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Louis Xiv of France

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Essay title: Louis Xiv of France

Louis XIV of France

Louis XIV, France's Sun King, had the longest reign in European history (1643-1715). During this time he brought absolute monarchy to its height, established a glittering court at Versailles, and fought most of the other European countries in four wars. The early part of his reign (1643-61), while Louis was young, was dominated by the chief minister Cardinal Mazarin. In the middle period (1661-85) Louis reigned personally and innovatively, but the last years of his personal rule (1685-1715) were beset by problems.


Born on Sept. 5, 1638, Louis was the first, regarded as "god-given," child of the long-married Louis XIII and his Habsburg wife, Anne of Austria. He succeeded his father on the throne at the age of four. However, he was also a neglected child, cared for by servants. Once he almost drowned in a pond because no one was watching him. However, his mother, Anne of Austria who caused the neglect, instilled in him a lasting fear of "crimes committed against God". While his mother was regent the great nobles and the judges of the parlement of Paris launched a major but uncoordinated revolt (the Fronde of 1648-53) in reaction to the centralizing policies of Louis XIII's minister Cardinal Richelieu and his successor, Mazarin. The royal family was twice driven out of Paris, and at one point Louis XIV and Anne were held under virtual arrest in the royal palace in Paris. This civil war brought Louis XIV poverty, misfortune, fear, humiliation, cold and hunger. This shaped his character and he would never forgive either Paris, the nobles, or the common people. Cardinal Mazarin was victorious in 1653 and constructed an extraordinary administration for the kingdom.

Mazarin finally suppressed the Fronde and restored internal order. The Peace of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years' War, together with the Peace of the Pyrenees (1659), which concluded prolonged warfare with Spain, made France the leading European power. The latter treaty was sealed by Louis XIV's marriage (1660) to Marie Therese (1638-83), the daughter of Philip IV of Spain.

Personal Administration

On Mazarin's death in 1661, Louis astounded his court by becoming his own chief minister, thereby ending the long "reign of the cardinal-ministers." A sensational 3-year trial (1661-64) of the powerful and corrupt finance minister Nicolas Fouquet sent the would-be chief minister to prison for life. The king thereafter controlled his own government until his death, acting through his high state council (conseil d'en haut) and a few select ministers, whom he called or dismissed at will. The most famous and powerful of the ministers were Jean Baptiste Colbert in internal affairs and the marquis de Louvois in military matters.

Breaking with tradition, Louis excluded from his council members of his immediate family, great princes, and others of the old military nobility (noblesse d'epee); his reliance on the newer judicial nobility (noblesse de robe) led the duc de Saint-Simon to call this, mistakenly, "the reign of the lowborn bourgeoisie." Local government was increasingly placed under removable intendants.

Period of Glory

The early personal reign of Louis was highly successful in both internal and foreign affairs. At home the parlements lost their traditional power to obstruct legislation; the judicial structure was reformed by the codes of civil procedure (1667) and criminal procedure (1669), although the overlapping and confusing laws were left untouched. Urban law enforcement was improved by creation (1667) of the office of lieutenant general of police for Paris, later imitated in other towns. Under Colbert commerce, industry, and overseas colonies were developed by state subsidies, tight control over standards of quality, and high protective tariffs. As controller general of finances, Colbert sharply reduced the annual treasury deficit by economies and more equitable, efficient taxation, although tax exemptions for the nobility, clergy, and some members of the bourgeoisie continued.

Colbert and the king shared the idea of glorifying the monarch and monarchy through the arts. Louis was a discriminating patron of the great literary and artistic figures of France's classical age, including Jean Baptiste Moliere, Charles Le Brun, Louis Le Vau, Jules Mansart, and Jean Baptiste Lully. His state established or developed in rapid succession academies for painting and sculpture (1663), inscriptions (1663), French artists at Rome (1666), and science (1666), followed by the Paris Observatory (1667) and the academies of architecture (1671) and music (1672). The literary Academie Francaise also came under formal royal control in 1671.

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