TO WRITE A MASTERWORK. Philip Mansel is a British historian of France and the Middle East. President of the Conseil Scientifique at the Centre de Recherche du Chateau de Versailles, his much praised latest book is King of the World, The Life of Louis XIV.
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Philip Mansel, as a historian you specialize in court, social and political life. They say that it took six years for you to write this Life of Louis XIV. How did it come about?
I’ve always been completely fascinated by Versailles and the French monarchy and its influence, not just on France, but on Europe and the world. I decided to do Louis XIV because there hadn’t been a big life of him in English for many years. He’s a global figure and I was able to use the wonderful British Library in London, which had every single French book I needed. I went to Paris the whole time, revisited Versailles, and found new sources among the papers of Louis XIV’s ministers, the Noailles family or many other families. There’s a revival of interest in court history in France now, because the current Fifth Republic is a monarchical republic.
Were Louis XIV and the monarchs before the French Revolution, and the emperors of Russia and the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, similar to today’s dictators such as Putin or Xi Jinping?
I think they were more like Macron or very major industrialists. They were creatures of other, outside forces and open to public opinion, so Louis XIV didn’t have total power. He had to please the great nobles, give them pensions and jobs, and when there were riots in Paris in 1709 he had to address the price of bread. There was nothing like a modern dictatorship, except at moments there are anticipations of the 20th century. For example, some of his ministers wanted him to exterminate the Protestants in France – and they used the word exterminate.
This war against the Protestants, the Huguenots, started with Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had been a kind of peace treaty between the Catholics and Protestants. Was it like the persecution of the Jews in Portugal and Spain?
The tortures and the rapes and murders were worse, and Louis XIV tried to stop the Protestants leaving France, while Portugal and Spain let Jews leave. But the market in France was stronger than the monarchy, and they could usually bribe people to let them out. They fled France and built up London, Amsterdam and Berlin as major financial centres. It was an own goal by Louis XIV.
Why does he want to persecute the Protestants so much?
It’s a mystery, something irrational that you can’t completely explain. Before the 1660s Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin had treated the Protestants well. Louis XIV himself, when young, writes: “We must treat them as well as the Catholics.” They’re just as loyal, and he has Turenne as an adviser when Turenne is Protestant. They were obedient. They were useful. They were clever. I think Louis is competing with the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, to be the best Catholic monarch in Europe. Leopold defeats the Turks – with whom Louis is secretly allied – in 1683. What can Louis do to be a better, more famous and admired Catholic? Also, he’s competing with the Pope to be the total master of the French church so he wants to please the church, and the church wants to forbid Protestant worship because it’s an implied criticism of the Catholic church.
Would the industrial revolution have come earlier in France if Louis XIV had not persecuted the Protestants?
I’m sure it would. They transferred intellectual capital to France’s enemies. France went backwards because of the departure of the Protestants, although a lot remained and made token conversions – they re-emerged as Protestants after the revolution. There’s a wonderful remark by de Gaulle, probably apocryphal: “If Louis XIV had not expelled or encouraged the Protestants to leave, then the first man on the moon might have spoken French.”
“It’s all about being immortal.”
Equestrian Portrait of Louis XIV (1638-1715)
Philip Mansel, if Louis XIV was kind as a young man, did he become nastier with age?
Yes, there’s a character change. He began to believe he was omnipotent and could do anything. For example, bombarding Genoa for no real reason, when he was at peace with Genoa.
Louis XIV was king for 72 years. How does history judge him?
He’s different at different periods. At the end of the reign the opinions of the French are very varied. When his funeral procession goes past the edge of Paris a lot of people laugh, dance and sing, really happy that he’s dead. Many of the funeral orations are very critical of the wars and the crimes. But he kept Flanders and Alsace, and he built Versailles. A huge asset for France, Versailles is one of the major tourist attractions of the world, second only to the Forbidden City in Peking. Versailles is his bid for immortality.
Everything that represents Louis XIV seems to be concentrated in Versailles?
Yes, French clothes and French pictures and French sculpture. It’s a reply to Rome and Italy, because there’s a French inferiority complex at that time towards Italy’s palaces, gardens, and works of art. With Versailles, he is saying France is better than either ancient or modern Rome, and this is quite conscious. He wants to impress Europe and the world, with visitors including the Siamese and Moroccan ambassadors.
He also travelled throughout his country?
His travelling when it was so difficult and much of France was so poor is very impressive. There are maps of all his journeys, and he continued to travel after he had settled in Versailles in 1682. Also interesting is the unique rejection of Paris. From 1671, before his reign is half over, he never sleeps another night in Paris and only occasionally visits it, slightly condescendingly, for the day.
At the beginning of his reign between 1648 and 1653 when there were a series of civil wars in France known as the Fronde, the king had to leave Paris, so maybe he didn’t feel safe there?
It’s partly that and partly a personal distaste for the city and loving country life, hunting and gardening. But it’s some more mysterious personal reason, because he goes on living in Paris until 1671 when he could have left it earlier. Instead he goes on building the east facade of the Louvre, asking Bernini to come to Paris in 1665. The fact that his mother died in the Louvre in 1666 may have turned him against the Louvre, and then the rejection of Paris is total.
Was his mother Anne of Austria the most important woman in Louis XIV’s life?
He writes to the brother of his mistress Louise de La Vallière: ‘What I lost, what I suffered by the death of my mother you cannot begin to imagine.’ She kept the monarchy alive in the incredibly difficult circumstances of the Fronde, when she was personally insulted and the people of Paris were against the monarchy. It was like a revolution, but somehow she kept on smiling and managed to keep control of the Royal Guards. She was helped by Cardinal Jules Mazarin, a brilliant politician.
Mazarin is loved by Louis XIV as if he was a son, but when Mazarin dies Louis decides on a change?
He arrests and imprisons Mazarin’s right hand man, Fouquet. That is a criticism of Mazarin. He’s very loving to him while Mazarin is alive, but he changes a lot after his death, raising the dignity of the monarchy and appointing whom he wanted to jobs rather than having marchandages and negotiations.
“In the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) Louis XIV is in every picture”
Philip Mansel, Mazarin forbids Louis to pursue his great love for Mazarin’s niece Maria Mancini. Instead he marries the Infanta of Spain who becomes the Queen, and then he has two very important mistresses, Madame de Montespan and later his wife, Madame de Maintenon. How do his relationships with women work?
Many of his sexual partners we don’t know about, and we are missing his correspondence with Maria Mancini and with Madame de Montespan, who is part of the government machine, as Madame de Maintenon was. Another thing which makes the French court so unusual and fascinating is that women are really there at the heart of power. The king’s mother is important. His mistresses are important. His wife often has a household as big as the king’s own household. In Madame de Maintenon’s letters you see how France operated, with these requests for jobs, information about bread riots, what people are saying in Paris, family networks, everything going through the king’s wife. It was part of the French tradition. The French admired a king who had mistresses. Louis went to wars in the same carriage as his wife and two mistresses, de Montespan and Louise de La Vallière.
You say in the book that he always sleeps with the queen until she was no longer alive, even though he has all these mistresses?
It shows that he was a very emotional man, particularly with women. He had promised Maria-Theresa of Spain at the time of their marriage that he would sleep with her, and he kept the promise. This is unconventional because usually monarchs slept in separate bedrooms.
Does he sleep with Madame de Maintenon when he marries her?
Not as far as we know. Their apartments were very separate and he would go to her apartment in Versailles in the day. I’m not completely convinced he didn’t sleep with her at Marly, his private paradise, where she has a very big apartment and the rules were relaxed.
In your book you describe the episodes of the king’s daily schedule – lever, church, work, hunting, supper, going to bed. In the middle of all this he visits mistresses, and all the courtiers run after him asking for a favour. Was Versailles a very disordered place?
It was compared to other courts, for example, the Escorial in Spain or some German courts where the rules are much stricter. Men and women mixed more at Versailles than in other courts, which shocked many Catholic priests. But Louis XIV was very strict about work and he’s really always working, easy for somebody with such vitality. Even though his health wasn’t so good, his stamina was extraordinary, going to the gardens of Versailles even when it’s freezing. With so many servants, it was easy for him to keep his private time for his work with his ministers, and then spend a few hours with Madame de Maintenon and her friends.
He’s constantly ill and has terribly painful operations?
But he never complains. He says, “Oh, mon Dieu!” That’s all. He loses his teeth with incompetent court doctors and dentists. There were better ones in Paris.
But he loves war?
Yes. He is very brave, but he’s rather cautious on the battlefield. He doesn’t plunge in, and on one occasion when he could have personally won a victory on the battlefield, he didn’t. He loves grand sieges, like an opera where everything goes according to rules and in the end he makes a triumphal entry and not many soldiers’ lives are lost. He wants to keep safe his wonderful, beautifully uniformed army, partly because he relies on the army to keep control inside France.
Is he not very vain, loving to be flattered?
Yes, terrible flattery in medals, in dedications of theses, and in the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) he is in every picture, which is unique among European palaces.
What was his rapport with the aristocracy?
He loved grand families like the Noailles or the Rohans whom he elevated, and he makes them richer. He loves being surrounded by nobles.
At the beginning he likes bourgeois?
Some bourgeois yes, even Protestants. At the beginning he’s much more relaxed, and he does like talent and brilliant people. Racine, who comes from a relatively humble background, reads to him at night if he’s ill, and the king and Molière are more or less friends. Madame de Maintenon, the widow of a disreputable poet, had a very humble background.
He’s a complete patron of the arts – cooking, gardening architecture – but why doesn’t he mind if many people die building Versailles?
He becomes more insensitive with time – more insensitive than his mother, or Mazarin who prided himself on being merciful. He becomes a harder person, as lots of people do, and he doesn’t foresee the consequences of his actions. But he’s quite hard after 1672 during the Dutch War – when he’s still young – and his French troops do terrible things to some Dutch villages. This feeling of power and omnipotence corrupts as we know. It has corrupted many other people.
Louis XIV as an infant with his nurse Longuet de la Giraudiere
Louis XIV of France and Philip IV of Spain meet on Pheasant Island in 1659. We can see the daughter of Philip IV, Maria-Theresa of Austria and future queen of France, behind him.
Wedding of Louis XIV of France, June 9th 1660.
Promenade of Louis XIV in a view of the Parterre du Nord in the gardens of Versailles, circa 1688.
Persian Embassy to Louis XIV, February 19, 1715
Philip Mansel’s “King of the World, The Life of Louis XIV” has been published in Italian by Mondadori, in French by Passés/Composés, and in English by Allen Lane an imprint of Penguin Books.
“The army is the love of his life, as much as Versailles and his women.”
Philip Mansel, at that time, in a Catholic royal family and a Catholic country, homosexuals were persecuted. How come his brother, Monsieur Philippe, whom he loved deeply and who was homosexual, had complete freedom?
Monsieur could get away with what was thought of as murder. Louis XIV even went to the house of Monsieur’s lover, the Chevalier de Lorraine – a great honour to the Chevalier. He’s almost respecting a gay couple, almost, but at the same time he tries to stop his illegitimate son the Count of Vermandois being homosexual, and he is punished. The court is so fascinating. It’s above normal rules, not just for homosexuality, but also for infidelity in marriage, and gambling, which was in theory forbidden elsewhere. The court is another country. They do things differently there.
Is it true that Louis XIV is a networker, organizing marriages and alliances, and also loves parties?
Very true. Louis XIV continues this wonderful tradition of ballet de cour and he himself dances in public, even in private at Marly till he’s 60. And at Marly, in the last year of his reign, he forces his granddaughter-in-law, the Duchess de Berry, who is mourning her dead husband, to lead the gambling table to keep the party going on.
Plus he launches fashions and dresses in a frou-frou way?
Which is good for business for the Paris luxury trades. He wears French lace, not lace from Venice.
Does Louis XIV know that marriage alliances are really the key to Europe?
It’s through marriage alliances that his grandson becomes King of Spain.
Is his own marriage an alliance?
Yes. He marries the eldest Infanta of Spain, with the best claim to inheriting after her brother dies. Louis XIV thinks their son, the Dauphin, is really the legitimate king of Spain. And it’s the Dauphin’s son, the Duke of Anjou, who becomes King Philip V of Spain.
Who becomes his successor?
Because of the bad court doctors, all his descendants die except one great-grandson, the future Louis XV, whom his governess, Madame de Ventadour, removes from the court doctors, feeds herself and keeps healthy. This great French royal family, proud of being so fertile, is reduced to one little boy who might die. Louis XIV knows that there’s a possibility of civil war, because if Louis XV dies – a little boy of five – then the regent Duke of Orléans wants to be king. And Philip V in Spain also wants to be king. So he leaves an explosive situation.
Does he care about what will happen after him?
Very, very much. Versailles is a bid for immortality. His battles and sieges are a bid for immortality. As are his statues, his pictures, his frescoes… It’s all about being immortal.
Was Louis XIV confident that whatever injustice, murder, war he would do, he would be the king?
Yes, Versailles is a city of soldiers as well as courtiers. There’s always a lot of guards with him, even in the Gardens of Versailles there’s always people in blue uniforms. He is confident as long as he’s got the army with him. He spends a lot of time reviewing troops, talking to generals, flattering generals, choosing officers, making sure the troops have good food and clothes and so on. In a way, the army is the love of his life, as much as Versailles and his women.
Does he really love women?
Yes, he’s often alone with Madame de Montespan or Madame de Maintenon. She’s older. She’s a bit like his mother, probably, and she’s intelligent, always polite, never loses her temper. And she’s tough.
Was he very rich personally and love money?
Yes he loved money, he loved jewels; his jewel casket – which you can see in the Louvre – is covered in gold filigree. He loved all that. He loved paying his mistresses’ gambling debts. He loved money to be present in Versailles. Versailles is also a temple to richness, with gilding and marble and masterpieces of painting and sculpture. Like Napoleon, he thought everything good in Italy should come to Versailles.
Especially because he had such a long life it must have been very interesting for you to write Louis XIV’s life, as it was for me to read your very good biography. What is the Sun King’s balance sheet at the end of the day?
The balance sheet is pretty terrible, because it’s during his reign, and in part because of his acts, that England becomes a world power. London becomes larger and richer than Paris, with a lot of help from the Huguenots. Piedmont becomes a great power. Prussia becomes a greater power. Austria becomes a greater power, partly in reaction to France. When Louis XIV dies the French finances are in even worse order than when he inherited, and it’s the finances that lead to the French Revolution more than any other single cause. And above all, it’s the personal cruelty: to the Protestants, to the Germans in the Palatinate, destroying Mainz or Speyer or Heidelberg, many other cities in Holland. Even to Catholics, like the Jansenist movement in France, he is personally cruel, throwing out aged nuns at the age of 80 who did no harm to anybody. His bombarding of Genoa, Brussels, Algiers, many other cities. It’s the nature of power. He believes his flatterers and thinks he can do anything. He’s certainly much more ruthless than his predecessors or successors as a king, but perhaps that ruthlessness was necessary in some circumstances.
Portrait of Philip Mansel by Neil Spence Photography