Absolute Monarchies: France

absolute states: louis XIX and french wars of religion

French Wars of Religion and the End of the Valois Dynasty

The French Wars of Religion are not easy to summarize, but involved the fierce passions of the Catholic and Protestant causes, Catherine de Medici's ambitions and compromises, and the infirmities of her three sons, the last kings of the Valois line. None was well equipped to rule a divided country. Francis II married Mary Queen of Scots but remained a boy invalid. Charles IX was a nervous wreck if not altogether mad, and Henri III was a degenerate. {1}

Trouble began immediately when the strongly Catholic Guise family took control after Henry II's death at jousting in 1559, thereby threatening the Protestant cause,which had many adherents in the army and among the more prosperous folk in the central regions of France. Catherine de Medici had in fact issued an Edict of Toleration in January 1662, accepting Protestant worship, but the Duc de Guise, following a scuffle between his servants attending Mass and Huguenots worshipping in a nearby barn, had the barn invested and set on fire, burning to death all those inside. For protection from such outrages, the Huguenots appealed to the Prince de Condé, who swiftly conquered a swathe of towns along the Loire, and looked to England and Germany for troops and money. The Guise turned to the Habsburgs and the Pope for help, who supplied mercenary troops. The Huguenot towns were well fortified, however, and the sieges proved long and costly. The one pitched battle, at Dreux, was a Catholic victory, but with the death of Antoine de Bourbon at Rouen, and the assassination of the Duc de Guise at Orléons, the Catholics were left without proper leadership, and Catherine de Medici was obliged to make the Edict of Amboise in March 1663. Prisoners were exchanged, but Protestant commoners could only worship outside the walls of Huguenot towns and at an extra town per bailliage, an arrangement that was much resented.

Trouble flared up again in the 'Second War' of 1567-8, when the Duc de Guise's brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine, urged the suppression of the Huguenots in response to Protestant insurrection in the Low Countries. Catherine de Medici again appealed for toleration but, in meeting the Duke of Alva to arrange her daughter's marriage, inflamed fears of a Spanish invasion. The Huguenots tried to seize the king at Meuze, failed and were brutally punished, but not without unleashing another short, inconclusive but costly war. {2-4}

In the 'Third War' of 1568-70 the Cardinal of Lorraine attempted to capture Condé and Coligny, who escaped to the citadel of La Rochelle, and then made an alliance with William of Orange, then fighting for independence from Spain. The Protestants fortified towns in the south-west of France, but suffered defeat at Jarnac, where the Prince de Condé was killed. Coligny was also defeated at Moncoutour, but made a long march to southern France to collect fresh troops and invest Paris. Another peace, that of St. Germain, was negotiated, this time more favourable to the Protestant cause: Huguenot property was returned, certain towns were recognized as Huguenot towns, and more equality guaranteed under the law. Rural areas of southern and central France suffered badly from prolonged warfare, however, and discontents simmered on both sides. {2-4}

Catherine continued her efforts to reconcile the parties, and Admiral de Coligny was welcomed into her son's council. But Protestant rhetoric became increasingly offensive to Catholics, especially when Calvin decreed that a prince who defied God lost the right to rule. Social differences also divided the parties, acute in this time of economic hardship. Protestants were on the whole better educated than their Catholic counterparts, and belonged to the more lucrative trades. Their men and women worshippers often sang and read the Bible together, which further inflamed the Catholics, who saw a heresy infecting the body a Christ and endangering the contract between God and His people. Matters came to a head on August 23, 1572, the feast of St. Bartholomew. The entire Huguenot leadership were still celebrating the marriage of Henri de Navarre to Margot de Valois when Admiral de Coligny was seriously wounded by an assassin on his return to his Paris lodgings. The Guises were suspected, and the Huguenots took to the streets to protest. In the Louvre, however, Catherine de Medici, or possibly the king (Charles IX) took the decision to massacre the Huguenot celebrators en mass and finally deprive the heretics of their leadership. Soldiers dragged Coligny from his bed, stabbed him, and threw the body into the street — the signal for a general massacre of Huguenots in Paris (where some 3-4,000 died) and throughout the provinces in the succeeding months. Henri de Navarre was made prisoner; Condé finally escaped to Germany; Coligny's younger brother found exile in Switzerland.

The Protestant cause was severely weakened in France, but not wholly extinguished, as events of the Fourth War (1572-1573) were to show. In response to the massacre, La Rochelle refused to pay its taxes, and was besieged by the king in February 1573. But the maritime capital of the Huguenots was strongly fortified and readily supplied by sea, and though there were heavy casualties on both sides, the royal treasury again began to feel the strain. The siege was called off in May, and a Treaty of La Rochelle agreed, one disadvantageous to the Huguenots, who bided their time. {2-4}

In the Fifth War of 1576, Condé raised money and troops from the German princes, and was joined by armies led by Henri de Montmonrency and the escaped Henri de Navarre. When 20,000 troops appeared within striking distance of Paris, Catherine was forced negotiate the Edict of Beaulieu, which was very favourable to the Protestant cause and its leaders.

The following year saw the Sixth War, when, following a convocation of the Estates General (which upheld the king's cause — now Henri III's — but deprived him of the right to raise the necessary taxes), a Catholic League was set up to oppose the Protestants. A force invaded the Loire towns, but sued for peace (the Edict of Bergerac) in the face of much larger Protestant armies in the south. {2-4}

In the Seventh War of 1589, Henri de Navarre's seized the city of Cahors and consolidated his hold on south-west France. The Duc d' Anjou intrigued to gain the sovereignty of the Netherlands, but precipitated a crisis when he died in 1584. Henry III looked to remain childless, making the Protestant Henri de Navarre the heir presumptive. {2-4}

Events turned much bloodier in the succeeding War of the Three Henries (1584-1589), so called because the leaders of the royalist, Catholic League and Protestant forces were all called Henry. Henri de Navarre refused to convert to Catholicism, and was excommunicated by the Pope. The Duc de Guise revived the Catholic League, and signed the Treaty of Joinville with Spain, under which Phillip II agreed to provide a large annual subsidy to destabilize the government of France. Henri III tried to co-opt the League, failed, and in effect then declared war on the Protestants by requiring them to revoke their faith and ungarrison their towns The League dominated the north and east. Navarre and Condé were entrenched in the south, and looked for aid from the German princes and Queen Elizabeth. An army of German mercenaries was met by Guise and the Catholic League, and sent packing. Henri III's attempt to cut Navarre off in the southwest met with defeat, however, and the king, now unpopular with Catholic mob, had to flee Paris. The League pressed for a meeting of the Estates-General, which proposed the crown go to the Cardinal de Bourbon, clearly a puppet for the Guises. Henri III then resorted to treachery. He invited the Duc de Guise to his private apartments, and had him cut down, arranging a similar fate for his brother, the Cardinal de Guise. The League under the Duc de Mayenne then sent an army against Henri III, who turned to Navarre for an alliance. Their joint forces reclaimed Paris, but Henry III was stabbed by a monk in the royal camp at St. Cloud, naming Henri de Navarre his heir before dying. {2-4}

Hostilities increased in the final phase, the Wars of the League (1589-1598). The League imposed a reign of terror on the towns it occupied, hanging anyone suspected of Protestant sympathies. Navarre advanced from the south, defeated Mayenne at Arques, swept through Normandy and inflicted a yet more crushing defeat on the League in March of 1590 at Ivry. He then laid siege to Paris, which was in turn relieved by Phillip sending the Duke of Parma and a Spanish garrison. To find a candidate for the French throne, the League convened an Estates-General in Paris in 1593, but proposed the Infanta, the daughter of Philip II by Elizabeth de Valois, a departure from the Salic Law, which Parliament immediately outlawed. Finally, in July 1593, in the church of St. Denis, Navarre converted to Catholicism, rallying sufficient moderate religious opinion to be crowned at Chartres. He entered Paris the following year, the Spanish garrison marching out without a shot being fired. Charm and bribery won over more supporters, though Spain resumed hostilities in northern France, taking Amiens in 1597. Navarre, now Henri IV, fought back and the following year, faced with heavy costs, Spain retreated, returning the captured towns to France under the Treaty of Vervins. The young Guise capitulated in 1595, Mayenne in 1596 and Mercoeur in 1598. The concluding 1598 Edict of Nantes granted Huguenots freedom of worship and civil rights for nearly a century, until Louis XIV revoked the Edict in 1685. {2-4}

Early Bourbons

Henry IV of Navarre, the first Bourbon king, was happily a man of vision, industry and courage. Rather than wage costly wars against the nobility, he simply paid them off, allocating the sums saved to the improvement of the country. Working through the faithful Duc de Sully, Henry regularized the state finances, promoted agriculture, drained swamps to make productive crop lands, protected forests, undertook many public works, encouraged education and saw to construction of many roads, bridges and canals. He added the Grande Galerie to the Louvre, and invited craftsmen by the hundreds to embellish this huge building. Though a popular monarch blessed with kindness and good humour, and much loved by his people, Henri IV was assassinated by a fanatic in May 1610, possibly with the complicity of his wife, Marie de Medici.

Marie acted as Regent during the long minority of her son, Louis XIII, during which the many quarrels, banishments and revolts greatly weakened regal authority. Louis increasingly turned to the brilliant Cardinal Richelieu for guidance, and this statesman effectively shaped France's destiny for the following 25 years. Louis became his own man in later years, however, keeping the nobility firmly in check, and cancelling the special privileges granted to the Huguenots. A navy was built, the port of Le Havre modernized, and the New France overseas extended. His marriage to the Habsburg, Princess Anne of Austria, was not a happy one, but she gave birth to the future Louis XIV in 1638, acting as Regent thereafter.

The Sun King: Louis XIV (1643-1715)

Through a strongly centralising monarchy, and aided by exceptionally capable ministers, Louis XIV brought prosperity, a brilliance court and civil unity to a France previously divided by secular and religious strife. Among the costs, however, were a nobility kept at court and so away from the proper management of their estates, an over-regulated administration where even distant colonies could not manage their own affairs, strict censorship, religious orthodoxy, unsuccessful military adventures and a naval race with England that France ultimately lost. {5-13}

On Mazarin's death, the young (23) and inexperienced Louis XIV announced to a bemused court 'that he intended to be his own first minister' and that 'all ministers were to address themselves to him'. For fifty-five years the king did just that, showing a taste for hard work, regular hours and an increasing mastery of statecraft. He was probably more diligent than brilliant, and his egoism may have neutralized his best qualities, but he was the first real ruler of France, gradually replacing his great ministers — Colbert, Louvois, and Lionne — in domestic and foreign policy. The authority of the Crown triumphed over Parlements, local Estates and municipalities. The Church still held its assemblies but its power was by permission of the King. The machinery of government developed by Richelieu and Mazarin was extended further through Councils filled with middle class men personally loyal to their sovereign. From these Councils the nobility and great ecclesiastics were expressly excluded, and even in Council matters the final decision rested with king. The Conseil d'Etat considered the great questions of State. The Conseil des Dépêches considered the internal conditions of the state. The Conseil des Finances considered taxation. The fourth Council, the Conseil Privé, was the highest judicial Court and was largely staffed by lawyers. Power was gradually removed from provincial Parlements, Estates and Governors, and placed in the hands of royal 'intendants', i.e. king's men chosen from the unprivileged classes and so the rivals and enemies of the nobility. The Secretaries of State were elevated above the old nobility, and the Chancellor was simply the first of the King's servants. Though power radiated outwards, and Fouquet, who had amassed a fortune from taxes, had his property seized and his person imprisoned for life, that power did little for the people themselves. The heavy costs of war fell on the shoulders of the poor, and the taxation system, which Colbert had tried to regularise and simplify, became increasing complex and inefficient. The wealth of the state was not measured by the people or their industry, but by amount of gold and silver in the royal treasury. {5-13}

The chief tax was the 'taille', and is best summed up with the words 'privilege, arbitrary assessment and oppressive exaction'. Nobility, clergy, court and government officials were exempt. Not more than a third of the population were contributing to the 'taille' by 1697, but this third was the poorest and most wretched. The tax collectors themselves were imprisoned for failure to reach targets, and troops quartered on towns unwilling or unable to pay. A vast number of other taxes, usually in the nature of customs and excise, exhibited the same confusion, corruption, and oppression arising from the sale of tax collecting offices, which were progressively sold on, enriching the chain of tax collectors more than the state. {5-13}

Colbert strove to promote industry in France, improving road and canal communications and imposing high protective tariffs enforced by a remodelled fleet. He offered rewards to skilled workmen — English, Dutch, German, Swedish, Venetian — to come and settle in France, and punished Frenchmen who tried to transfer their industrial knowledge to a foreign soil. All France should work hard. Industries were largely in the hands of trade guilds, and on these a host of edicts and regulations descended. Almsgiving by the monasteries must be limited, and the admission of peasants into the unproductive Orders of the Church discouraged. The King himself should take the lead, setting up royal industries like the Gobelins factory, but one of a hundred or so such institutions. The more successful Holland and England used chartered companies for their overseas trade, and Colbert resolved that France should have the same institution, in which the wealthy would be compelled to invest. Constantly the emphasis was on compulsion, control and centralisation, not on free enterprise, and such restrictions, both religious and political, in the end proved damaging at home and suicidal abroad. {5-13}

Colbert helped the king glorify the monarchy through the arts. Literature, painting and architecture were lavishly promoted, and the hunting lodge of Versailles transformed into a glittering palace, with an elaborate court etiquette after the king moved his court there from the Louvre in 1682. {10} Louis had many lovers and several celebrated mistresses, but acknowledged their many children, giving them an education, a position in society and then the hands of European royalty. After the death of his wife, Marie-Therese, Louis married Madame de Maintenon, the best educated woman at his court, but even she could not replace the vision and dynamism of Colbert, and the last years of the Sun King's reign were overshadowed by a gloomy piety and tax deficits. {5-13}

No French monarch before Louis XIV wielded such absolute power, and the lingering effects of the 1562-98 Wars of Religion still stood in the way of a country united under 'one faith, one law and one king.' The 1698 Edict of Nantes had brought religious toleration beyond what was possible in England and Germany at the time, but also allowed the Huguenots to garrison more than a hundred towns, from which they could immediately put an army of 25,000 men in the field. {1} Louis put an end to such threats by revoking the Edict of Nantes in 1685, expelling the Huguenots from the guilds and public office and then from France altogether, at a considerable loss to the industry and capital of the country. Protestant children were abducted from their parents, Protestant places of worship closed, and murderous troops quartered on Protestants refusing to convert. The Jesuits, now invited back to France, then suppressed unorthodox Catholic sects like the Jansenists, to which Racine belonged. {5-13}

Colbert died in 1683, and the Sun King's growing religious intolerance gradually united the Protestant powers of Europe. Louis sent French troops into the Palatinate, unleashing the 9-year war of the Grand Alliance, in which France barely held its own against the United Provinces and England. The ageing ruler was then drawn into the disastrous War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), where French generals were no match for the duke of Marlborough and his Austrian counterpart, Eugene of Savoy. The treasury came near to collapse in the terrible winter of 1709, and though the Peace of Utrecht allowed France to keep most of its earlier conquests, the Spanish empire was divided between Philip V and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Louis was also obliged to agree that the crowns of France and Spain should remain separate. {5-13}

Later Bourbons

Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, acted as Regent when the five year old Louis XV came to the throne. Philippe was a liberal and imaginative man, reversing many of the previous sovereign's policies. Censorship was relaxed, and an alliance made with England, Austria, and the Netherlands. A successful war against Spain established the conditions of a European peace. {8, 13}

Louis XV (1715-74) was the great grandson of Louis XIV, and showed the same capacity for hard work and pursuit of women. He was not an effective ruler, however, and France lost the Seven Years' War with Great Britain, and with it her territories in India, Canada, and the west bank of the Mississippi River. {8, 13}

Unfortunately, Louis XVI (1754-1793), a popular and pragmatic ruler, had to leave government in the hands of his autocratic and frivolous wife, Marie Antoinette, during periods of clinical depression. The great problem of his reign, as it had been in his grandfather Louis XV's day, that of raising tax revenues to pay for wars and the glory of Bourbon rule, remained unsolved. The radical reforms of Turgot and Malesherbes alienated the nobles (Parlements) and the nobles further resisted taxation at the Assembly of Notables in 1787. To authorize his proposals, Louis then ordered the election of an Estates-General, but the included Third Estate came out with yet more radical ideas. Louis' attempts to control them resulted in the Tennis Court Oath and the declaration of the National Assembly, which in turn provoked the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. In October the royal family were moved to the Tuileries palace in Paris, from which they fled in June 1791. The royal couple were recognised and captured at Varennes, however, and brought back to Paris, where they were guillotined in January 1793. {8, 13}

Causes of the French Revolution

The French Revolution changed not only the face of Europe and its overseas colonies, but foreshadowed many aspects of modern life. It overturned the feudal system, emancipated the individual, divided landed property more equally, and abolished many of the privileges of noble birth. It aimed at benefiting humanity as a whole, moreover, and set the pattern for revolutionary movements worldwide. {14-16}

The Revolution was not the simple result of social repression as only in England and the Netherlands did the common people have more freedom and protection from arbitrary punishment. The trigger was probably the poor harvests of the 1780s, which raised food prices and brought the hungry flooding into an overcrowded Paris, but the underlying factors were the increasing tax burden that fell on the less well-off (nobles and clergy paid no taxes) and the absolute nature of the monarchy, increasingly at odds with Enlightenment thinkers and the American example. Some historians also blame the pace of change prior to the Revolution, and the self-deception of the ruling intelligentsia, who believed that they could make a Utopian France by permitting controlled violence, murder and the destruction of property to co-exist with liberty and good government. {17}

However legitimate the complaints, a revolution only succeeds when the aggrieved parties unite into a movement sufficiently powerful to overturn the machinery of state. Dual or multiple sovereignty is thus the key feature of a revolutionary situation, the fragmentation of an existing polity into two or more blocs, each of which seeks total control. Violence will therefore only increase as one group claiming sovereignty seeks to vanquish one or more rival groups. So was instigated the Reign of Terror, to quash both internal and foreign forces of counter-revolution, though violence also continued as the moderate leaders of the newly established government (the Directory: 1795-1799) tried to bring the revolution into line with the principles of 1789, i.e. under bourgeois control and not mob rule. Napoleon in fact put down the popular movement in Paris with cannon fire, and then, returning from Egypt, replaced the Directory by his own centralising government.

References and Further Reading

Need the 17 references and illustration source? Please consider the inexpensive ebook.