Mary Beard recently posted on this blog advocating a greater place for the specialist historian in writing and presenting historical documentaries. Nowhere is her point more pronounced than in relation to under-represented periods of history. My own area of specialism, Old Regime France, barely receives any airtime next to the seemingly constant stream of programmes devoted to the Tudors or the Nazis. This is despite the fact that Louis XIV is still the longest-reigning monarch in European history. A man of singular ambition and presence, the “Sun King” had a profound impact on European politics for over half a century and cast a long shadow over his successors, right down to the French Revolution.

The problem, however, lies not only in the neglect of this period. When it does receive attention on television, it is often misrepresented because the presenter lacks sufficient expert knowledge of the topic. Take David Starkey’s recent documentary on the Churchills, for example. In it, Starkey compared Louis XIV to Adolf Hitler, and in the publicity for the documentary Louis is presented as “an earlier would-be dictator of Europe”. This is, from my point of view, inaccurate and misleading, but because Starkey is an instantly recognisable figure on television (and a former academic), most viewers would not think to question this.

In fact, Louis XIV neither wanted to be a dictator, nor was his foreign policy driven by a desire for control of Europe. These ideas perpetuate old myths that were born out of virulent anti-French propaganda from the period. Louis’ enemies frequently accused him of wishing to establish a “universal monarchy” through his supposedly ruthless and insatiable expansionism. As I argue in my new book, however, the French monarchy’s frontier policy was driven primarily by a defensive impulse. The neighbouring territories of Lorraine and Savoy, for instance, were both conquered by French armies during Louis’ reign, but this was to protect the weak and exposed eastern flanks of the kingdom during major conflicts, and both of these territories were subsequently returned to their legitimate rulers.

Ideas about Louis XIV being a “would-be dictator” or “totalitarian ruler” are certainly not helpful to people wishing to understand more about seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Europe. No historian nowadays would seriously argue that “absolutism” is in any way comparable to twentieth-century dictatorships. For decades now, historians have been in broad agreement that “Absolute Monarchy” was actually far from absolute; rulers in this period (Louis included) tended to govern through a degree of compromise with pre-existing political structures and frameworks. And as I show in my book, this was even the norm in conquered and occupied frontier provinces.


Louis certainly divided the opinions of contemporaries, becoming the object of widespread emulation in parts of Europe, and of vehement hatred in others. Part of my book deals with reactions to Louis XIV in territories which were most exposed to French military activity.  In these places, people demonstrated their hostility to France through a variety of methods: at the fall of Luxembourg to the French army in 1684, for instance, a man named Henri Wavrell refused to shave as long as the French army remained there (he would shave his beard off publically on their eventual withdrawal in 1698); while during the French occupation of the Franche-Comté in the 1670s, innkeepers took down their signs so that they would not have to serve French soldiers. Francophobia was particularly strong in the duchy of Lorraine, which was subject to French military occupation for much of Louis’ reign: there, in 1705, a Benedictine monk publicly tore the arms of Louis XIV from the town walls of Bar-le-Duc and threw them to the ground, stating that hoped God would one day exterminate all French people.

As we approach the 300th anniversary of Louis’ death in 2015, much of this hostility has been forgotten (though in parts of Germany left devastated by Louis’ armies, people still purportedly name their dogs after one of his generals). In France, Louis’ legacy is now most visible through his monumental home, the Palace of Versailles (itself a huge propaganda exercise, which glorifies Louis and his accomplishments out of all proportion). Beyond these extremes, very little is known about the man behind the myth(s), which makes Louis XIV an excellent subject for a historical documentary.  As long as it’s accurate.

Phil McCluskey is Lecturer in the History of Early Modern Europe at the University of Sheffield. His new book Absolute Monarchy on the Frontiers: Louis XIV’s Military Occupations of Lorraine and Savoy is out now with Manchester University Press.

Header image: The marriage of Louis XIV by Laumosnier [Wikicommons]
Insert image: Statue of Louis XIV ©Phil McCluskey

Tags : absolute monarchyabsolutismDavid Starkeyhistory on televisionLouis XIVTV history
Phil McCluskey

The author Phil McCluskey


  1. However Louis was driven by ideology and a hatred of Protestantism which increased as he grew older. You omit to mention the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 which sent shockwaves not just through France but throughout Europe.

    William of Orange accepted the invitation from the Whig grandees to depose James II primarily to include Britain in the League of Augsburg against Louis’ ambitions. Louis attitude to Holland could hardly be described as “defensive” as neither can his desire to place a close relative on the throne of Spain in 1700 which provoked a renewal of conflict.

  2. If it was the same programme I watched I don’t think Starkey ever compared Louis to Hitler but merely showed how writing Marlborough’s biography (which he always regarded as his best effort given the amount of copies he gave as gifts including to the present Queen on her 18th birthday) shaped his thinking with regard to the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany which was going on at the same time.

    Although Churchill often thought in historical terms he was also swift to dismiss parallels as he did between Napoleon, whom he admired, and Hitler, whom he didn’t in his broadcast of 24 August 1941 following his meeting with FDR in Placentia Bay:

    However the name that he and FDR agreed upon for the organisation to be set up after the war which they hoped would prevent future conflict was directly borrowed from the title Marlborough coined for the coalition of powers arrayed by him against Louis’ armies – “United Nations”.

  3. Thanks for your comments. My point is really that Starkey’s documentary and the publicity for it gave a rather one-sided and old-fashioned interpretation of Louis XIV. The documentary was partly about Churchill’s biography of Marlborough, but much of it was given to explaining the wars which pitted Marlborough against Louis XIV’s France, and these were presented entirely from the English point of view – all I’m advocating here is a little more balance, to prevent the continued misrepresentation of the period. Reading some of the reviews for the documentary online, it seems that some viewers took this interpretation at face value.

    I don’t agree that Louis was driven by ideology – he was too pragmatic a ruler to allow his feelings towards Protestantism to dominate his policy-making at the expense of his perception of raison d’état. I did omit to mention the Revocation, which was one of a series of miscalculations in the 1680s, and which historians still don’t fully understand the reasons for.

    Rather than ideology, I would argue that the guiding principles in Louis’ foreign policy were the security of the Bourbon dynasty and the maintenance, if not strengthening, of the kingdom by boosting French prestige and influence. Both the Dutch War and the War of the Spanish Succession can be explained by reference to those.

  4. A fantastic post on a great figure of history who can not be ignored if one is to have any knowledge of Europe in the seventeenth century. I would certainly agree that David Starkey is prone to providing sweeping generalisations which a discerning viewer would find inaccurate (and as historians know, any attempt of direct comparison is inevitably doomed to failure).

    Likewise, I agree with the determination to encourage a more moderate view of history, focused on accuracy rather than promulgating “myths”. History is interesting and engaging enough without having to encourage fantastical tales without evidence.

    However, I do wonder whether Louis XIV’s primary influence on foreign policy was purely a defensive need. His long, consistent, and extensive wars against the United Provinces (admittedly a trade, religious, and colonial rival) can only really be said to be a war of unequals. The standing army of Louis XIV (a relatively new concept, especially in its size), as well as his creation of, and insistence on, a highly centralised state (as witnessed on his deathbed – “Je m’en vais, mais l’État demeurera toujours”), incline towards a personality which caused, rather than reacted to, European events.

    While I would agree that Louis was often politically isolated in Europe, there is something in the opinions of contemporaries throughout Europe. The ambitions of Louis did alienate the vast majority of Europe throughout his reign; coalitions had to be formed simply to counter the singular power of France (even without allies). Perhaps reflection upon his relationship with Pope Innocent XI shows that, even culturally, Louis’s influence and expansionism were seen as unwelcome.

    Though there is merit that Louis wanted France to be strong and resist the ambitions of his rival nations, his personality and history suggest a monarch that wished to overshadow the achievements of his predecessors, and create an incredible power whose power was collected in the authority of the monarch.

  5. Thankyou for your response. I agree almost totally with the points put by Mr Davies who presents the case against Louis far more eloquently and knowledgeably than I ever could and explains what I meant by my maladroit use of the word “ideology”. If there is any parallel with Louis it would be Phillip II of Spain rather than Hitler but even that may mislead more than it may enlighten.

    It is certainly embedded in English historiography and the psyche of successive Foreign Office mandarins to see European history as beset by a series of “troublemakers” – Phillip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Wilhelm II, Adolf Hitler – desiring to impose their will over a divided continent against whom Britain rallied a series of coalitions that eventually overcame them.

    This view may be at best overly Anglocentric at best, excessively superficial at worst but nevertheless it contains a grain of truth and should not be discarded lightly as it explains Britain’s tangled relationship with her mainland neighbours both at the time of Louis ad much later.

  6. Many thanks for both comments. I agree with many of these points, and in terms of a “defensive” impulse I was referring specifically to Louis XIV’s frontier policy, rather than his foreign policy more generally. As James Davies mentions, there are certainly instances (e.g. the Dutch War) where hubris came before defensive need. Louis himself admitted shortly before he died that he had “loved war too much”.

    I would agree that between the 1660s and the 1680s, France set the agenda in European international relations, to a significant extent. But from the mid-1680s onwards, Louis XIV lost the initiative in international affairs, and from that point on his foreign policy was far more reactive than has generally been appreciated.

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