I was flicking through an old copy of The Spectator the other day, one of the issues containing contributors’ ‘Christmas Books’, and there was a comment of Jonathan Sumption’s that ‘as a general rule, biography is a poor way to learn history’. It is primarily a matter of approach rather than simply subject of course, but if one was drawing up a shortlist of men who might qualify as exceptions to the rule, then Philip Mansel’s ‘King of the World’, Louis XIV, would surely be very near the top.
Louis XIV came to the throne in 1638 at the age of four with the monarchy ‘on a knife edge’ and died 72 years later with his country virtually bankrupt; but in the decades between he left a mark on France and Europe that no French king can match. As an infant his ‘voracious’ appetite took him through eight bruised and exhausted wet nurses, and whether it was women or work, his army or his pleasures, his benevolence or brutality, the same insatiable appetite would mark his whole life.
‘The neighbours of France should beware such precocious rapacity,’ the Swedish diplomat Grotius prophetically remarked of the new dauphin, but it would be some while before France and Europe found out just what they had got. On his deathbed Louis XIII had appointed his wife, Anne of Austria, regent for their infant son, and for the first years of his reign — years marked by a deep hatred of the king’s first minister, Cardinal Mazarin, rising taxes, simmering rebellion, the court’s nocturnal flight from Paris, and the spreading anarchy of the Fronde — only his youth saved Louis from the resentment that engulfed the regency. ‘Paris is in uproar,’ Mansel writes:
Princes and provinces rebel. Cities shut their gates in the king’s face. The countryside is devastated.