Gary McCollim posted a review of Régner et gouverner: Louis XIV et ses ministres (Reigning and Governing: Louis XIV and his Ministers) by Thierry Sarmant and Mathieu Stoll to the Louis XIV Yahoo group. He went into detail because the book is only available in French. The subject of the king’s professional life and his co-workers sounds very interesting. Thank you, Gary (as always)!

His review: 

As the Louis XIV group is devoted to Louis XIV and spends most of its time dealing with the king’s social life, court life, and the external affairs of France at the time, I thought we might like to look at Louis XIV’s professional life. The king worked every day at being king, governing France, making decisions, consulting with his advisors, etc. In the last 25 years of his reign he spent at least six hours every day on affairs of state.

Sarmant and Stoll have made an excellent attempt to survey the way France was governed from the center during Louis XIV’s personal reign. While he became king in 1643 at age 4, Louis XIV did not assume the reins of government until the death of Cardinal Mazarin on 9 March 1661. Thereafter, until his death on 1 September 1715, Louis XIV was his own prime minister. The period between 9 March 1661 and 1 September is called the personal reign of Louis XIV. This book discusses how he actually ran France, his ministers, how they interrelated, and how things worked.

During his personal reign, there were sixteen men who held the title Minister of State. They were the members of the Conseil d’en haut (sometimes called the Council of Ministers). There were never less than 3 non-royal members of this body and at times as many as five such members. Three of these sixteen men would be disgraced: Foucquet, Pomponne in 1679, and Chamillart in 1709. However, Pomponne was called back in 1691 and died as a minister in 1699. Two of these men retired from the government: Le Peletier who served from 1683 until his retirement in September 1697, he would not die until 1711 and Louis de Pontchartrain who served as a minister of state from 1690 until 1714 when he retired dying in 1727. Four members of this council were surviving when the king died in 1715: Torcy, Desmaretz, Voysin and Villeroy. The other eight died in office.

Sarmant and Stoll extend the definition of minister beyond these sixteen men to include any government official who met regularly with the king on official business. Thus, they include the Chancellor, the four Secretaries of State, the finance minister, the Surintendant des Bâtiments, the director of fortifications, the members of the Royal Council of Finances, and the intendants of finances who worked under the finance minister. Thus, instead of sixteen men who met with the king, there was a total of 59 men who could be considered ministers by this definition. That number is misleading because several of these men were holdovers from the Mazarin period who were quickly replaced as Louis XIV extended his management of the government. The total is more like 53 men.

Sarmant and Stoll start with a summary history of the government as it evolved under Louis XIV and then they begin discussing any changes that can be distinguished. For example, the office of Chancellor was reduced in importance under Louis XIV but maintained as the king’s legal advisor, the keeper of the seals, the enforcer of censorship, and overseer of all royal academies. Not all Chancellors (there were six men in this office during Louis XIV’s personal reign) were members of the Council of Ministers, but they all worked with the king on a regular basis. Louis XIV tolerated Séguier, the man who had been Chancellor since 1633 and was 73 years old in 1661, but he did not replace him immediately. The Chancellorship became a reward for long service to the crown. Séguier’s eventual successor, Étienne d’Aligre, was 80 years old when he became Keeper of the Seals in 1672 and 82 when he became Chancellor in 1674. Michel Le Tellier was 74 years old when he became Chancellor in 1677 but he had been a minister of state since the beginning in March 1661.

Not all four Secretaries of State were equal in authority. The Secretary of State for Protestant affairs (the Religion Prétendue Réformée) never sat on the Council of MInisters and had very little to do after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. While the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs was always a member of the Council of Ministers from 1661 to 1715 (a total of four men), they were not very important in terms of funding, government contracting, or employment. The Secretary of State for the Maison du Roi and the Navy sometimes sat on the Council of Ministers and sometimes not depending on the personality of the man in the job and the king’s opinion of the man which changed. Colbert passed the office on to his son Seignelay who held the office from his father’s death in September 1683 until his own untimely death in November 1690. However, Seignelay only joined the Council of Ministers in September 1689. When Louis de Pontchartrain became Chancellor and passed the office of Secretary of State for the Maison du Roi and the Navy to his son Jérôme de Pontchartrain, the latter never sat on the Council of Ministers. Both Seignelay and Jérôme had regular working sessions with the king whether or not they were Ministers of State.

The most important ministers were the war minister (Secretary of State for War) and the finance minister. They had the most money, the most government contracts, and the most employment opportunities. Indeed, Sarmant and Stoll show that the controller general of finances had the largest central bureaucracy employing almost half the total number of jobs in the central government. When we remember that the finance minister also supervised tax collection in the provinces, all the various treasuries, commerce, etc., we recognize that he was the most important minister. The weakness of his office was that he did not control expenses. In other words, the Secretaries of State, the Chancellor, the Surintendant des Bâtiments could all spend money without asking his permission and simply inform him by requesting that he pay these bills. In short, the finance minister was supposed to pay the bills and was constantly trying to persuade his colleagues to reduce their expenditures.

Despite their importance, both the war minister and the finance minister were not automatically members of the Council of Ministers. Louis XIV had five different men serve as war minister, but one of them, Louvois’ son Barbézieux who served from his father’s death in July 1691 until his own early death in January 1701, was never a member of the Council of Ministers, despite the fact that France was at war during 1688-97. Louis XIV had six finance ministers, three of whom became members of the Council of Ministers automatically (Foucquet, Colbert and Le Peletier), but three others had to wait for a short time before entering the council. Louis de Pontchartrain became controller general of finances in September 1689 but did not join the Council of Ministers until November 1690. Chamillart waited from September 1699 until November 1700 and Desmaretz waited from February to November 1708.

One confusing fact for us is that sometimes these people combined offices. In other words, one man held more than one position. Colbert became finance minister in September 1661, Surintendant des Bâtiments in January 1664, and Secretary of State for the Maision du Roi and the Navy in February 1669 and held all three offices until his death. Louvois became de facto Secretary of State for War (his father held the office simultaneously while letting his son do most of the work) in February 1662 and Surintendant des Bâtiments on the death of Colbert in September 1683 and held both offices until his death in July 1691. Louis de Pontchartrain became finance minister in September 1689 and Secretary of State for the Maison du Roi and the Navy in November 1690 resigning both offices when he became Chancellor in September 1699. Chamillart became finance minister in September 1699 and war minister in January 1701 resigning the former in February 1708 and the latter in June 1709. Voysin became war minister in June 1709 and added the Chancellorship in July 1714. He resigned as war minister after the death of Louis XIV and died as Chancellor in 1717.

Readers of Louis XIV’s instructions for his son the Dauphin will note that there were several noblemen who served as ministers. The king had recommended against adding noblemen to the council but apparently changed his mind as time passed. One anomalous position was that of Chef (Head) of the Royal Council of Finances, a council body that met at least once a week and sometimes more often. This office was created by Louis XIV and was held by three aristocrats during his reign: Nicolas de Neufville, maréchal duc de Villeroy from 1661 to 1685, Paul de Saint-Aignan, duc de Beauviller from 1685 to August 1714, and François de Neufville, maréchal-duc de Villeroy from 1714 until the end of the reign. While the first duc de Villeroy was not a member of the Council of Ministers, his son François was as was the duc de Beauviller from 1691 until his death. (And, yes, the latter marshal duc de Villeroy was the same man who was defeated and captured in Italy in 1702 and then defeated again at Ramillies in 1706. There is a story about how he maintained the king’s good opinion when he was such an obvious failure, but I don’t know what it is.)

The last man to inherit the responsibilities of Surintendant de Bâtiments although the title was changed to director general des Bâtiments was Paul de Pardaillon de Gondrin, duc d’Antin from 1708 until his death in 1736. He was an aristocrat as well. Even more important, he was the legitimate son of Madame de Montespan who was made a duke after his father’s death. Louis XIV clearly thought well of his former mistress’s son. He would work with him weekly on royal buildings, construction, repair, gardens, plants, etc.

Sarmant and Stoll point to several developments during the reign of Louis XIV. First, the staffs of these ministries tended to grow and to become permanent. In other words, instead of the staffs being replaced as the ministry changed hands as had been the case before Louis XIV, the staffs became permanent and survived the change of ministers. In addition, the staffs became specialized as they grew meaning that one person was charged with certain responsibilities, kept them, and passed them on to his successors. This is the beginning of bureaucracy where the staff becomes the memory of the government. Archives were created. The staffs developed a hierarchy of positions. Some staff members were so important that they could speak for the minister in his absence.

The strength of this book is the strength of its authors. Thierry Sarmant has written several books on Louvois. Mathieu Stoll did his doctoral work on Claude Le Peletier. Both men were able to incorporate the work of other historians on Pontchartrain and Chamillart. Their weakness is their knowledge of the ministers at the end of the reign.

Louis XIV inherited a group of administrators from Mazarin, most of whom he kept. He was reluctant to dismiss people possibly because he was an innately polite man who did not want to create difficulties for loyal servants. The rare dismissals were the cause of much gossip at court. Foucquet’s disgrace and arrest was the most dramatic of all. Yet, as these men aged and either died or retired, the king had to select people to replace them. His choices were not always good. While several can be discussed, I will limit myself to the most noteworthy bad choice: Michel Chamillart. The king got to know him in the early 1680s because he was a good billiard player with an excellent personality, eager to please, willing to serve, and anxious to be of service. Chamillart rose like a rocket from master of requests to a short tour as a provincial intendant at Rouen before buying a position as intendant of finances in 1690. He became finance minister in September 1699 and war minister in January 1701. Clearly, the king saw him as a potential strong man around whom the government could rally to support the war effort. Instead, Chamillart turned out to be a failure both as war minister and as finance minister. He angered the other ministers by interfering in their affairs. He mismanaged funds and created chaos. He was clearly not competent to the positions he had been occupying. When the generals turned on him in the spring of 1709, Louis XIV was forced to replace his friend.

At the same time, Louis XIV was forced to take on a finance minister whom he regarded as a crook. Nicolas Desmaretz had worked for his uncle Colbert in the finance ministry for almost twenty years learning every aspect of the kingdom’s financial administration. Nonetheless, he was dismissed as an intendant of finances in December 1683 while being accused of taking bribes and kickbacks from government contractors. He would spend the next 20 years out of government as a behind the scenes advisor to the people running France. When Chamillart told the king in 1700 that he was relying on Desmaretz for advice and support, the king is supposed to have said that he (Desmaretz) was a crook (fripon in French). Nevertheless, the king eventually gave Desmaretz a public audience, appointed him director of finances in 1703, and after Chamillart begged to be relieved as finance minister in February 1708, the king was forced to name Desmaretz to the job. Thus, Louis XIV was forced to take on a man who he would rather not have to deal with and then to give up a friend whom he probably wanted to keep.

Sarmant and Stoll refer to one major incident where all the ministers collaborated together… the policy toward the Huguenots. They paint a picture of the king’s determination to end the division within his kingdom and to bring everyone together as good Catholics. All the ministers worked together to support this policy. It was the dream of Catholic France. While particular policies, such as putting dragoons in the houses of Huguenots, were discouraged as going too far, even by people like Louvois, the general policy was to gradually restrict the Huguenots in order to persuade them to become Catholic. In the end, Stoll and Sarmant say Chancellor Le Tellier hurried the process by drawing up the Edict of Fontainebleau that revoked the previous Edict of Nantes in order that he could put his signature on the document before his death. Chancellor Le Tellier, a normally pliant man who was willing to compromise on some issues, did sign the Edict of Fontainebleau on 18 October 1685 and died twelve days later with the satisfaction of having ended the division within France. Stoll and Sarmant discuss this issue to show an example of cooperation and collaboration among the ministers after having discussed their many quarrels over who was responsible for what.