Louis XIV (5 September 1638 – 1 September 1715), known as the Sun King (French: le Roi Soleil), was King of France and of Navarre. His reign, from 1643 to his death in 1715, began at the age of four and lasted seventy-two years, three months, and eighteen days, and is the longest documented reign of any European monarch.
Louis began personally governing France in 1661 after the death of his prime minister, the Italian Cardinal Mazarin. An adherent of the theory of the divine right of kings, which advocates the divine origin and lack of temporal restraint of monarchical rule, Louis continued his predecessors' work of creating a centralized state governed from the capital. He sought to eliminate the remnants of feudalism persisting in parts of France and, by compelling the noble elite to inhabit his lavish Palace of Versailles, succeeded in pacifying the aristocracy, many members of which had participated in the Fronde rebellion during Louis' minority.
For much of Louis's reign, France stood as the leading European power, engaging in three major wars—the Franco-Dutch War, the War of the League of Augsburg, and the War of the Spanish Succession—and two minor conflicts—the War of Devolution and the War of the Reunions. He encouraged and benefited from the work of prominent political, military and cultural figures such as Mazarin, Colbert, Turenne and Vauban, as well as Molière, Racine, Boileau, La Fontaine, Lully, Le Brun, Rigaud, Le Vau, Mansart, Perrault and Le Nôtre.
Upon his death just days before his seventy-seventh birthday, Louis was succeeded by his five-year-old great-grandson who became Louis XV. All his intermediate heirs—his son Louis, le Grand Dauphin; the Dauphin's eldest son Louis, duc de Bourgogne; and Bourgogne's eldest son Louis, duc de Bretagne—predeceased Louis.
Louis XIV was born on 5 September 1638 in the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye to Louis XIII and Anne of Austria. His birth came after twenty-three years of his estranged parents' childlessness, leading contemporaries to regard him as a divine gift, and his birth, a miracle of god. Thus, he was named "Louis-Dieudonné" (Louis-God-given); also he bore the traditional title of French heirs apparent—Dauphin.
Tracing Louis's ancestry to the tenth generation, genealogist C. Carretier calculated his ancestry to be approximately 28% French, 26% Spanish, 11% Austro-German and 10% Portuguese, the rest being Italian, Slavic, English, Savoyard and Lorrainer.
Recognising that his death was imminent, Louis XIII prepared for his son's impending minority rule. He decreed that a regency council should rule on Louis's behalf for the duration of the minority. Contrary to custom, he did not make Anne the sole regent despite her having given birth to Louis and his brother, because he doubted her political abilities. He did however make her the head of the Council.
On 14 May 1643, with Louis XIII dead, Anne had her husband's will annulled by the Parlement de Paris (a judicial body comprising mostly nobles and high clergymen), abolished the regency council and became the sole regent. She then entrusted power to Cardinal Mazarin.
Subsequently, in 1648, Mazarin successfully negotiated the Peace of Westphalia. Although war continued between France and Spain until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years' War in Germany. Its terms ensured Dutch independence from Spain, awarded some autonomy to the various German princes, and granted Sweden seats on the Reichstag and territories to control the mouths of the Oder, Elbe and Weser. However, it profited France the most. Austria ceded to France all Habsburg lands and claims in Alsace and acknowledged French de facto sovereignty over the Three Bishoprics. Moreover, eager to emancipate themselves from Habsburg domination, petty German states sought French protection. This anticipated the formation of the 1658 League of the Rhine, leading to the further diminution of Imperial power.
As the Thirty Years' War petered out, a civil war—the Fronde—erupted. It effectively checked France's ability to exploit the Peace of Westphalia. Mazarin had largely pursued the policies of his predecessor, Cardinal Richelieu, augmenting the Crown's power at the expense of the nobility and the Parlements. The Frondeurs, political heirs of the turbulent feudal aristocracy, sought to protect their traditional feudal privileges from an increasingly centralized and centralizing royal government. Furthermore, they believed their traditional influence and authority was being usurped by the recently ennobled (the Noblesse de Robe) who administered the Kingdom and on whom the Monarchy increasingly began to rely. This belief intensified their resentment.
In 1648, Mazarin attempted to tax members of the Parlement de Paris. The members not only refused to comply, but also ordered all his earlier financial edicts burned. Buoyed by the victory of Louis, duc d’Enghien (later le Grand Condé) at Lens, Mazarin arrested certain members in a show of force. Ironically, Paris erupted in rioting. A mob of angry Parisians broke into the royal palace and demanded to see their king. Led into the royal bedchamber, they gazed upon Louis, who was feigning sleep, were appeased and quietly departed. The threat to the royal family and Monarchy prompted Anne to flee Paris with the King and his courtiers. Shortly thereafter, the conclusion of the Peace of Westphalia allowed Condé's army to return to aid Louis and his court.
As this first Fronde (Fronde parlementaire, 1648–1649) ended, a second (Fronde des princes, 1650–1653) began. Unlike that which preceded it, tales of sordid intrigue and half-hearted warfare characterised this second phase of upper-class insurrection. This rebellion represented to the aristocracy a protest against and a reversal of their political demotion from vassals to courtiers. It was headed by the highest-ranking French nobles, from Louis's uncle, Gaston, duc d'Orléans, and first cousin, la Grande Mademoiselle; to more distantly related Princes of the Blood, like Condé, his brother, Conti, and their sister the duchesse de Longueville; to dukes of legitimised royal descent, like Henri, duc de Longueville, and François, duc de Beaufort; and to princes étrangers, such as Frédéric Maurice, duc de Bouillon, and his brother, the famous Marshal of France, Turenne, as well as the duchesse de Chevreuse; and scions of France's oldest families, like François, duc de La Rochefoucauld.
The Frondeurs claimed to act on Louis's behalf and in his real interest against his mother and Mazarin. However, Louis's coming-of-age and subsequent coronation deprived them of their pretext for revolt. Thus, the Fronde gradually lost steam and ended in 1653, when Mazarin returned triumphant after having fled into exile on several occasions.
On Mazarin's death in 1661, Louis assumed personal control of the reins of government. He was able to utilize the widespread public yearning for peace, law and order, resulting from prolonged foreign war and domestic civil strife, to further consolidate central political authority and reforms at the feudal aristocracy's expense. Praising his ability to wisely choose and encourage men of talent, Chateaubriand noted that "it is the voice of genius of all kinds which sounds from the tomb of Louis".
Louis commenced his personal reign with administrative and fiscal reforms. In 1661, the treasury verged on bankruptcy. To rectify the situation, Louis chose Jean-Baptiste Colbert as Contrôleur général des Finances in 1665. However, Louis first had to eliminate Nicolas Fouquet, the Surintendant des Finances. Fouquet was charged with embezzlement. The Parlement found him guilty and sentenced him to exile. However, Louis commuted the sentence to life-imprisonment and also abolished Fouquet's post. Although Fouquet's financial indiscretions were not really very different from Mazarin before or Colbert after him, his ambition was worrying to Louis. He had, for example, built an opulent château at Vaux-le-Vicomte where he lavishly entertained a comparatively poorer Louis. He appeared eager to succeed Mazarin and Richelieu in assuming power, and indiscreetly purchased and privately fortified Belle Île. These acts sealed his doom.
Divested of Fouquet, Colbert reduced the national debt through more efficient taxation. The principal taxes included the aides and douanes (both customs duties), the gabelle (a tax on salt), and the taille (a tax on land). Louis and Colbert also had wide-ranging plans to bolster French commerce and trade. Colbert's mercantilist administration established new industries and encouraged manufacturers and inventors, such as the Lyon silk manufacturers and the Manufacture des Gobelins, a producer of tapestries. He also invited to France manufacturers and artisans from all over Europe, like Murano glassmakers, Swedish ironworkers, and Dutch shipbuilders. In this way, he aimed to decrease foreign imports while increasing French exports, hence reducing the net outflow of precious metals from France.
Louis also instituted reforms in military administration through Le Tellier and his son Louvois. They helped to curb the independent spirit of the nobility, imposing order on them at court and in the army. Gone were the days when generals protracted war at the frontiers, while bickering over precedence and ignoring orders from the capital and the larger politico-diplomatic picture. The old military aristocracy (the Noblesse d'épée) also ceased to have a monopoly over senior military positions and rank. Louvois, in particular, pledged himself to modernizing the army, re-organizing it into a professional, disciplined and well-trained force. He was devoted to providing for the soldiers' material well-being and morale, and even tried to direct campaigns.
The law also did not escape Louis's attention, as is reflected in the numerous Grandes Ordonnances he enacted. Pre-revolutionary France was a patchwork of legal systems, with as many coutumes as there were provinces, and two co-existing legal traditions—customary law in the northern pays de droit coutumier and Roman civil law in the southern pays de droit écrit. The Grande Ordonnance de Procédure Civile of 1667, also known as Code Louis, was a comprehensive legal code attempting a uniform regulation of civil procedure throughout legally irregular France. It prescribed inter alia baptismal, marriage and death records in the State's registers, not the Church's, and also strictly regulated the right to remonstrance of the Parlements. The Code Louis played an important part in French legal history as the basis for the Code Napoléon, itself the origin of many modern legal codes.
One of Louis's more infamous decrees was the Grande Ordonnance sur les Colonies of 1685, also known as Code Noir. Although it sanctioned slavery, it did humanise the practice by prohibiting the separation of families. Additionally, in the colonies, only Roman Catholics could own slaves, and these had to be baptised.