Louis XIV (1638-1715)
Louis XIV, King of France (1638-1715). Louis, the greatest king of France’s grand siècle, was only a small boy when he succeeded his father in 1643. Because of his youth, real power passed to his mother Anne of Austria as regent and to the Italian-born first minister, Cardinal Mazarin. When Mazarin died in 1661, Louis refused to appoint another first minister and instead grasped the reins of government himself, never to relinquish them so long as he lived. During this ‘personal reign’, France exercised pre-eminent power on the continent of Europe.
Louis, who adopted the sun as his symbol to become the ‘Sun King’, displayed the splendour of his reign by constructing his opulent and vast palace at Versailles. There his dazzling court strutted and bickered, while Louis reserved real authority for himself. Louis is reputed to have claimed ‘I am the state’, and although this statement may be apocryphal, his will was, indeed, the will of the state in matters of military matters and foreign policy.
During the second half of the 17th century, French troops proved themselves virtually invincible on the battlefield. Phenomenal growth of his army multiplied its effect. French forces during the League of Augsburg war climbed above 400, 000 men on paper, and may have attained 340, 000 in reality. Administrative reforms carried out by war ministers Michel Le Tellier and his son, the Marquis de Louvois, provided a more regular provision of food, equipment, and pay, making such large forces possible.
Louis regarded being a soldier as an essential attribute of kingship, and he devoted himself very much to military affairs. During wartime, he regularly went to the field until the infirmities of age kept him from doing so, yet he never commanded in battle. He had a penchant for sieges and attended over twenty of them. In contrast to his identification with the army, Louis never harboured equal concern for his navy. Although it expanded mightily by 1690, he later allowed it to decline in order to concentrate resources on land.
As befitted the tone of the age, Louis cared much for his gloire, best translated as fame or reputation, but that does not mean that his foreign policy was vainglorious. Historians have often argued that the wars he fought during his personal reign, like those of Napoleon a century later, resulted from a desire to annex much of the continent. Yet Louis’s goals were more modest and reasonable.
Early in his personal reign, the young king lusted to establish his reputation as a warrior-king by conquest. His Spanish wife had renounced her claims to the domains of her father, Philip IV, contingent upon delivery of a huge dowry which was never paid. Therefore, when Philip died in 1665, Louis insisted that parts of the Spanish Netherlands should go to, or ‘devolve’ upon, his wife, setting off the War of Devolution (1667-8). An alliance led by the Dutch imposed an end to this brief struggle, and although Louis received twelve important fortress towns, he believed himself cheated. In the Dutch war (1672-8), Louis intended to punish the Dutch and gain a free hand in the Spanish Netherlands. French armies invaded the Dutch Netherlands, but failed to impose their terms. As the alliance against Louis grew, he had to withdraw south in 1674.
At mid-course during the Dutch war, Louis gave up his dream of adding the Spanish Netherlands to his kingdom and, instead, came to associate his gloire less with conquering more territory than with protecting what he already held. Vauban, Louis’s great military engineer, urged Louis to create a double line of fortresses, known as the pré carré, to seal off his northern border. But he also advocated creating a more defensible frontier to the east by seizing additional strong points. After the close of the Dutch war, which netted him more fortresses in the Netherlands plus the entire province of Franche-Comté, Louis resolved to take still other key towns, particularly Strasbourg and Luxembourg, in a series of land grabs known as the ‘Reunions’. The climax of this process was the brief and profitable war of that name (1683-4).
When Louis demanded European recognition of all his territorial gains—and did so by invading German lands to compel such recognition—he precipitated the League of Augsburg war in which he faced the ‘Grand Alliance’ of the English, Dutch, Spanish, and Austria, along with several lesser German states and Savoy. During this war Louis’s army won all its major battles and enjoyed the upper hand in siege warfare, but the struggle so exhausted France that Louis sacrificed some of his earlier acquisitions to secure a peace settlement.
Louis’s last great war came with the inevitability of sunset, when Charles II, the childless king of Spain, died in 1700. Before Charles’s death, Louis tried to hammer out an agreement with other rulers to avoid a major war by dividing the Spanish inheritance. However, all prior arrangements dissolved when Charles stipulated on his deathbed that everything should go to Louis’s grandson, Philip of Anjou. Louis really had little choice but to accept the dying declaration, but he should have avoided the series of ill-considered acts that alarmed his foes, who once again formed a Grand Alliance to oppose him in a final cataclysm, the War of the Spanish Succession. Two brilliant allied commanders, Marlborough and Prince Eugèneof Savoy, won a series of battles and sieges that nearly exhausted Louis’s strength. But he refused to capitulate and eventually outlasted his enemies. When Queen Anne removed Marlborough from command and British forces from the war, Louis’s armies reasserted French power, defeated Eugène, and established a settlement that did not require Louis to sacrifice territory and that also left his grandson Philip on the Spanish throne.