King Louis XIV
In 1643, a five-year-old child was crowned Louis XIV of France. He would reign until his death in 1715. Known to the world as the Sun King, Louis was perhaps the most absolute of the absolute European monarchs of the seventeenth century. He chose the sun for his symbol because it was the source of all light and life on earth.
Like all the monarchs of his era, Louis believed in the divine right of kings. This was not a theory to him, but a reality by which he lived and ruled. Louis considered that he and the state of France were one entity. He had no intention of ceding any of his power to the aristocracy, the Church, or the common people of France.
King Louis XIII’s chief minister of state, the highly able Cardinal Richelieu, had believed in a strong central monarchy. Jules Mazarin, also a cardinal, succeeded Richelieu in 1642 and became Louis XIV’s chief minister. He espoused the same policies as Richelieu; like his predecessor, he discouraged representative institutions. France had no equivalent of the English Parliament. It had a body called the Estates General, which consisted of three groups of deputies representing the hereditary nobility, the clergy, and the commoners. Louis never once convened the Estates General. He and Mazarin preferred to govern without their advice or interference. During Louis’ reign, opposition to the king was considered treason; even had the Estates General met, the deputies would have had no power to do anything other than agree with whatever the king wanted. After the death of Mazarin in 1661, Louis served as his own chief minister rather than summon the Estates General.
The reign of Louis XIV saw numerous construction projects. The building of the Canal du Midi (1665–1681), which connected the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, was important for trade and an impressive feat of engineering for the time. The crown also pursued an aggressive tariff policy that discouraged imports and bolstered French luxury industries such as the textile industry. Louis hired architects to oversee the restoration and remodeling of the Louvre and the building of Versailles, the king’s “retreat” fourteen miles outside of Paris. An enormous palace with endless corridors of mirrors, marble, and gold leaf, Versailles became a major symbol of the king’s absolute power; it also symbolized the dominant role France played in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
To exercise as much control as possible over the hereditary nobility, Louis XIV required all of them to spend part of each year at Versailles. In the short term, this policy prevented the nobles from hatching any conspiracy against the crown. In the long term, it weakened the all-important bond between estate owners and their tenants. Instead of living on their estates and managing their land and their people, the nobles spent half their time at Versailles; the money that should have been spent on maintaining and improving their estates was wasted on court finery and travel expenses. Louis did not know it, but he was helping to lay the groundwork for the French Revolution.
Louis XIV also helped to lay the groundwork for the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The crown was the most important patron of arts and letters in France. Investigation, learning, and publication in the arts and sciences flourished under official state sponsorship, with the establishment of the French academies of letters, science, and the arts. Not since the Renaissance had artists enjoyed such a degree of official protection. This helps to explain why the Enlightenment was centered in France.
The Fronde was a series of uprisings and rebellions in the Paris-Bordeaux region over the issue of new taxes Mazarin levied on the people to pay for debts run up during the Thirty Years’ War. Since the state controlled the army, which had greatly expanded during the war, the rebels were doomed from the start. The Fronde was crushed in 1652.
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