Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Louis XIV, 300 Years and a Day

Three hundred years ago and a day, Louis XIV died but five days before his 77th birthday. He had reigned for 72 years and 110 days, the longest of any monarch since the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses the Second, who died aged ninety in 1213 BC.

Like Ramesses, Louis was named "the Great," and not to be outdone, Voltaire named a century after him, "le siècle de Louis le Grand," the century of Louis the Great. The Durants, Will and Ariel, those Eisenhower-era icons of hardcover, multi-volume world history, did Voltaire one better and named an age after him, "the Age of Louis XIV." He was also christened Louis-Dieudonné (Louis, Miracle of God) for the very real wonder of being the issue of Louis XIII, sickly and enfeebled, who died when Louis was a small child. Fatherless, he was formed by the wily Italian cleric Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIII's first minister, reputed lover of his mother, Anne of Austria, and regent and mentor to the young monarch. He was also named le Roi Soleil, the Sun King, for his unprecedented patronage of the arts and his willful conflation of his own person with the sun god Apollo.

He defined absolutism, raised the vast palace at Versailles and many others besides, stumbled by revoking the Edict of Nantes, waged a succession of half-remembered Continental wars that earned him few friends but a good deal of territory and prestige, and perfected both state bureaucracy and state propaganda and in so doing became the radiant figurehead for the state and the kingdom of France and so in turn became the model for and envy of all other rulers of Europe and more profoundly the prototype of the ruler in the modern age.

His taste in all things was slavishly copied, as were his pretensions. He also bankrupted France with his endless wars and inveterate building and so ultimately set the stage for the French Revolution.

He notably loved women, flattery, ballet, hunting, building, military sieges, his own reputation, children, flowers, France and God, though he came late to the last of that randomly ordered list. Mazarin formed his political mind and fundamentally he was more clever than smart; he was also one of the most civilized personages ever to live, which gives a perhaps-misplaced sheen of great intelligence through perfected manners. He knew how to delegate and was a fair though not exceptional judge of character and ability, and he kept a vast number of secrets and never committed to anything when directly asked, always replying, "On verra." One will see.

Having outlived most of his own family and all but one of his direct heirs, he died a horrible death of gangrene that began in one leg and gradually consumed him over a period of weeks. He also died as he had lived, without complaint, with exceptional good humor and exquisite consideration for those about him and with great dignity.

When the future Louis XV was brought to him on his deathbed, he advised the child, "Do not follow the bad example which I have set you; I have often gone to war too lightly and sustained it for vanity. Do not imitate me in this, but be a peaceful prince, and strive for the betterment of your people." 

He was eminently quotable, even to his last words. All those attending him agree that those words were "Je m'en vais, mais l'État demeurera toujours." ("I am departing, but the state will endure.")

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