When we visited the Basque region a couple weeks ago, I noted that this part of modern-day France had been an independent kingdom called Navarre until 1620 when it was merged into the kingdom of France. The merger of the two kingdoms was the result of the death in 1589 of French King Henry III of the House of Valois (which had ruled France since 1328), who left no surviving male heirs. Consequently, the French crown went to another royal line, the House of Bourbon.
The new monarch in 1589 was named King Henry IV who, at the time, was already the king of Navarre where he had been born; he was also a Protestant Huguenot, though he converted to Catholicism in order to assume the French crown, purportedly saying, “Paris is well worth a mass.” He must have been serious because he undertook major construction projects in Paris during his reign, including construction of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, the long extension along the Right Bank of the Seine (now known as the Denon wing), which he connected to the Left Bank with the Pont Neuf, the “New Bridge.”
King Henry IV was also the king who issued the Edict of Nantes (in 1598) that declared Catholicism to be the official religion of France, but allowed the Protestants like the Huguenots to continue practicing their faith, effectively ending the religious wars in France at the time. Apparently, this act didn’t satisfy everyone, though, as King Henry IV was assassinated in 1610 by a Catholic fanatic and Henry’s son, Louis XIII, became King of France and Navarre.
Louis XIII, being only 9 years old at the time of his father’s assassination, wasn’t very good at leading a nation, so that task fell to his mother, Queen Marie de Médicis, as his regent. She appears to have enjoyed giving orders, even past the time that King Louis XIII reached majority. Fed up, the king exiled his mother and took control himself, relying heavily on his infamous prime minister, Cardinal Richelieu, of Three Musketeers fame, who embarked on a campaign to enhance the power of the monarchy. King Louis XIII was also known for: bringing men’s wigs into fashion; initiating the settlement of Acadia in Nova Scotia (now Canada); and, embroiling the French in the Thirty Years War in 1635 which had started in Germany in 1618. He died of tuberculosis in 1645.
And this brings us to the most important of the Bourbon monarchs, Louis XIV, who became King of France at the ripe old age of 4, though he was to rule for more than 72 years, the longest of any European monarch. Again, during the king’s childhood, administration of the kingdom fell to the queen mother, acting as regent and aided by the prime minister, this time, Cardinal Mazarin.
Mazarin was an adept administrator who successfully negotiated the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in Germany and made France the most powerful nation in Europe (it was already the most populous at 20 million citizens). Louis XIV was satisfied letting Cardinal Mazarin run the country as he watched and learned, but when Mazarin died in 1661, King Louis XIV surprised everyone by rejecting tradition and, rather than taking on a new adviser, announcing that he would assume all responsibilities of the government himself as the absolute monarch, his divine right. He was the “Sun King,” after all, the source of all power around whom France revolved.
The Sun King immediately set about creating a new seat of government for himself outside of Paris at Versailles, 12 miles to the southwest, where he built his great palace. He also created France’s first standing army and just a few years later, in 1667, he launched a war against the Spanish Netherlands which he regarded as legitimately part of his domain. The war raged and the casualties mounted to the point that in 1670 the king found it advisable to build the Hôtel National des Invalides in Paris for the benefit of his troops, consisting of a convent, a barracks, a hospital and a veterans’ home to accommodate the returning, disabled soldiers.
Beginning in 1676, a chapel was also constructed at Les Invalides, the gilded dome of which I have photographed (and posted) from our apartment here in Paris. On Friday, we went to visit.
Because the dome of the chapel is visible from a distance, we used it as a beacon to find the place, but after entering the complex, we walked around to the front:
The entrance to the main courtyard of the Hôtel National des Invalides is crowned by a likeness of King Louis XIV on horseback, just below the “Sun King” emblem at its apex.
We walked through the entry and crossed the courtyard, entering the veteran’s chapel, the Église Saint-Louis des Invalides, which was brightly lit at this time of day.
The side of the chapel that was built for the war veterans was completed in 1679 but the construction continued, adding a royal chapel, the Église du Dôme, on the opposite side of a common wall and topping the whole structure with the great, gilded dome, completed in 1706.
In later years, a window was installed between the veteran’s side and the royal side, as you can see in these pictures (from the veteran’s side, above, and from the royal side, below).
Leaving the chapel, we wandered through the Musée de l’Armée, which now inhabits most of the buildings surrounding the main courtyard, to see the exhibits relating to the reign of King Louis XIV.
The French adopted a mercantilist economy during Louis XIV’s reign that enabled the king to engage in foreign exploration and colonization (from Acadia, through the Great Lakes, then down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico) and to finance numerous wars throughout the European continent, many of which were disputes over royal succession in various lands or attempts to avoid being surrounded by the territory of France’s enemies.
But the constant warfare (War of the League of Augsburg, 1688-1697, War of the Spanish Succession, 1701–1714) wearied the populace and cost the Sun King his popularity. And it also didn’t help his reputation among his Protestant subjects that in 1685 he revoked his grandfather’s Edict of Nantes, resulting in more than 200,000 Huguenots fleeing the country.
King Louis XIV died in 1715, just days before his 77th birthday, having outlived nearly all of his legitimate heirs, leaving a strong, but unpopular, legacy to his 5-year-old great-grandson.
Here’s a portrait of the Sun King near the end of his reign when he was in his 70s:
I’m sure you’re punch-drunk from all this history, but, after all, we did spend the day at the Musée de l’Armée, the military history museum of France, and I have to finish up with the last of the direct line of the Bourdons preceding the French Revolution so that I can tell you about Napoleon in my next post.
The successor to Louis XIV was Louis XV. In a continuing refrain, France was again ruled by a regent, this time, the Duke of Orléans, a distant cousin of the king. Upon reaching majority, King Louis XV continued to let others administer the affairs of state: first, his cousin, the Duke of Bourbon; then Cardinal Fleury, who died in 1743. The policies of these men were unpopular, raising taxes and harming the economy, so, in 1743, King Louis XV followed the example of his predecessor and assumed control himself, but he proved not up to the task. The country then went to war in 1754 against England in the Seven Years War (the French and Indian War in America), which, by 1763, France had lost, costing the country its possessions in America. Louis XV died at Versailles in 1774, a victim of smallpox, unpopular among his people.
The last Bourbon monarch prior to the French Revolution was King Louis XVI, the grandson of Louis XV, who, at the age of 19, became king of France in 1774 at the outbreak of the American Revolution. Sensing a way to retaliate against the British for France’s defeat in the Seven Years War, he came to the financial and military aid of the Americans, without which the American Revolution may very well have ended in a British victory. The American Revolution was concluded in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris. Unfortunately for King Louis XVI, France’s involvement nearly bankrupted the country, leading the king to call an Estates-General in 1789 for the purpose of authorizing new taxes. The result was not what the king expected, leading, instead, to the French Revolution, the overthrow of the monarchy, and the king’s execution in 1792.
And now you know more than you ever wanted to about French history. Next up: Napoleon.