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The French Monarchy of 18th century was very different from the British Monarchy. The British had a Parliamentary Democracy, with a King to whom they could look to for guidance and tradition, to rule.

In France, the Monarchs based their power on the feudal system of Divine Right of kings. They were not subject to the laws and guidelines, set down by the Parliament, as their English counterparts were required to by law.

The State of France

The political and social state of France during the 18th century, was as follows:

  • France had the largest population in Europe and could not feed it adequately.
  • The rich and expanding bourgeoisie was excluded from political power more systematically than in any other country.
  • Peasants were acutely aware of their situation and were less and less inclined to support the anachronistic and burdensome feudal system.
  • Philosophers, who advocated social and political reform, were read more widely in France than elsewhere.

This situation and the French participation in the American Revolutionary War would complete the ruin of the state's finances, and the eruption of the French Revolution. This Revolution caused the downfall of the Monarchy and degenerated into at first anarchy and finally to the dictatorship of Napoleon.

Bourbon Line

1643-1715 Louis XIV
Until 1661 the government was largely in the hands of the wily Italian Cardinal Mazarin. At the cardinal's death, Louis declared that he would be his own prime minister. From then on, he worked faithfully at his "trade of a king."

He would epitomize the true ruler, in form and function. He was a king who truly believed in his theory of absolute monarchy (L'etat c'est moi, "I am the state"). This theory is based upon the Old Testament example of rulers divinely appointed by God and as such, only answerable to God. Thus, the King was not bound by the dictates of mere princes and Parliaments.

Life in the court was organized around the Kings daily routine. Thus, etiquette became the "real constitution of France." It required seven persons, some of them the highest princes of the realm, to put the king's shirt on him when he got up (levee) in the morning. This theory would ultimately bring the downfall of the Bourbons as rulers of France.

This extravagance of the court meant a heavy burden of taxation for the common people, who were thereby reduced to a misery so great that they eventually rose up in rebellion and drove the Bourbons from the throne.

To make his court as brilliant as it was extravagant, the King spent millions to build and maintain the palace of Versailles, near Paris, which became a model and the despair of other less rich and powerful princes. Thus, he became known as the Great Monarch, the Sun King.

Despite the fact that during his reign, Canada and Louisiana were added to the French Empire. Louis XIV neglected the opportunities that he had gained in America and India. The King had a passion for fame and the desire to increase French territory in Europe. The king paved the way for the outbreak of the French Revolution, by involving France in wars that ruined the country financially.

Louis XIV had the distinction of ruling longer than any other European king: it was 72 years from the time when he ascended the throne, as a child of less than 5, until his death in 1715. The Grand Monarch, who had outlived both his son and his son's son, was succeeded by his 5-year-old great-grandson, Louis XV, the last son of the duke of Burgundy.

1715-74 Louis XV
The luxurious court of Louis XIV was continued under Louis XV. The evils from which the country suffered were clearly recognized, but by the time the king grew up, he was too lazy and selfish to try to remedy them.

Misgovernment was common at home, and the position of France abroad was lowered by the loss of its colonial possessions in India and America. These misfortunes, however, made little impression on the king, whose attitude was expressed in the phrase, "After me the deluge!"

1774-92 Louis XVI was awkward and timid; no man could have appeared less like a king than did Louis XVI, who was 20 years old when he came to the throne. He seemed more out of place in the brilliant and polished court of which he was the center.

Louis realized this and often wished, even before the Revolution, that he were only a common man. He was a good horseman, fond of hunting, and delighted in making and mending locks.

Nevertheless, he was more often under the influence of the beautiful but frivolous and extravagant queen, Marie Antoinette. He was also swayed by his selfish courtiers, who opposed any financial reforms that would threaten their graft and pensions and life of ease. They soon persuaded the king to dismiss his able minister.

When Louis the XVI came to the thrown an attempt to solve Frances financial problems by entrusting the management of the finances of the kingdom to Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune, one of France's greatest of statesmen. As long as the king followed his minister's advice, the state of the kingdom was improved.

Louis's greatest fault was that he was always ready to listen to and follow the advice of others. When this advice was good, all went well; but in the latter part of Louis's reign the advice was bad and it cost the king his life.

To read more on the Kings of France From the Palace of Versailles website by following the listed links below. 

Louis XIV
Louis XV
Louis XVI

Some resources used in this article came from the following:

(1) Copyright © 1995 Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpted from Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia Copyright © 1993, 1994 Compton's NewMedia, Inc.