The Sun King (1638-1715)
The “Grand Century” of Louis XIV was marked by the image of an absolute Monarch and a powerful State. Installed in his royal functions at a very young age, and educated by Cardinal Mazarin, the Sun King built the foundations of absolutism around his own person. In 1682, he moved with his Court to the Château de Versailles, a palace that was a better symbol of his power and his influence in Europe.
Known as “Louis-Dieudonné”, Louis XIV was born in 1638 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Crowned king at the age of 5 on the death of his father Louis XIII, the young sovereign received from his mother, Anne of Austria, and from Cardinal Mazarin, his godfather, a complete education. Mazarin was officially in charge of introducing him to politics. His mother ruled as Regent; it was the time of the Fronde (1648-1653), the rebellion of the upper nobility and the people of Paris against the monarch. The young Louis felt humiliated by the arrogance of these nobles and threatened in his capital: he would remember this.
The royal family
In 1660, Louis XIV married his first cousin Maria Theresa of Austria, the Spanish Infanta, in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Their union reinforced the reconciliation between France and Spain. The King and the Queen had six children. Only one survived, Louis de France. In 1683, the King secretly married Madame de Maintenon who succeeded his first ‘favourites’, Mademoiselle de La Vallière and Madame de Montespan, with whom he had several legitimate descendents.
From the residences of the King to the Château de Versailles
Up until his installation in the Château de Versailles on 6 May 1682, the King imposed frequent changes of residence on the Court. Louis XIV and his courtiers lived in the Palace of the Louvre, in the palaces of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Vincennes, Fontainebleau, and Versailles, then being transformed. The works were entrusted by royal patronage to illustrious artists such as André Le Nôtre and Louis Le Vau and the architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart who drew up the plans of the Chapel, among many other buildings. In 1678, the construction of the Hall of Mirrors began, the greatest symbol of the powerful absolute monarchy. Providing sufficient room to accommodate the courtiers, the Château and its outlying buildings contributed to the domestication of the nobility. Under the watchful eye of the King, the Grandees no longer plotted; they lived either with the armed forces, or at the Court, careful to please and serve. Intimidating, majestic and informed about everything by his spies, the King dominated.
A King with a passionate interest in the arts
The king was interested in a great variety of subjects and excelled in many fields. His contemporaries gave him credit as a good musician (he played the guitar), an excellent dancer and organiser of ballets, and a brilliant rider. He loved hunting, outings, fencing, putting on shows, and playing parlour games, billiards in particular. He surrounded himself with good judgement with the best artists of the period, including Molière, Lully and Racine. In the Château de Versailles, he had the Court playwright stage comedies, while the musician Jean-Baptiste Lully put on his operas and organised brilliant festivities.
A monarch by divine law
Louis XIV chose the sun for his emblem. The sun was Apollo, god of Peace and the Arts; it was also the heavenly body giving life to all things, the embodiment of regularity, which rises and sets each day. Like the Sun God, Louis XIV, the warrior hero, brought peace to his people; he protected the arts and dispensed all the graces. Through the regularity of his work, his public levers and couchers (morning rising and evening retiring ceremonies), he insisted on the resemblance, carved in stone: the decor of Versailles was filled with the depictions and attributes of the god (laurels, lyre, tripod) on all the royal portraits and emblems.
The absolutist regime
The monarch resided in the central part of the Château, on the first floor where three vast apartments were reserved to him. He impose his Etiquette on the Court, the rules of precedence to which the nobility had to submit. From Versailles, Louis XIV ruled a centralised and absolutist State which was built around his person. With Colbert, he directed the administrative and financial reorganisation of the kingdom, as well as the development of trade and industry. With Louvois, he reformed the army and accumulated military successes. Monarch by divine right, the king was the representative of God on earth. During his coronation, he committed himself to defending the Catholic faith. To fulfil his vow and preserve the kingdom’s religious unity, he led the struggle against the Jansenists of Port-Royal and the persecutions against the Protestants. The forced conversions and the emigration of two hundred thousand Protestants led him to cancel the edict of tolerance: this was the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1785.
Weakened by 72 years of rule, Louis XIV died on 1 September 1715. He was buried in the Basilica of Saint-Denis and bequeathed the throne to his great-grandson Louis XV, then aged 5 years old. He remains the man of the “Grand Century”, symbol of the pomp and ceremony of Versailles and the influence of France.