French History VI: Bourbons 2: Louis XIV

Louis XIV, King of France (1702) by Hyacinthe Rigaud, hanging in Versailles (Photo Public Domain)
Louis XIV, King of France (1702) by Hyacinthe Rigaud, hanging in Versailles

The era of the Sun King

King Louis XIV (1638–1715, reigned 1643–1715) proclaims "L'Etat, c'est moi,"—I am the State—reduced the troublesome and scheming nobles into courtiers (a job which occupied all their time), and instead selected his key advisors and minsters from among the haute bourgeoisie, the upper middle class of Paris.

By doing so, he kept everyone and everything under his control (he also sent la Salle off to explore the Mississippi River—part of New France—and when he reached its delta on the Gulf of Mexico, La Salle named the whole area around him Louisiana, after the king). 

Louis XIV solidified his power by moving his court to his dad's old hunting lodge at Versailles and transforming it into simply the greatest and most extravagant palace in all of Europe.

Louis created for himself a powerful aura of divine invincibility and stupefying richness, garnering the moniker "The Sun King," as if he were a Greek God descended from the heavens—a being not to be questioned or second-guessed by mere mortals.

The Sun King was a brilliant politician and shrewd administrator. He kept at Versailles a court of nearly 3,000 (that's just the courtiers, not including the servants and support staff). A courtier's job was to do whatever the king told them, to hang around and wait for royal favors and commissions.

What the Sun King had them do was ingenious. He turned his every daily task (including waking up and getting out of bed, getting dressed, eating breakfast, etc.) into courtly events. Invitations to attend the various parts of the king's day were handed out and revoked with seeming capricious frequency. All the nobles were kept busy worrying about whether they were on the in or the out list, devising ways to get into His Majesty's good graces.

While on the surface this seems like mere massive indulgence and made the king appear to be a monumentally conceited fop, it was brilliant: all the nobles, potential allies or enemies alike, were apt to look straight to the king and not each other for alliances, and were in general kept so damn busy they had neither the time nor the energy to plot against him.

The Sun King's reign was never equalled, before or since, in its extravagance (except for a few Roman emperors, perhaps) or its length—72 years on the throne made him the 13th longest reigning monarch in world history.

Photo gallery
  • Louis XIV, King of France (1702) by Hyacinthe Rigaud, hanging in Versailles, Bourbons 2: Louis XIV, Chartres (Photo Public Domain)
  • King Louis VIV as Alexander the Great, an allegorical painting by Charles le Brun, Bourbons 2: Louis XIV, Chartres (Photo Public Domain)