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

The "Gabelle" or Salt Tax

Henry ii. , who now in 1547 became king, had none of his father's gracious ways. He was ruled by his favourite, Diana of Poitiers, for whose sake he paid little attention to his young wife, Catherine de Medici.

But Diana was not all-powerful. The king was also greatly influenced by the Constable Montmorency and the Duke of Guise, and he gave to them and their families all the most important positions in the kingdom.

To show you how little Henry ii. tried to win his people's heart, and how ungracious he was compared to his father, Francis i. , I will tell you of the trouble that befell the province of Guienne.

Francis i. , when he died, had left the hated Gabelle, or salt tax, in force. Yet about five years before his death, when an insurrection broke out in Rochelle over the Gabelle, Francis had treated the rebels with royal graciousness.

The Rochellese had refused to pay the tax, and driven away the tax-collectors.

On hearing this Francis i. had himself gone with troops to Rochelle.

The people being warned that the king was coming determined to submit, and assembled in the Town Hall to await him.

No sooner had Francis entered and sat down than the magistrates of the town, falling on their knees before the king, besought him to pardon the people, for they had repented, and would never again refuse to pay their taxes.

Then Francis stood up and said, "Speak no more of the revolt. I desire neither to destroy your persons, nor to seize your goods. I long more for the hearts of my subjects than for their lives and their riches. I will never at any time of my life think again of your offence, and I pardon you without excepting a single thing. I desire that the keys of your city and your arms be given back to you."

The people's hearts were won by the king's kindness, and the fine, which was the only punishment imposed on them, was paid with right goodwill.

But now, a year after Henry ii. had become king, the people of Guienne revolted against this same salt tax. Furious with the collector of the Gabelle, they killed him. Two of his officers also they beat to death, throwing their bodies into the river Charente, crying the while, "Go, wicked Gabellers, salt the fish of the Charente."

When Henry ii. heard what the peasants had done, he was very angry. The Constable Montmorency was sent to punish the rebels, and marched toward Bordeaux, the chief city of the revolt.

Hearing of the constable's approach, and knowing it was useless to resist, the poor people determined that they would do all they could to appease his wrath.

They therefore sent their chief citizens to meet him with the keys of the city, and begged him to come to Bordeaux in a boat, which they had fitted up for him with every comfort and luxury.

Montmorency was not the man to have pity. "Away, away with your boat and your keys,"he cried. "I have other keys here with which I mean to enter your city," and he grimly pointed to his guns.

Then, making a breach in the walls, the constable and his army entered the city. More than a hundred persons were put to death, and many others were publicly whipped. Heavy fines were laid upon the citizens, and to complete their disgrace the bells were taken from the belfries, the clocks from the towers.

The miserable people fell on their knees in the street, and begged the constable to have pity on them. Only then did Montmorency, satisfied that he had done the king's will, withdraw his troops.

In 1552 Henry, through the influence of the Guises, declared war on Charles v. , who was now more powerful than ever. Many of the German princes were jealous of the emperor's power, and eager to make a league with Henry ii. against Charles.

So, confident of success, the French king marched into Germany, where three cities at once opened their gates to their new ally.

One of these cities, Metz, Charles v. determined to besiege, and if possible to retake.

For two months the emperor's cannon battered on the walls of Metz; he even made several efforts to take the city by assault. But all his attempts were vain, so gallantly was the city defended by the constable and the Duke of Guise.

Winter came, and the emperor's army suffered from cold and famine. The day after Christmas 1552, Charles in despair decided to raise the siege.

It was seldom that he had been baffled, and as his army marched away from Metz in the middle of the night, Charles, who was an old man, said, "I see very well that Fortune resembles women; she prefers a young king to an old emperor."

Old age, and perhaps fear of further defeat, made Charles now resolve to resign his great possessions to his son, Philip ii. of Spain, while he himself went into a monastery for the rest of his life.

Philip ii. continued the war with France after his father had retired, and in this he was helped by his wife, Mary Tudor, Queen of England, who sent both money and men to his aid.

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