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French 1 Project: Versailles and Louis XIV

Louis XIV has most certainly been one of the most influential figures in

history. He has been the inspiration for a Beatles song, “Sun King”, and even a

fittingly egoistical band named Louis XIV. There is even a successful French musical

directed by Emmanuel Moiré called “Le Roi Soleil,” (translating to “The Sun King”)

which is about his life. His name at baptism (he was Catholic) was “Louis-

Dieudonné”, meaning “Louis G-d-given.” He was born on September 5th 1638, and

died on September 1st 1715. He ruled France from March 9th 1663 until he died at

the aforementioned date in 1715, making his 72 years the longest rule any

European monarch has ever had to date. He was also of the Bourbon royal family,

ad reestablished the Bourbon dynasty on the French throne by becoming king after

Cardinal Mazarin’s death, who was Italian and the previous ruler of France.

Absolutism was Louis XIV’s method of government. He was an absolute

monarch, meaning that he believed in a theory known as “The Divine Right Theory

of Monarchy.” The Divine Right Theory stated that a monarch’s power is established

by the will of G-d, and that he was G-d’s vehicle for rule on Earth. By being an

absolute ruler, he was the most powerful person in the country. Everyone was under

him in terms of power. He even gave himself the famous nickname “The Sun King,”

as all power radiates from him the same way that rays radiate from the sun. He had

a few ways of establishing himself in such a high position of power, all of them

regarding weakening the power of the Nobility. There were two powerful parties in

France: The Monarchy and the Nobility, the Monarchy being the king and the

Nobility being a collection of influential and/or royal families. By lessening the power

of the Nobility, the balance of power between the Monarchy and the Nobility tipped

in favor of the Monarchy, and therefore Louis XIV became stronger.

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French 1 Project: Versailles and Louis XIV

There were several ways in which Louis XIV weakened the nobility. One was

by simply doing without them. He would present matters to the nobility as

infrequently as possible to make them increasingly irrelevant. Instead of relying in

the nobility, he relied on his ministers, or nobles that came from relatively new royal

families that he knew would be loyal to him. Not only did this help with increasing

Louis XIV’s own power, but it also helped unify France. France was no longer a

country with different states and provinces in which the Nobility had power. By

increasing his own power over these states, France became more centralized under

Louis XIV thus ending the feudalistic environment in which France has been in for

hundreds of years.

On the theme of ministers that were employed under Louis XIV – Jean-

Baptiste Colbert was easily one of the most important. Colbert was the economic

minister for Louis XIV, and his big idea was Mercantilism. Mercantilism is a trade

regulating economic policy in which all trade is maximized for the benefit of the

state. This meant that Colbert’s ultimate goal was to make France self-sufficient in

terms of trade, so that no imports to France were necessary and France only

exported goods. Colbert’s endeavors were partially successful; the high tariffs he

put on imports encouraged Frenchmen to create more goods, and the low tariffs on

exports encouraged foreign countries to buy French goods. To also promote this

mercantilist agenda, Colbert established a strong Merchant Marine.

To make up for Louis XIV’s warmongering policies, Colbert established high

taxes on the peasants, which clearly did not make them very happy (not that Louis

or Colbert cared about that). The taxes would be especially high, though, to make

up for the taxes that the Nobility did not have to pay. Louis XIV didn’t impose any

taxes on the Nobility in order to keep them happy so that they wouldn’t rebel much

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French 1 Project: Versailles and Louis XIV

against his ever-increasing power. Colbert was also heavily supportive on making

Canada part of the French Empire. Making Canada a French colony or subsidiary

state would improve trade conditions by inviting new trading goods in addition to

promoting mercantilist policy. However, Colbert’s policies were not overall totally

successful. While industrialization did indeed make major improvements, the

agricultural economy suffered due to the heavy taxation on the peasants who

cultivated the lands. That time period also brought poor harvests.

Louis XIV was notorious for instigating a series of wars which were all part of

his attempt to take over Europe. They failed, yet had many consequences for the

landscape of Europe. One significant consequence was breaking France out of the

“Habsburg Entanglement.” France was surrounded by countries which were all rules

by the Habsburg family, and France was therefore alienated to some extent by

them. Louis XIV sought to change the rulers of the surrounding countries, or take

them over himself in order to break free of that.

Of the 54 years that Louis XIV had personal rule over France, for 33 of them

he kept France at war. Louis XIV’s war policies were also rather novel. Unlike the

previous armies of France which were small armies controlled by different noble

families, Louis XIV outlawed these private armies and instead formed one big army

controlled by the state. Since Louis ruled the state, it meant that he personally

would control the army.

Some significant wars that reflected Louis XIV’s wildly expansionist policies

include the Franco-Dutch War, where Louis tried to gain control over the Dutch

provinces. The League of Augsburg War, which was against England and Amsterdam

who had lent a lot of money to England. The War of Spanish Succession, possibly

the most important war in which Louis XIV tried to make his grandson the King of

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French 1 Project: Versailles and Louis XIV

Spain, which would allow him to afterwards unite the countries of France and Spain

to one big hegemony. The consequences of The War of Spanish Succession would

end Louis XIV’s aspirations to become a major superpower. The Dutch, English,

Austrians and Prussians allowed Louis’ grandson to become the King of Spain. But

France and Spain would not be allowed to merge into one country, and the

aforementioned alliance of countries would primarily control Spain. The ending of

France’s expansionist policy left France on the brink of bankruptcy, and much of the

government’s money would be spend paying back debt. This debt would last for

decades, and eventually become one of the major reasons for the French

Revolution.

Louis XIV’s reign of power wasn’t all war and economics, though. The arts

flourished under his rule. Aside from spending money on wars, Louis XIV was known

to be very ostentatious and sponsored many artists. French Classicism was a form

of art that developed under Louis XIV’s rule. Features of Classicism art included

clarity, logic, and order. There was also the idea of being less abstract with paintings

and more refined in terms of color. Nicolas Poussin was the most prominent of

painters who used the Classicism style, and was eventually appointed to the

position of First Painter to the King.

Classicism also included copying the styles found in Renaissance Paintings.

But painting wasn’t the only part in the Classicism movement under Louis XIV. Louis

also promoted composers such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, Francois Couperin, and Marc-

Antoine Charpentier.

During Louis XIV’s rule, he obviously felt threatened by the Nobility that he

resented so much. The peasants, too, abhorred him since he taxed them so much.

As his initial palace was located in Paris, he was surrounded by the nobility and

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French 1 Project: Versailles and Louis XIV

peasants and so was very susceptible to attack if anyone wished it. Thus, Louis

decided to move. He built Château de Versaille, or “The Palace of Versailles” in

Versailles, which is a suburb of Paris. There, he would not be far from the hub of

French activity, but he would still be safe. Château de Versaille was a lavish project,

and is the inspiration for architects to this day. Every other European country sought

to imitate it with a building of its own. While the actual palace had already existed

for some number of years, from 1668 to 1682 it was heavily refurbished to become

a very grand building indeed.

The ostentatious characteristics of the buildings were so to impress the

French people and foreign countries; to show that France was an amazing country,

and could accomplish anything if they put their mind to it. Since the palace became

the official center of the French government in 1682, it was successful in distancing

the monarchy from the Nobility. Furthermore, many foreign ministers would always

come to visit Versailles, thus making it a cornerstone in the becoming of French to

be the officially recognized international language as well as making it incredibly

significant in the spreading of French culture.

And so, the legacy of Louis XIV remains significant even today. From his

spreading of French culture, to art, to the architectural masterpiece that is Château

de Versaille, to a horrible Punk Rock band, to a terrific Beatles song. He nearly

significantly changed the landscape of France, and for awhile showed all the

European countries what the consequences could be if one country became too

powerful (at least until the 1800s, where Napoleon would start taking over).