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The Rise of Bourbon Absolutism: Henri IV, Richelieu and Louis XIII (1598-1643)

Between 1598 and 1643, three men laid the bases for the absolutist monarchy that would govern France until the Revolution of 1789:  Henri IV (reigned 1593-1610), his son Louis XIII (reigned 1610-43), and the great minister Cardinal Richelieu (in office 1624-42).

           Henri IV inherited the French throne after a long period of religious civil war between Catholics and Huguenots (the label for French Protestants) that had begun in 1562.  Originally a Huguenot himself, Henri had to overcome strong resistance from Catholic opponents, even after he agreed to convert to their religion in order to appease the population of Paris, the capital city.  By the 1590s, most of the French population was exhausted from the long period of conflict and was ready to accept a ruler who promised to bring back stability and prosperity.  Henri promised that his reign would mean “a chicken in every pot” for his subjects.

            Henri IV finally ended the religious wars in 1598, when he signed the Peace of Vervins with France’s main foreign enemy, Spain, and issued the Edict of Nantes, promising toleration to the Huguenot minority.  Under the terms of this edict, the Huguenots, who made up about ten per cent of the population, were allowed to have churches and worship openly in areas where they had been established before the start of the religious wars.  They were allowed to have a seminary to train ministers, to hold periodic national assemblies, to have an army and garrisons in 200 towns, and to maintain two fortified cities where they could take refuge if they were attacked.  On the other hand, they were not to try to make new converts to their faith.  Catholicism was reaffirmed as the official religion of the state, and the monarchy would remain Catholic.

            Henri IV and his capable minister, Sully, a Huguenot, worked to help the country recover from the long period of conflict.  Sully became the first of a series of exceptional royal ministers who strengthened the royal government over the course of the seventeenth century.  He promoted road repairs and other measures to restore the economy.  To raise money for the government, he overhauled the tax system.  His most important fiscal reform was to systematize the selling of government offices, a system known as venality of office.  Purchasers were attracted because they could not only earn money but eventually acquire noble titles for their families.  Sully introduced a tax on venal offices, the paulette, in exchange for which their owners were allowed to transfer them to their heirs at their death. 

          The paulette tax became an important source of revenue for the government.  The sale of offices also created a network of families all over France who had an interest in supporting the monarchy.  Because they owned their offices, however, these officials could not easily be disciplined.  To make sure that their orders were actually carried out, Henri IV and Sully began to appoint commissioners who did not own their offices.  These commissioners were sent to the provinces to carry out royal orders.  Louis XIV would eventually turn the commissioners into permanent royal officials (intendants) who made sure that his decrees were obeyed.

         Henri IV also pursued an aggressive foreign policy, seeking to reestablish France as a major factor in European politics and to expand his territory.  This aggressive foreign policy caused some opposition at home, however, because France’s continuing rivalry with the Catholic Habsburgs led Henri IV to side with foreign Protestants.  Fear that France was going to support Protestant interests in Germany was one of the motives that led the Catholic fanatic Ravaillac to assassinate Henri IV in 1610.

            Although the peace following the Edict of Nantes was popular, neither Catholics nor Huguenots were entirely satisfied with it.  Catholic diehards complained that France had not been freed from heresy, and they remained distrustful of the king and of Sully.  Huguenots resented the second-class status imposed on their religion and feared that the Catholics would eventually try to reduce their privileges.  Henri IV was assassinated in 1610 by a Catholic fanatic who thought the king was undermining the true faith.

            Henri IV’s death left the throne to his son, Louis XIII, who was only nine years old.  Until he insisted on taking control of the government himself in 1617, his mother, Marie de Medici, governed in his place as a regent.  Regencies were traditionally troubled periods, because a regent never had the full authority of a king.  Marie de Medici proved to be a skillful politician who succeeded in maintaining government authority, but, as a foreigner (she came from Italy), she was unpopular and faced opposition from relatives of the royal family who thought they should have been given greater power.  To rally support for herself, she convened a meeting of France’s traditional assembly, the Estates-General, in 1614-15.  Its members were unable to agree on any significant measures, however, an experience which helped discredit the idea of parliamentary government in France.  The Estates-General would not meet again until 1789. 

            When Louis XIII became king in his own right, he turned against his overbearing mother and her supporters.  From 1619 to 1622, Louis and his mother were in open conflict, the “wars of the mother and the son.”  Huguenot leaders saw this as an opportunity to improve their position and launched a revolt in 1621.  They were defeated in 1622 and lost some of their privileges, but remained determined to try again when they saw a chance. 

            Louis XIII was a shy and cautious man, who felt overwhelmed by the responsibilities of rulership.  He tended to look for one person who could advise him and direct the government.  One consequence of the reconciliation between Marie de Medici and Louis XIII after 1622 was the rise of one of Marie’s supporters, Cardinal Richelieu.  He had distinguished himself in the 1614 Estates-General and Marie had recruited him to help her govern.  His exceptional political talents quickly became evident.  Louis XIII distrusted Richelieu at first, because of his ties to his mother, but by 1624 the king realized that Richelieu was the only person capable of taking control of the difficult political situation created by the conflicts of the early 1620s.  In 1624, Richelieu was appointed as the king’s chief minister, an office he would keep until his death in 1642.

            Richelieu won Louis XIII’s trust by continually acknowledging that he was only the king’s servant, who could be dismissed at any time, and by insisting that all his actions were directed at strengthening the state.  He argued that his policies were dictated by what he called raison d’état, “reason of state,” or rational calculation of what was in the best interests of the country and its ruler.  In reality, he found himself improvising more than following any plan.  In all his actions, however, he worked to strengthen the monarchy and weaken the positions of groups that might oppose it.  He moved cautiously, however, to try to prevent any recurrence of the wars that had torn the country apart before 1598.

            Richelieu later claimed that his plan had been “to ruin the Huguenot party, to abase the pride of the nobles, to bring your subjects back to their duty, and to restore your reputation among foreign nations to the station it ought to occupy.”  When the Huguenots revolted again in 1627, he led an army to besiege their stronghold, the port city of La Rochelle.  When the city was forced to surrender in 1628, Richelieu imposed a settlement that stripped them of the military privileges in the Edict of Nantes.  He was careful not to push the Catholic victory too far, however:  he knew that Protestant merchants contributed a great deal to the economy, and he understood that a weakened Huguenot community would have to depend on the king for protection and would therefore be a source of support for him.

            The nobles Richelieu wanted to “abase” were those who traditionally had independent power bases in the regions where they lived.  Among the most troublesome were the king’s own relatives, who often acted as if they did not need to obey the monarch.  Richelieu tamed them by a combination of confrontation and patronage.  To enforce the king’s authority, he sent officials called intendants to the provinces, and insisted that they should be granted the same marks of respect as the king himself.  The intendants did not own their offices, and were therefore more easily controlled by the king.  Richelieu also created an extensive network of clients, nobles and officials who were granted favors in order to make them loyal to him and the king.  Richelieu also turned many of France’s leading writers into clients by creating the Académie française in 1634.  Its members received honors and subsidies and were expected in turn to write things favorable to the king and his ministers.  The Académie still exists today.

            The main function of Richelieu’s network of officials and clients was to help him impose order and, above all, collect taxes throughout the kingdom.  Richelieu understood that money is power, but he needed money especially to carry out his promise of raising France’s international standing.  This required a large army, which took a lot of money to pay for.  By the time Richelieu became first minister, the Thirty Years’ War in Germany was already under way (1618).  France remained neutral in the early years of the war, but Richelieu was determined that the conflict should not end with any strengthening of France’s long-time rival, Spain.  In the later 1620s, France became increasingly drawn into the conflict, subsidizing Spain’s enemies, even though most of them were Protestants.  This policy alienated many good Catholics in France, and led to a plot to oust Richelieu from office.  On the Day of Dupes (10 Nov. 1630), Richelieu appeared to have lost his position in favor of a rival who promised to stay out of the war, promote a stricter form of Catholicism, and undertake domestic reforms.  Before the day was over, however, Louis XIII changed his mind and recalled Richelieu.  The plotters were punished and Richelieu’s power became greater than ever.

            In 1635, France openly joined the war on Spain, and the conflict between the two countries continued even after the general settlement of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648.  The French armies won several major victories, but the financial strain imposed by the war was great.  Richelieu nearly tripled the tax burden on the French population.  In response, overburdened peasants resisted in the only way they could:  by revolting, and often by murdering tax collectors.  They often looked to local nobles to lead them.  Richelieu countered this wave of tax revolts by buying off the nobles, punishing a few peasant leaders, and sometimes granting minor concessions; he knew that the peasants, on their own, were incapable of seriously threatening the regime.  Gradually, the population came to accept higher tax rates, thereby giving the monarchy much greater resources and laying the basis for the even more ambitious policies of Louis XIV. 

            Richelieu’s ambitions extended beyond Europe to the colonial world.  Preoccupied with its internal conflicts in the 1500s, France had lagged behind other European powers in acquiring overseas territories.  Under Richelieu, French fur traders expanded into northern North America (Canada) and explored the Mississippi valley.  The French also acquired several island colonies in the Caribbean (Martinique and Guadeloupe).

            By the time of his death in 1642, Richelieu had created a much stronger central government than France had ever known before.  The Huguenots were no longer a menace, and he had shown how the provincial nobles could be managed, although they still retained considerable independence.  As a result of its intervention in the Thirty Years’ War, France was clearly Europe’s strongest military and diplomatic power.  But Richelieu was not able to guarantee that his system would outlive him, and he left the country in a virtual state of bankruptcy.  Louis XIII, who had become increasingly reliant on Richelieu, died in 1643, leaving a five-year-old heir, the new Louis XIV.  France was plunged back into a period of instability under another Regent, Louis XIII’s widow Anne of Austria.  The future of the absolutist Bourbon monarchy depended on her ability to maintain the system that Richelieu had worked so hard to build up.

Excerpts from Richelieu’s writings

A... the Huguenots shared the state with you;... the nobles conducted themselves as if they were not your subjects, and the most powerful governors of the provinces as if they were sovereign in their offices...  everyone measured his own merit by his audacity; ... in place of esteeming the benefits which they received from your Majesty at their proper worth, they all valued them only as they satisfied the demands of their imaginations; that the most scheming were held to be the wisest, and often found themselves the most prosperous.... the dignity of the royal majesty was so disparaged, and so different from what it should be, because of the misdeeds of those who conducted your affairs, that it was almost impossible to recognize it.@

AI promised your Majesty to employ all my industry and all the authority which it should please you to give me to ruin the Huguenot party, to abase the pride of the nobles, to bring all your subjects back to their duty, and to restore your reputation among foreign nations to the station it ought to occupy.@



From these two principles it clearly follows that if man is sovereignly reasonable he ought to make reason sovereign, which requires not only that he do nothing not in conformity with it, but also that he make all those who are under his authority reverence it and follow it religiously.  This precept is the source of another, which teaches us that since we should never want the accomplishment of anything not reasonable and just, neither should we ever want the accomplishment of anything without having it carried out and our commands followed by complete obedience, because otherwise reason would not really reign sovereign...@

It is for such reasons necessary to back one=s decision with a firm will, because this is the only way to make oneself obeyed... obedience is the most important part of the subjection so necessary to the well-being of states, which, if it is defective, cannot flourish.@


subjects will always religiously obey when princes are firm and relentless in their commands, from which it follows that if states are poorly governed princes are all the more responsible for it...@

women, by nature indolent and unable to keep secrets, are little suited to government, particularly if one also considers that they are subject to their emotions and consequently little susceptible to reason and justice, attributes which should exclude them from all public office.@