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

The House of Bourbon—II.

While Louis XIV. was growing up, the land was ruled by his mother and a strong Minister, Cardinal Mazarin. At this time France was much disturbed by civil wars, which broke out on the always vexed question of taxation. They were known as the "Wars of the Fronde"—that is, the wars of the sling. They took this joking name because some witty people compared the complaining party to the naughty boys of Paris, who were fond of slinging stones and then running away when a watchman appeared. The Frondeurs said that Mazarin and the Queen-Mother laid too heavy taxes on the people, and after a good deal of fighting Mazarin was banished, but he soon returned and regained power. When Mazarin died Louis XIV. was twenty years old. He at once took affairs into his own hands, and for the next fifty years he ruled France alone, and ruled it absolutely at his own pleasure.

His power was unchecked, for the nobles who could have stood against him had been crushed, and the people who paid the taxes had no chance to ask for reforms, since Louis never called a meeting of the States-General. As a child the King had shown a proud and haughty temper; when he grew up his pride was boundless, and he brooked no opposition to his slightest fancy. All were to bend before him; everything must depend upon his will. "The State! I am the State!" he used to say, and he ruled France in that spirit.

This long reign is famous in French history for a number of reasons. Not only did Louis wage so many wars and win so many battles that he became the most powerful ruler in Europe, but numbers of very famous people lived in his time: great artists, painters, architects, and engineers. Louis was the patron of all these clever men and women, and treated them kindly, so that they praised him and worked for him, and helped to spread his fame as the ruler of France in a most glorious age for art and letters.

Louis the Great meddled with the affairs of almost every country of Europe, in the hope that he could make himself as powerful among his neighbours as he was at home; with England he had a great deal to do. He was a firm friend of Charles II., who took money from Louis, and was a pensioner of France. James II., when driven from his throne, fled to France and received aid from Louis, who tried to set James on his throne again, but failed. And with the next King of England, William III., Louis fought long and bitterly. William and Louis were already old enemies. William had been ruler of Holland before he came to the English throne, and Louis had tried to conquer William and his people, the sturdy Dutch.

But the Dutch remained unconquered. When Louis beat their armies and seemed to have the land at his feet, the Dutch opened the sluices in their dykes, allowed the sea to flow over their land, and saw their farms, houses, orchards and gardens sink beneath the waves rather than own the French King as their lord. In this way the attack of Louis was foiled. William of Orange never forgot the French assault, and his whole life was devoted to breaking down the power of the French King.

In many of these wars and quarrels of Louis XIV. religious feeling had a share, as well as ambition and love of power. Louis was a strict Roman Catholic, and had a great dislike of Protestants. This led to trouble between him and his Huguenot subjects, and in 168 5 he did a very wrong and foolish thing: he revoked, or called back, the Edict of Nantes. Under this famous Edict of Henry IV., the Huguenots had lived in quietness and contentment. Since the days of Richelieu no one had meddled with them, and they had settled down in peaceable communities, the best of all French subjects, for they were famous for their honesty, their industry, and their ability. Now Louis stripped them of all the protection which Henry of Navarre had provided. They were forbidden to meet for worship in their own fashion; their children must be brought up as Roman Catholics; their pastors and clergymen were ordered to leave France at once; but any other Huguenot was forbidden to leave the country under pain of the most severe punishment.

In spite of every threat, thousands and thousands of Huguenots fled from France. Soldiers were watching at every frontier, royal ships were watching at every port. Many Huguenots, trying to escape, were seized and sent to prison, to the galleys, to cruel punishment, but still they fled. Nothing could prevent them seeking in other countries the religious liberty denied to them in their own land. In this way Louis lost a great number of his best and cleverest citizens, and the country which gave them a home had a rich reward in securing these industrious and skilful people.

The Protestants who remained in France were treated in the most cruel manner, and in the Cevennes they rose and fought with the King's troops. This was the war of the Camisards, as the Protestants were called, and many were slain on both sides before the rising was put down. All these cruelties made Louis hated by every Protestant in Europe, and there were many who were not Protestants who feared his power, and wished to see it broken down. These enemies joined against him, and there were great wars in which the French army fought so well that Louis won victory after victory. But while he won glory on the field of battle, France was sinking into a state of dreadful misery. Louis was so powerful that there was no one in his kingdom who dared to tell him that he was ruining his country. He had driven away many of the best of its citizens, and on the rest of the people he laid a crushing burden of taxation.

He needed vast sums of money for his wars, for his palaces, for the great expenses of his Court, for his friends and favourites. He never summoned a meeting of the States-General, so that no deputies could lay before him the state of the country, but this is clearly shown by many books written at that time. One famous writer put down his thoughts in the form of a letter addressed to the King. He says: "The whole of France is one great hospital, with no food in it. The people who once loved you so well are now losing their trust in you, their friendship, and even their respect for you. You are obliged either to leave their rebellions alone or to massacre people whom you have driven to despair, and who are dying every day of diseases brought on by famine. The land is almost uncultivated, the cities and the country have lost their inhabitants, commerce has come to an end, and trade brings in no riches."

Towards the end of his long reign, the glory faded from the arms of Louis the Great. His old enemy, William III. of England and Holland, was dead, and Queen Anne was on the British throne. Her great general, Marlborough, beat the French again and again, until Louis was glad to make peace, and, after many years, Europe was free from strife. Peace was made in 1713, and two years later the Grand Monarch died. His son and his grandson died shortly before him, and the crown fell to his great grandson, a little boy who was crowned as Louis XV.

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