The Sun King 1642 – 1715

ALL HIS LIFE Cardinal Richelieu had been a sick man, but by the spring of 1642 he was dying. He carefully made his will, leaving to the king his elegant town house, eight sets of tapestries‚ and three beds. On December 2, he received the last sacraments of his church. “Does your Eminence pardon your enemies?” asked the priest and Richelieu answered, “I have no enemies but those of the State.” When Louis XIII learned that Richelieu had died, he said, “A great statesman is dead.”

To take Richelieu’s place, Louis chose Jules Cardinal Mazarin, Richelieu’s own choice for his successor. A Sicilian and a clever diplomat, Mazarin had entered Richelieu’s service in 1639 and had adopted French citizenship. He was black-eyed, handsome and seemed as pleasant and reasonable as Richelieu was stern. He took up Richelieu’s work with energy.

A year later, Louis XIII died of tuberculosis. He left his four-year-old son, Louis XIV, to rule France in name: the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria became regent and Mazarin continued to direct policy. The magistrates of the parlement, or high court, of Paris now looked forward to having their advice taken by the agreeable cardinal‚ who seemed so easy-going.

The parlement quickly learned that Mazarin was as hard as Richelieu. They and the great lords began to hate him, to call him a thief, a buffoon, a peddler, an Italian imposter. To add to their annoyance, the long war against the Hapsburgs had been costly and they resented the high war taxes. In 1648 the parlement of Paris rebelled and demanded reforms and more power. Mazarin ordered the parlement’s leaders arrested and sent a guard to seize old Pierre Broussel, the most honest and popular of the magistrates. Broussel was eating lunch with his five children when  the guard arrived; he begged to be allowed to take his medicine first, but the guard quickly dragged him to prison.

Hearing of the arrest‚ the Parisians rose in fury. Mobs stormed into the streets, shouting “No Mazarin!” The army talked mutiny and small children ran about clutching daggers. The whole parlement, dressed in their judges’ robes, marched to the palace to ask the queen mother for Broussel’s release. Twice they pleaded in vain, but the mob grew angrier and after the third plea, Mazarin persuaded the queen mother to compromise. The parlement agreed to keep out of polities until the end of the year and Broussel was set free.

As Broussel rode from his prison to the parlement chambers, crowds cheered him as a conquering hero. The old man was amazed to see how angry they were and how they waved their weapons in the air and he urged them to put down their arms and go home in peace. Still they shouted that Mazarin must go and still the parlement continued to stir up trouble. The parlement made new demands and when some of the nobles supported them, the royal council grew frightened and gave in.

Although Mazarin pretended to agree, he had no intention of giving up the king’s powers to the parlement. Long before dawn on January 6, 1649, he drove with the boy king and the queen mother to safety outside of Paris. One morning soon after, Paris awoke to find that Mazarin had sent the army under the proud prince of Condé to blockade its gates.


The Parisians and the rebellious nobles fought stubbornly‚ but they were no match for the army or for Condé. By March they were arguing among themselves. The nobles wanted to hold out and get aid from Spain, but the common people were running short of bread and the parlement was growing anxious for peace. In March the parlement agreed to compromise with Mazarin and in April the twelve weeks of war ended. Mazarin and the court returned in triumph.


The prince of Condé, taking all the credit for victory, strutted and boasted and demanded great rewards. When Mazarin refused to give him everything he asked, he demanded even more. He gathered together all the nobles who hated Mazarin and forced the cardinal to sign a paper granting him great power.

Wily as ever, Mazarin planned Condé’s arrest. Condé was summoned to the Louvre and in the royal gallery the captain of the guard told him he was arrested. “Me?” exclaimed the astonished prince. “You arrest me?” The people of Paris were more than pleased. They remembered how Condé had starved them out the year before, and they lit bonfires in celebration. In the provinces Condé’s noble friends began stirring up revolts to force Mazarin to release him.

Mazarin moved the royal court from province to province — to Normandy, to Burgundy, to Guienne — to crush the revolts. While he was away from Paris, the parlement voted to support the rebelling nobles against him. Realizing that hatred of himself kept the rebels united, Mazarin decided to flee from France and let them start quarreling again. In February, 1651, he ordered Condé set free and then went into exile in Germany.

As Mazarin expected, the other nobles soon began to see that Condé cared only for his own power. He insulted nobles who had helped him, sneered even at his own relatives and tried to plot with the queen mother to make himself all powerful. The parlement grew sick of his demands and some of the nobles began to think that Mazarin had not been so bad after all. When Condé called in the aid of Spain to fight against the king, the parlement and many nobles deserted him. Even those who hated Mazarin were still loyal to young Louis XIV.

Mazarin returned to France, leading an army for the king. Condé was defeated in battle but he escaped to Paris, where his army caused terrible disorder. In the south, his Spanish allies won victory after victory and Mazarin wrote, “It is impossible to prevent these misfortunes if the French continue to fight against France.”

As if heeding his words, the merchants and artisans of Paris pleaded with the king to return to the city. In October, 1652, Louis XIV made a regal military entrance into Paris and was given a warm welcome. When Mazarin returned a few months later, a man who had called him “The greatest garbage of the century” bowed low before him. From Paris Mazarin brought the rest of the country to order. The rebellion was over. Mazarin had won a victory for the king and he remained first minister until his death.

Louis was a young man, handsome and athletic, a graceful dancer and a gallant lover. He loved a good dinner and had once been chased away from the royal kitchens for overeating. From books and tutors he had learned social graces, deportment and drawing, but to teach him politics and kingship, Mazarin made him attend meetings of the Council of State. At first Louis was bored by the meetings and would sit in the bathroom with friends, playing the guitar and discussing the ballet. Soon, however, he grew interested in statecraft and questioned Mazarin at great length about the council’s discussions.

The people around Louis never stopped reminding him that he was a king, born to rule by the will of God and he was willing to believe it. Even when he practiced penmanship he copied out the sentence, “Homage is due to kings. They do as please.” Growing up during the turmoil of rebellions, Louis had learned several additional lessons. The magistrates were greedy for power and the nobles could not be trusted. He had seen them stir up the Paris mob until it crowded into his palace and even dared peer into his own bedroom; he learned that Paris could not be trusted, either. He learned that men would not hesitate to revolt against an unpopular first minister.


In 1661, Mazarin died; when the officials asked Louis to whom they should now make their reports, he answered, “To me.” He ran the council meetings himself and worked hard at ruling. He laboured at least six hours each day, he signed vouchers for all expenditures himself and he kept a record book for the affairs of France.


For ministers he chose, not nobles, but loyal men of the middle class, but he trusted even them only so far. “There is scarcely any loyalty,” Louis said, “which cannot be bought.” He soon grew accustomed to ruling and wrote, “It seemed to me that I was a king and born to be one.” He took care to behave as a great king should, always dignified and glorious, a ruler to be admired, worshipped and obeyed.

Louis had the governing of France brought tightly under his own hand. In the provinces nobles and local officials lost power and professional administrators named by the king gained authority. These intendants, one for each of 34 districts, had authority over agriculture, industry, education and almost everything else. To make sure that he missed nothing, Louis also had his postmasters read any interesting or suspicious letters than went through the mail.

Other kings had tried to control nobles by keeping them safer at court, but Louis made this custom into a fine art. He did everything in such magnificent fashion that his court and his palace and his nobles became the ideal and envy of every ruler in Europe. He moved his court and council from Paris, with its dangerous mobs, to the forest of Versailles. There Louis built the most splendid of palaces, with great marble columns and high outer walls. He hired architects, landscape gardeners and a whole army of painters, sculptors, marble-cutters; and workers in bronze and copper. Every week he visited Versailles himself to make sure the building went as he wished.

Louis built Versailles to be a palace fit for a god and for its theme he chose Apollo, the sun god. Louis himself was known as the Sun King of France, on whom all life depended and around whom the world revolved. On the ceiling of the grand gallery where he walked each day, he had the artist Lebrun create thirty paintings of himself as a great ruler, governing France alone while all France applauded and the rest of Europe cowered in fear. Louis had the door of the grand gallery covered with rich carpets and in its seventeen high windows he placed curtains of white damask, gold-embroidered with his royal arms. From the ceiling he hung sixteen huge silver chandeliers and to furnish the gallery he chose silver tables and silver benches covered with gold-fringed green velvet. He had blooming orange-trees set out in great tubs of carved silver; and when he welcomed his court there in the evening, he had the hall lit up with four thousand wax tapers.


Louis chose to make Versailles glorious, but he was not concerned with making it comfortable. When an architect warned him that the chimneys would smoke, Louis replied that it did not matter. A noble lady begged him to let her put a shutter on her window to keep out the burning sun, but he told her that it would spoil the looks of the outer wall. Around the palace he built lavish parks and gardens, adorned with fountains and statues, trees from all parts of the country‚ and lovely flowers from Provence. Here were pillared temples, a lake to mirror swans and a zoo as splendid as a palace. In the gardens, too, Louis cared nothing for comfort. The un-shaded walks were so hot in summer that he hardly ever walked there and in winter they were paths of thick mud.

Louis crowded some 10,000 people into his palace. Five hundred of them were his servants, the rest princes or nobles who slept in smelly attic rooms. Less important nobles lodged in the village nearby, but came to court each day to seek favours. Louis made it known that if a noble was not seen at court he was nothing; “I do not know them, they are people I never see,” he would say. So to court came every noble who could afford it and many who could not, 160,000 of them. Louis kept them all very busy.

Each morning he had his courtiers rise early to dress and powder themselves in time for the first important event of the day — the awakening of the king. Well before eight o‘clock, they were waiting crushed together in his anteroom and when at eight the great news came that Louis was awake, they whispered to each other excitedly. At a quarter after eight he allowed the privileged to enter his bedroom and watch him receive his holy water and put on his getting-up wig; a bit later he permitted 150 or so more to crowd in and watch him dress. His brown velvet trousers he put on himself, “very cleverly and gracefully,” one courtier said. Valets assisted him with his other clothes and he permitted a royal prince to hand him his shirt. He had the officers of the Mouth and Goblet deliver his breakfast and when he had eaten, the Grand Master of the Wardrobe fastened on his sword and a valet brought his lace handkerchiefs on a gilt tray.

Then Louis gave his orders for the day and the court trotted after the king to hear mass; on Sundays, king and court listened as the priest sternly scolded them for vanity and sinful living. After mass, the king proceeded to the council meeting and the nobles scurried to line up along his path as he went. While Louis and his council arranged affairs of state, the nobles were off to find an early dinner, for at one o’clock they must be back to watch while the king ate his. Through at least five courses and thirty or forty dishes they stood politely, watching while the king chewed away in silence, for he loved to eat and could not be bothered with conversation during meals. “He ate so hugely and solidly morning and evening,” wrote a courtier, “that no one could get used to seeing it.”

Dinner done, the king wiped his hands on the royal napkin and retired to change his clothes, feed his hunting dogs and allow distinguished nobles to speak to him. In the afternoon came shooting or stag hunting and in the evening, three times a week, Louis invited the court to gather at seven to listen to music and gamble at his silver card tables. At ten it was time to watch the king eat supper and at midnight came the final event of the day — the king’s bedtime. After saying his prayers, Louis selected the lucky noble who would hold the royal candle, an honour that princes would almost die to gain. His officers and valets assisting, Louis undressed and tied a bag of holy relics around his neck, the ushers called, “Gentlemen, pass on!” and the day was done. The exhausted nobles climbed to their attic beds to get a few hours of rest before it was time to start all over again.

Kept so busy, the nobles had no time for mischief. Every day, like clockwork, Louis led them through their paces. He made them into puppet nobles, happy to gamble and gossip and win a nod from the king. He forced them to spend their fortunes on lavish living until they had no money of their own and could live only on the gifts he might give them. They had to use all their energy trying to please him.


While he kept the nobles busy, Louis also attended to ruling France. The wars of Richelieu and Mazarin had made France the greatest country of Europe. In 1661 it was a land of 18 million people, with a fine climate, fertile soil, great forests and many industries. Nevertheless, France was not prosperous and the government was not rich. The wars had cost dearly and taxes were too high. One year 3,000 persons were not able to pay the taille, the main tax. They were put in jail, but that brought in no money and the state borrowed money at high rates. Bad harvests, floods and epidemics made matters even worse. Industries failed and many Frenchmen could find no jobs.

To deal with these problems. Louis chose Jean Baptiste Colbert. Colbert was the son of a shopkeeper. Although he grew rich, he always showed that he knew his place, wearing plain clothes and declaring he would “take no holiday . . . no pleasure or amusement . . . as what I love is work.” Colbert began to put the nation’s finances in order, insisting on careful bookkeeping and accounts. He reduced the high taille and raised the taxes on wine. He made tighter bargains with his tax collectors and he set up a national loan office to supervise the government’s borrowings.


Colbert put high taxes on goods from other countries and set about making France a nation with every possible industry. If France sold more than it bought, he thought, it would be rich in gold and silver and would become prosperous. The government must see must see to it that this happened and Frenchmen must work as hard as possible. Colbert dreamed of a France where each man worked from dawn to dusk to make France wealthy, taking as few holidays as possible.


Colbert put many industries under the king’s control, setting up factories and great workshop where many apprentices learned new skills. From Germany and Sweden he brought skilled miners and metalworkers, from Holland deft weavers, from Venice famous glassblowers, from Burano fine lace-makers. He laid down dozens of rules for each industry and he hired inspectors to visit the factories often and make sure that his rules were obeyed. He organized trading companies to sell to the French colonies in the New World and he built up the French merchant marine and the navy to protect France’s interests.

France began to prosper and Louis was able to spend great sums on Versailles and on his wars. At first Louis was content to win diplomatic victories. Once the French ambassador in Rome reported that his servants had picked a fight with the pope’s guards and that a rioting Roman crowd had jostled his wife from her carriage. Louis demanded that the pope apologize, pay retribution and build a great pyramid in Rome as a monument to Louis’s victory.


Embarrassing the pope was fun for Louis, but it was only a beginning. He had his eye on the part of the Netherlands that belonged to Spain and to take it he would have to be friendly with the independent Dutch. He signed a treaty with the Dutch Republic in 1662. Secretly, however, he detested the Dutch for being republicans, Protestants and successful merchants; he called them “maggots.”

Louis then searched for some excuse to take the Spanish Netherlands. His wife was the daughter of a king of Spain by the king’s first marriage and Louis sent secret agents to collect information on property laws in the Netherlands. They dug through dusty documents until they discovered an old law declaring that a daughter by a first marriage inherited her father’s property. The law had never been meant to apply to kings and their lands, but that did not stop Louis. He claimed that through his wife he by right owned the Spanish Netherlands. He sent his claim to all the kings of Europe and before they had a chance to catch their breath, he marched with his army into the Netherlands.

Fighting like a brave soldier, Louis stayed on the field during the day and slept in the trenches at night, but he was not a clever general. His officers were hard put to win the war for him and at the same time make him think he was winning it by himself. Still, in only a few months they succeeded. The other European countries were not happy to see Louis victorious, for they rightly suspected he would want more and more.

In 1668 Louis signed a treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor, in which they agreed that at the death of sickly young King Charles of Spain they would divide up his empire between them.

While he waited for Charles to die, Louis occupied himself by preparing to invade the Dutch Republic. It was enough excuse for that the Dutch were Protestant and that they dared compete with French trade.

For five years Louis made his preparations. Colbert busily collected money while has other ministers collected allies and soldiers. In 1672 Louis marched the armies of France, 120,000 strong, into the Dutch Republic. Advancing steadily against the poorly equipped Dutch, they took city after city, crossed the Rhine, captured Utrecht and pushed on toward Amsterdam.

The Dutch sued for peace, offering Louis a large tract of land. Louis demanded much more. He wanted more land and a large sum of money. The Dutch must not compete with French trade and they must give Catholics equal rights. In addition, they must thank Louis for his goodness to them, sending him a gold medal each year to show their gratitude.


The Dutch were enraged and in one city after another they rebelled against the government that had consented to surrender. They turned to a new leader — William Henry, prince of Orange. An elegant, serious young man of twenty-one, William of Orange was so dark and swarthy that he looked nothing like a Dutchman. Indeed, he was not all Dutch, for his great-grandfather had been Henry IV of France, his grandfather a king of England and his grandmother a German countess. Another of his great-grandfathers had been William the Silent, prince of Orange, the Dutch hero who had led the Netherlands to independence. The Dutch remembered how the house of Orange had brought them victory before and they hoped William could bring them victory now.


William told the citizens of one Dutch city, “I am content as I am” They answered, “But we are not, unless we see your Highness become Stadtholder.” In Rotterdam, Haarlem and Amsterdam, the people felt the same way and early in July the states of the Netherlands made William their Stadtholder, or ruler, for life. Already he had begun a last, desperate try to hold back the French.

For centuries, the Dutch had reclaimed land from the sea by draining fields and building dikes. Now, opening the sluices to the canals, the Dutch flooded a great strip of land and cut off the French army. By the second week of July, William’s work was complete. Heavy rains raised the water level and Louis’s army could advance no farther. Tiring of a war he could not win quickly, Louis went back to France and left his soldiers to fight in Holland.


For almost two years William’s troops held the French at the water line, while William collected new allies — the king of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor, the duke of Lorraine. By the fall of 1673, Louis lost interest in the Netherlands and sent his troops against William’s allies in Europe; he made the Dutch war a European war. The French governor of Utrecht, handing back the keys of the city to the Dutch, sounded glad to be leaving. “Go to your church,” he said, “and thank God for your deliverance and pray to him that we never return.” When the European war ended in 1679, Louis seemed the victor, but the Netherlands were still independent and in William of Orange Louis had made a lasting enemy.


Having spent most of his treasure in the war, Louis turned to cheaper ways to glory. To his annoyance the young king of Spain still lived. Again be sent his lawyers to delve in old law books and again they come up with useful theories. Whenever a king won new territory, they told him, he was entitled by ancient law to seize all the lands that it had owned at any time. If Louis believed this, he was probably the only person in all Europe who did; but he had a big army and any excuse would do. He grabbed towns and districts on the frontier of the Holy Roman Empire, whose army was off fighting the Turks and could not resist. Louis was tremendously pleased. His teeth were falling out and his digestion was growing bad, but he was now by far the greatest ruler in Europe.

As his greatness grew, Louis became more religious. He firmly believed that a country should have only one religion and he forbade the Huguenots to marry Catholics, closed many Huguenot churches and bribed or tortured or pestered the Huguenots to convert. Finally‚ in 1685, he made Huguenot worship illegal. He insisted that all Huguenots went to be baptized Catholic and if any were caught trying to escape, they were to row in the galleys for life.

Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands did escape. They sought refuge in England, Holland, Germany and even America, taking important skills and crafts away from France. Louis decided he was well rid of them, but he was wrong. Without the clever Huguenots, French industry and trade were less prosperous.


The Protestant countries of Europe were angered at Louis’s treatment of the Huguenots and the tales of suffering the Huguenot refugees told raised great sympathy. In England and the Netherlands, Protestant lands where the people already disliked France, hatred of Louis grew. William of Orange, still leading the opposition to Louis, made treaties and alliances with some of Louis’s other enemies, Protestant or not. When Louis sent his army to invade the German Palatinate in 1688, William was busy with his own plans.


William was preparing to sail for England with an army of 15,000 men, at the invitation of seven great English nobles. The invitation had said only that the English were worried about their religion, liberty and property, but William knew they meant that the crown of England might be his. William’s grandfather had been king of England, but it was his wife’s father, the Catholic James II, who was worrying the nobles. For some time the Protestant English had been unhappy with their Catholic king. When James began trying to rule England as completely as Louis XIV controlled France, many Englishmen decided to find a new king.

In William they saw a man who might be ideal. He was a Protestant, he respected Parliament and as a foreigner he could never become too powerful. When William reached England he marched peacefully to London and the king fled from the country. In February, 1689, Parliament made William and his wife Mary the new king and queen of England. Three months later, William declared war on Louis XIV.

William was no longer an enemy whom Louis could ignore. William himself led the British armies in the field and he held his oddly assorted allies together despite many arguments. William’s English and Dutch troops, joined by forces from Sweden, Spain, Savoy and the empire, fought against Louis on sea and land, in Flanders, Ireland, Italy and even in the American colonies. After more than seven years of fighting, Louis began to sue for peace and in 1697 peace was finally made. Each country gave up most of its conquests. Again Louis had spent money and lives and time and had won almost nothing, while William had united Louis’s enemies.


Now impatient for new gains, Louis began to bargain over the division of Spain. He bargained first with William and in 1699 he and William agreed that France should get part of the Spanish Empire. All this bargaining infuriated King Charles of Spain, who was still alive. He lost his temper and his queen was so annoyed she broke the furniture. Still, thinking it over, Charles decided that his empire must be kept together and this could be done only if he left it to a French prince. In 1700 Charles made a new will, leaving Spain and all its possessions to Louis’s grandson, Philip of Anjou, on one condition — that Philip never become ruler of France.


William and the other European rulers were willing to let Louis’s grandson rule Spain. So long as young Philip could not rule both Spain and France, they would have no worries and the whole thing did not seem worth fighting another war.

Delighted, Louis forgot all his treaties about dividing Spain. He called his grandson into his study, where the Spanish ambassador saluted Philip as the next Spanish king. Then, opening the doors to the court, Louis presented Philip to the courtiers. “Gentlemen,” he told them, “here is the king of Spain . . . the whole nation has asked for him and demanded my immediate approval; it is the command of Heaven and I have obeyed it with pleasure.” To Philip he said, “Be a good Spaniard — that is your first duty– but remember that you were born a Frenchman and that your duty is to cement the union between the two nations. . .”

When Charles of Spain finally died and Philip became king, Louis felt his old ambition return; he thought of a perfect way to cement the union. He insisted that Philip still hold his claims to the French throne. He marched French troops into Flanders to force the Dutch to agree and he began to govern Spain himself through his grandson, but the Dutch refused to agree. In 1701 William led the Netherlands and England into an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor, who also claimed the Spanish throne. They swore to prevent the union of France and Spain under one king.

Although William died early the next year, his sister-in-law Anne, the new English queen, understood that Louis was a threat to the peace of England and of Europe. In 1702, England and the Netherlands declared war on France. This time they were joined by the armies of Denmark, Prussia, the emperor and many of the German princes. Spain, Portugal, Bavaria, Cologne and Savoy supported France, but in only a year Louis lost all his allies but two. By 1709, he was so discouraged that he was ready to give in.

Louis made generous offers to his enemies. He himself had taught the others to be greedy at peace conferences and now the allies demanded that Louis use his own troops to drive his grandson out of Spain. Louis proudly refused to fight his “own dear relatives.” For once, the French were solidly with him. He sold his silver furniture, the wealthy sold their gold and silver plate and both rich and poor hurried to enlist.

They fought on till 1713, when Louis finally made a peace he could accept with England and the Netherlands. Philip remained king of Spain, but he agreed never to accept the French throne In 1714 Louis made peace with the emperor as well. Louis lost some of his lands — and he knew that he could never again try to make France greater at his neighbours’ expense.


His last war over, Louis retired to a quieter and more modest life than he had known before. The war had almost bankrupted France again, his favorite grandchildren were dead and now he began to think of himself as being dead, too. “When I was king . . .” he would say musingly. He was seventy-six now, an old man and his court no longer interested him. His health began to fail and in the summer of 1715 he went to Versailles to wait for death. “The king’s courage is beyond description,” his sister-in-law wrote. “He gives his orders as if he were merely going on a journey.”

He died late in the summer, leaving his throne to his five-year-old grandson. As his funeral procession marched to the church of St. Denis, the people of Paris rejoiced, but elsewhere in France the people wept. Louis had given France years of splendour and pride, years that it would never forget. He had made many mistakes but he had brought glory to the French throne. The people admired the glory and were willing to forget the mistakes.

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