After twenty-three years of marriage and a series of miscarriages and stillbirths, King Louis XIII and his wife, Anne of Austria, finally see a live heir to the throne of France. Such is the joy and gratitude of the royal couple that they name the boy ‘Given by God’ –Louis Dieudonné, in French. Louis XIV reigns from 1643 (when still a toddler in age) until his demise in 1715, which makes him the longest-reigning monarch in European history. Three centuries later, he still holds that record, outperforming even Queen Elizabeth II of England. This, however, is the least of traits that make Louis XIV an extraordinary king.
10. An incorrigible lady-killer and a caring father
Louis XIV had several mistresses, both official and unofficial, and he fathered many children by them, providing the best for all of them in education, marriage, and position in society. His first sexual experience occurred at the age of sixteen with one of his mother’s ladies-in-waiting: the Queen, anxious to have her son sexually active and capable of providing an heir, turned to her trusted Catherine Bellier, baroness of Beauvais (notorious for her ugliness), and charged her with seducing the young king. After breaking up with Catherine, Louis formed relationships with not one, but two nieces of his Chief Minister, Mazarin –the sisters Maria (his first true love) and Olympia Mancini– before he finally married Maria Theresa of Spain for political reasons.
Louis XIV had six children with Maria Theresa, only one of which reached a decently mature age, but he was never faithful to his wife. Among his most renowned mistresses were princesses, duchesses, and marquises; rumors went that he also had a daughter with Henrietta of England, his own first cousin, as well as wife of his younger brother. It is said that, after Maria Theresa’s death, he secretly married Marquise de Maintenon, governess of his seven children with Mme de Montespan, and he entertained sexual relations with her until the end of his life.
9. A king of dancers
Louis XIV was fond of everything that brought pleasure to life: grand cuisine, stunning visual and decorative art, music, theater, and dance. This last one was considered, at the time, an important part of social interaction –so much, that most nobles employed a Dance Master to instruct them in the art of court dancing. A talented dancer himself (and proud of his taut legs, as can be seen in Rigaud’s famous painting), he owed his sobriquet –the Sun King– to his role as god Apollo in a dance performance given in 1653.
Louis’ favorite composer, Giovanni Battista Lulli (naturalized in 1661 as Jean-Baptiste Lully), brought his Italian musical culture and, by mixing it with amorphous elements that preexisted in his new country, created the distinctive ‘French style’ in music and catapulted court ballet into inconceivable heights. The King himself wouldn’t hang his dancing shoes before the turn of the 18th century, when his physical condition didn’t allow him such exertion anymore.
8. He saw Versailles as his personal accomplishment
Young Louis XIV visited Versailles for the first time at the age of twelve, when nothing but a modest hunting lodge existed there, and he immediately fell in love with the place. In 1661, the decision was taken: he’d build his official royal residence there. The all-powerful Colbert, Superintendent of Finances, initially disapproved of the King’s choice, claiming that his master’s grandeur would be ill-measured by the standard of Versailles. Colbert was mostly concerned about the cost of the project –and he was soon proved to be right. Elaborate plans were suggested by builders and decorators; Louis himself supervised the works undertaken by great architects and artists of the era, and directed even minute details, like the laying of floors and the hanging of draperies.
In 1669, the building was close to completion, but this didn’t stop the king from changing again the general character of the chateau; the palace was enlarged and improved, and a small town was erected on the lands purchased by him. The gardens of Versailles were a work of art in their own right. During most of his life, Louis XIV continued developing and tweaking Versailles, seeing in its construction the realization of himself and of his kingly glory.
7. Festivities that cost millions
During the summer of 1674, Louis XIV ordained that festivities be arranged at Versailles for the pleasure of his Court. The ‘Grand Fêtes’ occupied six days in the months of July and August; they began with the celebrations for the reconquest of the province of Franche-Compté, continued with banquets, opera and theatrical productions, firework shows, nightly boat rides in superbly decorated gondolas offered as a gift by the Doge of Venice, and other divertissements, wisely orchestrated in order to create a magical ambience. Silver, crystal, the finest porcelain, tables and baskets loaded with rare delicacies, fountains, wooden constructions to host musical events –everything was set up at exceptional speed and with the minutest care to satisfy the King’s guests. The events, however, were so costly, that they were the last of their kind that were given by Louis XIV.
6. An indefatigable head of state
As much as can be said about Louis XIV’s narcissistic extravagance, there’s no denying that he also was a hard-working King. His daily schedule, which was kept with unfaltering precision, included many hours of hearings, councils, and the study of important dossiers and reports. The King would listen carefully to everybody concerned in order to reach a decision. In the evenings, he would sign an endless series of edicts, orders, and letters prepared by his secretaries and ministers. The Sun-King was always surrounded by members of his Court who were thus able to keep him informed on several matters of major or minor importance that went on in the state and abroad –and, at the same time, he kept a close watch on the ever-rebellious nobility. The Kings that came after him (Louis XV and Louis XVI) found this daily routine extremely hard to follow: instead of being available to their subjects, they tended to keep their private space, losing touch with the pulse of the kingdom.
5. He admitted no human superior to himself
Although Louis XIV was a devout believer of God, he could not easily acquiesce to playing second fiddle, whether in political or in religious matters. By championing the dogma of Gallicanism, he actually denied the Roman Pope a say in how French Church would be run, or even to claim himself superior to the French throne. Louis’ opposition to Rome would escalate shortly after Mazarin’s death, coming at a hair’s breadth from an open declaration of war on two occasions.
In 1661, the French ambassador to the Holy See, Duke of Crèqui, who was denied a hearing by the Pope, saw fit to try and force his entrance into the papal residence with the help of two hundred armed guards. In 1662, a fight between French diplomats and members of the Pope’s Corsican Guard led to several injuries and deaths –and, ultimately, to the breach of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Louis XIV’s government. The French king mobilized his troops, occupied Avignon, and the Pope had to accept the humiliating Treaty of Pisa (1664) and send his nephew, Cardinal Chigi, to Paris in order to apologize on his behalf.
4. He sought to inspire awe
The Sun King made it a point of receiving his highest-ranked visitors (especially those coming from foreign states) in a dazzling showing off of splendor whose purpose was the re-affirmation of the country’s and of his own personal glory. Diplomatic receptions were held in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, a long gilded passageway decorated with paintings of Louis’ military and diplomatic victories, and were usually followed by sumptuous dinners and glamorous entertainment. Entire fortunes were spent for such demonstrations of pomp and power; even in the 18th century, despite the country’s deteriorating economic situation, Louis XIV wouldn’t accept his royal image to be discounted therefrom. When, in 1715, the King received a Persian ambassador, he chose to wear a habit of black and gold bordered with diamonds. The costume was valued at about 12.5 million livres ($2,500,000), and its weight was so great that he was compelled to change it soon after dinner.
3. He only wore the finest jewelry
One of the most prized exhibits of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the Hope Diamond is intimately associated with Louis XIV. Allegedly coming from a far-away Indian mine, it was sold to the Sun-King by a certain Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, traveler/adventurer and merchant. The court jeweler commissioned with the job put two years in cutting the gem; after being set in gold, it produced an effect reminiscent of a sun with seven rays in its center. A few years later, the Blue Diamond of the Crown of France (or, simply, the French Blue), named on account of its grayish-blue color, was re-set as part of the insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a piece of jewelry worn by the King on ceremonial occasions.
Being stolen during the looting of the Royal Storehouse, where the Revolutionary Government kept the Crown jewels shortly before Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette’s decapitation in 1792, it didn’t resurface for at least some twenty years. After passing through many owners –among which Henry Philip Hope (whence it took its current name), an Ottoman monarch, an American music hall actress, the jeweler Cartier, and more– the gem was donated by Harry Winston to the Smithsonian Institution.
2. Driving a famous chef to desperation
In 2000, Gérard Depardieu starred the film Vatel, impersonating the famous chef François Vatel, creator of that fine French delicacy that is the sweet whipped cream –named in honor of his master, Prince de Condé, who resided at Château de Chantilly. Vatel’s tragic destiny is associated with a visit of young Louis XIV to Condé’s estate in 1671.
The King would be escorted by some 600 noblemen and noblewomen, as well as with several thousand auxiliaries who tended to them. Preparations for the reception of the party began a fortnight prior to the fixed date; Vatel, who was obsessive with precision and perfection, had barely slept during the last twelve days. Being a general superintendent (‘maître d’hôtel’), he had to take care of every last detail in the purchase, the preps, and the presentation of the banquets.
Catastrophe struck early in the morning of the second day, when Vatel erroneously thought that the fish he had ordered would not arrive. Feeling disgraced, he stabbed himself through the heart; ironically, loads of fish came in a couple of hours later –perhaps while Vatel was drawing his final breaths.
1. His heart was devoured posthumously
A king’s pains (sic) don’t stop at his death bed. In Louis’ case, the final episode would be played about a century and a half later, when his embalmed heart would become meal for a Victorian eccentric named William Buckland (1784-1856). Buckland was a geologist and paleontologist who had expressed the unusual ambition to taste every living thing; he certainly swallowed some pretty disgusting stuff. Guests in his home often found themselves being offered strange delicacies, such as toasted mice and frogs The strangest item he ate was, according to his own admission, ‘the heart of a king’; this happened while he was dining among company at a country house in Oxfordshire, England. When he was shown the item in question (shrunk and tiny as it had become) in a silver container, he took it and casually washed it down his throat.