Looking Into the Sun King: Louis XIV

Louis XIV was a mere 5 years old when he became King of France in 1643. And because he lived to the ripe old age of 77, he had plenty of time to establish his place in French history.

When he was 18, Louis XIV took part in a court entertainment known as a masque, a mixture of dance, drama, and music, which often carried an allegorical message. For his costume, Louis dressed up as the sun and liked the look so much that he adopted the sun as his personal emblem. He became known as the Sun King: the radiant giver of life and warmth around whom the whole world revolves — you get the idea.

Versailles

Louis engaged the greatest architects of the day, Louis Le Vaux and Jules Hardouin-Mansart, to build him a suitable palace at Versailles. André Le Nôtre designed the grounds, including the Grand Canal outside the windows and a forest studded with glades containing classical statues and fountains.

By 1682, Versailles, not Paris, had become the center of power. Louis made the French nobles come to him at Versailles, where no angry local mob could be called on. Versailles was a glittering center of courtly etiquette and the setting for a flowering of French literature and music. It was also a ruthless exercise in absolute monarchy.

Fabulously absolute

Louis's rule was based on the relatively new idea that the king had absolute power. The French cleric Jacques Bossuet taught that absolute monarchy was all part of God's plan — Louis was so pleased that he made him Bishop of Meaux and tutor to his eldest son, the Dauphin.

Louis built up an efficient and loyal new nobility of lawyers and administrators who owed their titles and position to him and not to their family pedigrees. He could also issue a lettre de cachet, which allowed him to send anyone to prison for anything at all without any sort of trial. Absolute monarchy was another term for elegant tyranny.

While you're living it up, some of us are starving

The other side of Louis XIV's France was not so glittering. Increasing hunger and unrest were evident in France toward the end of the Thirty Years' War, and since France's ingenious system of taxation meant that the people with the least money paid the most, the situation didn't get any better. Tax riots broke out in 1662, and the king's response was to privatize the tax-collection system in what was called the General Tax-Farm, which just meant that unscrupulous characters could raise taxes even higher and pocket the difference.

L'eglise c'est moi — I am the Church!

Attached to Versailles was a big chapel royal with a very elaborate pew for the king. The courtiers' pews didn't face the altar but faced the king. Louis XIV saw religion as a means of enhancing his own position and prestige. The king insisted on appointing French bishops himself, and he didn't want the Pope interfering in the way that the French Church was run.

Louis XIV's most important religious act was to have much wider and more serious consequences. Egged on by his secret new wife, the staunchly anti-Protestant Madame de Maintenon, in 1685 Louis revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes. That was the edict issued by Louis's grandfather, Henry IV, which allowed French Protestants freedom of worship. Protestant pastors had 15 days to leave the country.

The whole Huguenot (French Protestant) community threw some things into a bag and sought refuge in Protestant countries like England and the Netherlands, where they made important contributions to the economic life of their new homelands.

Louis was declaring war on Protestant Europe, just when Protestant Europe was entering its period of greatest strength.

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