`Reduced to Cinders': The Impact of the French Religious Wars

By McKinnon-Bell, David | History Review, September 2000 | Go to article overview

`Reduced to Cinders': The Impact of the French Religious Wars


McKinnon-Bell, David, History Review


David McKinnon-Bell analyses the state of France around 1598 and explains why recovery under Henry IV was so rapid.

The civil wars which tore France apart in the second half of the 16th century had appalling consequences for her economy, society and people. Scholars and contemporaries have frequently emphasised the devastation and ruin which the country faced at the time of Henry IV's succession. This, in turn, has helped fuel the legend of Henry IV as the man who, by re-establishing peace, brought about prosperity and regeneration. As the Englishman Thomas Overbury observed in 1609: `He hath enriched France with a greater proportion of wool and silk, erected goodly buildings, cut passages betwixt river and river ... redeemed much of the mortgaged domains of the Crown, better husbanded the money [and] got aforehand in treasure, arms and munition.'

Yet this remarkable revival begs important questions about the state of France in 1598. Henry IV enjoyed a mere decade of peace during the second half of his reign in which to restore the economy, and some historians have questioned the extent of the `recovery'. Equally, it is worth re-examining the state of France at the end of the wars and placing her difficulties in a more general, European context. In what senses was France `ruined' in 1598?

The Breakdown of Royal Authority

The social and economic crisis of late sixteenth-century France was closely related to the collapse of monarchical authority. The sudden death of Henry II in 1559 was a painful reminder of the essentially personal nature of monarchy as a form of government and its dependence on the qualities and longevity of one individual. In the century prior to Henry's death, the power of the monarchy had been steadily extended. The long Habsburg-Valois wars had consolidated the relationship between the monarch and the nobility, strengthening the former at the expense of the latter. However, Henry II's unexpected death plunged France into a deep political crisis, as his sons were still children and his wife, Catherine de Medici, an inexperienced foreign `merchant's daughter' reliant, initially, upon the advice of the ambitious Guise family. The aristocratic struggle for control of a `weak' monarchy was one of the springboards for the civil strife that followed, as a succession of feeble rulers struggled ineffectually to impose their will and resolve the spiralling unrest. High politics in Paris interacted with local clientage networks to spread the conflict into every region of France, with regional elites taking advantage of the absence of a decisive Royal hand to further their own economic and political interests, under the cover of their religious affiliation or their obligations to a high-placed patron.

With the formation after 1572 of the Huguenot `Republic of the Midi' and the Catholic League, local government entirely slipped out of the hands of the King's servants. Regional governors arbitrarily assumed control over their provinces, for example Damville-Montmorency in Provence. The resultant anarchy is best exemplified by the chaos surrounding the levying, collection and distribution of taxes, and by the wholesale misappropriation of royal revenues by those charged with collecting them. Tax collectors were waylaid and relieved of their takings by brigands. The taille was diverted to the coffers of one or other faction. Municipalities, faced with the approach of hostile forces, often diverted taxation revenues to buy off the enemy or reinforce their defences. Elsewhere, local generalissimos simply levied, collected and spent taxes arbitrarily, regardless of the Royal writ. Conde introduced wholly new taxes to help defray his military costs, as did Mayenne in Burgundy. Meanwhile, the Estates-General refused to grant the regime the revenues it required to pay for the Royal army. Consequently, by 1589 the King was unable to command the obedience of his people in much of the country beyond the Loire Valley. …

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