Answering Questions on the Ascendancy of France 1589-1715: Richard Wilkinson Examines the Examiner's Agenda and Advises Accordingly

By Wilkinson, Richard | History Review, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Answering Questions on the Ascendancy of France 1589-1715: Richard Wilkinson Examines the Examiner's Agenda and Advises Accordingly


Wilkinson, Richard, History Review


The Problem

By May 1610 France had made a halting and partial recovery from the Wars of Religion which had plagued French society since the death of Henri II in 1559. This recovery, however, was severely jeopardised when its architect, the popular and pragmatic Henri IV, was stabbed to death in his coach by a suicidal fundamentalist. The French state's enemies both at home and abroad sharpened their knives in pleasurable anticipation.

Historian and examiners alike are fascinated by the outcome. For France did not relapse into a second dark age. She not only survived but became the arbiter of Europe, while at home the crown in the persons of the strange Louis XIII (1610-1643) and the splendiferous Louis XIV (1643-1715) dominated society as never before. It was la grande siecle abroad and the age of absolutism at home. How can this achievement be explained?

One solution is to belittle the achievement. The argument is that Louis XIII's chief ministers, Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, left Louis XIV so many unsolved problems with regard to foreign policy that in the end his enemies got the better of him. Indeed it can be argued that France in 1715 was weaker as a great power than in 1661 when Mazarin died. Meanwhile at home there was allegedly no such thing as absolutism. France was too big a place to be controlled from Paris or Versailles. Hence kings and ministers had to do a deal with the local aristocrats who held the real power. Royal government was also a hostage to the 60,000 salaried office-holders who dominated the parlements. Army and church were independent powers. The peasantry constituted a simmering cauldron, ever on the verge of revolt. But is this the whole story?

Foreign Policy/Domestic Policy

As a minimum exercise in revision, candidates must establish the aims of Henri IV, Richelieu, Mazarin and Louis XIV with regard to foreign policy. A sensible way of evaluating their achievements is to master the details of crucial treaties: Vervins (1598), Westphalia (1648), The Pyrenees (1659), Nymegen (1679), Ratisbon (1684), Ryswick (1697), Utrecht (1713). Was the expenditure of so much blood and treasure justified by the indisputable, but by no means dazzling, gains made during the 'long' seventeenth century? Certainly France was no longer vulnerable to invasion from the north-east as she had been during the 1630s. She was nobody's pushover during the wars of the eighteenth century.

What was the connection between foreign policy and the establishment of royal power at home? Monarchical power under the Cardinals and, still more, under Louis XIV certainly flourished. Did foreign policy aid or hinder this process? It certainly affected it. The most important general point for exam-candidates to grasp is the primacy of foreign policy. The decisions and priorities of France's rulers were 'foreign-policy-led'. To be specific, domestic reforms were postponed if they got in the way. Financial and economic priorities were subordinated to the insatiable demands of the French war-machine. Indeed the French, collectively and individually, were bankrupted by taxation to pay for war. In 1715 Louis XIV's government was 2,300 million livres in debt. This primacy of foreign policy is revealing when we consider the nature of French absolutism and of French decision-making.

The key question is, how was the money raised? In principle those who could afford least paid most. While the Church compounded for what was known as the don gratuit--which in effect meant getting off lightly--and the towns negotiated with the local government representatives, the nobles paid nothing. The bulk was extracted from the peasants by what historians have called 'fiscal terrorism', that is to say force, if necessary backed by soldiers. Louis XIV refined the brutal crudities of the Cardinals' men by achieving mutually beneficial arrangements with tax-farmers, often acting for well-placed aristocrats.

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