Once upon a time, a boy named Louis Dieudonné was born to an elated king and queen, who had tried for 23 years to have a child. For this miracle of birth, they christened him Louis Dieudonnéa — Louis after his father and Dieudonnéa, which translated in their native French to “gift of God.”
Little Louis was a fun loving, observant, albeit somewhat spoiled child, as was the habit of 17th century European royalty. Why, he was so special that royals in the French court competed for the privilege of watching him awake and prepare for bed, even eat meals.
His father, Louis XIII, was monarch of the House of Bourbons. XIII was France’s king for 33 years before he died, passing on the reign to Louis Dieudonné at age of 4 ½. Before he died, XIII set up a regency council to rule on his son’s behalf until he was older.
But his mother, the Habsburg Queen Anne of Austria, had other ideas and lots of political influence. She managed to annul the regency and run the country herself, with the help of her chief minister and confidant, the Italian-born Roman Catholic Cardinal Jules Mazarin.
They weren’t the best of times for France, for when his dad died little Louis inherited what historians describe as a fractured, unstable and nearly financially insolvent France with 19 million discontent subjects to rule. (England numbered about 5 million) His mom introduced polices that further consolidated monarchy power, but that angered the aristocracy. A civil war erupted called the “Fronde.”
Young Louis and his family had to temporarily flee the Paris capital, forever instilling in him a lifelong fear of rebellion by his countrymen. Some arm-chair historians might say that was a good thing because it made Louis a lasting king. His reign lasted longer than any other known European monarch, a whopping 72 years.
Why all this history?
His mother’s and later his own changes turned Louis XIV into an “absolute monarch.” Louis, a devout Catholic, believed himself to be a direct representative of God, with the divine right to wield absolute power.
With our 21st century attitudes of democracy, we might think this a bad way to rule, but it bode well for Louis XIV’s legacy.
Historians point out that this Louis ushered in the Golden Age of art and literature, presided over one of Europe’s most dazzling courts at Versailles, established his country as a dominant European power and annexed near and far away lands, one of them being the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Maybe I shouldn’t start this Sunday missive with “once upon a time” because this is true stuff, but I didn’t want to tackle a long history of Louis XIV with too much detail soon forgotten.
Today is a follow-up to last Sunday’s Chronicle on my recent discovery of bits and pieces of Louis XIV in Paris. I pointed out then and repeat now that the Coast knows more about the people Louis sent in the late 17th and early 18th century to claim, explore and settle his vast La Louisiane in the New World than they know of its founder king.
Too, too much to summarize!
So this is my take on his life, as briefly as possible.
Louis XIV was born Sept. 5, 1638, and he lived just shy of 77 years, of gangrene. Some historians suggest that despite his huge accomplishments he was plagued with health concerns, possibly diabetes that lacked the treatment of modern medicine.
At 22, Louis married his first cousin Marie-Therese, daughter of King Philip IV of Spain. It was a diplomatic union, as were most royal wedding, and they had six children although none would outlive their father.
When Minister Mazarin died in 1661, less than a year after his marriage, Louis declared he would rule without a chief minister, a move unheard of at that time. His mother, who’d set the scene for absolute power, reigned in her obvious control.
Louis chose the sun as his symbol, and through words, actions and finery, cultivated an image of the Roi-Soleil, or Sun King, around whom the world orbited, as it did for the mythological Apollo.
One article in The Atlantic even calls XIV the King of Couture, giving birth to haute couture as we know it today, making fashion seasonal and trend-driven. Study any paintings of him or his court and you’ll understand why.
Louis was tireless in centralizing and tightening control of his country and its colonies and expansions. He fostered economic growth by creating furniture, textile, clothing and jewelry industries that created work for his people and made France a world leader. The economy under his rule thrived on providing the luxuries other Europeans sought.
He reduced the country’s deficit, reorganized the French army and brilliantly brought his rebellious nobles into line by luring them to his court and its opulent lifestyle.
A multi-faceted king
Louis was more rounded than most monarchs of his time, for in addition to strengthening and increasing French holdings he fostered art, literature, music, theater and sports. The histories show he surrounded himself with the best artistic and intellectual minds of his time.
His lavish lifestyles and palaces, chief among them Versailles, the former royal hunting lodge which he transformed into the opulent royal court, adversely affected France’s coffers.
So did the wars he waged, including four major ones and numerous minor one. Some were in the name of family inheritance, some for expansionism, some for defense, but all were expensive and draining on manpower and money. To pay for one war, he melted down much of the royal silver. As in most kingly stories, he won some, lost some, made treaties.
If Louis could redo one thing, I suspect it would be his revoking of the Edict of Nantes, issued by his grandfather Henry IV in 1598 to grant freedom of worship and other rights to the French Protestants known as Huguenots.
In 1685, Louis instead created the Edict of Fontainebleau, which declared only Catholic marriages valid and required baptism and education in the Catholic faith. Some historians say he required the Protestant conversions because of his second wife, the pious Marquise de Maintenon whom he’d married a year earlier after the death of his first wife.
About a million Huguenots lived in France at the time, many of them the talented and skilled who had improved the economy. Not surprisingly, the Huguenots fled in droves — estimates ranging from 200,000 to 800,000 — for neighboring countries and the Americas.
Louis’ Fontainebleau dark mark is often overshadowed by so much light from his Sun King image. This Louis, like most men whose legacies survive the rigors of time, was fascinating and complicated.
When Louis XIV died Sept. 1, 1715, he was succeeded by his 5-year-old great-grandson, nicknamed Louis the Beloved. This Louis XV continued to develop his great-grandfather’s La Louisiane, from which 13 U.S. states would eventually be carved.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville, VA 22923.