A new biography of “the most legendary king ever to sit on the throne of France.”
In this surprisingly dry treatment, British biographer Wilkinson (The Princes in the Tower: Did Richard III Murder His Nephews, Edward V & Richard of York?, 2015, etc.) focuses more on the king’s romantic entanglements than on his acts and legacy. For a staggering 72 years, Louis XIV (1638-1715) reigned over an efflorescent France, inheriting the throne at age 4 in 1643 and ruling until just shy of age 77 in 1715. Early on during his reign, he was under the wing of his regent mother, Anne, and influential minister Cardinal Mazarin, and he saw France through numerous costly wars with his European neighbors, conflicts that allowed the country to enjoy political predominance, key annexations, and a flourishing French culture. Schooled by the Jesuits and in the statecraft of the crafty Mazarin, Louis liked the work of running a country and decided to do it himself, breaking with precedent and dispensing with a first minister. He had learned that his noble sycophants, such as the superintendent of finances, Nicolas Fouquet, were robbing him blind, and he embraced his kingly role with relish. Moreover, he desired that France be self-sufficient in various industries and became a fervent patron of French arts and culture, establishing royal academies of dance and letters and subsidizing the work of playwright Molière and composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. Too much of Wilkinson’s plodding narrative details the romantic court intrigues, including Louis’ extramarital affairs with Louise de La Vallière and Madame de Montespan, and his happy late-life second marriage to the governess of the royal children, Madame de Maintenon. Sadly, the romance rarely sizzles, and the author doesn’t provide enough big-picture analysis of significant points in his subject’s life—e.g., his stoking of the War of Spanish Succession.
Wilkinson offers little in the way of passion or illumination to enliven this account of the dazzling reign of the Sun King.