The Age of Louis XIV - Richelieu and Mazarin

The first part of the reign of the weak Louis XIII, who only numbered nine years at the time of his father's murder, was full of mischief for France. During the time the queen-mother, Mary of Medicis, conducted the government, Italian favorites exerted a great influence upon affairs, enriched themselves at the expense of the French, and irritated the pride of the nation by their insolence. Enraged at this, the nobility took up arms, and filled the country with rebellion and the tumult of war. When at length Louis XIII himself, upon coming of age, assumed the government, he indeed consented that the foreign favorites should be removed by murder and execution, and banished his mother from the court; but the people gained little by it. The new favorites in whom the king, who possessed no self-reliance, reposed his confidence, were not distinguished from the former either by virtue or talents; for this reason, both the nobles of the kingdom and the Huguenots, who felt themselves injured in their rights, again rose against the 'government, and threw the land into fresh confusion. This melancholy condition of affairs was only put an end to when Cardinal Richelieu was admitted into the state council, and introduced a complete change of system, (A. D. 1624.)

This great statesman maintained an almost absolute sway in the court and in the kingdom for nearly eighteen years, though the king never loved him, the queen and the nobility were constantly attempting his overthrow, and a succession of cabals and conspiracies were plotted against him. The greatness of his mind triumphed over all obstacles. Richelieu's efforts were directed towards the extension and rounding of the French territory without, and the increasing and strengthening of the royal power within. In furtherance of the former of these objects, he sought to weaken the house of Hapsburg, and for this purpose entered into alliances with the enemies of the emperor not only in Germany, in the time of the Thirty Years' War, but in Italy and other places; and, to attain his aims in regard to the latter object, he neglected to call together the estates of the kingdom, broke the power of the nobility and of the independent officials and judges in the parliament, and attacked the Huguenots, who had formed an almost independent alliance in the south and west of France, with their own fortresses, and an effective militia, and great privileges. After conquering the most important of the Huguenot towns (Nismes, Montauban, Montpellier), and destroying their fortifications, in three wars, and when he had at length taken Rochelle, the bulwark of the Calvinists, after a siege of fourteen months, he proceeded to deprive the Protestants of their political privileges and of their independent position, but granted them, by the Edict of Nismes, liberty of conscience and equal rights with Catholic subjects. The turbulent nobles had been deprived of their greatest support by the disarming of the Huguenots, and the war could now be prosecuted against them with success. The most daring were got rid of by banishment and the executioner. Even the queen-mother and her second son, and the duke of Orleans, who attempted to procure the fall of Richelieu, were compelled to leave the country, and the confidential friend of the latter, Henry, duke of Montmorency, a scion of one of the most renowned families of France, died at Toulouse by the hand of the executioner. A similar fate awaited the count of Cinq-Mars and his friend, De Thou, a few years later, when in conjunction with the queen and some of the nobles, they formed a conspiracy against the mighty cardinal. The parliament, the upper tax-offices and courts of justice, which, like the kin g , claimed an independent authority on account of their offices being hereditary, were weakened by the establishment of extraordinary courts and higher officers, who were dependent upon the minister.

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.

The court of France displayed a magnificence that had never before been witnessed. The palace of Versailles, and the gardens which were adorned with statues, fountains, and alleys of trees, were a model of taste for all Europe, fetes of all kinds, jovial parties, ballets, fireworks, the opera and the theatre, in the service of which the first intellects in France employed their talents, followed upon each other in attractive succession; poets, artists, men of learning, all were eager to do honor to a prince who rewarded with a liberal hand every kind of talent that conduced either to his amusement or to his glory. Sumptuous buildings, as the Hospital of Invalides, costly libraries, magnificent productions of the press, vast establishments for the natural sciences, academies, and similar institutions, exalted the glory and renown of the great Louis. The refined air of society, the polished tone, the easy manners of the nobility and courtiers, subdued Europe more permanently and extensively than the weapons of the army. The French fashions, language, and literature, bore sway from this time in all circles of the higher classes. The consequences of the French Academy by Richelieu were a development of the language, style, and literary composition, that was extremely favorable to the diffusion of the literature. The language, so particularly adapted for social intercourse, for conversation, and for epistolary writing, remained from henceforth the language of diplomacy, of courts, and of the higher classes; and although the literary productions are wanting in strength, elevation, and nature, - the polish of the form, and the ease and felicity of the style, gave French taste the supremacy in Europe, and strengthened the French people in the agreeable delusion that they were the most civilized of nations.

But however flatterers may sing the praises of the age of Louis XIV, one spot of shame remains ineradicable the persecution of the Huguenots. The French king believed that the unity of the Church was inseparable from a perfect monarchy. For this reason he oppressed the Jansenists, a Catholic party, which first contended against the Jesuits, and afterwards against the head of the Church himself; and he compelled the. Calvinists, by the most severe persecutions, either to fly, or to return into the bosom of the Catholic Church. Colbert, who esteemed the Huguenots as active and industrious citizens, prevented for some time these violent measures; but the suggestions of the royal confessor, La Chaise, the zeal for conversion of the affectedly pious Madame Maintenon, who had been first a tutoress of the court, and afterwards Louis' trusted wife, and the cruelty of Louvois, the minister of war, at length triumphed over the advice of Colbert. A lon g succession of oppressive proceedings against the Huguenots prepared the way for the great stroke. The number of their churches was restricted, and their worship confined to a few of the principal towns. Louis' paroxysms of repentance and devotion were always the sources of fresh oppressions to the Calvinistic heretics, by whose conversion he thought to expiate his own crimes. They were gradually excluded from office and dignities; converts were favored; in this way, the ambitious were enticed, the poor were won by money, which flowed from the king's conversion chest, and from the liberal gifts of the pious illustrious; a wide field was opened to the zeal for proselytism by the enactment that the conversion of children under age was valid. Families were divided, children were torn from their parents and brought up as Catholics. Court and clergy, the heartless and eloquent bishop Bossuet at their head, set all means in motion to establish the ecclesiastical unity of France. When all other means of conversion failed, came the dragonades. At the command of Louvois, the cavalry took possession of the southern provinces, and established their quarters in the dwellings of the Huguenots. The prosperity of the industrious citizens, whose substance was devoured by the dragoons, soon disappeared. The bad treatment by these booted missionaries, who quitted the houses of the apostates to fall in doubled numbers upon those who remained stedfast, operated more effectually than all the enticements of the court or the seductions of the priests. Thousands fled abroad that they might preserve their faith upon a foreign soil. At last came the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, October, 1685. The religious worship of the Calvinists was now forbidden, their churches were torn down, their schools closed, their preachers , banished from the land; when the emigration increased to a formidable degree, this was forbidden, under punishment of the galleys and forfeiture of goods. But despite all threats and prohibitions, upwards of 500,000 French Calvinists carried their industry, their faith, and their courage to Protestant lands. Switzerland, the Palatinate of the Rhine, Brandenburg, Holland, and England, offered an asylum to the persecuted. The silk manufacture and stocking weaving were carried abroad by the fugitive Huguenots. Flatterers ex tolled the king as the exterminator of heresy, but the courage of the peasants in Cevennes, and the number of Huguenots who contented themselves with private devotion, show how little religious oppression conduced to the desired end. For when the persecution was carried into the distant valleys of the Cevennes, where Waldenses and Calvinists lived, according to ancient custom, in the simplicity of the faith, the oppressors met with an obstinate resistance. Persecution called forth the courage of its victims, oppression urged zeal into fanaticism. Led on by a young mechanic, the Camisards, clad in a linen frock, rushed "with naked breast against the marshals." A frightful civil war filled the peaceful valleys of Cevennes fugitive priests, in the gloom of the forest, exhorted the evangelical brethren to a,desperate defense, till, at length, the persecutors grew weary. Nearly two millions of the Huguenots remained without rights and with out religious worship.