Louis the Great (Louis XIV)


The 72 years long rein of Louis the Great (Louis XIV), King of France is unanimously regarded as golden age of France that established it the cultural, military and political summit of Europe. Regarded among many historians as the best Emperor ever seen by Europe and the finest emblem of royalty, Louis XIV occupied the throne of France in 1643 and ruled the nation till his death in 1715[1]. His effective rule started from 1661, when he assumed the direct command of French government and introduced a number of military, administrative and civilian reforms. A major problem faced during initial days of his reign was caused by Feudal overlords whose largely independent and sovereign functioning style presented a constant challenge to supremacy of the state, and presented a significant hurdle for the court. As a result, Louis XIV took the revolutionary step of replacing the fragmented feudal system by a centrally governed administrative system to bring the full measures of rule directly under the Imperial control.

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Early Administrative Years

Louis XIV acceded to a throne that was faced strong external adversaries and weak domestic support, largely due to indifferent and apathetic regime of Louis XIII. However, France looked with great expectations at its new boy king. When Louis XIV occupied the French throne in 1643, he was only of the age of five at the time and hence the government was effectively under control of ministers, led by First Minister Jules Cardinal Mazarin, who ensured that in his almost 20 years of administrative rule France become the more powerful nation of Europe[2]. All the significant regencies surrounding France, especially those of Spain, Germany and Austria were weakened, rendered incapable of united action and their influence Europe was diminished[3]. On the other hand, France had increased its territory, population and affluence and French court directed the affairs of Europe and of the much of western world. The dominance of France continued after death of Mazarin in 1661 and under direct Imperial lordship of Louis XIV, France won many notable battles and wars, becoming the most feared and respected name in Europe, increasing its international stature, its external and internal prosperity and its command at levels that had not been attained previously[4]. The council of ministers surrounding the young kind consisted of men renowned for political and diplomatic acumen around the Europe, handpicked by the Cardinal for their intelligence, shrewdness and acute understanding of European affairs[5]. These ministers  had charge of the complicated dynamics of Imperial reign with every other nation in Europe, with unsurpassed adroitness and supreme skill, they choose the most appropriate time for action, discovered the plans and the errors of other governments with subtle aplomb, and guided the conduct of their own sovereign as befitting to the situation to present him as the architect of French and European destiny[6].

But this sy[7]stem had serious disadvantages as a form of governance. The efficiency of government rested solely on the efficiency of ministers and there were always chances that a weak ruler may, due to lack of wisdom or experience select a weak ministry, and sideline the efficient officials. This doubt is supported by historical evidence where Marie de Médicis’ regency and Louis XIII, proved incompetent in selecting an efficient council of ministers. In the absence of a political machinery to  manage government in the face of royal will, the politics of the kingdom had no choice but to hang  king’s ability to find a competent and efficient ministry

Mazarin understood the weakness of this system and under his direction, two fhte ministers, Richelieu and Mazarin,  begun the process of centralization that eventually to replaced the traditional feudalistic structure of French political society by a central command and authority model. Under the traditional model, various local officers, such as the governors of provinces, the judges of “sovereign courts,” the councils and magistrates of towns and cities were stakeholders in the government of the kingdom with the king’s council[8]. But the system introduced by the two ministers encroached upon these traditional corporations and officials by reversing their decrees, limiting their jurisdiction, and bringing them under the supervision and sometimes under direct control of royal officials, intendants of justice, police, and taxation[9]. Indeed the local princes and regalities grew unhappy with this system and complained to King in no uncertain terms. However, the ancient federal structure of the kingdom, in which noblemen and royal officials with tenure independent of the king was slowly but indelibly weakened in whose place ce emerged a strong central state governed administrative and bureaucratic structure.

However, after death of Mazarin, this extraordinary group of highly talented ministers began to wither, partly because Mazarin was himself an accomplished intellectual who could exert just the level of control and diplomacy to extract best of the men under him, and partly because Louis XIV was determined to take the charge of the nation in his own hands[10]. For good or bad, the young regent set his mind to follow his own policy, a resolve from which he never swerved, and which forms the characteristics of his long rule. There is little doubt that  the influence of his ministers was great, and they had a large hand in shaping his domestic and international standing of French affairs. However, for all the practical purposes, Louis XIV was a fiercely independent monarch, at least in his own vision, and any apparent attempt to guide him to directions that he did not like proved to be futile and even dangerous for the proponents of those guidelines[11]. Therefore, the first major step taken by Louis XIV was to abolish the office of First Minister and keep the position for himself[12]. None of the predecessors of Louis XIV, including the queen Regent had ever embarked upon direct administration of the state, and it was always the function of minister to oversee the day-to-day activities of the state. Louis changed that with one stroke, and his he move was subject of surprise,  amusement, and even ridicule by courtiers and politicians of the age. However, to the masses this step immediately indicated that the new king was eager to take control of state in his own hands. It was generally, and in most cases, correctly perceived that offices of ministers do not provide accurate information to court, in order to ensure their own power and command, and if the king himself takes administrative reins, it would set the disorder correct. For Louis himself, the step was a necessary precursor towards his larger goals of creating a centralized state order that essentially converges to personality of Louis himself[13].

The early years of Louis administration have invited praise and appreciation from all the students of history and he displayed complete understanding of the court situation of his time . He dismissed several notable but corrupt officials, chiefly Fouquet and selected efficient men for important positions of finance, external affairs and domestic administration[14].  Above all, the monarch was sincerely guided by a desire to excel on the personal front, taking his name and fame to all the exalted heights as well as showing an equally sincere a sincere desire to increase the prosperity and well being of his subjects and direct his rule to the greatest satisfaction of the people of France. The sincerity of Louis XIV to improve France’s social and civic life are amply demonstrated by his support of plans of lightening taxation, removal of financial abuses and for creating a simple and clear system of law that can be applied with ease[15].  In his role as administrator, Louis XIV displayed ample initiative taking measures and intellectual understanding of the significance of measures taken by others but he gave them an intelligent approval[16]. From the training, education and experience of his growing years spent with the talented ministers, there is no doubt that Louis XIV had a keen and developed sense of administrative affairs and he exercised them increasingly as his rein progressed and his understanding and hold on the state grew[17].

The Administrative Setup of Government

Under the Louis XIV, France was governed by a conciliar system that largely consisted of King’s own Council to ensure that the unique authority of king is not threatened by any possibility of division. Overall there were four councils that comprised of the counciliar system: the High Council, the Council for the Interior or the Despatches, the Royal Council of Finance and the Privy Council, all of these being chaired, directly or indirectly by the King[18].   Among the councils, the High Council was the king’s chief committee that looked after all-important matters of state, including even foreign and military affairs[19]. Membership to the High Council was limited to three to five ministers of state of importance and position, however their membership to the High Council was purely a pleasure of the King.

The Council for the Interior was responsible for managing domestic affairs receiving and sending reports from the king’s agents in the provinces[20]. The scope of membership was larger than the elite High Council and it included the king, the chancellor, the secretaries of state and the controller[21].

The Council of Finance was among the most important advisory councils and exerted enormous influence in guiding broad economic and financial policy and was also responsible for detailed accounting and book-keeping[22].

The Privy Council was composed on somewhat different lines than its preceding three councils as the king himself was absent and the chair was taken by the chancellor, his chief legal officer[23]. The council’s membership comprised of a number of lawyers, withdrawn from and its  primary function was extra-judicial, related that no longer came under jurisdiction of the ordinary courts. As the bureaucratic system governing the administration had gradually become more complex,  a number of law courts were established  through which judicial authority could be normally be exercised. However, in order to facilitate the power of dispensing personal justice to Louis XIV to his subjects, Privy Council was constituted[24]. The council was largely responsible for architecting the  model of central government control and contained measures to reinforce the same, removing traces of earlier vulnerabilities[25].

In his regime, Louis ensured that his ministers selected on basis of their talent, caliber and performance instead of their linkage and lineage. Members of the royal family,  representatives of great noble dynasties, and princes of the blood could no longer form the core of royal advisory committee by the virtue of their birth and class[26]. The privilege of advising the King had been passed to efficient bureaucrats hand picked by Louis XIV and he listened to his controller-general of finance and to his secretaries of state, experts in the fields of administration and diplomacy, in military and naval affairs on advises in the specific areas[27].

There are ample evidences that the royal class, habituated of its privileges was piqued at the changed circumstances that had undermined their privileges and roles. Therefore they called Louis’ ministers middle-class to express their hostility against these powerful new figures who had usurped their own political influence[28]. However, there allegation was a deliberately malicious attempt at the administration of Louis was conscious to the need of maintainaing rank and dignity and therefore could not employ non-nobles in such high offices of state[29]. However, Louis did not conform to mere nobility in face of talent and acumen and fully aware of the fact that the very position as royal councillors guaranteed people nobility, he even appointed ministers whose background was of the minor nobility[30].

It can be seen then that from the very inception of his regime, Louis had put in place a system that was strengthening the central structure of government that was run by the king in conjunction with his councils. The influence of Mazarin on Louis is clearly visible here from whom the King had learned his professionalism and for the rest of his life he devoted a number of hours a day to the calls of administrative duties[31]. The conciliar system led responsibility to his authority in executing the administrative functions without compromising the character of a monarchial rule[32].

Where ever possible, the government was introducing subtle modifications to strengthen the power of central government while taking steps in the meanwhile to prevent a notion of emerging irresponsibility or arbitrariness[33]. As a result, the government became more bureaucratic and highly professional. Meticulous records were kept of state’s daily conduct, execution and performance, and officials appointed[34]. Such changes revolutionally changed the perception related to   traditional character of the government that required the king to be viewed as his country’s chief judge, rather as its chief administrator[35].

The Administration of Provinces

The reign of Louis XIV created a very strong provincial official system, whose increasing influence in the localities was becoming greatest cause of worry for French feudal lords. The office of provincial administrative system was represented by an  effective agent of central government who was feared in the provinces due to the extreme range and flexibility of powers that he exercised[36]. Finance formed the most important area of the intendants’ activities and they indeed led to  their rise to pre-eminence. The title of the officer, l’intendant de police, justice et finances, symbolized a position that there were no matters of domestic policy beyond the reach of his office. To ensure unflinching loyalty of these officials,  Louis XIV organized the offices of intendant as a royal commissioner, who were unable to purchase his office and therefore directly dependent upon the king’s continued support[37]. As a further step, the commission itself, could be revoked or annulled by King at any time, specified the responsibilities for intendant, and provided status of its decisions, by ensuring  subject to appeal in the supreme courts or only in the King’s Council against the decision of the commission[38]. These instructions and measures immediately created a very strong central presence in the feudal provinces were intimidated by presence of an immensely strong central agent[39].

When Louis XIV took the direct responsibilities of administration in his hands,France was a rich country on paper. However, the office of crown experienced great difficulty in raising the financial resources when needed to maintain security in wartime. The constraints in raising the money were attributed to following two reasons.

First, Frenchmen expressly refuted the obligation of taking burden of security on their heads. Before the central reforms initiated by Louis XIV, France was largely a loosely knit confederation of regions and social groups, each with its own inherited relationship with central government, working through its own financial rights and obligations that it found best to comply[40]. For example, there were provinces like Burgundy and Brittany which retained their own provincial assemblies and enjoyed a different tax system that was markedly different from rest of the region[41].  Similarly, the French obility and the clergy were had to pay sole direct tax, yet in several regions the tax was levied off on many noblemen. The administrative problem of organizing such a complicated and ungainly structure presented a very complicated and formidable face even for the most efficient and dedicated civil service.

However, there was such civil service available to Louis XIV when he started his reign, that brings the second problem-lack of administrative capabilities to manage resources[42]. The inadequacy of the mechanisms available to bring in the dues to which the crown was entitled was a severe constraint in channeling resources[43]. The crown lost huge revenues through system of in-direct taxing and exemption of taxes to many regions and provinces, as seen above. To compound the problem, the collection of the direct tax was also in inefficient hands, as crown’s financial agents were people who had bought their office for the purpose of personal aggrandizement and investment for themselves and their families, while most of them were incompetent to carry out their responsibilities as tax-collectors[44].

The system changed with the intendant, whose sole responsibility rested with the crown, and who carried  precise and wide-ranging authorization from the king on all the financial matters. The new order made the government’s presence far more effective in the provinces that it ever was. In fact, seen from the ground situation, it ended the provincial independence and immediately put them under direct control of state[45]. The king’s agents were now responsible for  the allocation and collection of the taxes in their districts, examining and verifying claims for exemption, ensuring that valid payments had been collected and also that  the collection was honestly conducted[46]. The intendant was also required to ensure that tax-farmers complied with the government’s decrees. The role of intendant was not limited, however, to mere collection of tax and settlement of financial irregularities. As direct agents of the king, they were active in outside matters such as that of monitoring the price of food, observing military discipline, recruitment and supplies, , inspecting weights and measures, checking the cleanliness of the streets, inspecting prisons, conducting judicial reviews of cases before them; in effect carrying out King’s diktat’s down to the last letter and intent of the king[47].

The administrative element expanded enormously for the intendants, especially because  they oversaw operations and functions of many other government officials. considerable staff of secretaries and other officials[48]. However, Louis XIV was not close to the fact that for intendants, such an increase in administrative activity, supported by judicial authority, could challenge the interests of many groups and individuals in the localities, especially the local district courts and officials and disrupt the strong framework of society that also provided strength to France’s Imperial ruler. Indeed the chief aim inherent in all the measures taken by Louis XIV was to maximize his own authority within the scope of the existing order, without in any way challenging the strong edifice[49]. As a result despite investing intendants with considerable exercising powers, in effect Louis limited their role to that of investigative officers for most of the cases.

Intendants emerged as the new nobility in France and they enjoyed many privileges that were similar to those enjoyed by early noblemen from princely states and families.  Observers could see that this new emerging nobility, effectively establishing itself in royal court at the cost of old provincial government, the proofs of which were amply demonstrated throughout 1660s and 1670s. Meanwhile the government was reviewing the system of nobility that could no longer be established by  private papers or local reputation but only by authorized, legal, government-approved document entitled the ordonnance de maintenir de noblesse[50]. This measure stands as another indication of government’s desire to know  who was escaping taxation by claiming noble privilege. The results that came out from this effort did not surprise many when it was discovered that feudal lords were those who were claiming highest amount of tax-exemptions[51].

All of these drastic, though at the time prudent and forward looking measures greatly improved the fiscal conditions of government, doubling the state’s real income  between 1661 and 1671[52]. Moreover, they provided Louis XIV measures to completely control the affairs of entire France through his own office, reducing his dependency on the fragmented feudal structure[53].

One of the best indications to the changing nature of government was provided by growth in importance of the post of controller-general under Louis XIV which would become apparent after his death. Despite the survival of the conciliar system, based upon the king’s primacy as a judge, a new administrative régime was beginning to take shape alongside it. This new order made for greater central government control because of the relative speed and efficiency with which business could be despatched. It also provided the king with one formidable agent in the person of the controller-general who yet remained a royal creature. For although the secretaries of state and most of the other members of the royal council (though not the chancellor, who was appointed by the king for life) had been allowed to buy, inherit and bequeath their offices, thereby acquiring a degree of independence from government control, the function of the controller-general remained a commission dependent entirely upon the king’s pleasure. The importance of the role played by Louis’s most famous minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, in the expansion of the powers of this commission will be examined in a subsequent section





























Lewis, W.H. 1957. The Splendid Century: Life in the France of Louis XIV.: Doubleday Anchor Books. Garden City, NY.

Perkins, J.B. 1920. France under the Regency: With a Review of the Administration of Louis XIV. Houghton Mifflin. Boston.

Hassall. A. Louis XIV and the Zenith of the French Monarchy. G. P. Putnam’s Sons.: New York.

Guy Rowlands . 2002. The Dynastic State and the Army under Louis XIV: Royal Service and Private Interest, 1661-1701. ; Cambridge University Press.

John B. Wolf ‘The Reign of Louis XIV: a selected bibliography of writing since the war of 1914-1918’, Journal of Modern History, xxxvi (1964); and

Ragnhild Hatton ‘Louis XIV: recent gains in historical knowledge’, Journal of Modern History, XLV (1973).

E.L. Asher, The Resistance to the Maritime Classes (Berkeley, 1960).

R. Briggs, Early Modern France 1560-1715 (Oxford, 1977).

W.E. Brown, The First Bourbon Century in France (1971).

W.F. Church, The Greatness of Louis XIV: myth or reality? (New York, 1959).

C.W. Cole, Colbert and a Century of French Mercantilism, 2 volumes (New York, 1939).

C.W. Cole, French Mercantilism 1683-1700 (New York, 1943).

Pierre Goubert, Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen (1970).

Ragnhild Hatton, ‘Louis XIV: at the court of the Sun King’, The Courts of Europe (ed. A.G. Dickens, 1977).

Ragnhild Hatton and J.S. Bromley (eds), William III and Louis XIV: Essays 1680-1720 by and for Mark A. Thomson (Liverpool, 1968).

H.G. Judge, ‘Church and State under Louis XIV’, History, XLV (1960).

Jacques Levron, Daily Life at Versailles in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1968). ohn C. Rule (ed.), Louis XIV and the Craft of Kingship (Ohio, 1969).

Thomas J. Schaeper, The French Council of Commerce, 1700-1715 (Ohio, 1983).

Warren C. Scoville, The Persecution of the Huguenots and French Economic Development 1680-1720 (Berkeley, 1960).

Paul Sonnino (ed.), Louis XIV’s Mémoires for the Instruction of the Dauphin (1970).John B. Wolf, Louis XIV (1968).

J. H. Shennan. 1993.  Louis XIV.  Routledge. London.




[1] Lewis, The Splendid Century, 8
[2] Perkins, France under the Regency, 27
[3] Hassall, Louis XIV and the Zenith of the French Monarchy, 36
[4] Perkins, France under the Regency, 23
[5] Hassall. Louis XIV and the Zenith of the French Monarchy, 36-61
[6] Rowlands . The Dynastic State and the Army under Louis XIV, 15-22
[7] Hassall. Louis XIV and the Zenith of the French Monarchy, 36-61
[8] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[9] Hassall, Louis XIV and the Zenith of the French Monarchy, 36
[10] Rowlands, The Dynastic State and the Army under Louis XIV, 15-22
[11] Wolf, ‘The Reign of Louis XIV, 45-55
[12] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[13] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[14] Hatton, ‘Louis XIV: recent gains in historical knowledge’, Journal of Modern History, XLV.
[15] Asher, The Resistance to the Maritime Classes, 78-91
[16] Lewis, The Splendid Century, 7-14.
[17] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[18] Schaeper, The French Council of Commerce, 32-41
[19] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[20] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
Levron, Daily Life at Versailles in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,1-9
[22] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[23] Judge, ‘Church and State under Louis XIV’, 14
[24] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[25] Judge, ‘Church and State under Louis XIV’, 14
[26] Scoville, The Persecution of the Huguenots and French Economic Development, 17-25
[27] Hatton and Bromley (eds), William III and Louis XI, 35
[28] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[29] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[30] Hatton and Bromley (eds), William III and Louis XI, 35
[31] Hatton, ‘Louis XIV: at the court of the Sun King’,
[32], Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen (1970)
[33] Pierre Goubert, Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen (1970), 20
[34] Cole, French Mercantilism,55
[35] Cole, Colbert and a Century of French Mercantilism, 41
[36] Hatton ,’Louis XIV: recent gains in historical knowledge, 28
[37] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[38] Pierre Goubert, Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen (1970), 20
[39] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[40] Hassall,Louis XIV and the Zenith of the French Monarchy, 58
[41] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[42] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[43] Schaeper, The French Council of Commerce, 35
[44] Scoville, The Persecution of the Huguenots and French Economic Development, 80-95
[45] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[46] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[47] Briggs, Early Modern France, 13-19
[48] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[49] Brown, The First Bourbon Century in France, 47
[50] Brown, The First Bourbon Century in France, 47).
[51] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[52] Shennan, Louis XIV,  12-28
[53] Briggs, Early Modern France, 13-19

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