The French Background
Mediæval France and the Italian wars.—The history of Mediæval France is largely the story of the struggle of the French kings to overthrow the feudal nobility and to perfect the governmental machinery of absolutism. The process which began with the accession of Hugh Capet in 987 was practically completed by the end of the reign of Louis XI, in 1483. During the reigns of Charles VIII, Louis XII, and Francis I, the great ambition of the French monarchs was to get control of Italy, a policy which brought them into conflict with Spain. The wars were barren of results as far as conquests in Italy were concerned, but the dangers to which France was exposed united the French people into a great nation, which was destined to be the leading continental power.
The religious wars.—The Reformation spread into France, Calvinism being the form of Protestantism which there took root. Calvin's religious system had three distinguishing features: (1) the church was to be independent of any temporal power, (2) laymen and ministers were to join in the government of the church, and (3) a strict moral discipline was to be enforced. This program was distinctly democratic, and was certain to come into conflict with the absolutism of the crown. France became divided into two great parties. The Huguenots, as the French Protestants were called, were found mainly among the rich burghers of the towns and the nobles of the country districts, their chief power being in southwestern France. They were also strong in Dauphiné and Normandy. Their great leaders were Coligny and the Bourbon princes, the most distinguished of whom was Henry of Navarre. The Catholic party was headed by the Guises and Catherine de Medici. The kings during this period were mere puppets, who were used by the leaders to further their political ends.
War broke out in 1562 and continued with occasional intermissions until 1596. The most important events were the assassination of Francis of Guise in 1563, the ascendency of Coligny, during which he tried to unite the nation in a war against Spain, the massacre of St. Bartholomew's in 1572, the organization of the Catholic League headed by Henry of Guise, his assassination in 1588, and the murder of Henry III the following year, which made the way clear for Henry of Navarre to ascend the throne. In 1593 he accepted Catholicism. The last resistance in France was overcome in 1596, but war with Philip II continued two years longer. In 1598 Henry issued the Edict of Nantes, which secured toleration to the Huguenots.
Reforms of Henry IV.—During the religious wars, the nobles had regained some of their former power, and the ravages of war had almost ruined the industries of the country. Henry set to work to repair these conditions. The lesser nobles were forced to submit and the privileges of the more powerful were purchased. The king's great minister, Sully, carried out many of the economic reforms. The land tax called the taille, which rested most heavily upon the peasants, was more equitably distributed, and the hunting privileges of the nobles were decreased. New lines of agriculture were introduced, marshes were reclaimed, and restrictions on the marketing of grain were removed. The king encouraged manufactures, especially of the more expensive fabrics, glass, and metal work. Commerce was stimulated by securing safe transportation along the post roads, by a system of canals connecting the Seine and the Loire, and by commercial treaties with foreign states. Attempts were also made to stimulate commerce and colonization by the formation of mercantile companies, and from this period date the first successful French colonies in America.
Richelieu.—Henry IV was assassinated in 1610, and his son, who ascended the throne as Louis XIII, was a child of nine years. During the regency of his mother, Mary de Medici, the nobles again became turbulent, the Huguenots revolted, and the policy of hostility toward Spain was reversed. The regent was under the influence of favorites who looted the treasury. Under such conditions a strong leader was greatly needed; the man of the hour was Richelieu. In 1624 he was placed in control of public affairs, and for the next twenty years practically ruled France. His policy aimed to make France the first power in Europe. To accomplish this he worked at home to strengthen the power of the crown. Abroad he aimed to weaken the power of the Hapsburgs, to extend the boundaries of France, and to build up a colonial empire.
The chief steps by which his policy was carried out were as follows: La Rochelle, the great Huguenot stronghold, was captured and the power of the Protestants was curbed effectually; the intrigues of Mary de Medici were thwarted; an alliance was made with Sweden, and to weaken the Hapsburgs the power of France was used to assist the Protestants in Germany in the Thirty Years' War; a navy was built and important ports were fortified; to extend commerce and colonies, colonial enterprises were entrusted to exclusive corporations. During the administration of Richelieu the French hold upon eastern Canada was strengthened, settlements were made in Guiana and the West Indies, and an attempt was made to occupy Madagascar.
The Council of State.—The work of strengthening the crown at the expense of the nobility was continued. The power of the nobles was maintained by their fortified castles and by their position as governors of provinces. An edict was issued for the destruction of all but the frontier fortifications. Most of the work of administration was centered in the conseil d'état, or council of state, which was the highest judicial tribunal. It also issued edicts, made peace or war, determined the amount and method of taxation, and acted as a high court of justice. In appearance this body was supreme, but in reality the power centered in the king and the chief minister, the other ministers being merely advisers. Local administration was taken from the nobles and was placed almost wholly in the hands of intendants, who were officers of justice, police, and finance.
Mazarin.—Richelieu died in November, 1642, and Louis XIII a few months later. Louis XIV was a child of five years and his mother, Anne of Austria, became regent. Mazarin, who was probably secretly married to her, was to rule France during the troubled minority of the king. It was a period of civil and foreign war, in which the minister found no time to devote to the development of colonies. The importance of the period lies in the fact that the great nobles were effectually quelled, that the absolutism of the crown was completely established, and that France proved herself superior to the power of Spain and the Hapsburgs. When Louis XIV took the reins of power in 1661 he was the most absolute and most powerful monarch in Europe.
Colbert.—Colonial development during the reign of Louis XIV was due mainly to Colbert, who was given charge of the finances, of the navy, and of the colonies. The finances had become deranged under Mazarin, and Colbert attacked the abuses. To stimulate commerce and manufactures, he established a protective system, furnished governmental aid to companies, and granted monopolies. The royal navy and mercantile marine were greatly increased. To develop foreign trade, corporations were granted monopolies of the commerce of the West Indies, the East Indies, Senegal, and Madagascar. Colonies were fostered by paternalistic regulations. The system of Colbert, as time proved, was founded on mistaken principles, for monopoly and overregulation stifled the growth of trade and of the colonies. Although a vast area was brought under control, the colonies never attracted a large population, or were allowed a free growth of institutions.
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