Lead book review

The glory and the misery of Louis XIV’s France

6 July 2019

9:00 AM

6 July 2019

9:00 AM

I was flicking through an old copy of The Spectator the other day, one of the issues containing contributors’ ‘Christmas Books’, and there was a comment of Jonathan Sumption’s that ‘as a general rule, biography is a poor way to learn history’. It is primarily a matter of approach rather than simply subject of course, but if one was drawing up a shortlist of men who might qualify as exceptions to the rule, then Philip Mansel’s ‘King of the World’, Louis XIV, would surely be very near the top.

Louis XIV came to the throne in 1638 at the age of four with the monarchy ‘on a knife edge’ and died 72 years later with his country virtually bankrupt; but in the decades between he left a mark on France and Europe that no French king can match. As an infant his ‘voracious’ appetite took him through eight bruised and exhausted wet nurses, and whether it was women or work, his army or his pleasures, his benevolence or brutality, the same insatiable appetite would mark his whole life.

‘The neighbours of France should beware such precocious rapacity,’ the Swedish diplomat Grotius prophetically remarked of the new dauphin, but it would be some while before France and Europe found out just what they had got. On his deathbed Louis XIII had appointed his wife, Anne of Austria, regent for their infant son, and for the first years of his reign — years marked by a deep hatred of the king’s first minister, Cardinal Mazarin, rising taxes, simmering rebellion, the court’s nocturnal flight from Paris, and the spreading anarchy of the Fronde — only his youth saved Louis from the resentment that engulfed the regency. ‘Paris is in uproar,’ Mansel writes:

Princes and provinces rebel. Cities shut their gates in the king’s face. The countryside is devastated. Frenchmen claim that their kings have a duty to their subjects, as well as subjects to kings, and that obedience to kings is conditional on their observance of the law.

It was increasingly apparent, though, that as the king grew up the greatest asset that the court party had was Louis himself.  It is always difficult with Louis to penetrate the layers of sycophancy that invariably obscure the man, but what is clear is that the child who burst into tears at his first address to the Paris parlement, had developed into a paragon of youthful royalty, ‘a young Apollo’, in John Evelyn’s words, ‘of sweet yet grave countenance’, ‘affable, informal and Parisian’ when he wanted to be, and with ‘une mine fière et hautaine’ when he needed it. ‘Such is his goodness and facility of humour,’ his confessor recorded on his entry into Rouen, ‘joined to the grace of his body and the sweetness of his glance, that I know no more powerful philtre to enchain hearts. All Normandy could not tire of the sight of him.’

On a scale suitable to its subject, King of the World is in one way an extended moral fable, the story of how this ‘kind and modest boy’, intelligent, hard-working, courageous but naturally cautious, became the self-destructive monarch who savagely persecuted his Huguenot subjects, ravaged whole swathes of Europe, and taxed France into starvation, misery and revolt. In his later life Louis would sometimes complain that his education had been neglected; but those early years of struggle with the Frondeurs,  of Parlement and the Princes, were a political education in themselves, and the lesson Louis took out of them was the seductive and corrupting appeal of absolutism.

‘Above all,’ Mansel writes, he learned ‘that a king must, like Henri IV, exercise his authority himself, not leave it in the hands of his ministers’; and as early as his coming of age at 13 he declared his intention to take charge of France’s government. His rule was, as Mansel is careful to point out, never as absolute as Louis’s own mythology might suggest, and yet if he never actually said ‘l’état c’est moi’, the aggrandisement of France and French influence through war, diplomacy and dynastic manoeuvring would always be bound up with Louis’s own cult of self-glorification and search for ‘the most exquisite praises of history’.

When we think of Louis now, we think inevitably of Versailles, and yet as Mansel points out, Vauban’s fortifications were as typical a product of his reign as were his palaces. After his mother, the greatest love of his life was very likely his army, and if he was no Napoleon (he would always prefer a siege to a battle), much of his reign was spent fighting against Spain, the Dutch, the House of Austria, England and — though by now his own campaigning days were over — the grand alliance against him commanded by William III, Marlborough and Prince Eugene during the long War of Spanish Succession.

Mansel tells the story of these wars fluently and fairly, evenly balancing Louis’s achievements and the damage that he did to his country, but as one might expect of a connoisseur of court life from Napoleonic France to Ottoman Constantinople, his heart is elsewhere. For the first 11 chapters the book follows a dutifully chronological path through Louis’s reign, and then in the middle the narrative is broken off for three chapters — The King Outdoors, Inside Versailles, Inside Louis XIV — that together make up the real core of this biography.

Anyone who wants to write about Louis XIV had better have an appetite for the rituals of the lever, coucher and commode, for ballets, palace intrigues, royal mistresses, precedence, le Nôtre gardens, mind-numbing figures and lots of lace, and Mansel certainly is not the historian to sell his readers short. For the last 20 years of Louis’s life religious persecutions and the barbarism of his armies made his name synonymous with tyranny, but these central chapters are a vivid reminder that for much of his reign the arts were as much an instrument of policy as the cannon, and that the Sun King who held court and received ambassadors at Versailles — the Louis who fostered French artists, sustained French industry, danced with Molière and befriended Racine — was the monarch who raised the prestige of France above that of any other nation in Europe.

The ‘new Attila’ or the ‘great and immortal flower, whose perfume scented all Europe’? The Most Christian Majesty or ‘Most Christian Turk’? The wonder of the age or ‘une petite Sodome’? Louis and his court might excite different reactions, but there could be no question about the cost of the millions of hours of labour that went into Versailles’s construction, of the engineering projects that serviced its fountains (there was only water enough to keep them playing where the king could see them), of the palace orchestras or the thousands it employed. During the lifetime of Colbert, Louis’s great minister of finances, some kind of control might have been possible, but as the wars and the buildings continued, and France’s debt soared, from 240 million livres at Colbert’s death to 1.8 billion on Louis’s, it would be a starving France and, almost exactly 80 years later, another Louis who would pay the penalty.

There is no point holding a book to task for only doing what it sets out to do — this is a royal biography and not a history of 17th-century France — but if there is something missing from this richly detailed account it is a physical sense of that France and the Europe beyond the court and the campaign trains of Louis’s army. While it is true that the horrors of burnt villages and devastated cities are here, with the solitary exception of Paris — ‘a cauldron of combustible institutions’ as Mansel calls it — it is almost as if France and its 19 million people only existed in relation to their king’s demands.

That, though, is probably fair enough. ‘As for restitutions,’ Louis confessed on his deathbed, ‘I owe none to any private people, but as for those I owe to the kingdom, I must trust to the mercy of God.’ It was a just distinction, if a little late. If Louis had once known what the duty of a sovereign to his people was, there is little to suggest that he let it affect his policies.

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