The Awakening of Europe  by M. B. Synge

The Greatness of France

"L'État, c'est moi" (I am the State).

—Louis XIV.

N OW, there was one man who watched the growing power of William of Orange with intense alarm. That man was Louis XIV. of France, who was now sheltering the unfortunate James. He had inherited a prosperous kingdom from his father, Louis XIII., and he had dreams of making an empire that should rival that of Charlemagne in size and magnificence—dreams of a great Roman Catholic union of which he himself should be the head. He was but four and a half years old when his father lay dying.

"I have been named Louis XIV.," the child told the sinking king.

"Not yet, not yet," whispered his father, who still clung to life.

But within a month the little Louis was indeed King of France. Sitting in the carriage beside his widowed mother, he entered the capital amid great enthusiasm. Seated upon his throne, he received the great men of the kingdom. Simply dressed in a little velvet frock, he even stood up and made them a speech, prompted by his governess.

Until he came of age, though king in name, a great Minister, Mazarin, ruled the country for him. He was a great statesman, and greatly increased the influence of France abroad. On the death of Mazarin in 1661 Louis stepped firmly on to the scene himself. He had grown up with the hopeless idea that the king was supreme, that he could rule as he liked, without the people, without the Parliament.

"I am the State," he asserted firmly. "The king alone rules, everything must centre in the king." He made the same fatal mistake that had brought the Stuart kings to grief in England. He tried to rule alone, without the people.

Louis now set to work to make his Court the most magnificent in Europe. Thither flocked poets and play-writers, men of letters and great ministers. And it was such as these that helped to make France so great at this time.

Perhaps most important of all those at Louis' Court was Colbert, the great Minister of Finance, who raised France to take such a high place among the commercial nations of his day. He invited over the best workmen from other countries and started manufactories of steel, iron, glass, and tapestry. He built ships until France had a navy strong enough to beat the combined fleets of England and Holland. He looked after the French colonies in America and the West Indies. And so he made the country richer and richer. No longer did the ladies of Paris ride through the dirty streets on mules, they had now carriages and stage-coaches to convey them from place to place.

There was Molière, the son of an upholsterer, whose masterpieces of comedy so delighted the king that he raised him to a high position of wealth at the Court. There was Racine, who loved to write of the old Greeks and Romans. There was Pascal, whose beautiful 'Thoughts' made him known as the "Plato of modern France." There was La Fontaine, who wrote fables after the style of the old Greek Æsop, which delight every French child of to-day just as they delighted the children of the seventeenth century. Then there was Fénelon, scholar and man of letters, selected by the king to be tutor to his little grandson Louis.

Fénelon had come to the Court when little Louis was but seven years old. He was a wayward, self-willed child, who, like his grandfather the king, thought that everything must give way to his whims and wishes. Fénelon's task was no easy one, but gently and firmly he accomplished it, until the boy's wondering mind grasped the teaching of his high-souled tutor. He began to learn that there were higher things in life than the mere grandeur of kingship—that honour and courage were above all necessary, that religion must be real and very true. The boy loved the man who taught him of these things with a faithful love that stood the tests of time and exile.

"With you I am only little Louis," he would cry when he escaped from the pomps and shams of the French Court to the tutor, who, if he chided him, loved him as his very life. For this little Louis, Fénelon wrote stories and fables to illustrate the dangers of kingship. He called them the 'Adventures of Telemachus,' because he wrote them in the style of Homer's Odyssey. He wrote about an ideal king, who lived for his people and his country only and not for himself. But in course of time the stories got into the hands of the king himself. He was very angry, and Fénelon was ever after this in deep disgrace.


Louis XIV. at Versailles.

The wars of Louis XIV. also raised the fame of France abroad. The French armies were better equipped and disciplined than any others of that age. The French wars with the Netherlands have already been described. Louis' career of conquest was only stayed by the Triple Alliance, made by England, Holland, and Sweden. He extended the frontiers of France in Alsace, and together with his famous commanders, Condé and Turenne, he conquered town after town in Germany.

All Europe feared him. He had taught his own people to admire him by reason of his military glory and skilful management. He was an absolute despot. He held no Parliament, he raised taxes at pleasure; even the courts of justice yielded to the absolute sway of the king, who interrupted the ordinary course of the law as he pleased.

He built for himself a magnificent palace at Versailles, eleven miles from Paris. He spent vast sums of money, wrung from his people, upon gilded halls and painted rooms, "magnificent but uncomfortable." It was a centre of pleasure and luxury, built to the glory of one man, Louis XIV.