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Passion and power at Versailles: how French King Louis XIV ruled

The Sun King kept his throne for 72 years by controlling the French aristocracy, religion, taxes and the arts

Louis XIV and Versailles

French nobles had to live in small apartments at Versailles where Louis XIV could spy on them Pic: Everett Collection / Takashi Images / Shutterstock

Louis XIV is famous for his lavish tastes and multiple mistresses, but there was more to the monarch than palaces and parties during his 72-year reign.

When Louis XIV (1638-1715) was born he was called Louis Dieudonné (Godgiven) because after 23 years of marriage and four miscarriages, his parents had given up hope of having a healthy son. Later he became known as the Sun King because he chose the sun as his emblem. He viewed himself as the direct representative of God, who had chosen him to rule France.

His unique destiny saw him inherit the throne at the tender age of five, which he occupied for 72 years and 110 days until he died of gangrene four days before his 77th birthday. During Louis’ minority, his mother Anne of Austria acted as Regent of France, fiercely protecting his position. She was determined to hand him not only the crown, but the most power and authority possible.

A weak aristocracy was key to his reign

The French monarchy was repeatedly attacked by French nobles, reluctant to surrender local power to the throne. Two movements, one straight after another (the Fronde parlementaire, 1648-1649, and the Fronde des princes, 1650-1653) rocked the monarchy, resulting in Anne fleeing Paris with her son. As an adult, he was determined to centralise power, weaken the aristocracy and consolidate the position of the French crown.

He was declared to have come of age in 1651 aged only 13, and there was no question of him taking the reins, at that time in the hands of Cardinal Mazarin. In 1660, he married Maria Theresa of Spain, who would have six children with him, although only one lived into adulthood. In 1661, he took Louise de la Vallière as his mistress, with whom he had a further five children. 

When Mazarin died in 1661, Louis announced that he would rule without a chief minister. Only the king was to give the orders. No-one would even be able to get a passport without his permission. 

Louis taxed the working and middle classes

It was a way to stop the endless power struggles between the aristocracy and, realising that he needed money to finance his army in order to maintain his position, Louis XIV began reforming the administration and the tax system, which until then had resulted in very few taxes reaching the crown. 

Then as now, the richest people in France were dead set against taxation, and many of them managed to win exemptions. The tax burden fell on the working and middle classes until towards the end of his reign, when he managed to impose at least theoretical taxation on the aristocracy.

Louis bolstered commerce and trade, knowing this would make France rich; he encouraged manufacturers and inventors, and supported the arts. He began to employ people from the middle classes as administrators, realising that without social and family connections to the throne, they were easier to control and to dismiss. 

The king was ruthless in war and colonisation

He modernised the army, rationalised the French legal system, and turned his attention to foreign affairs. Over the course of his reign, he fought one war after another, expanding French borders and extending French influence. He had a reputation for being militarily aggressive and ruthless. The struggle for supremacy over Spain and Holland continued for decades, and simultaneously France colonised territories in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. He established diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire, Morocco, Persia, Siam and China. 

Aristocrats kept in check at Versailles

By 1680, he had consolidated his own personal power as well as extended French influence globally. The palace at Versailles functioned as a marriage market, employment agency and the centre of European culture. Nobles were required to attend Louis XIV at Versailles in order to obtain tax concessions and exemptions. They lived in small apartments in the palace, which prevented them from building power bases and hatching plots in their own lands. 

Louis XIV kept them all at his glittering court where he could read their correspondence, spy on their activities and keep them busy with an endless round of sporting and cultural events.

He fathered at least 20 children

He was personally tireless, appearing in countless ballets as well hunting regularly and conducting affairs with a series of mistresses. It is not known exactly how many children he fathered, but the Marquise de Montespan had seven children with him, Claude de Vin des Œillets had one child, and Marie Angélique de Scorailles died giving birth to her second child with him. That is a total of at least twenty children.

Persecution of the Protestant Huguenots

France was the richest country in Europe, with the largest population and the most professional army. It enjoyed a central location and was aggressive towards its neighbours. In 1685, wanting the entire population to follow his Catholic religion, Louis XIV decided to persecute French Protestants. He therefore revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had given Huguenots religious freedom, and issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, which made the religion illegal. The edict banned Protestant groups, pastors and churches in France, forcing believers to convert to Catholicism or emigrate. This edict was only revoked in 1787 by his successor Louis XVI with the Edict of Versailles, which restored religious freedom to Protestants in France.

War and national debt brought famine to France

Towards the end of the century France became involved in a series of expensive wars that arose from succession struggles in Rhineland and England, Italy, Holland and Spain. Defeats and victories followed, but back in France famine and mounting debts weakened the King’s position.

Between 1693 and 1710 over two million people died of starvation during two famines, exacerbated by armies raiding the countryside for food. Finally, in 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht was signed between France, Spain, England and Holland, bringing the wars to an end. 

A devoutly religious King

When the Queen died in July 1683, Louis XIV had already legitimised his children by Madame de Montespan and employed Françoise d’Aubigné, later known as Madame de Maintenon, as their governess. She was a very religious woman. Their secret marriage, which took place sometime between October 1683 and January 1684, was public knowledge. They remained together for more than a decade, until his death.

His belief in God was absolute; Louis XIV saw himself as the protector of the Catholic church, and prayed every day. Towards the end of his life, he even banned opera and comedy during Lent. 

Patron of the arts, culture and architecture

During his reign his support of the arts was exceptionally generous. He brought the Académie Française under his patronage, encouraged writers including Molière, Racine and La Fontaine. He commissioned hundreds of portraits and busts of himself, as well as music from a whole crowd of composers. 

He founded the Académie royale de danse and the Académie d’Opéra. He employed hundreds of craftspeople at Versailles to make ornaments, furniture, mirrors and other decorative items. 

In Paris, he established a police force, constructed broad boulevards, and installed street lighting. He also constructed Les Invalides, a military complex for soldiers and infirm veterans. He expanded The Louvre, and commissioned the Canal du Midi.

He suffered ill health throughout his life

Despite his long life and long reign, however, Louis XIV did not always enjoy the best of health. His doctors noted symptoms of diabetes, chronic inflammation, dental abscesses, boils, fainting spells, gout, dizziness, hot flushes and headaches. As he drew towards the end of his life, he was in almost permanent pain. 

After his death from gangrene, his body was buried in the Saint-Denis Basilica outside Paris where it resided until revolutionaries exhumed and destroyed all the remains in the church.

He outlived all his immediate family including his surviving legitimate son. His legitimate grandsons had also died, meaning his heir was his five-year-old great grandson Louis, the Duke of Anjou. 

He foresaw that his nephew Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, would probably become regent, and attempted to curb his powers by creating a Regency Council with power invested in his favourite son, Louis-Auguste. But after his death, Philippe had Louis XIV’s will annulled by the Parlement de Paris. He stripped his half brothers of their rank as Princes of the Blood and became sole regent. He stepped down in  February 1723 when the majority of Louis XV was declared. 

From the age of 13, Louis XV ruled until his death in May 1774 at the age of 64. His reign was the second longest in French history, and he became known as Louis le Bien-Aimé (the Beloved).

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