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The Sun King

Few men in history have been more suited to be king than Louis XIV. Under the tutelage of Mazarin, the young Louis received on-the-job training for a job he would do longer than any other monarch in European history; he ruled France from 1643 until 1715. Louis read diplomatic papers, learned geography, and watched those around him as they conducted affairs of state. Of all the lessons he learned while watching the administration of Mazarin, the one that had perhaps the greatest impact on his reign was that the nobility could not and should not be trusted.

Louis learned from Mazarin, who learned from Richelieu, the importance of being a grand and powerful monarch, and the role suited him well. Louis loved being the king. Fie basked in the grandeur and he craved the attention he received as courtiers competed for his time. Mazarin impressed upon the religious king that God placed monarchs on thrones and they were intended to be God’s earthly rulers. Louis embraced that idea as well as the opportunity to further the Catholic cause. During his reign, Louis redefined the European monarchy and drew the blueprint for absolutism.

Would You Believe?

Louis XIV called himself the Sun King and he surrounded himself with statues of the Greek god of the sun, Apollo.

Becoming an Absolutist

Without a doubt, Richelieu and Mazarin helped mold Louis and his ideas about the monarchy. Richelieu believed that a strong nation needed a strong government with as much power as possible in the hands of those who govern from the capital. He believed in intimidating those who opposed the government. Richelieu believed in doing whatever was necessary to further the cause of the nation both at home and abroad.

Though he was unable to produce the same results, Mazarin passed the ideas along to Louis during his formative years. However, the effect of the Fronde on Louis can hardly be overstated. Louis witnessed the chaos up close and personal; a mob once broke into his bedroom and scared him out of his wits. Louis was convinced that a strong central government had to be his number-one goal. Rather than confronting the nobility and trying to subdue them, Louis decided to convince the nobility to work with him. In doing so, he could control the nobility without the nobility realizing that they were being controlled. Louis convinced the wealthy nobles on more than one occasion to support measures that benefited both the nobility and the monarchy. Eventually, Louis convinced the nobility of his grandeur and nobles would do anything simply to be in his presence.

Using Versailles

The amazing palace at Versailles went a long way toward achieving that end. Louis XIII began construction of a hunting lodge in a small town just a few miles outside Paris, which Louis XIV turned into one of the most expensive palaces ever conceived.

Louis’ plan was to create a getaway where nobles and foreign dignitaries could be entertained. Furthermore, Louis wanted all who laid eyes on Versailles to be awed.

He wanted foreign visitors to see Versailles and imagine the immense wealth France surely possessed. He wanted all visitors to be intimidated by his grandeur, his majesty, and his opulence.

Would You Believe?

Louis XIII wasn't particularly fond of his wife, and hoped to use the lodge at Versailles as a retreat from her. Louis XIV “fell in love" with two of Mazarin's nieces. To protect one of them from the womanizing monarch, Mazarin sent her out of the country.

He succeeded. Tens of thousands worked every year until Louis’ death to turn the hunting lodge into the grandest chateau ever built. Louis devoted between 10 and 20 percent of his entire national budget to the construction of his palace. The grounds spanned 2,000 acres and 12 miles of roads inside 12 miles of enclosing walls. The 26 acres of rooftops covered 700 rooms and 67 staircases that were decorated by 6,000 paintings, 2,100 sculptures, and thousands more drawings and engravings. Mirrors, gold leaf, and the finest furniture anywhere adorned the entire palace. It is estimated that Versailles could host as many as several thousand guests along with a few thousand full-time staff. Louis used Versailles to impress and intimidate visitors and to magnify his image and that of France.

He also used Versailles to keep the nobility in check. Louis XIV required all of the uppermost nobles to spend at least part of the year at Versailles. Perhaps the nobles took exception to such a requirement at first, but it didn’t take long for the nobility to consider it an honor just to be invited. Once at Versailles, the nobles found themselves in the lap of luxury and they certainly didn’t mind the stay. The king threw lavish feasts and balls. The king put on plays and ballets, including some of his own work. It became quite the social event.

For those fortunate few, the king himself would allow them into his presence, even allow them in his bedchamber to watch him rise from bed or help him put on a coat. Louis, a master manipulator, convinced the nobility they were fortunate to be with him in his palace. Louis, however, had an ulterior motive. By requiring, or inviting, the nobles to stay at Versailles, he managed to have all his potential advocates and opponents in one place. He and his officers could keep close tabs on the nobles. Louis’ agents often eavesdropped and intercepted correspondence just to be sure there were no plots against the king. It has been said that Louis “domesticated” the nobility. While that may be an overstatement, there is no doubt that Versailles proved an invaluable tool in keeping them in check.

One French Religion

Louis had always been taught that a king was God’s ruler on earth. As such, Louis firmly believed that he had a duty to defend his faith. Though Henry IV showed remarkable leniency toward the Protestants, Louis wasn’t prepared to do the same. He, like Richelieu and Louis XIII, believed there really was no room in France for more than one religion. Louis first sought a Protestant-like group of Catholics called Jansenists. Louis forced the Jansenists into hiding until after his death. Next, he turned his attentions toward the Huguenots. In 1658, Louis revoked the Edict of

Would You Believe?

One of the great mathematicians of European history, Blaise Pascal, was a well-known Jansenist.

Nantes and stripped the Huguenots of all rights they had enjoyed previously. Louis closed the Calvinist churches, burned and banned their literature, and exiled any who refused to convert to Catholicism. In what turned out to be bad economically for France, thousands of hardworking Huguenots fled to other countries; with them they took a large tax base that France desperately needed.

Colbert and Mercantilism

Louis used the bureaucratic system of intendants just as his teacher and his teacher’s teacher had done. He also placed great trust in particular ministers who helped him make important decisions. Perhaps the most influential of all his ministers was Jean- Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683). A former trainee under Mazarin, Colbert worked his way up to the position of minister of finance.

Under the leadership of Colbert, France adopted an economic policy of mercantilism.

Define Your Terms

Mercantilism is an economic system in which all economic activity has the aim of making the national economy stronger.

Although a mercantilist bureaucracy created an increase in the number of government officials necessary to keep the economy going, the benefits were huge. Colbert’s strategy manifested itself most in overseas trade, colonization in places like Canada and the Mississippi Valley, and the creation of trading companies; in mercantilism, the profits from these all went to the state.

To aid this endeavor, Colbert helped France expand its navy. Colbert also created industries and regulated the quality of the goods produced. Colbert encouraged the formation of guilds, or groups of craftsmen from the same profession, to aid the development of master craftsmen. The mercantilism encouraged by Colbert would have gone a long way toward making France prosperous had it not been for Louis’ deficit spending on Versailles and on the military.

Louis on the Battlefield

For all of Louis’ interest in art, music, and culture, few if any monarchs of his day had such an interest in the military. Louis poured obscene amounts of money into his military, and he got his money’s worth. Louis created the largest and most formidable professional, standing army Europe had ever seen. With this army, he launched a campaign to expand his borders. Unfortunately for those within his borders, Louis taxed his people heavily. Furthermore, he diverted funds away from hunger relief and other benefits for the French people and diverted those funds to the military budget.

He began in 1667 and in 1668 and captured towns in the Spanish Netherlands. From 1672 until 1678, he fought to win a few more towns in the Spanish Netherlands. As Louis kept fighting and conquering, other European nations grew tired of his expansionist tendencies. Louis had already engaged the English, Dutch, Spanish, and the Holy Roman Empire. Undeterred by former alliances against him, Louis continued to expand, this time eastward into German territory as far as Strasbourg. Fed up, a coalition of the Dutch, the Spanish, the English, the Swedes, the Austrian emperor, and even some German princes finally put a stop to Louis and his army. The fighting ceased with the 1697 Peace of Rijswijk. Louis returned all the land he had taken over the past 20 years, with the exception of Strasbourg.

War suited Louis and his absolutist government. Though the military expenditures wracked the economy, Louis used the military to flex muscles at home and not just abroad. Taxes, conscription, and displays of military prowess all were methods of controlling those around him. Despite his magnificent army and his military expenditures, Louis had affected the life of virtually every Frenchman through the military. The French paid heavy taxes, fed soldiers, and gave their lives—only to lose most of the lands that Louis wagered so much to conquer.

Tetat, c'est moi"

Would You Believe?

A major patron of the arts, Louis XIV used his coffers to support artists and playwrights and to finance academies for art, music, dance, and even architecture.

Continental Quotes

"Why do you weep? Did you think I was immortal?" —King Louis XIV of France, reportedly spoken on his deathbed.

The seventeenth century has been called the Golden Age of France as well as the Age of Louis XIV. Louis XIV defined an era, a nation, and a culture. Both during his rule and after, the man Louis XIV was synonymous with France the nation. Louis once remarked, “L’etat c’est moi,” or “I am the state.” What he meant was that he was the embodiment of France and vice versa. Louis didn’t just rule France—Louis XIV was France, a phenomenon attributed partly to his greatness as a king and partly to his longevity.

By controlling nearly every aspect of France, Louis XIV determined how the world saw France and how the French saw France. He was the trendsetter in art, music, fashion, and French culture. He redefined the monarchy; Louis was the seminal French monarch. He redefined the modern military; the French army was Louis’ army. Though he bankrupted the country, Louis left such a legacy that seventeenth-century France is defined by Louis XIV.

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