Louis XIV’s story has all the ingredients of a Dumas classic: legendary beginnings, beguiling women, court intrigue, a mysterious prisoner in an iron mask, lavish court entertainments, the scandal of a mistress who was immersed in the dark arts, and a central character who is handsome and romantic, but with a frighteningly dark side to his character.
Louis believed himself to be semidivine. His self-identification as the Sun King, which was reflected in iconography of the sun god, Apollo, influenced every aspect of Louis’s life: his political philosophy, his wars, and his relationships with courtiers and subjects.
As a military strategist, Louis’s capacity was debatable, but he was an astute politician who led his country to the heights of sophistication and power – and then had the misfortune to live long enough to see it all crumble away. As the sun began to set upon this most glorious of reigns, it brought a gathering darkness filled with the anguish of dead heirs, threatened borders, and a populace that was dangerously dependent upon – but greatly distanced from – its king.
Ever since reading The Three Musketeers as a teenager, the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV have been my guilty pleasure. The sumptuous and decadent courts of these two French kings contrast sharply with murderous intrigues and international politics. So when I heard Josephine Wilkinson was writing a new biography, I was eager to read it – the only problem was waiting patiently for her to finish it…
And now it is finally here!
Louis XIV: The Real King of Versailles was well worth the wait.
It is clear to anyone who reads this marvelous biography that the author is fascinated by her subject. Her story of Louis’ life and career is analysed in every detail, from his relationships with his family, lovers and ministers, to his love for his people and deep sense of duty. Written in an easily accessible, conversational style, the book is a pleasure to read and devour.
The research is impeccable, giving the reader the impression of being a fly on the wall, watching Louis develop and grow through every period of his life. This is no whitewash of Louis’ life and career; Josephine Wilkinson doesn’t shy away from criticising the king of France when he deserves it. She delves into every aspect of Louis’ life; his family, mistresses and a work ethic that will put most people to shame. An astute politician, adept strategist, the author demonstrates that Louis saw himself as a servant of the nation.
On the eve of his coronation, Louis attended vespers at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims. After the service, he presented a silver-gilt chef reliquaire of Saint Rémi to the cathedral. This was a reliquary in the shape of a human head, designed to hold the skull and facial bones of the saint. Louis had it engraved with his own image on one side and a Latin inscription commemorating the event of his coronation on the other. The king then made his confession before retiring for the night.
The quiet of the archiepiscopal palace was disturbed at six in the morning, when the bishops of Beauvais and Châlons, resplendent in the full robes of their office, proceeded towards the closed doors of the king’s chamber. The precentor rapped lightly with his silver staff, upon which a voice from within asked, ‘What do you desire?’ This was the grand chamberlain, who received the answer, ‘The king.’ The grand chamberlain replied, ‘The king is sleeping.’ This ritual was repeated twice more, after which the bishop of Châlons said, ‘We desire Louis, the fourteenth of that name, son of King Louis the Thirteenth, whom God has given to be our king.’
The doors now opened to admit the bishops, who stood at the foot of the richly adorned bed in which Louis lay. Louis, who pretended to be asleep, opened his eyes and crossed himself with holy water, which had been offered by the bishop of Châlons. After the bishop said a short prayer over him, Louis rose from the bed…
If you are a fan of the BBC tv series, Versailles, you will love this book. It tells the real history of the show, giving you a wonderful insight into the lives of, not only, Louis himself, but also of Philippe, Liselotte and Colbert. The glamour of Versailles contrasts with the various intrigues and rumours which surround the court, the Affair of the Poisons, the downfall of Fouquet and the wonderful D’Artagnan all get their stories told in an entertaining and engaging manner.
Louis’s foreign and domestic policies, his relationships with his fellow monarchs, his nobility and ministers, are analysed and dissected in this expertly executed and thorough study of the Sun King. The language is wonderful, drawing you back into the world of the seventeenth century.
Josephine Wilkinson ably demonstrates how Louis took control of his life and career, how he created the court at Versailles to make the monarch the centre of administration, court life, and the sun around which the nobles of France would orbit. It is clear that the author has a remarkably thorough understanding of the histories of Louis XIII and XIV, and the development of the monarchy in France. She uses this background information admirably to demonstrate how Louis develops his own style of ruling, and the subjugation of the nobility to his rule, thus creating the most glamorous court in Europe; Versailles.
Once in a while you get to read a book that you have been looking forward to for a long, long time, and that lives up to all your expectations. Josephine Wilkinson’s biography is just such a book. This is a wonderful study of Louis as both a man and a king, examining every aspect of his life, the public and the private.
Louis XIV: The Real King of Versailles feels like pure indulgence when you are reading it. It is a sheer pleasure to read and devour. The impeccable research and wonderful writing style may lead you to forget that you are learning as you are reading. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
About the author:
Josephine Wilkinson is an author and historian. She received a First from the University of Newcastle where she also read for her PhD. She has received British Academy research funding and has been scholar-in-residence at St Deiniol’s Library, Britain’s only residential library founded by the great Victorian statesman, William Gladstone She now lives in York, Richard III’s favourite city. She is the author of The Princes in the Tower, Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn, and Richard III (all published by Amberly), and Katherine Howard (John Murray).
Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest is available from Amazon UK, Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World, is now available in hardback in the UK from Amazon UK, and in the US from Amazon US. It is available now in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.
©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly