King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV
Philip Mansel, London: Allen Lane, 2019, 568 pages, £30
British historian Philip Mansel is fascinated by splendour and eclipse – the firework ascent of cities and courts, their fizzling out and falling to earth. After the Bonapartes, Louis XVIII, and the entire Levant, now it is the turn of Louis XIV, who more than three centuries after his death feeds France’s view of herself, and the world’s views of France.
Depending on perspective (and year), Louis was the divinely sanctioned ‘Sun King’, the new Apollo, cynosure of Europe, courageous marshal, gifted tactician, patron of the arts, embodiment of perfection – or bankrupter of France, disturber of European peace, bearer of grudges, bigot, despot, a man more interested in dancing than the destitute. Mansel shows all the facets of this spangled enigma, and evokes wonderfully an era that was both brilliant and brittle.
There have been many studies of the ‘gift from God’ (he was christened Louis Dieudonné). The quantity reflects his longevity, and the glamour of his France, his period – the artistic achievements, febrile politics, stylised warfare, cynical aphorisms, gossipy intrigue, and poised élan of bejewelled and long-haired leaders as depicted by Le Brun and Van Dyck – monarchs processing towards modernity armoured in ancient chivalry.
The first biographers were contemporaries – like the Marquis de Dangeau, whose lifetime reputation as ‘the best card-player in France’ is borne out by the careful insipidity of his Memoirs. The Duc de Saint-Simon’s account is livelier, if less reliable. Saint-Simon’s father had been an intimate of Louis XIII, but Saint-Simon fils had Frondiste sympathies (favouring the nobility over the monarchy), and resented Louis’ promotion of talented bourgeois ministers (although sometimes genealogy-obsessed Louis prioritised blue blood). He nonetheless acknowledged the King’s courage, grace, handsomeness, and ‘grand mien’.
Madame de Sévigné’s Letters are famously astute, but even she was capable of being hypnotised by Versailles, or the costliness of a diamonded décolletage. Voltaire portrayed Louis’ age as one of gathering enlightenment, even though he had been imprisoned for satirising the royal family. Prussian ambassador Ezekiel Spanheim’s recollections were coloured by Protestant as well as national biases, but he too marvelled at the splendid symbology. Female chroniclers have included Nancy Mitford (1966), Lucy Norton (1982), Anne Somerset (2004) and Antonia Fraser (2007), intrigued by the remarkable women who orbited the monarch, but also possessed strong personal gravity fields. Beyond biography, Louis’ fame was burnished and refracted through the scintillating writings of Boileau, Corneille, La Fontaine, Molière, Racine and Rochefoucauld – while countless later writers have paid tribute to his state’s swaggering potency, exemplified by the sinisterly mysterious affair of ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’.
The ‘Sun King’ soubriquet stemmed from a masque of 1653, in which the teenaged Louis danced gracefully as Apollo, wearing a spectacular costume embroidered with a sun-in-splendour. Besotted watchers saw the brightest and highest star in Europe’s firmament, bringer of heat and light, harbinger of universal harmony after the terrible Fronde rebellions. Louis was a lifelong dancer, and was instrumental in the codification of ballet as art form. The young King’s courts were exuberantly alive; when Cardinal Maldacini first saw the laughing, chattering court, he exclaimed delightedly, ‘But this is just like a brothel!’ Louis’ life was set to a glorious soundtrack – the highly disciplined, intricate, lovely works of Jean Baptiste Lully, director of the Académie Royale de Musique, devoted royalist and fierce defender of musical ‘Frenchness’ despite being a Florentine.
In 1660, Louis married his cousin Maria Teresa, Infanta of Spain, ending a war, and extending French influence southwards. But she was not beautiful, and was pious, proud and stiff, unable to accommodate herself to freer French manners. Louis sought solace in mistresses, some of whom became famous in their own right – especially Mesdames de Montespan and de Maintenon – comets in his constellation, falling in and out of favour between shorter-lived mistresses, bearing bastards who became Princes of the Blood, to the helpless chagrin of the Queen. There is an apocryphal anecdote about an encounter between old and new mistresses on the king’s private staircase, in which Madame de Maintenon enquired superbly of de Montespan, ‘You are going down, Madame? I am going up.’
Louis was publicly attentive to Maria Teresa, and customarily retired to her bed (for a while). She bore him six children, of whom Louis was genuinely fond – and about whom he was distraught, as all but one predeceased their parents. When Maria Teresa died in 1683, he was ruefully reflective – ‘This is the only time she has ever given me any trouble’. Soon afterwards, he married Madame de Maintenon – discreetly, because Madame de Maintenon liked to be mysterious, after Louis’ death burning the letters he had sent her, a great loss to history.
Some women would do almost anything to get to, or stay at, court. In 1676, the Marquise de Brinvilliers was beheaded and burned after confessing to crimes ranging from incest to ordering Black Masses and killing her brothers and husband. She complained she was only one of many ladies involved in such activities, so Louis launched an enquiry, the Chambre Ardente, under Paris’s Chief of Police, Nicholas de la Reynie. Reynie uncovered a netherworld of abortionists, astrologers, counterfeiters, defrocked priests, kidnappers, procurers, prostitutes of both sexes, vendors of philtres and ‘succession powders’ (poisons), and witches.
There were sensational trials, like that of the Duchesse de Bouillon, who answered Reynie’s question whether she had seen the Devil, and what he looked like, with ‘Small, dark and ugly, just like you!’ She was acquitted – but 36 less well-connected people (many probably guilty) would be burned, 34 banished or fined, and four sent to naval galleys. When enquirers got as far as the private apartments of Madame de Montespan, they became less ardent, and the enquiry was wound up. The King ordered the papers burned, but luckily copies were kept, testament to the limits of his reach and the superficiality of the era’s supposed sophistication. There were more than reputational ramifications. Louis’s refusal to employ Eugene de Soissons, whose mother had been implicated, impelled him to transfer allegiance. As Prince Eugene of Savoy, he would inflict devastating blows on French forces at Blenheim, Malplaquet and Oudenarde.
If Louis was Apollo, he was also Mars, presiding over five wars. His early kingship was marked by near-constant campaigning, in which he displayed great courage. He surrounded himself with personally loyal guardsmen, and interested himself in everything from their ancestry to their uniforms. He prized Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, whose star-shaped fortresses and theories on siege warfare set the European standard for a century, and whose fortified ports sheltered ever more French-flagged vessels, traversing the globe from La Rochelle to Louisiana, Marseilles to Martinique. Louis was less insightful about the vessels themselves, insisting on using slow and cumbersome galleys after other navies had moved on – while French-made cannon were notoriously liable to explode. Mansel avers that the average height of French soldiery decreased over Louis’ reign – the dysgenic effect of placing one’s jeunesse dorée always in the vanguard.
The King was a hugely popular spectacle, almost a cult figure. In 1698, the English poet Matthew Prior marvelled at the ‘strange veneration’ in which he was held by the poor. Versailles was famously open to any Parisian ‘monkeys and rabbits’ (as one snob sniffed), so long as they were respectably dressed. Swords could be hired at the gates by anyone who wanted to play at being a courtier, hob-nob with princes, and watch the King eat. The monarch whose reign became a byword for absolutism, whose own children trembled at his approach, was often ironically accessible.
Versailles was worth seeing in its own right, a marvel of the age, and ours – the former hunting lodge in a state of constant transformation, being made and re-made on the most lavish of scales, even in wartime. Louis saw it as a place to keep potential aristocratic enemies close and as setting for himself and his gem-encrusted retinue. He was goaded into action by seeing finance minister’s Nicolas Fouquet’s new, too-lavish-to-be-borne Vaux-le-Vicomte chateau in 1661. He was heard murmuring to his mother ‘Ah Madame, should we not make these people disgorge?’ Fouquet was arrested soon afterwards on convenient (but perhaps justified) charges of corruption, and died in prison. His architects were moved from Vaux to Versailles, with fixtures, including 1,000 orange trees. A hydro-engineering tour-de-force, the ‘Machine de Marly’, carried water ten kilometres from the Seine to the new fountains of Versailles and Marly – nature conquered, nature ruled, His Most Christian Majesty exercising Biblical dominion over unreason. As Ehrenfield Kluckert observes in European Garden Design, Versailles was envisaged as,
an image in miniature of a new spatial organisation, signifying a new political order, indeed a new world order…the world appears as ordered space, a world of sun and light.
Versailles was an anteroom to Louis’ idea of Paradise, its ponderous elevations reproaching restive Paris (and concealing often inconvenient and unhygienic rooms). The garden’s alleys, boskets, parterres, pergolas, pools, statuary, visual axes and winding paths offered moral lessons as well as vistas – all infinitely reflected in the famous Hall of Mirrors. Beyond, there were extensive forests offering good hunting, and opportunities for classical allegory. In the background there were always builders and gardeners – in the foreground, a constant coming and going across marble floors. Aristocrats, artists, beauties, card-players, charlatans, churchmen, envoys, financiers, generals, intellectuals, ministers, musicians, petitioners, princes and wits came together in a cushioning of Savonnerie carpets and Gobelin tapestries, surrounded by stone national heroes, the King’s dogs, and fresh flowers, the whole ensemble lit by countless gilt chandeliers.
The King and his vision melded so completely that even now Versailles epitomises France at her apex. Versailles inspired palaces from England to Russia, and escaped destruction during the Revolution. Prussia’s Wilhelm I chose it as his symbolic base whilst besieging Paris in 1870, and the following year it was the setting for the Proclamation of the German Empire – which is why it was gloatingly chosen for the Germany-gelding 1919 Treaty. Today, eight million tourists visit annually to marvel at its magnitude, and marked contrast with today’s etiolated État.
Louis never forgot the Fronde rebellion, and never fully forgave those who had played prominent parts. After Cardinal Mazarin died in 1661, he became his own first minister, forbidding the sealing or signing of documents or the making of payments without his permission. Ministers were chosen partly for their capacity for loyalty – his choices sometimes fortunate (Colbert), other times less so (Mansel singles out Louvois, Chamillart and Villeroy). Anthony Hamilton’s Memoires de Comte du Grammont describes accurately how
The great became small under an absolute master…those who had behaved like petty tyrants in the provinces and on the frontiers were now no more than governors.
Yet Louis always knew there were limits to the most puissant king’s powers, and almost certainly never said ‘L’etat, cest moi’.
Autocracy was probably inevitable. Less so, and much more damaging, were his religious policies. In private, Louis could be nuanced, and his relations with Rome sometimes strained – even occasionally his relationship with God. After a major defeat at Ramillies, he complained ‘God seems to have forgotten all that I have done for him’. He was also aware of falling short of the Christian ideal of marriage. Nancy Mitford derides Louis’ religious views as ‘those of a clever child’ – ostentatiously observant, and well-versed in theology, but lacking humility, repentance or social concern.
But the enlightener was also an avatar, even in his own opinion, divinely appointed, thought capable of curing smallpox by touch. The rational founder of the Academy of Sciences and the ground-breaking Saint-Cyr school for girls could be deeply superstitious. Saint-Simon recounts a mysterious 1699 episode in which the King granted two hour-long private interviews to a Provençal farrier who claimed to have seen Maria Teresa’s ghost. The King was always capable of being edified by brave preachers, or Madame de Maintenon. His earnest desire to bring order and unity to ‘the eldest daughter of the Church’ deeply harmed French interests.
His detestation of Jansenism was a time-wasting fixation – but his 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (by which his grandfather had guaranteed the rights of Protestants) was worse than a crime, it was a mistake. The harassed Huguenots were disproportionately wealthy and well-educated, and when they fled they took their knowledge, skills and wealth, combined now with resentment. Exiles embedded themselves in the banking, business, cultural, military and political lives of France’s growing roster of enemies, and exerted all kinds of pressures against their persecutor.
Stubborn belief in the divine rights of kings also made Louis support the exiled Stuarts, ruining relations with Parliamentary and then William and Anne’s England. His brain stiffened with sermons, as his body was swelling with gargantuan meals. By the late 1690s, Nancy Mitford notes,
The king in his new found piety now only admitted virtuous men to his Council, and as a result public affairs were by no means flourishing.
By summer 1715, France’s finances were shot to pieces – revenues were spent four years in advance – and the star round which worlds had revolved was going supernova.
Louis’ health had generally not been bad, his huge food intake partly counterweighed by dancing, hunting, and walking while inspecting works. When he had had problems he had faced them with superlative stoicism. During a 1686 operation to deal with an anal fistula, he was cut eight times with scissors and twice with a lancet, and didn’t even alter his breathing, or say anything except to encourage the surgeon, C. F. Felix. An hour later, he held his usual levee. Felix was subsequently besieged by courtiers asking him to perform the operation on them, so they could have something in common with the King. Those who did not require the procedure were reportedly greatly annoyed – while those who did ‘could not conceal their pride and joy’. Felix was Louis’ only capable medical man. Other doctors prematurely dispatched his wife, son, eldest grandson, grandaughter-in-law, two great-grandsons, and eventually even himself. (His great-grandson, the future Louis XV, might also have succumbed had not his governess kept the quacks away.)
But now, the balletic legs had gone numb, and black with gangrene – especially the left, so prominent in Hyacinthe Rigaud’s famous 1700 portrait. Overeating was overtaking him at last, and his stomach was ‘on fire’; a post-mortem would show his intestines were grossly distended. Doctors only suggested bleeding or drinking asses’ milk. But he retained his famous sang-froid, apostrophising his five-year-old successor, holding long, calm conversations with weeping courtiers, Madame de Maintenon and his nephew, the Duc d’Orléans (whom he wisely appointed regent until Louis came of age). On 27 August, Mansel records admiringly, he
gave orders to the Ministre de la Maison for the transport of his heart to the church of Saint-Louis in Paris, as calmly as if he was ordering a new fountain for Marly.
Albert Serra’s 2016 film The Death of Louis XIV gives a moving portrait of the dimming sun. Sometimes he would rally, and Orléans’ apartments would empty – only to fill again whenever the King relapsed. He snuffed out suddenly at 8.23 am on 1 September, and an era was over – to the profit of London gamblers, and jubilation from those same Parisians who had once afforded him ‘strange veneration’. Saint-Simon shook his head sadly,
The King was but little regretted…The people ruined, overwhelmed, desperate, gave thanks to God, with a scandalous éclat.
Jean-Baptiste Massillon’s funeral oration at the Sainte-Chapelle on the Île de la Cité praised Louis as ‘more magnificent than Solomon’, but went on to lament
an entire century of horror and carnage, the elite of the French nobility precipitated into the grave, so many ancient lines extinguished, so many inconsolable mothers…our countryside deserted…our towns laid waste; our peoples exhausted…burning, bloodshed, blasphemy, abomination and all the horrors of which war is the father.
Louis had expanded and shaped France’s frontiers, incorporating Alsatians, Burgundians and Flemings fully into the national family, with major towns like Dunkirk, Lille and Strasbourg. Autocracy plus his personal qualities had cemented French identity. He had put Bourbons on Spain’s throne, and taken territories across the globe. But the cost had been astronomical – and he had picked the wrong side in too many conflicts. England, Austria, Prussia and Savoy all grew more powerful as a result of his mistaken policies, and his acquisitions in India, Canada and Louisiana had to be given up. The dictatorial powers he had assumed would be even more abused by his successors, and as late as 1789 the economic effects of his profligacy could still be felt, becoming, in Mansel’s view, ‘the trigger for the Revolution’. Louis’ armorial crests and statues were smashed in towns across France, and Versailles, the once throbbing heart of Europe, was downgraded to a museum.
Between the Bourbon restoration and the end of the Second Empire, he was viewed more sympathetically, while post-1870 Presidents have all benefited from his centralisation of powers, and mantled themselves in quasi-monarchical mystique. De Gaulle – from a royalist family, with Jacobite connections, from Lille, one of Louis’ conquests – owned portraits of Louis and described the Fifth Republic as ‘an elective monarchy’, and his ‘certain idea of France’ lingers sadly still. Versailles is again one of the great sights of Europe, and its creator is more admired now than a century ago – ironically, just as the country he sought to serve tilts towards cultural and demographic denouement. At times, Louis’ world feels infinitely far from ours – but by shining such strong lights on it Philip Mansel unexpectedly illuminates modernity.
This review first appeared in the November 2019 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission