Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, ruled France for 72 years. This made him the longest reigning sovereign of any European country at the time. He ruled from 1638 to 1718.
Early Life and Reign of Louis XIV
Born on September 5, 1638, Louis was the son of King Louis XIII and his Habsburg queen, Anne of Austria (1601-1666).
The future Louis XIV was praised as a miracle – his parents had been married for 23 years before he was conceived! He was christened Louis-Dieudonné, meaning “gift of God.” A younger brother, Philippe (1640-1701), was born two years later.
When his father died of what may have been tuberculosis (or the ‘treatments’ provided to him in the form of bleeding) on May 14, 1643, 4-year-old Louis inherited the crown. His mother, Anne, served as his Regent meaning that she ruled in his place until he was old enough.
Louis and his other had a very close relationship. This was quite unusual at the time – royal children were usually raised by governesses. But Queen Anne was very fond of her son and spent a great deal of time with him. She believed strongly in the divine right of kings – that is, that a king was chosen by God to rule. This is perhaps where Louis began to form his opinion of himself as The Sun King.
Queen Anne began her reign as Regent by shifting power away from other nobles back into the monarchy. She imprisoned anyone who challenged her rule. Her main aim was to transfer absolute authority to her son in all matters of finance and justice.
In doing this, Anne raised taxes on the people of France which they could barely afford – riots broke out and a mob broke into the palace, causing Anne to flee with her children.
The nobles were beginning to resent their loss of political power – Louis’s life was now under constant threat. A civil war erupted, forcing the young king and his family to flee to Paris for safety. Memories of his early years spent under threat lead to a lifelong fear of rebellion.
When Louis was 22, he married his first cousin, Marie-Thérèse (1638-1683) of Spain. This was a marriage of necessity more than anything else, though the couple did produce six children. Only one of these children would survive to adulthood.
The Sun King
Perhaps because of his mother’s views of a king’s divine right to rule, coupled with the fact that his very conception was seen as a miracle, Louis saw himself as the direct representative of God – divinely chosen to rule France. He chose the sun as his emblem, cultivating an image of an all-powerful ruler. In this, he saw himself as the centre of the universe around which everybody else revolved.
The Royal Court Under Louis XIV
Louis was regarded as a hard-working ruler who saw his projects down to the last detail. He was meticulous.
Before Louis’ reign, French monarchs would spend their year on progress; travelling France from palace to palace. Perhaps driven from his childhood spent in fear, Louis rebuilt his father’s hunting lodge in Versailles, turning it onto a lavish palace where he would live year round.
The court and government officially moved there in 1682. He built a complicated system of etiquette and ceremony to tame the nobility. In his view, if the nobility were fighting amongst themselves for the right to pass him his washcloth or take off his boots they would have no time to focus on plotting against him.
The famous memorialist the Duke of Saint-Simon wrote of Louis XIV: “With an almanach and a watch, one could, from 300 leagues away, say with accuracy what he was doing”.
The king planned his day to the minute. This allowed the court to know exactly where to find the monarch and allow servants and officers in his service to plan their days accordingly. From morning to evening his day ran like clockwork.
Queen Marie-Thérèse died in 1683, and Louis remarried one year later. His new bride was the Marquise de Maintenon who had once served as a governess to his illegitimate children – that is, the children he had with women who were not his wife.
France at war
France was a dominating power in Europe and many other countries felt threatened by France’s power. In the late 1680s England, the Holy Roman Empire and Spain formed a coalition known as the Grand Alliance with several other smaller countries. They declared war on France, a war that lasted from 1688 to 1697.
France emerged victorious with much of its territory still intact. The cost of war, however, left France in serious debt.
Just a few years later, Louis supported his supported his grandson Philip V in the War of the Spanish Succession. The war lasted almost ten years and threw France into further debt. Famine struck the country, turning public opinion against the king.
Louis XIV and Religion
In 1685 Louis, a devout Catholic, revoked the law that allowed French citizens to be Protestants (known as Huguenots). Louis ordered that all Protestant churches and schools be closed. Protestant marriages were invalid and all children of Protestant parents would have to be baptised into the Catholic faith.
Roughly 1 million Huguenots lived in France at the time, and many were artisans or other types of skilled workers. Thousands of people – maybe as many as 800,000 – fled the country. Louis’ laws cost the country valuable labourers, pushing it further into poverty.
Death of Louis XIV
On September 1, 1715, four days before his 77th birthday, Louis XIV died of gangrene at Versailles. His reign had lasted 72 years, longer than that of any other known European monarch.
His 5-year-old great-grandson succeeded him as Louis XV.