Louis XIV was born in 1638 to Louis XIII and his queen, Anne of Austria (really from Spain), and in 1643 became king at the death of his father. During his minority, Louis's government was left in the hands of his mother, who as Queen Regent allowed Cardinal Mazarin, a naturalized Italian, to govern. His youth was marked by the first and second Frondes, revolts by the great nobles and Parliamentary officials against Anne's regency and Mazarin's power. After the end of the regency, Mazarin was retained as prime minister, until his death in 1661.

Henceforth Louis XIV reigned himself, with a Council of State but never with another prime minister. When he assumed personal control of government, France was the richest and most powerful state in Europe, but by his death in 1715 he had exhausted the country through wars, persecution of various religious minorities (notably Huguenots and Jansenists), and his personal extravagance.

Louis XIV is responsible for the contruction of Versailles, an immense palace about 20 miles from Paris. In this palace he collected the great nobility of his time, and kept them occupied with trivial favors and distinctions to distract them from the exercise of governmental power. Seigneurs which once wielded great personal power now competed for the honor of holding a candle during the king's prayers.

In 1660, Louis married Maria Theresa of Austria, an Infanta of Spain (and his first cousin twice over); she bore him several children, but only the oldest, the Dauphin, survived. He had other children through his various mistresses, notable Louise-Françoise de La Baume Le Blanc, duchesse de La Vallière et de Vaujours; Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart-Mortemart, marquise de Montespan; and Marie-Angélique de Scorraille de Roussille, duchesse de Fontanges. The queen died in 1683 and sometime thereafter Louis is thought to have secretly married Mme de Maintenon, former governess of the royal bastards.

When the king died in 1715 smallpox and other diseases had ravaged the already small royal family to the point that the only prince in direct line was the five-year-old duc d'Anjou, who became Louis XV.

Trivially, King Louis XIV of France only took a total of three baths during his 77-year lifetime. The three times were:
  1. When he was baptized
  2. When a mistress insisted
  3. When a doctor lanced a boil on his tush and ordered him to soak in a tub filled with water

From AtTheCrossroads, Daily Trivia Question (April 15, 2001): http://www.atthecrossroads.com

How absolute was the 'absolute' monarchy of Louis XIV?

The image of Louis XIV is traditionally one of an absolute monarch. His rule was accepted by the nobility and people of France because of their belief in his divine right to rule. Surely this was an absolute monarch in the fullest sense of the word - this is, after all, the man who supposedly 'domesticated' the nobility at Versailles, had immense wealth at his disposal and commanded the mightiest army in Europe.

Recent historiography has challenged this picture, however. First of all, what is to be meant by the term 'absolute monarchy'? Perhaps the image that comes to mind is a kind of seventeenth century version of a twentieth century totalitarian state. The monarch is absolute, in other words, there are no limits to his power, and thus he can control the whole society. However, this is obviously anachronistic. There was no way that Louis XIV could control France in the manner that Hitler could control Germany. France was way too fragmented for that, the provinces had way too much autonomy. France was not a modern state.

Indeed, it was not even considered to be the king's business to interfere extensively in the day-to-day lives of the different regions of the country. The king's concerns were mainly foreign policy, diplomacy, defence of the kingdom and war. The king's powers were absolute only in these areas. To be sure, there were some staunch supporters of the monarchy who wished to extend the king's powers into other areas, but even they did not assert that there were no limits to his powers. Perhaps the major attempt to assert more control in domestic policy, the system of the intendants, was mostly just used to spy on regional officials in order to limit corruption. It is clear from Colbert's letters to the intendants that there were strict limits to their jurisdiction. Thus, even though a new level of bureaucracy was thus imposed on the provinces, this hardly amounted to a revolutionary centralization of power in France.

Indeed, the doctrine of divine right implied some limitations in itself. The belief that power was given to Louis by God meant that he was responsible for his actions to God. This might not seem to mean much in this life, since there was no higher authority than the king, but it did imply that even though the monarchy was absolute, it should not be arbitrary. As Dr. Smith pointed out, however, the caveat was that the king was his own judge. Even if his government was arbitrary, nobody had the authority to criticize him. This should not detract from the fact that Louis was expected to act with restraint, and indeed wanted to avoid the impression of arbitrary government.

The other significant limitation on Louis XIV's power was economic. His expenditure on both war and the lavish court life at Versailles was phenomenal. Even though France was a relatively wealthy country, there was no way that it could afford to pay for all this. The monarchy therefore resorted to selling government offices and lending money. Even so, at the end of Louis's reign, France was on the brink of bankruptcy. Dr. Smith pointed out that it was much more difficult for an 'absolute' ruler such as Louis to borrow money than, for example, the constitutional monarchy of England, whose government had a representative element. This was because, the king being his own judge, there was no guarantee he would pay his debts. Therefore money was lent to France at much higher interest rates than to its rivals England and the Netherlands.

It seems obvious that the conventional notion of Louis XIV's reign as an age of absolute monarchy is inadequate. It is marred by an anachronism, since total control of a society was only achievable by the bureaucratic state of the twentieth century. Stalin might be an example of an absolute ruler, Louis XIV is not. He did have ultimate say in questions of foreign policy and diplomacy, but in all things his conduct was restricted by the requirement of avoiding arbitrary government, and he could not impose his will on the largely autonomous provinces of France. Perhaps most importantly, he did not have an inexhaustible source of income. However great the splendour of Versailles and however successful the French military was at times, Louis's position had essential weaknesses.

Burke, Peter, The Fabrication of Louis XIV (New Haven, 1994)
Campbell, Peter, Louis XIV 1661-1715 (New York, 1993)
Duindam, Jeroen, Myths of Power: Norbert Elias and the Early Modern European Court (Amsterdam, 1994)
Mettam, Roger, Power and Faction in Louis XIV’s France (Oxford, 1988)
Rowen, Herbert, 'Louis XIV and Absolutism' in C.Rule, John (ed.), Louis XIV and the Craft of Kingship (Columbus, 1969)
Smith, Simon, seminar on Louis XIV (Department of History, University of York, 2004)

Based on my notes for a seminar (and the actual seminar) on Louis XIV at the University of York.

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