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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Historical Figures of Renown: Louis XIV, Part 1

The Sun King still looms large over France to this day. He ruled over a long period that saw many changes across Europe (1642-1715). He faced rebellion, a domineering mother, a Machiavellian prime minister, skimming treasurers, shrewd advisers, bossy mistresses, and a personal ambition to match. He oversaw perhaps the largest expansion of French influence: militarily, artistically, architecturally, socially, and diplomatically. French is often referred to as "la langue de Molière" (Moliere's tongue), Moliere was a playwright active during the Sun King. His farces and satire still beloved by most.

In short, Louis ruled over what many Frenchmen see as a Golden Age. In so many ways, he embodies what every Frenchman wants to be: successful, self-assured, with the world revolving around him.

He was the Sun.

He was the center of the world.

His life can be split into three major phases: the kid, the glorious king and the somber king.

The Kid

As a kid, Louis was something of a brat. He was spoiled and demanding. Discipline must have been lacking.
Crowned while still young, most of this period he spent under the thumb of his mother Ann of Austria and lover, Cardinal Mazarini. Reading about the rebellious era that was the 1630s. An era known as the Fronde (trans. sling) where high ranking members of the nobility, church and bourgeoisie rebelled against the Queen-Mother's and Mazarini's authority. One unique element of this rebellion, unlike the Civil War in England which happened roughly at the same time, was that the lead Frondeurs sought to become Regent and push out Mazarini.

Reading the act of the various protagonists during that period reads like a swashbuckling novel complete with moonlight escapes, razzle-dazzle presentations, bribery, military campaigns, exiles, and all this on a backdrop of the Thirty Year War (1618-48). The French armies of that era found ways to victory, namely at Rocroy in '43, which bolstered the Princes' prestige, making them bold enough to rise against the Queen-Mother.

That right, France was involved in that war on the side of protestant princes. Whereas England has only Scotland as an immediate neighbor, France was nominally at war with the Holy Roman Empire and Spain throughout that period.

On this, the Cardinal defeated his enemies, leaving their power broken and preparing the way for the chubby boy-king to become the autocrat he would become.

Using Louis the child Louis as a child is a pawn on a game played by the kingdom's greats and powerful. He who controls the person of the king, controls France.

Strangely, one thing I believe guaranteed his safety was the fact that he had a younger brother, referred to as Monsieur. This ensured that Louis XIII's line would remain strong. But also, with the Queen-Mother or Mazarin always within arm's reach of Monsieur, an accident happening to Louis would keep the power in their hands.

Mazarini, in spite of his many flaws (he was untrustworthy, covetous, vengeful, over-ambitious, egotistical...). In spite of these flaws, the Cardinal remain intensely loyal to young Louis. Not only that, but he also taught the young king the art of statecraft. I can imagine the Cardinal explaining to Louis - and French literature of the period and about the period, present this relation as one between a fatherless boy and a caring uncle. Mazarini, I believed wanted - and succeeded - in making young Louis independent and personally both interested and apt in the affairs of State.

This leads to a number of elements: a young child of power, two opposing factions of powerful people each with , a power vacuum, and a foreign threat that prevent the parties from focusing all their efforts and resources against each other.

Other Louis of History

There are a few similar situations in history where these conditions are together. Let's see what happened. Louis is clearly an exception.

Alexander IV the infant son of Alexander the Great became a pawn early in the diadochy when his father's generals split the empire between themselves. For a few years, he was "protected", but after the generals began to crown themselves, 12-year old Alexander was poisoned. Unlike with Louis, the generals wanted and saw their opportunity for power.

The Tower Princes Later, during the War of the Roses in England, the Lord Regent, Richard, Duke of Gloucester would "protect" his two nephews from assassins by putting them in the Tower of London. It wasn't long before the two princes "disappear" from history. And Richard III is crowned.

Next time: The Sun King


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