Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 6: The Power of the Crown

1. Richelieu's Administration.--Cardinal de Richelieu's whole idea of statesmanship consisted in making the King of France the greatest of princes at home and abroad. To make anything great of Louis XIII., who was feeble alike in mind and body, was beyond any one's power, and Richelieu kept him in absolute subjection, allowing him a favourite with whom to hunt, talk, and amuse himself, but if the friend attempted to rouse the king to shake off the yoke, crushing him ruthlessly. It was the crown rather than the king that the cardinal exalted, putting down whatever resisted. Gaston, Duke of Orleans, the king's only brother, made a futile struggle for power, and freedom of choice in marriage, but was soon overcome. He was spared, as being the only heir to the kingdom, but the Duke of Montmorency, who had been led into his rebellion, was brought to the block, amid the pity and terror of all France. Whoever seemed dangerous to the State, or showed any spirit of independence, was marked by the cardinal, and suffered a hopeless imprisonment, if nothing worse; but at the same time his government was intelligent and able, and promoted prosperity, as far as was possible where there was such a crushing of individual spirit and enterprise. Richelieu's plan, in fact, was to found a despotism, though a wise and well-ordered despotism, at home, while he made France great by conquests abroad. And at this time the ambition of France found a favourable field in the state both of Germany and of Spain.

2. The War in Flanders and Italy.--The Thirty Years' War had been raging in Germany for many years, and France had taken no part in it, beyond encouraging the Swedes and the Protestant Germans, as the enemies of the Emperor. But the policy of Richelieu required that the disunion between its Catholic and Protestant states should be maintained, and when things began to tend towards peace from mutual exhaustion, the cardinal interfered, and induced the Protestant party to continue the war by giving them money and reinforcements. A war had already begun in Italy on behalf of the Duke of Nevers, who had become heir to the duchy of Mantua, but whose family had lived in France so long that the Emperor and the King of Spain supported a more distant claim of the Duke of Savoy to part of the duchy, rather than admit a French prince into Italy. Richelieu was quick to seize this pretext for attacking Spain, for Spain was now dying into a weak power, and he saw in the war a means of acquiring the Netherlands, which belonged to the Spanish crown. At first nothing important was done, but the Spaniards and Germans were worn out, while two young and able captains were growing up among the French--the Viscount of Turenne, younger son to the Duke of Bouillon, and the Duke of Enghien, eldest son of the Prince of Condé--and Richelieu's policy soon secured a brilliant career of success. Elsass, Lorraine, Artois, Catalonia, and Savoy, all fell into the hands of the French, and from a chamber of sickness the cardinal directed the affairs of three armies, as well as made himself feared and respected by the whole kingdom. Cinq Mars, the last favourite he had given the king, plotted his overthrow, with the help of the Spaniards, but was detected and executed, when the great minister was already at death's door. Richelieu recommended an Italian priest, Julius Mazarin, whom he had trained to work under him, to carry on the government, and died in the December of 1642. The king only survived him five months, dying on the 14th of May, 1643. The war was continued on the lines Richelieu had laid down, and four days after the death of Louis XIII. the army in the Low Countries gained a splendid victory at Rocroy, under the Duke of Enghien, entirely destroying the old Spanish infantry. The battles of Freiburg, Nordlingen, and Lens raised the fame of the French generals to the highest pitch, and in 1649 reduced the Emperor to make peace in the treaty of Münster. France obtained as her spoil the three bishoprics, Metz, Toul, and Verdun, ten cities in Elsass, Brisach, and the Sundgau, with the Savoyard town of Pignerol; but the war with Spain continued till 1659, when Louis XIV. engaged to marry Maria Theresa, a daughter of the King of Spain.

3. The Fronde.--When an heir had long been despaired of, Anne of Austria, the wife of Louis XIII., had become the mother of two sons, the eldest of whom, Louis XIV., was only five years old at the time of his father's death. The queen-mother became regent, and trusted entirely to Mazarin, who had become a cardinal, and pursued the policy of Richelieu. But what had been endured from a man by birth a French noble, was intolerable from a low-born Italian. "After the lion comes the fox," was the saying, and the Parliament of Paris made a last stand by refusing to register the royal edict for fresh taxes, being supported both by the burghers of Paris, and by a great number of the nobility, who were personally jealous of Mazarin. This party was called the Fronde, because in their discussions each man stood forth, launched his speech, and retreated, just as the boys did with slings (fronde) and stones in the streets. The struggle became serious, but only a few of the lawyers in the parliament had any real principle or public spirit; all the other actors caballed out of jealousy and party spirit, making tools of "the men of the gown," whom they hated and despised, though mostly far their superiors in worth and intelligence. Anne of Austria held fast by Mazarin, and was supported by the Duke of Enghien, whom his father's death had made Prince of Condé. Condé's assistance enabled her to blockade Paris and bring the parliament to terms, which concluded the first act of the Fronde, with the banishment of Mazarin as a peace offering. Condé, however, became so arrogant and overbearing that the queen caused him to be imprisoned, whereupon his wife and his other friends began a fresh war for his liberation, and the queen was forced to yield; but he again showed himself so tyrannical that the queen and the parliament became reconciled and united to put him down, giving the command of the troops to Turenne. Again there was a battle at the gates of Paris, in which all Condé's friends were wounded, and he himself so entirely worsted that he had to go into exile, when he entered the Spanish service, while Mazarin returned to power at home.

4. The Court of Anne of Austria.--The court of France, though never pure, was much improved during the reign of Louis XIII. and the regency of Anne of Austria. There was a spirit of romance and grace about it, somewhat cumbrous and stately, but outwardly pure and refined, and quite a step out of the gross and open vice of the former reigns. The Duchess de Rambouillet, a lady of great grace and wit, made her house the centre of a brilliant society, which set itself to raise and refine the manners, literature, and language of the time. No word that was considered vulgar or coarse was allowed to pass muster; and though in process of time this censorship became pedantic and petty, there is no doubt that much was done to purify both the language and the tone of thought. Poems, plays, epigrams, eulogiums, and even sermons were rehearsed before the committee of taste in the Hôtel de Rambouillet, and a wonderful new stimulus was there given, not only to ornamental but to solid literature. Many of the great men who made France illustrious were either ending or beginning their careers at this time. Memoir writing specially flourished, and the characters of the men and women of the court are known to us on all sides. Cardinal de Retz and the Duke of Rochefoucauld, both deeply engaged in the Fronde, have left, the one memoirs, the other maxims of great power of irony. Mme. de Motteville, one of the queen's ladies, wrote a full history of the court. Blaise Pascal, one of the greatest geniuses of all times, was attaching himself to the Jansenists. This religious party, so called from Jansen, a Dutch priest, whose opinions were imputed to them, had sprung up around the reformed convent of Port Royal, and numbered among them some of the ablest and best men of the time; but the Jesuits considered them to hold false doctrine, and there was a continual debate, ending at length in the persecution of the Jansenists. Pascal's "Provincial Letters," exposing the Jesuit system, were among the ablest writings of the age. Philosophy, poetry, science, history, art, were all making great progress, though there was a stateliness and formality in all that was said and done, redolent of the Spanish queen's etiquette and the fastidious refinement of the Hôtel Rambouillet.

5. Court of Louis XIV.--The attempt from the earliest times of the French monarchy had been to draw all government into the hands of the sovereign, and the suppression of the Fronde completed the work. Louis XIV., though ill educated, was a man of considerable ability, much industry, and great force of character, arising from a profound belief that France was the first country in the world, and himself the first of Frenchmen; and he had a magnificent courtesy of demeanour, which so impressed all who came near him as to make them his willing slaves. "There is enough in him to make four kings and one respectable man besides" was what Mazarin said of him; and when in 1661 the cardinal died, the king showed himself fully equal to becoming his own prime minister. "The State is myself," he said, and all centred upon him so that no room was left for statesmen. The court was, however, in a most brilliant state. There had been an unusual outburst of talent of every kind in the lull after the Wars of Religion, and in generals, thinkers, artists, and men of literature, France was unusually rich. The king had a wonderful power of self-assertion, which attached them all to him almost as if he were a sort of divinity. The stately, elaborate Spanish etiquette brought in by his mother, Anne of Austria, became absolutely an engine of government. Henry IV. had begun the evil custom of keeping the nobles quiet by giving them situations at court, with pensions attached, and these offices were multiplied to the most enormous and absurd degree, so that every royal personage had some hundreds of personal attendants. Princes of the blood and nobles of every degree were contented to hang about the court, crowding into the most narrow lodgings at Versailles, and thronging its anterooms; and to be ordered to remain in the country was a most severe punishment.

6. France under Louis XIV.--There was, in fact, nothing but the chase to occupy a gentleman on his own estate, for he was allowed no duties or responsibilities. Each province had a governor or intendant, a sort of viceroy, and the administration of the cities was managed chiefly on the part of the king, even the mayors obtaining their posts by purchase. The unhappy peasants had to pay in the first place the taxes to Government, out of which were defrayed an intolerable number of pensions, many for useless offices; next, the rents and dues which supported their lord's expenditure at court; and, thirdly, the tithes and fees of the clergy. Besides which, they were called off from the cultivation of their own fields for a certain number of days to work at the roads; their horses might be used by royal messengers; their lord's crops had to be got in by their labour gratis, while their own were spoiling; and, in short, the only wonder is how they existed at all. Their hovels and their food were wretched, and any attempt to amend their condition on the part of their lord would have been looked on as betokening dangerous designs, and probably have landed him in the Bastille. The peasants of Brittany--where the old constitution had been less entirely ruined--and those of Anjou were in a less oppressed condition, and in the cities trade flourished. Colbert, the comptroller-general of the finances, was so excellent a manager that the pressure of taxation was endurable in his time, and he promoted new manufactures, such as glass at Cherbourg, cloth at Abbeville, silk at Lyons; he also tried to promote commerce and colonization, and to create a navy. There was a great appearance of prosperity, and in every department there was wonderful ability. The Reformation had led to a considerable revival among the Roman Catholics themselves. The theological colleges established in the last reign had much improved the tone of the clergy. Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux, was one of the most noted preachers who ever existed, and Fénélon, Archbishop of Cambrai, one of the best of men. A reform of discipline, begun in the convent of Port Royal, ended by attracting and gathering together some of the most excellent and able persons in France--among them Blaise Pascal, a man of marvellous genius and depth of thought, and Racine, the chief French dramatic poet. Their chief director, the Abbot of St. Cyran, was however, a pupil of Jansen, a Dutch ecclesiastic, whose views on abstruse questions of grace were condemned by the Jesuits; and as the Port-Royalists would not disown the doctrines attributed to him, they were discouraged and persecuted throughout Louis's reign, more because he was jealous of what would not bend to his will than for any real want of conformity. Pascal's famous "Provincial Letters" were put forth during this controversy; and in fact, the literature of France reached its Augustan age during this reign, and the language acquired its standard perfection.

7. War in the Low Countries.--Maria Theresa, the queen of Louis XIV., was the child of the first marriage of Philip IV. of Spain; and on her father's death in 1661, Louis, on pretext of an old law in Brabant, which gave the daughters of a first marriage the preference over the sons of a second, claimed the Low Countries from the young Charles II. of Spain. He thus began a war which was really a continuance of the old struggle between France and Burgundy, and of the endeavour of France to stretch her frontier to the Rhine. At first England, Holland, and Sweden united against him, and obliged him to make the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1668; but he then succeeded in bribing Charles II. of England to forsake the cause of the Dutch, and the war was renewed in 1672. William, Prince of Orange, Louis's most determined enemy through life, kept up the spirits of the Dutch, and they obtained aid from Germany and Spain, through a six years' terrible war, in which the great Turenne was killed at Saltzbach, in Germany. At last, from exhaustion, all parties were compelled to conclude the peace of Nimeguen in 1678. Taking advantage of undefined terms in this treaty, Louis seized various cities belonging to German princes, and likewise the free imperial city of Strassburg, when all Germany was too much worn out by the long war to offer resistance. France was full of self-glorification, the king was viewed almost as a demi-god, and the splendour of his court and of his buildings, especially the palace at Versailles, with its gardens and fountains, kept up the delusion of his greatness.

8. Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.--In 1685 Louis supposed that the Huguenots had been so reduced in numbers that the Edict of Nantes could be repealed. All freedom of worship was denied them; their ministers were banished, but their flocks were not allowed to follow them. If taken while trying to escape, men were sent to the galleys, women to captivity, and children to convents for education. Dragoons were quartered on families to torment them into going to mass. A few made head in the wild moors of the Cevennes under a brave youth named Cavalier, and others endured severe persecution in the south of France. Dragoons were quartered on them, who made it their business to torment and insult them; their marriages were declared invalid, their children taken from them to be educated in the Roman Catholic faith. A great number, amounting to at least 100,000, succeeded in escaping, chiefly to Prussia, Holland, and England, whither they carried many of the manufactures that Colbert had taken so much pains to establish. Many of those who settled in England were silk weavers, and a large colony was thus established at Spitalfields, which long kept up its French character.

9. The War of the Palatinate.--This brutal act of tyranny was followed by a fresh attack on Germany. On the plea of a supposed inheritance of his sister-in-law, the Duchess of Orleans, Louis invaded the Palatinate on the Rhine, and carried on one of the most ferocious wars in history, while he was at the same time supporting the cause of his cousin, James II. of England, after he had fled and abdicated on the arrival of William of Orange. During this war, however, that generation of able men who had grown up with Louis began to pass away, and his success was not so uniform; while, Colbert being dead, taxation began to be more felt by the exhausted people, and peace was made at Ryswick in 1697.

10. The War of the Succession in Spain.--The last of the four great wars of Louis's reign was far more unfortunate. Charles II. of Spain died childless, naming as his successor a French prince, Philip, Duke of Anjou, the second son of the only son of Charles's eldest sister, the queen of Louis XIV. But the Powers of Europe, at the Peace of Ryswick, had agreed that the crown of Spain should go to Charles of Austria, second son of the Emperor Leopold, who was the descendant of younger sisters of the royal Spanish line, but did not excite the fear and jealousy of Europe, as did a scion of the already overweening house of Bourbon. This led to the War of the Spanish Succession, England and Holland supporting Charles, and fighting with Louis in Spain, Savoy, and the Low Countries. In Spain Louis was ultimately successful, and his grandson Philip V. retained the throne; but the troops which his ally, the Elector of Bavaria, introduced into Germany were totally overthrown at Blenheim by the English army under the Duke of Marlborough, and the Austrian under Prince Eugene, a son of a younger branch of the house of Savoy. Eugene had been bred up in France, but, having bitterly offended Louis by calling him a stage king for show and a chess king for use, had entered the Emperor's service, and was one of his chief enemies. He aided his cousin, Duke Victor Amadeus of Savoy, in repulsing the French attacks in that quarter, gained a great victory at Turin, and advanced into Provence. Marlborough was likewise in full career of victory in the Low Countries, and gained there the battle of Ramillies.

11. Peace of Utrecht.--Louis had outlived his good fortune. His great generals and statesmen had passed away. The country was exhausted, famine was preying on the wretched peasantry, supplies could not be found, and one city after another, of those Louis had seized, was retaken. New victories at Oudenarde and Malplaquet were gained over the French armies; and, though Louis was as resolute and undaunted as ever, his affairs were in a desperate state, when he was saved by a sudden change of policy on the part of Queen Anne of England, who recalled her army and left her allies to continue the contest alone. Eugene was not a match for France without Marlborough, and the Archduke Charles, having succeeded his brother the Emperor, gave up his pretensions to the crown of Spain, so that it became possible to conclude a general peace at Utrecht in 1713. By this time Louis was seventy-five years of age, and had suffered grievous family losses--first by the death of his only son, and then of his eldest grandson, a young man of much promise of excellence, who, with his wife died of malignant measles, probably from ignorant medical treatment, since their infant, whose illness was concealed by his nurses, was the only one of the family who survived. The old king, in spite of sorrow and reverse, toiled with indomitable energy to the end of his reign, the longest on record, having lasted seventy-two years, when he died in 1715. He had raised the French crown to its greatest splendour, but had sacrificed the country to himself and his false notions of greatness.

12. The Regency.--The crown now descended to Louis XV., a weakly child of four years old. His great-grandfather had tried to provide for his good by leaving the chief seat in the council of regency to his own illegitimate son, the Duke of Maine, the most honest and conscientious man then in the family, but, though clever, unwise and very unpopular. His birth caused the appointment to be viewed as an outrage by the nobility, and the king's will was set aside. The first prince of the blood royal, Philip, Duke of Orleans, the late king's nephew, became sole regent--a man of good ability, but of easy, indolent nature; and who, in the enforced idleness of his life, had become dissipated and vicious beyond all imagination or description. He was kindly and gracious, and his mother said of him that he was like the prince in a fable whom all the fairies had endowed with gifts, except one malignant sprite who had prevented any favour being of use to him. In the general exhaustion produced by the wars of Louis XIV., a Scotchman named James Law began the great system of hollow speculation which has continued ever since to tempt people to their ruin. He tried raising sums of money on national credit, and also devised a company who were to lend money to found a great settlement on the Mississippi, the returns from which were to be enormous. Every one speculated in shares, and the wildest excitement prevailed. Law's house was mobbed by people seeking interviews with him, and nobles disguised themselves in liveries to get access to him. Fortunes were made one week and lost the next, and finally the whole plan proved to have been a mere baseless scheme; ruin followed, and the misery of the country increased. The Duke of Orleans died suddenly in 1723. The king was now legally of age; but he was dull and backward, and little fitted for government, and the country was really ruled by the Duke of Bourbon, and after him by Cardinal Fleury, an aged statesman, but filled with the same schemes of ambition as Richelieu or Mazarin.

13. War of the Austrian Succession.--Thus France plunged into new wars. Louis XV. married the daughter of Stanislas Lecksinsky, a Polish noble, who, after being raised to the throne, was expelled by Austrian intrigues and violence. Louis was obliged to take up arms on behalf of his father-in-law, but was bought off by a gift from the Emperor Charles VI. of the duchy of Lorraine to Stanislas, to revert to his daughter after his death and thus become united to France. Lorraine belonged to Duke Francis, the husband of Maria Theresa, eldest daughter to the Emperor, and Francis received instead the duchy of Tuscany; while all the chief Powers in Europe agreed to the so-called Pragmatic Sanction, by which Charles decreed that Maria Theresa should inherit Austria and Hungary and the other hereditary states on her father's death, to the exclusion of the daughters of his elder brother, Joseph. When Charles VI. died, however, in 1740, a great European war began on this matter. Frederick II. of Prussia would neither allow Maria Theresa's claim to the hereditary states, nor join in electing her husband to the Empire; and France took part against her, sending Marshal Belleisle to support the Elector of Bavaria, who had been chosen Emperor. George II. of England held with Maria Theresa, and gained a victory over the French at Dettingen, in 1744. Louis XV. then joined his army, and the battle of Fontenoy, in 1745, was one of the rare victories of France over England. Another victory followed at Laufeldt, but elsewhere France had had heavy losses, and in 1748, after the death of Charles VII., peace was made at Aix-la-Chapelle.

14. The Seven Years' War.--Louis, dull and selfish by nature, had been absolutely led into vice by his courtiers, especially the Duke of Bourbon, who feared his becoming active in public affairs. He had no sense of duty to his people; and whereas his great-grandfather had sought display and so-called glory, he cared solely for pleasure, and that of the grossest and most sensual order, so that his court was a hotbed of shameless vice. All that could be wrung from the impoverished country was lavished on the overgrown establishments of every member of the royal family, in pensions to nobles, and in shameful amusements of the king. In 1756 another war broke out, in consequence of the hatreds left between Prussia and Austria by the former struggle. Maria Theresa had, by flatteries she ought to have disdained, gained over France to take part with her, and England was allied with Frederick II. In this war France and England chiefly fought in their distant possessions, where the English were uniformly successful; and after seven years another peace followed, leaving the boundaries of the German states just where they were before, after a frightful amount of bloodshed. But France had had terrible losses. She was driven from India, and lost all her settlements in America and Canada.

15. France under Louis XV.--Meantime the gross vice and licentiousness of the king was beyond description, and the nobility retained about the court by the system established by Louis XIV. were, if not his equals in crime, equally callous to the suffering caused by the reckless expensiveness of the court, the whole cost of which was defrayed by the burghers and peasants. No taxes were asked from clergy or nobles, and this latter term included all sprung of a noble line to the utmost generation. The owner of an estate had no means of benefiting his tenants, even if he wished it; for all matters, even of local government, depended on the crown. All he could do was to draw his income from them, and he was often forced, either by poverty or by his expensive life, to strain to the utmost the old feudal system. If he lived at court, his expenses were heavy, and only partly met by his pension, likewise raised from the taxes paid by the poor farmer; if he lived in the country, he was a still greater tyrant, and was called by the people a hobereau, or kite. No career was open to his younger sons, except in the court, the Church, or the army, and here they monopolized the prizes, obtaining all the richer dioceses and abbeys, and all the promotion in the army. The magistracies were almost all hereditary among lawyers, who had bought them for their families from the crown, and paid for the appointment of each son. The officials attached to each member of the royal family were almost incredible in number, and all paid by the taxes. The old gabelle, or salt-tax, had gone on ever since the English wars, and every member of a family had to pay it, not according to what they used, but what they were supposed to need. Every pig was rated at what he ought to require for salting. Every cow, sheep, or hen had a toll to pay to king, lord, bishop--sometimes also to priest and abbey. The peasant was called off from his own work to give the dues of labour to the roads or to his lord. He might not spread manure that could interfere with the game, nor drive away the partridges that ate his corn. So scanty were his crops that famines slaying thousands passed unnoticed, and even if, by any wonder, prosperity smiled on the peasant, he durst not live in any kind of comfort, lest the stewards of his lord or of Government should pounce on his wealth.

16. Reaction.--Meantime there was a strong feeling that change must come. Classical literature was studied, and Greek and Roman manners and institutions were thought ideal perfection. There was great disgust at the fetters of a highly artificial life in which every one was bound, and at the institutions which had been so misused. Writers arose, among whom Voltaire and Rousseau were the most eminent, who aimed at the overthrow of all the ideas which had come to be thus abused. The one by his caustic wit, the other by his enthusiastic simplicity, gained willing ears, and, the writers in a great Encyclopædia then in course of publication, contrived to attack most of the notions which had been hitherto taken for granted, and were closely connected with faith and with government. The king himself was dully aware that he was living on the crust of a volcano, but he said it would last his time; and so it did. Louis XV. died of smallpox in 1774, leaving his grandsons to reap the harvest that generations had been sowing.


Charlotte M. Yonge

Sorry, no summary available yet.