What was significant about Louis XIV, and what did he do during his reign?

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Louis XIV is significant for radicially altering the balance of power in French politics: centralizing power in the monarchy and establishing a system of patronage and despotism that survived until the French Revolution.

Louis was influenced early in life by the 1648 Fronde, a civil war that erupted in response to the aristocracy's alarm over how Louis's mother and the chief minister, Mazarin, were building on Richelieu's base and taking steps to further consolidate political power wholly in the monarchy. That aristocratic revolt was defeated, paving the way for Louis's assumption of absolute power.

After Mazarin died in 1661, Louis made moves to centralize power in himself. He said "I am the state" and eschewed having a chief minister. He based his decision to act as absolute dictator on the theory of the Divine Rights of Kings, which stated that monarchs, appointed by God, had unquestioned power and ownership over the state that was divinely sanctioned (and therefore could not be legitimately challenged).

One of Louis's most notable achievements in breaking the power of the landed nobility was to build Versailles and make it the undisputed center of power and authority in France. Nobles who wanted or needed patronage—and they all did—had to essentially spend their lives at Versailles, currying favor with the king. Anyone who wanted patronage from a noble, also, therefore, had to come to Versailles to find that noble. In the past, nobles had their own courts that were centers of patronage and power, but after Versailles, these courts were severely diminished as power centers.

Consolidating power in the hands of the monarch had two unfortunate results that are a part of Louis's legacy. First, the normal tension between the monarchy and the aristocracy was undermined. Normally, in the healthy political triangle Aristotle described, aristocrats and the monarch both court the common people, both needing their backing for power. Now, the power resided so disproportionally in the hands of the monarchy that the common people's concerns were forgotten.

This led to indifference to the needs of the common people, which caused oppression. The people had no real voice in the government, which gave them no outlet as economic conditions deteriorated in the country under Louis's grandson, Louise XVI. As a blocked pipe will explode, so did France, into a revolution that stunned the world.

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Louis XIV was known as the Sun King and was the prime example of absolute monarchy in 17th and 18th century Europe.  He was significant for a few reasons:

  • Government control - by building the palace at Versailles and holding court there, Louis was able to control the policy-making in absolute France.  The royal court served as his home, the meeting place for the state, and also a place where royal subjects would come to pay tribute to the King and attend parties.  He also kept the nobles out of politics in order to try and control them, while inviting them for parties and gatherings in order to keep an eye on them.
  • A desire for religious harmony - Louis was a Catholic and aimed at converting Huguenots (French Protestants).  Unfortunately for the Huguenots, this meant that their schools would close, churches would be destroyed, and eventually many Huguenots fled to England.
  • Wars - To increase his power, Louis put together an army of about 400,000 men.  His goal was to spread the power of the Bourbon dynasty throughout Europe, so he engaged on a series of wars from the mid-17th century into the early 18th century.  As a result, many countries formed an alliance to prevent Louis' army from taking too much territory in Europe.  Regardless, Louis did make some territorial gains and installed a Bourbon on the Spanish throne.
  • Economic disaster - Versailles, court maintenance, and wars proved to be very expensive.  In order to increase exports and decrease imports, he built new industries.  Additionally, he improved communication and infrastructure to help facilitate trade.  His minister of finance raised taxes on foreign goods to limit imports.

At the end of his reign, Louis regretted some of his decisions.  He told his successor, his 5-year-old Great Grandson:

"Soon you will be King of a great kingdom... Try to remain at peace with your neighbors.  I loved war too much.  Do not follow me in that or in overspending... Lighten your people's burden as soon as possible, and do what I have had the misfortune not to do myself."

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The reign of France's Louis XIV (1638–1715) is still the longest of any European leader. Louis enlarged the French territories significantly in a series of successful wars that made France the most powerful nation in Europe. He successfully gained an alliance with his nation's greatest enemy, Spain, and set France on a road toward political and social reforms that other nations later followed. He appeased the aristocracy by inviting them to live at Versailles, an act that reduced the possibility of rebellion; and he rid the country of the last vestiges of feudalism. He was a great patron of the arts, lovingly known as the Sun King, nearly bankrupting the royal treasury--but not the national treasury--with his financial support of painting, music and literature. Moliere was a favorite of the king, and Louis was even praised by Napoleon as "a great king... the only King of France worthy of the name"; and by Voltaire, who claimed his years on the throne were "an eternally memorable age."

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