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History of France

In France, the figure of Louis XIV dominated the classical Baroque period. His father, Louis XIII had become King after the assassination of Henry IV in 1610. Louis XIII entrusted the government of France during his reign until 1643, to Cardinal Richelieu who sought to raise France to a dominant position in Europe. After Richelieu's death in 1642, cardinal Mazarin carried on his work into the reign of the young Louis XIV, actually dominating him, who had succeeded his father on the throne in 1643 at the age of five years.

During Louis XIV's youth, some great nobles engaged in an open rebellion, called the Fronde, in an effort to ruin Cardinal Mazarin (who was quite openly the lover of Louis XIV's mother) and to undermine absolute monarchy. This episode, which even endangered his life, left a strong impression on the young Louis. As an adult, he was determined to prevent any further rebellion by controlling the nobility and to bring them to court where they could not endanger his idea of absolutism.

Louis XIVAnother result of the Fronde was that Louis moved his court away from Paris, still having the vivid impression of the dangers of the Paris city mobs in mind. At great expense, he had an enormous palace constructed outside Paris at Versailles (after the model of Vaux-le-Vicomte and by the same architects and artists) where Louis XIII had a small chateau for hunting. Versailles became the symbol of the glory and the majesty of Louis XIV's reign, summed up in his famous statement L'Etat est moi, serving as Louis's stage where he played the role of an absolute monarch, the epitome of a divine King surrounded by fawning nobles. In his wars, architectural plans, court etiquette, pleasures, and sponsorship of theatrical entertainment, his overriding consideration was whether his and France's glory were being served. Once he was able to house all his court at Versailles, the King pursued both business and pleasure relentlessly. No matter how exhausted he or his courtiers were, there was a daily hunting or at least a walk, and every evening was devoted to dances and plays.

For a member of the nobility it was absolutely necessary to live near the King. If he was not close to the court, this meant he was out of favour with the King, deprived of pensions and sinecures which could only be bestowed on those at court. By this tactic, Louis kept his nobles busy at court where he could keep an eye on them. One could say that he experience of the Fronde had paranoid him. "To keep an eye" can also be taken literally, because the nobles were all the time aware of the necessity of being recognised by the King. If the King said about someone "We have not seen him today", this meant the social death of this particular aristocrat and the result was that he had to leave the court, never to be allowed back in again. Though Louis thrived on his regimen, the courtiers often found it torturous. For example, a lady invited to Versailles was expected to arrive at six in the evening in full court dress and might not have been allowed to depart until eight the following morning. During those fourteen hours, she attended a comedy, a ballet or a ball; she probably partook of two suppers and a roulette of cards, and, throughout it all, she had to observe the most rigid rules of etiquette. One such lady who broke the rules by sitting at the gaming table was never received at court again. How rigid the rules were can also be seen at different chairs that were in connection to the varying degrees of relation to the King. Only Louis himself was allowed to sit on a chair with arms, and the Queen. His sons and daughters (natural and legitimised ones) occupied chairs without arms, and one degree less meant to be allowed to sit on a stool, etc.

To be at Versailles a nobleman had to either live at the palace in the royal apartments or in squalid lodgings. To maintain appearances at court, a nobleman needed an expensive, varied wardrobe and funds to spend on life at court. Furthermore, nobles competed to participate in a complicated court ritual that included helping the King to get up in the morning and prepare for bed at night. It was considered a great honour to hand the King his night-shirt or to be allowed to help him out of the left arm of his night-shirt during the petit Lever, and this had to be done in a certain prescribed order and way. Louis's washing consisted of rubbing his face with cotton soaked in diluted, scented alcohol and dipping his fingertips in a bowl - washing in water was considered dangerous to one's health. Relying on primary sources, he only bathed twice in his life, when his doctors prescribed a bath. Louis was usually only powdered from head to toe with perfumed powder, several times a day. Though Louis never seemed to tire of this routine, many of the courtiers found it trying in the extreme. As a result, the aristocracy was so busy waiting on him and spending money that they had neither the time nor the means to plot against him. 

In his search for glory, Louis tried to dominate Europe through a series of wars. However, the other countries reacted to his aggressions by forming alliances to thwart his ambitions. In the end, Louis's effort at domination resulted only in exhausting the nation and impoverishing the people. Therefore he set the ground for the French Revolution in 1789.

Despite his sins and errors, Louis XIV definitely set the style for absolute monarchy, a style that was copied throughout Europe.

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