Portrait of King Louis XIV of France (1638-1715). [Germany, 1933] Artist Unknown. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Louis XIV: a monarch of purpose

Despite its length, Philip Mansel’s biography of the Sun King is ‘a welcome prize for any reviewer’

Artillery Row Books

Lengthy books lacking in originality are the bane of every reviewer’s life, and, as a result, invitations to tackle biographies or battle books can be viewed with wariness. But a Mansel is a welcome prize for any reviewer. You will have a judicious guide, able to make well-founded assessments based not only on an understanding of the archives and printed sources, their riches and ambiguities, but also of the culture from which their assumptions stem.

A key figure in Court Studies, Mansel has produced a series of important works on French history, beginning with his successful study of the somewhat lacklustre Louis XVIII, who of course was responsible for far fewer French deaths than the overrated Napoleon. He has also written ably on Middle Eastern history, notably with works on Constantinople and Aleppo.

King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV, Philip Mansel. (Allen Lane, 630pp) £30.

Louis XIV is a move back in time for Mansel; a formidable challenge given the length of his reign (1643-1715), and his not being a figure that lacks biographers, but Mansel brings the particular perspective of his Court scholarship and moves beyond the hackneyed counterpointing of a rise and fall that was and remains the standard device.

The general tone is critical. Here was a monarch who loved war and lacked judgment from the outset, who picked “losers,” including the Stuarts, and angered other powers. Mansel ably probes the decline in France’s international position, as well as the king’s weakness at finance. He has an interesting discussion of the afterglow of Louis, notably the President of the Fifth Republic as a modern monarch, and the modern fame and use of Versailles. As Mansel notes, this was a “working palace” for Louis, by which he means a place of royal-ministerial government and politics. It was also working in the sense of being the key place for the integration of Crown and élite. A display of and stage for monarchical power, Versailles indicated the opportunities offered by building on open land rather than in a city, and was followed by a large number of other new palaces, including Schönbrunn, begun for Leopold I in 1695. Indeed, Louis raised the stakes in royal competition.

There is so much here and it is so good, that I would happily recommend this book despite its length

The counterpoint was criticism of Louis. Much was from outside, often by Huguenot refugees. Yet, there was also criticism within France. In Toulouse, for example, among the many critical pieces that appeared illegally, one of 1711 compared Louis with Nero. Louis found opposition vexatious. Thus, between 1673 and 1713, he did not visit the Grand-Chambre of the Parlement of Paris and his solemn receptions for its delegates came to be defined as acts of extreme generosity on his part. The reaction against his policies that followed his death was a comment on their lack of acceptability.

The wide-ranging book is full of detail, whether of the hunting of animals or the pursuit of (many) women. For the latter, Mansel notes the report that Louis had a small penis and suggests that that “may explain his eagerness to advertise his mistresses.” There is so much here and it is so good, that I would happily recommend this book despite its length.

Mansel might be interested to take his research further to include archives other than those in Britain and France in order to consider reports from the many other envoys in Paris all of whom had to evaluate Louis. In his biography, he very sensibly presents Louis as a European figure as much as a French one, thus avoiding any French sonderweg. There is still much room for him to write a book on Louis and his contemporaries. Mansel notes that by 1703, compared to Charles XII of Sweden and Peter the Great, “Louis XIV was becoming as outdated as his full-bottomed wigs.” It would be good to have a scholar of Mansel’s skill and sensitivity to make these comparisons at length.

Jeremy Black’s books include Eighteenth-Century Europe.

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