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7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 13 - France under Louis XIV

 France under Louis XIV

  • How did France rebuild after its wars of religion?
  • How did Louis XIV strengthen royal power?
  • What successes and failures did Louis XIV experience?


 Rebuilding France

  • From the 1560s to the 1590s, religious wars between Huguenots (French Protestants) and the Catholic majority tore France apart. Leaders on both sides used the strife to further their own ambitions. 
  • The worst incident began on St. Bartholomew's Day, August 24, 1572. As Huguenot and Catholic nobles gathered to celebrate a royal wedding, violence erupted that led to the massacre of 3,000 Huguenots. In the next few days, thousands more were slaughtered. For many, the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre symbolized the complete breakdown of order in France.


Rebuilding France

 

  • In 1589, a Huguenot prince inherited the French throne as Henry IV. Knowing that a Protestant would face severe problems ruling a largely Catholic land, he became Catholic. "Paris is well worth a Mass," he is supposed to have said. To protect Protestants, however, he issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598. It granted the Huguenots religious toleration and let them fortify their own towns and cities.
  • Henry IV then set out to heal his shattered land. His goal, he said, was not the victory of one sect over another, but "a chicken in every pot" -a good Sunday dinner for every peasant. Under Henry, the government reached into every area of French life. Royal officials administered justice, improved roads, built bridges, and revived agriculture. By building the royal bureaucracy and reducing the influence of nobles, Henry IV laid the foundations for royal absolutism.


Rebuilding France

  • When Henry IV was killed by an assassin in 1610, his nine-year-old son, Louis XIII, inherited the throne. For a time, nobles reasserted their power. Then, in 1624, Louis appointed Cardinal Armand Richelieu as his chief minister. This cunning, capable leader spent the next 18 years strengthening the central government.
  • Richelieu sought to destroy the power of the Huguenots and nobles, two groups that did not bow to royal authority. He smashed the walled cities of the Huguenots and outlawed their armies, while still allowing them to practice their religion. At the same time, he defeated the private armies of the nobles and destroyed their fortified castles. While reducing their independence, Richelieu tied nobles to the king by giving them high posts at court or in the royal army.
  • Richelieu handpicked his able successor, Cardinal Jules Mazarin. When five-year-old Louis XIV inherited the throne in 1643, the year after Richelieu's death, Mazarin was in place to serve as chief minister. Like Richelieu, Mazarin worked tirelessly to extend royal power.


Louis XIV, the Sun King

 

  • Soon after Louis XIV became king, disorder again swept France. In an uprising called the Fronde, nobles, merchants, peasants, and the urban poor rebelled -each group for its own reasons. On one occasion, rioters drove the boy king from his palace. It was an experience Louis would never forget. 
  • When Mazarin died in 1661, Louis resolved to take over the government himself. "I have been pleased to entrust the government of my affairs to the late Cardinal," he declared. "It is now time that I govern them myself."


 Louis XIV, the Sun King

 

  • Like his great-grandfather Philip II of Spain, Louis IV firmly believed in divine right. Louis took the sun as the symbol of his absolute power. Just as the sun stands at the center of the solar system, he argued, so the Sun King stands at the center of the nation. Louis is often quoted as saying, "L'etat, c'est moi" - "I am the state." 
  • During his reign, Louis did not once call a meeting of the Estates General, the medieval council made up of representatives of all French social classes. In fact, the Estates General did not meet between 1614 and 1789. Thus, unlike the English Parliament, the Estates General played no role in checking royal power.


Louis XIV, the Sun King

  • Louis spent many hours each day attending to government affairs. To strengthen the state, he followed the policies of Richelieu. He expanded the bureaucracy and appointed intendants, royal officials who collected taxes, recruited soldiers, and carried out his policies in the provinces. The office of intendant and other government jobs often went to wealthy middle-class men. In this way, Louis cemented ties between the middle class and the monarchy. 
  • Under Louis XIV, the French army became the strongest in Europe. The state paid, fed, trained, and supplied up to 300,000 soldiers. Louis used this highly disciplined army to enforce his policies at home and abroad.


 Louis XIV, the Sun King

  • Louis's brilliant finance minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, followed mercantilist policies to bolster the economy. Colbert had new lands cleared for farming, encouraged mining and other basic industries, and built up luxury trades such as lacemaking. To protect French manufacturers, he put high tariffs on imported goods. He also encouraged overseas colonies, such as New France in North America, and regulated trade with the colonies to enrich the royal treasury. 
  • Colbert's policies helped make France the wealthiest state in Europe. Yet Louis XIV was often short of cash. Not even the financial genius of Colbert could produce enough income to support the huge costs of Louis's court or pay for his many foreign wars.


 Versailles, Symbol of Royal Power

  • In the countryside near Paris, Louis XIV turned a royal hunting lodge into the immense palace of Versailles. He spared no expense to make it the most magnificent building in Europe. Its halls and salons displayed the finest paintings and statues, and glittering chandeliers and mirrors. In the royal gardens, millions of flowers, trees, and fountains were set out in precise geometric patterns.
  • Versailles became the perfect symbol of the Sun King's wealth and power. As both the king's home and the seat of government, it housed at least 10,000 people, from nobles and officials to servants.


  Versailles, Symbol of Royal Power

 

  • Louis XIV perfected elaborate ceremonies that emphasized his own importance. Each day began in the king's bedroom with a major ritual known as the leve, or rising. High-ranking nobles competed for the honor of holding the royal wash basin or handing the king his diamond-buckled shoes. At night, the ceremony was repeated in reverse. Wives of nobles vied to attend upon women of the royal family.
  • Rituals such as the leve served a serious purpose. French nobles were descendants of the feudal lords who held power in medieval times. Left at their estates, these nobles were a threat to the power of the monarchy. By luring nobles to Versailles, Louis turned them into courtiers angling for privileges rather than warriors battling for power. Louis carefully protected their prestige and left them free from paying taxes.


   Versailles, Symbol of Royal Power

 

  • The king and his court supported a "splendid century" of the arts. Louis sponsored musical entertainments and commissioned plays by the best writers. The age of Louis XIV was the classical age of French drama. Jean Racine wrote tragedies based on ancient Greek myths. The actor-playwright Molire turned out comedies, such as The Miser, that poked fun at French society.
  • In painting, music, architecture, and decorative arts, French styles became the model for all Europe. A new form of dance drama, ballet, gained its first great popularity at the French court. As a leading patron of culture, Louis sponsored the French Academies, which set high standards for both the arts and the sciences.


Successes and Failures

  • Louis XIV poured vast resources into wars to expand French borders. At first, he did gain some territory. His later wars were disastrous, though, because rival rulers joined forces to check French ambitions. Led by the Dutch or the English, these alliances fought to maintain the balance of power, a distribution of military and economic power that would prevent any one nation from dominating Europe. 
  • In 1700, Louis's grandson Philip V inherited the throne of Spain. Louis declared that France and Spain "must regard themselves as one." But neighboring powers led by England were determined to prevent this union. The War of the Spanish Succession dragged on until 1713, when an exhausted France signed the Treaty of Utrecht. Philip remained on the Spanish throne, but France agreed never to unite the two crowns.


Successes and Failures

  • Louis saw France's Protestant minority as a threat to religious and political unity. In 1685, he revoked the Edict of Nantes. More than 100,000 Huguenots fled France. 
  • The persecution of the Huguenots was perhaps the king's most costly blunder. The Huguenots had been among the most hard-working and prosperous of Louis's subjects. Their loss was thus a serious blow to the French economy, just as the expulsion of Muslims and Jews had hurt Spain.


Looking Ahead

  • Louis XIV outlived his sons and grandsons. When he died in 1715, his five-year-old great-grandson inherited the throne as Louis XV. Although France was then the strongest state in Europe, years of warfare had drained the treasury. The prosperity nurtured by Colbert evaporated under the burden of bad harvests, heavy taxes, and other problems. 
  • Louis XV was too weak a king to deal with such problems. He devoted his days to pleasure, ignoring the growing need for reform. He often quoted an old proverb, "After us, the deluge." As you will read, the deluge came during the reign of the next king.