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As you read, consider the question: why is Louis XIV often cited as a good example of an absolute monarch?

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Louis XIV is one of the strongest examples of an absolute monarch. He ruled over France with complete control. He kept a strong military and used art and culture to promote the image of himself as a strong ruler. He controlled the nobles by inviting them to his luxurious palace. 

Louis XIV is one of the strongest examples of an absolute monarch. He ruled over France with complete control. He kept a strong military and used art and culture to promote the image of himself as a strong ruler. He controlled the nobles by inviting them to his luxurious palace. 

France: Louis XIV, The Sun King

Portrait of Louis XIV in Royal Ceremonial Robes. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Hyacinthe Rigaud, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

In France, as in much of Europe, the king ruled as an absolute monarch with divine right.

Cardinal Richelieu creates a powerful monarchy

One man in France helped put more power in the hands of the king. His name was Cardinal Richelieu.

Armand-Jean du Plessis, cardinal de Richelieu. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Philippe de Champaigne, Chancellerie des Universités, Paris

It might be difficult to understand why Richelieu would want a king to have more power, when today, we normally talk about taking power away from kings. But take a moment and consider some of the benefits of having one powerful leader. If nobles were constantly fighting and bickering, then there would be constant tension in the kingdom. If the king needed help from the nobles to send out an army, it might take too long to prepare for battle, leading to more bloodshed. In addition, at the time, there was a belief that the king was blessed by God to rule. With this in mind, it might be easier to see why Cardinal Richelieu made it his life’s work to put more power in the hands of the king.

In the early 1600s, Cardinal Richelieu (1585 - 1642) made important changes to put power in the hands of the French king. He popularized the idea of royal absolutism. Richelieu was the chief advisor to King Louis XIII. With his position of religious and political power, Richelieu centralized the government, weakened the nobility, and strengthened the military. By weakening those beneath the king and giving him more military strength, Richelieu created a very powerful monarchy.

During the reign of Louis XIV, Richelieu's vision of an all-powerful king came to pass.

Louis XIV: The Sun King embodies royal absolutism

Louis XIV, the Sun King, exemplifies the European ideal of an absolute monarch. He brought the nobility and the church under his control and claimed to rule under the authority of heaven.

Louis XIV was a monarch of the House of Bourbon and reigned as King of France. His reign of 72 years and 110 days is the longest recorded of any monarch of a sovereign country in European history.

As the term “absolute monarch” implies, King Louis XIV had control over all aspects of French society. He was a judge, lawmaker, military leader, and cultural icon. He condemned people to death, created laws, and even started fashion trends.

Versailles: Golden handcuffs

The Palace of Versailles circa 1668. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Pierre Patel, Museum of the History of France

One of his steps in creating an absolute monarchy in France was to build the Palace of Versailles, where he lived with many of his nobles. Versailles may have been a place of luxury, but it was also a tool to control and spy on the nobility. He lavished the aristocrats with gifts and a luxurious lifestyle but censored their actions and letters. Louis XIV kept track of who gave him respect by attending to him and coming to royal events. He rewarded these people with prestige and appointments. These “golden handcuffs” pacified the nobility, the source of some historical resistance to the Crown.

Military leader & pop star

During Louis XIV's long reign, France was the leading European power. It fought three major wars. Warfare defined the foreign policy of Louis XIV, and his personality shaped his approach. Impelled "by a mix of commerce, revenge, and pique," Louis knew that warfare enhanced his glory. In peacetime, he concentrated on preparing for the next war. He taught his diplomats that their job was to create tactical and strategic advantages for the French military. He even had portraits made of himself in battle to spread the idea of his strength. By expressing his power in military might, Louis XIV further strengthened the sense that he ruled as an absolute monarch.

Louis XIV also used culture and the arts to expand his power. He was a type of pop star for France. He used elaborate court rituals at Versailles to validate his power. He also had artists paint grand portraits of him to strengthen the cultural idea of his power. Artists painted, sculpted, performed plays, danced, and sang songs about Louis XIV.

Portraits of Louis XIV often glorified the power of the monarch. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Hyacinthe Rigaud, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Louis XIV perfectly executed the idea of “absolute monarch.” He weakened the nobility, had his image celebrated culturally, and expressed his power with a strong military. He fulfilled Cardinal Richelieu’s dreams. Absolute monarchs ruled France until the French Revolution, when Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were both beheaded in 1793.

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France: Louis XIV, The Sun King