Louis XIV (Louis Dieudonné; September 5, 1638 – September 1, 1715), known as Louis the Great (Louis le Grand) or the Sun King (le Roi Soleil), was King of France and Navarre from May 14, 1643 until his death in 1715. His reign of 72 years and 110 days is the longest recorded of any monarch of a sovereign country in European history. Louis XIV’s France was emblematic of the age of absolutism in Europe.
Louis XIV was born on September 5, 1638 in the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, to Louis XIII of France and Navarre and Anne of Austria. He was named Louis Dieudonné (Louis the God-given) and bore the traditional title of French heirs apparent: Dauphin. At the time of his birth, his parents had been married for 23 years. His mother had experienced four stillbirths between 1619 and 1631. Leading contemporaries thus regarded him as a divine gift and his birth a miracle of God.
Louis XIV began his personal rule of France in 1661, after the death of his chief minister, the Italian Cardinal Mazarin. An adherent of the concept of the divine right of kings, Louis continued his predecessors’ work of creating a centralised state governed from the capital. He sought to eliminate the remnants of feudalism persisting in parts of France and, by compelling many members of the nobility to inhabit his lavish Palace of Versailles, succeeded in pacifying the aristocracy, many members of which had participated in the Fronde rebellion during his minority.
By these means he became one of the most powerful French monarchs and consolidated a system of absolute monarchy in France that endured until the French Revolution. He also enforced uniformity of religion under the Gallican Catholic Church. His revocation of the Edict of Nantes abolished the rights of the Huguenot Protestant minority and subjected them to a wave of dragonnades, effectively forcing Huguenots to emigrate or convert, and virtually destroying the French Protestant community.
Louis XIV surrounded himself with a variety of significant political, military, and cultural figures, such as Mazarin, Colbert, Louvois, the Grand Condé, Turenne, Vauban, Boulle, Molière, Racine, Boileau, La Fontaine, Lully, Charpentier, Marais, Le Brun, Rigaud, Bossuet, Le Vau, Mansart, Charles, Claude Perrault, and Le Nôtre.
During Louis’s long reign, France emerged as the leading European power and regularly asserted its military strength. A conflict with Spain marked his entire childhood, while during his reign, the kingdom took part in three major continental conflicts, each against powerful foreign alliances: the Franco-Dutch War, the War of the League of Augsburg, and the War of the Spanish Succession.
In addition, France also contested shorter wars, such as the War of Devolution and the War of the Reunions. Warfare defined Louis’s foreign policy and his personality shaped his approach. Impelled by “a mix of commerce, revenge, and pique”, he sensed that war was the ideal way to enhance his glory. In peacetime he concentrated on preparing for the next war. He taught his diplomats that their job was to create tactical and strategic advantages for the French military.
In 1658, as war with France began to wind down, a union between the royal families of Spain and France was proposed as a means to secure peace. Infanta Maria Theresa and Louis XIV were double first cousins: Louis XIV’s father was Louis XIII of France, who was the brother of Infanta Maria Theresa’s mother, while her father was brother to Anne of Austria, Louis XIV’s mother.
Spanish procrastination led to a scheme in which France’s prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin, pretended to seek a marriage for his master with Margaret Yolande of Savoy. When Felipe IV of Spain heard of a meeting at Lyon between the Houses of France and Savoy in November 1658, he reputedly exclaimed of the Franco-Savoyard union that “it cannot be, and will not be”. Felipe then sent a special envoy to the French court to open negotiations for peace and a royal marriage.
A marriage by proxy to the French king was held in Fuenterrabia. Her father and the entire Spanish court accompanied the bride to the Isle of Pheasants on the border in the Bidassoa river, where Louis and his court met her in the meeting on the Isle of Pheasants on June 7, 1660, and she entered France. On June 9, the marriage took place in Saint-Jean-de-Luz at the recently rebuilt church of Saint Jean the Baptist. After the wedding, Louis wanted to consummate the marriage as quickly as possible. The new queen’s mother-in-law (and aunt) arranged a private consummation instead of the public one that was the custom.
Louis XIV and his wife Maria Theresa of Spain had six children from the marriage contracted for them in 1660. However, only one child, the eldest, survived to adulthood: Louis, le Grand Dauphin, known as Monseigneur. Maria Theresa died in 1683, whereupon Louis remarked that she had never caused him unease on any other occasion.
Despite evidence of affection early on in their marriage, Louis was never faithful to Maria Theresa. He took a series of mistresses, both official and unofficial. Among the better documented are Louise de La Vallière (with whom he had five children; 1661–67), Bonne de Pons d’Heudicourt (1665), Catherine Charlotte de Gramont (1665), Françoise-Athénaïs, Marquise de Montespan (with whom he had seven children; 1667–80), Anne de Rohan-Chabot (1669–75), Claude de Vin des Œillets (one child born in 1676), Isabelle de Ludres (1675–78), and Marie Angélique de Scorailles (1679–81), who died at age 19 in childbirth. Through these liaisons, he produced numerous illegitimate children, most of whom he married to members of cadet branches of the royal family.
Louis proved relatively more faithful to his second wife, Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon. He first met her through her work caring for his children by Madame de Montespan, noting the care she gave to his favorite, Louis Auguste, Duke of Maine. The king was, at first, put off by her strict religious practice, but he warmed to her through her care for his children.
When he legitimized his children by Madame de Montespan on December 20, 1673, Françoise d’Aubigné became the royal governess at Saint-Germain. As governess, she was one of very few people permitted to speak to him as an equal, without limits. It is believed that they were married secretly at Versailles on or around October 10, 1683 or January 1684. This marriage, though never announced or publicly discussed, was an open secret and lasted until his death.
Despite the image of a healthy and virile king that Louis sought to project, evidence exists to suggest that his health was not very good. He had many ailments: for example, symptoms of diabetes, as confirmed in reports of suppurating periostitis in 1678, dental abscesses in 1696, along with recurring boils, fainting spells, gout, dizziness, hot flushes, and headaches.
From 1647 to 1711, the three chief physicians to the king (Antoine Vallot, Antoine d’Aquin, and Guy-Crescent Fagon) recorded all of his health problems in the Journal de Santé du Roi (Journal of the King’s Health), a daily report of his health. On November 18, 1686, Louis underwent a painful operation for an anal fistula that was performed by the surgeon Charles Felix de Tassy, who prepared a specially shaped curved scalpel for the occasion. The wound took more than two months to heal.
Louis died of gangrene at Versailles on September 1, 1715, four days before his 77th birthday, after 72 years on the throne. Enduring much pain in his last days, he finally “yielded up his soul without any effort, like a candle going out”, while reciting the psalm Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina (O Lord, make haste to help me). His body was laid to rest in Saint-Denis Basilica outside Paris. It remained there undisturbed for about 80 years, until revolutionaries exhumed and destroyed all of the remains found in the Basilica.
Louis outlived most of his immediate legitimate family. His last surviving in-wedlock son, Louis. the Grand Dauphin, died in 1711. Barely a year later, Louis, Duke of Burgundy, the eldest of the Dauphin’s three sons and then heir to Louis XIV, followed his father to the grave. Burgundy’s elder son, Louis, Duke of Brittany, joined them a few weeks later. Thus, on his deathbed, Louis’ heir was his five-year-old great-grandson, Louis, Duke of Anjou, Burgundy’s younger son, who became King Louis XV.