Further Reading: The Sun King at War

By Bill Gray 19 Jun 2019 2

Bottom line – if you like games like AGEOD’s Wars of Succession, Matrix’s Pike & Shot, Compass’ No Peace without Spain and any related pewter rules, read these books. This period of history is often defined by a single man, Lord Churchill First Duke of Marlborough, and his four great battle, three and one half (I’m being very generous here with Malplaquet) of which he won, over a period of but five years.

In reality it was far more than that and properly centers around the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, a man who ruled his country for 72 years and 110 days. This is longer than any monarch in European history, and included the end of the Thirty Years War, a civil war (Fronde), two minor wars (Devolution and Reunion) and three major conflicts (Franco-Dutch, League of Augsburg and Spanish Succession).

Through it all the French military evolved from an afterthought to the most professional, well drilled force in Europe. Only a combination of incompetent leadership and the unquestioned genius of Marlborough could defeat it, and when either of those two were absent, disaster often befell the Sun King’s enemy’s. This happened post-Marlborough at Denain 1712, a battle so decisive it forced the Grand Alliance, as opposed to Louis, to the peace table. Its honor regained, and until the advent of a pesky little Prussian upstart named “Fritz,” the military of the Sun King faithfully upheld his personal motto of Nec Pluribus Impar“None are Equal, None are Greater.”

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Recommended Reading

Sun King 1

Giant of the Grand Siècle – the French Army 1610 – 1715 (2006) (Link)

Author: John A Lynn PhD
Page: 672
Price: $68.90 Paperback

If you could only read one book on this period, this would be it. This is the ultimate study of what made the French army tick during this period, and how it became the proverbial 800 lb gorilla in the room.

Also, as an American scholar, Lynn is able to provide a far more objective assessment than British authors whose works were the only thing available to English speakers previously. Conferred Best History Book Prize for 2018 by Amazon.

Sun King 2The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667 – 1714 (1999) (Link)

Author: John A Lynn PhD
Pages: 421
Price: $50.82 Paperback

Unlike the tome above, which concentrates on the actual military forces of France, this book looks at its performance in the field through the Sun King’s various conflicts. As such it validates the period as a continuum of conflict, not an era defined only by the War of Spanish Succession.

Also an Amazon Award winner, a more mass market version was written by the author for the Osprey Essential History Series as The French Wars 1667 – 1714, the Sun King at War in 2002, 96 pages, $18.97 or $8.69 on Kindle.

Sun King 3The Northern Wars: War, State and Society in Northeastern Europe 1558 – 1721 (2000) (Link)

Author: Robert I Frost 
Pages: 416 
Price: $56.90 Paperback 

Yet another 2018 Amazon Award recipient. What Lynn did for the French, Frost does for the neighborhood bully of the Baltic, Sweden, especially as it pertains to the rule of Charles XII. The book centers on Clausewitz’s triad of military, government and people thru 1721, the end of the Great Northern War which ran concurrently with the War of Spanish Succession.

The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough (1994) (Link

Author: David G Chandler
Pages: 317 
Price: $18.96 Hardcover

This is a nuts and bolts presentation of how the armies back then did business at both the operational and tactical levels of war. Written by one of the literary giants of military history, its only flaw is its typical, but slight, cult of Marlborough bias.

sun king 5The Fortress in the Age of Vauban and Frederick the Great 1660 - 1789 (2017) (Link)

Author: Christopher Duffy
Pages: 336 pages
Price: $43.95 Paperback

Another Amazon Award winner. No reading list would be complete without a look at France’s Siegemaster, the incomparable Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. His geometric, field of fire deadly, star fortress designs secured the borders of France and its armies’ logistics infrastructure. His genius in the use of parallels during investment insured no other country had the same advantage.

Fire & Stone, the Science of Fortress Warfare 1660 – 1860, Christopher Duffy (2006) is a more user friendly overview and also available. Surprisingly, Amazon also has an English version of Vauban’s A Manual of Siegecraft and Fortification, George A Rothrock translator (1968) at 184 pages, $40.99.

Weapons and Equipment of the Marlborough Wars (1980) (Link)

Author: Anthony Kemp
Pages: 172
Price: $65.00 Hardcover

Another down in the weeds look at how the armies fought, but with the added benefit of a solid look at the equipment and weapons they fought with, and why. This is an older book, and thus some of the information once thought accurate has now been debunked (cue eyewitness account of Platoon Fire compared to Fire by Rank), while national tactical norms have now been found not nearly as consistent as once thought.

Nevertheless, still some very useful information about why armies did what they did back then. Note: some used versions are available on Amazon for far less.

sun king 7Century of the Soldier (Series)

Publisher: Helion & Company

An 'honourable mention', this British firm’s series takes a look at this entire period of history with seven Amazon page's worth of books published to date. You'll want to start with Mark Allen’s 124 page tome, Armies and Enemies of Louis XIV,  Volume 1: Western Europe 1688-1714: France, Britain, Holland, published this year.

This is full color glossy, organization, OB, uniform and flag detail for wargamers type stuff, though sadly very few have come to Kindle. Pricing starts at $29.93 for the paperback.

Other Suggestions

Pike & Shot Society (Link)

The Society’s Premium Publication series is primarily concerned with the armies, uniforms and flags of the Sun King and his adversaries. Print runs are small, color plates superb, so cost is anything but cheap, for paperback £50.00 (Public) £32.50 (Members). There are two volumes on the Dutch Army, one each for the Spanish, Austrian, Savoy, Upper Rhine Circle, Electoral Palatine militaries while Louis’ lads have a volume each for cavalry, infantry, dragoons and artillery plus a supplement.

Think the Helion series on steroids. Seriously, these books discuss uniforms via 1701 clothing contracts and list every Colonel that commanded each regiment. Its where I discovered the French Regiment Navarre (called “diabolical” by its foes) took six battle flags from the British Foot Guards during a bayonet charge while acting as the rear guard at Malplaquet.

Gallica, the French National Library (Link)

The country’s Bibliotheque Nationale has a huge and excellent online collection to include period maps in ultra-high resolution, all downloadable for free. The site has all of the “famous” Public Domain material covering this era, such as Count Schulenburg’s memoires or the Austrian General Staff’s multi-volume Feldzuge von Prinzen Eugen von Savoyen, just like Google and the Internet Archive.

However, because its French it offers so much more as regards Gallic research into the period. For instance, when I was looking for sources for the 1677 battle for Cassel between the French and Dutch, damned if Gallica didn’t have Smyttere’s Livre La bataille du Val-de-Cassel de 1677 from 1865. If nothing else, the maps showed me where Matrix’s Pike & Shot got their unit and terrain graphics.

Finally, don’t let the pricing put you off. Amazon often has multiple vendors selling used editions for less under the same listing. Life is good.

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