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18th Century Powers: France and Louis XIV, XV, and XVI

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  • 0:02 The Epitome of Absolutism
  • 2:32 A Weak King
  • 4:40 The End of the Monarchy
  • 6:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study the triumphs and trials of France in the 18th century. We will especially focus on the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI.

The Epitome of Absolutism

Throughout the 18th century, France teetered precariously between glory and ruin. By the beginning of that century, the country had already reached the epitome of absolutism in the reign of Louis XIV, who called himself the 'Sun King.' As an absolute monarch, Louis claimed unlimited, ultimate authority over his nation. He believed that he ruled by God's will or divine right, and he concentrated political and military power in his own hands. Louis had assumed the throne as a 4-year-old boy in 1643, but for many years his mother, Anne of Austria, ruled in his place with the help of chief minister Cardinal Mazarin. By 1661, however, Louis was ready to reign in his own right, and he was determined to reign supreme.

To do so, the king knew that he needed to control the nobility, so he kept them busy with elaborate, carefully scheduled daily rituals at the Palace of Versailles. Here, the nobles faithfully attended to Louis at all times. They were present for ceremonies when the king woke, when he dined, and when he retired for the night, but Louis rarely consulted them about governmental matters. Instead, he wanted them to focus on things like proper greetings, entertainments, and the splendor of his royal presence. Versailles itself served as an imposing status symbol with its luxurious furnishings and expansive gardens.

Louis paid close attention to the common people, too, courting those who were more powerful by giving them titles like 'Nobles of the Robe' and quickly crushing any rebellions that dared to arise. At the same time, the king cemented his power by patronizing French drama and literature, which reached a high point during his reign, and by poking his nose into the business of the Catholic Church by claiming the right to appoint clergy and banish Protestants.

Louis was intently involved in governmental organization, the economy, and the military. He monitored the central bureaucracy that kept the government functioning; worked with his financial minister to raise money through taxes, industry, and trade; and stood at the head of the military in the nearly constant wars that plagued his reign. Those expensive wars would be Louis' undoing. He was so set on increasing his own power in France by increasing France's power in the world that he failed to take into account the consequences of continual war. By the time Louis died in 1715, France was impoverished and surrounded by enemies.

A Weak King

Louis XIV was succeeded by his great-grandson, Louis XV, who was only five years old and an orphan. The Duke of Orleans ruled in his stead until 1723 when Louis was old enough to reign on his own. The new king lacked the drive or the charisma of his great-grandfather. He relied heavily on the advice of his tutor and chief minister, André-Hercule de Fleury, who pretty much ran the government.

Louis did, however, seem to have his predecessor's knack for involving France in wars. In 1725, he married Polish princess Maria Leszczynska, whose father had been kicked off the Polish throne. Coming to the aid of his father-in-law, Louis entangled France in the War of the Polish Succession from 1733 to 1738. Maria's father never did regain the throne, and France made enemies of Austria and Russia. From 1740 to 1748, Louis teamed up with Prussia against Austria and Russia in the War of the Austrian Succession. Prussia ended up keeping some territory that it wanted, but France had to give back its conquered lands.

Louis continued to get into trouble throughout his reign. After his minister, Fleury, died in 1744, Louis decided he would rule without a minister. That didn't work out very well because the king could be quite lazy and was far more interested in his string of mistresses than in properly governing his country. Louis also liked playing diplomatic games. He sent secret agents to cities around Europe who often worked at cross purposes with the king's official diplomacy and created massive confusion.

France entered yet another war in 1756, this time against Great Britain. By the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, France had lost nearly all its colonial possessions in America and India. France grew weaker and weaker as years of war and great expense at home, especially in Louis' own royal court, took their toll. By the time Louis XV died of smallpox in 1774, France was heading downhill quickly.

The End of the Monarchy

20-year-old Louis XVI succeeded his grandfather as king of France. The new king was quiet, studious, shy, weak, and indecisive, and he was not really ready to rule a nation like France, which was on the verge of chaos. Financial difficulties abounded, aggravated by the extravagant lifestyle of Louis and his queen, Marie Antoinette.

By the middle of the 1780s, France faced bankruptcy, bad harvests, hunger, high taxes, and rising discontent on all sides. In 1789, Louis had no choice but to call the Estates General, a national assembly made up of clergy, nobility, and commoners, to try and solve the financial crisis. His decision backfired when the Estates General turned itself into the National Assembly and declared the beginning of the French Revolution. Violence soon followed with the storming of Paris' Bastille fortress in July. By October, French mobs were descending on Versailles. They carried the royal family back to Paris, essentially making them captives in their own country.

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