Louis XIV (1638 – 1715) was the longest reigning and one of the most powerful monarchs in European history. Upon becoming the de facto ruler of France after the death of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis implemented a wide range of reforms to make his country financially and militarily strong. He led France in several major wars and by the middle of his reign he had established his country as the most powerful nation in Europe. Louis XIV also appreciated the arts and, through his support, there was great cultural development during his reign. Know more about the one of the most famous monarchs in history by studying the 10 major accomplishments of Louis XIV.
#1 He implemented reforms which improved commerce and trade
Louis XIV became the de facto ruler of France in 1661. He inherited a country whose treasury verged on bankruptcy. With help from his Minister of Finance, Louis implemented a wide range of plans to increase commerce and trade. New industries were established and there was encouragement to manufacturers and inventors, such as the Lyon silk manufacturers. Manufacturers and artisans were invited from all over Europe to France, such as Murano glassmakers and Swedish ironworkers. This increased French exports while decreasing foreign imports and outflow of precious metals. With these measures, and improved taxation, the deficit of 1661 was turned into a surplus by 1666.
#2 More efficient taxation was introduced
Nicolas Fouquet had been the Minister of Finances of France from 1653 to 1661. He was known for corruption and had accumulated immense power and wealth. Louis XIV had him imprisoned and replaced him with Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Colbert introduced more efficient taxation which included aides and douanes (both customs duties), gabelle (tax on salt) and taille (tax on land). The major challenge was that the rich used the out-dated tax clauses to pay the least tax. Though this problem was not entirely solved, false claims for exemption were denied and there was an increase in indirect taxes, from which the privileged could not escape. The revenue from indirect taxation progressed from 26 million in 1661 to 55 million in 1665. Towards the end of his reign, under stress from wars, Louis XIV imposed direct taxes on the aristocratic population for the first time in French history.
#3 He reformed legally irregular France through his Code Louis
When Louis XIV started his personal rule, France was a patchwork of legal systems with many different legal customs. Louis XIV introduced a series of legal reforms, known as Code Louis, to establish uniform laws throughout France. Civil law was reformed in 1667; criminal law was reformed in 1670; a Maritime Code was introduced in 1672 and a Commercial Code in 1673. Among other things, Code Louis prescribed baptismal, marriage, and death records in the state’s registers instead of the church’s. It played an important part in French legal history and was the basis for the Napoleonic code, which is considered one of the most influential documents in world history.
#4 Louis XIV encouraged the development of the arts during his age
Louis XIV appreciated the arts and ensured that they flourished during his reign. He allowed French literature to flourish by protecting influential writers such as Molière, Racine and La Fontaine. He patronized visual arts by providing funds and commissions for famous artists like Charles Le Brun and Pierre Mignard. Musicians and composers like Jean-Baptiste Lully and François Couperin also thrived during his era. All these artists contributed greatly to European culture and their works remain famous and influential. In 1661, Louis XIV founded the Académie Royale de Danse, the first dance institution established in the Western world; and in 1669, he founded Académie d’Opéra (Paris Opera), from which classical ballet arose. Louis XIV appointed himself patron of the Académie Française, the body that regulates the French language. He also established various institutes for the arts and sciences.
#5 Louis XIV was one of the most powerful monarchs in French history
Louis XIV believed in the absolute power of the monarchy. The nobles, who had initiated 11 civil wars in 40 years, were lured by him into his lavish court where he diminished their powers by involving them in leisure activities and making their destinies dependent on him. Remote provinces in France had developed a culture of governing themselves. Louis used intendants, or administrative officers, to establish royal power in the provinces. He increased their numbers and functions; and used them to reform regional financial, judicial and legal systems. Intendants reported to the center and carried out its orders in the provinces. By diminishing the power of the nobility and eliminating feudalism, Louis XIV transformed France into a centralized state and became one of its most powerful monarchs.
#6 Military was strengthened and reformed during his reign
Louis XIV instituted military reforms with aid from Michel le Tellier and his son Marquis de Louvois, both of whom occupied the position of Secretary of State for War for most of his reign. Strength of the French army grew from 30,000 in 1667 to around 400,000 by the year 1697. Not only was the size of the army considerably increased, it was also reformed into a professional, disciplined and well-trained force which was completely controlled by the state. Aristocracy no longer had monopoly over senior military positions with merit being given its due importance. The navy, considered a weakness of France, was also modernized and grew from a squadron of 20 ships to a fleet of 270 by 1677. A strong navy allowed France to adopt an aggressive expansionist policy in both colonization and commerce.
#7 His first major war extended French territory to include a part of Flanders
After the death of Philip IV of Spain in 1665, Louis XIV initiated the War of Devolution (1667-1668) claiming Spanish Netherlands as his wife’s inheritance. The French armies easily defeated the Spanish forces conquering Spanish Netherlands and the Franche-Comté. Shocked with the swift defeat of Europe’s dominant power; Netherlands, England and Sweden formed a Triple Alliance against France to set a limit to the French expansion. This forced Louis to end the war. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was signed by which France returned most of the territory it had captured, apart from a part of Flanders. However, the territory acquired was valuable as it provided France with a defensible northern border.
#8 Louis XIV established France as the leading power in Europe
France had been a close ally of the Dutch Republic and when Netherlands became part of the Triple Alliance, Louis XIV felt betrayed and angry. This was one of the primary reasons which led to the Franco-Dutch War (1672–78) between France and its allies which included England and Sweden; and the Dutch Republic and its allies which included Spain. France was mostly successful in the war and established itself as the dominant power in Europe. When the peace treaty was signed in 1678, Spain ceded the Franche-Comté and some cities in Flanders and Hainaut to France thus extending Louis XIV’s empire. The Franco-Dutch War established Louis XIV as the most powerful monarch in Europe.
#9 He led France against a Europe-wide Grand Alliance
After the Franco-Dutch War, Louis XIV continued to strengthen the French frontiers thorough a combination of aggression, annexation, and quasi-legal means. His expansionist policy led to the Nine Years’ War in 1688; in which France was pitted against a Grand Alliance which comprised of Austria, Bavaria, Brandenburg, the Dutch Republic, England, the Holy Roman Empire, Ireland, the Palatinate of the Rhine, Portugal, Savoy, Saxony, Scotland, Spain and Sweden. French armies were generally victorious throughout the war, which came to an end with the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. The treaty secured French sovereignty over all of Alsace, including Strasbourg, and established the Rhine as the Franco-German border, which remains so to this day. However, Louis returned Lorraine to its ruler and give up any gains on the right bank of the Rhine.
#10 Louis XIV is the longest reigning major monarch in European history
Fourth and last major war fought by Louis XIV was the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1715). It initiated after the death of Charles II of Spain, who had named his grand-nephew, Philip, Duke of Anjou, as his successor. Philip was grandson of Louis XIV and this made Europe fearful of the consequences of this succession. The war pitted France and its allies against a reformed Grand Alliance. It was Louis’s least successful war and is famous for restoring the balance of power in Europe. Louis died, just after the end of the war, on September 1, 1715. He had officially ruled from 1643 when he was 4 years old. His reign of 72 years and 110 days is the longest for any monarch of a major country in European history. Constant warfare during Louis’s rule left France with a massive debt and, though it remained internally strong, it couldn’t maintain its economic and military dominance.
The Age of Louis XIV by Voltaire
Le Siècle de Louis XIV (The Age of Louis XIV) is a historical work written by famous 18th century French writer, historian, and philosopher François-Marie Arouet, popularly known as Voltaire. Voltaire saw the age of Alexander the Great and Pericles, the age of Caesar and Augustus, and the Italian Renaissance as “great ages”. In this famous work, Voltaire presented the age of Louis XIV as the fourth and greatest, describing it as the best ever in terms of arts and philosophy. Modern scholars have described The Age of Louis XIV as “the foundational text of French literary history” and “a milestone on the road to modern history-writing”.