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Power and the Powerless in the Reign of Louis XIV

France's Louis XIV is possibly the most widely known French monarch among the general American population, taught throughout the country in history classes as the "Sun King" -- an extravagant monarch of peerless wealth and grand pomp. Certainly, reigning for fifty-four years and another eighteen under the regency of his mother and Cardinal Mazarin, he had time to earn such and other assessments, but the term overshadows the problems of his reign. Although his grandfather, Henry IV, had settled much of the religious conflict in 1590 by issuing the Edict of Nantes, the Catholic church still saw internal strife between its various factions, and the Protestant population still suffered at the hands of zealous Catholics. With the reforms of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, the hereditary nobility felt that its rights had been violated and was ready to take offense. The bourgeoisie shouldered heavy tax burdens and a weakly developed economy. Finally, the common people still went without bare necessities of food and health, intermittently suffering from famine and plague. In response to these conditions, Louis XIV continued the path of his father and further consolidated the realm's leadership into his own grasp, bringing all decisions into his purview.

Upon the death of Louis XIII in 1643, the four-year-old Louis XIV ascended to the kingship, and the kingdom was ruled by his mother, Anne of Austria, and her prime minister, the Italian Cardinal Jules Mazarin. Opposed to the policies of Anne and Mazarin, and wary of this foreign leadership, the nobility rebelled 1648 in the Fronde, which forced Anne to flee Paris with the still-young Louis. The Fronde was put down in 1653, but not before demonstrating the power of the nobles to the King. When he finally did assume full authority at Cardinal Mazarin?s death in 1661, Louis personally took full control of the leadership, consciously avoiding a policy of deference to a Prime Minister, as his father and mother had with Richelieu and Mazarin, respectively. Writing about this decision in his Memoirs for the Instruction of the Dauphin (1670), he derided the concept of ceding all decision in such a way, seeing "nothing more undignified than to see all the administration on one side, and on the other, the mere title of King" (Wilson 1925). As such, he took measures to stop all unauthorized decisions, freezing royal accounts and personally approving each financial and legal decision.

Rather than rely on the previous noble Ministers and Secretaries, Louis appointed new ministers, selected by merit from among the commoners. Much as Louis XIII had appointed commoner intendants to administer regions of the country, who would then be accountable and indebted solely to the King, Louis XIV selected only commoners for his executive council, to the chagrin of the nobility and Church. Among these new appointments was Finance Minister Jean Baptiste Colbert, a merchant's son and a favorite of the deceased Cardinal Mazarin. Colbert's mercantilism was the cornerstone of Louis's financial policy, by which he reduced the national debt and built up domestic industry by developing internal factories to produce goods previously available only by import.

To deal with the unrest of the kingdom, Louis XIV made himself the supreme Legislator, Arbiter, and Executor, accepting petitions from all his people, so that he could understand the problems faced by the otherwise distant commons. Louis saw the nobles as tyrants, from whose mistreatment he might rescue their vassals (Wilson 1925).

Under the first years of this true monarchy - Royal Absolutism - the commons were largely unaffected. In one French town, Saint Lambert-des-Leveés, the parish records of baptisms and deaths indicate a net population growth each year after 1661 until late in the Dutch War, about 1677 (Léon 1970). Looking at the grain prices, birthrates, and death rates, it would seem that the intrigues of the King had little effect on the peasant's life, so long as war did not disturb the grain supply. The available data on grain prices only cover the Nine Years' War and the War of Spanish Succession, but they clearly indicate that war affects grain prices. At the former's outbreak in the 1688-89 harvest year, the average wheat price was 30 livres per bushel, which tripled by 1692-93 and reached 150 livres per bushel in 1693-1694 (Goubert 1960). In Saint Lambert-des-Leveés, deaths nearly tripled baptisms in 1694 (Léon 1970). Again during the War of Spanish Succession, the inflation of staple prices led to widespread famine: from 1706-07 to 1709-10, wheat increased in price five-fold, to 157 livres per bushel, then stayed at just above double the peace-time prices until reaching 105 livres per bushel in 1713-14 and falling to just half again the original price after the war's end in 1715-16 (Goubert 1960). As before, these elevated prices were matched by higher death rates. Interestingly, the wheat prices are also reflected in the admittance rates of Paris's major Couche orphanage, where the highest grain prices of all three wars are somberly reflected in dramatic increases in child abandonment (Delasselle 1978).

Discussion of and solutions for the commoners' urgent needs for survival is notably absent from the words of both Louis and his critics, who were seemingly oblivious, except at the incident of rebellion. The Breton Peasant Revolt of 1675, in response to increased taxes imposed by Colbert to finance the Dutch War, broke out down the Atlantic coast, from Bordeaux to Brittany. Angry peasants attacked all manner of their perceived enemies: tax collectors, priests, and seigneurs. The account of a tax collector in Brittany expresses fear of the mob, fear for his life (Beik 2000). Another, the Bishop of Saint Malo, expresses similar rage at the unruly and drunken peasant rabble, "trembling at?their attitude toward the nobility and even the church" (Beik 2000). Remarkably, the Breton Peasant Code, adopted July 2, 1675 by "Skull-breaker and the People," and the only record of the peasants' perspective on the revolt, elucidates fourteen points which they demand, ranging from the abolition of various oppressive taxes, to the installment of salaried and accountable officials, to a requirement that "money from the ancient hearth-tax shall be used to buy tobacco, which shall be distributed with the consecrated bread at parish masses, for the gratification of the parishioners" (Beik 2000). While the Code quickly became moot when Louis XIV quashed the revolt, it brings out the worries of the peasantry, which would never be addressed by mercantile policy or reduction of national debt. Despite Louis?s asseverations in his Memoirs, a strong King would not be sufficient to protect the commoners from the predation of their seigneurs and clergy.

As Seigneur of all the lesser seigneurs and Seigneur of the Church, Louis attempted to ensure the welfare of all by his personal willpower. Perhaps from distraction by constant warfare, perhaps from ministers invested with too much power, he was unable to do so. The tax codes imposed by Colbert proved too much for the Breton peasantry, revealing the hidden cost of the external policy of mercantilism, whereby the internal economy is allowed to rest on an unstable foundation of long-simmering oppression.

While the Court at Versailles was no more attentive than the King himself to the affairs of the very poorest subjects, it was aware of its own complaints of the King. After twenty-two years in Court with Louis XIV, Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon wrote an acerbic commentary on his experiences, Memoirs of Louis XIV and his Court and of The Regency, aiming to disavow successors of Louis's Royal Absolutism (Saint-Simon 1910). Saint-Simon saw the King as a weakened and ignorant man, led on by his Jesuit advisors, especially his cleverly insipid confessor, Père Tellier, who was "profoundly false, deceitful, hidden under a thousand folds," by the Duke's account. In a gesture of cruelty and relentless anger, Tellier managed to convince the King that the Jansenist monastery of Port Royal des Champs must be emptied and destroyed, even over the objections of the mainstream Jesuits. Tellier went so far as to have the building torn down, graves moved, and the soil plowed under (Saint-Simon 1910).

The primary weakness of Louis XIV in his reign was the King himself. The concept of Royal Absolutism, where all authority and decisions rest in the hands of the sole ruler, is centrally predicated upon the capability of the King to carry such a burden and execute it effectively. While this was possible for Louis XIII with the aid of Richelieu, and for Louis XIV while undisturbed by foreign conflict, it must certainly fail; the burden of the entire state is too much. Irrespective of how accurate Saint-Simon's characterizations of Tellier and the King were, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the destruction of the Jansenist monastery, the peasant starvations during war, and the oppressive taxation under Colbert that led to the Breton revolt all were massive failures of the monarchy. While some of this may not have been avoidable, including, perhaps, the numerous wars, no power existed any longer to counter the possible miscalculation of the King and his significantly empowered lieutenants. Thus, the limitation of omnipotence proved to the lack of omniscience.

  • Beik, William. Louis XIV and Absolutism: A Brief Study with Documents (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000)
  • Delasselle, Claude. "Abandoned Children in Eighteenth-Century Paris," in Robert Forster and Orest Ranum, eds, Deviants and the Abandoned in French Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978)
  • Goubert, Pierre. Beauvais et le Beauvaisis de 1600 á 1730 (Paris: S.E.V.P.N., 1960)
  • Léon, Pierre. Économies et Sociétés preindustrielles. Vol. 2: 1650-1780 (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1970)
  • Saint-Simon, Duke of. Memoirs of Louis XIV and his Court and of The Regency (New York: Collier, 1910)
  • Wilson, Herbert, trans. Louis XIV: Letters to his Heirs (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1925).

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