Louis XIV was five years old when his father, Louis XIII, died. Since he was much too young to rule, his mother, Anne of Austria, ruled for him until he came of age. His reign was extraordinarily long, extending from 1643 to 1715.
Louis was a 17th century epitome for an absolute monarch. He couldn’t take all the power to himself because of certain rules. For example, there were venal offices, offices that people could buy and they would stay there, and they could not be fired. There were also the various parlements which, although their power was limited, still had a lot of influence. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a financial manager with mercantilist ideas, tried to buy back some of the venal offices, but did not succeed. But he did manage to bring a lot of the power back to the king.
Louis is famous for building the home of the royal family, the splendid, expensive Versailles. It was huge, with tons of gardens and huge palaces. It cost so much to build that Louis had the financial papers burned so that no one could know the bizarre amount of money that went into it.
High ceremony was observed strictly. No one could turn their back on the king or his picture. One also had to bow to the king’s dinner. It was considered a great honor to hold Louis’ shirt, or light a candle for him. These sorts of petty rituals always attended the king.
Louis was also able to successfully put down several tax revolts.
Louis wanted religious uniformity, and his choice religion was Catholicism. But there was the Edict of Nantes, which said that the French Protestant Huguenots could be tolerated. Nevertheless, Louis made life extremely difficult for the Huguenots. French soldiers were stationed in Huguenot homes, and they did terrible things.
Finally, it got so bad that over 200,000 Huguenots left France. At this point Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes and officially banned Protestantism. Thus it can be understood why he didn’t want Jansenism.
Jansenism was a Catholic branch with Calvinist ideas like predestination. A convent called Port Royal was very Jansenist. The French troops went there and told the nuns that they had fifteen minutes to get out. Then the convent was burned to the ground.
Warfare modernization was also accomplished. Weapons such as muskets, bayonets and pre-packaged cartridges were introduced. The army was also expanded.
France became the dominant power in Europe, as in the time of Charlemagne. Louis wanted to expand, so he invaded the Netherlands, started the Franco-Dutch war, and then turned to Germany, tried to take over there, but was forced to make peace when a six-country alliance was formed against him.
Louis, during all the wars and building, taxed the French people to the utmost. He even put a tax on baptism and marriage. The people were starving.
Louis sent a candidate for the crown of Spain when childless Charles VI died. But eventually he was forced to step down, lose some territory, draw back and stay in France with his grandson Philip, Duke of Anjou.
When Louis was on his deathbed in 1715, he uttered these words to his successor:
“My child, you are going to be a great king. Do not imitate me in the taste that I have had for building and for war. Try on the contrary to be at peace with your neighbors. Render to God what you owe Him. Recognize the obligations you are under to Him. Make Him honored by your subjects. Try to comfort your people, which, unhappily, I have not done. My dear child, I give you my benediction with all my heart.”
So, Louis was able to recognize his own faults and tell another not to make the same mistakes. This, I think, is what made Louis XIV great.