At the end of Characters of the Reformation, Hilaire Belloc sums up Louis XIV in war and religion: the War of Spanish Succession (in which England took part during the reign of Queen Anne), French aid to the Jacobites, and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. As Belloc had begun his book with the portrait of Henry VIII, a monarch who sought to impose his will on his countrymen, he concludes with Louis XIV, who attempted to impose his will on France, Spain, England, and the faith of his subjects:
The last piece of fighting at the very end of Louis XIV's reign turned upon the succession to the huge Spanish Empire at home and beyond the Atlantic. This had been left by will to the grandson of Louis XIV, and Louis XIV determined to maintain that grandson's claims. He succeeded in this. The Spanish Empire was governed by that younger branch of his family for a hundred years to come. In the struggle, the Spanish Netherlands, which Louis had claimed to govern, with their capital at Brussels, were taken out of the Spanish Empire and given to Austria, in whose hands they remained until the wars of the French Revolution.
Belloc notes that Louis did what was better for Louis and France, not what would strengthen the Catholic Church in Europe:
Regarded therefore politically, Louis XIV's reign as a whole was the triumph of himself as a person, and of the French power. Though not the triumph of the Catholic cause in Europe which as we have seen was divided, at any rate his rule established the maintenance of preponderant Catholic power in Europe. But France only achieved this position at the expense to Catholic culture of continually supporting the smaller Protestant powers in Germany against the Empire. Even in the English struggle Louis XIV was lukewarm. When the issue lay between the success or failure of James II in Catholic Ireland, Louis XIV, though willing to help his cousin, only consented to do so in a very half-hearted fashion, with few men —-just enough to keep up the Catholic resistance in Ireland, but not enough to make that resistance finally successful.
Perhaps it is appropriate that Belloc ends with Louis XIV, for he believes that Louis' revocation of the Edict of Nantes was a tactical error that led to exactly the opposite of what the king intended:
If we turn from the political side to the purely religious, we find in Louis XIV's reign the source of nearly all that has followed on the Catholic side in Western Europe from that time onward, and particularly the source of what has happened in France.
The situation stood thus when Louis XIV had come to the throne as a boy: French Protestantism, led by many of the great nobles, backed by their wealth, and numerically strong all over the place, but especially in the south, was in a kind of hostile truce against the rest of the nation and of the Catholic monarchy which governed it. But socially things were going in favour of the old religion. As the young King increased in power, won victories beyond the frontiers and led his French civilization which morally dominated Western Europe, the greater and lesser Protestant nobles began to waver. Their religious feelings had never been so strong as their political, and indifference or conversion became commoner and commoner among them.
It is probable that if the pressure had been allowed to go on uninterruptedly it would have ended in the disappearance of most of the Huguenot centres, and France would have been as uniform in culture as England later became upon the other side. But at a critical moment about halfway through the reign, a grave error was committed. The King thought he could hasten the process of unity and proceeded to outlaw the Calvinist religion in his dominions. Men professing Calvinism could no longer hold office or officer's rank. Every obstacle was put in the way of the practice of the Calvinist religion, even in private, and a worse feature was the quartering of troops upon recalcitrant districts, especially in the central mountains where Protestantism had a hold upon the middle and lower middle classes, and even, in some places, upon the peasantry.
The sufferings and brutalities accompanying this policy have been exaggerated, as such things always are, but they were very great. A considerable number of the French Protestants who could afford to do so, emigrated. Those who remained behind, many of them very wealthy men holding a disproportionate number of posts in the commerce and finance of the country, were roused to a tradition of hatred against the monarchy, and of course to still stronger hatred of the traditional national religion. It was from this that, later on, the opposition to the principle of monarchy in France, and the fashionable anti-clericalism of the eighteenth century proceeded.
This sudden decision of Louis XIV to impose unity by force is known as " The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes," because, a lifetime before, it was by an edict called the "Edict of Nantes" that the French Protestants had been given their privileges, when the great religious wars had ended in a sort of truce.
It was with this " Revocation of the Edict of Nantes," as with so many other things in history. An apparent success proved, in the long run, not only to be a failure, but the weakening and threatened destruction of what had seemed to be the successful side.
Belloc began this book with the notion that if England would have remained Catholic--if Henry VIII had not broken away from the universal Catholic Church--then the Protestant Reformation might have failed and would not have divided Christendom. Catholic reforms and reiterated, clarified teaching could have addressed the issues and the Church could have been stronger and even more influential. From that what might have been, Belloc then proceeded to highlight the great men and women of the English Reformation era--the best part of the book in my opinion--and then to show how French rulers like Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIV prevented a more unified Catholic response, in the Holy Roman Empire and in Europe after the end of the Thirty Years War.
Belloc, half French and half-English but all Catholic, thus sees how those two countries damaged and divided Christendom, and left Europe in a "Drawn Battle" which would weaken response to anti-religious philosophies and movements in later centuries:
When Louis XIV died the "Drawn Battle" appeared to have been settled once and for all on its last lines. The small but vigorous Protestant culture had been maintained, and was in possession of Great Britain, Scandinavia and a large minority of the German-speaking people; but the Catholic culture was still overwhelmingly the most numerous in Europe, and seemed secure from further molestation.
As is nearly always the case, the thing which seemed obvious to contemporaries was, as a fact, an illusion. Catholic culture in Europe was to meet a new foe within its own body, to wit, the sceptical anti-religious movement which has marked all the last two hundred years in France and Italy. The small Protestant powers were destined to increase vastly in political strength, and still more in wealth through commerce and activity overseas. But all that was for the future.
The death of Louis XIV may be taken to be the final term of the great see-saw struggle of the seventeenth century. The "Drawn Battle" had resulted by 1715 in the position I have described.
So neither side won but both sides lost. But we know that Christ has won the victory through His Cross and Resurrection. Unfortunately, this "Drawn Battle" of the early modern era weakened His Church's efforts to proclaim that victory and all it means for life on earth.