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Louis XIII

Louis XIII of France, the son of Henry IV and of Marie de Midicis, was born at Fontainebleau on the 27th of September, 1601. He succeeded his father May 14, 1610, under the regency of his mother, was declared of age in 1614, and married Anne of Austria, a daughter of Philip III of Spain, in 1615. In 1620 Louis marched against his Protestant subjects, who had been provoked into a revolt. During the progress of this war Cardinal Richelieu obtained the favour and confidence of the king, who made him prime minister in 1624. As Louis was very deficient in political ability, Richelieu was the master-spirit of the government from that time until his death.

Richelieu was one of the world's great ministers. But to judge him rightly he must be judged in view of the fact which was the great source of his strength, that he worked in the direction already marked out by the long development of the French nation - a development which of he completed and rendered secure.

The greatest work of Richelieu in the completion of the absolute monarchy was to make it the habit of the French people so that from this time, if one may say so, it runs itself. It was also the work of Richelieu to perfect in a number of details the machinery by which this absolute government was carried on, and to do away with, or at least to destroy, the independence of such institutions as still remained from the times of a less arbitrary government.

The centralized government of France is by no means a creation of the 19th Century, but a production of the Ancien Regime. Since the days of Richelieu, ministers of finance and their intendants and delegates had taken the exclusive charge of police of every kind, public works and plans, the economic and spiritual welfare of the people. The elementary principles of political liberty and parliamentary constitution, of independent local administration and commercial freedom, were destroyed thereby.

Bureaucratic government divided the landowners from the people, and by the unjustified continuance of their privileges set the two henceforth in opposition. For because the nobleman paid no taxes, the burgher and farmer had to make up the deficit. Because he retained the right of chase, his game had to be fed on the crops of his tenants. If a not inconsiderable number of the higher middle classes gained the special privileges of nobility, the burthens of the rest of the people were only increased thereby. After the State, the Church, and the landlord had received their rates, the share of the farmer in the proceeds of his land never amounted to more than a half, and often his taxes rose to eighty per cent, of his income. On the other hand, the privileged classes paid at least a fifth less than the just proportion. With increasingly few exceptions, there was no more thought of any care to be taken of the lower classes by the higher.

Richelieu deprived the noble governors of provinces of the last relics of real power, leaving them nothing but mere display. He abolished the offices of constable of France and of grand admiral, which seemed to him too powerful to be held by subjects. He regulated and developed the system of executive ministers, or secretaries of state, and of royal councils to advise the king and direct the execution of his will. He introduced new agents of the royal power, called '' intendants,'' whose functions were like those of the enqudteurs of St. Louis, to keep the local officers to their duties, and to see that the laws were faithfully executed. Under Richelieu appeared the first French newspaper, the Gazette of France. It was a weekly of from eight to twelve quarto pages. Richelieu held it under complete control and supplied it with both news and opinions.

The policy of Richelieu was hampered by his domestic enemies, and the plots of Gaston of Orleans, the Count of Soissons, and Cinq-Mars, the youthful favourite of Louis XIII, a son of Marshal d'Effiat. Early in 1642 Cinq-Mars, who followed Louis like his shadow, and exercised over him an almost unbounded influence, proposed to the King the murder of Richelieu; nor does Louis appear to have been wholly averse to the enterprise, which seems to have failed only through the irresolution of the contriver. Cinq-Mars was at the same time holding secret communication with the Spanish Court. Cinq-Mars was at the same time endeavouring to effect a peace with Spain; for there were at that time in France two parties, the Cardinalists and the Royalists, of whom the former were for war and the latter for peace.

Reverses in the north, and especially the disastrous defeat of Marshal de Guiche at Honnecourt by Don Francisco de Mello, 26 May 1642, brought Louis to his senses. Richelieu sent Louis a copy of the treaty which Cinq-Mars had negotiated with the Spanish Court, and which had been forwarded to the Cardinal by some unknown hand. Cinq-Mars was immediately arrested. The Duke of Orleans, as well as the Duke of Bouillon, the commander of the French army in Italy, who were both concerned in Cinq-Mars' plot, were arrested. Gaston, alarmed by threats of death, basely betrayed his companions, turned informer for the Crown, and furnished the necessary evidence against Cinq-Mars, Bouillon, and their accomplice De Thou. CinqMars and De Thou were condemned and beheaded at Lyons, 12 September 1642.

The great Cardinal now beheld his policy crowned on all sides with success. Not only had he triumphed over his domestic enemies, but the French arms also were everywhere victorious. On 04 December 1642 Richelieu died, at the age of fifty-seven. In spite of his brilliant qualities and the benefits which his policy had conferred upon France, Richelieu died unlamented by the French people. He possessed not that bonhomie which had procured for Henry IV so universal a popularity; nor could his vast schemes of policy be comprehended and appreciated except by a few among the higher and more educated class of Frenchmen. A large proportion even of that class detested him as the founder of royal despotism; nor can it be denied that it was chiefly he who built up the absolute power of the French Crown. On the other hand, the experience of repeated revolutions showed that a strong government and the centralization of power, seemed to be indispensable for the peace, prosperity, and happiness of France; and, in this respect, Richelieu must be allowed to have thoroughly understood the genius and wants of the French nation. The France of that period, however, perceived not this necessity, and the death of the great statesman occasioned bonfires and rejoicings in various parts of the Kingdom.

Louis XIII. did not long survive his great minister. After a protracted decline, he died 14 May 1643, at the age of forty-one. In temper cold and melancholy, though not deficient in courage, he possessed neither eminent virtues nor extraordinary vices; and perhaps the greatest praise that can be accorded him is, that he was aware of his own mediocrity, and was content to resign himself to the direction of a man of genius.

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Page last modified: 03-04-2012 19:45:22 ZULU