Tuesday 25 August 2015

DEATH OF THE SUN KING by Eleanor Updale

300 years ago today Louis XIV to took to his bed for the last time. His legs had been hurting for a while and his doctor thought he had sciatica. In fact it was senile gangrene. Louis' extremities were turning black. The disease is caused by the gradual death of peripheral blood vessels, and it is not a pretty sight.
If you want to see pictures of what it looks like you know how to Google for them. Here's a little (rather more tasteful) taster:

Discolouration and decomposition of the right foot
Watercolour by Barbara E. Nicholson, 1947.

Not a good look - but it's nothing like as bad as the real thing, which I have had the misfortune to see in someone who was dying.
The doctors have longer and less apocalyptic names for senile gangrene these days - among them, is postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome II (not to be confused with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome I, which is something quite different). Its short name is Pott II syndrome, which sounds quite jolly, but suffice it to say that if your legs start to rot, you know the game is up.
Nevertheless, Louis went out in the style for which he will forever be famous. His servants dressed him up, complete with a high wig, and for a week he held court from his bed, repeatedly saying his last farewells and yet failing to die until the first day of September. He was almost 77 and had reigned for 72 years.
I don't know about you, but I was never told anything about the deathbed scene when I was at school, nor have I read about it much in accounts of the Sun King's reign since then. 

Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659–1743), ‘Louis XIV, King of France (1701),
Musee du Louvre, Paris. Image: Wikimedia commons

Louis XIV must be one of the best examples of image protection in European history. It's hard to picture him as an invalid literally decaying in his own bed. And what a miracle it seems that his dynasty managed to cling on to power almost to the end of the eighteenth century, despite the fact that, in 1715, Louis had outlived most of his legitimate descendants, and was passing on the throne to a great-grandchild who was only five years old. We have been so conditioned to see the collapse of the French monarchy as inevitable that it's easy to underestimate the achievement of the regency which followed Louis XIV's death, and of king Louis XV himself, who reigned for almost as long as his great-grandfather. 

The First Homage to Louis XV
Wikimedia images

But even more of a triumph is the way popular culture remembers Louis XIV as the Sun King: an autocrat perhaps, but somehow a 'good' one. The conventional portrayal is of a dashing monarch who employed and championed great artists, architects, gardeners, scientists and writers. No doubt one of the reasons he did those things was to forge the very image of himself which has endured. But as well as treasuring the cultural achievements of France during his reign,we should perhaps admire the brand management of those who came after him and made sure that, despite the Revolution of 1789, we still picture Louis XIV as a man with an elegant silk-clad calf, and not as an ageing despot hiding his festering legs under the sheets.



Leslie Wilson said...

A fascinating blog, Eleanor, and insightful.
Nancy Mitford describes Louis's very movingly in her 'The Sun KIng,' a book I read avidly in my teens, and now possess. I suspect her historical research is sometimes a little driven by her inclinations, but she seems to have got that right.
Yes, image management. Louis was a warmonger and ravaged Germany, which was only just recovering from the devastation of the Thirty Years War - or was that the final stage of it. He also went to war with Spain, I seem to remember, in the War of Spanish succession? But of course, it was considered admirable in a monarch to go to war, wasn't it, in those days?
I was taught that the withdrawal of the Court to Versailles was definitely a nail in the coffin of the French monarchy, and yet, as you say, it endured for rather a long time after that. And you've made me reflect that most of the dynasties who built their out-of-town chateaux in imitation of Versailles survived rather longer than the Bourbons in France, so perhaps it was down to bad harvests and financial mismanagement under the sixteenth Louis. On the other hand, the deracination of the French aristocracy from their country estates was maybe more thorough than in other countries, particularly in Britain?
One thing that fascinated me about the latter end of Louis' life was that it was only through the dedication of Louis the Fifteenth's nurse that the Bourbon monarchy survived in France - a demonstration of the dangers of measles that it carried off almost all the heirs to the French throne.

Leslie Wilson said...

Louis' death, that should have been, above