Louis XIV and France
Louis XIV was born in September 1638; in 1651 (aged thirteen) he was declared of age officially, but he did not take control of government until the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661.
Louis XIV had not received much of an academic education, although he later picked up some Latin and modern languages. He was a handsome and athletic youth who had mastered fencing, dancing and riding. Mazarin had coached the king in ruling, and commented that Louis questioned him critically.
Louis had a high opinion of himself and an exalted view of the office of king; he believed that God endowed kings with their power and expected them to rule personally. But he was also hard-working, spending many hours studying state papers. Louis XIV's military education came from Henry, Viscount of Turenne and Michel Le Tellier.
Louis's childhood experience of the Fronde was one he was determined not to see repeated: - Louis reduced the power of the nobles, the parlement, and the people.

"There was a prince of my own family and of great renown at the head of my enemies and a host of plots in the state. The parlements were in the habit of (and enjoyed) usurping authority, and in my court fidelity was hardly to be seen without some accompanying self-interest".

Louis XIV on the Fronde.

Louis XIV

In personality, Louis was reserved, suspicious and secretive. He ate a great deal but drank little. He was polite and accomplished at ceremonial display.
Louis enjoyed having books read to him, especially the works of the dramatist, Jean Racine (1639-99) who became the King's official historian. Louis also appreciated the fine arts.
In 1660 Louis married Maria Theresa, the daughter of Philip IV of Spain, who in 1661 bore a son, Louis the Dauphin.
[See Family Tree]
Louis also had many mistresses, including Louise de la Vallière, Françoise-Athénaïs, Marquise of Montespan, and Françoise Scarron (née d’Aubigné), Madame de Maintenon the last of whom he secretly married after the death of Maria Theresa (1683). Thereafter, Louis lived a life of pious domesticity.
Louis was always religious, attending mass every day, and was deeply suspicious both of Protestants and of the Jansenists (a Catholic Augustinian group). However, he had no real interest in theology, and his piety did not stop him adopting a practical - even mercenary - policy in regard to clerical appointments and church lands.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-83)
Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-83)

Central administration


Louis XIII had ruled through Cardinal Richelieu, and Cardinal Mazarin had acted as chief minister during the regency of Anne and Louis XIV's younger years. Immediately after Mazarin's death (March 1661), Louis XIV announced his attention of ruling personally without a chief minister. He removed his mother, Anne of Austria from the Conseil d’en Haut (High Council) and replaced powerful clergymen and nobles with bureaucrats drawn from the lesser nobility.
Nicolas Fouquet, Marquis de Belle-Isle, the superintendent of finances had expected to succeed Mazarin as principal minister. Instead, Louis XIV worked in concert with Jean-Baptiste Colbert to arrange Fouquet's downfall on charges of corruption. Colbert took over as finance minister.
Hugues de Lionne became Louis' foreign minister and remained so until his death in 1671, when he was succeeded by Arnauld de Pomponne.
Michel Le Tellier had been Louis XIV's minister of war since 1643, and he worked steadily to discipline and control the armed forces.

His son, François Michel Le Tellier, Marquis of Louvois, who became secretary of state for war in 1677, continued his father's attempts at reform until his death in 1691

At that point Louis-François-Marie Le Tellier de Louvois, Marquis of Barbezieux took over the department; he was Louvois' son.
Not to be outdone by the Le Tellier clan, the Colbert family provided four ministers apart from the "Great Colbert" (Jean-Baptiste). His brother Charles Colbert, Marquis of Croissy, was secretary of foreign affairs from 1679-96; his son, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Marquis of Seignelay was briefly secretary of state for the navy before dying suddenly in 1690; Croissy's son, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Marquis of Torcy, was minister of foreign affairs 1699-1715; finally, the Great Colbert's nephew, Nicolas Desmaretz was controller-general from 1709-15.
The Le Tellier and Colbert clans were linked by the marriage of the elder Le Tellier's sister to the Great Colbert's cousin.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, ("The Great Colbert")

Jean-Baptiste Colbert was born in Rheims in 1619, the son of an incompetent businessman. Educated by the Jesuits, he went to work for Mazarin, and was soon made Intendant of Mazarin's household.
He gained power by investigating Fouquet's financial misdeeds and recovering money for the crown. In 1665, he was made Controller General of Finance. He worked to reform and streamline the tax-collection system as well as to codify and unify French Law.
In 1664 Colbert was appointed in addition to the Superintendancy of Buildings and Arts, and in 1669 to the secretaryship of the Navy. Colbert was obsessed with fostering the growth of the navy:  - in 1661, the navy had only about 19 ships; by 1677 its numbers stood at 140.
Although Colbert was domineering to his inferiors, he always groveled to Louis XIV.
Some historians have seen Colbert's policies as unimaginative and essentially bourgeois (despite his noble status and royal support); others have exalted his achievements and attributed his failures to the destructive effects of the wars that beset France after 1673.


"Although the rationalization of state finances, the industrial initiatives and the stimulus to commerce were less positive and durable … there still remain the merits of [Colbert's] legislative achievement, his success with the navy, the beginning of a considerable colonial empire and his unique role as an artistic patron" (Bluche).

"There is indeed a large measure of truth in the contention that Colbert's mind never rose to the level of a general idea. Here was the perfect bureaucrat whose concern was with the way the machinery ran, rather than with the function it performed" (Wilson).


Nobles and bureaucrats

Louis XIV required that the greater nobles attend his court (at their own expense) and in return he gave them offices with fine titles but little power. The King wanted the nobles at court so that they could not build up independent power in the provinces. He wanted the administration staffed by competent officials, dependent on him for their tenure. A noble commentator (the Duke of Saint-Simon) sneered at Louis XIV's administration as "Règne de vile bourgeoisie" (the rule of the contemptible bourgeoisie).


Colbert never had the financial resources to buy back all the hereditary offices and give the crown complete freedom of action, but he did reduce their number and the money spent on them.
Colbert continued Richelieu's and Mazarin's policies of using centrally-appointed intendants to control hereditary officeholders.
Louis XIV blamed the parlement of Paris for the Fronde, and set about reducing its powers. In 1673, he forced it to register edicts before it prepared remonstrances - this effectively stripped it of the power to hold up legislation.
Louis also bullied the members of the local  parlements, such as that of Languedoc, into subservience. These and the parlement of Paris retained some vestigial privileges, but ceased to be a real check on royal power.


Colbert did not restructure the system of taxation - but he did try hard to ensure that it was efficiently administered.
When the war with Spain finally ended in 1659, direct taxation was reduced and many arrears written off. Indirect taxation rose as France grew more prosperous.
Like Richelieu before him, Colbert tried to encourage economic growth. He created state industries, protected French producers with high tariffs (especially from the Dutch), and established trading companies.

Gobelins tapestry

Colbert established state factories for luxury goods (the most famous was Les Gobelins). He also regulated every possible aspect of the private sector:  - the innumerable guild ordinances and product règlements were meant to ensure high manufacturing standards, but they spawned a parasitic bureaucracy  and cramped the free development of industry.


Most of Colbert's economic projects failed, or succeeded only temporarily, but since the demands of war meant that Colbert's initial plans were never carried through, it is difficult to know whether those plans were inherently flawed.


Versailles In 1682, Louis XIV moved into the Palace of Versailles. This immense and luxurious residence not only set the standard for royal palaces across Europe, it acted as a showpiece of the French monarch's power and grandeur.

The French Academy had been founded in 1634; the Royal Academy of Painting was created in 1648. These tried to extend regulation to artistic creativity.
In 1666, Colbert established the Royal Academy of Science (Académie Royal des Sciences) to encourage scientific investigation. Unlike the informal, unofficial Royal Society of England, this was an institution of state, with a limited membership, salaried academicians, and required attendance.


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