Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

King Louis XIV

Today is the 300th anniversary of the death in 1715 of King Louis XIV. 

He is one of those rulers about whom the making of books and films never seems to end. There is an online account of him, with some useful points about his image, at Louis XIV of France.

Image and display of royal authority and power, as well as spectacle and glamour, were integral to his expression and understanding of kingship. As a seemingly unshakable and unstoppable force for much of his reign he was copied and emulated by other  monarchs, though he was not so much an originator of a style of monarchy but rather one who presented it with a new style and panache, using the arts of the period. The impression of untroubled continuity was very much part of this presentation. The sense of the mission of the French monarchy as an agent of unity and benign and tranquil authority in times when the political realities might be less comfortable - notably during the Fronde and during the shortages and difficulties of international war was of great importance. 


The King aged ten in 1648


File:Louis XIV by Juste d'Egmont.jpg - Wikimedia Commons: Louise Xiv, King Louis, De Louis, Louis X1V, Sun King, Louis Xiv By Just D Egmont, Fileloui Xiv, St. Louis, File Louis Xiv

The King in his Coronation Robes in 1654

A painting by Juste D'Egmont

As a sixteen year old he is already wearing high heels to increase his height



The King in 1686 
He was then aged aged 47 

Image: Wikipedia 


The King in 1701
He was then aged 63 


As the online account linked to above points out - and as writers and commentators over the centuries have done  - the image of the King created by Rigaud in 1701 shows the monarch in the full splendour of his state robes, but with suspiciously youthful legs for a man in his sixties. The same article does point out the King's skill as a dancer, so maybe Rigaud did not have to edit the royal image as much as might be thought. The King's high heels to compensate for his being quite short  - he appears to have been about  five foot six inches tall  - and the heavy looking periwig create an image that today seems very contrived. The King, however, was so pleased with the painting that he kept it for himself, and had a copy painted for his grandson King Philip V of Spain, for whom it was originally intended. This became the archetypal image of Bourbon French monarchy until 1830.

The effect is very much to conceal the person of the King behind an image - just as much as Queen Elizabeth I a century earlier. The youthful King of his earlier years has indeed become the state - whether he ever did say L'etat c'est moi may be debatable, and  in many ways it would not be an untrue statement - but very much at the cost of his humanity and charm - which he certainly possessed.

The youthful Sun King as idealised by Bernini in 1665
The King was aged 28

Image; Wikipedia

"The supreme Baroque image of princely apotheosis"

This quote from John Rupert Martin's Baroque (142) encapsulates Bernini's conception--a portrait not of a mere man but a symbol of a divinely ordained, absolutist monarch. As a likeness, it was not very accurate since Louis had small eyes and a low forehead but as a symbolic representation, the noble forehead, the contrapposto turn of the head, the upward gaze--all give a sense of authority and grandeur. According to Howard Hibbard, Bernini's portrait bust of Francesco I d'Este, Duke of Modena and this heroic bust "set the standard for monarchical portraiture up to the time of the French Revolution" (126-8).                 
                                                      - from www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/france/versailles/bernini/louisfourteen.html

Paul Johnson has an article about the carving of the bust at Bernini's bust of Louis XIV


The King in about 1705
A portrait in beeswax

Image: moreintelligent life.com

So often cited as the epitome of Absolutism I think that in reality he was less so than often thought, and found by the end of his reign that there were very real limits to his foreign ambitions. In the middle years of his reign he had been very fortunate in achieving the pursuit of glory, but that was not to necessarily last. In that sense his reign fits in with a discernible pattern in the history of the longer history of the French monarchy and state.

It is, I think, unfair to blame him as ruler overmuch for the problems of the reigns of King Louis XV and King Louis XVI - the failure to adapt as well as the realm should have done lies with those making choices then, not a century earlier, and in any case the freedom of movement to achieve renewal was constrained. It was more the limits on Absolutism that eventually paralysed the Ancien Regime than an unfettered exercise of power. That only came about with the tragedy after 1789 and with Bonapartism... 


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