Louis XIV’s domestic policy was to transform France. Louis XIV built on Louis XIII’s policy of extending absolute royal rule (centralised absolutism) to all parts of the kingdom. Louis was the archetypal absolutist monarch. Aided by politicians such as Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and more especially, Jules Mazarin, Louis stamped his rule on his kingdom. It was Louis who had said “L’état, c’est moi.” (I am the state) and few doubted that he meant it.
Louis dominated the central government of France and consulted with hand-picked ministers. On three or four occasions a week, Louis would meet with his Chief Council, the so-called Conseil d’en Haut. This consisted of three to five men who were all loyal to the king and hand-picked by him to serve him. Some of the minister who served Louis remain some of the most distinguished in French history. The most prominent were:
Michel Le Tellier
Francois-Michel Le Tellier, Marquis de Louvois
Hughes de Lionne
In the latter parts of Louis’s reign, these men were succeeded by men from the same families that allowed for a continuation of policy and loyalty. Those who rose to prominence were career minded men – men of the Robe – and not princes. In fact Louis deliberately excluded the Princes of the Blood and the established nobility in general. He believed that he could best work with men who relied on him for their position in both French society and politics – the educated middle class – and not those who had a history of rebelling against the monarchy.
In previous years, kings of France had used men called Intendants to establish royal power in the provinces. Areas that were remote from Paris, had developed a culture of governing themselves and paying only lip service to royal authority. The role of the Intendants was to change this. The Intendants went, frequently with royal protection, to these remote areas and stamped royal authority on them. Louis XIV realised their importance and extended them in both numbers and functions. Their task was difficult in that they had to overcome a culture in these regions that had existed for centuries – and were frequently feudal in origin. Another group that the Intendants crossed were men who had bought positions in the regions at times when the king had to raise funds. These men were wealthy but frequently ill-equipped to run these offices competently. Their sole purpose was to run them so that they themselves benefited – something Louis would not tolerate. Intendants were used to reform local/regional financial systems, judicial systems and policing the law. In this sense, they trod on the toes of the local nobility in most, if not all, areas of their life. A successful Intendant was suitably rewarded with promotion – this depended on pleasing the king. If an Intendant had done well it was at the expense of the local nobility and to the advantage of Louis XIV.
Louis ensured that the legal system of France was modernised. In fact, what he introduced was used in France to the time of the Napoleonic reforms. Civil law was reformed in 1667; criminal law was reformed in 1670; a Maritime Code was introduced in 1672 and a Commercial Code in 1673.
To enforce his rule, Louis needed a large army. By the time of his death in 1715, the army of France stood at 350,000. Not only was it large in size, but it was also a modern army completely controlled by the state. Such an army ensured that the people were well controlled within France. Any hint of rebellion could be suitably dealt with. The army was answerable to the Secretary of State for War and the Intendants who worked for him. These men all relied on Louis for professional advancement and it served their cause to take on one of the throwbacks to the feudal days of France – local nobles controlling their armies in an independent manner. Their armies were taken over by the state which served a two-fold purpose – it reduced the local power of the nobility and it increased royal absolute power at the same time. To avoid a regional governor becoming too powerful and building up too great an influence in any one region, they were moved from one province to another with a degree of regularity. Their work also became more and more ceremonial as their real work was taken over by Lieutenant-Generals appointed in Paris. By doing this, any chance they had of developing some form of regional power was all but ended.
The credit for finding the modern French Navy went to Jean-Baptiste Colbert. In 1643, at the start of Louis’s reign, France had about three serviceable naval boats. For Colbert, this represented a weakness that other nations might exploit. Therefore, a great deal of time and effort went into developing a modern navy. This allowed France to follow an aggressive expansionist policy in both colonisation and commerce. Both added to the wealth and prestige of France.
The economy relatively prospered in the early years of Louis’ reign. Under the guidance of Colbert, the French economy did well. Colbert realised the importance of a sound commercial policy and he viewed that overseas trade was the way ahead. France did well in this area and her economy benefited as a result as more tax revenue was raised. However, the fundamental weakness of the French economy was never tackled. Those who could afford to pay the most tax paid the least as a result of out-dated tax clauses and posts bought by the wealthy nobility. Those who could afford to pay the least, proportionately paid the most. Such a system kept many in poverty. Therefore, the greatest number of people were the poor who paid the most tax. This left them with barely enough to live off let alone buy goods that were taxed. Those who had the money to spend were the least in number and their total tax liability would have been completely disproportionate to their wealth. In one sense, the success of Colbert was such that this obvious problem was suitably disguised so that future politicians would have to solve it.