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The Sun King and Holy War: MMU Remembers French King Louis XIV

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By Jacqueline Grima

Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) Humanities in Public Festival continued this week with an event entitled ‘The Sun King and Holy War’. The event, hosted by MMU’s Senior Lecturer in History Dr Jonathan Spangler, focussed on the reign of one of the most remembered and longest serving monarchs in European history, King Louis XIV of France.

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the death of the King, a memorable figure who came to the throne at the tender age of five after the death of his father. Reigning for an unprecedented 72 years, he was portrayed numerous times in art as a glamorous, god-like figure, whose reputation as the ‘Sun King’ could be seen throughout the lavish decoration of his famous Palace of Versailles.

Before the event, Jonathan told Humanity Hallows: “During tonight’s event we want to get an idea of the public perception of Louis XIV, to see what people, as opposed to historians, remember about him.”

Asked why the king is so well-remembered, he added: “He was built up so big, so large and so fast that he really made his mark in history. He wanted to be immortal and, ultimately, that is what he achieved.”

In his opening speech, Jonathan gave the audience some background about the king’s life, referring to his marriage, aged 20, to the Infanta Maria Teresa of Spain and to his apparent love of ballet, opera and the arts. He stressed, however, that much of the King’s public persona was “All just about show and display”, adding, “Early modern portraits are not always about truth, they are about representation.”

Jonathan went on to introduce the first speaker of the evening, Dr Anne Byrne, who is currently working on a British Academy Research Fellowship about Louis XIV. Anne’s presentation, entitled ‘The Sun Sets: Death, Glory and Louis XIV’ focussed on the time the King reluctantly spent on his death bed in 1715. Ann said: “He maintained a show of normality for as long as he possibly could. He insisted on going to mass even if he had to be carried there in a chair.”DSCF0715

Ann also discussed the possibility that the King may have expressed regret at the end of his life regarding his campaign against France’s protestant community and his involvement in numerous wars that led to many deaths. Summoning his young grandson, who was to be his successor, to his bedside, Louis allegedly said: “You will need to avoid war as much as possible. War is the ruin of the people. Do not imitate me. Be a peaceful king.”

Ann added: “He is offering a definition of kingship that is entirely at odds with his own reign.”

She also went on to say that, after the King’s death, the French people were so “war-weary” and tired of his absolute monarchical rule that very few actually mourned his passing.

The next speaker of the evening was MMU Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Dr Lloyd Strickland, whose talk focussed on ‘Holy War’. Before his presentation, Lloyd told Humanity Hallows:

“What I’m going to talk about tonight is a plan for war against Islam that, in a race against time, was presented to Louis XIV but that didn’t actually go ahead.”

He went on to tell the audience how, in the 1670s, Louis wanted to invade Holland, a plan that was immensely controversial as the Germans “did not want war on their doorstep.” Thus, an alternative plan, for Louis to invade Egypt was devised by philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz, who went to great lengths to present the plan to the king, insisting it would “make him the greatest monarch of the century” and ruin the Dutch economically.

Despite Leibniz being invited to meet with the King in 1672, the plans for the invasion of Egypt failed to go ahead. This was due to the English already having begun an invasion of Holland, with the French later joining the war.

Other speakers at the event included Dr Phil McCluskey from the University of Hull, who discussed Louis XIV’s challenging relationship with the Ottomans and Dr Mark Bryant from the University of Chichester, who focussed on the King’s ‘Private and Spiritual Life’ and, in particular his relationship with his second wife, Madame De Maintenon.

Also present was Professor Daniel Szechi from the University of Manchester whose presentation focussed on Louis’ relationship with the Jacobites whose plans for a rebellion he supported shortly before his death in 1715.

DSCF0722Daniel said: “The King may have expressed regret about war on his deathbed but he seemed fine about setting up one last one before he died.”

He added: “The Jacobite movement was dominated by Protestants and they had a completely protestant agenda but Louis backed them.”

The event concluded with a lively question and answer session.

The ‘WAR’ strand of the Humanities in Public Festival continues on Thursday 5th November with the unveiling of an exhibition entitled ‘The Lost Boys: Remembering the Boy Soldiers of the First World War’. For more information and tickets, please see the Humanities in Public website.

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