The most famous of French kings was only one-quarter French. He was half Spanish by his mother, Anne of Austria; he was one-quarter Italian by his grandmother Marie de Médicis. He took readily to Italian art and love, afterward to Spanish piety and pride; in his later years he resembled his maternal grandfather, Philip III of Spain, far more than his paternal grandfather, Henry IV of France.
At birth (September 5, 1638) he was called Dieudonné, God-given; perhaps the French could not believe that Louis XIII had really achieved parentage without divine assistance. The estrangement between father and mother, the father’s early death, and the prolonged disorders of the Fronde hurt the boy’s development. Amid the struggles of Anne and Mazarin to maintain themselves in power Louis was often neglected; at times, in those unroyal days, he knew poverty in shabby dress and stinted food. No one seemed to bother about his education; and when tutors took him in hand their most earnest endeavor was to convince him that all France was his patrimony, which he would rule by divine right, with no responsibility except to God. His mother found time to train him in Catholic doctrine and devotion, which would return to him in force when passion was spent and glory had worn thin. Saint-Simon assures us that Louis “was scarcely taught to read or write, and remained so ignorant that the most familiar historical and other facts were utterly unknown to him” 16—but this is probably one of the Duke’s furious exaggerations. Certainly Louis showed little taste for books, though his patronage of authors, and his friendship with Molière, Boileau, and Racine suggest a sincere appreciation of literature. Later he regretted that he had come so tardily to the study of history. “The knowledge of the great events produced in the world through many centuries, and digested by solid and active minds,” he wrote, “will serve to fortify the reason in all important deliberations.” 17 His mother labored to form in him not merely good manners but a sense of honor and chivalry, and much of this remained in him, sullied with a reckless will to power. He was a serious and submissive youth, apparently too good for government, but Mazarin declared that Louis “has in him the stuff to make four kings and an honorable man.” 18
On September 7, 1651, John Evelyn, from the Paris apartment of Thomas Hobbes, watched the procession that escorted the boy monarch, now thirteen, to the ceremony that was to mark the end of his minority. “A young Apollo,” the Englishman described him. “He went almost the whole way with his hat in hand, saluting the ladies and acclamators who filled the windows with their beauty, and the air with Vive le Roi!” 19 Louis might then have taken over full authority from Mazarin, but he respected his minister’s suave resourcefulness, and allowed him to hold the reins for nine years more. Nevertheless, when the Cardinal died he confessed, “I do not know what I should have done if he had lived much longer.” 20 After Mazarin’s death the heads of the departments came to Louis and asked to whom henceforth they should address themselves for instructions. He answered, with decisive simplicity, “To me.” 21 From that day (March 9, 1661) till September 1, 1715, he governed France. The people wept with joy that now, for the first time in half a century, they had a functioning king.
They gloried in his good looks. Seeing him in 1660, Jean de La Fontaine, a man not easily deceived, exclaimed: “Do you think that the world has many kings of figure so beautiful, of appearance so fine? I do not think so, and when I see him I imagine I see Grandeur herself in person.” 22 He was only five feet five inches tall, but authority made him seem taller. Well built, robust, a good horseman and good dancer, a skillful jouster and fascinating raconteur, he had just the combination to turn a woman’s head and unlock her heart. Saint-Simon, who disliked him, wrote: “Had he been just a private individual, he would have created the same havoc with his love affairs.” 23 And this Duke (who could never forgive Louis for not letting dukes rule), acknowledged the royal courtesy that now became a school to the court, through the court to France, and through France to Europe:
Never did man give with better grace than Louis XIV, or augment so much in this way the value of his benefits. . . . Never did disobliging words escape him; and if he had to blame, to reprimand, or to correct, which was rare, it was nearly always with goodness, never, except on one occasion. . ., with anger or severity. Never was a man so naturally polite. . . . Towards women his politeness was without parallel. Never did he pass the humblest petticoat without raising his hat, even to chambermaids whom he knew to be such. . . . If he accosted ladies he did not cover himself until he had quitted them. 24
His mind was not as good as his manners. He almost matched Napoleon in his penetrating judgment of men, but he fell far short of Caesar’s philosophical intellect, or Augustus’ humane and farseeing statesmanship. “He had nothing more than good sense,” said Sainte-Beuve, “but he had a great deal of it,” 25 and perhaps that is better than intellect. Hear again Saint-Simon: “He was by disposition prudent, moderate, discreet, the master of his movements and his tongue.” 26 “He had a soul greater than his mind,” said Montesquieu, 27 and a power of attention and will that in his heyday made up for the limitation of his ideas. We know his defects chiefly from the second period (1683–1715) of his reign, when bigotry had narrowed him, and success and flattery had spoiled him. Then we shall find him as vain as an actor and as proud as a monument—though some of this pride may have been put on by the artists who portrayed him, and some may have been due to his conception of his office. If he “acted the part” of Le Grand Monarque, he may have thought this necessary to the technique of rule and the support of order; there had to be a center of authority, and this authority had to be propped up with pomp and ceremony. “It seems to me,” he told his son, “that we should be at once humble for ourselves and proud for the place we hold.” 28 But he rarely achieved humility—perhaps once, when he took no offense at Boileau’s correcting him on a point of literary taste. In his memoirs he contemplated his own virtues with great equanimity. The chief of these, he judged, was his love of glory; he “preferred to all things,” he said, “and to life itself, a lofty reputation.” 29 This love of glory became his nemesis because of its excess. “The ardor that we feel for la gloire,” he wrote, “is not one of those feeble passions that cool with possession. Her favors, which can never be obtained except with effort, never cause disgust, and he who can refrain from longing for fresh ones is unworthy of all those he has received.” 30
Until his love of glory ruined his character and his country, he had his share of estimable qualities. His court was impressed by his justice, lenience, generosity, and self-control. “In this respect,” said Mme. de Motteville, who saw him almost daily in this period, “all preceding reigns . . . must yield precedence to the happy beginning of this one.” 31 Those near him noted the fidelity with which, despite a multitude of affairs, he visited his mother’s apartments several times each day; later they saw his tenderness for his children, his solicitude for their health and rearing—no matter who their mother had been. He had more sympathy for individuals than for nations; he could make war upon the inoffensive Dutch, and order the devastation of the Palatinate, but he grieved at the death of the Dutch Admiral de Ruyter, who had inflicted defeats upon the French navy; and his pity for the dethroned queen and son of James II cost him the worst of his wars.
He seems seriously to have believed that he was ordained by God to govern France, and with absolute power. He could of course quote Scripture to his purpose, and Bossuet was happy to show him that both the Old and the New Testament upheld the divine right of kings. The memoirs* which he prepared for the guidance of his son informed him that “God appoints kings the sole guardians of the public weal,” and that they “are God’s vicars here below.” For the proper exercise of their divine functions they need unlimited authority; hence they should have “full and free liberty to dispose of all property, whether in the hands of the clergy or the laity.” 32 He did not say, “L’état, c’est moi,” but he believed it in all simplicity. The people do not appear to have resented these assumptions, which Henry IV had made popular in reaction against social chaos; they even looked up to this royal youth with religious devotion, and took a collective pride in his magnificence and power; the only alternative they knew was feudal fragmentation and arrogance. After the tyranny of Richelieu, the disorder of the Fronde, and the peculations of Mazarin, the middle and lower classes welcomed the centralized power and leadership of a “legitimate” ruler who seemed to promise order, security, and peace.
He gave expression to his absolutism when, in 1665, the Parlement of Paris wished to discuss some of his decrees. He drove from Vincennes in hunting dress, entered the hall in top boots, whip in hand, and said, “The misfortunes that your assemblies have brought about are well known. I order you to break up this assembly which has met to discuss my decrees. Monsieur le Premier Président, I forbid you to allow these meetings, and any single one of you to demand them.” 33 The function of the Parlement as a superior court was taken over by a royal Conseil Privé always subject to the King.
The place of the nobles in the government was radically changed. They furnished the dress and glamour of the court and the army, but they seldom held administrative posts. The leading nobles were invited to leave their estates through most of the year and live at the court—most of them in their Paris hôtels, or mansions, the greater of them in the royal palaces as royal guests; hence the acres of apartments at Versailles. If they refused the invitation they could expect no favors from the King. The nobles were exempt from taxation, but they were required, in time of crisis, to rush back to their rural châteaux, organize and equip their retainers, and lead them to join the army. The tedium of court life made them relish war. They were expensive idlers, but their bravery in battle became a compulsion of their caste. Custom and etiquette forbade them to engage in commerce or finance—though they took tolls on trade passing through their lands, and borrowed freely from the bankers. Their estates were worked by sharecroppers (métayers), who paid them a part of the produce and rendered them various feudal services and dues. The seigneur was expected to maintain local order, justice, and charity; in some localities he did this reasonably well, and was respected by the peasants; in others he gave a poor return for his privileges, and his long absences at court undermined the humanizing intimacy of master and man. Louis forbade the private wars of feudal factions, and put an end, for a time, to dueling, which had revived during the Fronde—and had become doubly serious, since seconds as well as principals fought and killed, and cheated Mars of prey. Gramont reckoned nine hundred deaths from dueling in nine years (1643–52). 34 Perhaps one cause of the frequent wars was the desire to provide an outlet, at the expense of foreigners, for domestic pugnacity and pride.
For the actual operation of the government Louis preferred those leaders of the middle class who had proved their ability by their rise, and could be depended upon to support the absolutism of the King. 35 Administration was directed chiefly by three councils, each meeting under the King’s presidency, and serving to prepare the information and recommendations upon which he based his decisions. A Conseil d’État of four or five men met thrice weekly to deal with major questions of action or policy; a Conseil des Dépêches managed provincial affairs; and a Conseil des Finances attended to taxation, revenue, and expenditure. Additional councils dealt with war, commerce, religion. Local government was taken out of the hands of irresponsible nobles and entrusted to royal intendants, and municipal elections were manipulated to produce mayors satisfactory to the King. Today we should consider so centralized a government to be oppressive; it was, but probably less so than the preceding rule by municipal oligarchies or feudal lords. When a royal commission entered the Auvergne district (1665) to inquire into local abuses of seignorial power, the people welcomed this grand inquest (les grands jours d’Auvergne) as their liberation from tyranny; they were delighted to see a grand seigneurbeheaded for murdering a peasant, and lesser nobles punished for malfeasance or cruelty. 36 By such procedures monarchical replaced feudal law.
The laws were revised into as much order and logic as comported with aristocracy, and the Code Louis so formed (1667–73) governed France till the Code Napoléon (1804–10). The new code was superior to anything of the kind since Justinian, and it “powerfully contributed to advance French . . . civilization.” 37 A system of police was established to check the crime and filth of Paris. Marc René, Marquis de Voyer d’Argenson, serving through twenty-one years as lieutenant general of police, left a noble record for just and energetic administration of a difficult post. Under his surveillance the streets of Paris were paved, were moderately cleaned, were lighted by five thousand lamps, and were made passably safe for the citizens; in such matters Paris was now far ahead of any other city in Europe. But the code legalized much barbarism and tyranny. A net of informers was spread through France, spying on words as well as actions. Arbitrary arrests could be made by lettres de cachet—secret orders of the king or his ministers. Prisoners could be kept for years without trial, and without being told the cause of their arrest. The code forbade accusations of witchcraft, and it ended capital punishment for blasphemy, but it retained the use of torture to elicit confessions. A great variety of offenses could be punished by condemnation to the war galleys—large, low ships rowed by convicts chained to the benches. Six men were allotted to each fifteen-foot oar, and were forced to hold a pace set by an overseer’s whistle. Their bodies were naked except for a loincloth; their hair, beards, and eyebrows were shaved. Their sentences were long, and could be arbitrarily extended for inadequate submission; sometimes they were kept to their slavery for years after their sentences had expired. They knew relief only when, in port, still coupled in chains, they could sell trifles or beg for charity.
Louis himself was placed above the law, free to decree any punishment for anything. In 1674 he decreed that all prostitutes found with soldiers within five miles of Versailles should have their noses and ears cut off. 38 He was often humane, but often severe. “A measure of severity,” he told his son, “was the greatest kindness I could do to my people; the opposite policy would have brought in an endless series of evils. For as soon as a king weakens in that which he has commanded, authority perishes, and with it the public peace. . . . Everything falls upon the lowest ranks, oppressed by thousands of petty tyrants, instead of by a legitimate king.” 39
He labored conscientiously at what he called le métier de roi. He required frequent and detailed reports from his ministers, and was the best-informed man in the kingdom. He did not resent ministerial advice contrary to his own views, and sometimes yielded to his councilors. He maintained the most friendly relations with his aides, provided that they remembered who was king. “Continue to write to me whatever comes into your mind,” he told Vauban, “and do not be discouraged though I do not always do what you suggest.” 40 He kept an eye on everything—the army, the navy, the courts, his household, the finances, the Church, the drama, literature, the arts; and though, in this first half of his reign, he was supported by devoted ministers of high ability, the major policies and decisions, and the union of all phases of the complex government into a consistent whole, were his. He was every hour a king.
It was hard work. He was waited on at every step, but paid for it by being watched in every move. His getting out of bed and getting into it (when unaccompanied) were public functions. After his lever, or official rising, he heard Mass, breakfasted, went to the council chamber, emerged toward one o’clock, ate a big meal, usually at a single small table, but surrounded by courtiers and servitors. Then, usually, a walk in the garden, or a hunt, attended by the favorites of the day. Returning, he spent three or four hours in council. From seven till ten in the evening he joined the court in its amusements—music, cards, billiards, flirtation, dancing, receptions, balls. At several stages in this daily routine “anyone spoke to him who wished,” 41 though few took the liberty. “I gave my subjects, without distinction, the freedom to address me at all hours, in person or by petition.” 42 About 10 P.M. the King supped in state with his children and grandchildren, and, sometimes, the Queen.
France was edified to note how punctually, seven or eight hours six days a week, the King attended to the tasks of government. “It is unbelievable,” wrote the Dutch ambassador, “with what promptness, clarity, judgment, and intelligence this young prince treats and expedites business, which he accompanies with a great agreeableness to those with whom he deals, and with a great patience in listening to that which one has to say to him: which wins all hearts.” 43 He continued his devotion to administration through fifty-four years, even when ill in bed. 44 He came to councils and conferences carefully prepared. He “never decided on the spur of the moment, and never without consultation.” 45 He chose his aides with remarkable acumen; he inherited some of them, like Colbert, from Mazarin, but he had the good sense to keep them, usually till their death. He gave them every courtesy and reasonable trust, but he kept an eye on them. “After choosing my ministers I made it a point to enter their offices when they least expected it. . . In this way I learned thousands of things useful in determining my course.” 46
Despite or because of the concentration of authority and direction, despite or because all threads of rule were drawn into one hand, France, in those days of her ascendant sun, was better governed than ever before.