Lectures on Modern History/Lewis XIV.

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627050Lectures on Modern History — XIV. Lewis the FourteenthJohn Acton



Whilst England was traversing the revolutionary period on its arduous course towards free government, France completed, with universal applause, the structure of absolute monarchy. Neither Henry IV. nor Richelieu had done enough to secure the country against conspiracy, disorder, and invasion. There was a relapse into civil war during each minority, under Lewis XIII. and Lewis XIV.; the nobles and the magistrates turned against the crown, and a prince of the blood, Condé, commanded the Spaniards in a campaign on French soil against the royal army. With the aid of Turenne, Mazarin triumphed over every danger, and the young king was anointed in the Cathedral of Rheims.

In 1659, by the Peace of the Pyrenees, the cardinal terminated victoriously the long war with Spain, which began in the middle of the Thirty Years' War, and outlasted it, and established the supremacy of France over the Continent. The one desire of France was the concentration of power, that there might be safety abroad and order at home. To ensure this, more was required than the genius of even the most vigorous and astute ministers in the world. Neither Richelieu, who was a bishop, nor Mazarin, who was a foreigner, could be identified with the State. What was wanted had been wanting in France for half a century—the personality of the king, monarchy personified, with as much splendour, as much authority, as much ascendency, as would fill the national imagination and satisfy national pride. The history of Charles I., the restoration of Charles II., the outbreak of loyal sentiment, which was stronger than religion, which was itself a religion, showed that there was something in royalty higher than the policy of statesmen, and more fitted to inspire the enthusiasm of sacrifice.

At the death of Mazarin there was no man capable of being his successor, Le Tellier, Colbert, Lionne were men of very great ability, but they were departmental ministers. The young monarch gave orders that, as they had reported to the cardinal, they should now report to himself. He added that they were to assist him with their advice whenever he asked for it; and he did not make it appear that he would trouble them often. The initiative of government passed into his hands. He did not say, "L'état, c'est moi." Those words, I believe, were invented by Voltaire, but they are profoundly true. It was the thing which the occasion demanded, and he was the man suited to the occasion.

Lewis XIV. was by far the ablest man who was born in modern times on the steps of a throne. He was laborious, and devoted nine hours a day to public business. He had an excellent memory and immense fertility of resource. Few men knew how to pursue such complex political calculations, or to see so many moves ahead. He was patient and constant and unwearied, and there is a persistent unity in his policy, founded, not on likes and dislikes, but on the unvarying facts in the political stage of Europe. Every European state was included in his system, and had its part in the game. His management of each was so dexterous that diplomacy often made war superfluous, and sometimes made it successful. Lewis was not a born soldier like Swedish Charles and the great Frederic. He never exercised an actual command. He would appear at sieges when the psychological moment came, and ride ceremoniously under fire, with his Jesuit confessor close at hand. His fame was so large a part of the political capital of France, that a pretence was made of believing in his generalship, and the king took it quite seriously. He told his son to go to the wars and prove his warlike quality, that the change, when his father died, might not be too deeply felt. In many places he was accepted as a benefactor and a friend. That was generally the case in Switzerland, in Portugal, in Denmark and Sweden, in Poland and Hungary, in parts of Germany, and in parts of Italy. For in small countries public men were poor and easily consented to accept his gifts. In this way he strove to prevent coalitions and to isolate his enemies. The enemies were Austria and the Netherlands.

Two facts governed the European situation. One was the break-up of the imperial power in Germany, after the Thirty Years' War. The effect of it was that France was fringed by a series of small territories which were too feeble to defend themselves, and which Germany was too feeble and too divided to protect. There were Belgium, Liège, Luxemburg, Lorraine, Alsace, and Franche Comté. The other overshadowing fact was the evident decay of Spain, of the royal family as well as of the nation. Belgium, Luxemburg, and Franche Comté were Spanish, and were therefore helpless. The acquisition of these provinces was an inevitable element of his policy. That was part of a far larger scheme. Philip IV. had no son. His daughter, Maria Theresa, was heir to his boundless dominions. As early as 1646 Mazarin resolved that his master should marry the Infanta, and that Spain and the Indies, Naples and the Milanese, and the remnant of the possessions of Charles the Bold, should be attached to the crown of France. When the time came, and reluctant Spain consented, at the treaty of the Pyrenees, Lewis was discovered to be in love with another lady. Her name was Marie Mancini, the youngest of three sisters, and she was the cardinal's own niece.

Mazarin, the ablest and most successful of ministers, had one damning vice. He was shamefully avaricious. He amassed, in the service of the State, therefore dishonestly, an income larger than that of the King of England or the King of Spain. The necklace of pearls which he gave to one of his nieces, and which is at Rome, is said to be still the finest in existence. But Mazarin, though he was sordid and mean, was a statesman of the highest rank. He sent his niece away, in spite of the tears of Lewis, and the Spanish princess became Queen of France. The independence of Spain, the unity of the Spanish empire, were too grand a thing to be an item in the dowry of a bride. She was compelled to renounce her rights, which were transferred to her sister. The renunciation was conditional. It was to depend on the payment, in due time, of the Infanta's fortune. As the payment was not made, the French regarded the surrender as null and void, and the interest at stake, the most splendid inheritance on earth, was one that could not be given up without a conflict. From the moment of the marriage the main object of French policy was to make the succession secure, by negotiation or force, and to take every advantage otherwise of Spanish weakness.

All these plans were doomed to a terrible disappointment. In 1665 Philip of Spain died; but he had married again, and left a son, who became king, in his cradle, under the name of Charles II. The new king was sickly and backward, and it was expected that he would die young, unmarried, and childless. Meantime, the fulfilment of French hopes was postponed for a generation, and the Spanish succession was opened, not at the beginning of Lewis's reign, but at the end. He recovered from the blow by a device to acquire part of the Spanish empire, no longer having a hope of the whole. The device was suggested by Turenne. His experience in the Fronde taught him the danger of having the Spaniards so near, in the valley of the Somme. "Whenever there is trouble in France," he said, "the enemy can be at Paris in four days." In self-defence, for security rather than aggrandisement, the frontier must be pushed back. He caused his secretary to compose a treatise, showing that, by the custom of Brabant, that province devolved on the queen, Maria Theresa. It was the custom there that the children of a first marriage should suffer no loss if their father married again. What would have been their estate, remained their estate. The fee simple passed to them The father enjoyed a life-interest only, without the power of disposal. The French government argued that, by the analogy of the Salic Law, the principle which applied to property applied to sovereignty, and that what was good for a manor was good for a crown. And they assumed that the custom of Brabant was the law of Belgium.

This is the right of Devolution, with which the king's aggressive career began, and his first war was the war of Devolution, or, as they say in France, the war for the rights of the queen. Those rights consisted of consolation claims set up after the wreck of the dream of universal empire. They presented abundant matter for dispute, but they were worth disputing, even by the last argument of kings.

The Power most concerned was not Spain, but the Netherlands. For Spain, the Belgic provinces were an outlying dependency, involving international complications. For Holland, they were a rampart. The government of the States was in the hands of John de Witt and the Republicans. They were held in check by the partisans of the House of Orange, which, in the last generation, had put the republican leader, the real predecessor of De Witt, to death. The feud was there, faction was not appeased, and De Witt dreaded the day when the Orange party should recover power. The Prince of Orange was only seventeen. When war came in sight, the Perpetual Edict excluded him from the position which his family had occupied, by forbidding the Stadtholder from being at the same time Commander of the Forces. De Witt was not afraid of a naval war. His brother was the admiral, and it was he who sailed up the Thames. But war on land would bring the young William forward. De Witt made every possible concession, hoping to prevent it. Rather than fight the French, he was willing to agree to a partition of the Belgic provinces. Already, he was at war with England, and the sea-fights had been indecisive. Resistance to France on land was out of the question, except by means of a Coalition, and as no Coalition could be hoped for, Holland stood aside, while Turenne overran Flanders. The Austrian Habsburgs did not interfere to protect the Spanish branch, although they were its heirs. In case his son should die, Philip IV. had left his entire monarchy to his second daughter, who was married to the Emperor Leopold. It would remain in the family; whereas, if the French queen had not renounced, it would be swallowed up in the dominions of a stranger,—that was the point of view of a Spaniard. The Austrian viewed things differently. He knew perfectly well that France would not be bound by an act which belonged not to the world of real politics, but to the waste-paper basket. Therefore, when France proposed an eventual partition, it seemed important to obtain a more serious and more binding contract than the queen's renunciation. The conditions were not unfavourable to the imperial interest. As there were several other partition treaties, none of which were carried out, the terms of this, the first, need not occupy us. The treaty was not meant to govern the future, but the present. It helped to keep the Emperor tranquil during the spoliation of his Spanish kinsman.

Within a week of the first treaty of partition, Sir William Temple concluded the Triple Alliance. Deserted by Austria, De Witt turned to England. He sent his fleet to destroy the British men-of-war in the Medway, and this catastrophe, coming so soon after the plague and the fire of London, was too much for the feeble spirit of Charles and his ministers. They made peace, allied themselves with Holland and with Sweden, and the progress of the French was arrested. The Triple Alliance was the earliest of that series of coalitions which ended by getting the better of the power of Lewis XIV., and is therefore a landmark in History. But there was nothing lasting in it; the rivalry of the two commercial countries was not to be reconciled by politicians. England was on the side of the Prince of Orange, and desired that he should become sovereign. William had resolved, during the very negotiations that prepared the alliance, that the way to ruin De Witt was to exhibit him to Lewis in the light of a friend of the English. After having been conciliatory to the edge of weakness, he had turned suddenly into an enemy. Lewis could not continue the war because of the maritime superiority of his united opponents. He made peace, restoring Franche Comté, which Condé had occupied, and contenting himself with an extended frontier in Flanders. Lille, which had been taken by Vauban, in an otherwise inglorious campaign, was converted into a great French stronghold. That was the result.

These events exhibit Lewis in his prime, while Colbert and Lionne were living, and were able to balance the sinister influence of Louvois. It was a war of ambition, undertaken after the shock of the loss of Spain and of all that belonged to it. It was not begun from a sense of right and duty. But the advantage was not pushed to the bitter end; the terms agreed upon were reasonable; part of the conquests were restored. Lewis proved himself capable of moderation, of self-command, even of generosity. The outrageous violence and tyranny of later years were not immediately apparent. He withdrew from the fray, preparing for another spring. Then he would avenge himself on John de Witt, and conquer Belgium in Holland. De Witt was the most enlightened statesman in Europe, but he was not a war minister. England was easily detached from him in the hope that the Prince of Orange might be supreme; and Lewis agreed to whatever was necessary, that the English fleet might be on his side. Thus the Triple Alliance was dissolved, and the Dover Treaty took its place. The help afforded by the English fleet in the Dutch war fell short of expectation, but the effect of the agreement was to blot out England for many years.

De Witt, unable to face the storm, offered advantageous terms, which were rejected, and then resigned office. The Prince of Orange took the command of the army; but, at the approach of the French, eighty-three Dutch fortresses opened their gates. At the Hague De Witt and his brother were torn to pieces by an Orange mob, and Holland saved itself by letting in the ocean.

William of Orange, never a very successful general, was a good negotiator, and, excepting his own uncle Charles II., he soon had Europe on his side. The French were driven over the Vosges by the Imperialists. Turenne, in his last campaign, reconquered Alsace, crossed the Rhine, and gave battle to Montecucculi. He fell, and his army retired. Lewis XIV., to mark the greatness of the loss, at once named six new marshals of France. Montecucculi resigned his command. Having had the honour, he said, of fighting Turenne, and having even defeated him, he would not risk his reputation against men who were the small change for the great man who was dead. Lewis XIV. had 220,000 men under arms. Condé defeated William at Senef. As often as Vauban defended a fortress, he held it; as often as he besieged a fortress, it fell. The balance of victory inclined to France. England gave no assistance, and the Prince of Orange came over, married the eldest of the princesses, immensely strengthening his own position, and hastening the conclusion of peace.

The peace of Nimeguen gave to Lewis XIV. that predominant authority over Europe which he retained undiminished, and even increased, during at least ten years. He acquired a further portion of Belgium, strengthening his frontier on the threatened line; he annexed Franche Comté and he recovered Alsace. He had shown himself to be aggressive and unscrupulous, but his military power was equal to his pretensions; he was true to his humbler allies; his diplomatic foresight, and the art of his combinations, were a revelation to his contemporaries. They also knew that they would never be safe from renewed attack, as the larger half of the coveted region, in the Low Countries, Luxemburg, and Lorraine, was still unabsorbed. His interest was clearly recognised. His policy had been openly declared. With so much ambition, capacity, and power, the future was easy to foretell. In the position he had acquired, and with the qualities he had shown, he would be as dangerous in peace as in war. Coalitions alone could resist him, and a coalition could only be a work of time and patience. When the alliance which had opposed him with unequal fortune was dissolved, a season of peril would ensue, for which no defensive provision could be made.

The keystone of the situation was the assured inaction of England. Whilst that lasted, at least while Charles II. lived, Lewis would defy the rest of Europe. He had nothing to fear except the Stadtholder. Whilst De Witt governed, the French attack was irresistible. But the Perpetual Edict was repealed, and William of Orange was captain-general for life. He had saved his country, driven out the French, raised Europe against them. The merchants of Amsterdam, who, in 1672, were preparing to sail for Batavia, as the Puritans sailed for New England, were now the second Power in Europe politically, and commercially by far the first. William of Orange, to whose international genius the change was due, stood very near the succession to the English throne. In the course of nature it would be his some day, by right of his wife, or by his own. And there was hope for European independence and the existence of free communities, if the resources of England passed to William earlier than the resources of Spain fell into the hands of Lewis. After the peace, that was the problem of general politics.

The treaties of Nimeguen were far from satisfying the aspirations of Lewis. He dismissed his foreign minister. Pomponne was the most honourable man in his service, and had conducted with eminent dexterity and success the negotiations for the numerous treaties with every country. Lewis says that he was deficient in the energy and the greatness requisite in executing the orders of a king of France who had not been without good fortune. Pomponne came into office in 1671 and left it in 1679, so that he was not compromised by the derisive claim of devolution, or by the yet more hollow sophistry of reunion, by which Lewis now proceeded to push his advantage. His dismissal announced to the nations what they had to look for. It meant that the profit of Nimeguen was not enough, that the greatness of the French monarch exacted further sacrifices.

After the peace Lewis kept up his army. There were 112,000 men under arms, and there were cadres for twice as many more. With that force in hand, he proceeded to raise new claims, consequential, he said, on the late favourable treaties. He said that the territories ceded to France ought to be ceded with their dependencies, with such portions as had formerly belonged to them, and had been detached in the course of ages. And the parliaments of Lorraine, Alsace, and Franche Comté were directed to ascertain what places there were, what fragments under feudal tenure, to which that retrospective principle applied. They were called chambers, or courts, of reunion, and they enumerated certain small districts, which the French troops accordingly occupied. All this was futile skirmishing. The real object was Strasburg. Alsace was French, but Strasburg, the capital, that is, the capital of Lower Alsace, was imperial. It was the most important place on the road between Paris and Vienna, for it commanded the passage of the only river which crossed and barred the way. Situated on the left bank, it was the gate of France; and twice in the late war it had admitted the Imperialists, and opened the way to Paris. The bishop, Fürstenberg, belonged to a great German family that was devoted to the French interest; but the town was Protestant.

Up to that moment, 1681, religious antagonism had not added much to the acerbity of the conflict. Spain and Austria were the enemies of Lewis; Sweden and Denmark were his allies. Brandenburg accepted his gifts, in money, in jewels, in arras. England was his humble friend. But a change was approaching; and it began when Fürstenberg first said mass in Strasburg minster, and preached from the text "Nunc Dimittis." Vauban at once arrived, and erected an impregnable barrier, and a medal was struck bearing the inscription; "Clausa Germanis Gallia." On the same day as Strasburg, the French occupied Casale. This was a fortress closing the road between the duchy of Savoy and the duchy of Milan, and commanding the line of the Po. It belonged to Montferrat, which was a dependency of Mantua; but the duke had his price, and he sold the right of occupation to the French. The agreement had been concluded three years before, but it had been betrayed by the duke's minister, and it had become necessary to await a more convenient occasion. The French government did not scruple to have an obstructive adversary put out of the way. Louvois gave orders that Lisola, the Austrian statesman v/ho exposed the scheme of devolution, should be seized, and added that it would be no harm if he was killed. His son commissioned Grandval to murder William III.

The traitor of Casale met with a more terrible fate than a pistol shot or the stroke of a dagger. He suddenly disappeared, and no man ever looked upon his face again. His existence was forgotten, and when he died, long after, nobody knew who he was. In the dismal register of the dead who died in the Bastille he is entered under the name of Marchiali. Fifty years later he began to fix the attention of the world, and became a fascinating enigma. For Marchiali means Mattioli, who was the man in the Iron Mask. That is, of course, there was no man in the Iron Mask; the material was more merciful than that; and the name which has become so famous is as false as the one in which the victim of tyranny was buried.

Whilst Lewis pursued his career of annexation, the empire was disabled by war with the Turks and by troubles in Hungary. In 1683 the grand vizier besieged Vienna, and would have taken it but for the imperial allies, the Elector of Saxony, the Duke of Lorraine, and the King of Poland. After the relief of the capital they carried the war down the Danube, and Leopold was once more the head of a powerful military empire. It was too late to interfere with French conquests. Luxemburg was added to the series in 1684, and an armistice of twenty years practically, though not finally, sanctioned what had been done since Nimeguen. When the four great fortresses had become French,—Lille, Besançon, Strasburg, and Luxemburg, and when the empire succumbed, recognising all these acts of entirely unprovoked aggression, Lewis attained the highest level of his reign. He owed it to his army, but also to his diplomacy, which was pre-eminent. He owed it, too, to the intellectual superiority of France at the time, and to the perfection which the language reached just then. The thinking of Europe was done for it by Frenchmen, and French literature, penetrating and predominant everywhere, was a serious element of influence.

In all the work of these brilliant years there was increase of power and territorial agglomeration; there was no internal growth or political development. The one thing wanted was that the king should be great and the country powerful. The object of interest was the State, not the nation, and prosperity did not keep pace with power. The people were oppressed and impoverished for the greater glory of France. Colbert trebled the public revenue, but he did not make it depend on the growth of private incomes or the execution of useful public works. In 1683 Colbert died, and Louvois, the son of Le Tellier, became supreme minister.

The queen's death, about the same time, caused a greater change. The king married Madame de Maintenon. He had been unfaithful to his first wife, but now he was a model husband. The second wife, who never became a queen, and was never acknowledged, ruled over his later years. She was the most cultivated, thoughtful, and observant of women. She had been a Protestant, and retained, for a long time, the zeal of a convert. She was strongly opposed to the Jansenists, and was much in the confidence of the best men among the clergy. It was universally believed that she promoted persecution, and urged the king to revoke the Edict of Nantes. Her letters are produced in evidence. But her letters have been tampered with by an editor, who was a forger and a falsifier.

The Revocation required no such specific agency, but proceeded by consistent logic, from the tenour of the reign. The theory of government, which is that which Bossuet borrowed from Hobbes, and clothed in the language of Scripture, does not admit that a subject should have a will, a conviction, a conscience of his own, but expects that the spiritual side of him shall be sacrificed to the sovereign, like his blood and treasure. Protestant liberties, respected by Richelieu and still more entirely by Mazarin, who acknowledged the loyalty of Huguenots in the Fronde, became an exotic, an anachronism, a contradiction, and a reproach, as absolute monarchy rose to the zenith. The self-government of the Gallican Church, the administration of the clergy by the clergy, was reduced to the narrowest limits, and the division of power between Church and State was repressed in favour of the State. It could not be borne, in the long-run, that Protestants should govern themselves, while Catholics could not.

The clergy, zealous for the extinction of Jansenism, naturally extended their zeal against those who were more hostile to their Church than Jansenists. Everything else was required to give way to the governing will, and to do honour to the sovereign. The Protestants, under their protecting immunity, were a belated and contumelious remnant of quite another epoch. Exceptions which were tolerable under the undeveloped monarchy were revolting when it had grown to its radiant perfection. The one thing wanting was the Revocation, to abolish the memory of an age in which a king whose throne was insecure conceded to turbulent and disloyal subjects that which the sovereign of a loyal and submissive people would do well to revoke. To fulfil the ideal of royalty, the monument of the weakness of royalty and the strength of revolution must be ingeniously hidden away. The ardour of rising absolutism is the true cause of the Revocation.

William III. explained it in another way. He said that the purpose was to sow suspicion and dissension between Protestant and Catholic Powers, by showing that the Catholics at heart desired to extinguish the Protestant religion. Such a suspicion, properly fanned, would make alliances and coalitions impossible between them. The Waldenses then survived in one or two valleys of Piedmont, much assimilated to the Swiss Calvinists. Lewis required that they should be put down by force, and, when the Duke of Savoy hesitated, offered to supply the necessary troops. This extraordinary zeal, indicating that the spirit of persecution was common to all, and was not stimulated by causes peculiar to France, supplies the only evidence we have to sustain William's interpretation.

It is well to be rational when we can, and never, without compulsion, to attribute motives of passion, or prejudice, or ignorance as a factor in politics. But it is necessary to remember that the Plot was only six years old. The French government knew all abut it, and was in the secret of the papers destroyed by Coleman. To them it must have appeared that the English were turned into ferocious assassins by the mere force of their religious belief. There was no visible reason why such things should be in England and not in France, why a majority should be more easily carried away than a minority, or why High Church Anglicans should be more prone to murder a priest or a friar than extreme Calvinists, with whom it was a dogmatic certainty that Catholics were governed by Antichrist.

The Galilean clergy were divided. Several bishops condemned the action of the government, then or afterwards. The great majority promoted or encouraged it, not all by a revival of the persecuting spirit, but partly in the belief that the barriers were falling, and that the Churches were no longer irreconcilable. They were impressed by the fact that Protestantism had outgrown and discarded Luther, that Arminians in Holland, the Lutherans of the University of Helmstedt, the French schools of Sedan and Saumur, the Caroline divines in England, and even Puritans like Leighton and Baxter, were as much opposed as themselves to the doctrine of justification, which was the origin of the Protestant movement. At the same time, the abuses which roused Luther's opposition had disappeared, if not everywhere, at least in France. Between Protestants in that later variation and Gallicans, the difference was not that which subsisted with Ultramontanes. Bossuet and two Englishmen, Holden and Cocker, drew up statements of what they acknowledged to be essentials in religion, which were very unlike the red-hot teaching of Salamanca and Coimbra. As the Protestants were no longer the Protestants who had seceded, the Catholics were no longer the Catholics who had cast them out. The best men of the Sorbonne were as unlike Tetzel and Prierias as Leibniz was unlike John Knox. It was unscientific, it was insincere, to regard the present controversy as a continuation of the old.

These sentiments were very heartily reciprocated among the Lutherans, and people spoke much of a misunderstanding, and represented the Reformation as the result of the unfinished theology, the defective knowledge of Church history, in the sixteenth century. Thus it was that nobody went further than Bossuet at one time in the direction of union, and nobody was more strongly in favour of the harsh measures of Louvois. If the policy of the Revocation had been to divide the European Powers, it proved a failure; for it helped to make them coalesce.

In the following year, 1686, a league was concluded at Augsburg between the emperor, part of the empire, Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands. This was the old story. Against nearly the same combination of discordant forces Lewis had held his own in the Dutch war and the negotiations of Nimeguen. England was wanting. William attempted to bring over his father-in-law, and, having failed by friendly arts, undertook to compel him. The Revolution threw the weight of England into the scales, and the war that ensued became the war of the Grand Alliance.

This was the turn in the fortunes of Lewis. He ravaged twenty miles of the Palatinate for the sake of a claim on the part of the Duchess of Orleans, who was a Princess Palatine. His armies were victorious, as usual, at Steenkerk and at Landen. The English were driven to the north-eastern extremity of Ireland; and Trouville had better reason than Van Tromp to fix a broom at his masthead. And then Ireland was lost. The French fleet was destroyed, by very superior numbers, at La Hogue, and the Grand Alliance, aided at last by the ships, and the men, and the money of England, bore down the resistance of exhausted France. William was acknowledged King of England at the close of a struggle which had begun twenty-five years before. Lewis, having formally offered to support James's election to the throne of Poland, when Sobieski died, gave him up. Vauban complained that the war had been too prosperous on the Continent to justify so disastrous a termination.

From the peace of Ryswick the lengthening shadow of the Spanish succession falls upon the scene, and occupies the last years alike of William, of Leopold, and of Lewis. It was known that the King of Spain could not live long; and as the prize came near, Europe, for four years, was hushed in expectation.