Louis XIII: The Making of a King
To write a royal biography in the dying years of the twentieth century looks at first blush like an almost willful exercise in nostalgia. How remote the majority of these figures of kings and queens now seem, trapped for all eternity by the starched protocol of the courts in which they passed their often inconsequential lives! Yet here are three more royal biographies to join the apparently interminable procession. One is the biography of a queen consort of England, one the partial biography of a king of France, and the third the biography of another queen consort, his long-suffering wife. None of them, however, falls into the category of popular, or romanticizing, biography. All are the work of serious scholars, and the product of many years of research. Between them, they suggest that there is life in royal biography yet.
The revival of historical biography within the academic establishment may owe something to a reaction against the results of the laborious attempts of recent years to rewrite on a more scientific basis the annals of the anonymous majority. Miracles have been worked in the reconstruction of the history of large groups of men and women, but in the process of analysis and quantification, the individual has been lost. If there is now an understandable yearning to hear more distinctly individual voices from the past, this is most easily satisfied when exceptional circumstances or exceptional status yield a rich personal dossier. No status was more exceptional than that of royalty, and the relative profusion of records (however deficient in many, and often surprising, respects) offers monarchs some clear initial advantages in the biographical stakes.
But there are other, and perhaps better, reasons why the monarchs of ancien régime Europe are attracting renewed attention. As fashions in historical writing change, and politics and the exercise of power move once again to center stage, there is a fresh, and in some ways sharper, appreciation of the central place of the court and its occupants in the articulation and organization of the monarchical societies of early modern Europe. Fear and favor, obligation and patronage were the forces that held these societies together, operating by way of a complex network of personal relationships, all of them ultimately converging on the person of the monarch. Every kind of power—legal and administrative, military and symbolic—was embodied in the monarch, but its potential had to be realized, and this was best achieved by rulers who understood how to play the system, using it to transmit their wishes through the network of personal relationships in order to command obedience in society at large. Politics, in other words, required the art of management, and management depended heavily on the personality of the manager.
Royal personality, or the lack of it, was therefore a critical element in the functioning of the body politic, and an interest in personality is consequently as important for the historian of these monarchical societies as it was for the courtier or the foreign ambassador …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.