Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

Louis XIV—the Grand Monarch

Richelieu bequeathed his famous Palais Cardinal to the royal family of France. He left the reins of tyranny in the hands of Mazarin, a Spaniard, who had complete ascendancy over the so-called Regent, Anne of Austria.

There was not much state in the magnificent palace of little Louis XIV during his long minority, and he chafed against the restrictions of a parsimonious household. Mazarin was bent on amassing riches for himself and would not untie the purse-strings even for those gala-days on which the court was expected to be gorgeous. He stinted the education of the heir to the Crown, fearing that a well-equipped youth would demand the right to govern for himself. His system was so successful in the end that the mightiest of the Bourbon kings could barely read and write.

Yet Louis XIV grew strong and handsome, with a superb bearing that was not concealed by his shabby clothes, and a dauntless arrogance that resented all slights on the royal prerogative. He refused to drive in the dilapidated equipage which had been provided for his use, and made such a firm stand against Mazarin's avarice in this case that five new carriages were ordered.

The populace rose, too, against the first minister of the State, whose wealth had increased enormously through his exactions from the poorer classes. France was full of abuses that Richelieu himself had scarcely tried to sweep away. The peasants laboured under heavy burdens, the roads were dangerous for all travellers, and the streets of cities were infested after nightfall by dangerous pickpockets and assassins. There had been a great victory won at Rocroy by the Due d'Enghien, who routed the Spanish and sent two hundred and sixty standards to the church of Notre Dame; but this glorious feat of arms brought neither food nor clothing to the poor, and the fierce internal strife, known as La Fronde, broke out. The very name was undignified, being derived from a kind of sling used by the urchins of the Paris streets. It was a mere series of brawls between Frondeurs and Mazarins, and brought much humiliation to the State.

In 1649, civil war began which withdrew France somewhat from European broils. Enghien (Conde) returned to Paris to range himself against the unruly Parlement as leader of the court party, and to try to reduce Paris by a military force. When the capital was besieged Anne of Austria had to retire to Saint-Germains with her son, who suffered the indignity of sleeping on a bed of straw in those troubled times. She concluded peace rather thankfully in March when the besieged citizens had suffered severely from want of food. The young King showed himself in Paris in August when the tumult was at its worst, for the troubles of King Charles I of England incited the Frondeurs to persevere in their desire for a French Republic, where no minister should exercise the royal prerogatives.

Mazarin played a losing game, and went into exile when Louis XIV was declared of age. The young King was only thirteen but had the dignity of manhood in his air and carriage, and showed no fear in accepting absolute power. But it was not until ten years later that he was finally freed from Mazarin. When the cardinal was dead he proclaimed his future policy to the state of France—"Gentlemen," said he, "I shall be my own prime minister."

In November 1659, the Treaty of the Pyrenees had restored peace to France and Spain. In the following year Louis XIV wedded the Infanta, daughter of Philip IV, who renounced all her prospective rights to the Spanish crown. Mazarin had done well for France in these last diplomatic efforts for the crown, but he had forced the people to contribute to the enormous fortune which he made over to the King.

Colbert was the indefatigable minister who aided the new monarch to restore the dignity of court life in France. He revealed vast hoards which the crafty Mazarin had concealed, and formed schemes of splendour that should be worthy of a splendid king.

Louis XIV was one of the richest monarchs of Christendom, with a taste for royal pomp that could be gratified only by an enormous display of wealth. He wished the distasteful scenes of his early life to be forgotten by his subjects, and decided to build himself a residence that would form a fitting background for his own magnificence. He would no longer live within the walls of Paris, a capital which had shown disrespect to monarchy.

The ancient palace of the Louvre was not fine enough for Louis, and Versailles was built at a cost of twenty millions, and at a sacrifice of many humble lives, for the labourers died at their work and were borne from the beautiful park with some attempt at secrecy. It was a stately place, and thither every courtier must hasten if he wished for the favour of the King. It became the centre of the gayest world of Europe, for there were ambassadors there from every foreign court.

Etiquette, so wearisome to many monarchs, was the delight of the punctilious Louis XIV; every detail of his life was carried out with due regard to the dignity that he held to be the fitting appendage of a king. When he rose and dressed, when he dined or gave audience, there were fixed rules to be observed. He was never alone though he built Marly, expressing some wish that he might retire occasionally from the weariness of the court routine. His brothers stood in the royal presence, and there was no real family life. He was the grand monarch, and represented the majesty of France most worthily on the occasions of ceremony, when velvet and diamonds increased his stately grace. "The State—it is Myself," he was fond of declaring, and by this remark satisfied his conscience when he levied exorbitant taxes to support the lavish magnificence of his court.

Ignorant as the king was through the device of Mazarin, he was proud of the genius that shed lustre on the French nation. Corneille and Racine wrote tragedies of classic fame, and Moliere, the greatest of all comedians, could amuse the wit of every visitor to the court. Louis gave banquets at Versailles in honour of the dramatists he patronized, and had their plays performed in a setting so brilliant that ambition might well be satisfied. Tales of royal bounty spread afar and attracted the needy genius of other lands. Louis' heart swelled with pride when he received the homage of the learned and beheld the deference of messengers from less splendid courts. He sat on a silver throne amid a throng of nobles he had stripped of power. It was part of his policy to bring every landowner to Versailles, where fortunes vanished rapidly. It was useless to hope for office it the suitor did not come to make a personal appeal.

Parisians grumbled that the capital should be deserted by the King, but they were appeased on holidays by free admission to the sights of sumptuous Versailles. The King himself would occasionally appear in ballets performed by some exclusive company of the court. There was always feasting toward and sweet music composed by Lulli, and they were amazed and interested by the dazzling jets of water from the fountains that had cost such fabulous sums. Court beauties were admired together with the Guards surrounding the King's person in such fine array. Rumours of the countless servants attached to the service of the court gave an impression that the power of France could never fail. Patriotic spirit was aroused by the fine spectacle of the hunting-train as it rode toward the forests which lay between Versailles and the capital. The Grand Huntsman of France was a nobleman, and had a splendid retinue. "Hallali, valets! Hallali!" was echoed by many humble sportsmen when the stag was torn to pieces by the pack.

A special stud of horses was reserved for Louis' use in time of war. He had shown himself a bold youth on the battlefield in Mazarin's time, fighting in the trenches like a common soldier that his equipment might not be too heavy an expense. He chose, however, to be magnificent enough as a warrior when he disturbed the peace of Europe by his arrogant pride.

[Illustration] from Heroes of Modern Europe by Alice Birkhead


Philip IV of Spain died in 1665, leaving his dominions to Charles II, half-brother of France's Queen. Louis declared that Maria Theresa had not been of age when she renounced her claims and that, moreover, the dowry of 500,000 golden crowns promised in consideration of this renunciation had not been paid. He wished to secure to his consort the Flemish provinces of Brabant, Mechlin, Antwerp, etc., and to this end made a treaty with the Dutch. He was compelled to postpone his attack on the Spanish possessions by a war with England which broke out through his alliance with Holland, her great commercial rival at that date.

Louis XIV showed himself perfidious in his relationship with the Dutch when he concluded a secret peace with Charles II of England in 1667. He marched into the Netherlands, supported by a new alliance with Portugal, and intended to claim the whole Spanish monarchy at some future date. Many towns surrendered, for he had a well-disciplined army and no lack of personal courage. Turenne and Conde, his brave generals, made rapid conquests which filled all Europe with alarm.

But Louis' campaigns involved him in disastrous warfare with too many foes. He was a bigoted persecutor of the Protestant, and made a secret treaty with England's treacherous ruler, Charles II, who, to his lasting shame, became a pensioner of the French King, agreeing, in return for French subsidies, to second Louis' designs on Spain. France herself was torn by wars of religion in 1698 when the Edict of Nantes was revoked and the real intentions of the King were revealed to subjects who had striven, in the face of persecution, to be loyal.

Louis XIV was under the influence of Madame de Maintenon, whom he married privately after the death of his neglected Queen. This favourite, once the royal governess and widow of the poet Scarron, was strictly pious, and desired to see the Protestants conform. She founded the convent of Saint-Cyr, a place of education for beautiful young orphan girls, and placed at the head of it Fenelon, the priest and writer. She urged the King continually to suppress heresy in his dominions, and was gratified by the sudden and deadly persecution that took place as the seventeenth century closed.

Torture and death were excused as acts necessary for the establishment of the true faith, and soon all France was hideous with scenes of martyrdom. Children were dragged from their parents and placed in Catholic households, where their treatment was most cruel unless they promised to embrace the Catholic religion. Women suffered every kind of indignity at the hands of the soldiers who were sent to live in the houses and at the cost of heretics. These Dragonnades were carried on with great brutality, shameful carousals being held in homes once distinguished for elegance and refinement. Nuns had instructions to convert the novices under their rule by any means they liked to employ. Some did not hesitate to obtain followers of the Catholic Church by the use of the scourge, and fasting and imprisonment in noisome dungeons.

There was fierce resistance in the country districts, and armed men sprang up to defend their homes, welcoming even civil war if by that means they could attain protection. The contest was unequal, for the peasants had been weakened by centuries of oppression, and there were strange seignorial rights which the weak dared not refuse when they were opposing the government in their obstinate choice of a religion.

The reign of the Grand Monarch was losing radiance, though Louis was far from acknowledging that all was not well in that broad realm which owned him master. He had discarded the frivolities of his youth and kept a dreary solemn state at Versailles, where decorous Madame de Maintenon was all-powerful. He did not lament his Spanish wife nor Colbert the minister, who died in the same year, for strict integrity was not valued too highly by the King of France. Yet Colbert's work remained in the mighty palaces his constructive energy had planned, the bridges and fortresses and factories which he had held necessary for France's future greatness as a nation. Louis paid scant tribute of regret to the memory of one who had toiled indefatigably in his service; but he looked complacently on Versailles and reflected that it would survive, even if the laurels of glory should be wrested from his brow.

In 1700, Louis' prestige had dwindled in Europe, where he had once been feared as a sovereign ambitious for universal monarchy. William the Stadtholder, now ruler of England with his Stuart wife, had been disgusted by the persecution of the French Protestants and had resolved to avenge Louis' seizure of his principality of Orange. Chance enabled this man to ally the greater part of Europe against the ambition of the Grand Monarch. War had been declared by England against France in 1689, and prosecuted most vigorously till Louis XIV was gradually deprived of his finest conquests. Though this was concluded in 1697 by the Peace of Ryswick, the French King's attempt to win the crown of Spain for his grandson, the Duke of Anjou, caused a renewal of hostilities.

William III was in failing health, but a mighty general had arisen to defeat the projects of the French King. The news of the Duke of Marlborough's victories in Flanders made it evident that the power of Louis XIV in the battlefield was waning. Yet the French monarch did not reflect the terror on the faces of his courtiers when the great defeat of Lille was announced in his royal palace. He observed all the usual duties of his daily life and affected a serenity that other men might envy when they bewailed the passing of the Old Order, or repeated the prophecy once made by an astrologer that the end of Louis XIV's reign should not be glorious as the beginning.

The King retained his marvellous composure to the last, too haughty to bend before misfortune or to retire even if the enemy came to the very gates of Paris. At seventy-six he still went out to hunt the stag; he held Councils of State long after his health was really broken. He said farewell to the officers of the crown in a voice as strong as ever when he was banished to the sick-room in 1715, and upbraided the weeping attendants, asking them if they had indeed come to consider him immortal.

The reign of seventy-two years, so memorable in the annals of France, drew to a close with the life that had embodied all its royalty. Louis XIV died "as a candle that goes out"—deserted even by Madame de Maintenon, who determined to secure herself against adversity by retirement to the convent of Saint-Cyr. There was no loud mourning as the King's corpse was driven to the tomb on a car of black and silver, for the new century knew not the old reverence for kings. It was the age of Voltaire and the mocking sceptic.