Louis XIV : The French Monarchy – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers

Alfred the Great : The Saxons in England
Queen Elizabeth : Woman as a Sovereign
Henry of Navarre : The Huguenots
Gustavus Adolphus : Thirty Years’ War
Cardinal Richelieu : Absolutism
Oliver Cromwell : English Revolution
Louis XIV : The French Monarchy
Louis XV : Remote Causes of Revolution
Peter the Great : His Services to Russia
Frederic the Great : The Prussian Power

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers
John Lord

Topics Covered
Illustrious men on the accession of Louis XIV.
State of France
Ambition of Louis XIV.
His love of military glory
His character
His inherited greatness
His alliance with the Church
His unbounded power
His great ministers
Aims of Colbert
His great services
His great executive abilities
The first war of Louis XIV.
Conquest of Flanders
Its iniquity
Invasion of Holland
Easy victories
Rise of William of Nassau
Prevents the conquest of Holland
Peace of Nimeguen
Louis in the zenith of power
His aggrandizement
His palaces
His court
His mistresses
His friendship with Madame de Maintenon
Elevation of Maintenon
Religious persecution
Revocation of the Edict of Nantes
Coalition against Louis XIV.
Unfortunate wars
His death
Effects of his reign in France

Louis XIV : The French Monarchy

A.D. 1638-1715.

The verdict of this age in reference to Louis XIV. is very different from that which his own age pronounced. Two hundred years ago his countrymen called him Le Grand Monarque, and his glory filled the world. Since Charlemagne, no monarch had been the object of such unbounded panegyric as he, until Napoleon appeared. He lived in an atmosphere of perpetual incense, and reigned in dazzling magnificence.

Although he is not now regarded in the same light as he was in the seventeenth century, and originated no great movement that civilization values,–in fact was anything but a permanent benefactor to his country or mankind,–yet Louis XIV. is still one of the Beacon Lights of history, for warning if not for guidance. His reign was an epoch; it was not only one of the longest in human annals, but also one of the most brilliant, imposing, and interesting. Whatever opinion may exist as to his inherent intellectual greatness, no candid historian denies the power of his will, the force of his character, and the immense influence he exerted. He was illustrious, if he was not great; he was powerful, if he made fatal mistakes; he was feared and envied by all nations, even when he stood alone; and it took all Europe combined to strip him of the conquests which his generals made, and to preserve the “balance of power” which he had disturbed. With all Europe in arms against him, he, an old and broken-hearted man, contrived to preserve, by his fortitude and will, the territories he had inherited; and he died peacefully upon his bed, at the age of seventy-six, still the most absolute king that ever reigned in France. A man so strong, so fortunate until his latter years; so magnificent in his court, which he made the most brilliant of modern times; so lauded by the great geniuses who surrounded his throne, all of whom looked up to him as a central sun of power and glory,–is not to be flippantly judged, or ruthlessly hurled from that proud pinnacle on which he was seated, amid the acclamations of two generations. His successes dazzled the world; his misfortunes excited its pity, except among those who were sufferers by his needless wars or his cruel persecutions. His virtues and his defects both stand out in bold relief, and will make him a character to meditate upon as long as history shall be written.

The reign of Louis XIV. would be remarkable for the great men who shed lustre on his throne, if he had himself been contemptible. Voltaire doubted if any age ever saw such an illustrious group, and he compares it with the age of Pericles in Greece, with that of Augustus in Rome, and that of the Medici in Italy,–four great epochs in intellectual excellence, which have never been surpassed in brilliancy and variety of talent. No such generals had arisen since the palmy days of Roman grandeur as Condé, Turenne, Luxembourg, Vauban, Berwick, and Villars, if we except Gustavus Adolphus, and those generals with whom the marshals of Louis contended, such as William III., Marlborough, and Eugene. No monarch was ever served by abler ministers than Colbert and Louvois; the former developing the industries and resources of a great country, and the latter organizing its forces for all the exigencies of vast military campaigns. What galaxy of poets more brilliant than that which shed glory on the throne of this great king!–men like Corneille, Boileau, Fontanelle, La Fontaine, Racine, and Molière; no one of them a Dante or a Shakspeare, but all together shining as a constellation. What great jurists and lawyers were Le Tellier and D’Aguesseau and Molé! What great prelates and preachers were Bossuet, Fénelon, Bourdaloue, Massillon, Fléchier, Saurin,–unrivalled for eloquence in any age! What original and profound thinkers were Pascal, Descartes, Helvetius, Malebranche, Nicole, and Quesnel! Until the seventeenth century, what more respectable historians had arisen than Dupin, Tillemont, Mabillon, and Fleury; or critics and scholars than Bayle, Arnauld, De Sacy, and Calmet! La Rochefoucauld uttered maxims which were learned by heart by giddy courtiers. Great painters and sculptors, such as Le Brun, Poussin, Claude Lorrain, and Girardon, ornamented the palaces which Mansard erected; while Le Nôtre laid out the gardens of those palaces which are still a wonder.

It must be borne in mind that Louis XIV. had an intuitive perception of genius and talent, which he was proud to reward and anxious to appropriate. Although his own education had been neglected, he had a severe taste and a disgust of all vulgarity, so that his manners were decorous and dignified in the midst of demoralizing pleasures. Proud, both from adulation and native disposition, he yet was polite and affable. He never passed a woman without lifting his hat, and he uniformly rose when a lady entered into his presence. But, with all his politeness, he never unbent, even in the society of his most intimate friends, so jealous was he of his dignity and power. Unscrupulous in his public transactions, and immoral in his private relations with women, he had a great respect for the ordinances of religion, and was punctilious in the outward observances of the Catholic Church. The age itself was religious; and so was he, in a technical and pharisaical piety and petty ritualistic duties. He was a bigot and a persecutor, which fact endeared him to the Jesuits, by whom, in matters of conscience, he was ruled, so that he became their tool even while he thought he controlled everything. He was as jealous of his power as he was of his dignity, and he learned to govern himself as well as his subjects. He would himself submit to the most rigid formalities in order to exact a rigorous discipline and secure unconditional obedience from others. No one ever dared openly to thwart his will or oppose his wishes, although he could be led through his passions and his vanity: he was imperious in his commands, and exacting in the services he demanded from all who surrounded his person. He had perfect health, a strong physique, great aptitude for business, and great regularity in his habits. It was difficult to deceive him, for he understood human nature, and thus was able to select men of merit and talent for all high offices in State and Church.

In one sense Louis XIV. seems to have been even patriotic, since he identified his own glory with that of the nation, having learned something from Richelieu, whose policy he followed. Hence he was supported by the people, if he was not loved, because he was ambitious of making France the most powerful nation in Christendom. The love of glory ever has been one of the characteristics of the French nation, and this passion the king impersonated, which made him dear to the nation, as Napoleon was before he became intoxicated by power; and hence Louis had the power of rallying his subjects in great misfortunes. They forgave extravagance in palace-building, from admiration of magnificence. They were proud of a despot who called out the praises of the world. They saw in his parks, his gardens, his marble halls, his tapestries, his pictures, and his statues a glory which belonged to France as well as to him. They marched joyfully in his armies, whatever their sacrifices, for he was only leading them to glory,–an empty illusion, yet one of those words which has ruled the world, since it is an expression of that vanity which has its roots in the deepest recesses of the soul. Glory is the highest aspiration of egotism, and Louis was an incarnation of egotism, like Napoleon after him. They both represented the master passions of the people to whom they appealed. “Never,” says St. Simon, “has any one governed with a better grace, or, by the manner of bestowing, more enhanced the value of his favors. Never has any one sold at so high a price his words, nay his very smiles and glances.” And then, “so imposing and majestic was his air that those who addressed him must first accustom themselves to his appearance, not to be overawed. No one ever knew better, how to maintain a certain manner which made him appear great.” Yet it is said that his stature was small. No one knew better than he how to impress upon his courtiers the idea that kings are of a different blood from other men. He even knew how to invest vice and immorality with an air of elegance, and was capable of generous sentiments and actions. He on one occasion sold a gold service of plate for four hundred thousand francs, to purchase bread for starving troops. If haughty, exacting, punctilious, he was not cold. Even his rigid etiquette and dignified reserve were the dictates of statecraft, as well as of natural inclination. He seemed to feel that he was playing a great part, with the eyes of the world upon him; so that he was an actor as Napoleon was, but a more consistent one, because in his egotism he never forgot himself, not even among his mistresses. As grand monarque, the arbiter of all fortunes, the central sun of all glory, was he always figuring before the eyes of men. He never relaxed his habits of ceremony and ostentation, nor his vigilance as an administrator, nor his iron will, nor his thirst for power; so that he ruled as he wished until he died, in spite of the reverses of his sad old age, and without losing the respect of his subjects, oppressed as they were with taxes and humiliated by national disasters.

Such were some of the traits which made Louis XIV. a great sovereign, if not a great man. He was not only supported by the people who were dazzled by his magnificence, and by the great men who adorned his court, but he was aided by fortunate circumstances and great national ideas. He was heir of the powers of Richelieu and the treasures of Mazarin. Those two cardinals, who claimed equal rank with independent princes, higher than that of the old nobility, pursued essentially the same policy, although this policy was the fruit of Richelieu’s genius; and this policy was the concentration of all authority in the hands of the king. Louis XIII. was the feeblest of the Bourbons, but he made his throne the first in Europe. Richelieu was a great benefactor to the cause of law, order, and industry, despotic as was his policy and hateful his character. When he died, worn out by his herculean labors, the nobles tried to regain the privileges and powers they had lost, and a miserable warfare called the “Fronde” was the result, carried on without genius or system. But the Fronde produced some heroes who were destined to be famous in the great wars of Louis XIV. Mazarin, with less ability than Richelieu, and more selfish, conquered in the end, by following out the policy of his predecessor. He developed the resources of the kingdom, besides accumulating an enormous fortune for himself,–about two hundred millions of francs,–which, when he died, he bequeathed, not to the Church or his relatives, but to the young King, who thus became personally rich as well as strong. To have entered upon the magnificent inheritance which these two able cardinals bequeathed to the monarchy was most fortunate to Louis,–unrestricted power and enormous wealth.

But Louis was still more fortunate in reaping the benefits of the principle of royalty. We have in the United States but a feeble conception of the power of this principle in Europe in the seventeenth century; it was nursed by all the chivalric sentiments of the Middle Ages. The person of a king was sacred; he was regarded as divinely commissioned. The sacred oil poured on his head by the highest dignitary of the Church, at his coronation, imparted to him a sacred charm. All the influences of the Church, as well as those of Feudalism, set the king apart from all other men, as a consecrated monarch to rule the people. This loyalty to the throne had the sanction of the Jewish nation, and of all Oriental nations from the remotest ages. Hence the world has known no other form of government than that of kings and emperors, except in a few countries and for a brief period. Whatever the king decreed, had the force of irresistible law; no one dared to disobey a royal mandate but a rebel in actual hostilities. Resistance to royal authority was ruin. This royal power was based on and enforced by the ideas of ages. Who can resist universally accepted ideas?

Moreover, in France especially, there was a chivalric charm about the person of a king; he was not only sacred, of purer blood than other people, but the greatest nobles were proud to attend and wait upon his person. Devotion to the person of the prince became the highest duty. It was not political slavery, but a religious and sentimental allegiance. So sacred was this allegiance, that only the most detested tyrants were in personal danger of assassination, or those who were objects of religious fanaticism. A king could dismiss his most powerful minister, or his most triumphant general at the head of an army, by a stroke of the pen, or by a word, without expostulation or resistance. To disobey the king was tantamount to defiance of Almighty power. A great general rules by machinery rather than devotion to his person. But devotion to the king needed no support from armies or guards. A king in the seventeenth century was supposed to be the vicegerent of the Deity.

Another still more powerful influence gave stability to the throne of Louis: this was the Catholic Church. Louis was a devout Catholic in spite of his sins, and was true to the interests of the Pope. He was governed, so far as he was governed at all, by Jesuit confessors. He associated on the most intimate terms with the great prelates and churchmen of the day, like Bossuet, Fénelon, La Chaise, and Le Tellier. He was regular at church and admired good sermons; he was punctilious in all the outward observances of his religion. He detested all rebellion from the spiritual authority of the popes; he hated both heresy and schism. In his devotion to the Catholic Church he was as narrow and intolerant as a village priest. His sincerity in defence of the Church was never questioned, and hence all the influences of the Church were exerted to uphold his domination. He may have quarrelled with popes on political grounds, and humiliated them as temporal powers, but he stood by them in the exercise of their spiritual functions. In Louis’ reign the State and Church were firmly knit together. It was deemed necessary to be a good Catholic in order to be even a citizen,–so that religion became fashionable, provided it was after the pattern of that of the King and court. Even worldly courtiers entered with interest into the most subtile of theological controversies. But the King always took the side devoted to the Pope, and he hated Jansenism almost as much as he hated Protestantism. Hence the Catholic Church ever rallied to his support.

So, with all these powerful supports Louis began his long reign of seventy-six years,–which technically began when he was four years old, on the death of his father Louis XIII., in 1643, when the kingdom was governed by his mother, Anne of Austria, as regent, and by Cardinal Mazarin as prime minister. During the minority of the King the humiliation of the nobles continued. Protestantism was only tolerated, and the country distracted rather than impoverished by the civil war of the Fronde, with its intrigues and ever-shifting parties,–a giddy maze, which nobody now cares to unravel; a sort of dance of death, in which figured cardinals, princes, nobles, bishops, judges, and generals,–when “Bacchus, Momus, and Moloch” alternately usurped dominion. Those eighteen years of strife, folly, absurdity, and changing fortunes, when Mazarin was twice compelled to quit the kingdom he governed; when the queen-regent was forced also twice to fly from her capital; when Cardinal De Retz disgraced his exalted post as Archbishop of Paris by the vilest intrigues; when Condé and Conti obscured the lustre of their military laurels; when alternately the parliaments made war on the crown, and the seditious nobles ignobly yielded their functions merely to register royal decrees,–these contests, rivalries, cabals, and follies, ending however in the more solid foundations of absolute royal authority, are not to be here discussed, especially as nobody can thread that political labyrinth; and we begin, therefore, not with the technical reign of the great King, but with his actual government, which took place on the death of Mazarin, when he was twenty-two.

It is said that when that able ruler passed away so reluctantly from his pictures and his government, the ministers asked of the young King,–thus far only known for his pleasures,–to whom they should now bring their portfolios, “To me,” he replied; and from that moment he became the State, and his will the law of the land.

I have already alluded to the talents and capacities of Louis for governing, and the great aid he derived from the labors of Richelieu and the moral sentiments of his age respecting royalty and religion; so I will not dwell on personal defects or virtues, but proceed to show the way in which he executed the task devolved upon him,–in other words, present a brief history of his government, for which he was so well fitted by native talents, fortunate circumstances, and established ideas. I will only say, that never did a monarch enter upon his career with such ample and magnificent opportunities for being a benefactor of his people and of civilization. In his hands were placed all the powers of good and evil; and so far as government can make a nation great, Louis had the means and opportunities beyond those of any monarch in modern times. He had armies and generals and accumulated treasures; and all implicitly served him. His ministers and his generals were equally able and supple, and he was at peace with all the world. Parliaments, nobles, and Huguenots were alike submissive and reverential. He had inherited the experience of Sully, of Richelieu, and of Mazarin. His kingdom was protected by great natural boundaries,–the North Sea, the ocean, the Mediterranean, the Pyrenees, the Alps, and the mountains which overlook the Rhine. By nothing was he fettered but by the decrees of everlasting righteousness. To his praise be it said, he inaugurated his government by selecting Colbert as one of his prime ministers,–the ablest man of his kingdom. It was this honest and astute servant of royalty who ferreted out the peculations of Fouquet, whom Louis did not hesitate to disgrace and punish. The great powers of Fouquet were gradually bestowed on the merchant’s son of Rheims.

Colbert was a plebeian and a Protestant,–cold, severe, reserved, awkward, abrupt, and ostentatiously humble, but of inflexible integrity and unrivalled sagacity and forethought; more able as a financier and political economist than any man of his century. It was something for a young, proud, and pleasure-seeking monarch to see and reward the talents of such a man; and Colbert had the tact and wisdom to make his young master believe that all the measures which he pursued originated in the royal brain. His great merit as a minister consisted in developing the industrial resources of France and providing the King with money.

Colbert was the father of French commerce, and the creator of the French navy. He saw that Flanders was enriched by industry, and England and Holland made powerful by a navy, while Spain and Portugal languished and declined with all their mines of gold and silver. So he built ships of war, and made harbors for them, gave charters to East and West India Companies, planted colonies in India and America, decreed tariffs to protect infant manufactures, gave bounties to all kinds of artisans, encouraged manufacturing industry, and declared war on the whole brood of aristocratic peculators that absorbed the revenues of the kingdom. He established a better system of accounts, compelled all officers to reside at their posts, and reduced the percentage of the collection of the public money. In thirteen years he increased the navy from thirty ships to two hundred and seventy-three, one hundred of which were ships of the line. He prepared a new code of maritime law for the government of the navy, which called out universal admiration. He dug the canal of Languedoc, which united the Mediterranean with the Atlantic Ocean. He instituted the Academies of Sciences, of Inscriptions, of Belles Lettres, of Painting, of Sculpture, of Architecture; and founded the School of Oriental languages, the Observatory, and the School of Law. He gave pensions to Corneille, Racine, Molière, and other men of genius. He rewarded artists and invited scholars to France; he repaired roads, built bridges, and directed the attention of the middle classes to the accumulation of capital. “He recognized the connection of works of industry with the development of genius. He saw the influence of science in the production of riches; of taste on industry; and the fine arts on manual labor.” For all these enlightened measures the King had the credit and the glory; and it certainly redounds to his sagacity that he accepted such wise suggestions, although he mistook them for his own. So to the eyes of Europe Louis at once loomed up as an enlightened monarch; and it would be difficult to rob him of this glory. He indorsed the economical reforms of his great minister, and rewarded merit in all departments, which he was not slow to see. The world extolled this enlightened and fortunate young prince, and saw in him a second Solomon, both for wisdom and magnificence.

Another great genius ably assisted Louis as soon as he turned his attention to war,–the usual employment of ambitious kings,–and this was Le Tellier, Marquis of Louvois, the great war minister, who laid out the campaigns and directed the movements of such generals as Condé, Turenne, and Luxembourg. And here again it redounds to the sagacity of Louis that he should select a man for so great a post whom he never personally loved, and who in his gusts of passion would almost insult his master. Louvois is acknowledged to have been the ablest war minister that France ever had.

Louis reigned peaceably and prosperously for six years before the ambition of being a conqueror and a hero seized him. At twenty-eight he burned to play the part of Alexander. Thenceforth the history of his reign chiefly pertains to his gigantic wars,–some defensive, but mostly offensive, aggressive, and unprovoked.

In regard to these various wars, which plunged Europe in mourning and rage for nearly fifty years, Louis is generally censured by historians. They were wars of ambition, like those of Alexander and Frederic II., until Europe combined against him and compelled him to act on the defensive. The limits of this lecture necessarily prevent me from describing these wars; I can only allude to the most important of them, and then only to show results.

His first great war was simply outrageous, and was an insult to all Europe, and a violation of all international law. In 1667, with an immense army, he undertook the conquest of Flanders, with no better excuse than Frederic II. had for the invasion of Silesia,–because he wanted an increase of territory. Flanders had done nothing to warrant this outrage, was unprepared for war, and was a weak state, but rich and populous, with fine harbors, and flourishing manufactures. With nearly fifty thousand men, under Condé, Turenne, and Luxembourg, and other generals of note, aided by Louvois, who provided military stores of every kind, and all under the eye of the King himself, full of ideas of glory, the issue of the conflict was not doubtful. In fact, there was no serious defence. It was hopeless from the first. Louis had only to take possession of cities and fortresses which were at his mercy. The frontier towns were mostly without fortifications, so that it took only about two or three days to conquer any city. The campaign was more a court progress than a series of battles. It was a sort of holiday sport for courtiers, like a royal hunt. The conquest of all Flanders might have been the work of a single campaign, for no city offered a stubborn resistance; but the war was prolonged for another year, that Louis might more easily take possession of Franche-Comté,–a poor province, but fertile in soil, well peopled, one hundred and twenty miles in length and sixty in breadth. In less than three weeks this province was added to France. “Louis,” said the Spanish council in derision, “might have sent his valet de chambre to have taken possession of the country in his name, and saved himself the trouble of going in person.”

This successful raid seems to have contented the King for the time, since Holland made signs of resistance, and a league was forming against him, embracing England, Holland, and Sweden.

The courtiers and flatterers of Louis XIV. called this unheroic seizure “glory.” And it doubtless added to the dominion of France, inflamed the people with military ambition, and caused the pride of birth for the first time to yield to military talent and military rank. A marshal became a greater personage than a duke, although a marshal was generally taken from the higher nobility.

Louis paid no apparent penalty for this crime, any more than prosperous wickedness at first usually receives. “His eyes stood out with fatness.” To idolatrous courtiers “he had more than heart could wish.” But the penalty was to come: law cannot be violated with impunity.

The peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1668 followed, which made Louis the most prominent figure in Europe. He was then twenty-nine years of age, in the pride of strength, devoted equally to pleasure and ambition. It was then that he was the lover of the Duchesse de La Vallière, who was soon to be supplanted by the imperious Montespan. Louis remained at peace for four years, but all the while he was preparing for another war, aimed against Holland, which had offended him because resolved to resist him.

Vaster preparations were made for this war than that against Flanders, five years before. The storm broke out in 1672, when this little state saw itself invaded by one hundred and thirty thousand men, led by the King in person, accompanied by his principal marshals, his war-minister Louvois, and Vauban, to whom was intrusted the direction of siege operations,–an engineer who changed the system of fortifications. This was the most magnificent army that Europe had ever seen since the Crusades, and much was expected of it. Against Condé, Turenne, Luxembourg, and Vauban, all under the eye of the King, with a powerful train of artillery, and immense sums of money to bribe the commanders of garrisons, Holland had only to oppose twenty-five thousand soldiers, under a sickly young man of twenty-two, William, Prince of Orange.

Of course Holland was unable to resist such an overwhelming tide of enemies, such vast and disproportionate forces. City after city and fortress after fortress was compelled to surrender to the generals of the French King. “They were taken almost as soon as they were invested.” All the strongholds on the Rhine and Issel fell. The Prince of Orange could not even take the field. Louis crossed the Rhine without difficulty, when the waters were low, with only four or five hundred horsemen to dispute his passage. This famous passage was the subject of ridiculous panegyrics by both painters and poets. It was generally regarded as a prodigious feat, especially by the people of Paris, as if it were another passage of the Granicus.

Then rapidly fell Arnheim, Nimeguen, Utrecht, and other cities. The wealthy families of Amsterdam prepared to embark in their ships for the East Indies. Nothing remained to complete the conquest of Holland but the surrender of Amsterdam, which still held out. Holland was in despair, and sent ambassadors to the camp of Louis, headed by Grotius, to implore his mercy. He received them, after protracted delays, with blended insolence and arrogance, and demanded, as the conditions of his mercy, that the States should give up all their fortified cities, pay twenty millions of francs, and establish the Catholic religion,–conditions which would have reduced the Hollanders to absolute slavery, morally and politically. From an inspiration of blended patriotism and despair, the Dutch opened their dykes, overflowed the whole country in possession of the enemy, and thus made Amsterdam impregnable,–especially as they were still masters of the sea, and had just dispersed, in a brilliant naval battle under De Ruyter, the combined fleets of France and England.

It was this memorable resistance to vastly superior forces, and readiness to make any sacrifices, which gave immortal fame to William of Orange, and imperishable glory also to the little state over which he ruled. What a spectacle!–a feeble mercantile state, without powerful allies, bracing itself up to a life-and-death struggle with the mightiest potentate of Europe. I know no parallel to it in the history of modern times. Our fathers in the Revolutionary war could retreat to forests and mountains; but Holland had neither mountains nor forests. There was no escape from political ruin but by the inundation of fertile fields, the destruction to an unprecedented degree of private property, and the decimation of the male part of the population. Nor did the noble defenders dream of victory; they only hoped to make a temporary stand. William knew he would be beaten in every battle; his courage was moral rather than physical. He lost no ground by defeat, while Louis lost ground by victory, since it required a large part of his army to guard the prisoners and garrison the fortresses he had taken.

Some military writers say that Louis should have persevered until he had taken Amsterdam. As well might Napoleon have remained in Russia after the conflagration of Moscow. In May, Louis entered Holland; in July, all Europe was in confederacy against him, through the negotiations of the Prince of Orange. Louis hastened to quit the army when no more conquests could be made in a country overflowed with water, leaving Turenne and Luxembourg to finish the war in Franche-Comté. The able generals of the French king were obliged to evacuate Holland. That little state, by an act of supreme self-sacrifice, saved itself when all seemed lost. I do not read of any military mistakes on the part of the generals of Louis. They were baffled by an unforeseen inundation; and when they were compelled to evacuate the flooded country, the Dutch quietly closed their dykes and pumped the water out again into their canals by their windmills, and again restored fertility to their fields; and by the time Louis was prepared for fresh invasions, a combination existed against him so formidable that he found it politic to make peace. The campaigns of Turenne on the Rhine were indeed successful; but he was killed in an insignificant battle, from a chance cannonball, while the Prince of Condé retired forever from military service after the bloody battle of Senif. On the whole, the French were victorious in the terrible battles which followed the evacuation of Holland, and Louis dictated peace to Europe apparently in the midst of victories at Nimeguen, in 1678, after six years of brilliant fighting on both sides.

At the peace of Nimeguen Louis was in the zenith of his glory, as Napoleon was after the peace of Tilsit. He was justly regarded as the mightiest monarch of his age, the greatest king that France had ever seen. All Europe stood in awe of him; and with awe was blended admiration, for his resources were unimpaired, his generals had greatly distinguished themselves, and he had added important provinces to his kingdom, which was also enriched by the internal reforms of Colbert, and made additionally powerful by commerce and a great navy, which had gained brilliant victories over the Dutch and Spanish fleets. Duquesne showed himself to be almost as great a genius in naval warfare as De Ruyter, who was killed off Aosta in 1676. In those happy and prosperous days the Hotel de Ville conferred upon Louis the title of “Great,” which posterity never acknowledged. “Titles,” says Voltaire, “are never regarded by posterity. The simple name of a man who has performed noble actions impresses on us more respect than all the epithets that can be invented.”

After the peace of Nimeguen, in 1678, the King reigned in greater splendor than before. There were no limits to his arrogance and his extravagance. He was a modern Nebuchadnezzar. He claimed to be the state. L’état, c’est moi! was his proud exclamation. He would bear no contradiction and no opposition. The absorbing sentiment of his soul seems to have been that France belonged to him, that it had been given to him as an inheritance, to manage as he pleased for his private gratification. “Self-aggrandizement,” he wrote, “is the noblest occupation of kings.” Most writers affirm that personal aggrandizement became the law of his life, and that he now began to lose sight of the higher interests and happiness of his people, and to reign not for them but for himself. He became a man of resentments, of caprices, of undisguised selfishness; he became pompous and haughty and self-willed. We palliate his self-exaggeration and pride, on account of the disgraceful flatteries he received on every hand. Never was a man more extravagantly lauded, even by the learned. But had he been half as great as his courtiers made him think, he would not have been so intoxicated; Caesar or Charlemagne would not thus have lost his intellectual balance. The strongest argument to prove that he was not inherently great, but made apparently so by fortunate circumstances, is his self-deception.

In his arrogance and presumption, like Napoleon after the peace of Tilsit, he now sets aside the rights of other nations, heaps galling insults on independent potentates, and assumes the most arrogant tone in all his relations with his neighbors or subjects. He makes conquests in the midst of peace. He cites the princes of Europe before his councils. He deprives the Elector Palatine and the Elector of Treves of some of their most valuable seigniories. He begins to persecute the Protestants. He seizes Luxembourg and the principality which belonged to it. He humbles the republic of Genoa, and compels the Doge to come to Versailles to implore his clemency. He treats with haughty insolence the Pope himself, and sends an ambassador to his court on purpose to insult him. He even insists on giving an Elector to Cologne.

Louis XIV. and Mlle. de la Valliere After the painting by Antony Paul Emile Morlon

And the same inflated pride and vanity which led Louis to trample on the rights of other nations, led him into unbounded extravagance in palace-building. Versailles arose,–at a cost, some affirm, of a thousand millions of livres,–unrivalled for magnificence since the fall of the Caesars. In this vast palace did he live, more after the fashion of an Oriental than an Occidental monarch, having enriched and furnished it with the wonders of the world, surrounded with princes, marshals, nobles, judges, bishops, ambassadors, poets, artists, philosophers, and scholars, all of whom rendered to him perpetual incense. Never was such a grand court seen before on this earth: it was one of the great features of the seventeenth century. There was nothing censurable in collecting all the most distinguished and illustrious people of France around him: they must have formed a superb society, from which the proud monarch could learn much to his enlightenment. But he made them all obsequious courtiers, exacted from all an idolatrous homage, and subjected them to wearisome ceremonials. He took away their intellectual independence; he banished Racine because the poet presumed to write a political tract. He made it difficult to get access to his person; he degraded the highest nobles by menial offices, and insulted the nation by the exaltation of abandoned women, who squandered the revenues of the state in their pleasures and follies, so that this grand court, alike gay and servile, intellectual and demoralized, became the scene of perpetual revels, scandals, and intrigues.

It was at this period that Louis abandoned himself to those adulterous pleasures which have ever disgraced the Bourbons. Yet scarcely a single woman by whom he was for a while enslaved retained her influence, but a succession of mistresses arose, blazed, triumphed, and fell. Mancini, the niece of Mazarin, was forsaken without the decency of the slightest word of consolation. La Vallière, the only woman who probably ever loved him with sincerity and devotion, had but a brief reign, and was doomed to lead a dreary life of thirty-six years in penitence and neglect in a Carmelite convent. Madame de Montespan retained her ascendency longer for she had talents as well as physical beauty; she was the most prodigal and imperious of all the women that ever triumphed over the weakness of man. She reigned when Louis was in all the pride of manhood and at the summit of his greatness and fame,–accompanying him in his military expeditions, presiding at his fetes, receiving the incense of nobles, the channel of court favor, the dispenser of honors but not of offices; for amid all the slaveries to which women subjected the proudest man on earth by the force of physical charms, he never gave to them his sceptre. It was not till Madame de Maintenon supplanted this beautiful and brilliant woman in the affections of the King, and until he was a victim of superstitious fears, and had met with great reverses, that state secrets were intrusted to a female friend,–for Madame de Maintenon was never a mistress in the sense that Montespan was.

During this brilliant period of ten years from the peace of Nimeguen, in 1678, to the great uprising of the nations to humble him, in 1688, Versailles and other palaces were completed, works of art adorned the capital, and immortal works of genius made his reign illustrious.

While Colbert lived, I do not read of any extraordinary blunder on the part of the Government. Perhaps palace-building may be considered a mistake, since it diverted the revenues of the kingdom into monuments of royal vanity. But the sums lavished on architects, gardeners, painters, sculptors, and those who worked under them, employed thousands of useful artisans, created taste, and helped to civilize the people. The people profited by the extravagance of the King and his courtiers; the money was spent in France, which was certainly better than if it had been expended in foreign wars; it made Paris and Versailles the most attractive cities of the world; it stimulated all the arts, and did not demoralize the nation. Would this country be poorer, and the government less stable, if five hundred millions were expended at Washington to make it the most beautiful city of the land, and create an honest pride even among the representatives of the West, perhaps diverting them from building another capital on the banks of the Mississippi? Would this country be richer if great capitalists locked up their money in State securities, instead of spending their superfluous wealth in reclaiming sterile tracts and converting them into gardens and parks? The very magnificence of Louis impressed such a people as the French with the idea of his power, and tended to make the government secure, until subsequent wars imposed such excessive taxation as to impoverish the people and drain the sources of national wealth. We do not read that Colbert made serious remonstrances to the palace-building of the King, although afterwards Louis regarded it as one of the errors of his reign.

But when Colbert died, in 1685, another spirit seemed to animate the councils of the King, and great mistakes were made,–which is the more noteworthy, since the moral character of the King seemed to improve. It was at this time that he fell under the influence of Madame de Maintenon and the Jesuits. They made his court more decorous. Montespan was sent away. Bossuet and La Chaise gained great ascendency over the royal conscience. Louis began to realize his responsibilities; the love of glory waned; the welfare of the people was now considered. Whether he was ennuied with pleasure, or saw things in a different light, or felt the influence of the narrow-minded but accomplished and virtuous woman whom he made his wife, or was disturbed by the storm which was gathering in the political horizon, he became more thoughtful and grave, though not less tyrannical.

Yet it was then that he made the most fatal mistake of his life, the evil consequences of which pursued him to his death. He revoked the Edict of Nantes, which Henry IV. had granted, and which had secured religious toleration. This he did from a perverted conscience, wishing to secure the unanimity and triumph of the Catholic faith; to this he was incited by the best woman with whom he was ever brought in intimate relations; in this he was encouraged by all the religious bigots of his kingdom. He committed a monstrous crime that good might come,–not foreseeing the ultimate consequences, and showing anything but an enlarged statesmanship. This stupid folly alienated his best subjects, and sowed the seeds of revolution in the next reign, and tended to undermine the throne. Richelieu never would have consented to such an insane measure; for this cruel act not only destroyed veneration at home, but created detestation among all enlightened foreigners.

It is a hackneyed saying, that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” But it would seem that the persecution of the Protestants was an exception to this truth,–and a persecution all the more needless and revolting since the Protestants were not in rebellion against the government, as in the tune of Charles IX. This diabolical persecution, justified however by some of the greatest men in France, had its intended results. The bigots who incited that crime had studied well the principles of successful warfare. As early as 1666 the King was urged to suppress the Protestant religion, and long before the Edict of Nantes was revoked the Protestants had been subjected to humiliation and annoyance. If they held places at court, they were required to sell them; if they were advocates, they were forbidden to plead; if they were physicians, they were prevented from visiting patients. They were gradually excluded from appointments in the army and navy; little remained to them except commerce and manufactures. Protestants could not hold Catholics as servants; soldiers were unjustly quartered upon them; their taxes were multiplied, their petitions were unread. But in 1685 dragonnades subjected them to still greater cruelties; who tore up their linen for camp beds, and emptied their mattresses for litters. The poor, unoffending Protestants filled the prisons, and dyed the scaffolds with their blood. They were prohibited under the severest penalties from the exercise of their religion; their ministers were exiled, their children were baptized in the Catholic faith, their property was confiscated, and all attempts to flee the country were punished by the galleys. Two millions of people were disfranchised; two hundred thousand perished by the executioners, or in prisons, or in the galleys. All who could fly escaped to other countries; and those who escaped were among the most useful citizens, carrying their arts with them to enrich countries at war with France. Some two hundred thousand contrived to fly,–thus weakening the kingdom, and filling Europe with their execrations. Never did a crime have so little justification, and never was a crime followed with severer retribution. Yet Le Tellier, the chancellor, at the age of eighty, thanked God that he was permitted the exalted privilege of affixing the seal of his office to the act before he died. Madame de Maintenon declared that it would cover Louis with glory. Madame de Sévigné said that no royal ordinance had ever been more magnificent. Hardly a protest came from any person of influence in the land, not even from Fénelon. The great Bossuet, at the funeral of Le Tellier, thus broke out: “Let us publish this miracle of our day, and pour out our hearts in praise of the piety of Louis,–this new Constantine, this new Theodosius, this new Charlemagne, through whose hands heresy is no more.” The Pope, though at this time hostile to Louis, celebrated a Te Deum.

Among those who fled the kingdom to other lands were nine thousand sailors and twelve thousand soldiers, headed by Marshal Schomberg and Admiral Duquesne,–the best general and the best naval officer that France then had. Other distinguished people transferred their services to foreign courts. The learned Claude, who fled to Holland, gave to the world an eloquent picture of the persecution. Jurieu, by his burning pamphlets, excited the insurrection of Cévennes. Basnage and Rapin, the historians, Saurin the great preacher, Papin the eminent scientist, and other eminent men, all exiles, weakened the supports of Louis. France was impoverished in every way by this “great miracle” of the reign; “so that,” says Martin, “the new temple that Louis had pretended to erect to unity fell to ruin as it rose from the ground, and left only an open chasm in place of its foundations…. The nothingness of absolute government by one alone was revealed under the very reign of the great King.”

The rebound of the revocation overthrew all the barriers within which Louis had intrenched himself. All the smothered fires of hatred and of vengeance were kindled anew in Holland and in every Protestant country. William of Orange headed the confederation of hostile states that dreaded the ascendency and detested the policy of Louis XIV. All Europe was resolved on the humiliation of a man it both feared and hated. The great war which began in 1688, when William of Orange became King of England on the flight of James II., was not sought by Louis. This war cannot be laid to his military ambition; he provoked it indeed, indirectly, by his arrogance and religious persecutions, but on his part it was as truly defensive as were the wars of Napoleon after the invasion of Russia. Whatever is truly heroic in the character of Louis was seen after he was forty-eight. Whatever claims to greatness he may have had are only to be sustained by the memorable resistance he made to united Europe in arms against him, when his great ministers and his best generals had died, Turenne died in 1675, Colbert in 1683, Condé in 1686, Le Tellier in 1687, and Louvois in 1691. Then it was that his great reverses began, and his glory paled before the sun of the King of England, These reverses may have been the result of incapacity, and they may have been the result of the combined forces which outnumbered or overmatched his own; certain it is that in the terrible contest to which he was now doomed, he showed great force of character and great fortitude, which command our respect.

I cannot enter on that long war which began with the League of Augsburg in 1686, and continued to the peace of Ryswick in 1697,–nine years of desperate fighting, when successes and defeats were nearly balanced, and when the resources of all the contending parties were nearly exhausted. France, at the close of the war, was despoiled of all her conquests and all the additions to her territory made since the Peace of Nimeguen, except Strasburg and Alsace. For the first time since the accession of Richelieu to power, France lost ground.

The interval between this war and that of the Spanish succession–an interval of three years–was only marked by the ascendency of Madame de Maintenon, and a renewed persecution, directed not against Protestants, but against those Catholics who cultivated the highest and freest religious life, and in which Bossuet appears to a great disadvantage by the side of his rival, the equally illustrious Fénelon. It was also marked by the gradual disappearance of the great lights in literature. La Fontaine died in 1695, Racine in 1699. Boileau was as good as dead; Mesdames de la Sablière and de la Fayette, Pellisson and Bussy-Rabutin, La Bruyère and Madame Sévigné, all died about this time. The only great men at the close of the century in France who made their genius felt were Bossuet, who encouraged the narrow intolerance which aimed to suppress the Jansenists and Quietists, and Fénelon, who protected them although he did not join them,–the “Eagle of Meaux” and the “Swan of Cambray,” as they were called, offering in the realm of art “the eternal duality of strength and grace,” like Michael Angelo and Raphael; the one inspiring the fear and the other the love of God, yet both seeing in the Christian religion the highest hopes of the world. The internal history of this period centres around those pious mystics of whom Madame Guyon was the representative, and those inquiring intellectual Jansenists who had defied the Jesuits, but were finally crushed by an intolerant government. The lamentable dispute between Bossuet and Fénelon also then occurred, which led to the disgrace of the latter,–as banishment to his diocese was regarded. But in his exile his moral influence was increased rather than diminished; while the publication of his “Télémaque,” made without his consent from a copy that had been abstracted from him, won him France and Europe, though it rendered Louis XIV. forever irreconcilable. Bossuet did not long survive the banishment of his rival, and died in 1704, a month before Bourdaloue, and two years before Bayle. France intellectually, under the despotic intolerance of the King, was going through an eclipse or hastening to a dissolution, while the material state of the country showed signs of approaching bankruptcy. The people were exhausted by war and taxes, and all the internal improvements which Colbert had stimulated were neglected. “The fisheries of Normandy were ruined, and the pasture lands of Alsace were taken from the peasantry. Picardy lost a twelfth part of its population; many large cities were almost abandoned. In Normandy, out of seven hundred thousand people, there were but fifty thousand who did not sleep on straw. The linen manufactures of Brittany were destroyed by the heavy duties; Touraine lost one-fourth of her population; the silk trade of Tours was ruined; the population of Troyes fell from sixty thousand to twenty thousand; Lyons lost twenty thousand souls since the beginning of the war.”

In spite of these calamities the blinded King prepared for another exhausting war, in order to put his grandson on the throne of Spain. This last and most ruinous of all his wars might have been averted if he only could have cast away his ambition and his pride. Humbled and crippled, he yet could not part with the prize which fell to his family by the death of Carlos II. of Spain. But Europe was determined that the Bourbons should not be further aggrandized.

King Louis XIV of France, painting by Hyacinthe Rigaud

King Louis XIV of France, painting by Hyacinthe Rigaud

Thus in 1701 war broke out with even intensified animosities, and lasted twelve years; directed on the one part by Marlborough, Eugene, and Heinsius, and on the other part by Villars, Vendôme, and Catinat, during which the finances of France were ruined and the people reduced to frightful misery. It was then that Louis melted up the medallions of his former victories, to provide food for his starving soldiers. He offered immense concessions, which the allies against him rejected. He was obliged to continue the contest with exhausted resources and a saddened soul. He offered Marlborough four millions to use his influence to procure a peace; but this general, venal as he was, preferred ambition to money. The despair which once overwhelmed Holland now overtook France. The French marshals encountered a greater general than William III., whose greatness was in the heroism of his soul and his diplomatic talents, rather than in his genius on the battlefield. But Marlborough, who led the allies, never lost a battle, nor besieged a fortress he did not take. His master-stroke was to transfer his operations from Flanders to the Danube. At Blenheim was fought one of the decisive battles of the world, in which the Teutonic nations were marshalled against the French. The battle of Ramillies completed the deliverance of Flanders; and Louis, completely humiliated, agreed to give up ten Flemish provinces to the Dutch, and to surrender to the Emperor of Germany all that France had gained since the peace of Westphalia in 1648. He also agreed to acknowledge Anne, as Queen of Great Britain, and to banish the Pretender from his dominions; England was to retain Gibraltar, and Spain to cede to the Emperor of Germany her possessions in Italy and the Netherlands. But France, with all her disasters, was not ruined; the treaty of Utrecht, 1713, left Louis nearly all his inherited possessions, except in America.

Louis was now seventy-four,–an old man whose delusions were dispelled, and to whom successive misfortunes had brought grief and shame. He was deprived by death of his son and grandson, who gave promise of rare virtues and abilities; only a feeble infant–his great-grandson–was the heir of the monarchy. All his vast enterprises had failed. He suffered, to all appearance, a righteous retribution for his early passion for military glory. “He had invaded the rights of Holland; and Holland gave him no rest until, with the aid of the surrounding monarchies, France was driven to the verge of ruin. He had destroyed the cities of the Palatinate; and the Rhine provinces became a wall of fire against his armies. He had conspired against liberty in England; and it was from England that he experienced the most fatal opposition.” His wars, from which he had expected glory, ended at last in the curtailment of his original possessions. His palaces, which had excited the admiration of Europe, became the monuments of extravagance and folly. His persecutions, by which he hoped to secure religious unity, sowed the seeds of discontent, anarchy, and revolution. He left his kingdom politically weaker than it was when he took it; he entailed nothing but disasters to his heirs. His very grants and pensions were subversive of intellectual dignity and independence. At the close of the seventeenth century the great lights had disappeared; he survived his fame, his generals, his family, and his friends; the infirmities of age oppressed his body, and the agonies of religious fears disturbed his soul. We see no greatness but in his magnificence; we strip him of all claims to genius, and even to enlightened statesmanship, and feel that his undoubted skill in holding the reins of government must be ascribed to the weakness and degradation of his subjects, rather than to his own strength. But the verdicts of the last and present generation of historians, educated with hatred of irresponsible power, may be again reversed, and Louis XIV. may loom up in another age, if not as the grand monarque whom his contemporaries worshipped, yet as a man of great natural abilities who made fatal mistakes, and who, like Napoleon after him, alternately elevated and depressed the nation over which he was called to reign,–not like Napoleon, as a usurper and a fraud, but as an honest, though proud and ambitious, sovereign, who was supposed to rule by divine right, of whom the nations of Europe were jealous, who lived in fear and hatred of his power, and who finally conspired, not to rob him of his throne and confine him to a rock, but to take from him the provinces he had seized and the glory in which he shone.


Voltaire’s Age of Louis XIV.; Henri Martin’s History of France; Miss Pardoe’s History of the Court of Louis XIV.; Letters of Madame de Maintenon; Mémoires de Greville; Saint Simon; P. Clément; Le Gouvernement de Louis XIV.; Mémoires de Choisy; Oeuvres de Louis XIV.; Limièrs’s Histoire de Louis XIV.; Quincy’s Histoire Militaire de Louis XIV.; Lives of Colbert, Turenne, Vauban, Condé, and Louvois; Macaulay’s History of England; Lives of Fénelon and Bossuet; Mémoires de Foucault; Mémoires du Due de Bourgogne; Histoire de l’Edit de Nantes; Laire’s Histoire de Louis XIV.; Mémoires de Madame de la Fayette; Mémoires de St. Hilaire; Mémoires du Maréchal de Berwick; Mémoires de Vilette; Lettres de Madame de Sévigné; Mémoires de Mademoiselle de Montpensier; Mémoires de Catinat; Life, by James.

Louis XV : Remote Causes of Revolution

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers