The shadow of the Sun King

'It has been said that Louis XIV invented France and Napoleon made it. Like Napoleon 150 years later, Louis found a country in turmoil and determined to turn it into a functional, modern state'

Adam Zamoyski

He may not have been, as one sycophant hailed him, king of the world, but Louis XIV certainly entertained global ambitions, set himself no limits and in many respects came to dominate his century. To do him justice and encapsulate his person, his plans, his successes and his failures, all of which involved a dizzying cast of characters and a mind-numbing web of relationships, is no easy task. With his extensive studies of court ritual and his sympathy for the Bourbons, Philip Mansel is the man for the job. 

Intelligent and hard-working, Louis XIV took his duties more seriously than most monarchs. He was courageous and loved leading his troops in war, which he regarded not just as a means of defeating the enemies of France and extending her frontiers but also as a glorious pursuit and a test of a man’s mettle (he was more than usually priapic on return from campaign). The same was true of his love of the chase; a fine horseman and a good shot, he spent much time and money on hunting, and lovingly commissioned portraits of his favourite hounds, with their names inscribed on them.

He was pre-eminently a patron of the arts, endowing France with an architectural heritage which still adorns her cities and countryside. Yet the inspiration was in most cases functional; for all its grandeur, the Paris Invalides was a practical veterans’ hospital, the Louvre was so full of art that it was as much a public gallery as a royal palace, while Versailles was the seat of a monarchy, government and court whose purpose was to rebuild the French state. Similar motives underlay Louis’s patronage of the arts and of literature, which experienced its grand siècle under his rule, and his insistence on lavish musical accompaniment to every ecclesiastical ceremony, court function and entertainment.

Yet for all his intelligence, he pursued some remarkably inept policies and made some poor choices in his appointments. While he was generally kind, generous and open-minded, treating women with greater respect than most of his contemporaries, his benevolence was clouded by wanton acts of cruelty such as the destruction of Mannheim and Heidelberg, and the bombardment of Genoa. Though genuinely pious and devout, he was prone to arrogance and megalomania. He could spend hours fulfilling his tedious and no doubt malodorous duty of touching the poor for scrofula, at other times he showed utter indifference for their suffering. He could be surprisingly tolerant of bad behaviour of every sort, even of treason, and was the first French monarch to visit a synagogue, yet showed unwarranted cruelty in his persecution of the Huguenots—and serious misjudgement in forcing them to leave France.

To be fair, he did not have it easy. When he succeeded his father aged five in 1643, France was in a mess and Europe in the last stages of the Thirty Years’ War. Behind the ostensible religious issues, and the plethora of lesser dynastic conflicts, lurked the age-old one between the French monarchy and the House of Austria, which by virtue of its dominion over the Holy Roman Empire and Spain threatened Bourbon France with encirclement. This conflict would continue throughout his reign, occasionally dying down only to flare up again in a new configuration, as states realigned and people changed sides. As well as his own regiments of Swiss and Scots, Louis was occasionally supported by English troops under the Duke of Marlborough, while his cousin the Prince de Condé and French soldiers fought against him alongside Spanish and English troops under the Duke of York. Many readers will be surprised to learn that the French court went into mourning at the death of the regicide Oliver Cromwell. 

The real challenge facing the boy-king was France itself. The country had not recovered from the murderous religious conflicts of the previous century and was in the throes of a civil war waged by the Fronde, as large sections of the nobility and major cities such as Bordeaux defied the authority of the crown. He had not been king for long when he and his family had to flee Paris itself. At various points in his childhood he was a virtual prisoner of the frondeurs as members of his closest entourage and family conspired to control or replace him.

The kaleidoscopic succession of betrayals, plots and revolts he was exposed to in his formative years convinced him of the necessity of doing something more than just asserting the power of the crown. The French monarchy might have been more than a thousand years old, but France was another matter; her provinces were still loosely bound together, her institutions fragile. It has been said that Louis XIV invented France and Napoleon made it. Like Napoleon 150 years later, Louis found a country in turmoil and determined to turn it into a functional, modern state that could impose order at home and face up to its enemies. This was something he could do only through personal rule, and he would only be in a position to enforce that by asserting his superiority. Using every form of art and artifice at his disposal, elaborate ceremonial and dazzling display, he projected an image of himself as Apollo and at Versailles created an Olympus in which he aimed to bring together the whole of France.

Versailles—not just the buildings, but the court, the culture, the festivities and the ceremonial—was his ultimate work of art, but it was also the principal instrument of his rule. He hardly ever missed the daily council meetings with his ministers, who had apartments and offices in the palace. He closely monitored the officials and nobles who had to attend him, which curtailed their scope for subversion, but controlling them was more difficult. He had early on eliminated independent-minded ministers such as Mazarin and Fouquet, but those he appointed in their place, even the highly capable Colbert, were just as venal and pillaged on a vast scale.

Mansel’s descriptions of how Versailles functioned are masterful and highly entertaining. But if it was, as he maintains, an “emotional community”, it was also a den of intrigue, corruption and even at one stage the black arts. Money and favours were traded with ministers for appointments and benefices, and women, beginning with the king’s mistresses, assumed the role of power-brokers in a perpetual scrum for not just grace and favour but in many cases survival.

Versailles was a bottomless drain on the kingdom’s revenues, but by no means the only one. Instead of consolidating his earlier triumphs in Flanders and on the Rhine, Louis carried on his struggle against the Habsburgs. He lost his best general when Henri de Turenne was killed in battle in 1675. In alienating Prince Eugene of Savoy, he pushed one of the greatest commanders of the age into the Habsburg camp. The other, the Duke of Marlborough, was also ranged against him when Britain joined the anti-French ranks. Louis’s high-handed manner and poor diplomacy swelled this; by the early 1700s half of Europe had rallied against France. Ironically, he was saved by Queen Anne, who withdrew from the conflict at a crucial moment, allowing him to recover his position before peace negotiations opened in Utrecht (this was chosen for its wide streets and town hall with
large rooms accessible through multiple doors of equal grandeur, which limited the scope for clashes over precedence—Mansel is good on this kind of detail).

Although he had succeeded in consolidating the state, enlarged France, endowed  her with a colonial empire in the Americas and the east, and established a grandson on the throne of Spain, by the time of his death Louis was deeply unpopular, his country hollowed out financially and teetering on the brink of revolution. By concentrating all authority on the person of the monarch he had built up no state structures while further emasculating existing institutions. He had not so much healed the conflicts tearing the country apart as stratified them socially, with dire consequences.

Louis’s last words to his court were: “Messieurs, I ask your forgiveness for the bad example I have set you; I must thank you for the way you have all served me and for the attachment and fidelity you have always shown me.” It is hard not to feel sympathy for a man capable of such a confession, but even Mansel cannot find anything more positive to say about him other than that he “provided many Frenchmen with immense emotional satisfaction, as he still does”, and that 300 years after his death it is above all Versailles that keeps his glory alive.


King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV
By Philip Mansel
Allen Lane, 604pp, £30

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