1 September 1715: Louis XIV succumbs to gangrene

The Sun King’s death marks the end of French ascendancy


There had never been a more splendid king of France than Louis XIV. Feared and admired across Europe, the Sun King was the most powerful monarch of his day, ruling a country that had become by far the continent’s most formidable political, military and cultural force. Yet behind the mask of power, Louis often suffered from ill health. He probably had diabetes, as well as dental abscesses, gout and, most embarrassingly, an anal fistula which required painful surgery.

In August 1715, about a month before his 77th birthday, the elderly French king spent a pleasant day hunting. But when he returned to Versailles, he felt an agonising pain in his leg and consulted his doctor. The doctor diagnosed sciatica, but the pain got worse, and soon Louis’ leg began to turn black. That was a very bad sign: he had senile gangrene, a condition that is often associated with diabetes.

By 25 August, St Louis’ Day, the king was confined to bed, and his condition rapidly worsened. By the next day the gangrene had reached his bone, and Louis asked to see his five-year-old great-grandson, who would succeed him as Louis XV. As king the little boy should avoid war at all costs, he told his successor thickly, for “it is the ruin of the people”.

By 30 August Louis had slipped into unconsciousness. The royal apartments were put under close guard; all mail to and from the palace was stopped. At last, on 1 September, the Sun King breathed his last. With him passed the era of French supremacy.

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Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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