Shadow Of The Sun King



As we approach the 300th anniversary of the death of Louis XIV, Professor Julian Swann assesses the Sun King's life and achievements - and also examines his key role in unwittingly spurring Britain to become a global super-power.

In the first of two programmes, Swann travels to Paris to visit many of the sites that can claim to be haunted by Louis XIV's legacy - from Versailles and the Louvre to the Palais Royal and Les Invalides.

Louis has often been portrayed as a kind of totalitarian dictator within France and a triumphant warlord abroad. Swann argues that he was neither. As King, he was dependent on negotiating power-sharing with France's nobles - the splendour of Versailles was a political honey-trap, designed to entice the nobility rather than intimidate them. The glorious, glamorous picture we have of Louis was largely the result of frighteningly modern PR on the part of his right-hand man, Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

Abroad, the Sun King's obsessive military adventurism all but bankrupted the country, leaving Louis deeply regretful on his deathbed. His persecution of France's Huguenot Protestants was an appalling own goal, alienating other European powers and seriously harming the French economy.

However, Louis remains one of the most significant monarchs in European history, not least as he embedded a sense of France's greatness into the national consciousness.

It's intriguing to reflect then that the Sun King's birth was the result of a very rare liaison between his parents, that France was in utter chaos when he was a child - and that his coronation was a fiasco.

Produced by Andrew Green

A Singing Wren production for BBC Radio 4.


As we approach the 300th anniversary of the death of Louis XIV, Professor Julian Swann uses a string of historic London locations to tell the story of Louis XIV's major role in the making of modern Britain.

In this second of two programmes, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, Guildhall, Spitalfields, Trafalgar Square and many other sites reveal how resisting the Sun King's military adventurism shaped Britain's parliamentary system and its economy.

Swann tells the story of how the Dutch prince, William of Orange, assembled an invasion force to wrest the Catholic James II from the English throne. His main aim was to ensure Protestant England joined the alliance of European powers fighting Louis XIV. He achieved that objective, but at the price of surrendering key powers as joint-monarch to parliament. Thus, our constitutional monarchy was established, with parliament overseeing all key aspects of government policy.

Finding the cash to fight the Sun King spawned the Bank of England. This was the vital instrument for ensuring, via the National Debt, that Britain's long-term fight against France could be afforded - all the way up to Waterloo.

Swann also considers that the need to protect Britain's growing international trade from the threat of Louis XIV's France was a major factor in the development of empire, and that Britain's industrial revolution was a by-product of the innovation required to resist Louis XIV and his successors.

Triumphant at Waterloo, Britain could look back at Louis XIV's reign as the starting-point for her rise to global superpower status.

Produced by Andrew Green

A Singing Wren production for BBC Radio 4.