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The Failures & Death of Louis XIV

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about King Louis XIV of France. We will focus specifically on his legacy, his failures, and his death. We will highlight key themes and developments and seek to understand his reign from an objective point of view.

Who Was King Louis XIV of France?

When most of us think about a king of France named Louis, we probably think of King Louis XVI, who was dethroned and executed by guillotine during the French Revolution. However, in this lesson we will be looking at another French king named Louis, a king often referred to as Louis the Great or the Sun King. King Louis XIV, belonging to the House of Bourbon, ruled France between 1643-1715. He was one of France's most powerful rulers, and he ruled for 72 years, longer than any other monarch in European history. During his reign, France was a dominant European power with a global influence.

King Louis XIV of France.
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Louis XIV was a staunch conservative and helped strengthen France's tradition of royal absolutism. Before we go any further we need to define this term. Royal absolutism is a government in which the monarch has absolute authority, and is not constrained by constitutional limits. Basically, it is the idea that the king or queen can do whatever he or she wants, and no one can stop him or her. To justify this type of power, a concept emerged over time called the divine right of kings. The divine right of kings was a theological and philosophical position stating that all kings were ordained to rule by God, and therefore not subject to the will of the people. Not surprisingly, Louis XIV was a proponent of this view.

This painting illustrates the concept of the divine right of kings. The hand of God can be seen placing a crown on the head of this European monarch.
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Of course, Louis XIV's legacy is subject to debate. Different historians have viewed him differently over the years. Let's look at his death, and then explore his legacy.

The Death of King Louis XIV

King Louis XIV died in 1715 just a few days before his 77th birthday. His health had been in decline for years. He suffered from diabetes, gout, chronic headaches, and other ailments. He died of gangrene on September 1. On his deathbed he recited the Psalms, and lamented he had not been a good king. He is reported to have said to his heir, ''Do not follow the bad example which I have set you; I have often undertaken war too lightly and have sustained it for vanity. Do not imitate me, but be a peaceful prince.'' The body of King Louis XIV was buried outside Paris, but during the French Revolution his remains were dug up and scattered.

The Legacy of King Louis XIV

So, what were the failures of King Louis XIV? Or was he a good ruler? How should we assess his legacy? Again, this is a complicated issue, and not everyone agrees.

Louis XIV's critics point out his authoritarian rule and support for the divine right of kings came at the expense of not taking the people's will into consideration. Louis XIV, a Catholic, likely took the concept of divine rights of kings too far when he attempted to impose religious conformity on his people. In 1685 he revoked the Edict of Nantes, which King Henry IV had signed in 1598. The edict granted French Protestants (called Huguenots) civil liberties. Under the 1685 Edict of Fountainbleau, Louis XIV had Protestant churches effectively banned from France and the civil liberties of Huguenots revoked. As a result, many converted to Catholicism, while others fled the country.

However, we should note that royal absolutism was alive and well throughout Europe, and not limited only to France. Those who see Louis XIV more favorably also point out that, through royal absolutism, he was able to strengthen France and make it a dominant nation.

What about Louis XIV's own deathbed claim that he was not a good king? Some historians have suggested that is was a common practice for kings to demonstrate humility on their deathbed by exaggerating their shortcomings. Perhaps he was following in this custom?

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