"Dictatorship by Divine Right"
by Philippe Erlanger,
from Philippe Erlanger, Louis XIV (London, 1970), 109-117
At seven o'clock on the morning of 10 March 1661, Chancellor Seguier and the ministers and secretaries of state gathered around the armchair of his Majesty, who remained standing. The eight men looked into his face with feelings that ranged from curiosity to fear: it was a grave and inscrutable tace and the large, drooping nose and jutting, tight-lipped mouth, apparently incapable of smiling, accentuated the underlying cold, enigmatic, self-willed quality of mind.
The King addressed Seguier in what was to become his characteristic tone, that of a man 'master of himself and of the universe':
Monsieur, I have called you together with my ministers and secretaries of state to tell you that up to the present I have been pleased to leave the government of my affairs to the late Cardinal It is time for me to govern them myself. You will assist me with your advice when I ask for it. Outside the normal course of state business, which I do not intend to change, I request and command you, Mister Chancellor, to seal no orders except at my command and without having discussed them with me, unless a secretary of state brings them to you on my behalf. And you, my secretaries of state, I order you to sign nothing, not even a safe-conduct or a passport, without my command . . . And you, Mister Superintendent Fouquet . . . I request you to make use of Colbert, whom the late Cardinal commended to me. As for Lionne [secretary of state for Foreign Afffairs], he is assured of my regard and I am satisfied with his services.
Incredulous amazement greeted these words. No one dreamed that a new and revolutionary phase in the history of France and the world was begimling. Until the early twentieth century, men always thought of revolutions as movements originatinF among the people and intended, at least in theorv, to liberate or serve them. The meaning of the abrupt change that took place in 1661 has thus been distorted. In the eyes of an historian who has observed authoritarian revolutions in our own times, some of them originating at the summit, it stands out far more clearly. When Louis XIV made up his mind to rule, he was not behaving like the respectable heir of an ancestral monarchic tradition, but as an individual, as a Caesar might have done following a plebiscite, perhaps a coup d'etat. Although born out of the lessons of Mazarin, the concept was an original one, implying the establishment of a dictatorship such as France had never experienced, and wl-ich is not to be confused with modenl dictatorships.
The modern dictator, usually thrown up by a mass movement, must constantly maintain and increase his popularity by means of spectacular achievements; at the height of his power he remains dependent on the turn of fortune. The dictator by divine right need not be concerned about his position, his reverses or the whims of public opinion. This allows him the serenity and patience of those who participate in things etemal.
In the bitterness of his exile the Comte de Chambord, legitimist claimant to the French throne from 1843 to 1883, would remark of Louis XIV, with some truth, that he had been the first of the Bonapartes. Like Napoleon, Louis wanted to hold in his grasp not only the government but also the multifarious aspects of the nation's life, from court protocol to troop movements and theological controversies. No marriage of any importance, no plan for a new road was to be decided without his approval. It was the ascendancy of one man over an entire country, to the point where their identities would merge and their separation would not be imaginable without perplexity or distress.
Here the analogies stop. Napoleon put his finger on the essential difference when he said that whereas the kings, his enemies, had no reason to fear the return home after losing a battle, he himself was in no position to run that risk. Not one person dreamed of supplanting the divine right despot wllose grip would choke factions, annihilate parties and erase the ideological divisions so dear to the French - and all this through a generallv accepted discipline, not through violence.
Certainly Louis had excellent channels of information, and even created the modern police, but his authority was never backed up by the kind of police terror that has operated under twentieth-century totalitarian regimes. Then too, in the twentieth century there have been dictators who were a prey to their own passions, fury and exaltations, sometimes close to hysteria. Dul ing an existence that was always exposed to the public gaze, Louis XIV lost his composure only five times in fifty-four years.
From the beginning of his assumption of full power, the King applied himself unflaggingly to affairs. He set himself a strict time-table which gradually became as immutable as a law of nature. He devoted six to eight hours daily to work:
. . . informed about evervthing, listening to the least of my subjects, knowing at any time the numbers and quality of my troops and the state of my strongholds, unceasingly giving my instructions upon every requirement, dealing directly with ministers from abroad, receiving and reading dispatches, making some of the replies myself, regulating the income and expenditure of my State and keeping my affairs secret as no other man has done before me.-
Government gave Louis a profound pleasure: 'I do not know what other pleasure we would not give up for this one . . . I felt an enjovment difficult to express.' From the first, he was able to dominate his ministers. They were quite overawed by his natural majesty, inimitable courtesy and inscrutability, the mamler of listening gravely then giving his decision with a single word. Often he would go into minute detail about some matter, without a moment's warning, 'when [the minister] least expected it, so that he should realize that I might do the same in other contexts at any time.'
The historian Pierre Gaxotte has called Louis' reign the dictatorship of work. It was also that of secrecy. The King drew an impenetrable veil over his own feelings and intentions, and intended to protect the affairs of state in the same way. He made it clear that indiscretion was an unforgi-able crime in his eyes, and ministers and other civil servants soon became as secretive as himself. There is a complete antithesis between methods of governments involving the obligation to give daily explanations - whether true or false - to public opinion, and the mystery of Louis' procedures. Not that the accompanying inconvenience of these procedures escaped the King:
I have devoted some thought to the posihon, in this respect hard and rigorous, of kings who owe a public accounting for all their actions to all the world and to all centuries, yet cannot do so in their own times without violating their greatest interests and revealing the secret of their conduct.
This was one of the reasons that led him to have his 'memoirs for the instruction of tlle Dauphin' drawn up: 'I shall not be displeased if you have here the means to redress history, should it misinterpret or misjudge.'
Nicolas Fouquet, the most brilliant and intelligent of Louis' ministers, misjudged completelv. He was sure that the urge to work hard would soon give way to the attractions of pleasure, and was quite determined to do everything in his power to allow the King to drown in them. Having succumbed to his own system, the corrupter believed himself capable of corrupting the King. Louis had had a fairly dull youth, under the rod of a miserly teacher. The superintendellt's intention was to 'spoil' him ill the literal sense, whereupon affairs would devolve quite naturally upon himself.
Colbert's appointment as Intendant of Finances was not enough to put Fouquet on his guard. His spies may well have discovered that the King and Mazarin's confidential assistant were working together every evening, but he was blinded by his own cynical contempt for others. Colbert, on the other hand, had quickly realized what kind of man Louis XIV was, and his insight made his fortune. The complicity that had grown up between them at the time of the Mancini affair took on a different dimension now that the draper's son was secretly unravelling Fouquet's accounts and bringing his malversations to the King's attention.
Although Louis XIV and Colbert were utterly dissimilar, their cooperation was necessary for the achievement of a grand design, and they valued one another at their true worth. Louis realized that the low-born, sombre clerk, crabbed, unattractive and morose, would be the ideal instrument of his own authority. Colbert's iron exterior concealed a flexibility that enabled him quickly to adjust to his new rmaster. The servant of Mazarin had been obliged to involve himself (at no small personal gain) in shady deals and projects; the servant of Louis XIV was to gain favour by virtue of his integritv, intransi gence, loyalty to the service of the state and above all his refusal to accept the least advantage that did not stem from the King.
Louis took two months to come to his decision. By the beginning of May he was determined to bring down Fouquet as soon as the collection of taxes would not be endangered by his fall.
Marie Mancini married Colonna in the Louvre and set out for Italy, after seeing Louis lean over her carriage door to say his final farewell. Her place was taken by Henrietta of England, whose marriage to Monsieur was cel ebrated almost at the same time.
Since the moment of her betrothal, Madame, as Henrietta now became, had been playing havoc with men's hearts and captivating their minds. Age was going out of fashion at court, which still numbered not more than one or two hundred people, and it was the reign of youth - proud, turbulent, debauched, cruel and Rabelaisian. Maria Theresa could hold no sway over this society, which found its true Queen in Madame. At the end of April, when his brother and sister-in-law joined him at Fontainebleau, it was the King's turn to be overwhelmed. The ugly, poverty-stricken cousin, so insignificant only a short while before, was truly the only companion worthy of him. Mignard consecrated the apotheosis of 'Minette' when he audaciously painted her as a mythological shepherdess sitting by the side of Apollo-Louis under the protection of Love.
The King's relationship with Marie Mancini had been exemplarily chaste for two years. The innocence of Mignard's two sitters was less certain: Monsieur was jealous, and the three Queens, Maria Theresa, Anne and Henrietta of France, indignant. Louise de La Valliere, the most reticent of Henrietta's maids of honour, was slightlv built, rather lame and moderately pretty. She was appointed to divert suspicion, but it happened that she was in love with the King, who was moved by her artless, disinterested affection. Within a few days she had supplanted the haughty Stuart, who took her revenge by embarking on an affair with the Comte de Guiche, her husband's special favourite, so that the passion of Louis and Louise and the war between Monsieur and Madame broke out simultaneously.
All this was to Louis' advantage. The ill feeling between his brother and sister-in-law, cunningly inflamed, but kept alight by the follies of one or the other, was to enable him to hold the balance and to play at being the god of a household which might have caused him problems in more normal cir cumstances.' As for Louise, who was sincere, pure and totally lacking in ambition, it was a near-miracle that a King should have found this awed little girl for a mistress. Louis himself was fascinated to find himself adored, not as a sovereign, but as a lover. Marie had enslaved and dominated him. Louise was at his feet, gratifying his vanity without jeopardizing the smallest fraction of his liberty.
As soon as he got wind of the affair, Fouquet sent an obliging friend, Mme du Plessis-Bellievre, to offer Mlle de La Valliere twenty thousand pistoles on his behalf and promise that she need want for nothing from now on. The gentle child bridled and replied that 'two hundred thousand livres would not make her take a wrong step.'
The story reached the King's ears, and he was outraged. It was not to be endured that a subject should offer to protect the King's mistress. The superintendent was working like a beaver for his own downfall. He sold his high judicial office of Procureur General to the Parlement, which had made him practically invulnerable, and decided to invite his Majesty to a sumptuous entertainment at his chateau of Vaux, with the idea of impressing the young man into taking the full measure of his minister's power, wealth and gloire.
Louis xlv did indeed take their measure when he crossed the threshold of Vaux. The splendour of the gardens, fountains, illuminations, ballets and feasting proved that Fouquet had built up his own opulent state within the state. The humiliated Louis compared all this luxury, amassed at his own expense, with his own archaic and dilapidated chateaux. If Anne of Austria had not restrained him he would have interrupted the fete by putting the master of the house under arrest.
Yet this was not the main consequence of the visit to Vaux. Even as Louis was feeling insulted, he was also receiving an indelible impression from the poetry of the gardens and the orderly enchantments that laid mythology under tribute to art. He swore to himself that he would recreate them on a scale worthy of a King of France, and that henceforward the geniuses of the age, from Moliere to the landscape gardener Le Notre, would be in his own employ, not that of a shady financier. The revolution that was to sweep through Europe and transform the way of life of the powerful and the leisured was conceived on that evening of 17 August 1661.
Louis' hatred of Fouquet now fused with Colbert's. It was the first instance of the implacable resolve with which the King could pursue a man who fell from grace. Neither time, circumstance nor the punishment of its hapless object ever quenched his resentment. Fouquet had been ill enough advised to try to provide himself with a territorial base by fortifying Belle-Isle and the Breton coast, and Louis made up his mind to overthrow him in the very province where he felt most secure. The court was transferred to Nantes, where the King presided over a meeting of the Council on the morning of 5 September. After its conclusion he took his leave of Fouquet, smiling to allay any nascent suspicions, and soon atterward M. d'Artagnan, commander of a brigade of musketeers, arrested Nicolas Fouquet. As he was being conducted to a barred carriage, the prisoner asked his captor hlot to attract attention', thus demonstrating his utter lack of understanding of Louis, wl-o wanted precisely such attention, as a way of telling the world that the time had come for him to take charge of his own affairs.
The government was now reconstituted, and Villeroy was appointed president of a modified Council of Finances on which Colbert sat as a mere intendant. The post of Controller General was not to be created for him until 1665, after the abolition of the post of Superintendent.
The High Council which dealt with important affairs was made up of men whom the King summoned to his counsels without their receiving any official appointment, and this alone conferred the title of minister on them. Louis reduced the number of ministers from twentv-four to three - Le Tellier, Lionne and Colbert. The Chancellor also attended the Council, and the secretaries of state confined themselves to making reports and noting down decisions. Among these secretaries was Le Tellier's son, Louvois, reversioner to the post of Secretary for War.
Ministerial specialization did not exist, but the Chancellor super~ ised justice, foreign affairs were the domain of Lionne, war of Le Tellier. With his obsessive appetite for work, Colbert took over almost all the others, from finance to the police: he controlled trade, public works, labour, the colonies, the navy, fine arts and the King's household.
Like his master, Colbert had a Cartesian bent, and his first move was to set about transforming the administration into a monarchic bureaucracy, unified and centralized. No other country possessed such an organization: leaving aristocratic governors to represent the King's splendour in the provinces, he concentrated the real power into the hands of administrators sprung from the common people. To the horror of the aristocracy Louis XIV, who held that the very fact of his function removed such a man from his original class, ennobled most of the principal clerks; ministers, as holders of a fraction of the supreme authority, had to be addressed as 'Monseigneur' and accorded the same precedence as a prince. The service of the King bestowed rights equal to those of birth.
Louis did not summon a single member of his family, or any duke or nobleman, to his Council, and Anne of Austria was so hurt that she announced her retirement to Val-de-Grace. Her son restrained her, as she had hoped, but did not give way either on the political question or in the matter of his amours. In any case, Maria Theresa was still convinced that only a princess could touch the heart of a king; she had stilled her fears of Madame, and could not imagine a La Valliere. On 1 November 1661 she gave birth to the Grand Dauphin. When he saw his son the King forgot his dignity, rushed to the window and shouted to the crowd: 'The Queen has had a boy!'
The new-born child was an insurance for the future and saved his father from the uncertainties that had weakened Richelieu's position for so long. The Dauphin was the finishh1g touch to an apparently indestructible edifice. A grave diplomatic incident in London, almost coinciding with a crisis brought about by the ruinous effects of a bad harvest, was now to put the King to the test, The long-standing dispute between the Kings of France and Spain over the matter of precedence came to a head between their ambassadors at a ceremony in England. The Spanish servants of the Baron of Vatteville, supported by the populace, killed the carriage-horses belonging to the Comte d'Estrade and his men were injured and put to rout.
Louis did not consult anybody. In spite of Lionne's fears, he dismissed the Spanish ambassador in Paris, recalled his own from Madrid, together with d'Estrade, and demanded that Charles 1l punish those responsible and that Philip IV make a reparation that would sanction the primacy of France: 'Truly I would have taken so just a grievance to the furthest extremes, and even in that evil I would have accounted as good the subject of a legitimate war in which I might acquire honour.' An astonished Europe discovered the exist ence of an absolutely new diplomatic system. Louis XIV replaced the mercurial resilience of Mazarin with an implacable hauteur and calculated brutality that allowed him to negotiate subsequently with an artfulness worthy of his master.
The King of Spain was forced to humble himself and put his seal 011 the hegemony of the Bourbons - all without a shot being fired. An ambassador extraordinary came to the Louvre and assured Louis, in the presence of leading members of the court and the entire diplomatic corps, of Philip IV'S regrets. He promised in the name of his king 'that the Spanish ambassadors and ministers would no longer vie with those of France.' This resounding success marked the beginning of a policy of prestige whose aggressive imperialist character may be repugnant, but which corresponded exactly to the nation's aspirations.
Some months later, following a similar incident in Rome, Louis XIV threatened to send an army into Italy and the Parlement summonsed the Pope (de Retz's protector) and seized the papal state of Avignon. Alexander Vll did not dare even to mention excommunication, whereas his predecessors would not have hesitated. He gave way completely, and the King took the opportunity to gain the gratitude of the Dukes of Parma and Modena by having certain lands restored to them.
Having spared neither the Supreme Pontiff nor his own father-in-law, he had no cause to be any less uncompromising towards the impoverished Charles 1l of England. At Louis' command, the French fleet refused to salute the British flag before their own was saluted, a tribute claimed by England as the due of her maritime superiority. Henceforward, Europe knew who was 'the greatest king in the world.' France was lost in admiration.
Meanwhile, the country was still in the grip of a famine which seemed as if it must surely start a chain-reaction of disasters. On Colbert's advice, Louis again took a revolutionary, one might even say a socialist step:
I compelled the most prosperous provinces to relieve the others [a drastic inno vation], and private individuals to open their shops and put their provisions on sale at fair prices. I sent out orders in all directjons to obtain as much grain as possible by sea from Danzig and other foreign lands; I had it purchased at my own expense and I distributed it free, the greater part to the common people of the towns . . . I had the rest sold to those who could afford it, but at a very modest price, from which the profit, if there was any, went towards the relief of the poor, who by that means derived from the more wealthy a voluntary, natural and tangible assistance.Even more socialist was his attitude to the bourgeois, who had taken advantage of the crisis to acquire government bonds at low prices and were now receiving exorbitant interest. The bonds were bought back 'by paying the same price which [the holder] had paid and deducting from this basic sum whatever he had received in dividends over and above the legitimate interest.'
By these means, the state and the towns were relieved of an enormous burden. It was the King in person who, mindful of Mazarin's last advice, reduced the taill~5, the direct taxes that were crushing the peasants. The revenue from these fell from fifty-three to thirty-nine million livres, collectors' commissions were cut, and a special court proceeded ruthlessly against corrupt financiers. The wealth of businessmen, their relations and heirs, was investigated. For the first time since Sully, the state finances were put in order, but unlike Henry Iv, Louis did not leave it to a single minister to manage his wealth:
I had already subjected myself to signing in person all the warrants that were issued for the smallest expenses of the State. I decided that this was not enough, and chose to take the trouble of writing in a little book which I always kept by me, on one side the monthly income I ought to be receiving, on the other all the sums disbursed on my own orders in that month . . . The weightiest matters are nearly always brought about by means of the most trivial, and what would be baseness in a prince were he acting sheerly out of love of money becomes eminence and loftiness when his ultimate object is the welfare of his subjects, the execution of an infinity of grand designs, and his own splendour and magnificence.
The first year of Louis' personal rule had yielded significant achievements. In 1662, on the occasion of the famous Fete de Carrousel, the King took to himself the symbol that is still linked with his name:
I chose to assume the form of the sun, because of the unique quality of the radiance that surrounds it; the light it imparts to the other stars, which compose a kind of court; the fair and equal share of that light that it gives to all the various climates of the world; the good it does in every place, ceaselessly producing joy and activity on every side; the untiring motion in which it yet seems always tranquil; and that constant, invariable course from which it never deviates or diverges - assuredly the most vivid and beautiful image of a great monarch. Those who saw me ruling with a degree of ease, unhampered by the many cares that royalty has to assume, persuaded me to add the globe of the earth, and for a motto Nec Pluribus Impar: by which they meant, agreeably flattering the ambitions of a young king, that, equal in myself to so many things, I would certainly yet be equal to ruling other empires.