Why Was Louis Xiv Called the Sun King?
Louis XIV (5 September 1638 – 1 September 1715), was the King of France from 1643 to 1715 and was known as the Louis the Great (Louis le Grand) or the Sun King (le Roi-Soleil), because of the general style and magnificence of his reign. Although he became king when he was four, he did not assume his full powers until 1661, after the death of the famous Italian Cardinal Mazarin. Louis then became his own “first minister” and embarked upon years of personalized government.
His reign of 72 years and 110 days is the longest of any monarch of a major country in European history. In this age of absolutism in Europe, Louis XIV’s France was a leader in the growing centralization of power. Louis thoroughly enjoyed being king. He desired to shine in his role and a prime aim of his government was to foster any project that added to the king’s glory.
He became a great patron of the arts and gave personal encouragement to writers who were to become some of the greatest names in French literature, including Molière and Racine. Architecture, of course, was one of the most obvious ways of adding to the grandeur of his reign. The Palace of Versailles also took shape under his direction. He constantly changed his mind and frequently altered the plans for the palace. In 1685 Versailles, by then one of Europe’s most beautiful palaces, became the Sun King’s permanent seat of government.
Louis entertained on an appropriately lavish scale and the grace, elegance and excesses of his Court became a by-word throughout the civilized world. But he did have excellent taste. The delightful château of Marly-le-Roi is another example of this. Life at Court was governed by careful and meticulous rules, although the Sun Kings’ love affairs were greatly resented by the nobility since his various mistresses were given high rank and exercised a considerable influence on policy.
But despite Louis’ very dubious private life he revelled in the title of “most Christian king” and did his best to protect the Catholic religion. This resulted in him making life for his Protestant subjects thoroughly uncomfortable.
Indeed, in 1685 he issued an edict under which Protestantism was no longer tolerated in France. It is easy to smile at some of the Sun King’s escesses but even Voltaire, the great French satirist, extolled his reign for the glory it added to the fame of France and French civilization. Louis encouraged good administration, promoted industry and attended diligently to his duties as “first minister” and steered France through the long war of the Spanish Succession.
During Louis’ reign, France was the leading European power, and it fought three major wars: the Franco-Dutch War, the War of the League of Augsburg, and the War of the Spanish Succession. There were also two lesser conflicts: the War of Devolution and the War of the Reunions. Warfare defined Louis XIV’s foreign policies, and his personality shaped his approach.
Impelled “by a mix of commerce, revenge, and pique,” Louis sensed that warfare was the ideal way to enhance his glory. In peacetime he concentrated on preparing for the next war. He taught his diplomats their job was to create tactical and strategic advantages for the French military.