The Sun King

How much for a Shot?  

How much does a snifter of Louis XIII (X=10, III=3, 13) cost? It is about $400 for a 2oz glass. Wonderful, I will probably never drink the blend of 1,200 Eaux-de-vie (spirits) sourced grapes from Grande Champagne and matured inside oak casks. However, it got me thinking about Louis the XIII and his legacy. It turns out he had a son, Louis the XIV (14), who changed how we see centralized governments and monarchies today.

Today, I focus on Louis the XIV, born on September 5, 1638, and became the longest reigning monarch in history. According to his mother, he was a gift from God, known as the Sun King, and reigned for 72 years and 110 days. His royal subjects might argue the gift from God moniker, but they witnessed corruption and lawlessness controlled more under his leadership than any other King before him.

Furthermore, at 23, Louis took control of the government, and his initial attention was on balancing France's budget when he assumed the throne. 

King Louis XIV

As a result, his mother, Queen Anne (Spanish), left him in charge when the treasury verged on bankruptcy. Some say France was broke because of all the wars and battles they were engaged in. Louis knew it was the corruption. He astonished his court by declaring that he would rule without a chief minister (executive authority of all the government). Louis the XIV would sign and approve all orders and agreements. He knew this was his chance to see who stole from the royal tax revenue. Above all, this would support a lawful and centralized government.

I'm the Tax Man

Franque - Jean-Baptiste Colbert

However, Louis took a more practical approach to alleviate some of the tax burdens on the poor, forcing the privileged to pay their share. A first in French history. Consequently, he knew he had to have an honest and intelligent Controller-General of Finances. 

Louis found this man in Jean-Baptiste Colbert (Steven's great uncle). But first, he had to dispose of the current  Superintendent of FinancesNicolas Fouquet, to give Colbert the freedom he needed to succeed. The King was worried about the political ambitions of Nicolas and knew he was stealing directly from the kingdom's tax collections. One example was Fouquet's opulent château at Vaux-le-Vicomte, where he entertained Louis and his court ostentatiously as if he were wealthier than the King.    

Fantasy Island 

Nicolas had one other bad idea; he indiscreetly purchased and privately fortified the remote island of Belle Île. An act that quickly sealed his fate. The King had Fouquet charged with embezzlement, and the Parlement found him guilty and sentenced him to exile. However, Louis altered the sentence to life imprisonment and canceled Fouquet's position entirely. As a result, a clear message that no one can steal from the King.  

The King and his finance general were in charge; they could make their mark. Above all, they could now tax the elite. Likewise, they also elevated the commerce coming in and out of France. For example, Colbert's mercantilist administration established new industries and encouraged manufacturers and inventors to come to France. Manufactures like Lyon silk and the Gobelins, a producer of tapestries, found doing business in France was more lucrative. Colbert invited European manufacturers and artisans to France, such as Murano glassmakers, Swedish ironworkers, and Dutch shipbuilders. The goal was to decrease imports while increasing French exports, reducing the net outflow of precious metals from France.

As the benefactor of this new wealth, the King transformed the royal hunting lodge in Versailles, where he played as a boy, into a monument of regal luxury. In 1682, Louis XIV officially moved his court to the lavish palace at Versailles, 13 miles outside Paris. King Louis now had a place to showcase the power and wealth of France. Today, it is one of the most awe-inspiring showcases of craftsmanship and beauty humans can create.   

Palace of Versailles

Code Louis 

Louis's next focus was on the military. The leaders of the army had great power and influence. King Louis knew he must institute reforms in military administration through Michel le Tellier and the latter's son François-Michel le Tellier, Marquis de Louvois. They helped curb the nobility's independent spirit, instilling order in them at court and in the military. Bickering over precedence and ignoring orders from the capital would no longer be tolerated.  

The old military aristocracy ceased to monopolize senior military positions and ranks. Louvois, in particular, pledged to modernize the army and re-organize it into a professional, disciplined, well-trained force. He was devoted to the soldiers' material well-being and morale. Interesting side note, General George Washington hired Marquis de Lafayette to give strategic military training to the rag-tag U.S. Military in 1777. Without the help and guidance, the U.S. Army may have failed.    

Law and order were at the forefront of King Louis XIV's monarchy. Pre-Revolutionary France had many disconnected legal systems and measures in place. The Grande Ordonnance de Procédure Civile of 1667, also known as the Code Louis, was a comprehensive legal code to regulate civil procedure throughout France. Among other things, it stipulated baptismal, marriage, and death records in the state's registers, not the Church's. Furthermore, it strictly regulated the right of the Parlements to remonstrate (argue). The Code Louis was an essential part of French legal history as the basis for the Napoleonic code, from which many modern legal regulations are, in turn, emanated.

Map of France

Real estate 101

While King Louis XIV was helping to shape a new and better version of France, he still had his eye on new lands and the revenue it would provide him. Take, for example, his wife, Maria Theresa, who was the daughter of King Philip IV of Spain. As part of the marriage, Maria brought a dowery of 500,000 ecus (French coins worth $39M today). However, the King of Spain never paid the dowery, so Louis went after his new wife's land holdings. Thus, The War of Devolution started in the Spanish Netherlands (roughly corresponding to Belgium and Luxembourg today).

Meanwhile, Louis encroached on Dutch territories and upset several other countries allied with the Dutch. England and Sweden had now joined forces against the French. King Louis thoughtfully paid Sweden to remain neutral while he developed the Treaty of Westminster in February 1674. Returning the colony of New Netherland (now New York) to England and renewed the Treaty of Breda of 1667. The treaty also provided a mixed commission for regulating commerce, particularly in the East Indies.  

Above all, King Louis XIV saw Africa and America as new sources of wealth. He commissioned Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette to find new trade routes. In 1673 they discovered the Mississippi River. A path to navigate the continent, North to South. Nine years later, in 1682, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (no real Frenchman has a short name), followed the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and claimed the vast Mississippi basin in Louis' name, calling it Louisiane.  

In 1803, Robert Livingston and James Monroe closed on the sweetest real estate deal of the millennium when they signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty in Paris for $10M. What did we get for that money? Think Montana to Iowa and go down to Louisiana, about 827,000 square miles. Wow! 

Louisiana purchase territory 1803


In Africa, he created alliances with Suleiman Aga, who led the Ottoman embassy. He continued to influence other Siamese embassies, and the French influence grew at the Siamese court, which granted Mergui as a naval base to France. This alliance and land allowed France to compete with Portuguese dominance in China. A strategic move that has led to access to countries in the China Sea and the western Pacific Ocean to this day.

Under King Louis XIV, France was the leading European power. No European state surpassed its population, and no one could match its wealth, central location, and powerful, skilled army. The kingdom created a new tax system but suffered from an inefficient financial system that could barely pay for its military exploits. As a result, France was a target for other European rivals. By 1695, France retained much of its dominance but had lost control of the seas to England and Holland.   

Royal Standard of King Louis XIV

This is not for You

Near the end of King Loui's life, he thought about who his successor would be and saw that he had outlived his immediate legitimate family. In 1711 his last surviving "legitimate" son, Dauphin, died. The next in line was his five-year-old great-grandson, Louis, Duke of Anjou. Like his father, Louis XIII, he reduced the power vested in his illegitimate son Louis-Auguste de Bourbon, Duke of Maine. Consequently, after his death, he made himself the sole ruler. He stripped Maine and his brother, Louis-Alexandre, Count of Toulouse, of Prince of the Blood rank and significantly reduced Maine's power and privileges.

Securing France's sovereignty and retaining a centralized government free of the Church's influence was paramount for King Louis XIV. He accomplished this and died of gangrene at Versailles on September 1, 1715, four days before his 77th birthday, after 72 years on the throne. 

Are you In? 

Our collective history is full of amazing stories with all kinds of failures and victories. Ultimately, we can ignore this history or study it and learn. The choice is yours.

Versailles and the court under Louis XIV


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