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Encyclopedia > Louis XIV
Louis XIV
King of France and Navarre
By Hyacinthe Rigaud (1701)

Louis XIV (Louis-Dieudonné) (September 5, 1638September 1, 1715) reigned as King of France and King of Navarre from May 14, 1643 until his death. He was a minor when he inherited the Crown; he did not actually assume personal control of the government until the death of his chief minister, Jules Cardinal Mazarin, in 1661. Louis, who is known as The Sun King (French: Le Roi Soleil) and as Louis the Great (French: Louis le Grand), ruled France for seventy-two years—a longer reign than any other French or other major European monarch. Louis atttempted to increase the power of France in Europe, fighting four major wars: the War of Devolution, the Dutch War, the War of the Grand Alliance, and the War of the Spanish Succession. He worked successfully to create an absolutist and centralised state; he is often cited as an example of an enlightened despot. He is supposed to have once remarked, "L'État, c'est moi!" (I am the state!), but this quotation is most likely apocryphal. Louis is the archetype of an absolute monarch.


Early years

Born at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Louis was regarded as a divine gift by his parents, Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, who had been childless for twenty-three years. (These circumstances have led some to theorize that Louis XIII was not the boy's biological father.) He was christened "Louis-Dieudonné" (the latter word meaning "God-given"), and received the titles premier fils de France ("First Son of France") and the more traditional title Dauphin de Viennois.

Louis XIII and Anne had a second child, Philippe I, Duc d'Orléans, in 1640. Louis XIII, however, mistrusted his wife; he sought to prevent her from gaining influence over the realm after his death. Nevertheless, when Louis XIII died and the four-year-old Louis XIV ascended the Throne on May 14, 1643, Anne became Regent. She entrusted all power to her chief minister, the Italian Cardinal Mazarin, who was despised in part because he was not French.

At the same time as the Thirty Years' War ended, a French civil war, known as the Fronde, began. Cardinal Mazarin continued the centralization policies of his predecessor, Armand Cardinal Richelieu. He attempted to augment the power of the Crown at the expense of the nobility. In 1648, he levied a tax on the members of the Parlement, a court whose judges were mostly nobles or high clergymen. The members of the Parlement not only refused to pay, but also pronounced all of Cardinal Mazarin's earlier financial edicts void. When Cardinal Mazarin arrested the members of the Parlement, Paris broke into rioting and insurrection. Louis and his courtiers were forced to flee from Paris. Shortly thereafter, the Peace of Westphalia was signed, and the French army under Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé were free to return to the aid of Louis and his royal court. By January 1649, the Prince de Condé was besieging Paris; the subsequent Peace of Rueil temporarily ended the conflict.

France continued to be involved in war, however, against Spain. The French were aided in their efforts by England, which was at the time under the military dictator Oliver Cromwell. The Anglo-French alliance was victorious in 1648. The subsequent Treaty of the Pyrenees (1649) fixed the border between France and Spain at the Pyrenees. Under the same treaty, Louis XIV was to marry the daughter of Philip IV of Spain, Maria Theresa (Marie Thérèse). The marriage occurred in 1660; under the treaty, Maria agreed to renounce all claim to the Spanish Throne. Spain had agreed to pay a large dowry (50,000 gold écus), but failed to fulfill such a promise.

Early reign

The young king, winner of wars and of hearts.

Officially, Louis's mother ceased to be Regent when Louis turned thirteen in 1651. Louis XIV, however, continued to allow Cardinal Mazarin to control the affairs of state. Cardinal Mazarin died in 1661, and was due to be replaced by Nicolas Fouquet, Marquis de Belle-Isle, the Superintendent of Finance. Instead, he was removed and imprisoned on account of his failure to properly manage the nation's finances. Louis announced that he would not appoint a new chief minister; instead he would govern the realm by himself. His most trusted advisors were members of the conseil d'en haut (High Council); the most influential ministers were Jean-Baptiste Colbert (for internal affairs), Hugues de Lionne (for foreign affairs), and François-Michel le Tellier, Marquis de Louvois (for war). Louis excluded the higher nobility from the conseil, leading the aristocratic diarist Louis de Rouvroy, Duc de Saint-Simon to refer to the reign as the "reign of the lowborn bourgeoisie."

The French treasury stood close to bankruptcy when Louis XIV assumed power in 1661. Louis proved an incredibly extravagant spender, dispensing huge sums of money to finance the royal court. He was a patron of the arts, funding literary and cultural figures such as Molière, Charles Le Brun, and Jean-Baptiste Lully. He also brought the Académie française under his control, and became its "Protector". He spent money on improving the Musée du Louvre.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert was appointed Controller-General in 1665. He reduced the national debt through efficient taxation. The principal taxation devices he used were the aides, the douanes, the gabelle, and the taille. The aides and douanes were customs duties, the gabelle a tax on salt, and the taille a tax on land. Colbert, however, did not abolish the tax exemption claimed by the nobility and the clergy. Nonetheless, he improved the methods of tax collection then in use.

Colbert also had wide-ranging plans to improve France through commerce. New industries were ordained, and manufacturers and inventors were encouraged. Colbert also made improvements to the navy and the highways and waterways of France. He is considered to be one of the fathers of a school of thought regarding trade known as mercantilism—in fact, in France "mercantilism" was called "Colbertisme."

The complex known as the Hôtel des Invalides was built under Louis's orders, to provide a home for officers who had served him loyally in the army but were rendered infirm either through injury or age. Louis considered its construction to be one of the greatest achievements of his reign.

The Low Countries

After his father-in-law, Philip IV, died in 1665, the Spanish Throne was inherited by a sickly and mentally retarded child, who became Charles II. Louis claimed that Brabant, a Spanish territory in the Low Countries, had "devolved" to his wife, Maria Theresa, who was Charles II's half-sister. The legal argument Louis had made was that the custom of Brabant required that a child should not suffer from his or her father's remarriage. He personally participated in the battles of the subsequent War of Devolution, which broke out in 1667. Louis's primary enemy was not Spain (which was uninterested in Brabant and other Belgian territories), but the Republic of the Seven United Provinces (the Netherlands).

Louis's designs on the Low Countries were aided by the internal problems of the United Provinces. The Provinces were at the time headed by Johan de Witt, who feared that power might come into the hands of William III, Prince of Orange. A naval war with France might have been manageable, but a war on land would have allowed William III's army to intervene. Thus, France easily conquered both Flanders and the Franche-Comté. To protect itself from further French aggression, the United Provinces joined the Triple Alliance, with England and Sweden, in 1668. As the joint naval and commercial power of England and the United Provinces could not be easily overcome, Louis agreed to make peace. Under the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, France was allowed to retain Flanders, but surrendered the Franche-Comté to Spain.

The Triple Alliance did not last very long. In 1670, Charles II secretly signed the Treaty of Dover, entering into a coalition with France; the two nations declared war on the United Provinces in 1672. Louis XIV's aggression forced Johan de Witt to resign, and allowed William III, Prince of Orange to take power. William III entered into an alliance with Spain, causing England to withdraw in 1674. William even married Mary, the niece of the English King Charles II. A peace was therefore hastened, and accomplished in 1678 with the Treaty of Nijmegen. Louis gained more territory in the Low Countries, and regained the Franche-Comté.

The Treaty of Nijmegen improved France's influence in Europe, but did not satisfy Louis XIV. Louis dismissed his foreign minister, Simon Arnaud, Marquis de Pomponne, in 1679. He also kept up his army, but further increases in territory were accomplished through judicial processes instead of military ones. Louis claimed that the territories ceded to him in previous treaties ought to be ceded along with all their dependencies and all lands which had formerly belonged to them, but had separated over the years. French "courts of reunion" were appointed to ascertain which territories belonged to France; the French troops later occupied them. The annexation of these lesser territories, however, was not Louis's primary aim. Louis actually desired to gain Strasbourg, an important strategic outpost. Strasbourg was a part of Alsace, but had not been ceded with the rest of Alsace in the Peace of Westphalia. It was nonetheless occupied by the French in 1681 under Louis's new legal pretext.

Height of power

During the early 1680s, Louis's influence was greatly increased. French colonies abroad were growing in size. Louis was in the process of reinforcing the traditional Gallicanism, a doctrine limiting the authority of the Pope in France. Furthermore, Louis began to diminish the power of the nobility and clergy.

In pursuance of his absolutist aims, Louis attempted to increase his influence over the Church. He convened an assembly of clergymen in November 1681. Before it was dissolved in June 1682, it had agreed to the Declaration of the Clergy of France. The power of the King of France was increased, and the power of the Pope reduced. The Pope was not allowed to send papal legates to France without the King's consent; those legates, furthermore, required further approval before they could exercise their power. Bishops were not to leave France without the royal approbation; no government officials could be excommunicated for acts committed in pursuance of their duties. The King was allowed to enact ecclesiastical laws, and all regulations made by the Pope were deemed invalid in France without the assent of the monarch. The Declaration, however, was not accepted by the Pope.

Louis attempted to reduce the influence of the nobility, continuing the work of Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin. He believed that his power would be greater only if commoners served in such high positions: he could not destroy the influence of a great nobleman, but could reduce a commoner to a nonentity by dismissing him. Thus, the noblemen were forced to serve Louis as courtiers, whilst commoners were allowed to serve as ministers and regional governors. As courtiers, the noblemen grew even weaker. Louis had converted the Chateau of Versailles outside Paris into a lavish royal palace; he moved there along with the royal court on May 6, 1682. Court life was one of grandeur; the noble courtiers were compelled to indulge in expensive luxuries, to dress with suitable magnificence and to constantly attend balls, dinners, performances, and celebrations. Thus, many noblemen were forced to either give up all influence, or depend entirely on the King for grants and subsidies. Instead of power, the nobles were reduced to vying for the honour of dining at the King's table or for the privilege of carrying a candlestick as the King retired to his bedroom to sleep. Versailles was built for several reasons. One of the most painfully obvious for Louis XIV was his distaste for Paris. During the noble led rebellion Fronde, Louis XIV was captured and held hostage. Louis XIV decided to build himself a residence outside Paris so he could observe the goings-on of all of his country. Another reason for the building of Versailles was to be a reception hall for state affairs, along with a "built to impress" reception hall for foreign dignitaries.

Louis XIVs most important minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, died in 1683. Colbert's influence on the royal coffers were tremendous—the royal revenue had been tripled under his supervision. The people of France, however, generally remained poor, and did not always reap the benefits of Colbert's plans.

By 1685, Louis was at the height of his power. One of France's chief rivals, the Holy Roman Empire, was crippled whilst fighting the Ottoman Empire in the War of the Holy League. The Ottoman Grand Vizier had almost captured Vienna, but at the last moment King Jan III Sobieski led an army of Polish, German and Austrian forces to final victory at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. In the meantime, Louis XIV had acquired control of several territories, including Luxembourg. After repelling the Ottoman attack on Vienna, the Holy Roman Empire's army was free, but the Emperor nevertheless did not attempt to regain the territories annexed by Louis XIV.


Madame de Maintenon was Louis XIV's second wife.

Louis's queen, Maria Theresa, also died in 1683. Louis had not been faithful to her: his mistresses included Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart, Marquise of Montespan. He was, however, more faithful to his second wife, Françoise d'Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon. The marriage between Louis XIV and Madame de Maintenon, which occurred in late 1685, was kept a secret. Madame de Maintenon, once a Protestant, had converted to Catholicism. It is believed that she vigorously promoted the persecution of the Protestants, and that she urged Louis XIV to revoke the Edict of Nantes (1598), which granted a degree of religious freedom to the Huguenots (the members of the Protestant Reformed Church). Louis himself supported such a plan; he believed that, in order to achieve absolute power, he had to first achieve a religiously unified nation—that is to say, a Catholic one. He had already begun the persecution of the Huguenots by excluding them from public office and by quartering soldiers in their homes.

Louis continued his attempt to achieve a religiously united France by issuing an Edict in March 1685. The Edict was in effect in the French colonies, from which all Jews were expelled. The public practice of any religion except Catholicism was prohibited. The Code Noir also granted sanction to slavery, but no person could own a slave in the French colonies unless a member of the Roman Catholic Church, and each slave had to be baptized by a Catholic priest.

In October 1685, Louis increased the persecution of the Huguenots by issuing the Edict of Fontainebleau, revoking the Edict of Nantes. Any Protestant minister who refused to convert to Roman Catholicism was banished from the realm. Protestant schools and institutions were banned. Children born into Protestant families were to be forcibly baptised by Roman Catholic priests, and Protestant places of worship were demolished. The Edict precluded individuals from publicly practising or exercising the religion, but not from merely believing in it. The Edict provided "liberty is granted to the said persons of the Pretended Reformed Religion [Protestantism] … on condition of not engaging in the exercise of the said religion, or of meeting under pretext of prayers or religious services." Although the Edict formally denied Huguenots permission to leave France, 200,000 of them left in any event, taking with them all their skills in commerce and trade. The Edict was economically damaging, and was publicly condemned by Sébastien Le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban, one of Louis XIV's most influential ministers.

Louis may have acted against the Huguenots to foster a mutual hatred between Catholics and Protestants in Europe, thereby hoping to discourage any alliances between nations of varying faiths. If this was indeed the aim, the plan failed utterly. In 1686, both Catholic and Protestant rulers joined the League of Augsburg, which was designed to check Louis's ambitions. The coalition included the Holy Roman Emperor and several of the German states that were part of the Empire—most notably the Palatinate, Bavaria, and Brandenburg. The United Provinces, Spain, and Sweden also joined the League.

Louis sent his troops to the Palatinate in 1688. Ostensibly, the army was to support the claims of Louis's sister-in-law, Charlotte Elizabeth, Duchesse d'Orléans, to the Crown of the Palatinate. (The Duchesse d'Orléans' nephew had died in 1685, and the Crown had been inherited not by her, but by the junior Neuburg branch of the family.) The real aim of the invasion, however, was to apply diplomatic pressure and force the Palatinate to leave the League of Augsburg.

Louis's activities united the German princes behind the Holy Roman Emperor. Louis had expected that England, under the Catholic James II, would remain neutral. In 1689, however, James II was deposed and replaced by his daughter, Mary II, who ruled jointly with her husband, William III. As William had developed an enmity with Louis XIV during the Dutch War, England joined the League of Augsburg, which then became known as the Grand Alliance.

The early campaigns of the War of the Grand Alliance were generally favorable to France. The forces of the Holy Roman Emperor were ineffective, as many Imperial troops were busy fighting the Ottoman Empire. Louis XIV aided James II in his attempt to retake the English Crown, but was unsuccessful; James lost his last stronghold, Ireland, in 1690. England could then devote more of its funds and troops to the war on the continent. An Anglo-Dutch naval fleet decimated Louis XIV's navy at La Hougue in 1692. The war continued for five more years, but ended with the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. Louis XIV surrendered Luxembourg and all other territories he had seized since the end of the Dutch War in 1679, but was allowed to retain Strasbourg. Louis also undertook to recognise William III and Mary II as Sovereigns of England, and assured them that he would no longer assist James II.

Spanish Succession

The great matter of succession to the Spanish Throne dominated Europe following the Peace of Ryswick. The Spanish King Charles II was an invalid and unable to produce an heir. The Spanish inheritance was a much-sought prize—Charles II was the ruler of Naples, Sicily, Milan, the Low Countries and a vast colonial empire. In all, twenty-two different kingdoms were united under Charles II.

Both France and the Holy Roman Empire vied for the Spanish Crown. Both Louis XIV and the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I were closely related to the Spanish Royal Family; their mothers were both daughters of Philip III, and their wives were both daughters of Philip IV. In each case, however, the French queen was the elder daughter.

Many European powers feared that if either France or the Holy Roman Empire came to control Spain, the balance of power in Europe would be threatened. The English King William III proposed another candidate, the Bavarian Prince Joseph Ferdinand. Under the First Partition Treaty, it was agreed that the Bavarian prince would inherit Spain, with the territories in Italy and the Low Countries being divided between France and the Empire. Spain, however, had not been consulted, and vehemently resisted the dismemberment of its territories. The Spanish royal court insisted on maintaining the glory of the Spanish Empire. When the Treaty became known to Charles II in 1698, he settled on Joseph Ferdinand as his heir, assigning to him the entire Spanish inheritance.

The entire issue was reopened when smallpox claimed the Bavarian prince six months later. The Spanish royal court was intent on keeping the great Spanish Empire united, and acknowledged that such a goal could be accomplished only by selecting a member of either the French Bourbon Dynasty or the Imperial Habsburg Dynasty. Charles II chose the Habsburgs, settling on the Emperor Leopold's younger son, the Archduke Charles. Ignoring the decision of the Spanish, Louis XIV and William III signed a second treaty, allowing the Archduke Charles to take Spain, the Low Countries and the Spanish colonies, whilst Louis XIV's son, Louis de France, Dauphin de Viennois would inherit the territories in Italy.

In 1700, as he lay dying, Charles II unexpectedly interfered in the affair. He sought to prevent Spain from uniting with either France or the Holy Roman Empire. The whole of the Spanish territory was to go to the Dauphin's younger son, Philip, Duc d'Anjou. If the Duc d'Anjou were to inherit the French Crown, then the Spanish Crown would go to the Dauphin's next son, Charles, Duc de Berry, and thereafter to the Archduke Charles.

Louis XIV was thus faced with a difficult choice: he could have agreed to a partition and to peace in Europe, or he could have accepted the whole Spanish inheritance but alienated the other European nations. Louis assured William III that he would fulfill the terms of their previous treaty and partition the Spanish dominions. Later on, however, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Marquis de Torcy (nephew of Jean-Baptiste Colbert) advised Louis XIV that even if France accepted a portion of the Spanish inheritance, a war with the Holy Roman Empire would ensue. Louis agreed that if a war would occur in any event, it would be more profitable to accept the whole of the Spanish inheritance. Consequently, when Charles II died on November 1, 1700, Philip, Duc d'Anjou became Philip V, King of Spain.

Louis XIV's opponents reluctantly accepted Philip V as King of Spain. Louis, however, acted too aggressively. In 1701, he cut off English imports to France. Moreover, Louis ceased to acknowledge William III as King of England, instead supporting the claim of James II's son and heir, James Francis Edward Stuart (the "Old Pretender"). England consequently entered into an alliance with the United Provinces, the Holy Roman Empire and most German states. Louis XIV and Philip V were aided by Bavaria, Portugal and Savoy.

The subsequent War of Succession continued for most of the remainder of Louis XIV's reign. At first, France was somewhat successful, but the Battle of Blenheim forced France into a defensive posture. Bavaria ceased to be involved in the war, and Portugal and Savoy joined the opposite side. The endeavour was costly for Louis XIV; by 1709, he had lost almost all of the power France had amassed during his reign. Whilst it was clear that France could not conquer the entire Spanish inheritance, it was also clear that its opponents could not overthrow Philip V in Spain.

Louis XIV and Philip V made peace with Great Britain and the United Provinces in 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht. Peace with the Holy Roman Empire was achieved with the Treaty of Baden in 1714. As a result, Philip V was recognised as King of Spain and would control Spanish colonies in the Americas. Spain's territory in the Low Countries and Italy were to go to the Empire. Louis, furthermore, agreed to end his support for the Old Pretender's claims to the Throne in Great Britain.


Louis XIV died on September 1, 1715 of gangrene, a few days before his seventy-seventh birth anniversary. His body lies in the Saint Denis Basilica in Paris.

Almost all of Louis XIV's legitimate children died during childhood. The only one to survive was the eldest son, Louis, Dauphin de Viennois. "The Grand Dauphin" died in 1711, leaving three children. The eldest of those, Louis, duc de Bourgogne, died in 1712. Thus, Louis XIV was succeeded by his five-year-old great-grandson, who was the son of the duc de Bourgogne, and who reigned as Louis XV.

Louis XIV sought to restrict the power of his nephew, Philip II, Duc d'Orléans, who by law would become Regent. He instead preferred to transfer power to his illegitimate son by Madame de Montespan, Louis-Auguste de Bourbon, Duc du Maine. Louis XIV's will provided that the Duc du Maine would be the guardian of Louis XV and Commander of the Royal Guards. The Duc d'Orléans, however, ensured that Louis's will was annulled in court. The Duc du Maine was stripped of the title prince du sang (Prince of the Blood) and of the command of the Royal Guards, and imprisoned, whilst the Duc d'Orléans ruled as sole Regent.


Louis XIV put France in a dominant position in Europe. Even with several great alliances opposing him, he could continue to increase French territory. For his vigorous promotion of French national greatness, Louis XIV became known as the "Sun King." Voltaire compared him to Caesar Augustus and called his reign an "eternally memorable age." The Duc de Saint-Simon offered the following assessment: "There was nothing he liked so much as flattery, or, to put it more plainly, adulation; the coarser and clumsier it was, the more he relished it … His vanity, which was perpetually nourished–for even preachers used to praise him to his face from the pulpit–was the cause of the aggrandisement of his Ministers."

At the same time, however, Louis's efforts did not bring prosperity to the common people of France. His numerous wars and extravagant palaces bankrupted the nation, forcing him to levy high taxes on the peasants. As the nobility and clergy were exempt from these taxes, they came to be resented by the peasantry. The peasantry also opposed the royal absolutism established by Louis. The French Revolution resulted from such sentiments in 1789.

Louis's dream of putting a member of the Bourbon Dynasty on the Throne of Spain was achieved. The House of Bourbon retained the Crown of Spain for the remainder of the eighteenth century, but were overthrown and restored several times after 1808. The present Spanish monarch, Juan Carlos I, is a member of the same dynasty.

In 1682, the explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle named the basin of the Mississippi River in North America "Louisiane" in honour of Louis XIV. Both the Louisiana Territory and the State of Louisiana in the United States were formed from Louisiane.

Louis XIV features in the d'Artagnan Romances by Alexandre Dumas. The plot of the last of the three Romances, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, involves a fictional twin brother of Louis XIV who tries to displace the King. In The Man in the Iron Mask, a 1929 movie based on The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louis and his twin are portrayed by William Blakewell. Louis Hayward played the twins in a 1939 remake, and Leonardo DiCaprio did the same in a 1998 remake.

Louis XIV had a long-lasting impact on childbirth, instigating years of belief that women should give birth lying on a table with her legs in stirrups. This came about after he commanded that a viewing table should be constructed so that he could have a better view of the birth of one of his mistress's children. When word got around of the kings decision it was quickly copied and seen as the preferred position for many years.

Style and arms

Louis XIV was formally styled, "Louis XIV, par la grâce de Dieu roi de France et de Navarre," or "Louis XIV, by the Grace of God King of France and Navarre." He bore the arms Azure three fleurs-de-lis Or (for France) impaling Gules on a chain in cross saltire and orle Or an emerald Proper (for Navarre).

Legitimate issue

Name Birth Death Notes
Marie-Anne de France, Fille de France November 16, 1664 December 26, 1664  
Marie-Therese de France, Fille de France January 2, 1667 March 1, 1672  
Philippe-Charles de France, Fils de France, Duc d'Anjou August 5, 1668 July 10, 1671  
Louis-François de France, Fils de France, Duc d'Anjou June 14, 1672 November 4, 1672  

See also


Preceded by:
Louis XIII
King of France
Succeeded by:
Louis XV
King of Navarre

  Results from FactBites:
Royalty.nu - French Royal History - Louis XIV, King of France (3090 words)
Louis XIV and the Parlements: The Assertion of Royal Authority by John Jeter Hurt.
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Louis XIV and the Origins of the Dutch War by Paul Sonnino.
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