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10.2: Louis XIV - the Sun King

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  • Louis XIII died in 1643, and his son became king Louis XIV. The latter was still too young to take the throne, so his mother became regent, ruling along Richelieu’s protégé, Jules Mazarin, who continued Richelieu’s policies and focus on taxation and royal centralization. Almost immediately, however, simmering resentment against the growing power of the king exploded in a series of uprisings against the crown known as The Fronde, essentially a noble-led civil war against the monarchy (the rebels even formed a formal alliance with Spain). They were defeated by loyal forces in 1653, but the uprisings made a profound impression on the young king, who vowed to bring the nobles into line.

    When Mazarin died in 1661, Louis ascended to full power (he was 23). Louis went on to a long and dazzling rule, achieving the height of royal power and prestige not just in France, but in all of Europe. He ruled from 1643 – 1715 (including the years in which he ruled under the guidance of a regent) meaning he was king for an astonishing 54 years; consider the fact that the average life expectancy for those surviving infancy was only about 40 years at the time(!). Louis was called the Sun King, a term and an image he actively cultivated, declaring himself “without equal,” and being depicted as the sun god Apollo (he once performed as Apollo in a ballet before his nobles, to rapturous applause – he was an excellent dancer). He was, among other things, a master marketer and propagandist of himself and his own authority. He had teams of artists, playwrights, and architects build statues, paint pictures, write plays and stories, and build buildings all glorifying his image.

    Famously, Louis developed what had begun as a hunting lodge (first built by his father) in the village of Versailles, about 15 miles southeast of Paris, into the most glorious palace in Europe, built in the baroque style and lavishly decorated with ostentatious finery. Over the decades of his long rule, the palace and grounds of the Palace of Versailles grew into the largest and most spectacular seat of royal power in Europe, on par with any palace in the world at the time. There were 1,400 fountains in the gardens, 1,200 orange trees, and an ongoing series of operas, plays, balls, and parties. 10,000 people could live in the palace, counting its additional buildings, since Louis ultimately had 2,000 rooms built both in the palace and in apartments in the village, all furnished at the state’s expense. The grounds cover about 2,000 acres, or just over 3 square miles (by comparison, Central Park in New York City is a mere 843 acres in size).

    The Hall of Mirrors, bedecked in gilding and featuring several ornate chandeliers (in addition to the mirrors).
    Figure 10.2.1: A contemporary photograph of the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, a spectacular example of baroque architecture and interior design.

    Louis expected high-ranking nobles to spend part of the year at Versailles, where they were lodged in apartments and spent their days bickering, gossiping, gambling, and taking part in elaborate rituals surrounding the person of the king. Each morning, high-ranking nobles greeted the king as he awoke (the “rising” of the king, in parallel to the rising of the sun), hand-picked favorites carried out such tasks as tying the ribbons on his shoes, and then the procession accompanied him to breakfast. Comparable rituals continued throughout the day, ensuring that only those nobles in the king’s favor ever had the opportunity to speak to him directly. The rituals were carefully staged not only to represent deference to Louis, but to emphasize the hierarchy of ranks among the nobles themselves, undermining their unity and forcing them to squabble over his favor. One of the simplest ways in which Versailles undermined their power was that it cost so much to maintain oneself there – about 50% of the revenue of all but the very richest nobles present in the town or the château was spent on lodging, clothes, gifts, and servants.

    Around the king’s person, courtiers had to be very careful to wear the right clothes, make the right gestures, use the correct phrases, and even display the correct facial expressions. Deviation could, and generally did, lead to humiliation and a sometimes permanent loss of the king’s favor, to the delighted mockery of the other nobles. This was not just an elaborate game: anyone wishing to "get" anything from the royal government (e.g. having a son appointed as an officer in the army, joining an elite royal academy of scholars, securing a lucrative royal pension, serving as a diplomat abroad, etc.) had to convince the king and his officials that he was witty, poised, fashionable, and respected within the court. One false move and a career could be ruined. At the same time, the rituals surrounding the king were not invented to humiliate and impoverish his nobles per se; instead, they celebrated each noble’s power in terms of his or her proximity to the king. Nobles at Versailles were reminded of two things at once: their dependence and deference to the king, but also their own dignity and power as those who had the right to be near the king.

    Not just nobles participated in the dizzying web of favor-trading, gossip, and bribery at Versailles, however. Perhaps surprisingly, any well-dressed person was welcome to walk through the palace and the grounds and confer with those present (Louis XIV prided himself on the “openness” of his court, contrasting it with the closed-off court of a tyrant). Both men and women from very humble origins sometimes rose to prominence, and made a healthy living, at Versailles by serving as go-betweens for elites seeking royal positions through the bureaucracy. Others took advantage of the state’s desperate need for revenue by proposing new tax schemes; those that were accepted usually came with a payment for the person who submitted the scheme, so it was possible to make a living by “brainstorming” for tax revenue on behalf of the monarchy. Despite the vast social gap between the nobility and commoners, many nobles were perfectly happy to form working relationships with useful social inferiors, and in some cases real friendships emerged in the process.

    Some aspects of life at Versailles seem comic today: the palace is so huge that the food was usually cold before it made it from the kitchens to the dining room; on one occasion Louis’ wine froze en route. Some of the nobles who lived on the palace or its grounds would use the hallways to relieve themselves instead of the privies because the latter were so inadequate and far from their rooms. The palace had been designed for display, not comfort.

    The costs of building and maintaining such an enormous temple to monarchical power were enormous. During the height of its construction, 60% of the royal revenue went to funding the elaborate court at Versailles itself (this later dropped to 5% under Louis XVI, but the old figure was well-remembered and resented), an enormous ongoing expenditure that nevertheless shored up royal prestige. Louis himself delighted in the life at court, refusing to return to Paris (which he hated) and dismissing the financial costs as beneath his dignity to take notice of. At Versailles, life orbited around his person and, by extension, his power, which was never seriously challenged during his lifetime.

    Louis did not just preside over the ongoing pageant at Versailles, however. He was dedicated to glorifying French achievements in art, scholarship, and his personal obsession: warfare. He created important theater companies, founded France’s first scientific academy, and supported the Académie Française, the body dedicated to preserving the purity of the French language founded earlier by Richelieu (during Louis XIV’s reign, the Academy published the first official French dictionary). French literature, art, and science all prospered under his sponsorship, and French became the language of international diplomacy among European states.

    Louis XIV in full ceremonial armor standing in front of a battle scene.
    Figure 10.2.2: The above martial portrait of Louis XIV depicts him, symbolically, in his role as supreme military commander. He is dressed in full (ceremonial) armor, holding a sword, and presiding over a battle in the background.

    To keep up with costs, Louis continued to entrust revenue collection to non-noble bureaucrats. The most important was Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619 – 1683), who doubled royal revenues by reducing the cut taken by tax collectors (only a quarter of revenue used to reach royal coffers; he got it up to 80% in some cases), increasing tariffs on foreign trade going to France, and greatly increasing France’s overseas commercial interests. Colbert was the model of a powerful commoner despised by the nobility: not only was he part of the system that held noble power in check, he was a mere shopkeeper’s son.

    While Louis’ primary legacy was the image of monarchy that he created, his practical policies were largely destructive to France itself. First, he relentlessly persecuted religious minorities, going after various small groups of religious dissenters but concentrating most of his attention and ire on the Huguenots. In 1685 he officially revoked the Edict of Nantes that his grandfather had created to grant the Huguenots toleration, and he offered them the choice of conversion to Catholicism or exile. While many did convert, over 200,000 fled to parts of Germany, the Netherlands, England, and America. In one fell swoop, Louis crippled what had been among the most commercially productive sectors of the French population, ultimately strengthening his various enemies in the process.

    Second, he waged constant war. From 1680 – 1715 Louis launched a series of wars, primarily against his Habsburg rivals, which succeeded in seizing small chunks of territory on France’s borders from various Habsburg lands and in saddling the monarchy with enormous debts. Colbert, the architect of the vastly more efficient systems of taxation, repeatedly warned Louis that these wars were financially untenable; Louis simply ignored the question of whether he had enough money to wage them. The threat of France was so great that even traditional enemies like England and the Netherlands on one hand and the Habsburgs on the other joined forces against Louis, and after a lengthy war, the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 forced Louis to abandon further territorial ambitions. Furthermore, the costs of the wars were so high that his government desperately sought new sources of revenue, selling noble titles and bureaucratic offices, instituting still new taxes, and further trampling the peasants. When he died in 1715, the state was technically bankrupt.