Louis XIV of France

Louis XIV of France ranks as one of the most remarkable monarchs in history. He reigned for 72 years, 54 of those in which he personally controlled French government. The seventeenth century is labeled as the age of Louis XIV. Dubbed the Sun King during his own life time, his rule has since been hailed as the supreme example of a type of government--‘absolutism.’ When Louis died, few of his subjects could remember any other monarch, for he epitomized the ideal of kingship.

Louis XIV was born on September 5th, 1638, the son of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria. His parents’ marriage had been childless for over 20 years, and the birth of this male heir was hailed as a gift from God. He became known as ‘Louis le Dieudonne’ (‘Louis the God-given’). Yet behind the rejoicing lay an uneasy sense that all was not well in France.

Since 1635 Louis XIII had been fighting a two-front war against Spain and the Holy Roman Empire to protect French territory from Hapsburg encirclement. Upon his death in May 1643, Anne of Austria was declared Queen Regent and took Cardinal Jules Mazarin as her chief minister. The two were heavily accused of deliberately prolonging the conflict as it dragged on and made economic conditions deteriorate. Although the Peace of Westphalia (October 24th, 1648) ended the war against the Emperor, the quarrel with Spain showed no sign of being resolved.

In 1648, France’s chief law court, the parlement of Paris, insisted that it had a right to be consulted over major decisions of the state. This example was followed by many provincial parlements and triggered five years of civil war known as the Frondes. This and the series of dramatic events that followed it coincided with several catastrophic harvests and an outbreak of plague.

Perhaps the most significant effect of the Frondes was the impact it had on the young Louis XIV. He never forgot the collapse of public order and the shock of twice having to leave Paris. His later policies - his suspicion of the parlements, his desire to tame the nobility, and his search for firm monarchical government - can only be explained in the context of the disastrous political breakdown which he had witnessed as a boy.

Although Louis had legally come of age in September 1651, this actually changed the distribution of power very little. Anne of Austria, although no longer regent, remained leader of the Council of State, while Cardinal Mazarin was still first minister. After 1653, royal powers were gradually consolidated, and France slowly gained the upper hand in the war against Spain. The Peace of the Pyrenees (June 6th 1659) gave France several important strategic sites and effectively marked Spain’s eclipse as the leading power in Europe. The new peace was symbolized by Louis XIV’s marriage to the Spanish King’s daughter Marie-Therese in 1660. This marriage was arranged by Mazarin in order to end the quarrel between France and Spain as well as to secure the right to Spanish succession. However, Mazarin did not attend the glorious ceremony, he was already seriously ill and died on March 9th, 1661. That same year, Louis XIV became the undisputed ruler of France.

When Louis XIV became ruler, his first priority was to prevent officials from abusing their power and to weed out corruption. Nicolas Fouquet (1615-1680), the Superintendent-General of Finance, was perhaps the most powerful minister during the first eighteen months of Louis’s personal rule. With his vast palaces, Fouquet was arrested and disgraced in 1661. Louis XIV explained his motives and outlined the importance of his personal control of financial administration as, “I should give serious attention to financial recovery and the first thing which I judged necessary was the removal of the principal officials who have caused chaos from their positions.”

After Mazarin’s death, Louis XIV assumed full power over the French government and illustrated it by refusing to appoint a chief minister. This represented the high point of centralized government: the king’s ministers reported separately to him alone. He prized loyalty and efficiency in his ministers, making use of a body of able bureaucrats left to him by Mazarin. The Council of State was further streamlined. In the provinces, intendants were made fixtures, and they were flanked by sub-delegates acting under their orders. Efforts were made under Jean-Baptiste Colbert to produce national criminal, civil, and commercial codes. Municipal authorities were more closely supervised from above. Paris was put under a lieutenant-general of police, a minister-ranking appointment, whose job was to reduce crime and engage in urban development. The provinces were under a mounted national police constabulary. The spread of a network of poorhouses-cum-workhouses throughout the kingdom marked an important national poor-relief policy, and also formed an effective agency of social control.

However, France’s economy had to expand and prosper in the longer term. Ways had to be found to ensure new wealth. Seventeenth-century France remained heavily dependant upon agricultural production. In his search for sustainable economic growth, Louis XIV and his able Superintendant of Finances, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, looked beyond agriculture to develop trade and industry.

Such attempts to encourage commercial growth faced obstacles of vested interests of individual merchants. To weed out this problem, Louis issued massive Commercial Ordinances to lay down in detail how business should be run. This series of regulations led to reforms of commercial courts. Louis not only sought to regulate trade, but individual growth as well. The intricacy and thoroughness of the government’s requirements were enforced by an ‘Inspector-General of Manufactures.’ Louis or Colbert personally oversaw specific problems in manufacturing industries. Louis set up extremely complex Revenue systems to tap the expanding wealth of French commerce and industry.

Because of his early brushes with the Frondes earlier in his life, Louis XIV always treated his nobility carefully. When he assumed complete control, he treated them very firmly. He was anxious to detect and punish ‘false’ nobles, and disliked the old aristocracy where the noble would lose his status if he engaged in a ‘demeaning’ trade. To remedy this, Louis issued and Edict in 1669, allowing the nobility to participate in commercial trade without loss of rank. Louis also amended the rules governing the nobility--in the 1696 Edict he conferred the nobility to, in return for financial contribution, individuals could attain the noble status upon their trade. Louis XIV steadily conferred his nobles of the third class with offices. Along with the two original orders of nobility--of the Sword and of the Robe--came a new order, which was referred to as the nobility of the Trade.

Another field Louis had to tread very carefully upon was that of the French legal system. In this area the French king’s political authority was closely related to judicial power. Louis quickly exploited his power of control over the low court, the Parlement. He took away their power to veto the king. In 1667 Louis issued a ‘Civil Ordinance’ in order to control the Parlement.

By far, the most troublesome of the courts were the parlements. These sat and acted as the highest courts of appeal in their respective provinces. In addition they performed many other administrative and legal functions. Most importantly, no royal edict or declaration carried the force of law until registered by the parlement . Along with this went the parlements’ right to ‘remonstrate’ against royal instructions. In case of prolonged disagreement, the king could force a parlement to register his edicts either by direct command or by holding a special ceremony of registeration. But both situations were highly controversial, and often caused bitter resentment. During the Frondes, many parlements used their power to obstruct royal policies and thus formed power-bases for provincial resistance against central authority.

By the late seventeenth century a gradual erosion of the parlements powers took place, and Louis XIV issued a Civil Ordinance in 1670 which obliged all parlements to publish and register his ordinances, edicts, declarations, and other letters as soon as they have recieved them.

Louis’s government was well known for the willingness to respond to public problems and protests. However, the problem of heavy taxes became worse during war time and the people were aggravated by poor harvests. Although this problem did not lead the people to rebellion, the French yearned to tell their king just how much suffering his many wars brought them. Apparently his quest for ‘glory’ was at his people’s expense.

Louis XIV had more problems with the Estates, which met in several French provinces. These were representative assemblies which gave the French people some very limited influence on royal policies. In general, the king and the Estates agreed easily and harmoniously on levels of taxation. But the provincial assemblies were not so cooperative. The latest addition to the kingdom of France, Brittany, was anxious to maintain their liberties and, for Louis, was the most difficult to deal with. With the issue of tax, Brittany went into open revolt. The government moved the parlement to a small town and stationed 5,000 troops in Brittany. The remedy was harsh and expensive for Louis XIV, who wished to be as lenient as possible. Louis preferred to ensure that his laws and his police would prevent disorder before they could turn into insurrection. However well regulated the government was in Paris, there was always the threat of disorder whenever large groups of people gathered. The further cause for anxiety were the many vagabonds, criminals, and beggars who gravitated to Paris from all over France. As a result, a General Poor House of Paris was founded in 1656.

In the seventeenth century religion was seen as a public duty wich shaped a person’s attitude towards a wide range of political, social, economic, and moral questions. Religious discord had caused a series of bloody civil wars in France between 1562 to 1598. Under Louis XIV, it still remained a threat to public order and political harmony which no monarch could afford to neglect.

Louis XIV faced a twofold difficulty. Firstly, the relationship between the French Crown, the Catholic Church, and the papacy was highly controversial. Conflicts within the French Church or between the king and the Church were likely to raise questions about the power of the monarch and of the Pope. Secondly, ever since the mid-sisteenth century, France had contained a sizable minority of Huguenots. In a Catholic kingdom ruled by a Catholic king, this represented source of dissent.

In 17th century France, Catholics took great pride in ‘Gallican Liberties.’ The French Church was allowed certain ‘Gallican’ independence from papal authority. These Gallican Liberties ensured that papal ‘Bulls’ could not be published in France without royal permission and that Roman courts had no authority over French subjects. The Liberties also ensured that French law courts had jurisdiction over ecclesiastical affairs.

The major controversy between Louis XIV and the papacy arose over the twofold right of the king to receive and administer the revenues of all French dioceses after the death of a bishop until his successor had taken the oath of fidelity to the monarch; and also to nominate clergy to all benefices normally controlled by the bishop. French kings had claimed this right since the early Middle Ages. In 1673, Louis XIV issued a decree which dramatically extend this right. Although Louis had no legal justification, for this step, the majority of French archbishops and bishops complied with him--with the exceptions of the Bishops of Alet and of Pamiers, who appealed to the Pope. Pope Innocent XI supported their defence and protested to Louis. The Pope made a serious micalculation. When the Bishop of Pamiers died in 1680, the Archbishop in Narbonne (Louis’s supporter) tried to name the next bishop. (French archbishops have this right.) in 1681, Pope Innocent XI declared that the nomination was illegal and threatened those who accepted the nomination with excommunication. The French cleric bitterly resented this invasion into their ‘Gallican’ Liberties. They petitioned Louis to call a General Assembly of the clergy and approved a royal edict in which Louis clarifed the rights of kings. Accepting Louis’s edict, the French clergy reluctantly endorsed four propositions drawn by Bishop Bossuet. These became known as the ‘Gallican Articles’ and represented a skillful compromise between royal and papal powers. Pope Innocent XI, furious at the French clergy, refused to institute to benefice any priest who attended the General Assembly. Louis XIV retaliated by refusing to present any clergy member who ahd not taken part in the Assembly. The result was a deadlock. By 1688, 35 French sees were without a bishop. That same year the Pope excommunicated Louis’s ambassador to Rome as well as Louis himself. The king seized the papal city of Avignon in 1688, and there was talk of the French Church seceding from Rome altogether. This now averted by the death of Pope Innocent XI in 1689 and the election of Pope Alexander VIII and Innocent XII. A settlement was reached in 1693 when Pope Innocent XII recognized the bishops--who attended the 1682 General Assembly--after their public apology, and Loouis XIV withdrew his edict requiring the four Gallican Articles. The issue of the rights of kings was quietly dropped and Louis exercised his powers in quiet practice.

Personal Opinion

Louis XIV is indeed a tedious subject, and to summarize it all within five pages is impossible. I have thus chosen to emphasize his rise to power and his policies, both extraordinary and cunning.

During his reign, France stabilized and became one of the strongest powers in Europe. During his reign, France became the ideal culture since he put great care into its enhancement so he could boast it to the world. The country changed drastically from savage mediaeval ways to a more refined, exquisite living--evident from his palace in Versailles. He did what several kings worked on for centuries within 54 years. The French culture became one of the most appealing in the world, and the name Louis XIV has been associated with greatness and glory.

Louis XIV was truly a great monarch, and he was capable of maintaining a strong kingdom because he never, in his entire life, doubted his right to be king.

His autocracy was indeed amazing, and truly an example of the kind. He lived and ruled as a king should have. Louis XIV became the ideal king, and many have tried unsuccessfully to live up to his glory.


Horn, Pierre L. King Louis XIV. Kent: Harrap Books Ltd. 1991.
Jones, Colin. The Cambridge Illustrated History of France. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. 1994
Smith, David L. Louis XIV. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1992

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Copyright (c) 1998 by Gemma Truman
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I did very little writing for both my Ancient and Modern World History classes, and out of them this is the only one that survived. On such a monarch as Louis XIV, I had a huge amount of information to transform into a poster, a 5-page maximum essay and a small presentation. I regret that I had so little space to express so much. Louis le Dieudonne was a great and powerful king and his reign had so many effects on world history.