Inside the walls of the opulent Palace of Versailles, France’s King Louis XIV died of gangrene on September 1, 1715, just four days short of his 77th birthday. Known as the “Sun King,” Louis XIV centralized power in the monarchy and reigned over a period of unprecedented prosperity in which France became the dominant power in Europe and a leader in the arts and sciences.
In the latter years of his 72-year rule, however, the succession of wars launched by the king ultimately took their toll on France and resulted in battlefield defeats, crippling debt, and famine. Citizens grew so disgruntled that they even jeered the diseased Louis XIV during his funeral procession. In commemoration of the 300th anniversary of his death, here are seven surprising facts about the longest-reigning monarch in French history.
1. Louis XIV ascended to the throne at the age of four.
When France’s King Louis XIII died at the age of 41 on May 14, 1643, the monarchy passed to his eldest child, Louis XIV, who was all of four years and eight months old. With the new king too young to rule over his 19 million subjects, his mother, Anne, served as regent and appointed Louis XIV’s godfather, Italian-born Cardinal Jules Mazarin, as chief minister. Mazarin served as a surrogate father to his godson and taught the young king about everything from statesmanship and power to history and the arts. Louis XIV was 15 years old at the time of his coronation in 1654, but he did not wield absolute power over France until seven years later when Mazarin died. (After the death of Louis XIV, history repeated itself as his five-year-old great-grandson, Louis XV, succeeded him.)
2. The princess Louis XIV married was his first cousin.
The king’s first true love was Mazarin’s niece, Marie Mancini, but both the queen and the cardinal frowned upon their relationship. Louis XIV was ultimately directed into a marriage that was a political, rather than a romantic, union by wedding the daughter of Spain’s King Philip IV, Marie-Thérèse, in 1660. The marriage between the two first cousins ensured ratification of the peace treaty that Mazarin had sought to establish with Hapsburg Spain.
3. One of Louis XIV’s mistresses bore more of his children than his wife.
Marie-Thérèse gave birth to six of the king’s children, but only one, Louis, survived past the age of five. Louis XIV, however, had a healthy libido and fathered more than a dozen illegitimate children with a number of mistresses. Mistress Louise de La Vallière bore five of the king’s children, only two of which survived infancy, while her rival Madame de Montespan, who eventually became the king’s chief mistress, gave birth to seven of the monarch’s children. Louis XIV eventually legitimized most of his children born to mistresses in the years following their births.
4. Louis XIV built the extravagant Palace of Versailles.
After the civil war known as the Fronde forced a young Louis XIV to flee his palace in Paris, the monarch took a dislike to the capital city. Beginning in 1661, the king transformed the royal hunting lodge in Versailles where he played as a boy into a monument of royal opulence. In 1682 Louis XIV officially moved his court to the lavish palace at Versailles, 13 miles outside of Paris. Europe’s grandest palace became a center of political power and a symbol of the king’s dominance and wealth. In addition to the royal court, the 700-room palace housed the nobility that Louis XIV had brought into his sphere as well as the thousands of staff needed for upkeep.
5. Louis XIV believed himself a direct representative of God.
It took more than two decades for King Louis XIII and his wife, Anne, to have Louis XIV as their first child. So relieved were the royal couple to have a direct heir to the throne that they christened the boy Louis-Dieudonné, meaning “gift of God.” If the name alone didn’t give Louis XIV an inflated sense of himself, Mazarin also instilled in the boy the notion that kings are divinely chosen. Reflecting that belief, Louis XIV believed any disobedience to his edicts to be sinful, and he adopted the sun as his emblem since France revolved around him as the planets revolved around the sun.
6. Louis XIV revoked the right to worship from French Protestants.
The king’s grandfather Henry IV granted French Protestants, known as Huguenots, political and religious freedoms when he issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598. By the 1680s, however, the devoutly Catholic Louis XIV believed his faith should be the sole religion of his country. After years of persecuting Protestants and constricting their rights, the Catholic king revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 through his issuance of the Edict of Fontainebleau, which ordered the destruction of Protestant churches, the closure of Protestant schools, and the forced baptism and education of children into the Catholic faith. The edict led 200,000 or more Huguenots to flee France in search of religious freedom elsewhere in Europe or in the American colonies.
7. A state is named in his honor.
When Frenchman René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle claimed the interior of North America drained by the Mississippi River and its tributaries for his country in 1682, the explorer named it Louisiana in honor of Louis XIV. The Louisiana Territory became American property after the United States purchased it in 1803, and the state of Louisiana joined the union in 1812.