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The Enlightenment

The Age of
Louis XIV

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The absolute monarchy came to its pinnacle of power during the reign of Louis XIV. As soon as he became of age, he took over the reigns of government and thereupon ruled France as both King and Prime Minister.

No opposition was tolerated and he ruled according to his famous dictum, "I am the State".

Louis certainly appeared to believe that he was to be King of France by Divine Right. It was he who first used the concept of the Divine Right of Kings. The king is ordained and anointed by God alone and is not subject to the will of the people.

Louis XIV became famous throughout Europe for the magnificence of his court. He built the new Palace of Versailles just outside of Paris. It was regarded as so magnificent that later rulers of Europe attempted to imitate his achievements, so that little imitations of Versailles sprang up all over Europe. The French language too became the language of class throughout Europe.

Louis nevertheless brought France to a state of bankruptcy. The finances were bled dry through reckless expenditure and constant warfare.

By the time of his death, France stood perched in a perilous position: reform or revolution. Louis XV would weather the storm but Louis XVI would fail and his failure would herald the French Revolution of 1789.

Louis XIV's 72 year reign, unequalled by any king in Europe, was one of the most conspicuous in the history of monarchy. Such monarchs as Charles V and Philip II may have ruled over greater dominions but they never attained the prestige and power that Louis XIV enjoyed. He was the "Grand Monarch", the "Sun King", the "First Gentleman of Europe".

He was certainly the most famous prince of his time, which has ever since been known as the Age of Louis XIV. His court set a standard of magnificence which contemporary and later rulers endeavoured to imitate but did not hope to equal.

For the nobles of most European countries the language, taste, spirit, and art of Versailles became obligatory. Society everywhere was French, remaining so until the 19th century. Most other countries, except England, built palaces in the style of those of Louis XIV.

Louis' reign was the culmination point of the system of absolute monarchy which had been evolving since the 100 Year's War. Henry IV had attempted to suppress feudal opposition, Cardinal Richelieu and Mazarin had fought to unify France and conquer the resistance of the nobility.

When Mazarin died in 1661 he bequeathed a unity and a power which no sovereign had ever had and none after Louis would again achieve.

His reign was marked by almost complete internal peace. His word was law. The hostility of the nobility collapsed into fawning adulation. The Estates General was never convoked. The Parlements were kept under tight control. Louis' reign was the Golden Age of France, in art, literature and music.

But it was also the beginning of decay, for he left the state bankrupt and the people embittered. After him would come rapid decline and then chaos.

The evils of his uncontrolled financial policies (or lack of policies) would rebound on his successors, notably Louis XVI. France would descend into the anarchy of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.

THE COURT AT VERSAILLES

Louis was the state. Louis XIV undoubtedly represented the Golden Age of France. He built the magnificent and luxurious Palace of Versailles.

There he gathered around him the great nobles, the best musicians, the finest artists. They lived in ease and comfort with little to occupy their minds except courtly pleasures, while the artists could busy themselves with their creative genius.

LOUIS' FOREIGN POLICY

When Louis took over the reins of government, Europe was in a state of peace after the turmoil of the religious wars and the 30 Year's War. The king, however, had no desire for peace but thirsted for glory which he believed only a war would provide.

A war, he said, was a means to indicate that France was the most powerful state in Europe. "Ambition and glory are always excusable in a prince and especially in a prince as young and as highly favoured by fortune as I was." War would also serve to increase France's natural boundaries.

To achieve his foreign ambitions, Louis acquired a large, well trained army, with some of the most modern equipment and the best generals. As a defensive army it certainly would have had no match. Indeed there was hardly a single state in Europe which could have stood up to it.

Yet he had to have pretexts for war. These he found on the flimsiest excuses, usually based on claims to Spanish territory. His usual argument was that Spain had not honoured its endowment agreement when he had married Marie Thrse.

He therefore attempted to invade the Spanish Netherlands, the Netherlands proper, and even Spain itself in the War of the Spanish Succession.

The French armies cleared revealed immense power. Coupled with this was the fact that Louis appeared to stoop at nothing to get his way. The other nations of Europe could only sit up and realise that, individually, they were no match. They had to be united if they wished to defend themselves adequately.

In that way was born the concept of the "Balance of Power". A series of alliances would be organised against France which successfully put a stop to each of his militaristic desires. The concept would then be used again and again: against Napoleon, against Germany in the Great War and finally against Germany in the 2nd World War.

In all, France fought no less than four wars during Louis XIV's reign but, because of the formation of the alliance system against France, very little was gained from any of the wars. On the other hand, the wars cost the French people dearly as France tumbled into bankruptcy.

FINANCIAL PROBLEMS

The wars were not the only reason for France's ailing economy. Gross spending on the Court of Versailles saw what money was collected simply squandered with no national gain.

In his early years, Louis was fortunate that he had the services of Jean-Baptiste Colbert as financial adviser. He was a hard-working and astute man who had been trained by Mazarin and who strove to guide France along mercantilistic avenues. Like his predecessors, however, Colbert was unable to make major economic changes.

Careful scrutiny of existing practices meant that most of the taxes which were collected at least made their way into the royal treasury. Once there, however, they were gobbled up by constant warfare and extravagance which Colbert was powerless to stop.

In 1683 Colbert died a broken-hearted man, knowing that much of his labour had been in vain. Though he had increased the national income, he had not succeeded in curbing the prodigality of the king or in preventing his ruinous wars.

The royal expenditures and the cost of the wars emptied the treasury faster than he could fill it. However carefully the taxes were collected, it was still necessary to resort to other expedients for obtaining money.

Once Colbert was dead, there was no holding the king. His new advisers allowed him a free rein and often positively encouraged his spendthrift ways. Royal expenditure therefore soared to new heights, unchecked by plain common sense.

The only way to make ends meet was through increased taxation, usually from the peasants. Probably at no other time in the history of France was there so much unnecessary suffering among the masses.

"The highroads of the country," a contemporary wrote, "and the streets of the towns and cities are full of beggars whom nakedness and famine have driven forth...One tenth of the population are actually beggars; five tenths do not absolutely beg, but are on the verge of starvation."

The king was constantly reminded of the hardships which afflicted the people but to no avail. It was only in his final years, when he was ailing and dying, that he suddenly seemed to see the error of his ways.

Indeed, he advised his great-grandson, who would succeed him as Louis XV, of the need for peace and frugality.

RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE

Another area in which Louis failed hopelessly was in the sphere of religious toleration. Henry IV, Richelieu and Mazarin had striven to disarm the Huguenots so that they would no longer be a political or military threat to the kingdom. At the same time, however, they nurtured religious toleration.

In that way Henry IV's Edict of Nantes had ensured that the Huguenots would be guaranteed religious rights. By doing so France was assured of the co-operation of one of the hardest working groups in the state.

Indeed, the Huguenots numbered some 10 percent of the population and were therefore responsible for much of the nation's wealth.

Louis XIV's attitude towards the Huguenots can only be understood in terms of his attitude to himself as Absolute Monarch by Divine Right. It is true that he had been brought up as a staunch Catholic but Catholic theology appeared relatively meaningless to him. In that sense he was relatively tolerant in terms of religion.

On the other hand, his belief in himself as the Absolute Monarch meant that he simply could not understand that anyone could disagree for any reason. This applied particularly to the sphere of religion.

He did not see the Huguenots as a political threat to the state but the fact that they stubbornly clung to a church different from his own annoyed him.

For a time the Edict of Nantes was maintained. Increasing pressure, however, was put on the Huguenots to convert to Catholicism. Their schools were closed, their churches were pulled down, they were offered bribes and special privileges if they converted.

In 1681 it was decided to punish those who persisted. Dragoons were quartered in their houses, with permission given to live as licentiously as they wished. This was a method which had immediate effect as hundreds flocked to conversion rather than face the calamity of the dragoons.

Eventually, in 1685, the Edict of Nantes was repealed on the grounds that it was no longer necessary. There was no-one living in France, said Louis, who was not a Catholic. Since religious toleration was only necessary when there was another religion to tolerate, there was therefore no further reason for the Edict of Nantes.

The result was a flood of emigration from France. Although the French borders were closed against such emigration, the Huguenots found ways out and fled to England and Holland, and from there to America, some to the Cape.

Although they were forced to abandon their property and their wealth, they nevertheless took their talents with them. In that way, France paid dearly for the country lost some of the leading industrial experts at a time when the French economy was collapsing all around.

CONCLUSION

A Golden Age for France in the world of literature, art and music. A period of extreme romanticism: modern novels revel in the grandeur of the court.

A catastrophe in financial management, causing extreme hardship for the majority of the people and paving the way for the French Revolution which would erupt 74 years later.

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