Biography of King Louis XIV, France’s Sun King

Colbert Presenting The Members Of The Royal Academy Of Sciences To Louis XIV In 1667
Colbert Presenting the Members of the Royal Academy of Sciences to Louis XIV in 1667, c. 1680. Found in the Collection of Musée de l'Histoire de France, Château de Versailles.

Heritage Images / Getty Images 

Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King, was the longest-reigning monarch in European history, ruling France for 72 years and 110 days. He was responsible for moving the center of French government to the Palace of Versailles in 1682. 

Fast Facts: Louis XIV

  • Known For: King of France, 1643-1715
  • Born: 5 September 1638
  • Died: 1 September 1715
  • Parents: Louis XVIII; Anne of Austria
  • Spouses: Maria Theresa of Spain (m. 1660; d. 1683); Francoise d’Aubigne, Marquise de Maintenon (m. 1683)
  • Children: Louis, Dauphin of France

Louis XIV assumed the throne at the age of five, and he was raised to believe in his divine right to rule. His experience with civil unrest during his childhood simultaneously fostered his desire for a strong France as well as his distaste for the French peasantry. He built a strong central government and expanded France’s borders, but his lavish lifestyle laid the foundation for the French Revolution. 

Birth and Early Life

Louis XIV’s birth was a surprise. His parents, Louis XIII of France and Anne of Austria, were married when they were both 14, and they strongly disliked each other. Their marriage had produced a series of miscarriages and stillbirths, for which Louis blamed Anne. At the age of 37, Anne gave birth to a son, christened Louis-Dieudonne or Louis, the Gift of God. Two years later, she had a second son, Louis’ brother, Philippe I, Duke of Orleans.

Louis XIV, King of France in his Coronation Robes
Louis XIV, King of France (1638-1715) in his Coronation Robes. Found in the collection of Ambras Castle, Innsbruck. Artist : Egmont, Justus van. Heritage Images / Getty Images

Louis was doted on by his mother, and the two built a strong bond. He was raised from birth to believe that he was a gift from God, and it was his divine right to rule France as an absolute monarch. Even in his early years, Louis was charismatic, and he had an aptitude for languages and the arts. 

The Sun King

Louis’ father died when he was only four, making him Louis XIV, king of France. His mother served as regent with the help of Cardinal Mazarin, but the years were marked by civil unrest. When Louis was 9 years old, members of the parliament in Paris rebelled against the crown, and the royal family was forced to flee to the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The rebellion and subsequent civil war, known as the Fronde, sparked Louis’ dislike for Paris and his fear of rebellions, impacting his future political decisions.

In 1661, Cardinal Mazarin died, and Louis declared himself as the Absolute Monarch to the French parliament, breaking with past French kings. In Louis’ view, treason wasn’t a crime under the law, but rather a sin against God. He adopted the Sun as the symbol of his monarchy, and he immediately began to centralize control of the government. He developed strict foreign policy while expanding the navy and army, and in 1667 he invaded Holland to claim what he believed to be his wife’s inheritance.

Under pressure from the Dutch and the English, he was forced to retreat, though in 1672, he was able to ally with a new English king, Charles II, to conquer territory from the Dutch and expand the size of France.

Louis XIV, King of France. Artist: Charles le Brun
Louis XIV, King of France, by artist Charles le Brun, c1660-c1670. From the Musee du Louvre, Paris. Print Collector / Getty Images

Louis appointed those loyal to the crown to government offices to carry out legal and financial matters in the different regions of France. In 1682, he formally moved the center of government from Paris to his palace in Versailles.

A staunch Catholic, Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which had provided legal protection for French Protestants, causing a mass exodus of Protestants to the Netherlands and England.

Marriage and Children

Louis’ first significant relationship was with Marie Mancini, the niece of Cardinal Mazarin, but his first marriage was a political union with his first cousin, Maria Theresa of Spain. Though the pair produced six children together, only one survived to adulthood. The relationship was said to have been friendly but never passionate, and Louis took numerous mistresses.

Louis’ second wife was Francoise d’Aubigne, a devout Catholic and once governess of Louis’ illegitimate children.

Maria Theresa of Spain

In 1660, Louis married Maria Theresa, the daughter of Philip IV of Spain. She was his first cousin on his mother’s side, a Spanish princess of the House of Habsburg. The marriage was a political arrangement intended to foster peace and unity between the neighboring countries.
Of their six children, only one, Louis le Grand Dauphin, also known as Monseigneur, survived to adulthood. Though Monseigneur was heir to the throne, Louis XIV outlived both his son and his grandson, passing the throne to his great-grandson at the time of his death.

Francoise d’Aubigne, Marquise de Maintenon

As the governess to Louis’ illegitimate children, d’Aubigne came into contact with Louis on numerous occasions. She was a widow, known for her piety. The pair was secretly married at Versailles in 1683, never announcing the marriage to the public, though it was a matter of common knowledge.

Mistresses and Illegitimate Children

Throughout his marriage to his first wife, Maria Theresa, Louis took both official and unofficial mistresses, producing more than a dozen children. He was more faithful to his second wife, Francoise d’Aubigne, likely due to her piety, though the two never had children.

The Palace of Versailles

As a result of the rebellions he saw in his youth and the subsequent civil war, Louis developed a strong dislike for Paris, and he spent long stretches of time at his father’s hunting lodge in Versailles. During his lifetime, Versailles became Louis’ refuge.

Chateau De Versailles statue of King Louis XIV
A view of the equestrian statue of King Louis XIV in front of the chateau de Versailles on October 30, 2015 in Versailles, France.  Chesnot / Getty Images

In 1661, after the death of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis began a massive construction project on Versailles, transforming the lodge into a palace suitable to host the Parisian court. He included the symbol of his monarchy, the sun with his face stamped into its center, as a design element in almost every part of the palace.

Louis formally relocated the French seat of government from Paris to Versailles in 1682, though construction continued on the palace until 1689. By isolating political leaders in rural Versailles, Louis strengthened his control over France.

Decline and Death

Toward the end of his life, Louis faced a series of personal and political disappointments in addition to failing health. The House of Stuart fell in England, and the Protestant William of Orange took the throne, eliminating any chance of continued political association between the countries. Louis XIV also lost a series of battles during the War of Spanish Succession, though he did manage to maintain the territory he had gained in previous decades.

Medical journals from the 18th century indicate that Louis faced a myriad of health complications towards the end of his life, including dental abscesses, boils, and gout, and he likely suffered from diabetes. In 1711, Louis XIV’s son, le Grand Dauphin, died, followed by his grandson, le Petit Dauphin in 1712.

Louis XIV died on September 1, 1715, from gangrene, passing the crown to his five-year-old great-grandson, Louis XV.

Legacy

During his lifetime, Louis XIV built an empire, reconstructing the government of France and transforming the country into the dominant European power. He is the most significant example of an absolute monarch during the 17th and 18th centuries, and he built the Palace of Versailles, one of the most famous contemporary historical landmarks in the world.

However strong Louis XIV made France to foreign adversaries, he created a stark divide between the nobility and the working classes, isolating the political elite in Versailles and separating the nobility from the common people in Paris. While Louis created a France that was stronger than it had ever been, he unknowingly laid the foundation for the revolution that was to come, a revolution that would see the permanent end to the French monarchy.

Sources

  • Berger, Robert W. Versailles: The Château of Louis XIV. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985.
  • Bernier, Olivier. Louis XIV. New World City, Inc., 2018.
  • Cronin, Vincent. Louis XIV. The Harvill Press, 1990.
  • Horne, Alistair. Seven Ages of Paris: Portrait of a City. Macmillian, 2002.
  • Mitford, Nancy. The Sun King: Louis XIV at Versailles. New York Review Books, 2012.