Gateway to the Classics: The Story of France by Mary Macgregor
The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor

The Diligent King

Long before the death of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis xiv. had said, "The cardinal does just as he pleases, and I put up with it because of the good service he has rendered me, but I shall be master in my turn."

Now that Mazarin was dead, the king's turn had come, and he soon showed that he did indeed mean to be master.

Never was there a king who worked as Louis xiv. worked. He had heard of the Sluggard Kings of long ago, and had no patience with them, saying petulantly, "I do not like those Do-Nothing kings who were led by the nose."

Eight hours a day this busy monarch gave to the work of the State, his councillors being little more than clerks.

Nothing was allowed to be signed without Louis's permission.

"I warn you," he said gravely to his secretaries, "not to sign anything, even a safety-warrant or passport, without my command, and to report every day to me personally."

At first the courtiers laughed to one another at the industry of their king, thinking it was but a passing mood. But soon they grew wiser, seeing Louis meant to persevere. And indeed, for fifty-four long years, Louis xiv. carried the burden he had lifted on to his own shoulders without a murmur.

His work brought its own reward, as work well done will always do. Even of the first early days after the death of Mazarin, he wrote, "I found myself quite another being. I discovered in myself what I had no idea of. Then it dawned upon me that I was king and was born to be."

Mazarin had had insight enough to foretell the true character of the young king, who, while the cardinal was alive, had seemed so indolent.

"He will set off late, but will go farther than others," he said. "He has in him the stuff of four kings and one honest man."

For several years before the death of the cardinal, Fouquet had been Minister of Finance, that is, he had looked after the public money of the kingdom.

Mazarin had warned the king that Fouquet was dishonest, using public money for his own purposes, while the queen-mother had not scrupled to call him a thief.

One of Louis xiv. 's first acts was to study the finances of the State. He found that Fouquet's public accounts were not correct, and that he had gathered together a large amount of wealth for his own use.

Indeed Fouquet, hoping to win the favour of the king, asked Louis to a splendid banquet at his country house. Here Louis saw for himself the reckless extravagance of the feast, as well as the pictures, the statues and other treasures which the minister had bought with the money he had filched from the State.

The splendour surrounding Fouquet roused the king's jealousy as well as his anger. He ordered the minister to be arrested and his papers examined. It was said that among them was a plot against the king's life.

So Fouquet was tried on a charge of treason, and found guilty. He was then sent to prison and kept in a dreary dungeon for the rest of his life.

Colbert, a simple burgher and an honest business man, now took Fouquet's place. He reduced the taxes which were driving the people to desperation, yet in a few years he had increased the money in the king's treasury. This he did by encouraging the industries of the country, among others silk, glass and china. He also ordered a large fleet to be built, as well as harbours and roads. You see, in these days the Minister of Finance had a great deal to do with spending the public money as well as filling the king's treasury.

In Colbert, Louis xiv. had a servant after his own heart, save that sometimes the luxury and extravagance of the court drove the minister to complain to the king himself.

"A useless banquet at a cost of a thousand crowns causes me incredible pain," he once wrote to Louis. "The right thing to do, sire, is to grudge five sous for unnecessary things, and to throw millions about when it is for your glory."

It was useless, however, for Colbert to speak to the king of economy, for, though Louis worked hard, he knew how to enjoy himself when work was over.

He spent huge sums of money on transforming the hunting-lodge at Versailles into a beautiful palace, and when the building was finished he gave balls and banquets that cost fortunes.

Soon, too, foreign wars began to engross the king's attention, and on these wars he spent more money than he had spent on his pleasures.

In 1665 the King of Spain died, and Louis at once claimed the Spanish provinces of Flanders and Brabant for his wife, the Infanta Maria, though at his marriage he had given up all right to any Spanish possessions.

The Spanish king was only a little boy of four years old, but his ministers refused the demands of the French king. So in 1667 Louis assembled a large army, and sent it under General Turenne to seize Flanders and Brabant.

Turenne had little fighting to do, for town after town threw open its gates to the great general.

But Louis xiv. was ambitious, and could not now be content with these provinces. The glory of war had become a passion, so that the year after Flanders and Brabant had been taken by Turenne, the king assembled another large army, giving the command this time to the Prince of Condé, who had been reconciled to his country.

Into Franche Comté, a country belonging to Spain, but which was called "Franche" or "Free" because it really ruled itself, marched the French army under the Great Condé.

Franche Comté lay between Switzerland and Burgundy, and Condé took care that no rumour of his march should reach the country before he arrived. Stealing quietly upon the inhabitants, he speedily forced them to surrender.

Other countries now began to be alarmed at the greed with which Louis xiv. snatched up new dominions for France. So England, Sweden and Holland entered into a Triple Alliance, determined to force him to make peace with Spain.

In 1668 Louis, finding these three great Powers against him, signed, with no good grace, the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, by which he gave back Franche Comté to the Spaniards.

But if the Dutch expected to escape the wrath of the French king for interfering with his schemes, they soon found out their mistake. Before many years had passed, Louis raised a large army, and, with Turenne and Condé at its head, sent it into the Netherlands.

With the French army there was also a soldier called General Martinet, who drilled his soldiers so sternly, and whose discipline was so severe, that his name has come down to us as a byword. So if some day you hear a stern school-master or a strict colonel called "a regular Martinet," you will know from whom the strange name comes.

It was in 1672 that Louis sent his army into the Netherlands. At that time the President of the Dutch Republic was the Prince of Orange, who was soon to become William iii. , King of England.

When he heard that the French had taken all the frontier towns and had besieged Amsterdam, the prince ordered the dikes to be broken down and the sluices to be opened. When this was done the sea rushed in over the country, right up to the walls of Amsterdam, and the Dutch fleet was able to sail to the relief of the city.

Even Louis xiv. could not help admiring the resolute courage of the Dutch, who had sacrificed so much rather than yield to the enemy.

The war still dragged on until 1674, when Louis, with Holland still in arms against him, was forced to withdraw. But the king did not yet mean to return to France. Instead he again marched into Franche Comté, and for the second time took it from the Spaniards. General Turenne he sent across the Rhine to fight against the Germans.

The great general marched through one of the most beautiful provinces of the Rhine, called the Palatinate, destroying the towns, the villages, the farms, the vineyards, so that for years the peasants hated his name. This cruelty is the one stain on the name of the French general.

In 1675 Montecuculi, a great German commander, was sent to punish the French. The two armies met at Sasbach, on which town Turenne had forced the Germans to fall back.

General Turenne was very sure of victory, and, as he gave his men his last orders before the battle began, he cried, "I have them, they shall not escape again."

The battle began. Turenne sat under a great tree, up which he had ordered an old soldier to climb, to tell him of the enemy's movements.

At length a message came begging Turenne to join his men, who were sore pressed. The general sent reinforcements, and a little later leaped upon his horse and galloped toward his troops.

"I don't at all want to be killed to-day," he is said to have kept repeating, as he drew rein in a hollow to avoid the balls of the enemy.

Alas! as he moved forward to look at the German defences a ball struck him. He went on a few paces and then fell from his horse, dead.

His soldiers, seeing that their general was killed, were so grieved that their bitter cries were heard "two leagues away."

Montecuculi knew what the cry meant, and halted, taking off his helmet as he said, "To-day a man has fallen who did honour to man."


"To-day a man has fallen who did honour to man."

Without its leader the French army was soon beaten, and forced to retreat before the victorious Germans.

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