A Brief History
On May 7, 1664, King Louis XIV of France began construction on the Palace of Versailles, one of the most iconic structures in the world and the symbol of the throne of France. Today the palace and grounds are a Monument historique and UNESCO World Heritage site and remains one of the biggest tourist attractions in France, a country noted for its tourist attractions.
From 1682 to 1789 the Palace of Versailles was the residence of the monarch of France and the epitome of royal excess. First the home of Louis XIV, by the time of the French Revolution in 1789 the occupants, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, had become reviled symbols of oppression of the hungry masses while they lived in opulent luxury. Located about a dozen miles from downtown Paris, the Palace is renowned for its glittering Hall of Mirrors, bejeweled Royal Opera, and magnificent grounds, fountains and gardens. Lovingly restored, this former symbol of oppression now belongs to all French citizens as a public park and museum, and gets over 7.7 million visitors per year, second only to the Louvre as a Parisian tourist attraction. The site was originally a small village, purchased by King Louis XIII where he built a hunting lodge in 1623-1624. Louis XIII then converted the lodge into a chateau several years later, and his son, Louis XIV rebuilt the site as his palace after his marriage in 1660. Building and expanding continued, and the features kept coming as well, including installation of a zoo for exotic animals! Several thousand officials and courtiers worked at Versailles for the King. King Louis XV assumed the throne on the death of his father in 1715, but only 5 years old at the time lived in Paris under a regency. Louis XV moved to Versailles as his main residence in 1722, and continued adding buildings, rooms, and opulence to the complex. The unfortunate King Louis XVI reigned during a period of financial reverses, precluding him from major additions to the Palace, but he and his bride, Marie Antoinette, managed to remodel many of the interior rooms in high style. In a fascinating bit of irony, part of the complex was made up as a peasant hamlet for Queen Marie Antoinette and her pals to play at being peasants!
When the royal family was ousted in 1792, the revolutionary government ordered all works of art at Versailles to be moved to the Louvre, while the rest of the furnishings were sold at auction to refill government coffers. Subsequent French monarchs, starting with Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I decided to forgo using Versailles as a residence because of the bad appearance such a move would give. Some renovations did take place, and certain ceremonial events were held there throughout the ensuing decades.
King Louis XIV ascended to the throne at the tender age of only 4 years old in 1643, beginning a reign that would last until his death in 1715. The 72 year reign of Louis XIV is the longest reign by any European monarch, in fact, the longest reign by any monarch anywhere that can be reliably documented. With a current reign of well over 67 years, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom might just move up on the list of longest reigning monarchs from her slot at #6 (#4 in Europe) before she dies, currently only 265 days behind Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria-Hungary.
Known as Louis the Great, or more commonly known as The Sun King, Louis XIV was a ruler in the “absolutism” sense, whereas the King retained absolute power over all matters, with a Divine Right behind his position and power. Little Louis came as a rather late surprise to his parents, King Louis XIII and Queen Anne of Austria, 23 years after the royal couple were wed and after several miscarriages and still births. Although only 41 years old in 1643, Louis XIII sensed his impending death and decreed his son would be assisted by a council of regents instead of merely under the regency of the Queen. Louis XIV main adviser was the Italian Cardinal Mazarin as Chief Minister to the King. The Cardinal died in 1661, leaving Louis XIV to begin his rule on his own.
During the long reign of Louis XIV France was of course involved in several wars, mostly successful, as France was the leading European power during his reign. The most important war of the reign of Louis XIV was the War of the Spanish Succession, 1701-1714, the last major conflict of his reign. The war left France weakened, and Louis XIV is said to have lamented on his deathbed in 1715, ‘I have loved war too well.” In fact, Louis did seem to love war, and he sought military conflict as a way to expand the power of France and his own power, a foreign policy influenced by “by a mix of commerce, revenge, and pique.”
Despite his long reign and public image as a vigorous and healthy leader, Louis suffered from many of the ailments of his day that were without modern cures, including diabetes, gout, boils, dental problems and a bone malady called periostalgia. Louis’ first wife, Maria Theresa of Spain (m. 1660; died 1683), was a devout Catholic like Louis, and bore him 6 children, although 5 died in their early years. A cousin of Louis XIV, Maria Theresa died at the age of 44 of some sort of infection or abscess on her arm. Louis is believed to have fathered many illegitimate children via his many mistresses. Louis married for a second time in 1683, this time to a widow, Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon. This second marriage was not officially announced but was widely understood to have taken place. Perhaps with the influence of his new wife, Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes that had given Protestant French religious freedom and rights, and once again instituted repressive policies against Protestants with his Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685.
As Louis XIV lay dying, he had already lost his son and heir, the Dauphin, as well as his grandsons, leaving his 5 year old great-grandson as his legitimate heir. Louis, Duke of Anjou, succeeded Louis XIV as King Louis XV in 1715. Louis XIV had sought to limit the influence of any single person as regent on the new king by creating a council of regents much like that dictated by his own father, Louis XIII. The main target of this plan enshrined in the Will of Louis XIV was Philip II, Duke of Orléans, the nephew of Louis XIV, but the tricky Duke managed to have the will overturned and the Duke acted as single regent to the new King Louis XV.
The legacy of Louis XIV and his long reign are chiefly the impact of absolutism on the monarchy, his involvement in the many wars and conflicts France participated in, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, a realignment of the aristocracy, and of course, the spectacular Palace of Versailles.
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For more information, please see…
Abrams, Robert. Versailles: A History. New Word City, Inc., 2017.
Bernier, Olivier. Louis XIV: A Royal Life. Doubleday, 1987.
Fraser, Antonia. Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King. Anchor, 2007.
Wenzler, Claude. Genealogy of the Kings of France and Their Wives. Rennes, Editions Ouest-France, 2003.
The featured image in this article, Mythological portrait of the Family of Louis XIV (1670) by Jean Nocret (1615–1672), is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.