The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 12

Author: James Cotter Morison  | Date: A.D. 1661

Louis XIV Establishes Absolute Monarchy

A.D. 1661


Not only was the reign of Louis XIV one of the longest in the world’s history, but it also marked among Western nations the highest development of the purely monarchical principle. Including the time that Louis ruled under the guardianship of his mother and the control of his minister, Cardinal Mazarin, the reign covered more than seventy years (1643–1715).

The sovereign who could say, " I am the state" ("l’ État c’est moi"), and see his subjects acquiesce with almost Asiatic humility, while Europe looked on in admiration and fear, may be said to have embodied for modern times the essence of absolutism.

That all things, domestic and foreign, seemed to be in concurrence for giving practical effect to the Grand Monarque’s assumption of supremacy is shown by the fact that his name dominates the whole history of his time. His reign was not only "the Augustan Age of France" it marked the ascendency of France in Europe.

Of such a reign no adequate impression is to be derived from reading even the most faithful narrative of its thronging events. But the reign as well as the personality of Louis is set in clear perspective for us by Morison’s picturesque and discriminating treatment.

The reign of Louis XIV was the culminating epoch in the history of the French monarchy. What the age of Pericles was in the history of the Athenian democracy, what the age of the Scipios was in the history of the Roman Republic, that was the reign of Louis XIV in the history of the old monarchy of France. The type of polity which that monarchy embodied, the principles of government on which it reposed or brought into play, in this reign attain their supreme expression and development. Before Louis XIV the French monarchy has evidently not attained its full stature; it is thwarted and limited by other forces in the state. After him, though unresisted from without, it manifests symptoms of decay from within. It rapidly declines, and totally disappears seventy-seven years after his death.

But it is not only the most conspicuous reign in the history of France—it is the most conspicuous reign in the history of monarchy in general. Of the very many kings whom history mentions, who have striven to exalt the monarchical principle, none of them achieved a success remotely comparable to his. His two great predecessors in kingly ambition, Charles V and Philip II, remained far behind him in this respect. They may have ruled over wider dominions, but they never attained the exceptional position of power and prestige which he enjoyed for more than half a century. They never were obeyed so submissively at home nor so dreaded and even respected abroad. For Louis XIV carried off that last reward of complete success, that he for a time silenced even envy, and turned it into admiration. We who can examine with cold scrutiny the make and composition of this colossus of a French monarchy; who can perceive how much the brass and clay in it exceeded the gold; who know how it afterward fell with a resounding ruin, the last echoes of which have scarcely died away, have difficulty in realizing the fascination it exercised upon contemporaries who witnessed its first setting up.

Louis XIV’s reign was the very triumph of commonplace greatness, of external magnificence and success, such as the vulgar among mankind can best and most sincerely appreciate. Had he been a great and profound ruler, had he considered with unselfish meditation the real interests of France, had he with wise insight discerned and followed the remote lines of progress along which the future of Europe was destined to move, it is lamentably probable that he would have been misunderstood in his lifetime and calumniated after his death.

Louis XIV was exposed to no such misconception. His qualities were on the surface, visible and comprehensible to all; and although none of them was brilliant, he had several which have a peculiarly impressive effect when displayed in an exalted station. He was indefatigably industrious; worked on an average eight hours a day for fifty-four years; had great tenacity of will; that kind of solid judgment which comes of slowness of brain, and withal a most majestic port and great dignity of manners He had also as much kindliness of nature as the very great can be expected to have; his temper was under severe control; and,in his earlier years at least, he had a moral apprehensiveness greater than the limitations of his intellect would have led one to expect.

His conduct toward Molière was throughout truly noble, and the more so that he never intellectually appreciated Molière’s real greatness. But he must have had great original fineness of tact, though it was in the end nearly extinguished by adulation and incense. His court was an extraordinary creation, and the greatest thing he achieved. He made it the microcosm of all that was the most brilliant and prominent in France. Every order of merit was invited there and received courteous welcome. To no circumstance did he so much owe his enduring popularity. By its means he impressed into his service that galaxy of great writers, the first and the last classic authors of France, whose calm and serene lustre will forever illumine the epoch of his existence. It may even be admitted that his share in that lustre was not so accidental and undeserved as certain king-haters have supposed.

That subtle critic, M. Sainte-Beuve, thinks he can trace a marked rise even in Bossuet’s style from the moment he became a courtier of Louis XIV. The King brought men together, placed them in a position where they were induced and urged to bring their talents to a focus. His court was alternately a highbred gala and a stately university. If we contrast his life with those of his predecessor and successor, with the dreary existence of Louis XIII and the crapulous lifelong debauch of Louis XV, we become sensible that Louis XIV was distinguished in no common degree; and when we further reflect that much of his home and all of his foreign policy was precisely adapted to flatter, in its deepest self-love, the national spirit of France, it will not be quite impossible to understand the long-continued reverberation of his fame.

But Louis XIV’s reign has better titles than the adulations of courtiers and the eulogies of wits and poets to the attention of posterity. It marks one of the most memorable epochs in the annals of mankind. It stretches across history like a great mountain range, separating ancient France from the France of modern times. On the further slope are Catholicism and feudalism in their various stages of splendor and decay—the Franceof crusade and chivalry, of St. Louis and Bayard. On the hither side are free thought, industry, and centralization—the France of Voltaire, Turgot, and Condorcet.

When Louis came to the throne the Thirty Years’ War still wanted six years of its end, and the heat of theological strife was at its intensest glow. When he died the religious temperature had cooled nearly to freezing-point, and a new vegetation of science and positive inquiry was overspreading the world. This amounts to saying that his reign covers the greatest epoch of mental transition through which the human mind has hitherto passed, excepting the transition we are witnessing in the day which now is. We need but recall the names of the writers and thinkers who arose during Louis XIV’s reign, and shed their seminal ideas broadcast upon the air, to realize how full a period it was, both of birth and decay; of the passing away of the old and the uprising of the new forms of thought.

To mention only the greatest; the following are among the chiefs who helped to transform the mental fabric of Europe in the age of Louis XIV: Descartes, Newton, Leibnitz, Locke, Boyle. Under these leaders the first firm irreversible advance was made out of the dim twilight of theology into the clear dawn of positive and demonstrative science.

Inferior to these founders of modern knowledge, but holding a high rank as contributors to the mental activity of the age, were Pascal, Malebranche, Spinoza, and Bayle. The result of their efforts was such a stride forward as has no parallel in the history of the human mind. One of the most curious and significant proofs of it was the spontaneous extinction of the belief in witchcraft among the cultivated classes of Europe, as the English historian of rationalism has so judiciously pointed out. The superstition was not much attacked, and it was vigorously defended, yet it died a natural and quiet death from the changed moral climate of the world.

But the chief interest which the reign of Louis XIV offers to the student of history has yet to be mentioned. It was the great turning-point in the history of the French people. The triumph of the monarchical principle was so complete under him, independence and self-reliance were so effectually crushed, both in localities and individuals, that a permanent bent was given tothe national mind—a habit of looking to the government for all action and initiative permanently established.

Before the reign of Louis XIV it was a question which might fairly be considered undecided: whether the country would be able or not, willing or not, to coöperate with its rulers in the work of the government and the reform of abuses. On more than one occasion such coöperation did not seem entirely impossible or improbable. The admirable wisdom and moderation shown by the Tiers-État in the States-General of 1614, the divers efforts of the Parliament of Paris to check extravagant expenditure, the vigorous struggles of the provincial assemblies to preserve some relic of their local liberties, seemed to promise that France would continue to advance under the leadership indeed of the monarchy, yet still retaining in large measure the bright, free, independent spirit of old Gaul, the Gaul of Rabelais, Montaigne, and Joinville.

After the reign of Louis XIV such coöperation of the ruler and the ruled became impossible. The government of France had become a machine depending upon the action of a single spring. Spontaneity in the population at large was extinct, and whatever there was to do must be done by the central authority. As long as the government could correct abuses it was well; if it ceased to be equal to this task, they must go uncorrected. When at last the reform of secular and gigantic abuses presented itself with imperious urgency, the alternative before the monarchy was either to carry the reform with a high hand or perish in the failure to do so. We know how signal the failure was, and could not help being, under the circumstances; and through having placed the monarchy between these alternatives, it is no paradox to say that Louis XIV was one of the most direct ancestors of the "Great Revolution."

Nothing but special conditions in the politics both of Europe and of France can explain this singular importance and prominence of Louis XIV’s reign. And we find that both France and Europe were indeed in an exceptional position when he ascended the throne. The Continent of Europe, from one end to the other, was still bleeding and prostrate from the effect of the Thirty Years’ War when the young Louis, in the sixteenth year of his age, was anointed king at Rheims. Although France hadsuffered terribly in that awful struggle, she had probably suffered less than any of the combatants, unless it be Sweden.

It happened by a remarkable coincidence that precisely at this moment, when the condition of Europe was such that an aggressive policy on the part of France could be only with difficulty resisted by her neighbors, the power and prerogatives of the French crown attained an expansion and preëminence, which they had never enjoyed in the previous history of the country. The schemes and hopes of Philip the Fair, of Louis XI, of Henry IV, and of Richelieu had been realized at last; and their efforts to throw off the insolent coercion of the great feudal lords had been crowned with complete success. The monarchy could hardly have conjectured how strong it had become but for the abortive resistance and hostility it met with in the Fronde.

The flames of insurrection which had shot up, forked and menacing, fell back underground, where they smouldered for four generations yet to come. The kingly power soared, single and supreme, over its prostrate foes. Long before Louis XIV had shown any aptitude or disposition for authority, he was the object of adulation as cringing as was ever offered to a Roman emperor. When he returned from his consecration at Rheims, the rector of the University of Paris, at the head of his professorial staff, addressed the young King in these words: "We are so dazzled by the new splendor which surrounds your majesty that we are not ashamed to appear dumfounded at the aspect of a light so brilliant and so extraordinary"; and at the foot of an engraving at the same date he is in so many words called a demigod.

It is evident that ample materials had been prepared for what the vulgar consider a great reign. Abundant opportunity for an insolent and aggressive foreign policy, owing to the condition of Europe. Security from remonstrance or check at home, owing to the condition of France. The temple is prepared for the deity; the priests stand by, ready to offer victims on the smoking altar; the incense is burning in anticipation of his advent. On the death of Mazarin, in 1661, he entered into his own.

Louis XIV never forgot the trials and humiliations to which he and his mother had been subjected during the troubles of the Fronde. It has often been remarked that rulers born in thepurple have seldom shown much efficiency unless they have been exposed to exceptional and, as it were, artificial probations during their youth. During the first eleven years of Louis’ reign—incomparably the most creditable to him—we can trace unmistakably the influence of the wisdom and experience acquired in that period of anxiety and defeat. He then learned the value of money and the supreme benefits of a full exchequer. He also acquired a thorough dread of subjection to ministers and favorites—a dread so deep that it implied a consciousness of probable weakness on that side. As he went on in life he to a great extent forgot both these valuable lessons, but their influence was never entirely effaced. To the astonishment of the courtiers and even of his mother he announced his intention of governing independently, and of looking after everything himself. They openly doubted his perseverance. "You do not know him," said Mazarin. "He will begin rather late, but he will go further than most. There is enough stuff in him to make four kings and an honest man besides."

His first measures were dictated less by great energy of initiative than by absolute necessity. The finances had fallen into such a chaos of jobbery and confusion that the very existence of the government depended upon a prompt and trenchant reform. It was Louis’ rare good-fortune to find beside him one of the most able and vigorous administrators who have ever lived—Colbert. He had the merit—not a small one in that age—of letting this great minister invent and carry out the most daring and beneficial measures of reform, of which he assumed all the credit to himself. The first step was a vigorous attack on the gang of financial plunderers, who, with Fouquet at their head, simply embezzled the bulk of the state revenues. The money-lenders not only obtained the most usurious interest for their loans, but actually held in mortgage the most productive sources of the national taxation: and, not content with that, they bought up, at 10 per cent of their nominal value, an enormous amount of discredited bills, issued by the government in the time of the Fronde, which they forced the treasury to pay off at par; and this was done with the very money they had just before advanced to the government.

Such barefaced plunder could not be endured, and Colbertwas the last man to endure it. He not only repressed peculation, but introduced a number of practical improvements in the distribution, and especially in the mode of levying the taxes. So imperfect were the arrangements connected with the latter that it was estimated that of eighty-four millions paid by the people, only thirty-two millions entered into the coffers of the state. The almost instantaneous effects of Colbert’s measures—the yawning deficit was changed into a surplus of forty-five millions in less than two years—showed how gross and flagrant had been the malversation preceding.

Far more difficult, and far nobler in the order of constructive statesmanship, were his vast schemes to endow France with manufactures, with a commercial and belligerent navy, with colonies, besides his manifold reforms in the internal administration—tariffs and customs between neighboring provinces of France; the great work of the Languedoc canal; in fact, in every part and province of government. His success was various, but in some cases really stupendous. His creation of a navy almost surpasses belief. In 1661, when he first became free to act, France possessed only thirty vessels-of-war of all sizes. At the peace of Nimwegen, in 1678, she had acquired a fleet of one hundred twenty ships, and in 1683 she had got a fleet of one hundred seventy-six vessels; and the increase was quite as great in the size and armament of the individual ships as in their number.

A perfect giant of administration, Colbert found no labor too great for his energies, and worked with unflagging energy sixteen hours a day for twenty-two years. It is melancholy to be forced to add that all this toil was as good as thrown away, and that the strong man went broken-hearted to the grave, through seeing too clearly that he had labored in vain for an ungrateful egotist. His great visions of a prosperous France, increasing in wealth and contentment, were blighted; and he closed his eyes upon scenes of improvidence and waste more injurious to the country than the financial robbery which he had combated in his early days. The government was not plundered as it had been, but itself was exhausting the very springs of wealth by its impoverishment of the people.

Boisguillebert, writing in 1698, only fifteen years afterColbert’s death, estimated the productive powers of France to have diminished by one-half in the previous thirty years. It seems, indeed, probable that the almost magical rapidity and effect of Colbert’s early reforms turned Louis XIV’s head, and that he was convinced that it only depended on his good pleasure to renew them to obtain the same result. He never found, as he never deserved to find, another Colbert; and he stumbled onward in ever deeper ruin to his disastrous end.

His first breach of public faith was his attack on the Spanish Netherlands, under color of certain pretended rights of the Queen, his wife—the Infanta Marie Thrèse; although he had renounced all claims in her name at his marriage. This aggression was followed by his famous campaign in the Low Countries, when Franche-Comt was overrun and conquered in fifteen days. He was stopped by the celebrated triple alliance in mid-career. He had not yet been intoxicated by success and vanity; Colbert’s influence, always exerted on the side of peace, was at its height, the menacing attitude of Holland, England, and Sweden awed him, and he drew back. His pride was deeply wounded, and he revolved deep and savage schemes of revenge. Not on England, whose abject sovereign he knew could be had whenever he chose to buy him, but on the heroic little republic which had dared to cross his victorious path. His mingled contempt and rage against Holland were indeed instinctive, spontaneous, and in the nature of things. Holland was the living, triumphant incarnation of the two things he hated most—the principle of liberty in politics and the principle of free inquiry in religion.

With a passion too deep for hurry or carelessness he made his preparations. The army was submitted to a complete reorganization. A change in the weapons of the infantry was effected, which was as momentous in its day as the introduction of the breech-loading rifle in ours. The old inefficient firelock was replaced by the flint musket, and the rapidity and certainty of fire vastly increased. The undisciplined independence of the officers commanding regiments and companies was suppressed by the rigorous and methodical Colonel Martinet, whose name has remained in other armies besides that of France as a synonym of punctilious exactitude.

The means of offence being thus secured, the next step wasto remove the political difficulties which stood in the way of Louis’ schemes; that is, to dissolve Sir W. Temple’s diplomatic masterpiece, the triple alliance. The effeminate Charles II was bought over by a large sum of money and the present of a pretty French mistress. Sweden also received a subsidy, and her schemes of aggrandizement on continental Germany were encouraged. Meanwhile the illustrious man who ruled Holland showed that kind of weakness which good men often do in the presence of the unscrupulous and wicked. John de Witt could not be convinced of the reality of Louis’ nefarious designs. France had ever been Holland’s best friend, and he could not believe that the policy of Henry IV, of Richelieu and Mazarin, would be suddenly reversed by the young King of France. He tried negotiations in which he was amused by Louis so long as it suited the latter’s purpose. At last, when the King’s preparations were complete, he threw off the mask, and insultingly told the Dutch that it was not for hucksters like them, and usurpers of authority not theirs, to meddle with such high matters.

Then commenced one of the brightest pages in the history of national heroism. At first the Dutch were overwhelmed; town after town capitulated without a blow. It seemed as if the United Provinces were going to be subdued, as Franche-Comt had been five years before. But Louis XIV had been too much intoxicated by that pride which goes before a fall to retain any clearness of head, if indeed he ever had any, in military matters. The great Cond, with his keen eye for attack, at once suggested one of those tiger-springs for which he was unequalled among commanders. Seeing the dismay of the Dutch, he advised a rapid dash with six thousand horse on Amsterdam. It is nearly certain, if this advice had been followed, that the little commonwealth, so precious to Europe, would have been extinguished; and that that scheme, born of heroic despair, of transferring to Batavia, "under new stars and amid a strange vegetation," the treasure of freedom and valor ruined in its old home by the Sardanapalus of Versailles, might have been put in execution. But it was not to be.

Vigilant as Louis had been in preparation, he now seemed to be as careless or incompetent in execution. Not only he neglected the advice of his best general, and wasted time, but he did hisbest to drive his adversaries to despair and the resistance which comes of despair. They were told by proclamation that "the towns which should try to resist the forces of his majesty by opening the dikes or by any other means would be punished with the utmost rigor; and when the frost should have opened roads in all directions, his majesty would give no sort of quarter to the inhabitants of the said towns, but would give orders that their goods should be plundered and their houses burned."

The Dutch envoys, headed by De Groot, son of the illustrious Grotius, came to the King’s camp to know on what terms he would make peace. They were refused audience by the theatrical warrior, and told not to return except armed with full powers to make any concessions he might dictate. Then the "hucksters" of Amsterdam resolved on a deed of daring which is one of the most exalted among "the high traditions of the world." They opened the sluices and submerged the whole country under water. Still, their position was almost desperate, as the winter frosts were nearly certain to restore a firm foothold to the invader.

They came again suing for peace, offering Maestricht, the Rhine fortresses, the whole of Brabant, the whole of Dutch Flanders, and an indemnity of ten millions. This was proffering more than Henry IV, Richelieu, or Mazarin had ever hoped for. These terms were refused, and the refusal carried with it practically the rejection of Belgium, which could not fail to be soon absorbed when thus surrounded by French possessions. But Louis met these offers with the spirit of an Attila. He insisted on the concession of Southern Gueldres and the island of Bommel, twenty-four millions of indemnity, the endowment of the Catholic religion, and an extraordinary annual embassy charged to present his majesty with a gold medal, which should set forth how the Dutch owed to him the conservation of their liberties. Such vindictive cruelty makes the mind run forward and dwell with a glow of satisfied justice on the bitter days of retaliation and revenge which in a future, still thirty years off, will humble the proud and pitiless oppressor in the dust; when he shall be a suppliant, and a suppliant in vain, at the feet of the haughty victors of Blenheim, Ramillies, and Oudenarde.

But Louis’ mad career of triumph was gradually beingbrought to a close. He had before him not only the waste of waters, but the iron will and unconquerable tenacity of the young Prince of Orange, "who needed neither hope to made him dare nor success to make him persevere." Gradually, the threatened neighbors of France gathered together and against her King. Charles II was forced to recede from the French alliance by his Parliament in 1674. The military massacre went on, indeed, for some years longer in Germany and the Netherlands; but the Dutch Republic was saved, and peace ratified by the treaty of Nimwegen.

After the conclusion of the Dutch War the reign of Louis XIV enters on a period of manifest decline. The cost of the war had been tremendous. In 1677 the expenditure had been one hundred ten millions, and Colbert had to meet this with a net revenue of eighty-one millions. The trade and commerce of the country had also suffered much during the war. With bitter grief the great minister saw himself compelled to reverse the beneficent policy of his earlier days, to add to the tax on salt, to increase the ever-crushing burden of the taille, to create new offices—hereditary employments in the government—to the extent of three hundred millions, augmenting the already monstrous army of superfluous officials, and, finally, simply to borrow money at high interest. The new exactions had produced widespread misery in the provinces before the war came to an end. In 1675 the Governor of Dauphin had written to Colbert, saying that commerce had entirely ceased in his district, and that the larger part of the people had lived during the winter on bread made from acorns and roots, and that at the time of his writing they were seen to be eating the grass of the fields and the bark of trees. The long-continued anguish produced at last despair and rebellion.

In Bordeaux great excesses were committed by the mob, which were punished with severity. Six thousand soldiers were quartered in the town, and were guilty of such disorders that the best families emigrated, and trade was ruined for a long period. But Brittany witnessed still worse evils. There also riots and disturbances had been produced by the excessive pressure of the imposts. An army of five thousand men was poured into the province, and inflicted such terror on the populationthat the wretched peasants, at the mere sight of the soldiers, threw themselves on their knees in an attitude of supplication and exclaimed, "Mea culpa." The lively Madame de Svign gives us some interesting details concerning these events in the intervals when court scandal ran low and the brave doings of Madame de Montespan suffered a temporary interruption. "Would you like," says the tender-hearted lady to her daughter, "would you like to have news of Rennes? There are still five thousand soldiers here, as more have come from Nantes. A tax of one hundred thousand crowns has been laid upon the citizens, and if the money is not forthcoming in twenty-four hours the tax will be doubled and levied by the soldiers. All the inhabitants of a large street have already been driven out and banished, and no one may receive them under pain of death; so that all these poor wretches, old men, women recently delivered, and children, were seen wandering in tears as they left the town, not knowing whither to go or where to sleep or what to eat. The day before yesterday one of the leaders of the riot was broken alive on the wheel. Sixty citizens have been seized, and to-morrow the hanging will begin." In other letters she writes that the tenth man had been broken on the wheel, and she thinks he will be the last, and that by dint of hanging it will soon be left off.

Such was the emaciated France which Louis the Great picked systematically to the bone for the next thirty-five years. He had long ceased to be guided by the patriotic wisdom of the great Colbert. His evil genius now was the haughty and reckless Louvois, who carefully abstained from imitating the noble and daring remonstrances against excessive expenditure which Colbert addressed to his master, and through which he lost his influence at court. Still, with a self-abnegation really heroic, Colbert begged, urged, supplicated the King to reduce his outlay. He represented the misery of the people. "All letters that come from the provinces, whether from the intendants, the receivers-general, and even the bishops, speak of it," he wrote to the King. He insisted on a reduction of the taille by five or six millions; and surely it was time, when its collection gave rise to such scenes as have just been described. It was in vain. The King shut his eyes to mercy and reason. His gigantic war expenditure, when peace came, was only partially reduced. For, indeed, hewas still at war, but with nature and self-created difficulties of his own making.

He was building Versailles: transplanting to its arid sands whole groves of full-grown trees from the depths of distant forests, and erecting the costly and fantastic marvel of Marli to afford a supply of water. Louis’ buildings cost, first and last, a sum which would be represented by about twenty million pounds. The amount squandered on pensions was also very great. The great Colbert’s days were drawing to a close, and he was very sad. It is related that a friend on one occasion surprised him looking out of a window in his château of Sceau, lost in thought and apparently gazing on the well-tilled fields of his own manor. When he came out of his reverie his friend asked him his thoughts. "As I look," he said, "on these fertile fields, I cannot help remembering what I have seen elsewhere. What a rich country is France! If the King’s enemies would let him enjoy peace it would be possible to procure the people that relief and comfort which the great Henry promised them. I could wish that my projects had a happy issue, that abundance reigned in the kingdom, that everyone were content in it, and that without employment or dignities, far from the court and business, I saw the grass grow in my home farm."

The faithful, indefatigable worker was breaking down, losing strength, losing heart, but still struggling on manfully to the last. It was noticed that he sat down to his work with a sorrowful, despondent look, and not, as had been his wont, rubbing his hands with the prospect of toil, and exulting in his almost superhuman capacity for labor. The ingratitude of the King, whom he had served only too well, gave him the final blow. Louis, with truculent insolence, reproached him with the "frightful expenses" of Versailles. As if they were Colbert’s fault. Colbert, who had always urged the completion of the Louvre and the suppression of Versailles.

At last the foregone giant lay down to die. A tardy touch of feeling induced Louis to write him a letter. He would not read it. "I will hear no more about the King," he said; "let him at least allow me to die in peace. My business now is with the King of kings. If," he continued, unconsciously, we may be sure, plagiarizing Wolsey, "if I had done for God what I havedone for that man, my salvation would be secure ten times over; and now I know not what will become of me."

Surely a tender and touching evidence of sweetness in the strong man who had been so readily accused of harshness by grasping courtiers. The ignorant ingratitude of the people was even perhaps more melancholy than the wilful ingratitude of the King. The great Colbert had to be buried by night, lest his remains should be insulted by the mob. He, whose heart had bled for the people’s sore anguish, was rashly supposed to be the cause of that anguish. It was a sad conclusion to a great life. But he would have seen still sadder days if he had lived.

The health of the luxurious, self-indulgent Louis sensibly declined after he had passed his fortieth year. In spite of his robust appearance he had never been really strong. His loose, lymphatic constitution required much support and management. But he habitually over-ate himself. He was indeed a gross and greedy glutton. "I have often seen the King," says the Duchess of Orleans, "eat four platefuls of various soups, a whole pheasant, a partridge, a large dish of salad, stewed mutton with garlic, two good slices of ham, a plate of pastry, and then fruit and sweetmeats." A most unwholesome habit of body was the result.

An abscess formed in his upper jaw, and caused a perforation of the palate, which obliged him to be very careful in drinking, as the liquid was apt to pass through the aperture and come out by the nostrils. He felt weak and depressed, and began to think seriously about "making his salvation." His courtly priests and confessors had never inculcated any duties but two—that of chastity and that of religious intolerance—and he had been very remiss in both. He now resolved to make hasty reparation. The ample charms of the haughty Montespan fascinated him no more. He tried a new mistress, but she did not turn out well. Madame de Fontanges was young and exquisitely pretty, but a giddy, presuming fool. She moreover died shortly. He was more than ever disposed to make his salvation—that is, to renounce the sins of the flesh, and to persecute his God-fearing subjects, the Protestants.

The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, one of the greatest crimes and follies which history records, was too colossal amisdeed for the guilt of its perpetration to be charged upon one man, however wicked or however powerful he may have been. In this case, as in so many others, Louis was the exponent of conditions, the visible representative of circumstances which he had done nothing to create. Just as he was the strongest king France ever had, without having contributed himself to the predominance of the monarchy, so, in the blind and cruel policy of intolerance which led to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, he was the delegate and instrument of forces which existed independently of him. A willing instrument, no doubt; a representative of sinister forces; a chooser of the evil part when mere inaction would have been equivalent to a choice of the good. Still, it is due to historic accuracy to point out that, had he not been seconded by the existing condition of France, he would not have been able to effect the evil he ultimately brought about.

Louis’ reign continued thirty years after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, years crowded with events, particularly for the military historian, but over the details of which we shall not linger on this occasion. The brilliant reign becomes unbearably wearisome in its final period. The monotonous repetition of the same faults and the same crimes—profligate extravagance, revolting cruelty, and tottering incapacity—is as fatiguing as it is uninstructive. Louis became a mere mummy embalmed in etiquette, the puppet of his women and shavelings. The misery in the provinces grew apace, but there was no disturbance: France was too prostrate even to groan.

In 1712 the expenditure amounted to two hundred forty millions, and the revenue to one hundred thirteen millions; but from this no less than seventy-six millions had to be deducted for various liabilities the government had incurred, leaving only a net income of thirty-seven millions—that is to say, the outlay was more than six times the income.

The armies were neither paid nor fed, the officers received "food-tickets" (billets de subsistence), which they got cashed at a discount of 80 per cent. The government had anticipated by ten years its revenues from the towns. Still, this pale corpse of France must needs be bled anew to gratify the inexorable Jesuits, who had again made themselves complete masters of Louis XIV’s mind. He had lost his confessor, Père la Chaise (whodied in 1709), and had replaced him by the hideous Letellier, a blind and fierce fanatic, with a horrible squint and a countenance fit for the gallows. He would have frightened anyone, says Saint-Simon, who met him at the corner of a wood. This repulsive personage revived the persecution of the Protestants into a fiercer heat than ever, and obtained from the moribund King the edict of March 8, 1715, considered by competent judges the dear masterpiece of clerical injustice and cruelty. Five months later Louis XIV died, forsaken by his intriguing wife, his beloved bastard (the Duc de Maine), and his dreaded priest.

The French monarchy never recovered from the strain to which it had been subjected during the long and exhausting reign of Louis XIV. Whether it could have recovered in the hands of a great statesman summoned in time is a curious question. Could Frederick the Great have saved it had he been par impossible Louis XIV’s successor? We can hardly doubt that he would have adjourned, if not have averted, the great catastrophe of 1789. But it is one of the inseparable accidents of such a despotism as France had fallen under, that nothing but consummate genius can save it from ruin; and the accession of genius to the throne in such circumstances is a physiological impossibility.

The house of Bourbon had become as effete as the house of Valois in the sixteenth century; as effete as the Merovingians and Carlovingians had become in a previous age; but the strong chain of hereditary right bound up the fortunes of a great empire with the feeble brain and bestial instincts of a Louis XV. This was the result of concentrating all the active force of the state in one predestined irremovable human being. This was the logical and necessary outcome of the labors of Philip Augustus, Philip the Fair, of Louis XI, of Henry IV, and Richelieu. They had reared the monarchy like a solitary obelisk in the midst of a desert; but it had to stand or fall alone; no one was there to help it, as no one was there to pull it down. This consideration enables us to pass into a higher and more reposing order of reflection, to leave the sterile impeachment of individual incapacity, and rise to the broader question, and ask why and how that incapacity was endowed with such fatal potency for evil. As it has been well remarked, the loss of a battle may lead to the lossof a state; but then, what are the deeper reasons which explain why the loss of a battle should lead to the loss of a state? It is not enough to say that Louis XIV was an improvident and passionate ruler, that Louis XV was a dreary and revoking voluptuary. The problem is rather this: Why were improvidence, passion, and debauchery in two men able to bring down in utter ruin one of the greatest monarchies the world has ever seen? In other words, what was the cause of the consummate failure, the unexampled collapse, of the French monarchy ?

No personal insufficiency of individual rulers will explain it; and, besides, the French monarchy repeatedly disposed of the services of admirable rulers. History has recorded few more able kings than Louis le Gros, Philip Augustus, Philip le Bel, Louis XI, and Henry IV; few abler ministers than Sully, Richelieu, Colbert, and Turgot. Yet the efforts of all these distinguished men resulted in leading the nation straight into the most astounding catastrophe in human annals. Whatever view we take of the Revolution, whether we regard it as a blessing or as a curse, we must needs admit it was a reaction of the most violent kind—a reaction contrary to the preceding action.

The old monarchy can only claim to have produced the Revolution in the sense of having provoked it; as intemperance has been known to produce sobriety, and extravagance parsimony. If the ancien rgime led in the result to an abrupt transition to the modern era, it was only because it had rendered the old era so utterly execrable to mankind that escape in any direction seemed a relief, were it over a precipice.


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Chicago: James Cotter Morison, "Louis XIV Establishes Absolute Monarchy," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 12 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), 2–15. Original Sources, accessed February 7, 2023,

MLA: Morison, James Cotter. "Louis XIV Establishes Absolute Monarchy." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 12, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, pp. 2–15. Original Sources. 7 Feb. 2023.

Harvard: Morison, JC, 'Louis XIV Establishes Absolute Monarchy' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 12. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN, pp.2–15. Original Sources, retrieved 7 February 2023, from