Louis XIV Chapter 1Louis XIV

4 The reign of Louis XIV

4.1 Louis governs himself

Before Louis XIV started to govern by himself royal power had been exercised by delegation for more than half a century1. The population had grown accustomed to this division between the royal power itself and the person who exercised it and therefore the act by which Louis took the government in his own hands was viewed as a revolution. It took place at the death of Prime Minister Mazarin, but the ease with which Louis performed this betrayed that it had been planned for a long time.

The death of Mazarin was preceded by the move of the court to the Chateau de Vincennes on 7 February 1661. On the eve of Mazarin's death the most important figures on the political scene were: Anne of Austria; the army chief Turenne; Louis' ex-governor Marshal de Villeroy; Minister of War Le Tellier; Diplomat Hugues de Lionne and above all Procureur-Général and Surintendant des Finances Nicolas Fouquet. After Mazarin died in the night of 8-9 March 1661 King Louis summoned Fouquet, Tellier and Lionne and was in conference with them for three hours. In the afternoon the court returned to Paris. On 10 March a second conference was held with the chancellor and the other secretaries of state also present2.

In this conference king Louis addressed the chancellor and spoke as follows: 'Mister, I have assembled you and my ministers and secretaries in order to tell you that up till now I have willingly let the late Cardinal manage my affairs. It's now time that I manage them myself. You will aid me with your council when I require you. I ask and order you, mister chancellor to sign and seal nothing without my orders Louis then turned to the secretaries of state: And you my secretaries of state. I order you to sign nothing, not even a safeguard or passport, without my orders. To inform me each day, and not to favor anyone Next he spoke to Fouquet: And you, Mister surintendant des finances, I have explained my wishes to you. I ask you to work with Colbert, whom the late cardinal recommended to me.3

One has to note that Louis did not take over silently but made a huge show of it. This show was intended to let everyone understand the event and his resolve to be in power personally. Legally the take over meant that the king again performed the most important duties previously performed by the prime minister, and in particular that he personally agreed to all expenses. In maintaining the efficient burocracy and continuing to exclude the aristocracy from it Louis would prove himself a good apprentice of the cardinals.

4.2 Conflict with Fouquet

As regards public expectations this step to reunite the person of the king with the royal power was applauded. The effect of the events of the preceding decades had however been that many doubted the lasting resolve of the young king to apply himself to all the work that was involved with this change. Among these there were probably also some who thought him not of the same stature and will power as the cardinals, or who thought they could shine next to the sun king. Chief amongst these was the Surintendant de Finances Fouquet.

Fouquet had acquired enormous riches after the state bankruptcy of 1648. In the financial chaos that ensued he had organized some financers to borrow to the state at very harsh conditions and had shared in the profit. This was followed by arbitrary decisions about which debts were or were not paid, and again sharing in the profit. Next he had employed his fortune in buying a party in society and in the construction of the magnificent Chateau of Vaux le Vicomte. Fouquet was also well informed about Mazarin's mistakes, and so had nothing to fear till 1661.

The conflict between Louis and Fouquet was basically about who would be in control of the finances of the state. By 1661 vast parts of the income of the state had been alienated to 'creditors', who were most often connected to Fouquet. Other parts of the royal income were at the disposals of local governors. The situation was so serious that a simple dismissal of Fouquet would have let an immediate bankruptcy, because his friends would have refused all further credit. Louis was perhaps not unwilling to condone fraud. To let this situation endure would however mean that his decisions about who would get paid were less important than those of Fouquet. After appraising the situation for some time, and Fouquet not showing to mend his behavior, Louis decided to dismiss him on 4 May 16614.

As stated a simple dismissal was not possible. The first consideration with regard to arresting Fouquet was that it should be delayed till after the harvest, because more money was available at that time. Louis XIV also organized for some 4-5 million livre to be at his disposal by then. Another obstacle was Fouquet's office of Procureur-General, which meant that a simple prosecution was not possible. With some persuasion and intrigue Fouquet was convinced to sell this office. Fouquet next demonstrated his power by giving a very brilliant party for the court at Vaux.

The arrest was planned to coincide with a trip to Brittany, so the guard regiments would in striking distance of Fouquet's fortress at Belle-Isle. While in Nantes in early September, Louis had Fouquet arrested. The arrest was followed by all kinds of measures to quickly subdue Fouquet's party and these succeeded. Louis then had Fouquet judged by commissaries and not by the parliament that supported him. Louis wanted to have Fouquet sentenced to death, but all he got was a sentence of banishment from the kingdom. Louis then transmuted this sentence to life-imprisonment in the fortress of Pignerol.

That the arrest of Fouquet was part of a larger campaign to get control of the financial system is often forgotten. Two months after Fouquet's arrest a special court was instituted to research all financial affairs since 1635. This led to dozens of officers fleeing the country or getting convicted5. With regard to Fouquet's office Louis instituted the Conseil Royal des Finances. This was a five member council that met three times a week in his presence. There the council made propositions which Louis decided. One member was the Intendant des Finances who kept records.

4.3 The Queen and De la Vallière (1661-1668)

The young sovereign now lived the springtime of his reign. France was at peace and the court lived through a series of musical performances, ballets, operas and plays. Louis got his first child with his wife Maria Theresia on 1 November 1661, but also started to make his court elsewhere.

It was rumored that the object of his first courtship was his brother's beautiful wife Henriette d'Angleterre. It seems that thereupon his mother or perhaps Henriette herself took measures to avoid scandal. Somehow someone made Louis XIV take a closer look at one of Henriette's ladies in waiting. This was the seventeen year old Demoiselle de la Vallière. Louis genuinely fell in love with her and started a long lasting affair. In December 1663 this led to the birth of Charles, the first of four children they would have together. Upon the death of his mother Louis went even further and openly displayed De la Vallière as his official mistress. Somewhere around 1667 Louis' love for her would end, even though he forced her to stay at court for a long time after.

Alongside these court affairs Louis executed a sound economic policy and waged a profitable war against Spain. After the example of Chateau Vaux Louis also started the construction of Versailles. One can say that up to the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1668 Louis XIV was doing very well.

4.4 Madame de Montespan and the zenith of power (1668-1684)

By the standards of the time Louis cannot be said to have done anything abnormal by having an affair with Demoiselle de la Vallière and waging a war with Spain. But, from about 1667/68 Louis' behavior started to become extravagant. Louis already had a family by his wife Maria Theresa and a family by De la Vallière, but even while De la Vallière still remained at court as official mistress he started other affairs and also his long affair with Madame de Montespan. This way he started his third family when Montespan got her first child in 1669. Now, in itself infidelities were not strange in royal households. The fact that Louis believed that he could openly live with yet another mistress did however insult the public because it perceived the king as having three wives.

One can thus either judge Louis' personal moral to have gone rotten by 1668 or doubt whether his own judgment was still sound when he decided to openly display his affair with Montespan. Anyway Louis' skills in government were still quite good, and the court still was a community centered on partying. The superbly planned invasion of the United Provinces almost succeeded, and the subsequent general war ended with France victorious at the truce of Regensburg in 1684. With Spain at its knees and England paralyzed by internal division France was at the zenith of its power.

4.5 Madame de Maintenon and the Nine Years War (1684-1701)

The accession (from about 1680) of Louis' third major favorite Madame de Maintenon marked the beginning of the end of the joys of Versailles. The atmosphere was replaced by one of bigotry and the political mistakes started to accumulate. Because this is a biography of Louis XIV we should look at one of his biggest mistakes, which was the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. It had been preceded by the so called Dragonnades which had started in 1681. The final revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the subsequent prosecution and flight of the Huguenots did enormous damage to the kingdom and is often ascribed to the influence of others.

The reason for ascribing it to others is that most thought Louis XIV not to be religious enough to want to eradicate Protestantism in France. One might however also reason that for Louis XIV the previous civil wars were reason enough. Anyway, the Huguenots were very loyal to the crown and in 1685 Louis had raised so much international opposition that stirring up trouble with the Huguenots was not only needless but also very dangerous. To a certain extent his enemies were ready for another war and if they succeeded in entering France one could then expect the freshly prosecuted Huguenots to lend them a hand. From this decision alone one can doubt whether Louis XIV still had a clear political judgment by 1685, but there was more to follow.

The outcry of Protestant Europe against the prosecution of the Huguenots did not suffice to install some carefulness into the government. His neighbors had meanwhile concluded the league of Augsburg to prevent further aggression. Not deterred by this Louis then invaded the Rhineland in 1688, demonstrated his cruelty there and enabled William III to invade and become king of England. This resulted in the Nine Year War from which Louis barely escaped by the peace of Rijswijk in 1697.

4.6 The brink of disaster (1701-1715)

By 1700 France was not that enthusiastic anymore about Louis, but Louis was still full of ambition. This time it was about the crown of Spain, and though Louis openly sought to prevent another war, he was secretly scheming to fulfill this life-time ambition by placing his grandson Philippe duc d'Anjou on the throne of Spain. The testament of Charles II was another triumph for French diplomacy, but in the end sparked of a war that brought France to the brink of disaster.

The French army suffered terrible defeats on the battlefield, while at home the population suffered from taxation and even hunger. In his personal life this phase of the reign would see the death of Louis' brother Philippe I d'Orleans, his son and grand-sons till only his grandson Felipe and a great grandson were left to follow him on the throne. In the end Louis would prevent a complete disaster and even succeed in keeping Felipe on the throne in Spain. By now France was however quite fed up with the sun king, and his passing led to relief rather than mourning.

5 General aspects of Louis' rule

5.1 The Louvre

photograph of the Louvre

Louis XIV is justly associated with Versailles, but he ruled from the Louvre for over 20 years.

5.2 Versailles

photograph of Versailles

The abovementioned party by Fouquet acquainted Louis with a residence created by the best contemporary artists. Vaux had gardens by Le Notre, wall paintings by Le Brun and statues by Puget. The festivities themselves were marked by illuminations, fireworks, ballet and theater. This probably gave Louis an idea or two because the construction of Versailles was begun in fall 1661. Even though the government would be relocated to Versailles in 1682, the construction of Versailles can only be considered to have been 'finished' by the end of 1689. Versailles can be considered as an expression of the glory of Louis XIV, but also served some practical purposes. It gave Louis a place where he could gather his court and the higher aristocracy and nobility and easily keep an eye on them. It also provided a place close to Paris, but not so close as to be easily surrounded by its sometimes unruly population.

5.3 Flattery, favoritism and folly

The absolute power Louis possessed naturally meant that his appreciation of reality was influenced by flattery and from it resulted favoritism and folly. Saint Simon gives many examples in which no one dared to tell Louis the truth, e.g. where Louis has to send Chamillart personally to the army in order to find out its state, or when misfortunes of the army were not reported to him. Louis had a lot of informers to counter this.

Favoritism meant that a lot of functions were executed by people not on grounds of their ability, but on grounds of the credit they had with Louis or Madame de Maintenon. An example of this is the appointment of La Feuillade to head the siege of Turin when there were more experienced officers at hand. One can also wonder why Vendome, who had a very good service record, was retired after Oudenaarde. Was it because he had made a mistake there, or was it because he had openly insulted the duke of Burgundy, probably on account of not following orders?

Folly is the only word applicable for Louis's recognition of the pretender as king of England that drove England into the war.


Louis is known as a great promoter of the arts. His commissions employed a great number of artists and definitely made French art leading in Europe. Louis' policy of encouraging a lifestyle with extravagant luxuries also secured a lot of work for artists. His art policy itself saw the foundation of a number of art academies. The construction of Versailles set an architectural example to Europe.

A hated monarch

Though a big part of the European elite looked up to the grandeur of France and its court, Louis made himself hated during his reign. His cruelty to the Huguenots, the war crimes committed by his troops in the Palatinate and in the United Provinces not only disgusted the European elite, but even the populace, especially the European Protestants. He combined this with a tendency not to let himself be disturbed by treaties he had signed. This again led to tenacity on the allied side and prolongation of the war.

6 Balance of the rule of Louis XIV

One can basically judge a reign in today's perspective, in a contemporary perspective or even in periods. The contemporary perspective tends to stress the immediate power struggle. Today's perspective tends to stress the long term effects of a reign. Judgment in periods takes into account whether the reign was successful all the time or just part of the time.

In the perspective of the world A.D. 2006 Louis eternalized himself for ever by lifting the prestige of France and its arts to a peak that was only attained again by Napoleon. On a territorial level he extended the French borders a lot, but in the long run this probably only led to Alsace now being French. This 'achievement' is of set by losses in North America that led to the whole of North America now being Anglo-Saxon. On a constitutional level his innovations destructed the foundations of the societal hierarchy of the ancien regime and paved the way for the revolution and his descendant getting executed by the people. It also led to France even now being a very centralized state that lacks in private enterprise, but can achieve a lot in state enterprise (ESA, TGV, Minitel)

In the perspective of 1661- 1715 Louis of course could not foresee all. On a territorial level the strength of France allowed Louis to opt for war at sea in combination with war against perhaps two or three larger powers on the continent. This is also the basic policy with which Louis started by trying to annex the Spanish Netherlands, a goal he almost achieved. During his reign Louis XIV however made it clear that he wanted to rule the whole of Europe, a policy that could only lead to ranging the whole of Europe against him. When this led to the loss of control of the Mediterranean during the war of the League of Augsburg even Louis should have grasped that such a policy would ruin the colonies, merchant-shipping and wealth of France.

Even as late as 1700, when the will of Charles II came in Louis could still have made his reign a success by refuting the will and avoiding a crippling war. Spending only a fraction of the money and people the war cost overseas, especially in North America, would probably have resulted in lasting success in North America (In stead it was only the incompetence of Jack Hill that kept France from losing the whole of North America in this war). Looking at it in this way Louis reign was not only disaster for France in the contemporary perspective, but also in todays.


  • 1643- 1715 King of France
  • 1654: Coronation
  • 1661: Takes the reigns of government into his hands
  • 1715: Dies


1) Histoire de France part XIII by Henri Martin page 1 describes Louis XIV taking the government in his own hands.
2) Histoire de France part XII by Henri Martin page 549
3) Mémoires de Comte de Brienne Paris 1828, Volume 2, page 154 has a rendition of this meeting on 10 March.
4) Études sur Colbert edited by Delix Joubleau, Paris 1856, Volume 2, page 293 has a rendition of a manuscript which has this date for the decision to dismiss Fouquet.
5) Histoire de la Via et de l'administration de Colber by Pierre Clément, Paris 1846, page 98 has the institution of this special court in November 1661 and its subsequent actions.