The Sun king: sensitive type


“Nothing succeeds like excess” should have been the personal motto of King Louis XIV of France. His long reign (1643-1715) was a triumph of overstatement in everything from the flowerbeds at Versailles, whose plants were changed every day, to the royal breakfasts, where the monarch gorged on a banquet large enough to have nourished several families for a week. Flattery, on a scale undreamt of since the days of Nero or Caligula, sustained a dual epiphany of the god-king, either as a benign Apollo charioted amid pasteboard clouds at the climax of a court ballet, or as warrior Mars astride a caracoling charger, trampling Flanders and the Palatinate beneath its hooves.

Splash, dash and panache, however, were not quite so much Louis’s style where women were concerned. Among several arresting aspects of Antonia Fraser’s book is the paradox which reconciles one of history’s most image-conscious rulers with a more reserved individual, capable of loyalty and discretion in affairs of the heart and not a complete stranger to emotion. Louis was a tyrant, with all the selfishness intrinsic to his position, but he was never a monster, and women were plainly drawn to him by something stronger than the banal magnetism of absolute power.

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