What made Louis the Great an exceptional King of France?
France has had its share of despots and obscene monarchs, but once in a while, a royal comes along who helps bring the nation into a new era.
And that’s exactly what King Louis XIV did.
Known as the Sun King and Louis the Great, this leader brought about the height of absolutism to France — a form of monarchy that centralized the state under a single person. In the meantime, he made many other sweeping changes, both good and bad, that remade France.
When you take a tour of Paris, you can see Louis XIV’s influence on the city itself. And if you go on the Highlights tour of Versailles, you can thank him for having it built.
He left a lasting impression that will forever be remembered by France. And that’s unsurprising, as he is the longest reigning monarch of all time, leading the country for 72 years and 110 days.
But what made Louis XIV so great that he became “the Great”?
What kind of accomplishments turn a king into the “Sun King”?
And what were the scandals that almost brought down his reign?
Let’s find out!
A King Is Born
He was born a dauphin — the French title for the heir to the throne. And the birth came as a great relief to his mother and father who hadn’t successfully conceived an heir despite being married for more than 20 years.
Before Louis XIV came along, Anne had suffered four stillbirths, leading the French nobility to doubt that she would ever produce an heir. This put a terrible strain on her marriage.
This seemingly miraculous birth gave the young dauphin an air of the divine, something he would take advantage of in years to come. He was even nicknamed “Louis the God Given” as a child. (Le Dieudonné in French)
Anne was particularly doting on her son, so doting that people at the time commented on it. But she loved little Louis and thought the world of him, and she encouraged him to commit to his role as divine ruler of France.
And Anne knew a thing or two about being a monarch — she herself was from the House of Hapsburg, and was the sister to both the King of Spain and Austria.
His father, Louis XIII was king of France, from the House of Bourbon. And while he was pleased to have an heir (and later Anne would give birth to a second child Philip), he still remained a distant husband.
At the time, the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons were involved in many conflicts, and this marriage that was once meant to create stronger ties between the families was not strong enough to make peace.
A Father’s Death
Louis XIV was only five when his father became ill. The King decreed that a regency council should take power at his death, only handing over power to the heir when he came of age. Usually the queen would take on this responsibility, but the King decided against this, though Anne was appointed head of the council.
But when the King died, Anne seized power. She didn’t overstep too much, however, as she wanted to keep her son’s route to the throne clear.
While in power, Anne negotiated an end to the Thirty Years’ War, and she laid the groundwork for Louis XIV’s absolute power when he ascended to the throne.
But that meant fighting the nobles, which meant civil war at home. These conflicts between the state and the aristocrats are known as the Fronde. This even led to a mob storming the palace and demanding the young Louis’s head — but he survived by pretending to be asleep.
This experience of the young king-to-be, huddled in fear as the aristocrats threatened to end his life, would have deep psychological effects on the young Louis.
Paranoia and insecurity caused by this trauma combined with his mother’s long campaign to instill the ideals of absolutism in the boy.
Louis would go on to assert his will over all of society. The aristocrats were not to be trusted, and the King’s power must never be questioned.
Much of the government was also led by Cardinal Mazarin, a regent who taught Louis a lot about how to navigate the dangerous waters of French politics.
But Louis fell in love with Mazarin’s niece Marie Mancini. But to end conflict with Spain, it was decided that Louis would marry his cousin Maria Theresa, the daughter of King Philip IV of Spain.
Rise to Power
Louis XIV took power in early 1661 with the death of Mazarin. Wars abroad and strife at home led many to desire a strong monarch, and that’s exactly what Louis had been preparing for his entire life.
He immediately declared that no act of state should happen without his command. He set out financial reforms by appointing new leadership who improved the taxation system and eliminated certain forms of corruption. Very quickly, the French state’s finances were in order again.
Late in life, he even managed a first in the country’s history: directly taxing aristocrats.
With a budget surplus, he was able to pursue other dreams: like improving the army and expanding his administration. With the help of a more muscular state apparatus, he was able to boost trade by starting up new industries — producing silk, glass, ironworks, ships, and more.
Things were off to quite a start.
When Louis was a child, he was almost murdered by a noble uprising. And that was one of 11 uprisings the nobles had attempted in only a short time. So as King of France, Louis XIV knew he needed to keep them at bay, but how? Fighting didn’t seem to work.
He decided to keep them distracted with pleasures so that he could focus on leading the country. And so, he commissioned the creation of Versailles — on swampland, no less.
Once completed, he regularly brought his court to Versailles, a palatial estate with a name that is now synonymous with French luxury.
The court of nobles followed the king around, and whenever they came to Versailles, he dazzled them with entertainments and decadent parties. (Something later French monarchs would take even further.)
By 1682, the entire project was completed, allowing him to stay there more or less permanently.
The Scandals of Louis XIV
The King was not only a master politician, but also a notorious lover. Being in a loveless marriage arranged against his will for the purposes of political expediency, he was famous for his infidelities.
While his interest was locked on a new mistress, he would shower her with gifts. But when he moved on to a new lover, the women he left behind often suffered.
He was also implicated in the Affair of the Poisons. This was a public exposé about the occult rituals that members of the government were conducting — including one of the King’s mistresses who apparently used love potions to control Louis.
The King at War
In May of 1667, France went to war to take the Spanish Netherlands (today’s Belgium and Luxembourg). Called the War of Devolution, it was the kind of thing monarchs did at the time when their economy was booming — use the extra wealth to expand territory.
Louis used his marriage to a Spanish royal as a justification for his right to rule territory under the control of Spain. It was convoluted, but it worked.
France made many military gains early on, but England pressured them to quit the adventure, and Louis agreed. The combination of military victories and a diplomatic end to the conflict actually bolstered his public support.
Only a few years later, he signed a secret treaty with King Charles II of England, supposedly on the basis of their shared Catholicism. In 1672 he tried to take the Spanish Netherlands again — this time with the support of England.
This Franco-Dutch War ended when Charles II’s niece married a Dutch prince named William of Orange that England again told France to stop the war. But by then, France had made major territorial gains that can still be seen today in the French-Belgium border.
With this victory in 1678, he was now called Louis the Great.
The Huguenots were protestants living in France, and in the latter part of his reign, Louis became paranoid of their growing success as skilled artisans. He signed the Edict of Fontainebleau which brought about cruel measures like church burning.
This forced them to flee, taking their many tradeskills (Medicine, building, gardening ...) with them.
So many left that several industries almost disappeared entirely, setting the economy back.
This act also convinced the Dutch that France might invade again, so they swiftly overtook England. Rather than come to their rescue, Louis stepped aside, believing the Catholics would rise up against their new monarch William of Orange.
They didn’t. This mistake led Louis into his final years as King.
The Sun King’s reign ends
Complicated wars kept ensnaring Europe through the end of the 17th century. Spain’s King died without an heir, and Louis appointed his grandson Philip to rule. This started a 13 year war. During that time, he lost several grandchildren and in general became a much less capable ruler.
By the end of the War of Spanish Succession, Louis’s grandson was king, but his heir wouldn’t be allowed to ascend to the throne — essentially making the war meaningless.
In August of 1715, Louis fell ill at Versailles. On September 1, he died. His last words are said to be :
“I depart, but the state will always remain.”
He died leaving behind a transformed France. Under his rule, Paris became the world capital of arts and culture. France had become the major power in Europe. But the state he helped reform and shape would topple before the end of the century.
It’s a fascinating story, and a part of French history that will always be remembered.