against the crown.
Apart from the decades of warfare, there is at least another reason that weakened both France and its monarch during the latter half of Louis XIV’s reign. In 1685, the Catholic king revoked the Edict of Nantes of 1598, which had granted freedom of worship and other rights to the French Protestants, known as the Huguenots. By promulgating the Edict of Fontainebleau, Louis ordered to destroy all the Protestant churches, banish the Protestant clergy and close the Protestant schools. Protestants were barred from assembling and their marriages were annulled. Protestant-Catholic intermarriages were also disallowed. It was also clarified that baptism and education in the Catholic faith would be required of all the children.
During that time, around one million Huguenots lived in France, which included many artisans and other skilled workers. Though emigration of Protestants was explicitly forbidden by the Edict, approximately 200,000 to 800,000 people fled in the decades that followed, settling in England, Switzerland, Germany and the American colonies, among other places. This Protestant zeal of Louis XIV also irked the neighbouring Protestant countries.
However, Louis XIV was a hard-working and meticulous ruler who oversaw his programs down to the last detail. He appreciated art, music, literature, sports and theatre. He brought the Académie Française under his patronage, protected writers like Molière, funded and commissioned various painters like Charles Le Brun, founded the Académie Royale de Danse and the Académie d’Opera. He loved ballet, was an eager dancer and performed 80 roles in 40 major ballets.
Much to the chagrin of the commoners and drawing accusations of extravagance, Louis built several lavish châteaux. Over the course of four building campaigns, Louis converted a hunting lodge built by Louis XIII in Versailles, a village 25 miles southwest of the capital, into the spectacular Palace of Versailles, considered as one of the largest palaces in the world. Louis moved his court and government in the Palace in 1682 and it was against this awe-inspiring backdrop that Louis tamed the nobility and impressed foreign dignitaries, using entertainment, ceremony and a highly codified system of etiquette, where the King alone commanded attention.
Four days before his 77th birthday, Louis XIV died of gangrene at Versailles on the 1st day of September 1715. He ruled his country for 72 years, which is longer than any other known European monarch and left an indelible mark on the history, culture, and destiny of France. During his reign, French colonies multiplied in Africa, the Americas and Asia. He transformed the monarchy in France, ushered in a golden age, presided over a dazzling royal court at Versailles, annexed key territories and established his country as the dominant European power. The reign of Louis XIV is often referred to in history as the ‘Great Century’, associated with the image of an absolute monarch and a strong cetralised state.