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Useful Notes / Louis XIV

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Louis XIV in coronation robes by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701.

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 great European power and the longest confirmed reign of any monarch of a sovereign state in historynote Added note  — known as Louis the Great (Louis le Grand) or the Sun King (le Roi-Soleil). He was the most influential monarch of the 17th century, and his most visible surviving legacy is the ludicrously grand palace he built in Versailles, which millions of tourists visit every year.

Louis' impact on French history requires 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, marquises, dukes and princes have some leeway to hem, to haw, to temporize, to deliberate, and so on and so forth. Moreover, feudalism was a highly transactional form of rule, and very often a particular lord or region’s loyalty to the Crown had initially been secured with pledges by the Crown to respect certain rights and privileges, which even centuries later the lords and regions remembered — and would see any violation of those rights and privileges as terminating their duty to obey royal authority, since the Crown was no longer holding up its end of the bargain. Plus there was the fact that there were innumerable customs, traditions, and laws. While the king could try to override them, any attempt to change them would generally provoke concerted opposition from the nobility. And because feudal lords' status in the system was built on their access to resources and therefore their ability to raise armies, the monarch could only do so much to impose his will by force or fiat. Even when the king's own army was the 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's youth was therefore spent amidst the Fronde, a great uprising of the nobility against the centralizing efforts of his regent (his mother, Anne of Austria) and her chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin. The practical result of the Fronde was that the royal family had to flee Paris while the royal armies struggled to crush the noble frondeurs. While an arrangement was finally reached that ended the revolt, Louis found the experience quite traumatic. note 

Louis thus resolved to break the power of the nobles to ever do something like that to the king ever again. He did 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 noble rebels 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 can't very well plan a rebellion if you're busily obsessing over the latest fashions at court.

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 note , 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 — and by the time young Louis took the throne, it had been a very long time since any noble had begged off a royal invitation because they didn't feel like going. note  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.

This was Louis XIV's strategy in a nutshell: keep the lords busy with trivialities. Flatter their vanities. Make them jockey for grand but ultimately meaningless favours. Keep everyone as petty and shallow as possible. 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, and it allowed Louis free rein 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. It also didn't hurt that the frondeurs had discredited themselves in the eyes of many Frenchmen by causing further upheaval and misery to a populace already suffering from years of war with Spain and previous internecine conflicts. Many people actually wanted the monarch to take a firm hand against the aristocracy and restore order, which Louis was happy to provide. Part of Louis's reforms involved cracking down on the noble corruption and abuses of power which left France nearly bankrupt and caused the hapless commoners no end of grief.

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 (Louis XV's 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 had difficulty making hard choices, 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 Marie note  — was an exile in France much of this time). note  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 France, where everything was controlled from the top down.

Of course, not everything went smoothly for Britain, especially when France decided to support a certain somebody's revolution. France played a crucial, even decisive role in the American Revolutionary War, resulting in the colonies gaining independence from Britain. However, this would ultimately contribute to France's own destabilization. Outside of achieving a bit of revenge, France itself gained very little. Practically none of the losses France suffered from its defeat in the Seven Years' War (1756–1763) were reversed. Nor did America become a new and powerful ally, as it was Britain who immediately became the colonies' largest trading partner. At the same time, the war was very expensive and France's finances were left in disastrous straits. They had also just assisted in the establishment of a nation fundamentally opposed to everything they stood for (a strong monarchy, a large nobility, and a vibrant Catholic Church), contributing to their own revolution and civil war a few years later, which would prove far more bloody than the one which had just occurred on the other side of the Atlantic, and ultimately lead to the annihilation of the French nobility and monarchy and the deaths of millions across Europe. 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 Napoléon Bonaparte 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:

  • Decadent Court: As noted above, Louis's royal court was well-known for the nobles' partying lifestyle and the king's extravagance. It's also well-known for its backstabbing and intrigue, such as in The Three Musketeers novels. That said, the French court that preceded Louis was arguably worse, rife with power struggles between the aristocracy and the crown, corruption among the nobles themselves and nobles defying royal authority. Part of Louis's centralizing reforms involved cleaning up a lot of the aristocratic corruption, depriving the nobles of the power bases that allowed them to cause so much grief and re-asserting royal authority across the country.
  • Fanfare: Royal baroque music of the Versailles court under his reign such as that of Jean-Baptiste Lully, Michel-Richard De Lalande or André Danican Philidor tended to be quite bombastic (here's an example). Plenty of films have thus incorporated Lully pieces on their soundtrack.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Like so many French rulers, tends to regularly fall victim of this in works written in English. Reality was a lot more nuanced, as usual, and French works tend to take this into account more often than not.
  • 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 and the fact that he was well taken care of imply 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 whom 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.
  • The Tooth Hurts: Often depicted as having very bad dental hygiene. This is actually Truth in Television; The reason why the king's cheeks hang so much in the portrait above? By the time of the painting, an average man of his time's lifetime's worth of partying with sugar, wine and fatty foods had left Louis practically toothless, leading to the protruding walrus cheeks in portraits of royalty and nobility, by no means unique to Louis, but exemplified in that even Hyacinthe Regaud's masterpiece couldn't hide it.

Appears in the following works:

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  • Appears in Twenty Years After as a child and takes on a more prominent role in The Vicomte de Bragelonne, the final novel of Alexandre Dumas's D'Artagnan Romances, which started with The Three Musketeers.
  • The series of Angélique 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.

  • Films based on Alexandre Dumas' The Vicomte de Bragelonne (well, a subplot of it anyway):
  • The Angélique film series, based on the novels. Louis XIV appears in the first three films (1964-1966), played by Jacques Toja. David Kross played him in the 2013 remake.
  • Louis, the Child King, 1993 French film about his childhood during the Fronde civil wars. Played by Maxime Mansion.
  • Revenge of the Musketeers, 1994 French film. Louis appears as a teenager at the time of his coronation. Played by Stéphane Legros.
  • Marquise, 1997 French film. Played by Thierry Lhermitte.
  • Le Roi danse (The King dances), 2000 French film about composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and the king's days as dancer in Lully's ballets. Played by Benoît Magimel.
  • Saint-Cyr, 2000 French film about the creation of boarding schools for young daughters of noble families that have fallen on hard times by the last wife (and former mistress) of Louis, Madame de Maintenon. Played by Jean-Pierre Kalfon.
  • Vatel, 2000 French film about the famous French cuisinier and manager of lavish parties François Vatel. Played by Julian Sands.
  • Blanche (2002). Played by José Garcia.
  • A Little Chaos, 2014 British film. Played by Alan Rickman in one of his last roles.
  • The Death of Louis XIV, 2016 French film about, well, his death. Played by Jean-Pierre Léaud.
  • The King's Daughter, 2018 American film. Played by Pierce Brosnan.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, 1966 French TV film by Roberto Rossellini that shows how the King, in collusion with finance minister Colbert, created Versailles and established himself as an absolute monarch. Historically accurate to a fault. Played by Jean-Marie Patte.
  • The King's Alley, 1995 TV film. Played by Didier Sandre.
  • Young Blades, 2005 Canadian series. Played by Robert Sheehan.
  • Versailles, a king's dream, 2007 docufiction. Played by Samuel Theis.
  • The King, the Squirrel and the Grass Snake, 2011 TV film. Played by Davy Sardou.
  • Versailles (2015-2018). Played by George Blagden.
  • The Musketeers: Louis XIV is born during the second season premiere and, after a Time Skip of several years, assumes the throne at the end of the third season with Queen Anne acting as Regent.

  • Curt Smith (of Tears for Fears fame) released "Sun King" as an Answer Song and The Diss Track to his ex-best friend and former musical partner Roland Orzabal, whom he accuses of being a tyrant, much like Louis XIV was — it's worth noting that Orzabal has French ancestry and can speak French fluently.

  • Le Roi Soleil (The Sun King), 2005-2007 French musical by Kamel Ouali.

    Western Animation 
  • Il était une fois... l'Homme (Once Upon a Time... Man, 1977) has an episode about Louis XIV and his era, "Le Grand Siècle de Louis XIV" ("The Great Century of Louis XIV").
  • Appears in the French animated series Molierissimo (1988-1989), about a Tagalong Kid who lives with Molière's theatre troupe. Voiced by Vincent Ropion in French (aka Ryo Saeba).
  • Frequently appears in Yvon of the Yukon in the title character's flashbacks to his life in as a courtier in Versailles. He's portrayed as a comically diminutive and massively narcissistic alcoholic whom Yvon happily lets walk all over and humiliate him to gain his favor.

    Video Games 
  • Assassin's Creed: Unity: In 1794, his memoirs are stolen by a cult dedicated to his alleged son and hidden underground in Franciade (Saint-Denis) where a cult awaits the return of the King. Assassin Arno Dorian infiltrates the cult, kills them and finds the memoirs. Then Arno surmises that Louis XIV will not be returning any time soon and leaves the memoirs.
  • Civilization and its various iterations, in which Louis is sometimes a playable ruler. He’s particularly interesting in Civilization IV, in which his trait combination (Industrious+Creative) makes him second to none for players seeking a Cultural Victory: Creative gives a direct boost to Culture and Industrious gives an advantage in building Wonders, which always produce lots of Culture points. The next-best choices (e.g. Hatshepsut, Creative+Spiritual;note  Catherine the Great, Creative+Imperialisticnote ) just barely squeak by in comparison.