FRANCE - CIRCA 1700: Louis XIV. Anonymous french painter. Musee National du Chateau, Versailles, France. 17. Century. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)
Portrait of Louis XIV (c1700) by an anonymous French painter at the Musée National du Château in Versailles, near Paris © Getty

Destined never quite to become King of the World — a title he spent many of his 72 years in power trying to justify through hideously expensive wars of expansion — Louis XIV was undoubtedly the most autocratic ruler yet known in France. Philip Mansel writes shrewdly about the self-styled Sun King’s doomed endeavours to enlarge his dominion: an attempt to acquire the entire Mississippi delta (Louisiana still bears his name); the war for the Spanish Netherlands (not one of his best ideas); the land-grab of Belgium (a transient triumph); the gobbling-up of Alsace and her neighbours (an enduring victory). The king’s fierce battle to put a Bourbon on the Spanish throne almost ruined France. Still, the present King of Spain is Louis’ direct descendant. The Sun King would have smirked.

Excellent though Mansel is on the larger picture — you will find no more comprehensive biography of this extraordinary monarch who reigned from 1643–1715 — his genius in King of the World lies in unpacking the complexities of Louis’ royal court. The contrast is chillingly made between a starving country and the deplorable but engrossing ostentation of Louis’ most enduring creation: the Palace of Versailles.

The creator of a royal home that comprised well over 1,000 rooms worked hard to live up to its majesty. The king’s diminutive stature was cunningly augmented by high scarlet heels; enormous wigs, which usefully disguised premature baldness, elevated the tiny tyrant to a majestic seven foot. Louis loved wigs. Court playwrights — Racine and Molière were royal favourites — owned three, at most; their patron 413.

Louis was only five when he inherited the royal mantle. Nineteen dull years of being ordered about by his mother and Cardinal Mazarin engendered a hunger for control. The king would later use his own Mazarin — the long-suffering Cardinal Colbert — to do his dirty work. But Colbert, while responsible for removing inconvenient babies and bribing discarded mistresses, was never permitted to dispute the king. Louis, and only Louis, gave the orders.

Front cover of 'King of the World', by Philip Mansel

It’s tempting to counter that the most powerful man in France was himself ruled by two formidable women. Imperious, cultured and voraciously extravagant, the Marquise de Montespan, Louis’ most famous mistress, required a mere 1,200 attendants to care for the garden of her personal château at Versailles. Her successor was the duller but far more influential Madame de Maintenon. (A playwright’s widow, Maintenon had been imprudently picked by her predecessor to tutor the seven children Montespan produced with Louis.)

Louis secretly married Madame de Maintenon in 1683, the year his long-suffering Spanish wife died. Protestants looked in vain to France’s uncrowned queen (Maintenon was a former Protestant) to save them from a Catholic monarch’s religious mania. Possibly the most awful of the many chilling acts authorised by a king who considered himself to be divinely ordained was to repeal the law by which Louis’ grandfather, Henri of Navarre, had humanely liberated France’s Calvinist Protestants (Huguenots) from persecution. In 1685, Louis’ brusque revocation of the Edict of Nantes was followed by a purge that included killings, the razing of buildings and even the destruction of graveyards. Imprisoned within a court from which there was no escape (Louis’ rigid etiquette transformed France’s nobility into helpless fashion dolls), France’s wealthiest Protestant sympathisers were rendered impotent.

The revocation was also an act of extraordinary national economic self-harm as thousands of skilled and industrious Huguenots fled France for sanctuary in neighbouring countries, from Prussia to Britain, where their talents were allowed to flourish and prosper.

Louis is most kindly remembered as an enlightened patron of the arts, a monarch whose greatest cultural legacy is his palace. Mansel is an acknowledged expert on Versailles and he combines exceptional detail with an enjoyably cool detachment. Noting Louis’ fondness for gazing at the rare gold and silver carp that flashed through a cascade of 52 marble-lined pools, Mansel usefully notes comments that even the loveliest of carp need mud in order to survive. As a result they died each night — and were immediately replaced.

The unfeeling splendour of Versailles endures, immaculately restored to its original magnificence. In 2019, Louis’ astonishing creation attracts more visitors than any other royal palace in the world. But spare a thought for the thousands of unnamed workers — and even the fish — who perished in order to gratify the Sun King’s grandest whim.

King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV, by Philip Mansel, Allen Lane RRP£30, 640 pages

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Letter in response to this article:

Colbert was no man of the cloth / From Jean-Marc Pellet, The Hague, The Netherlands

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