Louis XIV remains, without a glimpse of a doubt, one of the greatest French kings. His reign was a synonym of cultural, intellectual and military achievements which left an undeniable footprint in French history. Unfortunately, historians have not always been complaisant in their historical assessments. For a long time, his reign was heavily criticized for its absolutism, religious intolerances, famines, endless wars, and the disastrous economic situation towards the end. Historiography has drastically changed in the last decades, offering a more positive perspective on the reign. Louis XIV is undoubtedly a complex and ambiguous historical figure that needs to be understood. His reign is extremely long and almost impossible to cover entirely. Therefore, this series of articles will offer a brief overview of some key aspects of the Sun King.
This week's article seeks to explore the extent of Louis XIV's love of glory in the case of the War of Devolution.
The Early Reign of Louis XIV series is divided into five chapters:
The Early Reign of Louis XIV 101: Louis XIV & Glory
The Early Reign of Louis XIV 101: Colbert & the Navy
Louis XIV’s reign has been a synonym of absolutism as much as one of glory, something he has also been vividly criticized. Across the centuries, French and foreign scholars have denounced Louis XIV’s military interventions as a pursuit of personal interests and an illustration of his insatiable vanity and hubris. Even though some intellectuals tried to revisit this aspect of the reign, reproaches continue to be seen in recent academic writings. In 2009, Paul Sonnino defined the French monarch as a 'man of mediocre talents, limited imagination and unbridled vanity' (Sonnino, 2009, 17). Louis XIV’s taste for glory is undeniable, but one should not reduce the entirety of his foreign policies to a simple expression of vanity.
The War of Devolution, the first conflict of the reign, stands as an interesting study case. In 1667, Louis XIV profited from Spain’s weakness and marched on Spanish Flanders. The campaign was crowned with success, but also met criticism in the historical community. Already in the 18th century, Saint Simon described this military operation as a vainglorious decision: "It was his vanity, his desire for glory, that led him, soon after the death of the King of Spain, to make that event the pretext for war" (Saint-Simon, 357-365). Most historians interpreted this conflict as unnecessary and as a pure manifestation of ambition. However, it can be argued that Louis XIV had legitimate reasons to do so. This article seeks to explain Louis XIV’s motivations during the War of Devolution to illustrate that glory was far from being his only reason.
Above all, it is essential to understand what is being reproached to the monarch. In short, the War of Devolution has been described as an opportunistic campaign. France was not threatened and, according to historians, 'enjoyed greater security than at any time in the last three centuries' (Orme, 23). More importantly, Spain was deeply wounded and weakened from its previous confrontations with France. Louis XIV, himself, was fully aware of this and even observed in his Mémoires that:
Spain could not recover so quickly from her great losses. She was not merely without funds but without credit, incapable of any great financial or military effort, occupied by her war against Portugal (Louis XIV, 14).
However, the main argument against Louis XIV resides in his casus belli, which was based on ‘questionable extrapolation from certain private laws of inheritance in the Spanish Low countries’ (O’Connor, 147). After an exhaustive conflict, Spain and France had come to an agreement in 1659 in which Maria Theresa, the infanta, was to marry the French monarch, but had to renounce her succession rights in exchange for a dowry payment within eighteen months - a dowry which was never paid (Zeller, 210). After Philip IV of Spain died in 1665, Louis XIV claimed that his wife’s succession rights on the Spanish Flanders were still valid and therefore legitimized his invasion of it. Coupled with the arguments mentioned earlier, historians concluded that the French monarch's claims were weak and simply a pretext to strike the Spanish in a moment of weakness for the sole purpose of establishing his own gloire. Among them, Lucien Bély notably asserted that this conflict was primarily an irresistible occasion for the King to illustrate himself as a warrior: a highly symbolic, heroic, and noble figure of the Antiquity, who embodied altogether the duties, privileges, and values of French Medieval nobility (Bély, 206).
Although France was certainly less threatened than before, Louis XIV’s decisions were made on understandable motives. In 1661, the French kingdom had just emerged from an intense period of international conflicts in which Spain had been directly involved. One must remember that the peace treaty signed in 1659 had put an end to the twenty-six years of continuous conflicts with Spain. More importantly, the Iberic kingdom had been France's rival for more than a century. Spain not only had engaged in open warfare, but had also been intervening in the French civil wars. Consequently, this tumultuous past was not forgotten and deeply impregnated the Mémoires of the young monarch:
The Spanish have set the first example for us, for however profoundly we have been at peace with them, have they ever failed to foment our domestic discords and civil wars? (...) I could not doubt that they had been the first to violate the Treaty of Pyrenees in a thousand ways, and I would have felt lacking in my responsibility to my domains if I had left them free to ruin Portugal so as to return upon me subsequently with all their forces (Louis XIV, 46-47).
For Louis XIV, Spain undeniably remained a potential threat, despite its difficulties in the 1660s. The Hispanic kingdom was still at the head of a great colonial power and was virtually surrounding the French kingdom with the Iberic Peninsula in the southwest, Spanish Low Countries in the north, and Franche-Comté in the east. As a result of France’s turbulent history with Spain, historians noticed that Louis came to believe that he had 'to keep on kicking the Habsburgs when they were down' (Sonnino, 1987, 116). The War of Devolution was therefore simply the expression of this thought. Spain was diminished and Louis seized this opportunity to take a decisive advantage. The annexing of the Spanish Low Countries had the ambition to ‘protect the northern frontiers, break the Habsburg encirclement, keep England at bay and cower the Dutch Republic’ (Sonnino, 2009, 19).
The Sun King’s intellectual and political portrait also offers some explanations for the invasion of the Spanish Flanders. In 1968, Andrew Lossky insisted on the importance of the 'maxims of state' in Louis XIV’s diplomacy. Based on the assumption that God established a ‘natural order of things', which would not be easily violated, this doctrine asserted that every political body possessed its own ‘maxims of state’ which were rooted in its very nature and expressed its permanent interest' (Lossky, 9). During his reign, the Sun King continuously attempted to establish the 'true maxim' of each foreign state in order to determine whether they agreed or clashed with their own permanent interests, and to guide his decisions accordingly (Lossky, 9). Although Lossky recognizes that Louis’ maxims were subject to change from the 1680s and that they constituted only a fragment of his political portrait, he nonetheless argues that these 'maxims' were decisive in the early diplomatic relationships with Spain and the Netherlands (Lossky, 22). In the case of Spain, Lossky indicates that Louis’ maxim resided in the belief that 'the monarchies of Spain (or rather the house of the Hapsburg in Spain) and of France constituted that one could not undertake any advantageous venture without hurting the other' (Lossky, 9). His principle of 'keep on kicking the Habsburgs while they are down' also resulted from this maxim. In this context, the War of Devolution seems like it was an inevitable outcome. Even though the Sun King’s political thoughts seemed particularly harsh and belligerent, Lossky reminds that such 'maxims' were not exclusive to the French monarch, but were 'part of the standard intellectual baggage of most seventeenth-century statesmen' (Lossky, 10). It was notably visible with the Sun King’s Conseil d’en-haut, who embraced and encouraged these beliefs. Sonnino even described them as 'creatures of Mazarin, advocates of domestic consolidation, and, as long as England or the Habsburg did not rise again, of international peace' (Sonnino, 1987, 115).
On a broader scale, Louis XIV’s hostile behaviour could also simply reflect the values of his time. Jeremy Black foregrounds the violent nature of seventeenth-century Europe, as he suggests that violence was 'a common means of settling disputes between individuals, groups and countries' (Black, 1). Michael Howard goes even further by asserting that Europe had 'cultural predispositions to war', and a society more prepared to accept violence than twentieth-century Europe (Black, 4). Concerning the French monarch, Howard describes: 'For Louis XIV and his court war was, in the early years at least, little more than a seasonal variation on hunting' (Black, 4). Overall, this violent context puts the Sun King’s belligerent nature into question. While his actions have been defined multiple times as a pure expression of vanity, his attitude could also stand as the inevitable outcome of a monarch who grew up in an extremely competitive period in which violence overwhelmingly characterized society.
Glory was also an integral value of early-modern Europe. John T. O’Connor demonstrates that Gloire 'was intimately a part of French culture in that age', to the point that it recurrently occurred in Pierre Corneille’s plays (O'Connor, 147). More importantly, the word 'glory' held another definition in the seventeenth century. Whilst it might indicate a ‘boastful’ spirit today, a more accurate translation of gloire in the seventeenth century is 'reputation' (Lynn, 43). In early-modern Europe, reputation was a predominant factor in the conduct of proper foreign policies, and Louis XIV believed that it was “often more effective than the most powerful armies. All conquerors have gained more by reputation than by the sword" (Lynn, 43). Even Saint-Simon recognized that France had acquired a long habit of admiration, submission, and fear to the King (Mansel, 447). Voltaire later wrote that “Europe feared Louis XIV even before he went to war” (O'Connor, 147). Despite glory being a tool of diplomacy, many historians keep reproaching Louis XIV and his passion for it. Lynn notably maintains that this passion was exclusively personal and purely an expression of vanity (O'Connor, 147). However, Ragnhild Hatton claims instead that this desire for glory was intended to help assure the prosperity of the state. She states that 'Louis had been raised to respect the state at all costs, maintaining its fundamental laws which included the duty to keep intact the frontiers he had inherited' (Hatton, 116). O’Connor also defends Hatton’s perspective, writing that glory was 'a lifelong quest for any early-modern aristocrats or statesmen' (O'Connor, 145). Glory provided a reputation, which would resonate among the king’s descendants, inspiring them to emulate successes. It also protected the legitimacy of their dynasty and therefore assured political stability. Even Lossky writes that ‘if he pursued any constant aim, it was to increase the grandeur of his state and of the house of Bourbon’ (Lossky, 7).
Overall, the presence and importance of glory in Louis XIV’s early foreign policies cannot be denied, but his vainglorious image found across traditional historiography, or even in some recent academic writings, presents some limitations. One can argue that the War of Devolution was necessary to protect and to impose France as a protagonist on the European political stage, while also simply reflecting the values of the time. It remains essential to remember that glory was not a genuine synonym of vanity or hubris, but a diplomatic and political tool used by any statesmen or monarch in Europe.
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Black, J. (1987). Introduction. In J. Black (Ed.), The Origins of War in Early Modern Europe (pp. 1-26). J. Donald.
Hatton, R. (1979). Louis XIV et l’Europe, éléments d’une révision historiographique (B. Neveu, Trans.). XVIIe Siècle, 122(2), pp. 109-135.
Lossky, A. (1968). Maxims of State in Louis XIV’s Foreign Policy in the 1680s. In R. Hatton & J.S Bromley (Eds.), William III And Louis XIV, Essays 1680-1720 by and for Mark A. Thompson (pp. 7-23). Liverpool University Press.
Louis XIV (1970). Memoirs for the instruction of the Dauphin. Introd., translation & notes by Paul Sonnino (P. Sonnino, Trans.). New York Free Press.
Lynn, J. A. (2011). The Grand Stratégie of the Grand Siècle: Learning from Louis XIV’s wars. In W. Murray (Ed.), The Shaping of Grand Strategy, Policy, Diplomacy, and War (pp. 34-62.). Cambridge University Press.
Mansel, P. (2019). King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV. Allen Lane.
Orme, J. D. (2018). Human Nature and the Causes of War. Palgrave Macmillan.
O'Connor, J. T. (1990). Diplomatic History of the reign. In P. Sonnino (Ed.) The Reign of Louis XIV: Essays in Celebration of Andrew Lossky (pp. 143-158). Humanities Press International.
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Sonnino, P. (1987). The Origins of Louis XIV’s Wars. In J. Black (Ed.), The Origins of War in Early Modern Europe (pp. 112-150). J. Donald.
Sonnino, P. (2009). Plus Royaliste que le pape: Louis XIV’s Religious Policy and his Guerre de Hollande. In D. Onnekink (Ed.). War and Religion after Westphalia, 1648-1713 (pp. 17-24). Routledge.
Zeller, G. (1961). French Diplomacy and Foreign Policy in their European Setting. In New Cambridge Modern History: Volume 5 – The Ascendancy of France, 1648-1688. Cambridge University Press.
Coypel, Antoine. Louis XIV couronné par la gloire. c.1684. Oil on canvas. https://bit.ly/3Ihek00
Houasse, René-Antoine. Louis XIV, roi de France (1638-1715). c1674. Oil on canvas. https://bit.ly/3Jjrrz8
Le Brun, Charles. Le roi gouverne par lui-même. c1679. Oil on canvas. https://bit.ly/3KRIx7B
Van der Meulen, Adam-Frans. Louis XIV au siège de Lille, août 1667. c. 1667-1690. Oil on canvas. https://bit.ly/3MTIz0I