J.B. Colbert
   Iron Mask
 Discuss. Group


The day after Cardinal Mazarin's death, Louis XIV, at the age of twenty three, expressed his determination to be a real king and the sole ruler of France:

"Up to this moment I have been pleased to entrust the government of my affairs to the late Cardinal. It is now time that I govern them myself. You [secretaries and ministers of state] will assist me with your counsels when I ask for them. I request and order you to seal no orders except by my command, . . . I order you not to sign anything, not even a passport . . . without my command; to render account to me personally each day and to favor no one."

His mother, who was well aware of Louis's proclivity for fun and games and getting into the beds of the maids in the royal palace, laughed aloud at these words. But Louis was quite serious.

Louis proved willing to pay the price of being a strong ruler . He established a conscientious routine from which he seldom deviated, but he did not look upon his duties as drudgery since he judged his royal profession to be "grand, noble, and delightful." Eager for glory, Louis created a grand and majestic spectacle at the court of Versailles (see Daily Life at the Court of Versailles later in the chapter). Consequently, Louis and his court came to set the standard for monarchies and aristocracies all over Europe. Less than fifty years after his death, the great French writer Voltaire used the title "Age of Louis XIV" to describe his history of Europe from 1661 to 1715. Historians have tended to use it ever since....

Although Louis may have believed in the theory of absolute monarchy and consciously fostered the myth of himself as the Sun King, the source of light for all of his people, historians are quick to point out that the realities fell far short of the aspirations. Despite the centralizing efforts of Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, France still possessed a bewildering system of overlapping authorities in the seventeenth century. Provinces had their own regional parlements, their own local Estates, their own sets of laws. Members of the high nobility with their huge estates and clients among the lesser nobility still exercised much authority. Both towns and provinces possessed privileges and powers seemingly from time immemorial that they would not easily relinquish. Much of Louis's success rested less on the modernization of administrative machinery, as is frequently claimed, than on his clever and adroit manipulation of the traditional priorities and values of French society....

Instead of the high nobility and royal princes, Louis relied for his ministers on nobles who came from relatively new aristocratic families. Such were Michel Le Tellier, secretary of state for war; Hugues de Lionne, secretary for foreign affairs; and Nicholas Fouquet, superintendent of finances. His ministers were expected to be subservient; said Louis, "I had no intention of sharing my authority with them." When Fouquet began to flaunt the enormous wealth and power he had amassed in the King's service, Louis ordered his arrest and imprisoned.

The maintenance of religious harmony had long been considered an area of monarchical power. The desire to keep it led Louis into conflict with the French Huguenots and the papacy. Louis XIV did not want to allow Protestants to practice their faith in largely Catholic France. Perhaps he was motivated by religion, but it is more likely that Louis, who believed in the motto, "one king, one law, one faith," felt that the existence of this minority undermined his own political authority. His anti-Protestant policy, aimed at converting the Huguenots to Catholicism, began mildly by offering rewards, but escalated by 1681 to a policy of forced conversions. The most favored method was to quarter French soldiers in Huguenot communities and homes with the freedom to misbehave so that their hosts would "see the light quickly." This approach did produce thousands of immediate conversions. In October 1685, Louis issued the Edict of Fontainebleau.

In addition to revoking the Edict of Nantes, the new edict provided for the destruction of Huguenot churches and the closing of their schools. Al though they were forbidden to leave France, it is estimated that 200,000 Huguenots left for shelter in En gland, the United Provinces, and the German states. Through their exodus, France lost people who had commercial and industrial skills, although some modern scholars have argued this had only a minor impact on the French economy. Perhaps a more important effect of the Huguenot dispersal was the increased hatred of France that the Huguenot emigres stirred up in their adopted Protestant countries. Whatever his motives, Louis's anti-Protestant policy was not aimed at currying papal favor. Louis was a de fender of Gallicanism, the belief that the monarchy possessed certain rights over the Catholic church in France, irrespective of papal powers. In the 1670s, Louis claimed the regale or the right of the French king to appoint the lower clergy and collect the revenues of a diocese when it was vacant. Pope Innocent Xl condemned Louis's actions, threatening him with reprisals. Louis responded by calling a special assembly of French clergy and direct ing them to draw up a Declaration of Gallican Liberties. This document claimed that the pope's authority in France was limited to spiritual matters and that even in spiritual matters, the pope was subject to the decisions of a general council. The pope protested this challenge to papal authority and the possibility of a schism loomed large. But neither side wanted to go that far. After Innocent's death, a compromise was arranged, and by 1693 the Gallican articles had been retracted.

from Jackson J. Spielvogel. Western Civilization (St. Paul, 1991) pp. 523-528


© Elena Steingrad     2000 -

the image of Louis XIV in the menu is taken from PC-Game "Versailles II" created by Cryo Interactive Entertainment. See the description of that game under "Software" for more information.