- Je m'en vais, mais l'État demeurera toujours. (I am leaving, but the State will remain forever.)
The longest-reigning King of France (5 September 1638—1 September 1715)—and indeed the longest-reigning monarch of any European Great Powernote —known as Louis the Great or the Sun King. He was the most influential monarch of the 17th century. His most visible legacy is his ludicrously grand palace at Versailles.
Louis' impact on French history require a bit of context: namely, the fact that feudalism is decentralized. In theory, in a feudal government, when the king says, "Go do this," everyone has to obey, but in practice the other knights, barons, viscounts, counts, barons, dukes and princes have some leeway to hem, haw and etc. Plus there was the fact that there were innumerable customs, traditions, and laws that, while the king could try to override them, any attempt to change them would generally provoke concerted opposition from the lords if he tried doing that. And because feudal lords' status in the system was built on their access to resources and therefore raise armies, the monarch could only do so much to impose his will by force or fiat. Even when the king's army was biggest, strongest, and best in the country (and it often wasn't), it was rarely so strong that it could be trusted to win every fight, and even when it could, not every political dispute was worth turning into a civil war. A feudal monarch thus relied on his own charisma and influence, rather than the power or resources of his office, at least partially... And Louis's father, the thirteenth of his name, was a bit limp in this area, despite having The Three Musketeers working for him. Another problem came from the king's first ministers, like Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, being accused by the nobles of usurping the king's power. Conveniently, this gave them an excuse to rebel against the cardinals' actions, since they justified themselves by defending the king's prerogative.
Louis XIV fixed this by doing his best to turn himself into an "absolute monarch." For one thing, instead of appointing a cardinal or someone else as his prime minister Louis personally took on the business of government himself. This made it much more awkward for any would-be nobles to accuse the prime minister of usurping the king's power, as Louis could simply claim he was using the powers and fulfilling the responsibilities given to him by God. He also got the nobles on his side by using his charisma—in which he was not lacking—combined with some bending and reviving of old traditions to get the nobles to wait on him hand and foot. Seriously, they treated him like they were teen girls and he was a Teen Idol. You see, one power the king always had was the power to invite lords to come to him and join his court—not because he could really "force" anyone to come, mind you, but because refusing such an invitation was seen as the height of ingratitude and therefore declining the king's invitation was not a decision taken lightly. Once at court, he could hand out official roles and duties in the court to the various nobles, which he did with abandon; by the end of his reign, it took 200 noble lords to help him get up and get dressed in the morning (officially, anyway—unofficially, he woke up two hours earlier to handle the royal paperwork). In a way, Louis applied the Bread and Circuses trope to the aristocracy rather than the common folk. He kept the nobles distracted with grand parties, and also found outlets for their energy with his multiple wars. Nobles who fared well in war could gain considerable prestige, so many of them didn't even object to not having formal roles in government.
With the lords all at Versailles, Louis could keep track of who was fawning over him, reward them appropriately, and essentially keep them prisoner, able to stay only on his sufferance and not able to go home to their own fiefs and interfere with his rule. This was a genius political move, but it allowed Louis free rein (or free reign) as a—still limited by fundamental laws of the kingdom—autocrat, which he exploited without compunction.
While the nobles were distracted, Louis and his ministers began overhauling the way France was governed. Political power was systematically taken from many nobles and placed in the hands of royal intendants who depended on the king for their positions and enforced royal decrees and laws. This way, Louis effectively ended feudalism in France and prevented any more risks of a Fronde, or noble rebellion, from happening.
Louis XIV's system was highly effective and led to substantial achievements. Unfortunately, the problem with a Cult of Personality is that you need a successor of equal ability and charisma, or else the whole thing will collapse when you die. Louis XIV's successor, Louis XV (actually his great-grandson) was nowhere near as effective, and his successor, Louis XVI (his grandson), despite being a lot more able on the business side of things than he generally got credit for, was severely lacking in charisma and thus could not prevent the crisis of absolutist France devolving into the Revolution of 1789. Later historians feel that the Revolution was largely a consequence of Louis XIV's impossible-to-sustain absolute monarchy. They note that Louis XIV was inspired to take power as a result of the English Civil War and the rise of Cromwell (Charles II—the elder son of Louis' aunt Henriette Marienote —was an exile in France much of this timenote ). The changes in England as a result of the Civil War and regicide, which led to greater power in the hands of Parliament (consolidated subsequently in the Glorious Revolution) did not create a parallel movement in France in the same period. This meant that civil institutions did not develop in France in the same way to erode state power, rather Louis XIV reformed and centralized power from the top. This reactionary approach meant that changes came belatedly in France and in a necessarily drastic form. Indeed, the political commentator Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Britain's extension of more autonomy to its localities and its overseas colonies allowed them to become more innovative and dynamic than a France that controlled everything from the top down. This in turn ultimately allowed Britain to become more powerful than France during the 18th century. However, Tocqueville also noted that the signal achievement of the Jacobins during the Revolution was to forge a unified centralized French state, a process that Louis XIV had begun, which they had completed and which Napoleon permanently consolidated with his Civil Code. Interestingly, the anti-Bourbon Napoleon himself had some respect for his predecessor, describing Louis XIV as "the only King of France worthy of the name".
Tropes as portrayed in fiction:
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Like so many French rulers, tends to regularly fall victim of this in works written in English. Reality was grey, as usual.
- Riddle for the Ages: The mysterious "Man in the Iron Mask" immortalized by Alexandre Dumas. In actual fact, his mask was one of Black Velvet. In the reign of The Sun King, a man described by his warden as "Eustache Dauger" and described as "merely a valet" was kept imprisoned in various places in a specially constructed cell. The unusual conditions of his captivity, the fact that he was well taken care of implies that he was far more high profile than people believe. The mask is taken to mean the identity of the prisoner was absolutely essential for Louis XIV to hide, but who he couldn't bring himself to simply have killed. This naturally supplied several conspiracy theories, starting from Voltaire that he was the King's illegitimate brother and that Louis XIV was in-fact a usurper and The Wrongful Heir to the Throne. Other theories suggest that he was the King's illegitimate son, while other historians links him to a real-life Eustache Dauger who was involved in "The Affair of the Poisons". Others dismiss the Dauger theory, because why would a mere disinherited son of a noble merit a Luxury Prison Suite and also need his face hidden at all times? The fact remains, his real identity has never been established and any proof that might ever have existed has long since been lost.
Appears in the following works:
- Appears in 20 Years After as a child and takes on a more prominent role in The Vicomte de Bragelonne, the final novel of Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers trilogy.
- Civilization and its various iterations, in which Louis is sometimes a playable ruler
- La Prise du Pouvoir par Louis XIV by Roberto Rossellini is a French film available on The Criterion Collection that shows how the King, in collusion with finance minister Colbert created Versailles and established himself as the absolute monarch. Historically accurate to a fault.
- The series of Angelique novels by Anne Golon set during his reign has Louis XIV as the main antagonist throughout. His portrayal as a Well-Intentioned Extremist aroused a minor scandal when the first novel was sent to the editors in France during the 1950s, as there was an unwritten convention since the revolutionary days that Bourbon Kings were always tyrants and nothing more. The first novel got published in 1956 in Germany and only the next year in France.
- Louis XIV and his court also appear in the movies Vatel (about the famous French cuisinier) and Le roi danse (about composer Jean Baptiste Lully).
- He and his court are the main characters in the 2015 TV series Versailles.