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Marie de Médicis: 1610-1617

When Henry IV dies, in 1610, he has had six children by his second wife, Marie de Médicis, in the previous nine years. This level of productivity is remarkable in that Henry is famous also for the number of his mistresses (causing him to become known as le vert galant, the "evergreen gallant").

Henry's infidelities have strained his relationship with Marie (married for the advantages which a Medici dowry will bring to the French exchequer), and it is only on the day before his assassination that she finally manages to be crowned queen. The coincidence provokes rumours as to her possible involvement in the crime. But as the crowned queen she successfully asserts her claim to be regent for her son, the 9-year-old Louis XIII.
 









Marie immediately reverses the anti-Habsburg policy prevailing at the end of Henry's reign. She admits the Spanish ambassador to her council and arranges for two of her children to marry the infanta and infante, the two elder children of Philip III of Spain; Louis XIII is betrothed to Anne, and his sister Elizabeth to the future Philip IV.

Marie's regency is extravagant and incompetent. It ends in violence when Louis XIII, at the age of seventeen, arranges for the assassination of his mother's favourite, the marquis d'Ancre, and takes power into his own hands. In the long run Marie's main contribution is her employment of a very talented administrator - Richelieu.
 






Richelieu and Louis XIII: 1624-1642

Armand du Plessis, created cardinal in 1622 and duc de Richelieu in 1631, begins his public career as the 21-year-old bishop of the small diocese of Luçon. He comes to the attention of Marie de Médicis when he is one of the representatives of the clergy in the estates general of 1614 (summoned by her for the purpose of raising funds). He becomes one of her secretaries of state in 1616.

When Marie is exiled from Paris in 1617 by her son, Richelieu goes with her. But there is a reconciliation between mother and son in 1622. By 1624 Richelieu is on Louis XIII's council of state. Later in that same year he is declared to be the "principal minister".
 









Over the next eighteen years the two men, minister and king, devote themselves to raising the status of France. On his appointment, Richelieu declares to his king that he will undertake four important tasks. They are, in his own sequence: to destroy the Huguenots; to weaken the power of the nobles; to bring the French people to obedience; and to raise the name of the king to its rightful place among foreign nations.

When Richelieu makes these resolutions, in 1624, the Huguenots have recently been up in arms against the crown over an issue of church property. As a result their fortresses, allowed them by the edict of Nantes, have been reduced to just two - La Rochelle and Montauban.
 







Huguenot assistance to an English raid in 1627 gives Richelieu the pretext he needs. He besieges the stronghold of La Rochelle. The Huguenots hold out for a year, but finally yield in October 1628. In the resulting peace of Alès, in 1629, all the political privileges granted them in the edict of Nantes are removed, together with their last two strongholds. But they are left with their freedom to worship as Calvinists.

Richelieu's next aims (reducing the power of the nobles and increasing the obedience of the populace) are resolved, almost as one package, by making more effective France's steady progress towards absolutism - or unbridled centralized rule by the monarch.
 







Strong centralized rule was attempted by Francis I, was improved upon by Henry IV, and is now - thanks to Richelieu - successfully achieved by Louis XIII. The estates general summoned in 1614 by Marie de Médicis proves to be the last for almost two centuries (until the fateful assembly of 1789). The administration now put in place is run by bureaucrats from the centre, not by nobles dispersed around the country. To have influence now one needs to be at court, under the eye of the king and his minister.

Richelieu taxes the country hard, prompting several peasant uprisings. He needs the money for his last purpose, promoting the international dignity of the French king. This aim embroils him in the Thirty Years' War.
 






France in the Thirty Years' War: from 1635

The threat to France's international stature comes, as it has done since the days of Charles V and Francis I, from the joint Habsburg dynasties of Spain and Austria. From 1629, when the Austrian emperor seems to have the upper hand in Germany's war, Richelieu is busy diplomatically - in particular urging intervention by Gustavus II of Sweden.

When Gustavus does invade, and in 1632 reaches as far south as Munich, Richelieu takes advantage of the general turmoil to slip a French army into Lorraine. But by 1635 Gustavus is dead, the Austrian emperor is about to make peace with his German subjects, and Spain is actively campaigning against the United Provinces on France's northern border.
 









Richelieu decides that it is time for overt action. In 1635 he makes an alliance with the United Provinces and Sweden and declares war on Spain and the Austrian empire.

The war is still going on when Richelieu dies in 1642, to be followed by Louis XIII in 1643. Had they lived until the peace of Westphalia in 1648, they would have known that Richelieu had made major strides in his aim of boosting the French king's prestige. The treaty gives France territorial rights in Lorraine and Alsace (both left a little vague), and it reflects a subtle change in Europe's balance of power. By the end of the century the nation which everyone else fears will be no longer Spain or the Austrian empire, but France.
 






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