Louis XIV was one of four leaders, (along with Charles V, Napoleon, and Adolf Hitler) who had an opportunity to establish their hegemony over much of Europe in the time period after 1500. Although Louis XIV failed in his attempt to dominate Europe politically, it was during this time span that Europe was very strongly influenced by French culture and civilization.
Louis XIV is a paradigm of European monarchs. He was known as Louis the Great, The Grand Monarch, and the Sun King. Louis lived from 1638 until 1715. He reigned as king of France from 1643 until 1715. He was actually in power from 1661 until 1715.
His legacy is somewhat unusual. Some historians believe that Louis’ wars and heavy taxation policies led eventually to the outbreak of the French Revolution. He repeatedly tried to move France’s eastern boundary to the Rhine river. Two hundred and fifty years after Louis XIV, a leader would emerge in Germany who would claim all that he was trying to do was to reverse the outcome of the wars fought between Louis XIV’s France and the Germans.
Louis’ father was Louis XIII and his mother was Anne of Austria. There is some dispute as to who actually fathered Louis XIV because his father was mentally unstable and did not like Anne of Austria. Whatever the reality, Louis was born on September 5, 1638. By all accounts Louis’ childhood was not very happy. He was reared primarily by servants. At one point he almost drowned in a pond because no one was watching him.
His father died on May 14, 1643, when Louis was four and one-half years old. The regent who ruled France during the youth of Louis was Cardinal Mazarin from Italy. Mazarin’s policies were clever, complex and successful.
Mazarin played a major role in bringing about the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Mazarin basically wanted to end the conflict among the Catholic powers of Europe, and to use the power of France to oppose the Hapsburgs (Austria and Spain). Internally, in France, he wanted to continue the policies of Louis XIII and Richelieu who wanted to curb the powers of the French nobility and strengthen the power of the monarchy.
In 1648, when Louis was 10 years old, certain nobles in France and the Paris Parlement (a court of law) began a civil war against Mazarin and the young king. These disturbances were known as Fronde. They lasted for 5 years. During this formative period Louis experienced a loss of funds, a life lived in fear, and a deep sense of humiliation. After all, in theory, he was not only the master of his realm, but the owner of everything in it: How dare the nobles rise against him! It has been suggested that because of these events in his early years, Louis could never forgive or find sympathy for the “common” people, the nobility as a class, or the city of Paris.
By 1653 Mazarin had defeated the various elements who were fighting against the Crown. Louis and Mazarin proceeded to build a highly centralized administrative system for France. Mazarin also closely guided the education of the young king. Louis respected his regent and quite naturally began to share Mazarin’s liking for the Arts and a highly elaborate courtly style. Louis became involved in the war that France was fighting against Spain and he learned during his later teen-age years how to command on the battlefields.
The turning point in Louis’ life came on March 9, 1661, when Mazarin died. For 37 years France had been governed in fact, not by kings but by the powerful ministers, Richelieu and Mazarin. It was expected that Louis would follow this system and appoint another minister to rule in his name. But Louis had a different idea: He believed that he was entitled to dictate law and order to France. The source of this power was God. Louis was entitled to be the master of France because God willed it.