Shadows at the court of the Sun King

2015 marks the 300th anniversary of the death of Louis XIV, the Sun King, whose reign (1643-1715) defined the era of the ‘Grand Siècle’ and saw France rise to become the dominant player on the European stage. The Voltaire Foundation, in collaboration with the Château de Versailles, is preparing to publish Voltaire’s seminal account of his reign, Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) to coincide with this anniversary.

The unceasing production of works throughout Voltaire’s long life often causes attention to be focused on his later years, and it is easy to forget that he was himself a product of the age of Louis XIV, being 20 when the king died. Few people could have remembered the Sun King’s accession, and the change of regime in 1715 must have been a uniquely unsettling experience, more so because of a series of deaths in the royal family between 1711 and 1714, which left as the only viable Bourbon successor to the king a frail great-grandson still in his infancy.

In 1714 Louis XIV was in his 76th year and, according to the chronicler Saint-Simon, fearing death, either natural or by poison. In an attempt to dilute the influence of the Orléanist faction (the family of his younger brother), he promulgated the édit de Marly in July, which allowed his illegitimate children to succeed were the Bourbon line to fail. In the same year he rewrote his will, setting up a regency council, on which the ‘bastards’, as Saint-Simon called them, were also to serve. This provision was swiftly annulled after Louis’s death the following year.

1. Louis XIV’s will, dated 2nd August 1714.

1. Louis XIV’s will, dated 2nd August 1714.

By contrast the 19-year-old Voltaire in 1714 was preoccupied with an unhappy love affair and the dullness of his incipient administrative and legal career. But when, years later, he set to work seriously on his long-planned project of writing one of the first major accounts of the reign of the Sun King, he was relying not just on historical sources and documents, or even on verbal accounts from his older contemporaries, but crucially on his own recollections and emotional responses to the events he describes.

And it shows. This passage about Louis XIV’s marriage in 1660 has an abstract, almost fairy-tale quality, with its hero and heroine providing a tableau of splendour and gallantry, reminiscent of the hyperbolic descriptions found in novels such as La Princesse de Clèves (1678):

‘Tout prit, au mariage de Louis XIV, un caractère plus grand de magnificence et de goût, qui augmenta toujours depuis. Quand il fit son entrée avec la reine son épouse, Paris vit avec une admiration respectueuse et tendre, cette jeune reine qui avait de la beauté, portée dans un char superbe d’une invention nouvelle; le roi à cheval à côté d’elle, paré de tout ce que l’art avait pu ajouter à sa beauté mâle et héroïque, qui arrêtait tous les regards.’

2. Wedding of Louis XIV and Marie-Thérèse d’Autriche, 9th June 1660.

2. Wedding of Louis XIV and Marie-Thérèse d’Autriche, 9th June 1660.

In describing the shock of the series of deaths in the royal family, Voltaire communicates a real sense of how disquieting this period must have been. In chapter 23, he describes how the king’s personal grief becomes conflated with political catastrophe: ‘toutes ces infortunes domestiques [i.e. the deaths in the king’s family], jointes aux étrangères et à la misère publique, faisaient regarder la fin du règne de Louis XIV comme un temps marqué pour la calamité; et l’on s’attendait à plus de désastres, que l’on n’avait vu auparavant de grandeur et de gloire.’

Voltaire returns to the same events later in the work (chapter 27), and this time is even more explicit about his own recollections, using ‘nous’, and even ‘je’ to describe the emotional impact of the events, years later.

3. Composite picture of the Bourbon succession.

3. This composite picture of the Bourbon succession from Henri IV (seen as a bust in the background along with Louis XIII) features Louis XIV (seated), the Grand Dauphin (leaning against his father’s chair) and the duc de Bourgogne on the right. The infant Louis XV is being led by the duchesse de Ventadour, who seems to have commissioned the painting to celebrate her role in ensuring the continuation of the Bourbon dynasty (by saving the future Louis XV from the measles epidemic that killed the other members of his family).

‘Ce fut le sort de Louis XIV de voir périr en France toute sa famille par des morts prématurées, sa femme à quarante-cinq ans, son fils unique à cinquante; et un an après que nous eûmes perdu son fils, nous vîmes son petit-fils le Dauphin duc de Bourgogne, la Dauphine sa femme, leur fils aîné le duc de Bretagne, portés à St Denis au même tombeau au mois d’avril 1712; tandis que le dernier de leurs enfants, monté depuis sur le trône, était dans son berceau aux portes de la mort. Le duc de Berri, frère du duc de Bourgogne, les suivit deux ans après; et sa fille, dans le même temps, passa du berceau au cercueil.

‘Ce temps de désolation laissa dans les cœurs une impression si profonde, que dans la minorité de Louis XV j’ai vu plusieurs personnes, qui ne parlaient de ces pertes qu’en versant des larmes.’

Nearly 40 years later, despite the middle-aged Louis XV being established on his throne, Voltaire is transported back to how disorienting it was to have almost the entire direct royal succession, the future of France, wiped out, and for the dynasty to take a different direction, with a decadent regency and an infant king. In contrast to the abstract and distant ‘Paris’ and ‘on’ of the earlier passages, here we have compelling direct testimony from ‘plusieurs personnes’, as well as the sympathetic ‘je’ recalling such a ‘temps de désolation’, all weeping for the lost line of promising Bourbon kings.

–AO

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One thought on “Shadows at the court of the Sun King

  1. A fascinating glimpse into Voltaire’s thoughts and feelings. But I wonder why this link between the problems in the royal family and political disaster wasn’t enough to make him a republican? Perhaps I’m reading with too modern an eye, and the institution of monarchy was so entrenched at the time that even Voltaire didn’t think to question it?
    – SA

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