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Louis XIV. of France

There was living about the same time as Peter the Great of Russia and Charles II and James II of England, the most famous of all the Grand Monarchs, Louis XIV of France (1643-1715). Never did the French monarchy seem so strong and so brilliant as in the days of its "Sun King." He was "by far the ablest man who was born in modern times on the steps of a throne." He ruled as an absolute king; the well-known epigram? L'etat, c'est moi -- "I am the State " -- exactly describes his idea of a grand monarchy.

He built the splendid palace of Versailles, and his court was the centre of culture and of fashion. His morning toilet and reception (or levee) became the model for princes everywhere. His were the great days of French architecture and of French drama.

Following the example of Louis XIV, "every king and princelet in Europe was building his own court as much beyond his means as his subjects and credits would permit. Amidst the mirrors and fine furniture of the palaces of those days went a strange race of 'gentlemen' in tall, powdered wigs, silks and laces, poised upon high red heels, supported by amazing canes; and still more wonderful 'ladies,' under towers of powdered hair, and wearing vast expansions of silk and satin sustained on wire. Through it all postured the great Louis, the sun of his world -- unaware of the meagre and sulky and bitter faces that watched him from those lower darknesses to which his sunshine did not penetrate."

One great feature of the story of Europe after the Reformation is the prominence of France in British history. When Cromwell made alliance with France, he helped her to build up her strength. He did not foresee that she would become a danger to England. Yet Louis XIV was the friend of the later Stuart kings in their contest with Parliament.

And Louis was aiming all the time at the mastery of Europe -- like Spain in the sixteenth century, like Napoleon in the nineteenth, and like the militarists of Germany in the twentieth. There was war between Britain and France again and again for a hundred years after William III left Holland to become King of Great Britain (1688).

The great ambition of French rulers has always been to extend France to what she calls her "natural frontiers "the Rhine, the Pyrenees, and the Alps. She had recently gained Alsace, and she had reached the Pyrenees. The decline of Spain (since the Armada) and the weakness of Germany (since the religious wars) gave Louis XIV his chance. He aimed at reaching the Rhine through Flanders, and when the King of Spain died childless (1700), he saw a tempting prize in its vast empire.

Partly to prevent the prize from falling entirely to France, Marlborough fought and won Blenheim (1704), his greatest triumph. So Spain was not joined to France, though a Bourbon ruled it instead of a Hapsburg. France, however, kept Alsace and most of Flanders; but she could no longer lord it over Europe, and she ceased to recognize the Old Pretender as King of England.

But perhaps the mass of the subjects of the Grand Monarchs felt about all these wars much as "old Kaspar" in Southey's poem did about Blenheim:

"'Great praise the Duke of Marlbro' won,And our good Prince Eugene.'

'Why, 'twas a very wicked thing!'

Said little Wilhelmine; . . .

'But what good came of it at last?'

Quoth little Peterkin.

'Why, that I cannot tell,' said he,

'But 'twas a famous victory.'"

From Charlemagne to Napoleon no monarch received such unbounded praise as Louis XIV. But the judgment of our own times upon Louis XIV is very different from that of his own age. And if it be asked nowadays, "Who did the most towards the destruction of the ancien regime?" the correct answer is, "Louis XIV, its greatest representative."

The Versailles palace and parks alone cost France one thousand million francs {more than 40,000,000), and there were fifteen other royal palaces.

The Grand Monarch, indeed, seemed to realize the truth in his dying words (1715): "Do not imitate my love for building and for war; assuage the misery of my people."

La Fontaine has a fable which gives a glimpse of the miserable French peasant of those days. A poor woodcutter, burdened with branches, and groaning and bent under his load of fagots and years, was walking along with heavy steps, trying to reach his little smoke-stained cottage. At last, weary from very misery, as he was unable to make further effort, he laid down his burden and thought over his miserable lot.

"What pleasures have I in this life? Is there any one on the round earth so poor as I? My wife, my children, the soldiers forced on me to lodge, my taxes, my debts, the labour forced on me -- all make me a perfect picture of misery."