LOUIS XIV, King of France, born at St. Germain-en-Laye, September 16th 1638, succeeded his father Louis XIII, in 1643. His mother, Anne of Austria, became regent, and Mazarin her minister. During the King's minority, the discontented nobles, encouraged by Spain, sought to shake off the authority of the Crown, and the civil wars of the Fronde arose. Peace was concluded in 1659, and in the following year Louis married the Infanta Marie Theresa, a princess possessing neither beauty nor other attractive qualities. Little was expected from the young King; his education had been neglected and his conduct was dissolute; but on Mazarin's death in 1661, he suddenly assumed the reins of government, and from that time forth carried into effect a political theory of pure despotism. His famous saying, "L'etat c'est moi," (I am the state), expressed the principle to which everything was accommodated. He had a cool and clear head, with much dignity and amenity of manners, great activity and perseverance. The distress caused by the religious wars had created throughout France a longing for repose, which was favorable to his assumption of absolute power. He was ably supported by his ministers. The wonderful talents of Colbert restored prosperity to the ruined finances of the country, and provided the means of war; while Louvois applied these means in raising and sending to the field armies more thoroughly equipped than any others of that age.
On the death of Philip IV of Spain, Louis, as his son-in-law, set up a claim to part of the Spanish Netherlands; and in 1667, accompanied by Turenne, he crossed the frontier with a powerful army, and took many places, and made himself master of that part of Flanders since known as French Flanders, and of the whole of Franche Comte. The triple alliance between England, the States-general and Sweden-arrested his career of conquest. The treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1668), forced him to surrender Franche Comte. He vowed revenge against the States-general, strengthened himself by German alliances, and purchased with money the friendship of Charles II of England. He seized Lorraine in 1670; and in 1672, again entered the Netherlands with Conde and Turenne, conquered half the country in-six weeks and left the Duke of Luxembourg to lay it waste. The States-general formed an alliance with Spain and the Emperor, but Louis made himself master of ten cities of the Empire in Alsace; and in the spring of 1674, took the field with three great armies, of which he commanded one in person, Conde another, and Turenne a third. Victory attended his arms; and notwithstanding the death of Turenne, and the retirement of the Prince of Conde from active service, he continued in subsequent years, along with the Duke of Orleans, to extend his conquests in the Netherlands, where by his orders the country was fearfully desolated. The peace of Nimeguen, in 1678, left him in possession of many of his conquests.
Louis had now reached the zenith of his career. All Europe feared him; his own nation had been brought by tyranny, skillfully managed, to regard him with humility, admiring and obeying; all remnants of political independence had been swept away; no assemblies of the States or the notables were held; the nobles had lost both the desire and the ability to assert political power. The court was the very heart of the political and national life of France, and there the utmost splendor was maintained, and a system of etiquette was established, which was a sort of perpetual worship of the King.
It was a serious thing for France and the world, when Louis fell under the control of his mistress, the Marquise de Maintenon, whom he married in a half private manner in 1685, and who was herself governed by the Jesuits. One of the first effects of this change was the adoption of severe measures against the Protestants. When it was reported to Louis that his troops had converted all the heretics, he revoked the Edict of Nantes, in 1685, and then ensued a bloody persecution; whilst more than half a million of the best and most industrious inhabitants of France fled, carrying their skill and industry to other lands.
The Elector of the Palatinate having died in 1685, and left his sister, the Duchess of Orleans, heiress of all his movable property, Louis claimed for her also all the allodial lands; and from this and other causes arose a new European war. A French army invaded the Palatinate, Baden, Wurtemburg and Treves in 1688. The war waged for years on a great scale and with various success; and after the French had gained, under Luxembourg, in 1693, the battle of Neerwinden, it was found the means of waging war were very much exhausted, and Louis concluded the peace of Ryswick, on the 20th of September 1697.
When the death of Charles II of Spain took place November 1st 1700, it was found that Louis had obtained his signature to a will, by which he left all his dominions to one of the grandsons of his sister, who had been Louis' queen. Louis supported to the utmost the claims of his grandson (Philip V), whilst the Emperor Leopold supported that of his son, afterwards the Emperor Charles IV. But the power of France was now weakened, and the war had to be maintained both on the side of the Netherlands and of Italy. One bloody defeat followed another; Marlborough was victorious in the Low Couutries, and Prince Eugene in Italy. On the 11th of April 1713, peace was concluded at Utrecht, the French prince obtaining the Spanish throne but France sacrificing valuable colonies. A terrible fermentation now prevailed in France, and the country was almost completely ruined; but the monarch mantained to the last an unbending despotism. He died after a short illness, September 1st 1717. The reign of Louis XIV is regarded as the Augustan age of French literature and art, and it can hardly be doubted that France has never since produced poets like Corneille and Racine in tragedy, or Moliere in comedy; satirists like Boileau, or divines like Bossuet, Fenelon, Bourdaloue and Massillon.