By Michael Sauter
Any approach to France to the history of France from Louis XIV to the French Revolution must begin with Cardinal Richelieu and his single-minded pursuit of France’s state interests. In this context, two of Richelieu’s policies are important. First, his reduction of the Huguenots’ strongholds established that no one in France would have special status within the French state. Second, his intervention in the Thirty Years’ War on the Protestant side launched a new era of raison d’état in foreign policy matters on the Continent. France may have been a catholic power, but national interests no longer knew any confession.
In 1642, Richelieu died, and Louis XIII followed the next year, leaving France to confront serious problems with little experienced leadership. The royal heir, Louis XIV, was only 5 years old, when he ascended the throne, which meant that the kingdom was left to a regency that was headed by the boy’s mother Anne of Austria. Richelieu had done his best to provide continuity in leadership by choosing as his successor another cardinal of the church, Jules Cardinal Mazarin, and Anne later confirmed Mazarin’s position as premier ministre.
Still, a royal minority is trouble for any kingdom, since uncertainty at the helm gives disgruntled nobles the opportunity to expand their influence. And Louis XIV’s minority was no different. First, France’s nobles had begun to chafe under Richelieu’s oversight. As you will recall from last time, the Cardinal had spies everywhere, so it was never safe to plot against him. Second, the regency was easily perceived as a foreign body. Not only was the queen mother a Spanish Habsburg, but the premier ministre was also Italian! Third, France’s exertions in the Thirty Years’ War were costing the people dearly, and taxes had increased steadily to meet the military’s needs.
Cardinal Mazarin’s first priority was, therefore, to bring stability to France by ending the Thirty Years’ War. He was instrumental in pushing the diplomacy that finally brought the many warring powers to an agreement. The signing of the final Peace of Westphalia was not enough, however, to stave of a noble uprising. In the same year the peace was signed a noble uprising called the Fronde (1648-53) broke out. The Fronde failed because the nobility remained divided, and their actions also led to a massive famine, particularly around Paris.
The Fronde’s historical importance lies in what it ended and also what it started. First, the Fronde marked the last of France’s traditional noble uprisings against the absolutist monarchy. From this point on, the nobility would be completely embedded in the new state, and future battles would be for relatively minor things such as tax exemption, but not regional autonomy. Second, Louis XIV lived through the Fronde, and even had to be evacuated from Paris to avoid being captured. He never forgot the insult, nor how dangerous the nobility could be, if set loose. Much of Louis’s reign would be spent making certain that no one could contest his primacy again.
In 1661, Cardinal Mazarin died, and Louis XIV entered his majority. The King surprised everyone, however, by declaring that he would rule directly, that is without a premier ministre. Louis’ act marked the climax of France’s long movement toward absolutism. He immediately centralized French governance under his eyes by creating a council of ministers, and each member of the council had a specific responsibility. This is a relatively new development, but it is of central importance for understanding the course of French and European history in this period.
The royal council’s most important ministries were War, Finance, and Foreign Affairs. The ministers who headed each division were France’s most important political leaders, and in the 1660s they were members of the most exclusive advisory body in all of France, the Conseil d'en Haut. Together with the King, this council ran the French state, and it says a good deal about the absolutist state that the smaller council included these three ministries and that it excluded the ministry of religion. The French government was designed to make war in the French state’s interests first. Religion came second.
France’s Conseil d'en Haut established policies that made France the most important state in Europe. In the ministry for war, for example, Michel Le Tellier (1603-1685) pushed through a series of reforms, including a military supply and transport system that made the French army a potent weapon. In the ministry of finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) consolidated Cardinal Richelieu’s mercantilist policy by creating an internal customs union, encouraging the development of colonies, and investing state money in industries. In foreign affairs Hugues de Lionne (1611-1671) made the French diplomatic corps the most efficient and ruthless in all of Europe. It was largely due to the professionalism that he injected into the Foreign Service that Louis XIV was able to embark, later, on successful if costly wars of conquest.
The central point for understanding Louis XIV’s reign is that he used the new state’s power to control France and interfere in Europe. First, we will look at France, and here I will concentrate on two aspects, royal policy on the nobility and, then, on religion. With respect to the nobility, Louis used a carrot-and-stick approach to domesticate the nobles. The carrot was, of course, Versailles, the King’s own personal Disneyland, in which nobles could be entertained and compete for influence on a stage set by the king. The stick was Le Tellier’s army, which guaranteed that any rebellion could now be met with overwhelming military force. In matters of religion Louis entered into what he probably thought was a final reckoning with the Huguenots by revoking the edict of Nantes in 1685. This act ended the Richelieuian compromise position and sent a flood of refugees to England, the Netherlands, and Brandenburg. This act would have its own consequences, and we will discuss one of them in a moment.
Louis tried to control all of Europe through a series of wars. Le Tellier, Colbert, and Lionne made it possible for Louis to wage a series of aggressive wars. In 1665, he started the War of Devolution, when he invaded the Spanish Netherlands on the basis of dynastic claims he had against the Spanish. Louis was beaten back by a coalition of states, but this was only the beginning of his adventurism. In 1672, Louis annexed Strasbourg, which sparked another war against yet another coalition. This war marked the peak of Louis’s power, as France’s military might allowed him to dictate terms to his opponents in the Peace of Nijmwegen (1678). Now France had not only Strasbourg, but also all of Alsace and Burgundy. Had Louis left well enough alone, France would have been the better for it.
Up until about 1680 Louis pursued an aggressive but prudent foreign policy, pushing the boundaries only to the point where countervailing forces began to coalesce, but without inviting a general war. After 1680, however, Louis’s policies became more rash, because he became more pious and ever more certain of himself. The increase in piety was due in part to a scandal, the Affair of the Poisons, in which one of his mistresses the Marquise de Montespan and some other hangers on were accused of impiety and sorcery. Louis responded by becoming ever more pious, and this trend was exacerbated by the death of the Queen Marie Thérèse of Austria (1638-1683) and the rise of new pious mistress Francoise D’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon (1635-1719). The certainty in his own glory stemmed, also in part, from the court’s permanent move to Versailles in 1682. At this point, Louis was completely isolated from the world and was surrounded only with sycophants and hangers on. It became ever more difficult to think independently and rationally.
The first sign of hubris came in 1685, with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. This act was completely unnecessary, as it took a relatively peaceful minority and made it a permanent problem for the monarchy, both within and outside France’s borders. The edict’s revocation also signaled a larger problem, the increasing importance of religion in Louis’s policy making. In 1688, for example, Louis took the side of the Catholic Stuarts against the Protestant victory in England’s Glorious Revolution. This was another stupid move, since it meant that England and Holland would have permanent dynastic reasons for opposing Louis’ power.
Most importantly, however, Louis’ hunger for glory got France involved in two useless and destructive wars. The first war came in the German Rhineland. In 1688, Louis invaded the German Rhineland and unleashed his troops to do nothing more than pillage and burn the German countryside. (The Romantic ruins of Heidelberg Castle are a direct result of this intervention, as French troops deliberately burned the castle.) Louis saw this as a defensive and punitive act. In 1686, various German princes, including the Elector of Brandenburg united in outrage at the revocation in the Edict of Nantes in the League of Augsburg. Louis’ military response to the German defensive posture merely galvanized the opposition to him and it also aided the revolution in England, since William III would never have dared sail to the British Isles in search of the English throne without the certainty that Germany’s princes were covering his back. Thus, in this single act, Louis managed to unite the English, the Dutch, the Holy Roman Emperor, and many German princes against him. The resulting war, called the Nine Years’ War (1688-97) was essentially a stalemate and cost France much money and many potential allies in its next campaign.
Louis’ biggest gamble came with his attempt to take the Spanish crown for the Bourbons. Charles II, the last Spanish Habsburg, was a feeble monarch. A victim of centuries of inbreeding, he was physically weak and mentally handicapped. Most of Europe had been waiting for him to die from the moment of his birth. In the end, he lived to be 35, but his death set off a European war. Louis had dynastic claims to the Spanish throne through both his mother and wife, and he wanted to use them to put his grandson on the throne in Madrid. Europe’s other powers were willing to agree to dynastic succession, provided that Louis agreed to keep the two crowns separate. This Louis would not do, because it was an affront to his sense of glory, and the result was twelve years of war that cost France much of its navy and Spain almost all of her empire. By the terms of the Peace of Utrecht (1713) Louis’ grandson Philip D’Anjou became king of Spain, but the two crowns were to be kept separate. Louis’ bid for European hegemony was defeated again, and at his death in 1715, France was beset with the uncertainty that came with another regency and further financial problems.
Louis XV was an infant when he came to throne, which meant that a regency would rule France for many years. The fact of the regency allowed the nobility to expand its influence and regain some of the privileges that it had lost under Louis XIV. In addition, when Louis XV came to the throne, he turned out to be a weak and ineffectual monarch, which meant that he could not address France’s fundamental problem of governance, flawed taxation policy. Even under Richelieu and Louis XIV, the tax base remained extremely narrow, as the nobility were largely exempt from taxation, which led to constant revenue shortages. These shortages were exacerbated, as always, by war. France got involved in the War of the Austrian Succession in the 1740s, which as you will recall had been started by Frederick II, and the King responded by trying to change the tax structure.
All attempts at reform were, however, rebuffed by the French Parlements, which were stacked by French nobles who were intent on limiting the king’s power. Thus, when France got involved in another war, the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) this time—also started by Frederick II—the revenue crush became so intense that the country could no longer compete. By 1763, the French had lost almost their entire overseas colonial empire to the British, who had managed their money much better.
In the 1770s Louis XV’s government made one last-ditch attempt to reform the French state’s rickety revenue and legal structures. Unfortunately for the crown, the reforms had been barely put in place when Louis XV died, and his successor, Louis XVI retracted the reforms in response to riots that had broken out in Paris and around the countryside.
As I am sure you know, Louis XVI is a tragic figure. He was a gentle person put into an impossible situation. Although he desired above all to maintain the peace, France’s bad finances forced him onto the difficult path of reform. By 1775, his minister of finance Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-1781) convinced him that without major tax and economic reforms the state would go bankrupt. In 1776, the king issued six reform edicts that, among other things, abolished guilds and internal tariffs, while reorganizing the tax and bureaucratic system. These reforms might have worked, but for a devastating series of harvests that spread famine and incited a series of riots. Unnerved by the violence, the king retracted all six edicts. Too many forces were arrayed against reform for any other than the strongest of monarchs to push policy change.
Thus, in 1776 France was already in a parlous financial state, when a golden opportunity seemed to present itself for revenge against the British. As you know, Britain’s thirteen colonies declared their independence in July of that year, and the French immediately granted large subsidies to the upstart state as a means for weakening their great tormentor. The problem with this policy was not its strategic insight; it did cost Britain a lot of money and prestige to finally lose the war against its colonists. The problem was that France did not have the money to spend, and the direct result of this revolutionary expense was the French Revolution itself. In the years 1786 and 1787, the French finance minister Charles-Alexandre Calonne tried in vain to institute reforms across the entire tax and legal system. He called an assembly of notables, which included nobles and wealthy bourgeoisie, in an attempt to drum up support, but they demanded that the king call and Estates General, which had not met since 1614. The king was without revenue, so he acceded to the demand, and the Estates General met on May 1, 1789, which proved to be the event that led to the monarchy’s downfall.
I will not go deeply into the Revolution’s events, since there are too many to cover adequately. I will simply list a few important moments that will help put my earlier discussion into context. The first moment is, of course, the famous tennis court oath on July 14, 1789, when members of the Estates General who had been locked out of their meeting room by the king declared themselves to constitute the National Assembly. Henceforth, only the National Assembly would have the right to speak for the entire nation. The old tri-partite division into separate orders was overthrown. The second major event came on June 21, 1791, when the King attempted to flee the country to join royalist émigrés in Germany. The reason for his departure was his opposition to the Constitution of 1791. The French National Assembly, although it did not want to abolish the monarchy, wanted it to be limited by a constitution. Such limits were unacceptable to true royalists. The upshot of the king’s flight was that revolutionaries saw him as a traitor and he was tried and convicted of treason, before being executed on January 31, 1793.
Louis’s demise and French domestic politics were driven by long-term internal problems, but they were also exacerbated by tensions with foreign powers that France’s previous policies had done much to create. Initially, France’s neighbors were more than happy to watch the French immolate themselves. As the revolution progressed, however, some of the eastern powers, especially Austria and Prussia, became nervous. In August 1791, Leopold II and Frederick William II joined in publishing the Declaration of Pillnitz, which called on all Europe’s powers to fight the revolution and maintain monarchical government. This was a stupid maneuver, especially since neither was truly serious about invading France. Moreover, neither monarch was in danger at home, so all the declaration did was make the Revolution a rabid enemy of all Europe’s monarchies, while dooming the very monarch it was supposed to save.
So it is against this backdrop of growing tension that the French Revolution became aggressive and expansionist. By early 1792 Louis XVI had become determined to regain power by leading France into war. The king’s desire for war dovetailed nicely with those of revolutionary radicals who wanted to export the revolution to the rest of Europe. On April 20, 1792 the National Assembly declared war on Austria, sparking what would become more than two decades of Revolutionary wars.
The war went in three phases. The first phase, from April to September 1792, went badly for the revolution, as Prussian and Austrian troops moved in on Paris. In the second phase, September to April 1793, the revolutionary armies pushed back the invaders. It was also during this period that Louis suffered execution. The war’s third phase April 1793 to May 1794 saw French reversals on the battlefield and, as a result, increasing radicalization at home. It was during this period that the revolutionaries turned to terror, as Maximilien Robespierre and his minions busily tried and executed anyone who was not deemed sufficiently radical. The fourth phase of the war began with a military turnaround. In June of 1794 French armies once again pushed back the invaders and took Belgium from the Austrians. A reaction against the terror now set in, and Robespierre was executed on July 28, 1794.
The force of French arms gave the revolution some breathing space, but its most radical days were now over. In October 1795 a new constitution was proclaimed that set up a powerful central government called the Directory. The government consisted of a directory with five members and two legislative councils. The wars continued and were strikingly successful, as the French Republic began setting up “sister republics” all along the French border. Austria and Britain would not, however, yield, and tensions over war strategy within France resulted in two coups against the government. The first came on September 4, 1797, when republican forces expelled royalist elements from the government. The second, and final, coup came on November 9, 1799, when a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew everybody and set himself up as First Consul. The French Revolution was finally over, and it had descended into despotism. The wars would continue, as you know, but those fights belong to another course.
So now I will conclude by looking back across the territory that we have covered in this lecture and highlight the basic themes that pull this story together. First, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, France was Europe’s wealthiest and most populous country; and given the rules of the diplomatic game, it was natural that France would make some attempt to gain hegemony over Europe. Nonetheless, the French monarchy could not achieve an hegemonic position and wound up suffering its overthrow in the French Revolution. Moreover, the French Revolutionary government would follow the same expansionist policy and was not only rebuffed but also fell to a coup, in the end.
Thus, although we have two different regimes in the period to 1799, both reached for and failed to achieve hegemony. This was for two reasons, though only the first applies directly to the monarchy. First, under the monarchy the French system of finance was a disaster, because its tax system was inefficient and unequal. The French had the resources to make European-wide war, but the French monarchy did not gather and use those resources effectively. This would change after the revolution, but here the second reason takes its full effect. Both the monarchy and the Revolution were exhausted by the grim determination of France and Austria to fight for what they believed was their survival. The British would never be defeated, and indeed they would annoy not only the Revolutionary but also the Napoleonic regimes. The Austrians were defeated a number of times, most devastatingly by Napoleon, but they kept coming back, drawing on their vast territories to wage repeated wars against French aggression. From this point until the unification of Germany by Otto von Bismarck in 1871, France would remain the fundamental strategic problem in Europe. Only after the German economy and army became the most powerful in Europe would Europe’s diplomatic contours change. Next time, we will talk about France and Germany’s nemesis the British.