Episode 2, ‘Two Louis’, explores the legacies of Louis XVI’s forebears. Louis XVI may have presided over the French Revolution, but the origins of the revolution can be found in previous reigns. The policies of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and his disappointing successor Louis XV, laid some of the key foundations for the French Revolution of 1789.
Before Louis XIV’s reign, France had been engulfed in the anarchy of assassinations and civil war. After his reign, France would experience the despised reign of Louis XV, the decapitated reign of Louis XVI, and the terrific reign of Revolution. With such a bleak history and turbulent future, it is pretty easy to see why Louis XIV might be considered a bright spot in French history. Sitting on the throne for 72 years and 110 days, Louis was one of the longest-serving monarchs ever and accomplished 2 substantial achievements which had a direct impact in setting up the necessary circumstances for the French Revolution.
First Key Impact: France reemerges as a European superpower
After Louis XIV settled internal divisions within the country, the King involved France in multiple conflicts throughout his reign. These included the War of Devolution, the Dutch War, the Nine Years War, and the War of Spanish Succession. Through the use of hard power, Louis catapulted France into the epicenter of European geopolitics. Historian David Ogg summarises as follows:
“It is the true greatness of Louis XIV that, by his activities, the history of his reign was, in a real sense the history of Europe, and that Versailles became in policy what Rome had been in religion.”
Soft power was also used by Louis to cement France’s new place at the epicenter of European affairs. Historian Martyn P. Pollack writes
“Louis XIV., compelled to remain at peace for some time, continued the work he had begun of putting his kingdom in order, of fortifying it, of beautifying it. He showed that an absolute monarch, anxious to do good, succeeds without difficulty in everything he may undertake. He had only to command, and success in administration was as rapid as it had been in military conquest. It was truly a marvellous sight to behold the seaports, formerly deserted and fallen into ruins, now surrounded by structures which were at once their ornament and their defence, teeming with ships and sailors, and already containing nearly sixty large vessels which could be armed for war. New colonists under the protection of the French flag were departing from every port for America, for the East Indies, and for the coasts of Africa. Meanwhile in France under his very eyes, great buildings were employing thousands of men, and all the arts that architecture brings in its train; and in the interior of his court and capital, still nobler and more ingenious arts were giving France pleasures and a glory which earlier centuries had not even dreamed of.”
Second Key Impact: Absolute monarchy reigns absolutely
Crushing a series of revolts, Louis XIV victories allowed him to solidify a trend that has been occurring in France for many decades. That trend was the nobility’s transformation from a privileged class with substantial political power to a privileged class without substantial political power. Historian Francois Mignet wrote the following on the new place of the French nobility and the solidification of power around the monarch:
“From Philip Augustus to Louis XI, the object of all their efforts was to preserve their own power; from Louis XI. to Louis XIV. to become the ministers of that of royalty. The Fronde was the last campaign of the aristocracy. Under Louis XIV. absolute monarchy definitively established itself, and dominated without dispute.”
Historian Gaetano Salvemini agrees with Mignet’s view that Louis XIV had secured the throne as the centre of power for the French state. While he had to bribe the nobles to do so, Louis nevertheless cemented France as an absolute monarchy. Salvemini, as translated by, I.M. Rawson, sums up Louis’ new France:
“Louis XIV, who wished to destroy all political influence on the part of the nobles, encouraged them to become courtiers, uprooted them from their old chateaux, severed all contact between them and their former subjects, and kept them wholly in his power. In return, he declared their feudal rights imprescriptible, recognized their monopoly of the chase, and revoked the Edict of Nantes, dispersing the Protestant bourgeoisie to please the Jesuits, after forcing the clergy to accept the articles of the Gallican Church. He entertained lavishly and created lucrative posts for his proteges showing an interest in their family affairs, helping them in their financial troubles, and showering favours and pensions upon them.”
This policy had one key weakness. The success of this centralization of state power depended on a strong King. The nobility retained their legal rights to power, even if there were too distracted by pensions and luxuries to wield it. Future generations of disgruntled, power-hungry nobles could fuel unrest in a quest to reassert the nobility as a political force in the French state. Historian Arthur Hassall makes this specific critique of Louis’ policy agenda, and also criticises his predecessors for not addressing it:
“The faults of the absolutism of Louis XIV are obvious. With regard to the nobles the policy of the government did not go far enough. It has been very truly said by a modern writer that the absolute power of the King “ was held in check by the innumerable usages and traditions of a highly civilised society.” The existence of these traditions may have tended to incline the government to pursue a compromising policy with regard to the nobles, but whatever was the cause, the results of the policy adopted were most disastrous. The whole history of France in the seventeenth century proves conclusively that the nobles were unfit to be trusted with political power. In overthrowing their political influence, Louis’ government had done well. But no attempt was made to destroy their privileges, and these remained to bring upon the nobles and with them the monarchy, revolution and ruin. The greatest mistake to be ascribed by Louis’ government was that, in respect to the privileges of the nobles, it pursued an illadvised and fatal policy. Had Louis placed himself at the head of a social revolution and reduced the nobles to a condition similar to that enjoyed by the English peerage, the monarchy would probably have been saved, and France spared years of revolutionary trouble.”
“In the social and political condition of France a strong centralised government was the necessity of the hour, and with the establishment of the unquestioned authority of the King, France enjoyed increased prosperity, while the sphere of her influence in Europe was widely extended. Had Louis destroyed the privileges of the nobles, had he entirely abolished the political functions of the Parlements, had he wisely given the local assemblies more power in the matter of taxation, France would have developed in the direction of a constitutional government. He had, however, given France a definite form of government suitable to the times in which he lived. The establishment of a bureaucracy dependent on an absolutism did wonders for France in the seventeenth century. It is much to be regretted that Louis’ successors did not introduce the modifications required by the existence of new conditions and new ideas in the eighteenth century. Their failure to adapt themselves to the exigencies of the times cannot be laid to the charge of the Grand Monarque.”
Louis XV is not regarded to be as great a king as his predecessor. Criticized for his domestic and foreign policies, many contemporaries and historians lament Louis XV’s long reign. Historian George Peabody Gooch sums up a negative view of Louis XV’s reign:
“Keenly interested though he was in foreign affairs, Louis XV lacked the courage to stand up to his Ministers, and the secret diplomacy to which he resorted was an utter failure. In domestic issues he pursued the line of least resistance, allowing his country to drift, glaring abuses to continue, deficits to increase, discontent to spread. His best qualities were negative: he was never vindictive and he had not the slightest desire for military glory. Throughout his life he suffered from paralysis of the will. It was the misfortune of France not merely that he was temperamentally unfitted to rule but that no institutions existed which could share the burden. History supplies no more cogent argument for the superiority of constitutional monarchy than this long and inglorious reign. No modern ruler has been less respected, less loved, less feared or less mourned.”
Historian Shalier Matthews takes an opposite viewing of Louis XV’s time on the throne. While not disputing the rising discontent and deficits, Matthews argues that the state didn’t drift at all. Instead, the centralization of power in the hands of the monarch, and at the expense of the nobles, was carried out even further. Matthew states:
“The regency of Orleans and the reign of Louis XV., though fatal to the morals of the court, nonetheless increased the absolutism of the king.”
First Key Impact: Absolutism solidifies
The continued centralization of power in the hands of the monarch culminated in the suppression of the Parlements. Trying to cast themselves into the role as the defenders of liberty against an unpopular monarch, the Parlements were 13 courts which tried to install themselves as the check on the monarch’s absolute power. Led by nobles keen to reassert their political power within the Kingdom, the Parlements sought to portray the king as a despotic tyrant, one which they could contain through the possession of a veto against royal edicts. The revolt against royal power failed, with Louis XV suppressing the opposition and essentially exiling the Parlements in 1771. The legacy of the revolt remained, however. Henceforth, the Parlement would be seen by the French people as their defenders, and enjoy the popular support of the commons.
Second Key Impact: Humiliating Defeat
From 1756-1763 Great Britain and France engaged in the Seven Years War. Historian Fredrick Longman summarises the conflict as follows:
“In the history of the world the Seven Years’ War has a yet wider significance. The war which England waged with France in alliance with Frederick left her the absolute mistress of the seas, gave her the French colonies of North America, and founded of the world her empire in India. It decided the question whether North America and India were to be English or French; and here there is little doubt that the decision was given in the way most accordant with the interests of humanity. Furthermore, the acquisition of Canada by England freed her own colonists from the dread of a powerful and hostile neighbour, and consequently removed their need for dependence on the English Crown. Thus the way was paved for the formation, a few years later, of the United States of America. And this, again, had a considerable influence on French Revolution.”
France was humiliated in the conflict, and as leader of the nation, Louis took the blame. Adding to his perceived persona of a despotic tyrant thanks to the suppression of the Parlement, the war made the King even more unpopular, as well as France’s alliance with Austria. When the dust settled, the nation was saddled with a large amount of debt, and the defeat of France had economic, social and political implications that impacted the Revolution.
However, while Louis XV did have his supporters though. The Abbe de Very, writing in response to criticism of Louis’ reign at the time, declared:
“ I regard Louis XV’s reign as the happiest period of our history. France has never been so rich nor abounding in so many forms of industry, so -well endowed with learned men; her country-side has never been so well cultivated or so well peopled as in the reign of Louis XV. His armies were not so brilliant, I admit; but neither did they entail the injustice, odiousness or devastation of his predecessor. There was no civil war to shed his citizens’ blood, nor did any religious cause put them at the mercy of the executioner for fifty-nine years. No period of the monarchy has given us so long a peace. And in that same period, the three foreign wars did not bring hostile armies within our frontiers. The only way in which the people suffered for them was the lives of some of their soldiers and the money to support the wars.”