FC95: The Age of Louis XIV, the "Sun King" (1643-1715)


FC95 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lectures #2026, #2028 and #2029.
I am the state. Voltaire, incorrectly quoting Louis XIV


From 1643 to 1815 France dominated much of Europe's political history and culture.  Foreigners came to France, preferring it to the charms of their own homeland.  Even today, many still consider it the place to visit in Europe and the world.  In the 1600's and 1700's there was a good reason for this dominance: population.  France had 23,000,000 people in a strongly unified state compared to 5,000,000 in Spain and England, and 2,000,000 in the Dutch Republic and the largest of the German states.  This reservoir of humanity first reached for and nearly attained the dominance of Europe under Louis XIV, the "Sun King".

Louis' early life and reign (1643-61)

Louis was born in 1638 and succeeded his father, Louis XIII, as king in 1643 at the age of five.  Luckily, another able minister and Richelieu's successor, Cardinal Mazarin, continued to run the government.  In 1648, encroachment by the government on the nobles' power, poor harvests, high taxes, and unemployed mercenaries plundering the countryside after the Thirty Years War led to a serious revolt known as the Fronde, named after the slingshot used by French boys.  Louis and the court barely escaped from Paris with their lives.  Although Mazarin and his allies crushed the rebels after five hard years of fighting (1648-53), Louis never forgot the fear and humiliation of having to run from the Parisian mob and fight for his life and throne against the nobles.  This bitter experience would heavily influence Louis' policies when he ruled on his own.

From 1643 to 1661, Cardinal Mazarin ruled ably in the young king's interests, although he provided Louis with a rather odd upbringing for a king.  Despite an immense fortune, Mazarin was something of a miser who gave the young king inadequate food, clothing, and attention. (Once the young Louis was left unattended and fell into a fountain where he almost drowned.)  Louis also got little in the way of a formal education and, even as an adult, was barely literate.  But Mazarin did give Louis a sense of what it meant to be a king.  As a result, he turned out to be a hard working ruler, but often lacked much common sense and the willingness to entrust enough freedom of action to his subordinates.  From his mother, a full-blooded Spanish princess, Louis learned great religious piety and love of ritual, another trait that would influence his reign.  In 1661, Mazarin died.  Louis' officials, assuming he would be a "do nothing" king like his father, asked to whom they should now answer.  Louis' reply was "To me."  The age of Louis XIV was about to begin in earnest.

Louis' internal policies

Louis XIV may not have said, "I am the state", but he ruled as if he had said it.  Louis was the supreme example of the absolute monarch, and other rulers in Europe could do no better than follow his example.  Although Louis wished to be remembered as a great conqueror, his first decade of active rule was largely taken up with building France's internal strength.  There are two main areas of Louis' rule we will look at here: finances and the army.

Louis' finance minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, was an astute businessman of modest lineage, being the son of a draper.  Colbert's goal was to build France's industries and reduce foreign imports.  This seventeenth century policy where a country tried to export more goods and import more gold and silver was known as mercantilism.  While its purpose was to generate revenue for the king, it also showed the growing power of the emerging nation state.  Colbert declared his intention to reform the whole financial structure of the French state, and he did succeed in reducing the royal debt by cutting down on the number of tax farms he sold and freeing royal lands from mortgage.  Colbert especially concentrated on developing France's economy in three ways.

First of all, Colbert concentrated on developing French internal trade in order to reduce foreign imports.  He developed better inland trade routes by building canals and improving ports and river ways, which would connect different parts of the country to each other and open up new markets.  Secondly, Colbert worked to develop French industries.  Most industries he developed can be seen as being aimed against imports from other countries: mirrors from Venice, lace from England, and iron and firearms from Sweden.  He also built a merchant marine to stop foreign powers, especially the Dutch, from carrying French goods and making profits at France's expense.  In 1661, France had a merchant marine of 18 ships.  By 1681, it was up to 276 ships.  Finally, Colbert encouraged the development of overseas colonies much like those of other European powers.  During this time, France established and tightened control over colonies in Canada, French Guiana, and Madagascar.

For all his efforts and financial wizardry, Colbert's successes were limited, largely because he was trying to drag a basically medieval economy into the modern world.  Guilds were still powerful and held back progress in new production and financing techniques.  Local authorities still jealously guarded their rights to charge tolls on trade.  Getting across France involved paying up to 100 such local tolls, which of course stifled trade.  The tax burden was extremely unfair, with nobles and the Church virtually exempt from taxation even though they controlled much of the land.  Colbert's own techniques of having the government control so many aspects of the economy were heavy handed and tended to stifle initiative.  His efforts at trying to centrally control France's overseas colonies were especially disastrous.

However, Colbert did make real progress in developing the French economy.  A merchant marine and navy were built.  Industries were developed. And for a few years Colbert even managed to run the government at a profit.  Unfortunately, Louis' desire for glory and conquests led to a long series of wars that embroiled Europe in a new round of bloodshed and wrecked France's economy.  Not even Colbert could do anything to stop that.

The army was another primary object of reform.  By the mid 1600's, the old system of recruiting armies and fighting wars was clearly outmoded.  Mercenaries were disloyal, untrustworthy, and terribly destructive to friend and foe alike.  By contrast, the Swedish army of Gustavus Adolphus and the English army of Oliver Cromwell each had loyal native recruits that proved reliable and effective, while Brandenburg-Prussia was transforming its troublesome nobles into a loyal professional officer corps.  These lessons were not lost on Louis and his minister of war, Louvois, who built what amounted to one of the first modern national armies.  Three aspects of the army they concentrated on were its training and discipline, its equipment, and its supplies.

First of all, soldiers in Louis' new army, whether mercenaries or peasant draftees, found military life was much stricter and more regularized in several ways.  For one thing, instead of mercenary captains who recruited, paid, and commanded them, soldiers now answered to the state and its officers.  Along these lines, there was also a regular chain of command from the Intendant de l'armee (roughly equivalent to our modern secretary of defense) down through field marshals, generals, colonels, and captains.  Officers also got regular training and were much more strictly under the rule of the central government than ever before.

Naturally, the nobles claimed the officers' positions as their birthright.  However, the government kept tighter control of its army, largely through new positions filled by men of more humble birth.  These lieutenant colonels performed many vital duties in lieu of the noble officers without actually replacing them.  In this way, a more modern army helped Louis bring the old troublesome medieval nobility more tightly under his control.

A second reform was that uniforms and equipment were more standardized, which made the army easier to supply, more efficient, and promoted more of a group identity and higher morale.  Finally, the army maintained regular supply lines.  This reduced the need for foraging, which increased discipline and control over the army and protected the civilian populace from being plundered.

There were two major factors that limited the effectiveness of Louis' military reforms.  For one thing, Louis's standing army was large and expensive, having some 400,000 men at its height.  It is estimated that a pre-industrial society such as seventeenth century France could only afford to support 1% of its population in the military.  Louis' army at its height was nearly twice that, which was a terrible strain on French society.  This became especially apparent in Louis' later wars when supply lines broke down, which led to foraging and a breakdown in discipline.  Second, the expense of Louis' wars forced him to sell military offices, which brought in less capable and dedicated officers.  Overall, Louis' military reforms were much like Colbert's economic reforms.  They made progress, but met severe obstacles that prevented them from being completely successful.

Despite these limits to Louis' economic and military reforms, France was the most powerful state in Europe by the late 1660's.  Louis realized this quite well, in fact probably too well, because he embarked on an ambitious series of policies that nearly ruined France by the end of his reign.  There were three areas where Louis chose to show his power: religion, his palace at Versailles, and foreign expansion.


 was one aspect of Louis' reign that illustrated the absolute nature of his monarchy quite well.  Louis himself was quite a pious Catholic, learning that trait from his mother.  However, in the spirit of the day, he saw religion as a department of state subordinate to the will of the king.  By the same token, not adhering to the Catholic faith was seen as treason.

As a result, Louis gradually restricted the rights of the French Huguenots and finally, in 1685, revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had given them religious freedom since the end of the French Wars of Religion in 1598.  This drove 200,000 Huguenots out of France, depriving it of some of its most skilled labor.  Thus Louis let his political and religious biases ruin a large sector of France's economy.


Louis' religious faith was largely a superficial one attached to the elaborate ritual of the Catholic mass.  This love of ritual also showed itself in how Louis ran his court at his magnificent palace of Versailles, several miles outside of Paris.  Much of the reason for building Versailles goes back to the Fronde that had driven Louis from Paris as a young boy.  Ever since then, Louis had distrusted the volatile Paris mob and was determined to move the court away from the influence of that city.  Versailles was also the showpiece of Louis' reign, glorifying him as the Sun King with its magnificent halls and gardens.

The palace facade was a quarter of a mile across.  The famous Hall of Mirrors alone was 250 feet long.  Water pumped from the Seine River to hills 500 feet above Versailles fed its fountains.  The Orangery had over 1200 orange trees that were moved inside for the winter.  All this was built and maintained at tremendous expense.  But it was worth it to Louis, regardless of the burden it put on the French people.

As splendid as it may seem, life at Versailles was not always such a picnic.  The site itself was on low marshy ground that made it unhealthy to live in.  Except for a few magnificent rooms and bedrooms, most people had small cramped rooms with little or no ventilation.  Nevertheless, a noble was considered socially and politically dead if he did not live at Versailles.  He lived there at his own expense and was expected to keep up a sumptuous life style in order to be a proper ornament for Louis' court.  The seemingly endless round of masquerades, plays, operas, and parties eventually grew old to even the most ardent partygoers.  For many, life became a bitter series of petty intrigues over such things as who could stand closest to Louis when he held court or got dressed in the morning.  Some even saw this as a plot to ruin the nobles by making them go bankrupt while they were trapped in the gilded cage of Versailles.  And indeed, Versailles did bankrupt many nobles along with the French government, helping lead to the French Revolution some 75 years after Louis died.

Louis' diplomacy and wars

Just as Louis's palace at Versailles dominated European culture during the late 1600's and early 1700's, his diplomacy and wars dominated Europeans political history.  As Louis himself put it: "The character of a conqueror is regarded as the noblest and highest of titles."  Interestingly enough, he never led his troops in battle except for overseeing a few sieges from a safe distance.

Louis' main goals were to expand France to its "natural borders": the Rhine, the Alps, and the Pyrenees.  This, of course, would make him enemies among the Dutch, Germans, Austrians, Spanish, and English.  Therefore, Louis' diplomacy had to clear the way to make sure he did not fight everyone at once.  For this purpose he skillfully used money to neutralize potential enemies (such as Charles II of England in the Secret Treaty of Dover) and extracted favorable terms from stalemate or losing situations.  But Louis could also make some fateful blunders to hurt his cause.  His obsessive hatred of the Dutch dominated his policy too much, as did his own self-confidence and arrogance in trying to publicly humiliate his enemies.  However, this just alarmed Louis' enemies more, especially the Dutch, Austrians, and English, who allied against Louis to preserve the balance of power.

Several new inventions transformed the warfare of this period.  First of all there was the bayonet, invented in Bayonne, France around 1670.  This blade, when attached to the end of a musket, transformed it into a short pike, thus eliminating the need for separate pikemen to protect the musketeers in hand-to-hand combat.  Second, there was the flintlock musket, which provided more reliable firing and faster loading than the old matchlock muskets.  Finally, there was the introduction of paper cartridges with pre-measured amounts of gunpowder that also sped up the process of loading in combat. With all infantrymen carrying flintlock muskets, premeasured charges of powder, and bayonets for hand-to-hand combat, generals could create much less dense formations and greatly stretch their battle lines.

These new linear tactics vastly increased European armies' firepower and warfare's destructiveness.  They also made armies harder to control since they were stretched out over such a great distance.  As a result, discipline was tightened even more, which further increased the power of the state over its armies.  It also made it harder to attract recruits, leading to a growing reliance on peasant draftees.

The general trend in Louis' wars was for them to become increasingly longer, bloodier, and less successful.  His first major conflict, the War of Devolution, lasted only two years (1667-1668).  Louis' goal was to conquer the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium), which would give him control of the mouth of the Rhine and much of Germany's trade.

At this point, Colbert's financial measures provided Louis a strong economic base with which to wage war.  Louis' military reforms had also given him the best fighting machine in Europe.  The system of supply lines worked so well that the French officers were even supplied with silverware for their tables.  As a result, Louis gained several strategic towns and fortresses in the Spanish Netherlands.  However, Europe's suspicion and fear of French aggression had been aroused, and each succeeding war would be progressively harder for Louis to win.

The Dutch War (1672-78) brought in the Dutch Republic, Spain, Brandenburg-Prussia, Denmark, and Austria against Louis.  French progress was much slower, and fighting much costlier, as the Dutch in particular fought desperately to defend their homeland, even opening the dikes to flood out the French.  Although Louis gained nothing against the Dutch, he did win lands along the Rhine at the expense of various German states, but at considerable cost.  France lost its two best field marshals, and the French people endured ever-higher taxes, some peasants even being reduced to making bread from acorns and roots.

Louis' next adventure, the War of the League of Augsburg, also known as the Nine Years War (1688-97), embroiled Europe in an even more prolonged and fruitless conflict.  French expansion was directed across the Rhine into Germany while Austria was preoccupied with its Turkish war.  Austria put the Turks on hold and allied with the Dutch, English, and several German states to stop French aggression.  Fighting raged through most of the 1690's.  Peasants were drafted in greater numbers, taxes were raised to intolerable heights, and a major famine in 1694 merely added to the misery.  Finally, peace was made in 1697 with little changed, except for everyone being severely weakened by the senseless struggle.  By 1700, France's population had declined from an estimated 23,000,000 in 1670 to 19,000,000.

Unfortunately, a new and bloodier war soon arose.  This time the prize was Spain and its extensive empire, left without a ruler by the death of Charles II.  Louis' grandson had an excellent claim through Louis' wife, a Spanish princess.  Predictably, the rest of Europe would not tolerate a French Empire that surpassing even that of Charles V in the 1500's.  The resulting conflict, the War of the Spanish Succession, would bring twelve more dreary years of warfare and destruction to Europe (1701-13).

For the first time, Louis' generals suffered decisive defeats, mostly at the hands of the brilliant British general, John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough.  French armies were thrown on the defensive, and French peasants were drafted in growing numbers to defend their homeland.  Resistance stiffened and the war ground down to a bloody stalemate.  Exhaustion on both sides finally led to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.  Louis' grandson took the throne of Spain and its American empire, but the French and Spanish thrones could not be united under one ruler.  Austria got the Spanish Netherlands to contain French aggression to the north.  Just as the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 had contained Hapsburg aggression, the Treaty of Utrecht contained French expansion.  Two years later Louis XIV was dead, with little to show for his vaunted ambitions as a conqueror except an exhausted economy and dissatisfied populace.

Results of Louis' reign

The age of Louis XIV was important to European history for several reasons.  First of all, it saw the triumph of absolutism in France and continental Europe.  Versailles was a glittering symbol and example for other European rulers to follow.  Any number of German and East European monarchs modeled their states and courts after Louis XIV, sometimes to the point of financial ruin.  Second, Louis' wars showed the system of Balance of Power politics working better than ever.  French aggression was contained and the status quo was maintained.  All this had its price, since the larger sizes of the armies and the final replacement of the pike with the musket took European warfare to a new level of destruction.  Finally, Louis' reign definitely established France as the dominant power in Europe.  However, the cost was immense and left his successors a huge debt.  Ironically, the problems caused by Louis XIV's reign would help lead to the French Revolution in 1789 and the spread of democratic principles across Europe and eventually the world.