Admirable-Scary King Louis XIV
King Narai told Phaulkon he would give it some thought, then dismissed him and retired to his chamber. He needed time to be alone. He did have a lot on his mind about King Louis XIV of France, even before Phaulkon mentioned him. He had been both baffled and amused by the stories he heard about the French monarch. He and King Louis were so different and yet they were so much alike. He pondered long and hard over his relationship with the French king. He listened keenly to what the missionaries had to say about “The Sun King,” a title that bothered King Narai greatly. Why was he called “The Sun King,” a title reserved for Eastern rulers? The reports about King Louis had been often confusing, mostly those that were presented to him by foreign missionaries. English missionaries, of course, didn’t always agree with the French Jesuits. King Narai had to make his own judgments. He learned that King Louis’ parents, Louis XIII of France and Anne of Austria, had been childless for twenty-three years, and upon the birth of Louis regarded him as a divine gift; hence he was christened “Louis-Dieudonne” or “God-given.” Louis acceded to the throne in 1642, a few months before his fifth birthday, but did not assume actual personal control of the government until the death of his First Minister in 1661, when Louis was twenty-three years old. King Narai admired him for how quickly he took control and increased his power and the influence of France in Europe, fighting one war after another, and in short time he established himself as an absolute monarch. Under his reign, France achieved military pre-eminence over the continent. King Narai was aware of the king’s cultural achievements that contributed to the prestige of France, and this too he admired. One thing that no one could deny, through Louis XIV’s veins ran the blood of many of Europe’s royal houses.
King Narai was pleased when he found that he and King Louis had something in common. Like himself, King Louis was a generous supporter of the arts, dispensing large sums of money to finance the royal court. He was a patron of the arts and funded libraries and many cultural programs. And he had constructed the Chateau de Versailles, the largest and most extravagant monument in Europe, extolling a king and his country. Versailles served as a dazzling and awe-inspiring setting for state affairs and for the reception of foreign dignitaries, the Siamese envoy included. As Narai was later to learn from his envoys, court life centered on magnificence; courtiers lived lives of expensive luxury, dressed with suitable magnificence and constantly attended balls, dinners, performances, and celebrations.
What King Narai did find alarming about Louis XIV was that outside Europe, French colonies abroad were multiplying in the Americas and Africa, and it could be that the French king had designs on Southeast Asia. It was possible. France had laid claim to the basin of the Mississippi River in North America while French Jesuits and missionaries were seen at the Manchu Court in China. It was obvious to the world that Louis XIV succeeded in establishing and increasing the influence and central authority of the King of France, but he did it at the expense of the Church. He sought to reinforce traditional Gallicanism with a declaration limiting the authority of the Pope in France. The power of the King of France was increased in contrast to the power of the Pope, which was reduced. Conflicts with the Pope flared up. The Pope for obvious reasons did not accept the declaration. About this, King Narai had much to discuss with Phaulkon.
King Narai found it amusing when he learned more about King Louis’s private life. King Narai was aware that the kings of Siam were criticized widely, especially by the church, for their keeping a harem of courtesans in the palace. When Narai learned that King Louis had many amours, he remarked to Phaulkon one day that the only difference was that the kings of France dispatched their mistresses whereas the kings of Siam kept theirs locked up in hiding where they could do no harm. King Narai found it even more amusing when he heard that although King Louis was not faithful to Queen Marie-Therese, it was said that he performed his marital duties every night and still kept all his mistresses happy and, for certain, there were many, all with hyphenated names and tides-Louise La Valliere, Duchesse de Vaujours; Francoise-Athenais de Rochechouart de Mortemart, marquise de Montespan and Marie-Angelique de Scoraille, Duchesse de Fontanges.
What King Narai couldn’t understand was the influence Louis XIV’s second wife, Madame de Maintenon, had on him, the king of France. Once a Protestant, she had converted to Roman Catholicism.
She then turned against the Protestants and vigorously promoted their persecution. She urged Louis XIV to revoke the Edict of Nantes, which granted a degree of religious freedom to the Huguenots. The whole affair baffled King Narai and he and Phaulkon spent hours mulling over the situation. Phaulkon explained that Louis attempted to achieve a religiously united France by issuing another edict in March 1685.
Indeed, there was much King Narai wanted to ask King Louis, so much so that he grew weary at the thought and fell asleep thinking about it.
Phaulkon was at his office early every morning, attending to urgent business matters first. But then all matters appeared to be urgent. He could hardly step through the door without being assaulted by ministers and assistants, ships’ captains and mates, officers from the EIC, interlopers, all bombarding him with questions, all clamoring at once for his attention. One interest that everyone shared was the king’s coming mission to France. They felt by endorsing the mission they could gain much merit with the king. It was on one such morning during the busiest of times that Samuel Potts marched into the office announcing that he was on urgent business, demanding that he be given immediate attention. He was jubilant and lost no time in telling Phaulkon why. He proudly announced that waiting at the East India Company office in town were two gentlemen and he was assigned to serve as their escort. They were Englishmen who stepped ashore that very morning from the Mexico Merchant, an East India Company ship bringing valuable cargo from Europe. Potts gave their names, William Strangh and Thomas Yale.
“You must know who these men are,” Potts said to Phaulkon. “Never heard of them,” Phaulkon remarked.
“Well, I am sure you will,” he said sarcastically. “They are very important.”
“I am sure they are, to have you escort them,” Phaulkon said. “Do I dare ask what their purpose might be or is it not my concern?” “They were sent here to obtain a contract to supply the Siamese government with goods to the value of some thirty-thousand pounds a year,” Potts proudly announced. “Mr. Strangh intends to see the king in person. And there’s more.”
”And what might that be?” Phaulkon asked.
“They came to investigate the burning down of the company’s warehouse,” Potts replied.
Phaulkon’s anger Hared up but his thoughts remained hidden. He merely told Potts he’d like to meet these two men. He did not mention his own investigation of the fire that was in progress.
The two men, William Strangh and Thomas Yale, escorted by Samuel Potts, came to Phaulkon’s office that same afternoon. Thomas Yale was nondescript and you could lose him in a crowd of three. William Strangh, on the other hand, stood out like a white elephant. He was a shoulder and a head above everyone else, with the whitest of white skin. He was tall and slender and carried himself like a prince. Indeed, at a first glance, one gathered that he thought of himself as such, a prince. But he had no regal blood in his veins. He was pompous and, as Phaulkon later learned, a self-made man. His dress gave him the added appearance of someone of importance. He was sartorially immaculate. His clothes fit as though he had grown into them. He spoke with a precise English accent and his manner proclaimed him-a snob. Phaulkon knew the best way to deal with him was to humor him.
Strangh was quick to announce that he wanted to see the king as soon as possible. Phaulkon politely explained that he would have to make such arrangements through the Barcalon.
“Mr. Strangh has never been to the Far East nor to Siam and he knows nothing of the country or its people,” Potts said in Strangh’s defense. “Until I arrived I didn’t even know that your Hat-u-ta is the capital,” he said, deliberately mispronouncing the name. He tried to make it sound that Ayutthaya was of no importance to the world. Like a wild river surging below, Phaulkon did everything possible to abate his anger. Strangh continued, adding a further slur at Phaulkon, “And what brings a white man like you to a place like this?”