Louis XIV
king of France for 72 years

1638 - 1715

Louis XIV was king of France for 72 years, the longest reign in modern European history. He was called "Dieudonne" ("God-given"), "Grand Monarch," or "Louis the Great." Louis was an outstanding example of the absolute monarch. He reportedly boasted, "L'etat c'est moi" ("I am the State"). These words express the spirit of a reign in which the king claimed the highest political authority. Louis chose the sun as his royal emblem, and he liked to be called Le roi-soleil (The Sun King). Under Louis XIV, France ranked above all other European nations in art, literature, war, and statesmanship.

Louis was born at St.-Germain-en-Laye, France. He succeeded his father, Louis XIII, when he was only 4 years old. Louis XIV's mother, Anne of Austria, ruled on his behalf until 1651. She had great influence even after her son was declared old enough to rule. Cardinal Mazarin, Louis's godfather, served as chief minister.

In 1648, the Thirty Years' War came to an end. This war strengthened France and weakened the Habsburg (or Hapsburg) rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. But Mazarin was unpopular in France, and his policies led to several years of civil disturbances called the Fronde. Twice Mazarin had to flee from Paris, but finally in 1653 he put down the Fronde. Its failure strengthened the king's authority over the nobles.

When Mazarin died in 1661, Louis declared that he would be his own chief minister. He had received a thorough education for kingship. Mazarin had taught him to choose wise counselors. The greatest of Louis's ministers was Jean Baptiste Colbert. Colbert reorganized French finance and promoted economy and industry.

Louis supported writers and artists and played a part in the growth of French literature. Historians often describe his long reign as "the Century of Louis XIV."

Louis fought four major wars. His great aim was to make himself supreme in Europe. In the first three wars, fought between 1667 and 1697, Louis hoped to recapture all lands that had ever been under French rule. He gained important territories, but his aggressive moves led other countries to form alliances against him. In the fourth war, the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), Louis fought to protect his grandson Philip V's right to be king of Spain. The War of the Spanish Succession left France exhausted.

Louis married Maria Theresa of Spain in 1660, but he was more attracted to mistresses. The most important mistress was Madame de Maintenon. He secretly married her after Maria Theresa died in 1683. Madame de Maintenon approved of Louis's harsh treatment of the French Protestants, who were called Huguenots. Since 1598, the Huguenots had enjoyed religious toleration and privileges under the Edict of Nantes. In 1685, Louis revoked this edict. The government persecuted the Huguenots savagely in an effort to compel them to change their religion. Many thousands of Huguenots fled the country. Those who left included numerous craftworkers and business people.

After 1685, Louis's reign was less glorious than in earlier years. Colbert, who died in 1683, could not prevent the king from fighting wars and plunging the country into debt. Louis built a magnificent palace at Versailles, where he and his court lived in luxury. To prevent uprisings among the nobles, Louis made them live at the palace at Versailles, and serve him personally. They continued to attend the king until his death in 1715. Louis was succeeded by Louis XV, his great-grandson.

Contributor: Maarten Ultee, Ph.D., Prof. of History, Univ. of Alabama.

Additional resources

Aliki. The King's Day: Louis XIV of France. Harper, 1989. Younger readers.

Bernier, Olivier. Louis XIV. Doubleday, 1987.

Burke, Peter. The Fabrication of Louis XIV. Yale, 1992. Concerns the creation of Louis XIV's public image.

Lossky, Andrew. Louis XIV and the French Monarchy. Rutgers, 1994.


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