I will try to write to you of simple things at the risk of being simplistic, but I think that for you who have a hard time mastering the history of France, which is rather complex even for us, these notes will help you to understand the political situation during the time of Saint Vincent. The presentation of Fr. lbailez (see pages 49-78) can offer you a more detailed and thus more accurate study guide.
I. The reign of Henry I (1589-1610)
Before his death, Henry III, the last Valois king, who died without any child, reconciled with and recognized Henry of Bourbon, king of Navarre, as his legitimate successor. Henry of Bourbon was a Protestant and took the name of Henry IV and began the Bourbon dynasty.
The new king had to conquer the greater part of the kingdom. Some of the Catholic lords of the realm immediately abandoned him preferring “to die a thousand deaths rather than to tolerate a Huguenot king.” He was equally abandoned by some Calvinists because he had solemnly declared that he wanted to maintain and conserve the Catholic religion and to confide the governance of villages/ towns that he will conquer, to the Catholics.
After four years of fighting, he conquered Paris. It was symbolical for Paris was the capital of the kingdom. After many ups and downs and after the Spaniards made an attempt to overthrow the throne, the opposition army, La Ligue, was disarmed and Henry IV was recognized as the rightful king. Thus, he was able to enter solemnly into Paris.
After these civil disorders, Henry went about healing the wounds of France. He was helped by the Duke of Sully, Minister of Finance. He re-established order in the accounts, paid the debts, bought the surrender of the officers of La Ligue and enriched the public treasuries! He favored agriculture: Labourage et paturage (labor and farming); these are the two breasts that nourish France. They are the “true mines of Peru” (the true source of living). He was less favorable to commerce and industry but he encouraged factories like the silk trades of Lyon and of Nimes, the tapestries of Gobelins, the golden and silver cloths in Paris. The famous goal of the good king Henry was “that all peasants will have chicken served on the table every Sunday.” That is still well-known today.
The Edict of Nantes
The king wanted to settle the religious problems. In less than a year after the signing of the Peace of Vervins on April 13, 1598, he promulgated the Edict of Nantes granting freedom of conscience to the Protestants all over the Kingdom, the freedom to worship anywhere and to have access to all employments. They can hold general assemblies and have hundreds of strongholds as safe places. The most famous of these strongholds was the Rochelle.
King Henry IV was assassinated by Ravaillac in 1610. He was greatly mourned by all. His eldest son Louis XIII was not yet nine years old, thus the need for a regency. Marie de Medici, the queen mother, was declared by the Parliament as Regent with “all power and authority.” Since she was of limited intelligence and was not prepared to reign, she chose a favorite, Concini who became a Marquis and governed France. Conde, Guise, and the other noble families plundered the public treasuries and led the battle. They wanted to regain the lost influence they had during the time of the king. The Estates General gathered in vain. Louis XIII was declared of age but left the governance to his mother. She held on to power until 1617.
The opposition of Conde continued until his arrest and Concini reigned as Master. The king was fainthearted. He was influenced by Luynes, his bird trainer who was determined to bring down Concini. Concini was assassinated.
II. Louis XIII and Richelieu
Made a Duke and a Marshal, Luynes became the minister in place of Concini. Since the Queen Mother was set aside from the current affairs, she took up the leadership of the opposition. Louis XIII made peace with his mother but the Protestants launched a new offensive and became powerful once again. Luynes opposed them with arms but died in front of Montauban, a stronghold, on December 1621.
Louis XIII who until then was open and happy became sad, closed, vindictive and mistrustful. He was supported by Richelieu who had regained the confidence of the king. He made of Louis XIII a great king even when the Cardinal himself had more fame than the king.
The Cardinal’s program was the following:
- Minimize the pride of the powerful
- Destroy the Protestants
- Subject everyone to the king
- Restore the name of the king abroad.
The first three points were realized:
A. The fight against the powerful was long and lasted until 1642. Gaston d’ Orleans, heir apparent, was the object of the opposition. Conspiracies and revolts were crushed without pity. On November 10, 1530 the Queen Mother thought she had succeeded in having Richelieu dismissed, but that night the King called for the Cardinal. This became the famous “Day of Dupes!”
In 1632, after the uprising of Langueduc, the Duke of Montmorency, was beheaded in Toulouse. This terrible example was worth ten years of peace for Richelieu. In 1642, Cinq-Mars, an opportunist of twenty-two years, wanted to topple the Cardinal and signed a treaty with Spain. Cinq-Mars was arrested and beheaded with his friend in Lyon. As to the Keeper of the Seal, Marshal de Marillac, he was beheaded in Paris at the Place de la Greve, under the pretext of misappropriation of public funds. In reality it was because he was of the same political party as the Queen Mother. His niece, Louise de Marillac was greatly affected by the event. Grief-stricken, she was consoled by M. Vincent in a manner only he knew how. Cardinal de Retz said of Richelieu, he “has struck men down rather than govern them.”
- La Rochelle belonged to the Protestant group and its voters elected ardent Calvinists to power in the local government. They opposed the king and defeated his army who lost more than twenty-thousand men and sixty officers. Because of this apparent victory, La Rochelle retained the freedom of worship and all their other franchises/exemptions. In 1622, all fighting seemed to end with the Treaty of Montpellier, but it was only a truce. The king ordered a siege which lasted fifteen months and isolated La Rochelle from the sea with an incredible dike. The city surrendered after a courageous stand on October 29, 1628. It took the Peace of Alais to stop the war of Cevennes by proclaiming an edit de grace (edict of pardon) that declared equality for all before the law and freedom of worship.
- The Thirty-Year War, named so because of the length of time the war raged, was religious and at the same time political in nature. The Princes fought for their religion and their independence against the House of Austria. The war can be divided into four periods:
- From 1618 to 1623 – the Palatine war
- From 1625 to 1629 – the Danish war
- From 1630 to 1635 – the Swedish war
- From 1635 to 1648 – the French war
Richelieu wanted to declare war against the House of Austria and to conquer the western frontier. He went from victory to victory in the North, in the Rhine, in Italy and in the South. In 1648, five days after the death of the king, the Treaty of Westphalia was signed giving Alsace to France but without Strasbourg. It was because of this war that the misery in France was constant and immense. Saint Vincent de Paul fought against it with all the determination for which he is known.
An Italian from a powerful Roman family, officer in the Pope’s army, Mazarin branched out into diplomacy. He was sent as Papal Nuncio to Louis XIII in 1634. Richelieu named him Cardinal and he later succeeded him (Richelieu). He was kind, gentle, simple and welcoming. Above all he was an excellent diplomat, an expert in European politics. But he did not understand anything about internal affairs and was not a statesman.
The problem he encountered was the Fronde (Parlement Fronde or Old Fronde and “Fronde of the Princes” or Young Fronde), a kind of civil war that started against the court during the minority of King Louis XIV.
The first (Parlement Fronde) concerned Paris that surrounded itself with barricades after the arrest of two councilors of the Parlement. Anne of Austria had to flee to Saint Germain. It was an attack in songs, of libels, of words. Conde blockaded Paris and obtained the Concorde of Rueil. But Conde wanted to profit by his victory and involved the Princes. They were at the origin of the Second Fronde. The King killed them with the assistance of Touraine, then later against him at Rethel. In any case, it was the victory of absolutism and Catholicism was in full bloom. And we know in what way because Vincent de Paul had a dominant role in it.