How is it that great leaders can delude themselves that they are working for the greater good, but engage in behavior that is morally wrong? This conundrum lies at the heart of King of the World which is a rich and rewarding read.
Philip Mansel gave me a tantalising taste of the life and times of Louis XIV, the most dazzling and mesmerising monarch of a sovereign country in European history.
Here is the podcast of our conversation which is peppered with colourful anecdotes and arresting insights.
We chatted about the revival of interest in Versailles, power dressing, pomp and pageantry, and the beginnings of the fashion and luxury trade. In 1878 Louis XIV wore a jewel-encrusted coat worth 12.5 million livres to welcome an ambassador from Persia, the people touching it as he passed by.
A day in the life of Louis XIV was ceremonial performance art. Courtiers and nobles, crowds, crowds and more crowds . . . Prayer and politics, feasting and opulent parties. Versailles, the symbolic heart of France, is bling on a glorious level. Its image of grandeur remains important today. The palace is used for cultural and trade promotions, private parties held by Bollywood billionaires and by French presidents to impress foreign visitors like Vladimir Putin.
The first Chinese visitor to Versailles was in 1684. Today it is the most visited place in the world after the Forbidden City in China, welcoming 7-8 million visitors a year.
“Louis XIV was both King of France and a global ruler with global ambitions. He founded colonies in America, Africa and India, tried to seize Siam (as Thailand was then known), sent missionaries and mathematicians to the Emperor of China and launched the struggle for France’s global markets which continues to this day . . . Louis was a man in pursuit of glory, a king devoted to dynastic aggrandisement and a leader bent on national expansion. He is also an argument . . .” from the author’s introduction.
“It is impossible to please all the world,” Louis XIV
The early life of the future king was turbulent, despite his good relationship with the regent, his widowed mother, Anne of Austria. France’s chief minister Cardinal Mazarin was corrupt and a foreigner, making him doubly unpopular with the people.
The parliamentarian Fronde tax rebellion spearheaded by the nobility meant young Louis had to flee Paris and journey from city to city (the gates were shut in his face in some places) which was traumatic for him. The Fronde was resolved, and war with Spain ended with the young king being married off to his cousin, the Infanta Maria Theresa of Austria, daughter of Philip IV of Spain. Louis assumed personal control of the government after the cardinal died in 1661.
The young king began to centralise power and expanded north and east – obliterating German cities, burning Brussels as he grabbed the Spanish Netherlands (modern day Belgium), Strasbourg, the France Comté . . .
He was an early internationalist, expanding into the Far East, Africa and America (Lousiana is named after him). When Jesuits became too dominating in their mission to Christianise the people of Siam, and establish a French protectorate, they were thrown out.
The beginning of the slave trade and its atrocities was justified by the pursuit of money, and the rivalry between France and England which was complex, and on a war footing after 1688. Paris and London were the most glamorous European cities of the time.
“One king, one law, one faith,” Louis XIV
The French king’s divinely ordained mission to save the souls of Protestants resulted in the horrendous persecution of the Huguenots after 1678. London overtook Paris in terms of size and modernity thanks to the arrival of the immigrants fleeing massacres and starvation, enriching the economy as they brought their skills as weavers, clock makers and gunsmiths with them.The Huguenots are credited with importing the word “refugee” into the English language, (se réfugier > to take refuge).
“I am the State,” Louis XIV
After his mother died in the Louvre, Louis XIV moved away from Paris as he preferred the country, and relished hunting and shooting. But the new post of Lieutenant General of Police meant he was kept informed of everything that was going on.
The cult of the state and state power and uniformity was deeply entrenched. Versailles was developed and expanded from being a hunting lodge to a great palace with 180 apartments and numerous other small rooms. A village in itself, the palace was like a marriage bureau for the nobility, and a job centre with men seeking to become the commander of a garrison or judge in the regions.
Saint Simon’s letters, and those of Madame de Sévigné, and of Elizabeth Charlotte, Madame Palatine, wife of the king’s gay brother, Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, are entertaining sources of life at Versailles. Madame relishes in recounting sexual shenanigans and scatalogical jokes. She was obsessed by her husband’s homosexuality which was forbidden in France, but was allowed at court which was known as “le petit sodom.”
Louis XIV indulged his creativity and inspired an array of iconic cultural figures including Molière, Racine, Boileau, La Fontaine, Lully, Marais, Le Brun, Rigaud, Bossuet, Le Vau, Mansart, Charles Claude Perrault, and Le Nôtre who designed the park at the Palace of Versailles.
“I would sooner reconcile all of Europe than two women,” Louis XIV
Louis XIV’s close relationship with his dynamic mother may have established in him a respect for and enjoyment of intelligent, strong women that led to his womanising. On one triumphal foray to Flanders in 1670, Louis’s court retinue included the queen and two mistresses.
His favourites were Madame de Montespan, who took the place of Louise de La Vallière using her wit and charm, (between them they bore him eleven children), and Madame de Maintenon. The first was disgraced by the Affair of the Poisons, involving intrigues and plots, sorcerers and astrologers, and wives poisoning husbands. The second seduced the king when she served as governess to his illegitimate children, away from the prying eyes of the court. She was arguably one of the most successful governesses in history!
“Mon dieu ayez pitié de moi . . . j’espère en votre miséricorde,” Louis XIV as he lay dying
The health of the Grand Monarque was minutely recorded almost up to his death. The king’s sister-in-law describes a greedy supper in one of her missives: “I have often seen the King eat four plates of different sorts of soup, a whole pheasant, a partridge, a large plate of salad, roast mutton in gravy, and with garlic, a couple of good slices of ham, a plate of pastry, and then some fruit and preserves.”
All the king’s diseases, ailments and health troubles were chronicled in detail, along with the purges, emetics, tonics, ointments, plasters, surgical operations and treatments that were administered by a clique of squabbling, incompetent doctors. It was gout, gangrene and diabetes that did for the king in the end.
The gentle, cultivated young man who was crowned king in 1661 became monstrous, cruel and tyrannical by the end of his reign. His rule of fear united Europe against him. Yet at his death in 1715, despite wars, famines and epidemics, France was the most populous, powerful and prosperous kingdom in Europe, with twenty million inhabitants and a growing population.
His architectural legacy in Paris included the East façade of The Louvre, Les Invalides, La Salpêtrière Hospital for fallen women, the Place Vendôme, and the Champs-Elysées.
The more a person possesses power, the more they focus on their own egocentric desires and subjugate others, and the less able they are to see a different perspective. From Louis XIV and his famous statement to the parisian parliamentarians in 1655 “L’État, c’est moi” (“I am the state”), to President Nixon claiming that “the President is above the law” during Watergate, and more recently President Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani proclaiming that a president can pardon himself when Robert Mueller’s Special Counsel investigation went public . . . absolute power corrupts absolutely.
King of the World is the most comprehensive and up-to-date historical biography in English of Europe’s longest-reigning monarch: Louis XIV. Taking seven years to complete, it draws on all the latest research in France, Britain and America and pays special attention to the culture of the court, on which Philip Mansel is an acknowledged expert.
The hardback edition of King of the World: A Life of Louis XIV is beautifully produced, with superb illustrations and end papers, maps, family trees, extensive notes, a bibliography and an index . . . It is a gorgeous ‘object’ in itself. There is a wealth of archive material included, along with new material from Spain.
A well-respected historian of France and the Middle East, Philip Mansel has such notable works under his belt as Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire 1453-1924, Paris Between Empires 1814-1852, Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City and Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II.
King of the World: A Life of Louis XIV is a superb and compelling work that is set to become the classic biography of a towering figure who continues to arouse passionate debate, discord and idolatry. A vital educational resource, by rights it should become an international bestseller.
King of the World: A Life of Louis XIV by Philip Mansel | 604 pages 30 GBP Allen Lane 11 July 2019 | ISBN: 978-1-846-14599-5
Meet the Author: Philip Mansel interviewed in February 2016
Author website: philipmansel.com
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