Gateway to the Classics: Peeps at History: France by John Finnemore
Peeps at History: France by  John Finnemore

The House of Bourbon—I.

Henry of Navarre, Henry IV., the first King of the House of Bourbon, had a dismal prospect before him when he came to the throne. The hosts of the League were, of course, his bitter enemies, and great numbers of nobles who had followed the late King refused to acknowledge a Huguenot sovereign. Paris, his capital, refused to receive him, and he was compelled to retire to the North of France with the small army which remained faithful to him. The first years of his reign were filled with battle against the troops of opponents who joined to assail him, until at Ivry, in 1590, he dashed the army of the League to pieces.

Henry now laid siege to Paris, whose citizens suffered the most dreadful agonies of famine rather than surrender to their Huguenot King. Nor did the city fall, for a strong army of Leaguers and Spanish troops came to assail Henry, and he was compelled to march away. For another year Henry IV. moved to and fro in his country, fighting with its people here and there, more like an invader than the rightful King of the land, and then he came to a most important decision. He saw that the French people would never accept a Huguenot King, so he became a Roman Catholic. Some people think he made this change carelessly, saying "Paris is worth a mass"; others say that he really had the good of his country at heart, and wished to put an end to the miserable civil wars. Be that as it may, it is certain that the mass of the people accepted him as King without more ado, and France enjoyed a settled peace after many years of murderous strife.

Henry IV. used his power as King to help his Huguenot friends, though he was no longer a Huguenot himself. He made an edict—that is, a royal command—called the "Edict of Nantes." This decree gave the Huguenots the right to worship in their own way, and forbade anyone to disturb their meetings; it also said that they might have schools and colleges of their own, and that they might hold offices of State. Now the Huguenots could settle down in peace, and as they were some of the most industrious and skilful people in France, they became prosperous, and by them the state of the country was improved in many ways.

Henry reigned for some twelve years after the Edict of Nantes was issued, and in that time he did much for the welfare of his people. He was a very kind, generous, and lovable man, and before his reign was over, those who had been his enemies were as deeply attached to him as his oldest friends. Henry busied himself in seeing that the land was improved, and bridges built, so that people might go easily about their business. He took great interest in the mulberry which some Frenchmen had brought into France to feed the silkworm. As the mulberry-trees throve, silkworms were reared in large numbers, and silk-weaving became an important industry. In all these matters he was greatly helped by an able statesman, who was his chief Minister and friend, the Duke of Sully.

Towards the end of his reign, Henry IV. resolved to make war on Spain and Austria, and he was about to set out on a great campaign when his life came to an end. He was driving through the streets of Paris when his carriage was checked for a moment by a block in the street. Suddenly a man sprang on the wheel and struck the King twice with a dagger, and the good and brave Henry IV. was killed on the spot. The man was named Ravaillac, and proved to be a Catholic who felt sure that the King was still at heart a Huguenot, and could not bear that he should rule over France. Ravaillac was put to death with fearful torture, and the people mourned for their King, crying: "We have lost our father." And to this day there is no French King held in such fond memory as the generous and noble Henry the IV.

He was followed in 1610 by his son Louis XIII., but Louis was only eight years old, and the government was in the hands of his mother, Mary de Medici, another Italian Princess of the great Florentine family. Mary was by no means so wicked a woman as Catherine de Medici, but she ruled badly and wasted the treasure which Henry IV. had gathered. In 1614 there was a meeting of the States-General. It is memorable as being the last meeting for nearly two hundred years; when it came together again the temper of France had altered in a wonderful manner.

The States-General put forward complaints, but, as usual, little attention was paid to them. The deputies said of the peasants: "Your poor people are but skin and bone, worn out, beaten down, more dead than alive; we beseech you to do something to settle the disorders of the taxes." But nothing was done. The people were forced, as they had always been forced, to find all the money required to carry on the services of government, and the members of the States-General were soon sent away. The authority of the Kings of France had been growing steadily for many reigns, but in the time of Louis XIII. and his son it became very great.

This great power was not gained by Louis XIII. himself, for he was a weak and rather foolish man, but it was won for him by his great Minister, Cardinal Richelieu. This famous Churchman was not only a great ruler of men, but himself a man of the most undaunted resolution. He feared no one, and once he had made up his mind he drove through all things to his end. Richelieu was the real ruler of France. The Cardinal had no easy path to follow. He was ringed about by enemies, and scores of plots were formed against him. Nor could he depend upon the master whom he served so faithfully. Time and again the weak Louis was persuaded by the enemies of Richelieu to destroy the Minister's power, and time and again the resolute Cardinal overthrew his foes of the Court and won back the favour of his King.

One great aim of Richelieu was to destroy the power of the nobles, for they only could stand against the King. The people could do nothing against their sovereign and his army, and as there was no meeting of the States-General, they had no chance of making complaints and seeking redress. But the nobles gathered their retainers together and rose in revolt, and in this way could threaten the King's authority.


Cardinal, duc de Richelieu

In the early days of his power, Richelieu was not severe against the Huguenots; but when the Huguenots became so dissatisfied with the Government that they broke into rebellion, he determined to seize their great stronghold of La Rochelle, on the west coast of France. He marched there with a great army, and a long and cruel siege followed. The French Protestants looked for help from England, and the Duke of Buckingham, the favourite of Charles I., came with an English fleet to bring supplies. But Richelieu caused a great mole, a barrier, to be thrown out into the sea, so that no ships could gain the harbour, and the English had to go away and leave La Rochelle to its fate. The Huguenots made a splendid defense, and endured the worst miseries of famine before they gave up their town. But in the end they surrendered, and the town fell into the hands of the King. With the loss of Rochelle the Huguenots lost their power in France, and were no more a great party in the State.

Many discontented French nobles had joined the Huguenots, and these fell with their Protestant allies, and were ruined. The fall of these powerful men left fewer to cope with the King and the Cardinal, and thus the royal power was increased. The last years of both Richelieu and Louis were filled with a great war against Spain. This war went in favour of France, so well did the great Cardinal manage affairs, but before the end of it both Louis and Richelieu were dead. The Cardinal died in 1642, and Louis in 1643. The next King was a child, five years old. Like his father, he was named Louis, and was crowned as Louis XIV. This little King grew up to be so powerful a ruler that the French remember him to this day as Le Grand Monarque, the "Great Monarch," and he reigned for seventy-two years.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The House of Valois—IV.  |  Next: The House of Bourbon—II.
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.