Europe

France’s Louis XIV: Radical king who drank ‘champagne as medicine’ and invented high heels

Louis XIV's strange message for the royal baby

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On Sunday, Queen Elizabeth II will become the world’s second longest-serving monarch as she surpasses King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, who reigned for 70 years and 126 days. Only one monarch eclipses the historic reign of the British Queen — King Louis XIV of France, whose time on the throne began when he was just four years old. Louis reigned for 72 years and 110 days, sitting on the throne from 1643 to 1715.

At the age of four, Louis was too young to rule his country when he inherited the throne, so his mother, Anne of Austria, ruled France with Cardinal Mazarin, the Italian financier who had been the principal minister of Louis’ father. 

After Mazarin died in 1661, Louis declared that he would rule France without a chief minister, something no French king had done in living memory. 

Popularly known as the ‘Sun King’, Louis believed that his power as king was derived from God and he connected himself to the radiant image of the sun. 

He was recognised as a good king; he transformed France into a dominant European nation, redefined the idea of the monarchy, ushered in a golden Baroque age of culture and turned a remote hunting lodge into a private royal retreat — the Palace of Versailles. 

But the King was more interested in arts than politics, and one historian credits Louis with France’s “high culture”. 

Writing for UnHerd, John Lewis-Stempel, an author and historian, said: “France as the land of high culture and les beaux arts was invented by the Sun King: the supporter of Molière, France’s Shakespeare; founder of the Académie Royale de Danse (and dancer in ballets himself) and the Académie d’Opéra; patron of the aforementioned Academie Francaise.

“Tireless in his promotion of the arts, he nonetheless found the time and appetite to found France as the de luxe land of haute couture. In the 17th century, he forever changed the fashion landscape.”

Louis’ “radical fashion reforms” spread across Europe and established France as “the world’s leading capital of haute couture.”

But the King also used his fashion-forward thinking to suit his own, personal benefit. 

Mr Lewis-Stempel explained: “He was excessive in everything except height; preening in his stockinged feet, he was five foot four. 

“And so he invented high heels, anticipating Christian Louboutin by almost four centuries.”

However, the Sun King’s opulent lifestyle was not confined to the clothes on his back and the heels on his feet. 

Mr Lewis-Stempel said: “Terrified of bathing — he is said to have taken only three baths in his life — he sprayed himself and Versailles with perfume, commissioning his perfumer to create a new scent for each day of the week.”

The King also drank champagne daily with meals, and “imbibed it as medicine,” boosting the business of bubbles to “global success”. 

Perhaps the most infamous display of Louis’ opulence is the Palace of Versailles, the largest palace in France which the King commissioned to be built as his royal residence. 

Initially the grounds of a modest hunting lodge, built by Louis XIII, the 2,300-room palace is known to be one of the most extravagant buildings in the world. 

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The Sun King is thought to have shelled out £1.5billion in today’s money on the building to create the building of his dreams.

Louis would host up to 10,000 royals, aristocrats, and courtiers in the enormous 700-room building.

The Hall of Mirrors — previously known as the Grand Gallery — was one of the most infamous rooms in the palace and was intended to represent the power of the absolute monarch.

The emblematic room features 17 arches filled with 357 mirrors and 43 chandeliers hanging throughout the 37-metre hall.

The grandeur of the Palace of Versailles influenced developments across Europe, including the palaces of Caserta in Italy, Würzburg in Germany and the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Sweden.

After 72 years on the throne, Louis XIV died in September 1715. 

He was buried in the Saint-Denis Basilica, and the throne passed to his great-grandson Louis XV, aged five. 

Louis XV seemingly adopted his great-grandfather’s reign longevity, serving as king for 58 years. 

King Louis XIV’s reign — Grand Siècle — remains synonymous with the splendour of Versailles and the glory of France.

As Mr Lewis-Stempel said: “Thanks to Louis XIV France is France. 

“And France is the world’s leading tourist destination. 

“Not a bad result for a guy in heels.”

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