The Age of Louis XIV - Richelieu and Mazarin
In the year 1642, died Richelieu, hated and feared by the nobility and the people, but admired by contemporaries and posterity; Louis XIII, a prince without either great virtues or great vices, and dependent upon every one who could either acquire his favor or render himself formidable to him, soon followed him. His widow, Anne of Austria, the proud and ambitious sister of the king of Spain, undertook the government during the minority of his son. But as she reposed the whole of her confidence on the Italian, Mazarin, the inheritor of the office and the principles of Richelieu, she met with vehement opposers among the nobility and in the parliament, who attempted to regain their former power and position. The people, in the hope of being relieved of some of their heavy taxes, and guided by the clever and dexterous Cardinal Retz, embraced their cause, with the intent of compelling the court to remove Mazarin, and to adopt a different plan of government. This gave occasion to a furious civil war, which is known in history as "the War of the Fronde." Mazarin was obliged to leave the country for a short time, but so immovable were the favor and confidence of the queen, that he governed France from Cologne as he had formerly done in Paris. But his banishment did not last long. When Louis XIV had attained the years of kingly majority, and Turenne, the commander of the royal troops, had conquered his rival, the great Condé, the general of the insurgents, in the suburb of St. Antoine, Mazarin returned in triumph. His solemn entry into Paris was a sign that absolute power had gained the victory, and that henceforth the will of the monarch was to be law. Mazarin enjoyed for six years longer the greatest respect in France and Europe; Cardinal Retz, the ingenious composer of the Memoirs of this war, was obliged to leave his country, after he had previously expiated his turbulent conduct in the prison of Vincennes; Condé, poor and unhappy, wandered among the Spaniards, till the grace of his master allowed him to return and take possession of his estates; Mazarin's nieces, Italian females without name or position, were endowed with the wealth of France, and sought for as brides by the greatest nobles; and the members of parliament adapted themselves without opposition to the directions they received from above, after Louis had appeared before them in his boots and riding whip, and demanded their obedience with threats. Louis now gave effect to his principle, "I am the state" (l'état, s'est moi). The peace of the Pyrenees with Spain was the last work of Mazarin. He died shortly after, (March 9, 1661,) leaving enormous wealth behind him. His death took place at the moment when Louis began to grow weary of him, and was longing to seize the reins of government in his own powerful grasp.
After the death of Mazarin, Louis XIV, in whom kingly absolutism attained its highest point, appointed no prime minister, but surrounded himself with men who merely executed his will, and whose highest aim was to increase and spread abroad the renown, glory, and honor of the king. In the choice of these men, Louis displayed judgment and the talents of a ruler. His ministers, especially Colbert, the great promoter of French industry, manufactures, and trades, as well as his generals, Turenne, Condé, Luxemburg, and the engineer, Vauban, as much surpassed, in talent, acquirements, and dexterity, the statesmen and soldiers of all other countries, as Louis XIV himself was preeminent among the princes of his age, in the greatness of his power, in commanding presence, and kingly dignity. He rendered the age of Louis XIV the most illustrious in the French annals, and caused the Court of Versailles (the seat of the royal residence) to be everywhere praised and admired as the model of taste, of refinement, and of a distinguished mode of living. But as he sought nothing but the gratification of his own selfishness, of his own love of pleasure, of his pride, and of his desire for renown and splendor, his reign became the grave of freedom, of morals, of firmness of character, and of manly sentiments. Court favor was the end of every effort, and flattery the surest road to arrive at it; virtue and merit met with little acknowledgment.
It was during the last three decades of the seventeenth century that France stood at the culminating point of her power abroad and of her prosperity at home, so that the flattering chronicles of those days described the age of Louis XIV as the golden age of France. Trade and industry received a prodigious development by the care of Colbert; the woollen and silk manufactories, the stocking and cloth weaving, which flourished in the southern towns, brought prosperity, the maritime force increased, colonies were planted, and the productions of France were carried by trading companies to all quarters of the globe.