The Sun King

This account by the Duc (Duke) de Saint-Simon on the life of Louis XIV. of France is quite interesting and in some parts also pretty amusing:

His natural talents were below mediocrity; but he had a mind capable of improvement, of receiving polish, of assimilating what was best in the minds of others without slavish imitation; and he profited greatly throughout his life from having associated with the ablest and wittiest persons, of both sexes, and of various stations.

Glory was his passion, but he also liked order and regularity in all things; he was naturally prudent, moderate, and reserved; always master of his tongue and his emotions. Will it be believed? he was also naturally kind-hearted and just. God had given him all that was necessary for him to be a good King, perhaps also to be a fairly great one. All his faults were produced by his surroundings. In his childhood he was so much neglected that no one dared go near his rooms.

His mind was occupied with small things rather than with great, and he delighted in all sorts of petty details, such as the dress and drill of his soldiers; and it was just the same with regard to his building operations, his household, and even his cookery. He always thought he could teach something of their own craft even to the most skilful professional men; and they, for their part, used to listen gratefully to lessons which they had long ago learnt by heart.

But for the fear of the devil, which, by God’s grace, never forsook him even in his wildest excesses, he would have caused himself to be worshipped as a deity. He would not have lacked worshippers….

He availed himself of the frequent festivities at Versailles, and his excursions to other places, as a means of making the courtiers assiduous in their attendance and anxious to please him; for he nominated beforehand those who were to take part in them, and could thus gratify some and inflict a snub on others.

Not only did he expect all persons of distinction to be in continual attendance at Court, but he was quick to notice the absence of those of inferior degree; at his lever, his coucher, his meals, in the gardens of Versailles (the only place where the courtiers in general were allowed to follow him), he used to cast his eyes to right and left; nothing escaped him, he saw everybody. If any one habitually living at Court absented himself he insisted on knowing the reason; those who came there only for flying visits had also to give a satisfactory explanation; any one who seldom or never appeared there was certain to incur his displeasure. If asked to bestow a favour on such persons he would reply haughtily: “I do not know him”; of such as rarely presented themselves he would say, “He is a man I never see”; and from these judgements there was no appeal.

He loved splendour, magnificence, and profusion in all things, and encouraged similar tastes in his Court; to spend money freely on equipages and buildings, on feasting and at cards, was a sure way to gain his favour, perhaps to obtain the honour of a word from him. Motives of policy had something to do with this; by making expensive habits the fashion, and, for people in a certain position, a necessity, he compelled his courtiers to live beyond their income, and gradually reduced them to depend on his bounty for the means of subsistence.

Here are “The Entire Memoirs Louis XIV., His Court and The Regency” by the Duc de Saint-Simon; the account above is an excerpt from it.

Now, as capricious and deluded as Louis XIV. may have been, it still needs to be remembered that he also was a very shrewd ruler. Taking the whole court with him to Versailles was not just a whim, it also separated the aristocrats off from their local power-bases, which put them at his mercy and made the French kingdom effectively a centralized state, a stark contrast to the “Holy Roman Empire of German Nation” where the aristocracy dominated their nominal liege.

As mentioned in the Duc’s account, Louis had devised a system of real and symbolic favors to reward the obedient. The most well-known of these were the “levee” and “couchee”, morning and evening audiences where favored courtiers helped the king to dress and, respectively, undress following a complex ritual. Thus forced to jump through hoops, the aristocracy was much too busy to plot against Louis. This web site describes “A Day with the Sun King”, obviously not much fun.

Here are some links for background-information (too many of them to bring them all into a particular order):

The Catholic Encyclopedia calls Saint-Simon’s “Memoirs” “one of the most original monuments of French literature”, but claims that he should be “read with great precaution” when it comes to religious subject-matter because he allegedly was very hostile towards the Jesuits and contributed towards the creation of legends and historical falsehoods.

Here is a travel web site with links to pretty good accounts on Versailles, Louis XIV and his two successors, among other things.

This pdf calls Louis XIV “a courtier king, caught up in a theatre of power”.

Two portraits of the king.

Jean Baptiste Colbert, the chief minister of Louis XIV., developed the most comprehensive form of Mercantilism, a doctrine that basically dictated the encouragement of exports and the discouragement of imports, in order to amass as much specie (Gold and Silver) as possible, on the assumption that this would enhance the country’s power (quite contrary to the Spanish experience that too much gold [in this case gained by the conquest of South-America] means inflation and eventually poverty). “Colbertism” as this is also called still influences French economic thinking today, which helps to explain the hostility towards globalization; up against this kind of orthodoxy, Bastiat never had a chance to gain a real audience for his ideas. To be fair, protectionists everywhere are basing their doctrines on mercantilism, and they outnumber free traders elsewhere in Europe and even the United States; Pat Buchanan is just the tip of the iceberg.

To see Colbertism in action, here’s a “Letter to the Town Officers and People of Marseilles”.

Here is Louis’ family-tree: The Bourbons.

Moliere was a contemporary of Louis XIV. and the “greatest comic dramatist of all times and considered worthy to stand with Sophocles and Shakespeare” as this web site claims; I wouldn’t go that far but he was pretty damn good.

Here is a pretty comprehensive French Royal History. If anyone is interested, here is a overview of European Royalty and here a page with global Royal News (gossip anyone?).

This seems to be the complete text of Ten Years Later, the sequel to The Three Musketeers, which has among others Louis XIV and Cardinal Mazarin as characters.

Mazarin wasn’t just a cardinal but also a statesman who was de facto in charge of France until his death, just as his predecessor Richelieu had been. It was Richelieu who gave the French monarchy the means to become as powerful as it eventually was.

This is another novel by Dumas, The Man in the Iron Mask, also featuring Louis XIV and the Musketeers.

For completeness’s sake here is a web site with some links on Dumas and his works.

Here is an overview of the Age of Absolutism (strangly enough they call Colbertism a positive factor) and here one with a bit more depth. “Louis XIV and the Building of Absolutism” is also pretty interesting.

Here is Louis XIV’s Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. He made it thereby illegal to be Protestant (and also to emigrate while Protestant), which has puzzled many historians.

The very influential architect and military engineer Vauban was a contemporary of Louis XIV, who also was a patron of architecture. Here’s a website on French art and architecture and here some photos of Versailles and statues of Louis and here also some more of Versailles and environs. French architecture also had a strong influence on other countries, the Netherlands, for example.

Some baroque links.

Here is an account of The Execution of Louis XVI in 1793. At that time he was no longer king but simply called Citoyen (citizen) Capet. This wasn’t correct, strictly speaking, since the Capetian Dynasty had long since been replaced by the Valois Dynasty. Here is a complete list of French monarchs.

Here’s a review of a biography of Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France (the one who said “Let them eat cake”). The reviewer says that Marie’s husband didn’t know that he had to ejaculate to get his wife pregnant; Louis XV obviously never had “The Talk” with Louis XVI.

This is a web site with some more links on Marie Antoinette.

1 thought on “The Sun King”

  1. “It was only with the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713) that Louis, and France, were truly checked.”

    Ha! He didn’t know he had to face the Duke of Marlborough.

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