and eighteenth centuries represented a crucial period in the
history and future of France. After the Treaty of Westphalia,
which established that "each European state would exercise
independent and supreme authority over its own territories and
inhabitants" (Fiero 25), many monarchs adopted absolutism.
Claiming that their power came directly from God, absolutists
ruled without limits; nobody and no institution, such as the
Church, influenced their ruling. Through the centuries, the
monarchy changed hands, but absolutism continued to be the way
they governed. From the extravagant Louis XIV, the Sun King,
through the reign of beloved Louis XV, Louis XIV's
great-grandson, to the ruling of indecisive Louis XVI, France and
its people experienced glory, wars and crises that lead to the
French Revolution in 1789.
Louis XIV became
King when he was only four years old and was crowned when he was
still fifteen. From birth, Louis XIV was said to be a gift from
God. As Fraser explains in her book Love and Louis XIV
"[…] the circumstances of the conception, followed by the birth
of the long-desired son, were widely held to be extraordinary -
and above all by the baby's mother. 'Godgiven': it was a view of
himself as someone of special destiny that [Queen] Anne would
impress upon the future Louis XIV" (10). Once King, "[…] Louis
XIV governed France as the direct representative of God on earth"
(Fiero 25) and called himself le roi soleil, French for
"the Sun King". During the 72 years of his monarchy, the Sun King
ruled for himself - he did not respond to anyone and controlled
it all. He taxed the peasants and privileged the aristocracy. The
money collected from his people went to finance the military
forces and the arts. At that time, the military in France was
recognized as the most powerful in Western Europe. As for the
cultural aspect, DeJean well observes that "by the early
eighteenth century […] France had acquired a sort of monopoly on
culture, style, and luxury living, a position that it has
occupied ever since," (3), and "the center of artistic patronage
and productivity shifted from Italy to France" (Fiero 25),
something all citizens should be proud of. But that was not the
only shift France experienced: the royal palace was
moved from Paris
(the Louvre) to Versailles. Louis XIV "commissioned a massive
renovation of his father's hunting lodge" (Fiero 27) that lasted
almost twenty years to get finished. The final product was "a
synthesis of Classical and Palladian elements" (Fiero 28) that
translates into the magnificent park and palace of Versailles,
which "in its size and splendor-[symbolized] Louis' supremacy
over the landed aristocracy, the provincial governments, the
urban councils, and the Estates General (Fiero 27). Kallen
reports in The 1700s that the renovation of Versailles
cost over 200 million francs in 1690 (68).
In the meantime,
peasants lived in places "[…] built of mud, covered with thatch,
and having only a single low room without a ceiling. The windows
were small and had no glass. […] This is one of the principal
causes for the epidemics that were still so frequent" (Kallen
68), "which, although less
dreadful than those of the Middle Ages, were none the less quite
fatal. Measles and especially small-pox, typhus and typhoid fever
claimed thousands of victims. […] The peasants were almost
entirely without medical attention" (Kallen 71). The epidemics
were worse in the rural areas than in the cities, and, even
though some peasants had it better than others, they all
suffered. "The food of the peasants was always coarse, and often
insufficient. […] The basic foods were bread, soup, dairy
products, and butter" (Kallen 69). "During the last fifteen years
of the reign of Louis XIV [1701-1715] the misery grew more
serious. The winter of 1709 witnessed a veritable famine" (Kellen
70). "The government offered nothing for [the peasants'] troubles
as it was bogged down in the costly War of the Spanish
Succession" (Kallen 68) that finally was brought to an end in
year, 1715, was marked by the death of Louis XIV and his
succession to the throne by his great-grandson, Louis XV.
Louis XV was
only five years old when he was declared King. With his
great-grandfather's death, "it all depended now on the life of
that child, the sole survivor of a once numerous family. […] That
the little boy would live long enough to succeed seemed extremely
probable, but, then, child mortality was appallingly high, the
Dauphin himself terribly fragile" (Bernier 1-2). "At the
slightest cold, people worried that his life might be in danger,
and he was brought up in fear of the devil and hell. He thus
became accustomed to the idea of his own death at a very early
age and like to allude to it" (Lever 4).
cousin, Philippe d'Orléans served as Regent
of the Kingdom from 1715 to 1723, until Louis XV's majority.
Then, Cardinal Fleury was the King's tutor and then Prime
Minister for 17 years -- from 1726 until the Fleury's death in
1743. "The King was still shy and uncertain of himself; he was
quite able to analyze the situation, weigh his options and come
to a sensible conclusion, but he lacked the sufficient confidence
in himself to impose his views on a virtually unanimous people.
Always willing to think that others knew better, since it had
been the case all through his childhood and adolescence,"
(Bernier 103) he was obedient to Fleury's wishes and married at
15 years old to "ensure the dynasty's posterity.
In the beginning
he was a faithful husband to the devout Marie Leczinska [… who
was his elder by seven years and] gave him two sons […] and eight
daughters [, becoming] worn out by her successive pregnancies"
(Lever 5-6). The King started meeting with casual mistresses
until 1745, when he met Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, known as the
Madame de Pompadour. She became and was his chief mistress for
almost twenty years, until her death. A very powerful woman at
the time, she had great influence over the King and had many
enemies for that. Nonetheless, the King loved her and would
listen to fulfill her requests. "Madame de Pompadour influenced
state policy and dominated fashion and the arts at Versailles for
almost twenty years. [Francois Boucher, who] was First Painter to
the King Louis XV and a good friend of […] the Marquise de
Pompadour" (Fiero 143), painted the Marquise portrait using the
popular style at the time known as Rococo, the elegant and
refined style very much appreciated by Louis XV.
aristocrats, who dominated artistic patronage between 1715 and
1750, found pleasure in […] Rococo" (Fiero 140). However, in the
eighteenth century other styles were flourishing: Genre painting
and later the Neoclassical style. Genre painting illustrated
better the life of members of the middle class, while
Neoclassicism "conveyed the rationalism and political idealism of
reformers and revolutionaries in France" (Fiero 140). Both made
more sense to be popular during the Age of Reason, "the
Enlightenment -- the intellectual movement that occurred between
1687 (the date of Newton's Principia) and 1789 (the beginning of
the French Revolution)" (Fiero 98).
Louis XV did not appreciate the new styles in vogue or the
intellectual movement that was transforming France and the French
view of the world. "The quest for nonauthoritarian, secular
morality led the philosophes ("nobility and middle-class thinkers
[who] met to exchange views on morality, politics, science, and
religion and to voice opinions on everything") to challenge all
existing forms of intolerance, inequality, and injustice" (Fiero
105). Louis XV, an absolutist, could not approve of the movement.
When Diderot's Encyclopedia was published, the King "claimed that
the Encyclopedia was doing 'irreparable damage to morality and
religion,' [and although] the crown twice banned its printing,
some volumes were published and distributed secretly" (Fiero
and 40s, France became involved in different succession wars with
results that did not please the French. Later on, in 1756, France
fought in the Seven Years War and lost many colonies to Britain.
Louis XV's popularity was not very high after those. "In the
1760s, a new minister, the Duc de Choiseul, managed to restore
some stability to France. But the extravagances of Louis's court,
the huge expense of decades of warfare and the defeat of attempts
at reform left monarchy and government weakened by the end of
Louis's reign. He died at Versailles on 10 May 1774 and was
succeeded by his grandson who became Louis XVI" (BBC).
"Louis XVI, King
of France, was the son of Louis, dauphin of France, the son of
Louis XV, and of Marie Joseph of Saxony, and was born at
Versailles on the 23rd of August 1754, being baptized as Louis
Augustus. His father's death in 1765 made him heir to the throne,
and in 1770 he was married to Marie Antoinette, daughter of the
empress Maria Theresa. He was just twenty years old when the
death of Louis XV on the 10th of May 1774 placed him on the
throne. He began his reign under good auspices, with Turgot, the
greatest living French statesman, in charge of the disorganized
finances; but in less than two years he had yielded to the demand
of the vested interests attacked by Turgot's reforms, and
dismissed him. Turgot's successor, Necker, however, continued the
regime of reform until 1781, and it was only with Necker's
dismissal that the period of reaction began. Marie Antoinette
then obtained that ascendancy over her husband which was partly
responsible for the extravagance of the ministry of Calonne, and
brought on the Revolution by the resulting financial
The third part
of his reign began with the meeting of the states-general on the
4th of May 1789, which marked the opening of the Revolution. The
revolt of Paris and the taking of the Bastille on the 14th of
July were its results.
not without justification, of a second attempt at a coup d'état
led on the 6th of October to the "capture" of the king and royal
family at Versailles by a mob from Paris, and their transference
to the Tuileries. In spite of the growing radicalism of the
clubs, however, loyalty to the king remained surprisingly strong.
When he swore to maintain the constitution, then in progress of
construction, at the festival of the federation on the 14th of
July 1790, he was at the height of his popularity. Even his
attempted flight on the 20th of June 1791 did not entirely turn
the nation against him, although he left documents which proved
his opposition to the whole Revolution.
Varennes, and brought back to Paris, he was maintained as a
constitutional king, and took his oath on the 13th of September
1791. But already a party was forming in Paris which demanded his
deposition. This first became noticeable in connection with the
affair of the Champ de Mars on the 17th of July 1791. Crushed for
a time the party gained strength through the winter of 1791-92.
The declaration of war against the emperor Francis II, nephew of
Marie Antoinette, was forced upon the king by those who wished to
discredit him by failure, or to compel him to declare himself
openly an enemy to the Revolution. Their policy proved effective.
The failure of the war, which intensified popular hatred of the
Austrian queen, involved the king; and the invasion of the
Tuileries on the 20th of June 1792 was but the prelude to the
conspiracy which resulted, on the 10th
of August, in the capture of the palace and the "suspension" of
royalty by the Legislative Assembly until the convocation of a
national convention in September.
On the 21st of
September 1792 the Convention declared royalty abolished, and in
January it tried the king for his treason against the nation, and
condemned him to death. He was executed on the 21st of January
The reign of
Louis XIV brought the glory, sophistication and the center of the
arts to France, but also created a very suffering class of
peasants. Louis XV's was not very different in that respect -
extravagances continued and the results of the wars brought down
his popularity in France and huge financial problems to the
country. The escalated problems were felt by Louis XVI, whose
inability to govern together with the pressure of the
intellectual middle class and the suffering population in France,
brought an end to his reign and, ultimately his life during the
French Revolution. Three monarchs in power for decades lived in
luxury while their people suffered from the lack of the most
basic. It was just a matter of time for France to explode into a
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