The hyperbole that surrounded Louis XIV is neatly conveyed on the first page, with the very title—“King of the World”—swiftly followed by an epigraph penned by one of Louis’s many fawning courtiers: “You are destined to command the entire universe.” The first chapter is titled “The Gift of God,” as Parisians reacted to the news of the royal pregnancy early in 1638, as if, we learn, “the Messiah was about to be born.” The 36-year-old queen’s conception was seen as a miracle, a divine reward for King Louis XIII’s dedication of his kingdom to the Virgin Mary the previous year. When the child turned out to be a boy, his ecstatic parents named him “Louis Dieudonné” (Louis God-given). In quantitative terms at least, the Almighty continued to smile on him, making him the longest-reigning European sovereign of all time, racking up 72 years and 110 days.
The infant king was born into exciting times. The Thirty Years’ War was still raging across Central Europe; his childhood was disrupted by five years of civil disorder; and the age-old struggle between France and Spain was still meandering along its murderous path. It was only when those interrelated conflicts were settled, in 1648, 1653 and 1659 respectively, that Louis could begin to make his mark. Taking personal control of the French state in 1661, when his mentor Cardinal Mazarin died, he set about turning France into the dominant power in Europe. And he succeeded: “Not a dog barks in Europe unless our king says he may,” boasted a French diplomat in 1683. Political hegemony was matched by culture: When Louis came to the throne, the French language was only one of several used by European elites; by the time he died, it was supreme.
King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV
By Philip Mansel
Chicago, 604 pages, $35
It is one of Philip Mansel’s many achievements, in his biography of Louis XIV, that he explains more convincingly than any of his many predecessors how this was made possible. The reasons were partly structural: France had more people, more resources and (relatively speaking) a more effective administration than any of its rivals. What mattered most, however, were the personal qualities that allowed Louis to make the most of his inheritance.
To the fore was a capacity for hard work. Throughout his long reign, he hardly ever missed the council meetings held on every weekday morning, in addition to the regular sessions with individual ministers: “Work is the first object of His Majesty and he prefers it to everything else” was the admiring verdict of his most important minister, Colbert.
Unlike his two indolent successors (there were only three kings of France between 1643 and 1793), he was a tireless traveler. Among the many examples provided by Mr. Mansel, perhaps the best concerns the port of Dunkirk, bought from Charles II of England in 1662. Charles had never bothered to go there, but Louis set out at once, defying the rigors of a 300-mile journey in winter. He returned five times to “a city I regard as my own work,” to the delight of the inhabitants. At the other end of his kingdom was rebellious Marseille, reduced in person by the young king to trembling obedience and kept in that state by a garrison of 6,000 and two new forts. As one of the book’s helpful illustrations shows, Louis went up and down the length and breadth of his kingdom, at least during the first half of his reign.
At the center, Louis developed his court into an instrument for effective government, social control and cultural promotion. In Mr. Mansel’s subtle analysis, the Palace of Versailles was not a gilded cage but a joint venture, existing to please courtiers as much as the king. It was an irresistible combination of marriage market, employment agency and entertainment capital of aristocratic Europe, boasting the best theater, opera, music, gambling, sex and (most important) hunting. To work properly, it required hard work. As Louis told his daughter-in-law when she was reluctant to attend a court function: “We are not like private people; we owe ourselves entirely to the public.” It was also a place of conspicuous piety, in which daily church services were conducted with elaborate ritual, an aspect to which Mr. Mansel rightly devotes much space.
In chapel, at the hunt, at the balls and banquets, the “Sun King” reigned in solitary eminence, socially distanced from his elites by rigid etiquette. This was a system that worked well when he was young, vigorous, handsome and lucky. Had he died at some point in the 1680s, when he was in his late 40s, his occasional sobriquet “Louis the Great” might have become a permanent tribute. But as he aged, so did his assets diminish.
Mr. Mansel, building on his formidable reputation as the most stylish of historians of modern Europe, is as good at explaining and illustrating Louis’s decline as his ascendancy. One self-inflicted wound was the persecution of Protestants after 1685, when he deported tens of thousands of France’s most prosperous and enterprising subjects to the benefit of France’s enemies. The Versailles project quickly began to show signs of decay. By the turn of the century, Louis himself was spending more and more time away from the great palace, preferring the less strenuous intimacy of his nearby estate at Marly. In one of the many arresting turns of phrase that make this book such a delight to read, Mr. Mansel observes: “From being the cynosure of Europe, Louis XIV was becoming as outdated as his full-bottomed wigs.”
Abroad, the easy victories of the 1660s and 1670s had brought massive territorial gains at the expense of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs, but the 1680s proved more taxing. A crucial date proved to be 1688, when the “Glorious Revolution” put the Dutch Protestant William III on the English throne and began the fateful “Second Hundred Years War” between Britain and France that was to end only at Waterloo in 1815. So Louis’s long reign ended in disaster, with defeat in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) and financial and economic collapse at home. He never did become “King of the World” or “Commander of the Universe,” and even his control of France was incomplete and sclerotic. He died in 1715, at age 76, leaving his successors with problems that ultimately proved too intractable for their modest abilities.
Copiously, beautifully and intelligently illustrated, complemented by excellent maps and diagrams (notably a ground-plan of Versailles), “King of the World” is one of the most stimulating and enjoyable works on European history to have been published for many a long year.
—Mr. Blanning is a professor emeritus of modern European history at the University of Cambridge.
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