Meanwhile, over in France…
Religion was getting political. Half of France’s nobility were Huguenots (aka French Protestants influenced by Calvin). Half is a lot and they were a powerful political threat to the king. The ultra-Catholic party paid for and recruited large armies to oppose the Huguenots. They fought for over 30 years including the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, when Catherine de’ Medici ordered the murder of 10,000 Huguenots in their homes before they even woke up. Ironically, in 1589, Henry IV (a Huguenot) became king, but realized his Protestantism was causing more conflict, so he converted to Catholicism to appease the people and the war came to an end. He issued the Edict of Nantes making Catholicism the official religion of France, but also gave Huguenots “the right to worship and to enjoy all political privileges such as holding public offices.” This meant they could live in 100 fortified cities.
If they were willing to fight for 30 years, why was it so simple to end the conflict with the Edict of Nantes? They were tired of war, for one thing. But also, Henry IV worked to rebuild France. “I hope to make France so prosperous,” he said, “that every peasant will have chicken in the pot on Sunday.” Technically there was not chicken for everyone, but the people could tell that he cared and they were glad to finally experience peace.
Henry IV’s son, Louis XIII, succeeded him but he was not a very strong leader. Apparently he had some self-awareness, so he appointed a Catholic cardinal, Richelieu, to be his chief minister – basically running the country. Richelieu, unlike the real king, was glad to be a leader. His goal was to increase the strength of the monarchy and to make France the strongest state in Europe. His biggest concerns were: (1) the independence of the Huguenot cities, (2) the power of the French nobility, and (3) the encircling armies of the Hapsburgs. He addressed this by destroying the walls, fortifications, and castles of both the Huguenots and the French nobles.
Louis XIII and Richelieu both died around the same time, leaving Louis XIV to be king at only five years old. This wasn’t exactly ideal so Cardinal Mazarin took over from Richelieu in “helping” run the country. Mazarin continued Richelieu’s authoritarian policies (essentially persecuting Huguenots, increasing taxes, and ignoring the parliament). He was incredibly unpopular with both the French nobles and the lower classes. Unsurprisingly, people eventually revolted, attacking him and the young King Louis XIV at the palace in Paris. Because he grew up with this violence and insecurity, Louis came to hate Paris (#PTSD) so when it was eventually up to him, he went ahead and built his palace in Versailles instead. Can you blame him?
When his minister Cardinal Mazarin died in 1661, Louis XIV felt ready to lead at the age of 23. I mean, who wouldn’t? He didn’t want anyone to do anything without his permission going forward. He said, “I had no intention of sharing my authority with them” about government ministers.
“[Up] to this moment I have been pleased to entrust the government of my affairs to the late Cardinal. It is now time that I govern them myself. You [secretaries and ministers of state] will assist me with your counsels when I ask for them…I request and order you to seal no orders except by my command…I order you not to sign anything, not even a passport…without my command; to render account to me personally each day and to favor no one.”
Talk about micromanaging! When it came to things like foreign power, the church, and taxes, Louis was 100% in control. But local governments were really run by nobles, local officials, and town councils, which made it harder for Louis to implement his every wish and command at that level. Did he let that stand in his way? Absolutely not. He obviously just bribed the people necessary to carry out his policies.
Besides his love of absolute power, Louis also enjoyed the finer things in life, especially food. “Nearly 500 cooks, waiters, and other servants worked day and night to satisfy his tastes. An observer claimed that the king once consumed four plates of soup, a whole pheasant, a partridge in garlic-flavored sauce, two thick slices of ham, a salad, a plate of pastries, fruit, and hard-boiled eggs in a single sitting!” Sounds like a Michael Phelps breakfast of champions, except for the minor lack of athleticism (I assume). The point is that he had high standards. Louis also had impressive taste in art and fashion. His cultural influence cannot be overstated. Louis was into Renaissance art and bought hundreds of pieces of Renaissance sculpture from Italy and even had the Mona Lisa in his bedroom (nbd). But he was also interested in current art as well. In fact, “not since Augustus of Rome had there been a monarch who aided the arts as much as Louis.” In other words, he popularized operas, comedies, and tragedies throughout Europe and was a patron of the arts (spending loads of money to pay for artists to live and work). Art went from being all about God to all about the King.
Controlling all government policy and influencing the culture of a continent wasn’t enough for the fashionable young king, so Louis increased his power with an army of 400,000 in wartime. What war? Oh, he waged four wars over about 45 years with the goal of expanding France’s boundaries. But he got skunked and was 0 for 4!
How can this be? Let me explain. Louis XIV took power just 10 or so years after the end of the 30 Years War which left Germany a mess and, right around the same time, Parliament was getting control back in England. Basically, France did not have much competition as a major power in Europe. Yet, despite this advantage, Louis was ultimately a military failure because the weaker countries in Europe employed the defense strategy known as a balance of power – they banded together to equal or exceed French power – and ultimately succeeded.
In case you couldn’t tell from the construction of Versailles or even any of his portraits, let me emphasize the fact that the king was spending money like it was his job. Louis spent money on the palace at Versailles, maintaining his court (it isn’t easy being king), and on those aforementioned wars. He needed to make a little cash to help fund these expenses. Solution? Meet Jean-Baptiste Colbert, controller-general of finances. (Yes, like Stephen, the host of The Late Show on CBS and his bandleader Jean Batiste. I can’t make this stuff up.)
Colbert sought to increase France’s wealth and power by following the principle that a country’s economic strength depended on acquiring gold and silver, increasing manufacturing, encouraging trade, establishing colonies, improving shipping and the navy, and shipping out more goods to other countries than they imported into France. This principle has a name. The name is mercantilism. In order to keep the flow of trade going out to other countries (meaning more exports than imports and more money for French traders), Colbert provided financial aid to new industries, making it easier for them to start exporting ASAP. He also built roads and canals which made it easier to communicate as well as move goods throughout France. And because he wanted French traders to make all the money, he added taxes to foreign goods coming to France (aka tariffs) and created a marine system for shipping French goods. Colbert clearly worked like crazy to improve France’s economy.
I wish we could leave it at that, but Louis kind of messed up everything that Colbert had accomplished. After the controller-general of finances died in 1683, Louis XIV decided religious harmony was a top priority. And apparently, to him, religious harmony meant religious intolerance and converting Huguenots to Catholicism. Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had (at least technically) protected the religious freedom of the Huguenots for the last 100 years. Without this protection, Huguenots couldn’t go to their Protestant churches or schools and could even be imprisoned. These same Huguenots were many of the country’s skilled workers and business leaders. They were involved in trade, banking, and much of the industry that Colbert had built up. But since they weren’t exactly feeling the love (to say the least), at least 200,000 Huguenots fled to England, the United Provinces (Netherlands), and the German states. So because of Louis’s religious persecution, France lost a vital part of the economy. Oops.
So to sum it up: Louis XIV was a big deal because of his lavish lifestyle and his cultural influence. (France is still known as a leader in fashion today!) But he was a major drain on the French economy. French citizens paid high taxes that funded his palace, his glamorous court and entertainment, as well as his wars. Between the financial burden of taxes, the physical devastation of wars, and the religious persecution of Huguenots, Louis XIV’s legacy was not exactly one of popularity with the people. And in the end, he knew it.
“You are about to become a great king. Do not imitate me either in my taste for building or in my love of war. Live in peace with the nations…Strive to relieve the burdens of your people in which I have been so unfortunate as to fail.”
But hey, let’s give it up for a king who was the textbook definition of an absolute ruler, am I right?