Monday, 18 March 2013

Louis XIV: Le Roi Soleil

Louis XIV was the child that no one had expected. His parents - Louis XIII of France and Anne of Austria - had been married for more than twenty years without producing living offspring. Eventually, the court and the people came to anticipate that the couple would remain childless - until the Queen became pregnant. On 5 September 1638 she gave birth to a boy who was quickly named Dieu-donné - God-given.

Upon his father's death Louis officially became King but as he was just four years old a regent had to be appointed. His mother ignored the testament of her late husband and took power for herself until her son came of age. Anne of Austria and her closest ally - Cardinal Mazarin - were well aware that having possession of the King meant control of the country.

During his early years Louis soon came to learn that power came with danger when the Fronde resulted in his having to flee the royal residence in Paris with his mother and younger brother.
Eventually, the dowager Queen won the conflict and Louis' place on the throne was secure - for now. However, the young boy never forgot that it was not the people that had risen up against him; it was the nobility. One can only speculate as to when the impressionable young man resolved never to let his aristocrats get that chance again.

During his childhood Louis was unusually close to his mother compared to other princes of his age. He came to regard her as the model of a Queen and remained close to her for the rest of her life. Until 1661 the King had reigned with the aid of his prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin, but when he died in that year the King made a move that would alter the history of Europe. Rather than appointing a new prime minister Louis XIV announced that he intended to rule completely on his own.

From then on the King was not only the symbolic personification of his country, he was the sole source to power as well. To keep the nobility in check the King made sure that they were completely depending on his good-will. Thus, it was no longer enough to go to court a few times a year; instead it became necessary to be constantly in the monarch's vicinity.

Louis XIV began the 1660's with two love affairs: one was with Louise de La Valliére and the other with a little hunting lodge called Versailles. The demure Louise was the unexpected target of the King's affection and eventually he would grow tired of her but Versailles was another matter. The King ordered new and drastic changes to be made to his father's lodge and the work would not be complete until over twenty years later.
Meanwhile, there was the question of succession. Anne of Austria had long intended that her son was to marry her niece and consequently the dowager Queen struck a deal with the King of Spain. The result was that the Infanta Marie Thérèse became Queen of France. Louis would have six children with her but only one survived: the Grand Dauphin.

As the 1660's moved to a close it became clear that Louis XIV was determined to put his mark on history. He led his country through three wars: the Franco-Dutch War, the War of the League of Augsburg and the War of the Spanish Succession. During his reign he cultivated French arts and artists making France the leading country in Europe - and himself the greatest monarch of his age.
In 1685 he revoked the Edict of Nantes which had hitherto given Protestants leave to live in peace which he has been greatly condemned for (and justly so).

At his peak of power and prestige his mistress was Madame de Montespan whom he had an array of children with. He stunned the court when he announced that he intended to legitimise all their children and marry them into the best families in France. Madame de Montespan was quite likely the love of his life but the affair came to a dramatic end when she was accused of using witchcraft to keep the King.
The King had no other choice but to dismiss her but there is evidence to suggest that he still cared greatly for her. In the winter of his life the King experienced a change in character and came to be influenced by his last mistress, Madame de Maintenon. It is widely accepted that he married her although the marriage was never acknowledged.

His reign marked the Grand Siècle in France and he was deservedly given the title of Louis le Grand. Despite the glory of his time on the throne the King's fortunes waned in the last years of his life. A massive national deficit and an on-going war made the King the target of a younger generation that had not experienced the glory he had brought to France.
The King reigned for 72 years making him the longest reigning monarch in history - so far. He died on 1 September 1715 at Versailles

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