Judged in terms of his time, Louis XIV was not the ogre that hostile historians have made him; he merely applied on a larger scale, and for a while with invidious success, the same methods of absolute rule, territorial expansion, and martial conquest that characterized the conduct, or the aspirations, of his enemies. Even the cruelty of his armies in the Palatinate had a precedent in the sack of Magdeburg (1631), and an epilogue in the massacres of Marlborough. Louis had the distinction of living so long that the Furies could revenge upon him in person, rather than upon his children, the sins of his pride and power.
History has not withheld from him some admiration for the courage and dignity that he showed in defeat, and it has allowed him some pity in the disasters that almost destroyed his children simultaneously with his armies and fleets. In 1711 his only legitimate son, “Le Grand Dauphin” Louis, died, leaving the King with two grandsons—Louis, Duke of Burgundy, and Charles, Duke of Berry. The younger Louis developed good qualities under Fénelon’s tutelage, and became the solace of the monarch’s old age. In 1697 he married Marie Adélaïde of Savoy, whose beauty, wit, and charm reminded the King of Madame Henrietta and his happy youth. But on February 12, 1712, this gay spirit succumbed to spotted fever at the age of twenty-six. Her devoted husband had refused to leave her sickbed; he contracted the disease, and died of it on February 18, aged twenty-nine, only a year after his father’s death. Their two sons caught the infection from them; one died on March 8, at the age of eight; the younger survived, but remained so weak that no one dreamed that he would live to rule France as Louis XV till 1774. If this frail lad should collapse, the heir to the throne would be Charles, Duke of Berry, but Charles died in 1714.
There was another possible successor—Philip V of Spain, younger son of Le Grand Dauphin; but half of Europe was pledged to keep him from uniting the two crowns. Next in line was Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, grandson of Louis XIII, and nephew and son-in-law of the King. But this Philippe had a laboratory, carried on experiments in chemistry, and was therefore accused, in public gossip, of having poisoned the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy and their eldest son. The physicians who performed the three autopsies were divided on the question whether poison had been used. Philippe, furious under these suspicions, asked the King to give him a public trial; Louis believed him innocent, and refused to lay upon him the burden and stigma of such an ordeal.
Should these lines of succession fail, a last resort remained. The King had legitimized his illegitimate sons, the Duke of Maine and the Count of Toulouse. Now (July, 1714) he issued an edict—which the Parlement of Paris registered without protest—that, in default of princes of the blood royal, these quondam bastards should inherit his throne; and a year later, to the horror of Saint-Simon and other nobles, he decreed that their rank should be equal in law to that of the legitimate princes. 84 Their mother, Mme. de Montespan, was dead, but their foster mother, the wife of the King, loved them as her own, and used her influence to promote them in honors and power.
It was amid these problems and bereavements that Louis faced the final crisis of the war. When he bade farewell to Villars, who was leaving to meet the advance of Eugene on the Belgian front, the King, now seventy-four years old, for a moment broke down. “You see my condition, Maréchal,” he said. “There have been few examples of what has happened to me—to lose in the same month my grandson, my granddaughter, and their son, all of great promise, and all most tenderly loved. God is punishing me. I have well deserved it; I shall suffer less in the next world.” Then, recovering himself, he continued: “Let us leave my domestic misfortunes, and see how to avert those of the kingdom. I confide to you the forces and salvation of the state. Fortune may be adverse to you. If this misfortune should happen to the army you command, what would be your feeling as to the course which I should take in person?” Villars did not reply. “I am not surprised,” said the King, “that you do not answer me at once. While waiting for you to tell your idea I will tell you mine. I know the reasonings of the courtiers; almost all wish me to retire to Blois if my army should be defeated. For my part, I know that armies of such size are never so much defeated that the greater part could not fall back upon the Somme, a river very difficult to cross. I should go to Péronne or St.-Quentin, gather there all the troops I might have, make a last effort with you, and we would perish together or save the state.” 85
Villars’ victory at Denain cheated the King of such a heroic death. He survived that battle by three years, and the peace by two. Excepting the anal fistula, long since cured, his health had maintained itself reasonably well for seventy years. He ate immoderately, but never grew fat; he drank moderately; he let few days pass without some active exercise in the open air, even in the severe winter of 1708–9. It is difficult to know if he might have lived longer with fewer physicians, and whether the purges, bleedings, and sweats to which they treated him were a greater curse than the ills they were intended to relieve. One doctor in 1688 gave him so strong a laxative that it acted on him eleven times in eight hours; after which, we are told, he felt somewhat fatigued. 86 When Rigaud in 1701 made the painting that stands so prominently in the Louvre, he pictured Louis as still insolent with strength and victory and robes of state, black wig concealing white hairs, and swollen cheeks attesting appetite. Seven years later Coysevox, in the splendid statue in Notre Dame, showed him kneeling in prayer, but still more conscious of royalty than of death. Perhaps the artists clothed him in prouder pride than he felt, for in those failing years and mounting trials he had learned to accept reproof humbly, at least from Maintenon. 87 He became as a child in the hands of the fanatic Jesuit Le Tellier, who had succeeded Père La Chaise as the King’s confessor in 1709; “the inheritor of Charlemagne asked pardon for his sins from the son of a peasant.” 88 The strong infusion of Catholic faith and piety that he had received from his mother rose to the surface now that passion ebbed and glory lost its glow. Rumor said that the King, in the surge of his devotion, had become a Jesuit affiliate in 1705; and in his final illness it added that he took the fourth vow as a full member of the Society of Jesus. 89
In January 1715 he lost his famous appetite, and ailed so visibly that in Holland and England wagers were laid that he would not survive the year. 90 Reading news dispatches to this effect, he laughed them off, and continued his routine of conferences, reception of ambassadors, reviewing of troops, hunting, and ending the day with his seventy-nine-year-old wife, the faithful, weary Maintenon. On August 2 he drew up a will naming the Duke of Maine guardian to Louis XV, and appointing the Duke to a Council of Regency that should rule France till the boy should come of age. On August 12 sores broke out on his leg. They became gangrenous and malodorous; fever set in, and he took to his bed. On August 25 he wrote a codicil to his will, naming Philippe d’Orléans chief of the Council of Regency, with a deciding vote in a division. To two magistrates who received this document, he said, “I have made a testament; they”—presumably Mme. de Maintenon, the Duke and Duchess of Maine, and their supporters—“insisted that I should make it; I had to purchase my repose; but as soon as I am dead it will be of no account. I know too well what became of my father’s testament.” 91 That confused will was destined to write a chapter in French history.
He died like a king. After receiving the sacraments he addressed to the ecclesiastics at his bedside a supplementary and unwelcome confession:
I am sorry to leave the affairs of the Church in their present state. I am perfectly ignorant in the matter, as you know; and I call you to witness that I have done nothing therein but what you wanted, and have done all that you wanted; it is you who will answer before God for all that has been done. I charge you with it before him, and I have a clear conscience. I am but a know-nothing who have left myself to your guidance. 92
To his courtiers he said:
Gentlemen, I ask your pardon for the bad example I have set you. I have to thank you sincerely for the manner in which you have served me, and the fidelity you have always shown to me. I ask you to give the same zeal and devotion to my grandson which you have given me. He is a child who may have to suffer much. I hope you will all work for union, and that should anyone fail in this, you will seek to call him back to his duty. I perceive that I am allowing my feelings to overcome me, and am causing you to do the same. I ask your pardon for all this. Farewell, gentlemen; I trust that you will sometimes remember me. 93
He asked the Duchess of Ventadour to bring in his grandson, now five years old. To him (according to the Duchess) he said:
My child, you are going to be a great king. Do not imitate me in the taste that I have had for building or for war; try, on the contrary, to be at peace with your neighbors. Render to God what you owe Him; recognize the obligations you are under to Him; make Him honored by your subjects. Try to comfort your people, which unhappily I have not done. . . . My dear child, I give you my benediction with all my heart. 94
To two servants whom he saw in tears: “Why do you weep? Did you think me immortal?” 95 And reassuringly to Mme. de Maintenon: “I thought it would be harder to die than this. I assure you it is not a very terrible business; it does not seem to me difficult at all.”96 He asked her to leave him, as if he were aware that after his death she would be a lost soul in a class-conscious court. She retired to her apartment, divided its furniture among her attendants, and departed for St.-Cyr, which she would never leave till her death (1719).
The King had spoken too confidently; he suffered a long night of agony before he died, September 1, 1715. Of his seventy-seven years he had spent seventy-two on the throne—the longest reign in European history. Even before his last hour the courtiers, anxious for their berths, had deserted him to pay homage to Philippe d’Orléans and the Duke of Maine. Some Jesuits gathered around the corpse and performed the ceremonies customary for one who had died in their order. 97 News of the King’s death was received by the people of Paris as a blessed deliverance from a reign that had lasted too long and had seen its glory tarnished with misery and defeat. Very little pomp was wasted on the funeral that bore to St.-Denis, on September 9, the corpse of the most famous king in the history of France. “Along the route,” said Voltaire, “I saw small tents set up where people drank and sang and laughed.” 98 Duclos, then eleven, later recalled that “many persons were unworthy enough to pour forth insults on seeing the hearse pass by.” 99
At that moment the Parisians remembered his faults with a blinding clarity. They felt that his love of power and glory had led France to the brink of ruin. They resented the pride that had destroyed local self-government and had centered all rule in one unchallengeable will. They mourned the millions of francs and the thousands of lives that had been spent in beautifying Versailles; and they cursed the neglect with which the King had treated his turbulent capital. A small minority rejoiced that the persecution of the Jansenists might now cease; a large majority still applauded the expulsion of the Huguenots. In retrospect it was clear that the invasion of Holland in 1672, the invasion of Germany in 1688, and the hasty seizure of the barrier towns in 1701 had been massive blunders, raising a swarm of foes around France. But how many Frenchmen had condemned those invasions, or spoken a word of conscience about the double devastation of the Palatinate? The nation had been as guilty as its King, and held against him not his crimes but his defeats. Barring a few priests, it had not condemned his adulteries, and had shown no enthusiasm over his moral reform, his piety, or his fidelity to his morganatic wife. It forgot now that for many years he had graced his power with courtesy and humanity; 100 that, until the demon of war enthralled him, he had supported Colbert in developing French industry and trade; that he had protected Molière against the bigots, and Racine against the cliques; that his extravagant expenditures had not merely indulged his own luxury but had dowered France with a new heritage of art.
What the people felt most keenly and most justly was the immense price they had paid in blood and treasure for the glory that had now collapsed in the death of the King and the desolation of France. There was hardly a family in the nation that had not lost a son to the wars. Population had been so reduced that the government now gave rewards to the parents of ten children. Taxes had stifled economic incentive, war had blocked the avenues of commerce and had closed foreign markets to French goods. The state was not only bankrupt; it owed three billion francs. 101 The nobility had lost its usefulness by being turned from local administration to prancing about the court; it had shone only in its expensive dress and its martial bravery. A new nobility had been created by wholesale auction of titles to rich commoners; in one year alone the King had ennobled five hundred persons at six thousand livres each; so some ancient families fell vassal to the sons of serfs. As war became no distant contest of mercenaries and gladiators but a pervasive and exhausting test of national resources and economies, the middle classes rose in number and power to challenge the baron and the priest, and financiers prospered amid the general decline. For in modern states the men who can manage men manage the men who can manage only things; and the men who can manage money manage all.
In judging Louis XIV we must remember Goethe’s humane dictum that a man’s vices are usually the influence of his time, while his virtues are his own; or, as the Romans had put it with characteristic brevity, vitium est temporis potius quam hominis—“vices are of the age rather than of the man.” 102 The absolutism, the persecuting bigotry, the lust for glory, the taste for war, were in him as a child of his time and his Church; his generosity and magnanimity and courtliness, his appreciation and stimulation of literature and art, his ability to carry a burden of concentrated and farreaching government, were his personal qualities, making him every inch a king. In Louis XIV, Goethe wrote, nature produced the consummate specimen of the monarchical type, and, in so doing, exhausted herself and broke the mold. 103 “Louis XIV,” said Napoleon, “was a great king. It was he who raised France to the first rank among nations. What king of France since Charlemagne can be compared with him in all his aspects?” 104 “He was,” in Lord Acton’s judgment, “by far the ablest man who was born in modern times on the steps of a throne.” 105 He waged devastating wars, indulged his pride extravagantly in building and luxury, stifled philosophy, and taxed his people to destitution; but he gave France an orderly government, a national unity, and a cultural splendor that won for her the unquestioned leadership of the Western world. He became the head and symbol of his country’s supreme epoch; and France, which lives on glory, has learned to forgive him for almost destroying her to make her great.