He was building Versailles: transplanting to its arid sands whole groves of full-grown trees from the depths of distant forests. . . .”
Continuing Louis XIV Establishes Absolute Monarchy in France,
our selection from an article in The Fortnightly Review, Volume 21 by James Cotter Morison published in 1866. The selection is presented in seven easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in Louis XIV Establishes Absolute Monarchy in France.
Such was the emaciated France which Louis the Great picked systematically to the bone for the next thirty-five years. He had long ceased to be guided by the patriotic wisdom of the great Colbert. His evil genius now was the haughty and reckless Louvois, who carefully abstained from imitating the noble and daring remonstrances against excessive expenditure which Colbert addressed to his master, and through which he lost his influence at court. Still, with a self-abnegation really heroic, Colbert begged, urged, supplicated the King to reduce his outlay. He represented the misery of the people. “All letters that come from the provinces, whether from the intendants, the receivers-general, and even the bishops, speak of it,” he wrote to the King. He insisted on a reduction of the taille by five or six millions; and surely it was time, when its collection gave rise to such scenes as have just been described. It was in vain. The King shut his eyes to mercy and reason. His gigantic war expenditure, when peace came, was only partially reduced. For, indeed, he was still at war, but with nature and self-created difficulties of his own making.
He was building Versailles: transplanting to its arid sands whole groves of full-grown trees from the depths of distant forests, and erecting the costly and fantastic marvel of Marli to afford a supply of water. Louis’ buildings cost, first and last, a sum which would be represented by about twenty million pounds. The amount squandered on pensions was also very great. The great Colbert’s days were drawing to a close, and he was very sad. It is related that a friend on one occasion surprised him looking out of a window in his château of Sceau, lost in thought and apparently gazing on the well-tilled fields of his own manor. When he came out of his reverie his friend asked him his thoughts. “As I look,” he said, “on these fertile fields, I cannot help remembering what I have seen elsewhere. What a rich country is France! If the King’s enemies would let him enjoy peace it would be possible to procure the people that relief and comfort which the great Henry promised them. I could wish that my projects had a happy issue, that abundance reigned in the kingdom, that everyone were content in it, and that without employment or dignities, far from the court and business, I saw the grass grow in my home farm.”
The faithful, indefatigable worker was breaking down, losing strength, losing heart, but still struggling on manfully to the last. It was noticed that he sat down to his work with a sorrowful, despondent look, and not, as had been his wont, rubbing his hands with the prospect of toil, and exulting in his almost superhuman capacity for labor. The ingratitude of the King, whom he had served only too well, gave him the final blow. Louis, with truculent insolence, reproached him with the “frightful expenses” of Versailles. As if they were Colbert’s fault. Colbert, who had always urged the completion of the Louvre and the suppression of Versailles.
At last the foregone giant lay down to die. A tardy touch of feeling induced Louis to write him a letter. He would not read it. “I will hear no more about the King,” he said; “let him at least allow me to die in peace. My business now is with the King of kings. If,” he continued, unconsciously, we may be sure, plagiarizing Wolsey, “if I had done for God what I have done for that man, my salvation would be secure ten times over; and now I know not what will become of me.”
Surely a tender and touching evidence of sweetness in the strong man who had been so readily accused of harshness by grasping courtiers. The ignorant ingratitude of the people was even perhaps more melancholy than the wilful ingratitude of the King. The great Colbert had to be buried by night, lest his remains should be insulted by the mob. He, whose heart had bled for the people’s sore anguish, was rashly supposed to be the cause of that anguish. It was a sad conclusion to a great life. But he would have seen still sadder days if he had lived.
The health of the luxurious, self-indulgent Louis sensibly declined after he had passed his fortieth year. In spite of his robust appearance he had never been really strong. His loose, lymphatic constitution required much support and management. But he habitually over-ate himself. He was indeed a gross and greedy glutton. “I have often seen the King,” says the Duchess of Orleans, “eat four platefuls of various soups, a whole pheasant, a partridge, a large dish of salad, stewed mutton with garlic, two good slices of ham, a plate of pastry, and then fruit and sweetmeats.” A most unwholesome habit of body was the result.
An abscess formed in his upper jaw, and caused a perforation of the palate, which obliged him to be very careful in drinking, as the liquid was apt to pass through the aperture and come out by the nostrils. He felt weak and depressed, and began to think seriously about “making his salvation.” His courtly priests and confessors had never inculcated any duties but two–that of chastity and that of religious intolerance–and he had been very remiss in both. He now resolved to make hasty reparation. The ample charms of the haughty Montespan fascinated him no more. He tried a new mistress, but she did not turn out well. Madame de Fontanges was young and exquisitely pretty, but a giddy, presuming fool. She moreover died shortly. He was more than ever disposed to make his salvation–that is, to renounce the sins of the flesh, and to persecute his God-fearing subjects, the Protestants.
The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, one of the greatest crimes and follies which history records, was too colossal a misdeed for the guilt of its perpetration to be charged upon one man, however wicked or however powerful he may have been. In this case, as in so many others, Louis was the exponent of conditions, the visible representative of circumstances which he had done nothing to create. Just as he was the strongest king France ever had, without having contributed himself to the predominance of the monarchy, so, in the blind and cruel policy of intolerance which led to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, he was the delegate and instrument of forces which existed independently of him. A willing instrument, no doubt; a representative of sinister forces; a chooser of the evil part when mere inaction would have been equivalent to a choice of the good. Still, it is due to historic accuracy to point out that, had he not been seconded by the existing condition of France, he would not have been able to effect the evil he ultimately brought about.
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