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France’s Mid-17th-Century Crisis: The Fronde (1648-1653)

The steady increase in royal power in France was dramatically interrupted in 1648 by the outbreak of a series of challenges to absolutism that came to be known collectively as the Fronde.  From 1648 to 1653, the Fronde plunged France into a somewhat toned-down version of the disorders it had experienced during the wars of religion.  The king was driven from his capital, several provinces revolted, and revolutionary claims for the rights of magistrates, nobles, and even some of the common people to participate in government were put forward.  The Fronde ended, however, with a restoration of absolute royal authority rather than a change in the French system of government.  For historians, the Fronde raises fascinating questions about the failure of resistance to develop into a genuine revolution, like the one that occurred in England at almost the same time (1640-1660) or the one that occurred in France itself in 1789.

            The deaths of Cardinal Richelieu in 1642 and Louis XIII in 1643 plunged France into another period of uncertainty, like the one that had followed Henri IV’s death in 1610.  The heir to the throne, the future Louis XIV, was only five years old.  His mother, Anne of Austria, became regent, assisted by Cardinal Mazarin, an Italian diplomat recruited to the French government by Richelieu in the years before his death.  Within a few years of Louis XIII’s death, they would find themselves facing a crisis that almost became a revolution:  the Fronde, a series of uprisings that seemed for several years to be on the verge of toppling the system of absolute monarchy painstakingly created by Henri IV, Sully, Louis XIII and Richelieu.  The weakness of the Fronde was revealed from the first in its name, taken from a children’s game played with slingshots (“frondes” in French).  The adoption of this label suggested that the movement was never entirely serious.

            Anne of Austria and Mazarin did not have to face the religious conflicts that had confronted Catherine de Medici or Marie de Medici, but they had enough problems of their own.  As in previous regencies, high-ranking nobles such as the prince of Condé, France’s leading general, and the duke of Orléans, Louis XIII’s younger brother, insisted on their right to exercise political influence.  In Paris, the judges of the Parlement, France’s main court, as well as the members of other royal courts, challenged the regent’s authority.  Another threat to royal authority came from the head of the Catholic Church in Paris, the Cardinal de Retz.  As the “boss” of the city’s clergy, he controlled a network whose influence extended to the whole population.

           Since 1635, France had been fully engaged in the Thirty Years’ War, fighting against the Spanish Habsburgs.  The high cost of the war had forced Richelieu to raise taxes to record levels, creating fierce discontent that had resulted in a series of peasant rebellions in the late 1630s.  Many royal officials were also upset by the burden of taxes.  The judges of the Parlement were reluctant to approve unpopular taxes on the rest of the population, and they were also concerned because they knew that the paulette tax, which guaranteed their ownership of their offices, was due for renewal in 1648.  Mazarin intended to use the expiration of the paulette as a bargaining tool to put pressure on the judges to accept his other tax proposals. 

          Mazarin was particularly anxious to avoid a domestic crisis in 1648 because he was expecting a victorious end to the Thirty Years’ war.  If he could find the money to keep the French army in the field, he would be in a position to achieve a settlement that would significantly weaken France’s enemy, Spain.

          In their anxiety to force through new tax edicts, Anne of Austria and Mazarin drove the judges of the Parlement too far.  On 15 January 1648, they brought the nine-year-old king to a formal session of the court, called a lit de justice, to force the judges to register an unpopular tax measure.  The judges exercised their right to remonstrate or criticize the edict, starting a series of events that culminated in a call for the judges of all the Paris courts to come together to consider reforms in the kingdom.  On 26 June 1648, acting without the Regent’s approval, the Parlement summoned those judges to meet in a body called the Chambre Saint Louis.  This date marked the beginning of the Fronde.  Street demonstrations, organized by Retz, showed that the judges had strong popular support. 

           The frondeurs focused their anger especially on Mazarin.  They denounced him as a foreigner who had no respect for the laws and institutions of France, and as an intriguer who was using his influence over Anne of Austria to enrich himself and ruin the country.  Paris was flooded with printed pamphlets called mazarinades, vicious personal attacks on the minister, “this foreign rogue, juggler, comedian, famous robber, low Italian fellow only fit to be hung,” as one of them put it.  Anne, a foreigner herself, nevertheless remained loyal to Mazarin throughout the Fronde, and may even have secretly married him, although definite proof of this is missing.

           The summoning of the Chambre Saint Louis was a dramatic defiance of royal authority.  It looked like the beginnings of the English Revolution in 1640, when Parliament had defied king Charles I.  One reason the two movements took a very different course, however, was that the defiant judges failed to build a broad base of support.  Initially, nobles like Condé and Orléans remained loyal to Anne and Mazarin. 

            When they could not subdue the unrest in Paris, Anne and Mazarin decided to flee the city, taking the young Louis XIV with them, and threaten a military siege of the capital.  On 8 January 1649, the royal family escaped to the suburb of Saint-Germain. 

            The breakdown of central authority in Paris led to frondeur movements in many of France’s provinces as well.  In January 1649 in Aix-en-Provence, for example, judges of the local parlement led a popular uprising against the royal governor, who had been ordered to replace them with more cooperative magistrates.  “You could even see disshevelled women, as furious as bacchantes… running through the streets to arouse the people, some with pistols or naked swords in their hands, others with sacks of money to win them over; some shouting loudly, ‘Long live liberty and no taxes’…” one witness wrote.

            Over the next few months, Anne and Mazarin negotiated with the leaders of the Paris parlement and finally reached an agreement with them.  This angered many nobles, however, because their demands for a greater voice in politics were ignored.  The parlementary Fronde launched in 1648 now gave way to the Fronde of the princes.  Revolts broke out in several provinces, often led by their royal governors or other prominent nobles.  Among those who turned against Mazarin was the prince of Condé.  Suspecting his treachery, Mazarin had him arrested in January 1650.  Condé’s supporters now fought against Mazarin, while he tried to win some of the original frondeurs over to his side.  By February 1651, however, Mazarin’s position had become so shaky that he and Anne agreed that he should leave the country.  Condé was released from prison and became the dominant figure in a new royal council.

            The various factions in the country continued to fight among themselves in the rest of 1651, and circumstances gradually permitted Anne to insist on the return of Mazarin.  In September 1651, Louis XIV was officially recognized as king, giving his mother stronger authority.  Condé revolted against being edged out of power, but the royalist forces were able to defeat him.  Support for a return to absolutist government grew in reaction to the most radical manifestation of the Fronde, the Ormée movement in Bordeaux.  Driven to extremes by the harsh treatment they had suffered from rival Fronde factions, the people of that city had risen up and formed a revolutionary government, claiming the right to govern themselves and dismiss officials such as the judges of their local parlement.  Rather than risk the spread of such dangerous ideas, nobles and parlement members preferred to help restore the authority of the king, even at the cost of allowing Mazarin to regain power.  By the fall of 1652, the last elements of frondeur resistance were crumbling; Mazarin returned to France as the young Louis XIV’s principal minister, a role he would maintain until his death in 1661.

            The Fronde has gone down in French history as a confusing episode with few permanent effects.  In contrast to the English Puritan revolution that occurred at the same time, the French rebels had no unifying program.  Much of the movement was directed against a single minister—Mazarin—and the divisions among the frondeurs became apparent when he withdrew from the scene.  The English revolution resulted in a permanent increase in the powers of Parliament.  The Fronde instead further discredited the notion of any limit on royal authority in France. 

            The experience of the Fronde had an especially significant impact on the young Louis XIV.  He was deeply marked by the experience of having to sneak out of his disobedient capital city in 1649.  When he became king, he would make sure that no such threat to his authority would ever arise again.  His insistence on his own absolute authority and his decision to move the royal palace from the center of Paris to an isolated location at Versailles reflected his memories of the Fronde.