Louis XIV, surnamed Le Grand, or "the Great," the eldest son of Louis XIII, was born on the 16th of September, 1638. At the age of five he ascended the throne, in 1643, under the regency of his mother, who was a daughter of Philip III of Spain. During his minority the government was directed by Cardinal Mazarin, a foreigner, whose ministry was very unpopular, and The Thirty Years' war was ended in 1648 by the peace of Westphalia, on terms favorable to France, but this was followed by a civil war against a faction called La Fronde, from 1648 until 1653. At the death of Mazarin, in 1661, Louis resolved to be his own prime minister, and was fortunate in obtaining the services of so able a financier as Colbert France was then without doubt the greatest and most compact power in Europe. To the arduous duties of his new position the king brought imposing and popular persona, qualities, and political talents of a high order. His ambition was to make France prosperous and the monarchy absolute. His policy was briefly summed up in the famous saying, "L'etat, c'est moi" ("The State - that is myself").
In the reign of Louis XIV. the royal absolutism which had been so long forming in France was made the fundamental theory of the state. If he never made use of the famous phrase which has been attributed to him, "L'etat, c'est moi," there are other sentences in plenty, used by himself-and others, which just as clearly indicate the belief of the time that the state was really absorbed in the king. Louis's act in taking the actual control of public affairs into his own hands and making all the ministries directly responsible to himself was a kind of logical, but not necessary, embodiment of the theory in practice. There was during his reign not the slightest real check upon the royal will.
The immediate origin of the ancien regime was Louis XIV, who invited the principal nobles of France to Paris, where they passed their time in frivolity and idleness. It was an attempt to restore chivalry without the spirit that gave it vitality, or the benefits it conferred. This caste, founded on pride and idleness; those who were included in it having neglected all the duties belonging to them as nobles and landed proprietors, endeavouring to grind down and keep under the people whom they were bound to help and succour.
Prelates and magnates streamed towards Versailles; all that the peasants knew of them was from their unmerciful agents coming for rent and taxes. Thus France fell asunder into two worlds - worlds that lived on side by side, the smaller in wealth, enjoyment, elegance, and luxury, and, above all, brilliant, idleness; the larger in poverty, wretchedness, ignorance, savagery, and, above all, in ever-growing and devouring bitterness of heart - a condition such as no other nation of Christian Europe had ever before come to.
The brilliant and empty position of the higher class led step by step to ruin. These distinguished personages had no earnest and strenuous activity; to be civil officials appeared to the majority of them below their dignity. They adopted the army as a mere sphere of chivalrous adventure, for even there, there was no question for them of rigid discipline; they left the drilling and care of their troops to subalterns and sergeants. Bishops and abbots drew immense revenues, and gallantly offered their devotion to fair dames, but as to divine services and cure of souls, they were the affair of needy priests and hungry vicars. The only field for their ambition and interest was the Court, the salon, good society.
The members of this caste, presuming on a supposed superiority over the other portions of the community, whom they affected to control, refused to intermarry with any one not belonging to their own privileged set. The ancien regime took its rise after the Thirty Years' War, and nourished during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some attribute its origin to the reactionary conservative feeling which followed that devastating war, when the people, disgusted with constant turmoil, sought anxiously for rest, and were inclined to reverence the forms and practices of a bygone age, when those forms and ceremonies were associated with honorable acts and useful works.
Commerce, manufactures, arts, literature, etc. were liberally encouraged in his reign ; but the intolerant zeal of the king betrayed him into one very unjust and impolitic measure when, in 1685, he revoked the edict of Nantes, which had secured the religious liberty of Protestants. A second general war broke out in 1688, between Louis on one side, and Spain, Austria, England, and the Prince of Orange on the other. Louis failed in his attempt to restore James II. of England, and found a formidable adversary in James's successor, William III. After many sieges and indecisive actions in Flanders, the war was luspended by the treaty of Ryswick, (1697.) By the will of Charles II of Spain, (1700,) Philip, Duke of Anjou, a grandson of Louis XIV, was appointed heir to the Spanish throne. This occasioned a great European coalition against the French king, and the long War of the Spanish Succession, in which he had to contend against the English and Austrians, under Marlborough and Eugene, who won great victories at Blenheim, Malplaquet, etc. ; but the French prince Philip remained master of Spain, and hostilities were ended by the treaty of Utrecht in April 1713.
In the last years of his life, Louis XIV had indeed dazzled the world by the splendour of his government and the theatric.il pomp of his court; but he had outlived his renown. A universal feeling had grown up against the oppression of an arbitrary military dominion, springing from the will of a bigoted man, who looked upon everything as subject to his control, and who was surrounded and misled by flatterers and priests, and a change was earnestly desired. After a reign of seventy-two years, he died, on the 1st of September, 1715, and was succeeded by his great-grandson, Louis XV. The age of Louis XIV. was the most brilliant in the literary history of France, and he was a very judicious as well as a very munificent patron of literary merit. He preserved his equanimity in his successes and his reverses. When Louis XIV died, the treasury was not only completely exhausted, there not only existed universal want and misery, but the credit of the nation was utterly gone, and the whole income of the country was pledged for two years to come.
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