Lectures on Modern History/Henry the Fourth and Richelieu

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Lectures on Modern History by John Acton
IX. Henry the Fourth and Richelieu



The argument of the following half century, from the civil wars to the death of Richelieu, as in the English parallel from the Armada to the Long Parliament, was the rise of political absolutism. Henry IV., the prince who made it acceptable and national, and even popular in France, was fitted to disarm resistance, not only by brilliant qualities as a soldier and a statesman, but also by a charm and gladness of character in which he has hardly a rival among crowned heads. He succeeded in appeasing a feud which had cost oceans of blood, and in knitting together elements which had been in conflict for thirty years. The longing for rest and safety grew strong, and the general instinct awarded him all the power that was requisite to restore public order and dominate surging factions.

The Catholics held out till 1594 at Paris, and still longer in Rome. But the League began to go to pieces when its invincible protector, Farnese, died in 1592. Then Mayenne, the general of the League, who was a Guise, and his brother's successor as leader of the Catholic nobility, came to a breach with the fierce democracy of Paris. The siege, by intensifying antagonism and passions, had produced new combinations in politics and a wider horizon. The Parisians who, twenty years earlier, had adopted massacre as a judicious expedient, now adopted revolution. The agitators and preachers who managed opinion, taught the right of armed resistance, the supremacy of the masses, the duty of cashiering kings, the lawfulness of tyrannicide. The blending of inquisition with revolution was a novelty.

Since the popes had become temporal sovereigns, like the kings of the Gentiles, the tendency of the Church was towards conservatism and sympathy with authority. But the Parisian clergy, when opposing monarchy associated with Protestantism, endeavoured to employ the utmost violence of popular feeling. And they had the support of Rome. A papal legate was shut up in the capital, encouraging it to resist. He belonged to the ancient and illustrious house of Caetani. The last head of that family, the father of the Duke of Sermoneta, lately minister of foreign affairs, once showed me an inscription, in monumental Latin, setting forth how he had at last paid off the immense debt incurred by the legate in the defence of Paris. With Caetani was Bellarmin, the most famous controversialist of the sixteenth century, who there imbibed the doctrines which made him one of the masters of revolutionary Catholicism, and a forerunner of Algernon Sidney. There, too, Mariana had witnessed the scenes of 1572, and learnt the mingled lesson of conditional authority, revolt, and murder, which he taught publicly, and without incurring censure at Madrid or Rome. For thirty years these views prevailed over a wider circle, and were enforced in many volumes too ponderous to survive.

In France the revival of these sanguinary sentiments served to increase reaction and to strengthen the party of the throne. In preference to such defenders of religion and the public good, people turned to the austere Royalists and Gallicans. The change was not final or complete, and did not carry all men with it. Imitators of Jacques Clément arose among the clergy, and Henry fell at last by the hand of a fanatic. When Mayenne sent the leaders of the populace to the scaffold, the defence became hopeless. Henry foiled his enemies by becoming a Catholic. He was not capable of taking dogmatic issues much to heart, and never ceased to hope for reunion, believing that the breach could be repaired, and that men who took pains to understand each other would find that there was no insurmountable obstacle to reconciliation. Many profited by the change who doubted his sincerity. But Henry was in the hands of Duperron, one of the most expert divines of modern times, who proved more than a match for Duplessis Mornay, and whom Casaubon, a better scholar than Duplessis Mornay, described as a thunderbolt of a man. Nobody supposed that he would have conformed if it had involved the sacrifice of the crown. It is not clear that it did actually involve the sacrifice of his conviction. The Pope, under Spanish influence, hesitated long to acknowledge him. It was a defeat and a humiliation to accept as eldest son of the Church an excommunicated heretic, who, by the law of the Supreme Tribunal, deserved to die, and to submit to him because he was victorious over Catholics of France and Spain. His elevation was a boon to the French, because he restored the prosperity of their Church; but it was none to Rome, because his belief was a compromise between Roman doctrine and ethics the reverse of Roman. The delicate negotiation was carried to a satisfactory end by Cardinal D'Ossat, whose despatches were long received, and perhaps still are, as the best in the language, and the model of all diplomacy. Spain followed Rome, and a conference was held under the presidency of the Pope, which concluded peace in the Treaty of Vervins, Then Philip II. died, a defeated and disappointed man, whose schemes were wrecked by an inflexible intolerance; but with his military power undiminished, still the master of incomparable legions, still the ruler of the greatest empire in History.

Henry IV. closed the era of religious wars by granting liberty to Protestants on terms intended to insure permanence. All offices, civil and military, were thrown open; they retained their cities of refuge, and acquired the machinery of equal justice, by the expedient of mixed tribunals. The Catholics gained even more; for whereas Protestant churches were excluded from Paris, and from certain towns which had capitulated on that condition, the mass was restored everywhere, and particularly in two hundred and fifty towns from which the Huguenots, who predominated in the west and south, had banished it.

The Edict of Nantes forms an epoch in the progress of toleration, that is, in the history of liberty, which is the marrow of all modern History. It is a more liberal scheme than the Peace of Religion, which satisfied the previous generation of Germans. It pacified France, and afforded to the minority sufficient strength and safety, not on the basis of religious equality, but in the shape of circumscribed and definite privilege. Some of the Acts of Pacification which failed had been more ample. Socinians went much deeper in the sixteenth century, and Independents in the seventeenth. The edict involved no declaration of new principles, and no surrender of ancient claims. The government made concessions of a purely practical kind, which might be revoked thereafter, if the Huguenots became less formidable and the crown more powerful. There was no recognition that they were concessions of the moral order, which it would be usurpation to refuse, or to which the subject had a right under a higher law. The action of the crown was restricted, without detriment to its authority. No other religious body was admitted but that which had made its power felt by arms in eight outbreaks of civil war. Beyond them, persecution was still legitimate. The power of the Protestants was acknowledged, not the prerogative of conscience. The Edict of Nantes was not one of those philosophical instruments which breed unending consequences, growing from age to age, and modifying the future more and more. It was a settlement, not a development. This was the method chosen in order to evade resentment on the part of Catholics and the weakening of the crown. To speak in general or abstract terms of the sovereign conscience was to urge the contrast between the Roman Inquisition and the spirit of early Christianity, and to promote a breach with the Catholicism of Southern Europe. To proclaim that the civil magistrate has no right to regulate belief was to limit monarchy and to repel the Politiques, who were the legislators of the day, and who attributed all power on earth to the State, admitting a wise restraint, but no renunciation of right.

The plan adopted achieved the desired result. The Protestants enjoyed the faculty of self-government, and their great writers and scholars were free to influence opinion by their writings. While the stubborn fixity of German Lutherans and Swiss Calvinists lifted them out of the stream of actual history, French Protestantism, like English, was full of growth and originality. The law of the new government was to raise the Crown above parties, and the State above the nation. It was part of the doctrine which Machiavelli revealed to the men of the Renaissance. The Middle Ages had practised class government. The interests dominant in society dominated the State, and employed it for their own advantage. The territorial aristocracy, or the clergy, legislated for themselves and controlled taxation. Venice, which was a republic not of landowners but of shipowners, was the first to revert to the ancient notion of the State acting for its own purposes, bound to no interest, following the opinion of no majority. Venice turned from the sea to the land, and became an Italian Power, in obedience to no class, on public grounds only, regardless of other influences. The French monarchy, as Henry restored it, was of necessity raised above the contending parties, and was the organ of no inspiration but its own. He dropped the states-general, which had been turbulent and hostile, and carried out his measures in defiance of the parliaments. That of Rouen refused for ten years to register the Edict of Nantes. Feeling safe with the Protestants and with the Politiques, who were the real basis of his administration, he devoted himself to the task of winning over their Catholic opponents. The Jesuits represented Rome, the Counter-Reformation, and the League, and were banished for tyrannicide. Henry recalled them, and made one of them, a divine whose life has been written in four volumes, the keeper of his conscience. He was solicitous of the friendship of Rome, and of influence in the College of Cardinals, where his moderating hand was soon felt.

The king's conciliatory policy triumphed in a quarrel which broke out between Rome and Venice. The Papacy desired to enforce a system of its own in matters of Church and State, and, in other words, to make laws for the nations to obey. The Canon Law did not come down from heaven, but was enacted from time to time in the past, and was to be enacted furthermore in the future. Venice, as a modern state, self-sufficing and concentrating power, legislated for its clergy as well as for its laity, resenting interference outside questions of pure doctrine. The two pretensions clashed under Paul V., a zealous and uncompromising pontiff, the founder of the House of Borghese. He claimed a jurisdiction in Venice which could not have been asserted successfully in France or Spain, because a surrender of authority which may be made to superior force cannot be made voluntarily where there is no compulsion. But the court of Rome was the chief seat of those aspirations after the control of states, which had been so lately renewed.

Since the failure of the schemes against Elizabeth and the victory of Galileans over the League and the medieval ideal, a new heresy, the political heresy, had been discovered, which Cardinal Baronius, the foremost of the Roman divines, denounced as the most damnable of all heresies. By that was meant the notion of a science of politics limiting the ecclesiastical domain; an ethical and political system deriving its principles elsewhere than from the Church, and setting up a new and rival authority yet to be defined, ascertainable in no book, and not accepted by the nations. Those amongst us who deny the existence of a political science, and believe that ethics cannot be made to include politics, have ardent supporters in the Roman clergy of three centuries ago. The Venetian theorists who could be caught were burnt at Rome. One, who did not trust himself in Roman hands, was badly wounded near his own door. This was the famous Father Paul, whose History of the Council of Trent issued from this controversy. He was a Servite monk and theological adviser to the government, and the emissaries who flocked from England, France, Geneva, and the German states, to see how far the Venetians would move away from Rome, believed that he was at heart a Calvinist. In reality Sarpi had more of the eighteenth century than of the sixteenth in his turn of mind, and stood far aloof from the doctrines over which his contemporaries contended, and the expectations entertained of his countrymen were illusory. The city was placed under an interdict, and the orders that were faithful to Rome departed across the Lagoon, singing hymns. The Pope looked about for means of coercion when Henry mediated. He owed much to Venice, which was the first of the Catholic Powers to recognise him. In action, he called to his men to watch where his white plume waved, and to follow wherever they saw it. In gratitude to the Republic he presented it with his suit of armour, which is still conspicuous at the Arsenal, the helmet still displaying the famous feather, changed to a melancholy yellow. Henry induced both parties to yield something of their extreme attitude, and prevented a collision. No such conflict has ever since occurred in Europe.

The other great event in his foreign policy was his protectorate of the Netherlands. By his influence, pursued through an intricate negotiation, the twelve years' truce was concluded. Spain would not consent to a permanent treaty, and when the Thirty Years' War broke out, again fought with her ancient enemy. It was during this truce that the best-known events of Dutch history occurred—the Synod of Dort, the suppression of the Republicans and Arminians by Maurice of Nassau, when he put Olden Barnevelt to death, and compelled the most illustrious of all Dutchmen, Grotius, to make his escape packed in a box of books.

After some years of prosperous tranquillity, Henry IV. found himself the first personage in Europe. He had done much for the army, something for the finances and the national wealth. He was watching for an opportunity to break the power of the Habsburgs, which surrounded him everywhere, and threatened Amiens, not a hundred miles from Paris. He relied on Protestant alliances, and did not despair of the Pope. From Sully's Memoirs, and also from other sources, we learn the lines upon which he schemed to remodel the map of Europe. The Memoirs are not written by Sully himself, and have been tampered with. The Grand Design was never executed, never even attempted, and need not be discussed. Henry boasted to the Spanish ambassador that he would lose no time over Italy; that he would breakfast at Milan, hear mass at Rome, and dine at Naples. "Then," said the Spaniard, "you will be in time for vespers in Sicily." Before starting for his expedition Henry had his queen crowned, that she might act as regent in his absence. On his way to arrange the ceremony of her entrance into Paris he met his death. Rumours of a plot had reached him and made him nervous. While the conspirators were watching for him to pass, a solitary fanatic, Ravaillac, drove a knife between his ribs, and gave a respite to the House of Austria.

Henry's institutions broke down immediately after his death. His widow, Mary of Medici, was unequal to the task of continuing a policy of independent action, relying on no group of friends and on no established force of opinion. The clergy influenced her as they had never influenced her husband. The princes of the blood, the great nobles, the Protestants, became turbulent; and the states-general, summoned for the last time before Lewis XVI., afforded no assistance. The queen gave her confidence to Concini, a Florentine like herself, whom she created a marshal of France. Her son, Lewis XIII., ordered him to be killed in the courtyard of the palace; and his wife, the queen's foster-sister, was put to death by complaisant judges. The young king's favourite, Luynes, governed for a time, until the queen obtained the first post for an adviser of her own, who was the strongest Frenchman of the old régime.

With Richelieu, as with all great men, we do well to ascertain low-water mark, that praise and admiration may not be carried too far. He was not a good administrator, for he considered the general interest, not that of any number of individual men. Every Frenchman had felt the benefit of Henry's appeasing wisdom, and a season of prosperity had ensued. But no individual was the better for Richelieu's eighteen years of supreme office. He wasted the treasure on ambitious enterprises, and sacrificed the happiness of the people to the greatness of the king. No man was richer in sagacious maxims, or in experience of mankind; but he was destitute of principle,—I mean of political principles, which are the guide of public life as moral principles are the guide of our private lives. To serve his deliberate purpose, he shrank from no arbitrary or violent excess, putting innocent men to death without scruple, if he thought them dangerous. In such cases, he said, it is better to do too much than too little. He retained a superstitious belief in magic, and never soared above his age with the vision of great truths and prevision of the things to come. But he understood and relentlessly pursued the immediate purpose of his time.

The work of Henry IV. had been undone during his son's minority, and had to be begun over again. The crown was only one among many rival forces. Richelieu decided that they should all be made subject and subservient, that the government alone should govern, not any men or any group behind the government, striving for their own ends. He meant that there should be no dominant interest but the reason of State, no authority but the sovereign, no will but his own. He pursued this object with perfect distinctness and resolution, and had succeeded when he died in 1642.

The court was an obstacle. The queen-mother, who had made his fortune, went against him, and the king's brother became a pivot of conspiracy. For a moment, they triumphed. Lewis withdrew his confidence from the too imperious and successful minister, who had made his master so powerful and so helpless; but in one short interview the cardinal recovered his position. The queen retired from the council, went out of the country, and died, an exile, in the house of Rubens at Cologne. When the greatest nobles of France, strong in their feudal traditions, rose against his new, and illegal, and oppressive authority, Richelieu repressed every attempt, and cut off the head of every offender. For he said that clemency was the bane of France.

The Huguenots, safe, but not satisfied under Henry, had felt that they were in danger after his death, and sought to transform the self-government ceded to them at Nantes into a defensive association against the sovereign. The spectre of federalism threatened the hard-won unity of France, and challenged the very essence of Richelieu's policy. The decisive struggle took place at La Rochelle. Richelieu directed the siege himself, carrying out works as enormous as those of the siege of Tyre, and infusing his spirit into men who did not see that the political issue was superior to the military. The English fleet outside was helpless to assist, and the starving town yielded to the clerical warrior. Many thousands had perished, fighting, as they averred, for toleration, in reality for predominance.

The fall of Rochelle was the end of political Protestantism in France as it issued from the civil war; of the attempt to imitate that which the League had done, and to build up a confederation too strong for the State. But the strictly religious privileges conceded thirty years earlier were immediately renewed, and they were faithfully observed. What Richelieu resisted implacably was disintegration, not Calvinism. He had no difficulty in tolerating religious dissent. He would not tolerate political opposition. Richelieu was a bishop, a cardinal, a practised writer of theological controversy, a passionately resolved defender of the national unity, and of the French patriotism, which the religious struggle had imperilled, but he was not intolerant. Under him, and under his successor, the Sicilian Cardinal Mazarin, the religion which had been thought so dangerous was allowed to prosper, and the highest offices were crowded with Huguenots. The rapid expansion of French power was largely due to this policy. It was then that the French proved superior to the Spaniards in war, and the long supremacy of Spain came to an end on land half a century after it had terminated at sea. Several of the marshals were Protestants, including Turenne, the most illustrious of them all. The tolerant spirit of the ecclesiastical statesmen caused the rise of France, and its decline followed the intolerance of Lewis XIV.

Richelieu, if not deeply religious, was thoroughly a Churchman; but his attitude towards Protestants separated him, on most fundamental points, from the Spanish and Roman persecutors, and he differed considerably from the great divines of the preceding generation. He had just come to power when a book was published at Rome by Sanctarelli renewing the theories of Bellarmin and Suarez, which had excited the indignant resentment of the university and the Parliament. Richelieu required the Paris Jesuits to renounce the doctrines which their brethren proclaimed essential to orthodoxy. And they did what he required of them, accepting, in France, the sentiments of France, and protesting, at Rome, that they retained the sentiments of Rome. They became the friends of their very arbitrary protector. When Father Caussin, the king's confessor, warned him against the cardinal's wars, and his Protestant alliances, his superiors agreed to remove him.

Richelieu refused allegiance to system or party, and opposed the Jansenist and the Gallican as he did the Jesuit extreme. He desired to be aided, not hampered by the Church, and cultivated as much independence as allowed friendship with Rome. Towards the end of his life it was his object to become patriarch of France. The Pope who reigned in his time had been in France when Cardinal Barberini. He was a pontiff of a modern type, when compared with many of his recent predecessors; and it was in his pontificate that the Roman Inquisition put out its fires. He did not escape the influence of the Frenchman's more vigorous personality. He shared his dread of the Habsburgs and his interest in Gustavus, but they came to a breach at last.

It was in Richelieu's time, and under his auspices, that the great division occurs between the modern Papacy and the medieval, which the Counter-Reformation had revived. The striking contrast between France under Richelieu and France under Lewis XIV. is the tolerance of the one and the intolerance of the other. But no spirit of independence could be safe under the absolutism which the cardinal inaugurated, and which was a glaring inconsistency as long as consciences were free. The change, which was sure to come, came when, under very peculiar constellations, Lewis XIV. desired to show that he was a better Catholic than the Pope.

The cardinal never abandoned the hope of healing the division of churches, which was a calamity in his eyes, both as a statesman and a divine. He provided for Huguenot ministers who were reconciled, and he made serious plans to prepare for reunion, plans which Bossuet resumed, but which had to be given up when the king resorted to violence. The deepest part of the scheme to exalt the throne was the endeavour to raise France above the nations. The opportunity was afforded by the Thirty Years' War. All Europe was involved, the Protestant Powers uniting against the House of Habsburg, which, by tradition, by pretension, and by its actual position and power, was the one constant obstacle to the desired supremacy of the French king. Richelieu assisted them, and ended by openly joining them. Once he said, "I will prove to the world that the age of Spain is passing away and the age of France has come."

It was the contrast of two different epochs of civilisation, of two worlds succeeding each other, rather than a conflict of rival Powers. Spain was inseparably united with the Church and a declared enemy to the rest of Christendom. France lived at peace with Protestants, and based her policy on their support, having political but not religious enemies to combat, gaining all that Spain lost by exclusiveness. It was the adoption of a new doctrine. The interest of the State above the interest of the Church, of the whole above the aggregate of parts, determined the foreign as well as the domestic policy of the statesmanlike prelate. The formidable increase of State power, in the form of monarchy, was an event of European proportion and significance. General History naturally depends on the action of forces that are not national, but proceed from wider causes. The rise of modern kingship in France is part of a similar movement in England. Bourbons and Stuarts obeyed the same law, though with a different result.