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Prehistory to Roman
French kingdoms
Normans and Capetians
The Valois dynasty
16th century
Louis XIII
Louis XIV
     L'État c'est moi
     A party at Vaux-le Vicomte
     Louis XIV and theatre
     Royal factories
     Enlarging the frontiers
     Huguenots and Jansenists
     Vauban and fortification
     Alliances against France

18th century
Political turmoil
Third Republic
Fifth republic
To be completed

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L'État c'est moi: 1661-1715

When Mazarin dies, in 1661, he leaves a kingdom at peace, externally as well as internally. The long war with Spain, conducted since 1635, has ended in 1659 with the treaty of the Pyrenees. France makes useful gains on both her borders with Spain, taking land from Flanders and Luxembourg in the Spanish Netherlands and along the Pyrenees in the south.

Under the treaty Louis XIV also marries the Spanish infanta Maria Theresa (Marie Thérèse to the French). She brings a useful dowry of 500,000 crowns, but she renounces her rights to the Spanish crown. (The renunciation is overlooked two generations later, when an unexpected result of this marriage is a Bourbon prince on the throne of Spain.)


Mazarin also leaves to Louis XIV his very talented deputy Colbert, much as Mazarin himself was bequeathed to Louis XIII by Richelieu. Colbert is entrusted with reform of the French economy, which he carries out with great efficiency over the next twenty-two years. But his relationship with the king differs from that of his predecessors. Richelieu and Mazarin acted with almost complete authority as principal minister, in a form of government which became known as the ministériat.

After Mazarin's death Louis will have no more of that. He becomes his own principal minister, directly controlling every aspect of state policy. Colbert and other colleagues in government are merely the king's loyal servants.


It is probable that Louis never said L'État c'est moi ("the State is myself"), traditionally quoted as part of an address in 1655 to the Paris parlement (the powers of which he subsequently restricts). But even if apocryphal, the statement reflects Louis' concept of his kingly role.

Moreover the state which he personifies is one which he strives ceaselessly to make more powerful and more spectacular. His ambitions are seen in the palace which he creates at Versailles from 1664, and in the series of aggressive military campaigns with which he attempts to enlarge France's borders. His great projects leave the kingdom bankrupt at the end of a long reign. But in the scale of their ambition they are magnificent.


A party at Vaux-le Vicomte: 1661

In August 1661, five months after the death of Mazarin, Louis XIV is the guest of honour at a festivity presented by Nicolas Fouquet - the minister entrusted by Mazarin with the finance department. The event takes place at the superb palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte, near Melun, built by Fouquet over the previous five years as his personal residence.

With Le Vau as the architect, Le Brun designing the interiors and Le Nôtre in charge of the spectacular gardens, Vaux-le-Vicomte is one of the great French baroque palaces. The king does not like what he sees. Or rather he likes it very much indeed - but not in the hands of one of his subjects.


Much as Hampton Court harmed Wolsey in the eyes of Henry VIII, Vaux-le-Vicomte seals the fate of Fouquet. The palace itself, with the lavishness of the entertainment, convinces the king that so much wealth can only be ill-gotten. Fouquet is arrested in September and is tried for embezzlement. Colbert plays a perfidious role in the proceedings, suppressing all documents favourable to Fouquet's case and thus safeguarding his own new role as finance minister.

Fouquet is sentenced to life imprisonment, while Louis goes one stage better than Vaux-le-Vicomte on his own account. In 1664 Fouquet's architect, Le Vau, is commissioned to rebuild the royal lodge at Versailles. Le Brun will do the interiors, and Le Nôtre the gardens.


Versailles: 1664-1715

In his palace at Versailles, constructed between 1664 and 1710, Louis XIV creates an architectural symbol of absolute rule. The vast symmetrical building (sufficiently complete by 1682 to become the permanent home of the French court) has at its centre a superb piece of theatre - the great Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), designed in 1678 by Jules Hardouin-Mansart (the royal architect after the death of Le Vau in 1670).

Here, where Louis sits in state to receive important visitors, the mirrored walls reflect back and forth the splendour of the occasion. On the ceiling above, as if in the heavens, paintings by Le Brun remind the viewer of glorious moments in the king's life.


Some 3000 courtiers live at Versailles, jostling for the king's attention and favours. Status, ever liable to change, is made starkly visible in the details of court ritual. Every part of the king's day is a performance - getting up (the lever), eating (the couvert), going to bed (the coucher). To be allowed to watch him on any such occasion is a privilege, to sit on a stool in his presence a high honour, to be promoted to a chair almost unbearably exciting.

The regulations for those not in his presence constantly emphasize his divine status. It is compulsory to bend the knee to a table laid for the king's meal - and even to the royal chamber pot on its way to be emptied.


Outside the building the great vistas of Le Nôtre's gardens develop the same theme. Seen from the palace each perspective recedes towards infinity, while the gardens become more natural with increasing distance; seen from outside every path leads back towards the king at the formal centre.

These vistas sparkle with light and water, as the many hundreds of fountains designed by Le Nôtre play over sculptured groups praising the king by various allegorial means. And finally - one of their most important purposes - the gardens make the perfect setting for the spectacular fêtes de Versailles, celebrating the greatness of France and of Louis in pageant form.


Louis XIV and theatre: 1651-1715

While Louis himself is the star of France's grandest and longest-running piece of theatre, he is also keenly interested in performance of a more conventional sort.

He is lucky in being able to call on France's three greatest dramatists, all working during his reign, Corneille, Racine and Molière. But the type of theatre which most appeals to him is ballet. At the age of twelve, in 1651, he dances five comic roles in a court ballet (a Bacchante, a man of ice, a Titan, a Muse and a divine). Two years later he appears as Apollo, wearing a glorious sun costume - an early contribution to the cult of himself as the Sun King, which he fosters throughout his reign.


The dancers in court ballets are the courtiers themselves, and a large part of the pleasure comes from watching one's friends prance about in spectacular costumes. The English diarist John Evelyn sees Louis XIV dancing in Paris in 1651; he marvels not so much at the dancing as at so many Sumptuously attired aristocrats.

But Louis XIV himself is genuinely interested in dancing, and in 1661 he decides that his colleagues are not up to scratch. He brings together the best Parisian dancing masters to form the Académie Royale de Danse, where his friends' skills may be honed. It is so successful that he follows it in 1669 with a similar Académie Royale de Musique.


These two institutions are merged to form the Paris Opéra (still in existence today). From 1672 professional dancers are trained. The institution settles down into what is recognizably a ballet company.

The first director, Pierre Beauchamp, choreographs many ballet sequences with music by Lully and others - and he devises his own system for recording the steps. (He is often credited with inventing the five classic positions for the feet, but more probably he is merely the first to record them.)


Royal factories and other ventures: from1662

Confronted by the challenge of the king's building plans, and determined that every detail shall proclaim the majesty of his master, Colbert sets up a royal factory to provide the furniture and soft furnishings which will be needed.

He does this by buying in 1662 the Paris workshops of the Gobelin family, in the Faubourg St Marcel. They are renamed the Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne (Royal Factory of Crown Furniture). In the following year Charles le Brun, now official painter to the king, is made director of the new establishment.


Craftsmen are gathered from far and wide, raw materials are brought in. The intention is that everything required by the king, and luxury goods purchased by others in France, shall be made to very high standards here or in similar establishments within the kingdom - and that a surplus of such items will be available for sale abroad.

This is in keeping with mercantilism, the economic orthodoxy of the 17th and 18th centuries. The mercantile theory states that countries grow rich by importing little and exporting much, thus storing up a healthy balance of payments in the form of the gold which other nations pay for the exported goods.


For this same purpose Colbert introduces standards for goods manufactured in France (penalties include the pillory for shoddy work); he improves internal transport, with major undertakings such as the Canal du Midi; he builds up the merchant fleet so that precious French funds are not spent on the carrying trade; he establishes colonial enterprises (the East India and West India companies, both founded in 1664) to ensure a supply of raw materials; and he erects tariff barriers against imports.

Many of these measures are effective, though tariffs tend to provoke the same in retaliation. But any lasting benefit from Colbert's efforts is undermined by Louis XIV's military adventures.


Enlarging the frontiers: 1667-1684

From the moment of taking power into his own hands, in 1661, Louis XIV bases his policy in all fields on one over-riding aim - to increase the power and glory of France. In foreign affairs this primarily means extending the kingdom's frontiers.

Louis sees his first chance when his father-in-law, Philip III of Spain, dies in 1665. Disregarding the fact that his Spanish wife has renounced her claim to the Spanish kingdom, Louis finds spurious legal reasons to argue that parts of the Spanish Netherlands should devolve to her. The resulting conflict, caused by French troops marching into Spanish territory in 1667, is known therefore as the War of Devolution.


France's two great warriors, Turenne and Condé, are once again to the fore. Turenne seizes part of the Spanish Netherlands in 1667. Early in 1668 Condé takes only two weeks to occupy the whole of Franche-Comté. The peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1668 restores much of the lost territory to Spain but nevertheless leaves France with considerable gains in Flanders. Louis' great military engineer, Sebastien de Vauban, immediately moves in to protect the new acquisitions with state-of-the-art fortification.

This is a pattern which is regularly repeated. In 1672 Louis launches a campaign against the United Provinces of the Netherlands, which leads to a succession of wars ending only in the treaties of Nijmegen in 1678-9.


The terms agreed at Nijmegen again bring Louis territory on his borders at the expense of Spain (this time Franche-Comté is finally ceded to France, having been returned to Spain in 1668).

During the 1680s Louis uses a more nibbling form of policy, in which he claims to be effecting "reunion" between France and territories once owing feudal allegiance to the French king. On this basis he gradually strengthens the rather vague rights granted to France in 1648 in Alsace and Lorraine. He seizes Strasbourg in 1681 and Luxembourg in 1684. By the treaty of Regensburg, in 1684, both are ceded to France.


The aggressive tone of France's policy is reflected in other less dramatic ways. Louis tries to insist on his ambassadors taking precedence over all others in foreign courts; French ships are ordered to abandon the conventional custom of saluting British ships in British waters; there is a battle in the streets of Rome after a dispute over precedence between the French ambassador's escort and the papal guard.

Internally the same insistence upon the king's pre-eminence leads to repression of any who disagree with Louis' preferred version of Christianity.


Huguenots and Jansenists: 1661-1713

Louis XIV's determination to have his own way makes him incapable of tolerating religious dissension. An immediate target is the Huguenots, over whom he triumphs (to France's considerable loss). A more complex problem is that of Jansenism, a dissenting sect within Catholicism; this issue remains unresolved at the king's death.

The Huguenots have thrived economically since 1629, when the peace of Alès left them with only their freedom of conscience. Their success makes the Catholic clergy even more eager to suppress them. In 1661 Louis willingly grants the church's request to send commissioners into Huguenot territories to report on any infringement of the edicts defining their liberties.


For twenty years a legal war is waged against the Huguenots, with pretexts found to close their schools and hospitals. When this fails to effect their conversion, more drastic methods are adopted in the 1680s. In the policy known as dragonnades, troops of dragoons are billetted in Huguenot villages with orders to cause as much mayhem as they like in the houses of their heretical hosts.

The violence leads to mass conversions, enabling Louis to claim that there are now so few Huguenots in France that the edict of Nantes is no longer needed. He revokes it in 1685, in the edict of Fontainebleau. Protestantism, a powerful feature of French life since the Reformation, is now illegal in the kingdom.


Events prove Louis dramatically wrong in his assessment. Some 400,000 French citizens, including many of the country's best craftsmen and tradesmen, emigrate rather than deny their Huguenot beliefs. Their arrival proves of great value in the places where they choose to settle - in particular England, Holland, Prussia and the American colonies.

Louis' disagreement with the Jansenists is more tenuous but no less obsessive. They are followers of a theologian from the Netherlands, Cornelius Jansen, whose studies of St Augustine lead him into doctrinal clashes with the Jesuits. The differences of opionion might have remained purely ecclesiastical. But the situation in France - with its absolutist monarch - adds a political dimension.


The Jansenists in France seem a threat in Louis' eyes because of their insistence on the rights of the individual conscience and their refusal to be browbeaten. Their convent school of Port-Royal in Paris is a fashionable centre of intellectual excellence (Pascal is closely associated with it, and Racine is a pupil). Louis XIV becomes determined to suppress it.

The king's measures against the Jansenists of Port-Royal span much of his reign, ending with the closing of the convent in 1709 and the destruction of its buildings in 1711. Even so Jansenism remains a strong force in France throughout much of the 18th century.


Vauban and fortification: 1654-1706

France's expansionist policies during the late 17th century benefit greatly from the military genius of Sebastien de Vauban, who spends more than half a century in active service in Louis XIV's campaigns. His special interest is in fortification (though he is also the inventor of the socket bayonet). In siege warfare he is as skilled in the arts of defence as of attack.

During his long career Vauban either builds or redesigns some 160 fortresses. But his most significant contribution is the tactic which he develops for approaching and breaching an enemy's stronghold.


Vauban's method, first put into practice during the Dutch wars at the 1673 siege of Maastricht, becomes known as the 'approach by parallel line'. It consists essentially of the infantry and artillery leapfrogging to the base of a fortress wall.

The range of a siege cannon at this time is about 600 yards. Vauban arranges his guns at this distance from the weakest flank of a fortress and then digs a trench behind the guns as a base for the infantry. From here musketeers can protect the artillery from attack by enemy sorties, and can at the same time cover sappers digging trenches which lead towards the fort. They dig in a zigzag line, as a protection from raking cannon-fire along a trench's length.


When the zigzag has moved forward about 200 yards, another trench is dug parallel to the fortress wall. Both infantry and artillery move up into this new position, and the process is repeated. The second move forward brings the sappers within range of musket fire from the ramparts. They extend their trench now under a protective roof, pushed forward on wheels (a device known as a gabion, in the ancient tradition of the Roman tortoise).

When the third parallel position is successfully established, the siege artillery is near enough for a direct bombardment on the walls. In most cases this is soon sufficient to force a breach in the defences.


Maastricht, subjected to these tactics in 1673, falls to the French army in thirteen days. In subsequent engagements Vauban's method of parallel lines proves reliable and easily adapted to each particular fortification and its surrounding terrain. It becomes the custom in the French army to classify enemy fortresses in terms of the number of days for which they are expected to hold out against an assault of this kind.

The majority of sieges during the 18th century are conducted by European armies along the lines pioneered by Vauban. His example also gives engineers, for the first time, an important status in any modern army.


Alliances against France: 1686-1697

The military adventures of Louis XIV prompt other European powers to form alliances against expansionist France. The first is the League of Augsburg, put together in 1686 by the Austrian emperor Leopold I. He brings into it his Habsburg cousins in Spain and various states of the Holy Roman empire. This league has no specific purpose (other than to give Leopold a sense of security during his proposed campaign against the Turks), and it takes no action against France. Its successor, the Grand Alliance of 1689, is in a different category.

The Grand Alliance is prompted by opportunistic moves on Louis' part. In the second half of 1688 he sends two armies across the Rhine.


One French army goes to Cologne to support Louis' favoured candidate for the archbishopric, which has fallen vacant. The other marches into the Palatinate, where the death of the elector Palatine has given Louis a tenuous French claim (through his brother's marriage to the elector's sister).

This provokes the first coherent and widespread European response to French aggression. During 1689 an alliance is formed which eventually includes the Austrian empire, Holland, England, Brandenburg, Hanover, Saxony, Bavaria, Savoy and Spain. The eventual leader of the alliance is William III, ruler of both England and Holland. But at the start his attention is elsewhere. He is busy fighting Louis' ally, the Stuart king James II, in Ireland.


After an inconclusive war, Louis has to make considerable concessions in the peace of Rijswijk in 1697. But by now he is conserving his strength for the struggle over a much more important European issue. Who will inherit the Spanish empire on the death of the childless and sickly Habsburg king of Spain?

That conflict, with so much at stake, erupts in 1700. The king of Spain leaves everything to a Bourbon grandson of Louis XIV. Louis, breaking previous agreements, will now consider no compromise in the distribution of this windfall. He insists that his grandson remain in line of succession for the French throne, and warns that the rich trade with Spanish America will be reserved for France.


During 1701 the leading members of the Grand Alliance join forces again for a renewal of war against France. The resulting War of the Spanish Succession is a long one, to 1713, and it ends with the compromise which could perhaps have avoided it in the first place; the Bourbons receive Spain and Spanish America, the Austrian Habsburgs win the Spanish possessions in the Netherlands and Italy.

So Louis XIV lives to see his second grandson on the throne of Spain, as Philip V. But he also sees the death of his elder son, in 1711, and of his eldest grandson in the following year. He is succeeded, in 1715, by his 5-year-old great-grandson, as Louis XV.


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