Louis XIV: Biography, Wives & Children

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Louis XIV ruled France from 1641-1715. Known as the 'Sun King,' he presided over an era of territorial and military expansion but he is best known for renovating the Palace of Versailles Palace.

Birth of a King

Louis XIV was a remarkable boy-king that ruled France for an incredible 72 years. Louis XIV was born in September 1638 and was the firstborn son of King Louis XIII and Anne of Austria. Given that it took his parents twenty-three years to conceive their first child, they named him Louis-Dieudonne which means 'Gift of God.' Two years later he had a younger brother. His father died in 1643, and at age four, Louis became king. Typical for his time, a co-regent was appointed but his mother annulled the will to prevent this, and his mother became coregent with him. His inner circle also included the Italian-born chief minister Cardinal Jules Mazarin who tutored him and served as his powerful chief minister until Mazarin's death.

Louis XIV
Louis XIV

The Fronde

It seemed inevitable that such a young king would be challenged. In 1648, a Civil War - known as The Fronde erupted when Louis was only nine when the Parlement - which was a law court - rebelled against the monarchy. France was drowning in debt, and Mazarin imposed several new taxes, forced loans, and the selling of offices that affected the nobles. In many respects, Mazarin was more the target, though Paris was ransacked and Louis was forced to flee the capital. Fought in two parts, the monarchy and supporting forces defeated the alliance against them in 1653. The young boy had weathered a terrible ordeal, and it instilled in him an abiding distrust of the nobles.

Cardinal Jules Mazarin
Cardinal Jules Mazarin

The Sun King

When Mazarin died in 1661, Louis decided to rule without a chief minister which was unprecedented and ended a long tradition of shared power. He took the sun as his symbol of power - hence the appellation of the 'Sun King' and justified it on the basis of divine right theory, or the belief that God himself appointed him king. He is credited with the statement, 'I am the State' implying that he held total power in his hands. Every successful monarch surrounds himself with an inner circle, and Louis was no exception. His brilliant finance minister was Jean-Baptiste Colbert who slashed debts, equalized the payment of taxes, cracked down on fraud, and made France an economic powerhouse. Another was Marquis de Louvois, who was his Secretary of State and chief military advisor who professionalized his military creating a powerful tool of the state.

Louis XIV and Family in Roman god Motif
Louis XIV as Roman god Motif

Marriage and Mistresses

Like many monarchs, marriage was often more political than romantic in nature. Louis was famous for his many mistresses and illegitimate children. He had a long-term affair with Maria Mancini, the daughter of Mazarin, but for political reasons, he married the Austrian Marie-Therese with whom he had six children. Some of his more famous mistresses include Henrietta of England, Louise de la Valliere with whom he had four children, and Athenais de Montespan. After his first wife died, he refused to marry another foreign princess, and he married the Madame de Maintenon who had served as his children's governess. Generally, offspring by mistresses were kept a secret, but Louis legitimized many of these children and allowed them into his inner circle which many nobles thought was scandalous as his illegitimate children gained more privileges than they did.

The wedding of Louis XIV and Marie Therese
Wedding of Louis XIV

Foreign Affairs

Louis engaged in a number of foreign wars as he tightened his grip on Europe and extended his territory. The War of Devolution (1667-1688) was fought against Spain over possession of the French Netherlands. Louis claimed that he never received a dowry for his wife's hand in marriage, and the ancestral lands of her families were his for the taking. He also waged the Franco-Dutch War (1672-1678) which ended in the Treaty of Nijmegen and expanded French territory into Flanders. Another was the War of the League of Augsburg (1689-1697) which was waged against a European coalition aimed to check his expansionist goals. France prevailed in the Treaty of Ryswick, but at a high cost. Lastly, the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) was fought over his grandson's Philip V's position in Spain. Collectively, these wars expanded French territory but plunged the country into massive debt.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert
Jean-Baptiste Colbert

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