How effective a king was Louis XIII of France?

In order to answer this query, one must first unpack the various prejudices which have arisen against Louis XIII since his reign (1610-1643).  Additionally, one must also answer the very critical accusations which spring out of these prejudices.  However, more importantly, beyond answering the king’s critics, one must be willing to ask two further questions in order to truly define how effective a king Louis XIII was.  First, how much of Louis does one see in the decisions carried out under his name?  Second, how effective were these decisions once they were implemented?

First, amongst the prejudices mentioned above is the notion popularized by Alexandre Dumas that Louis was a monarch almost wholly devoid of will, intelligence, and integrity.  To Dumas, he was the creature of his omnipotent chief minister Cardinal Richelieu.  For example, in The Three Musketeers, when the Captain of the guards (de Tréville) is able to dissuade the king from punishing the heroic musketeers[1] for dueling with the Cardinal’s guards, de Tréville is beside himself for his ability to persuade, “this royal infant to revolt against his master.”[2]  Louis himself proclaims in the novel – in an extreme fit of narcissism and pettiness – that he does not have enough time for hunting, since the Cardinal’s always after him, “pestering me about Spain, England, or Austria,” with never a moment’s peace for his supposed true concerns – Louis XIII’s royal pleasures.[3]  Accordingly, Dumas’s Louis XIII was a king mastered by his chief minister, the Cardinal, who, “had a hypnotic hold on him, like a snake on a helpless bird.”[4]  To Dumas, “Louis the Just” was an improper sobriquet for the king, one which should be replaced by “Louis the Idiot.”[5]

Of course Dumas was not the first or last historian (amateur or otherwise) to cast aspersions at Louis XIII.  For instance, not long after the king’s death, Tallemant des Réaux commented that his sire, “at times … reasoned passably well in council meeting, and even appeared to have the advantage over the Cardinal.  Perhaps the latter was shrewdly giving him this little satisfaction.”  “‘Do-nothingness’ was his [the king’s] undoing,” according to des Réaux.[6]   Writing in the 20th century Victor Tapié describes Louis as a king, “who gave no evidence of outstanding qualities,” grew to be “neurotic,” and was, “suspicious,” by nature.[7]  Further, to Tapié, his need for the companionship and love of men as favorites (and perhaps sexually) underscored potentially damaging emotional rifts in the king’s personality, which were only heightened by his “repressed sensitive instincts” and deep “suspicion” of anyone he grew to love.[8]  These character flaws arose from a tormented childhood according to Tapié, and they were what allowed favorites such as Charles d’Albert de Luynes to manipulate and control Louis XIII.  Thus, Luynes is characterized as the, “man responsible for the young king’s decision,” to assassinate his mother’s favorite Concino Concini (the marquis of Ancre), and to his exile his mother soon afterwards. Important acts which earned Louis the sobriquet Louis the Just.[9]

How are these very damning criticisms to be answered?  First, it must but be acknowledged that Louis XIII was in many ways a flawed man from an emotional standpoint.  The consensus amongst historians, “is that his family, attendants, and education scarred him for life.”[10]   Further, Louis was the victim of the period’s medical methodology, which subjected him to continual purges, foul (and perhaps harmful) medicines, and occasional bleedings, all of which effected his health as an adult, and most certainly caused at least a minimal amount of psychological damage.  Also as a child, Louis was often in ambiguous (and sometimes humiliating) social situations with the half-brothers his father had sired with various mistresses, and Louis was never able to fully fill the dual roles of regal heir and deferential son at the same time.  This latter condition caused many flare-ups between Louis and his father Henry IV, including several almost absurd stand-offs over who owed whom a kiss and proper hat etiquette.[11]

The king’s desire for courtesy continued throughout his life.  Thus, after his father’s death in 1610, Louis was to remain jealous of those courtesies which a king could demand of his subjects, and he often used this insecurity over courtesy to his advantage.  In many ways, Louis made the art of courtesy a device of coercion around those subjects who had offended him or had committed acts of political violence against the state.  Accordingly, Louis often, “delighted in forcing everyone to defer to him.”[12]   Further, as one author notes, the king’s  respect for Richelieu derived to a large extent, “from the latter’s ability to pay Louis proper respect,” and to force the king’s subjects to do the same.[13]

Thus perhaps it is no coincidence that the man he was to later to have executed, the marquis of Ancre, often angered Louis by the lack of courtesy (e.g., hat doffing, tone of speech, proper acknowledgment, etc.)  he showed the monarch.  “Public opinion,” also ran against the too proud marquis, which viewed him as a “foreign adventurer” in league with “low-born lackeys” and parvenus who were corrupting the state and the crown, and upsetting the nation’s natural order through their vice, political favoritism, and haughtiness.[14]

Given all this it should also come as no surprise that as the king’s reign progressed, his intendants and officials often stretched the rules of formal courtesy as much as possible to gain the king’s wishes.  Further, it should also not be surprising that breaches of politeness often entailed serious consequences for those local elites or citizenry who dared to insult an official of the crown.  Thus the burning of a royal ordinance might quickly be followed up by the arrival of royal troops, or the suspension of a local town government or a parlemant.[15]

Importantly, the response to this so-called weakness of the king’s for courtesy brings up a very crucial point.[16]  If, as we have seen, Louis XIII’s need for courtesy was a flaw which had been turned to his own advantage, could he not have also used his other weaknesses in the same fashion?  If he were a king who required emotional support and the hand of a good minister, could not these weaknesses have manifested themselves in the form favorites and ministers who would do his bidding and pursued his various agendas?  Such a king would have been radically different from those kings we typify as great (e.g., Richard I, Henry V, Louis XIV, etc.), but he would have been competent nonetheless.  This seems to be the path which Louis took in forming an effective government after coming into his own by ousting the Concini in 1617.  That it took him sometime to find a council he could live with is not surprising.  That he made mistakes along the way is also not surprising.

For instance, if Louis can be criticized for depending too much on Luynes and Louis de l’Hôpital de Vitry[17] after his personal rule began, he learned not to do so after the death of Luynes in 1621 and Vitro’s fall from favor in 1618-1619.  In other words, as he found himself prisoner to his desire to please[18] and depend upon his favorite Luynes, he learned not to repeat this error in the future.  Accordingly, Louis, “vowed never again to let a personal favorite exercise political power,” while at the same time he began to divide his favors, “equally among … [his new] courtiers Bassompierre, Esplan, and Torias.”[19]   By way of contrast, look at the career of Charles of England – whose downfall was in significant part due to his too high investment in favorites to the exclusion of other members of the political-social elite.

Returning to Tapié, he views this period between Luynes and Richelieu (1621-1624) with “alarm,” since it was characterized by, “the absence of a guiding hand to direct the affairs of the realm as a whole.”[20]  I argue though that Tapié in this instance has overemphasized the king’s weaknesses.  This was in fact a period of growth for the king.  He was able to take a hands on approach to the great matters of the day – pursuing and defeating the rebellious Huguenots in 1628, negotiating with and fighting the dangerous Hapsburgs, and reforming the antiquated and debilitated tax structure – and by the knowledge he gained from this experience come to some understanding of what he wanted in a government.  This explains the, “ups and downs of successive leaders of the king’s council,” between 1621 and 1627, and the rise of the formerly distrusted Richelieu, who had earlier been banned from Paris because of his involvement in the government of Concini and Marie.[21]

Given this framework one can more clearly see that Louis was in fact experimenting with the make-up of the council, sending down Schomberg here, allowing for the rise of the Brûlart family there, and eventually settling on a council that included not only Richelieu and the Cardinal’s ally Marie, but Richelieu’s competitor Louis de Marillac as well.[22]  Given this perspective, the fact that Louis eventually picked Richelieu to guide the running of his state only shows the wisdom of a king who had gained an appreciation for his limitations and knew who was most likely to carry out his agenda.  Instead of the weak king we see in the Dumas tale, we find a king who understands his needs and who becomes a master of his own fate.  However, if one needs further evidence of Louis XIII’s will, one should look no further than his treatment of his mother when she threatened his sovereignty.  In 1617 he was strong enough to send her into exile, and able to defeat her army at Ponts-de-Cé in 1620, and he was further able in 1630 to choose Richelieu[23] over her opposing counsel on the so-called Day of the Dupes.

If one concedes that Louis XIII was strongly involved in the administration of his government, one might ask what the king most wished to pursue from a standpoint of policy.  In answering this question, three basic areas of policy interest unfold: (1) internal state reform, (2) curbing Huguenot political and armed power, and (3) responding to growing concerns over Hapsburg power on the Italian peninsula and on France’s borders.  What was the driving force behind the king’s policy decisions?  Justice, or at least his notion of it.  As one author notes, “from the moment of Concini’s demise to the appointment of Richelieu, Louis XIII was forever ready to fight for what he considered a just cause.”[24]

What did justice mean to Louis?  During this period it typically revolved around three specific qualities.  (1) Punishment for wrongdoing.  (2) Royal justice – or the, “fairminded treatment of subjects’ grievances.”And  (3) forgiveness of the repented wrongdoer.  Louis throughout his life would use a mixture of these three forms of justice to inform and launch his policy initiatives. [25]

Outside of theory, how did these notions of justice play out in the day to day decisions of Louis and his council?  One example that comes readily to the fore are the Huguenots, who despite their rebellions against the king in the 1620s, were guaranteed the “religious and judicial provisions of the Edict of Nates” in the king’s Edict of Grace in 1628.  However, the Huguenots at the same time lost their “state within a state,” under this same royal justice.  Even the most recalcitrant rebels, like those at La Rochelle, were, once they begged for mercy and forgiveness treated with a light hand.  Thus upon their capitulation, the king who had been so angered by the La Rochelle’s will to hang on against all odds, was given immediate relief in the form of free bread and provisions supplied by the Crown.[26]

Beyond his campaigns against the rebellious Huguenots, Louis also pursued a haphazard (and sometimes detrimental) policy of reforming the tax structure of his state.  For example, in the region known as Dauphiné, the Crown called for “extending the base of taxation in the province” under a system called the taille réelle.  Such a policy, if the state could have overcome local political resistance by the nobles of the region, would have both reduced the, “weight of taxes upon rural communities and the poorest sector of the third estate and at the same time increased the general levy demand of  Dauphiné.”  The alliance which the crown drew together in the region to carry through its agenda is also telling, since it included those who had been traditionally out of power, namely, rural communities, new officials, etc.  Accordingly this alliance drew together those most harmed by the prevailing taille system, and those who were hindered by it in their quest for social and economic advancement.[27]

This does not mean that the king had a systematic agenda for the entire state of France.  Instead, as was common throughout the early modern period for most “states,”  ad hoc moral proclamations by the king created specific royal concerns as events arose.  Later, these proclamations spawned into specific state policies that ranged from, “traditional royal bans on noble dueling to new laws curbing subjects’ excessive expenditures for luxury garments.”[28]

What then can be said about Louis’s performance within the three broad policy goals listed above?  In the realm of tax reform, while his regime was not a complete failure, it did suffer from the structural weaknesses that all French monarchs had to labor under since the fourteenth century.  Further, these structural weakness, most specifically the wide ranging particularism of  taxation in France, and the various rights accorded those regions of the pays d’Etat, burdened those areas without privileges, and often lead to high degrees of non-payment amongst the most heavily taxed.  That the Crown attempted to level the playing field between the pays d’Etat and the pays d’élection, speaks to Louis XIII’s sense of fairness as much as his desire to increase revenues in the fight against the Hapsburgs during France’s involvement in the Thirty Years’ War.  That Louis and his regime were unable to level this playing field illustrates the strength of local elites and custom.  In the end, the, “king of France neither taxed nor spent at will, and local elites retained a great deal of control over the practical workings of the system,” despite the advent of such royal offices as the intendant in 1634.[29]  As a further sign of the Crown’s failure, the regime went – like many early modern European “states” – bankrupt in 1634, which was neither good for the Crown nor the nation.       

Then again, efforts to change the tax system also spurred peasant revolts throughout much of France in the 1630s, which further added to the financial problems of the regime. (What caused these revolts may be the subject of another posting.) These reactions are part of the very, “painful collision of cultures,” between traditional society and an arising centralized state which Bercé speaks of in his opus on the peasant revolts in the seventeenth century.[30]  Further, the financial woes of the heavily indebted Crown also lead to political struggles within the kingdom, the most notable example coming after the reign of Louis XIII in the form of the three related Frondes.  Since the government, “could not raise enough money to pay for itself,” and thus constantly encroached upon the power of local elites in order to gain revenue, it was natural for “political agitation” to occur.  In many ways, the Fronde is a legacy of Louis’s failure to increase revenues in a manner which would not cause social eruption.[31]

However, if one turns to the case of the Huguenots, Louis’s success over the long run is a bright and shining example of how successful he could be as a king.  Over a period of eight years he was able to do what even his father (Henry IV) had not achieved.  Crush the state within a state.    While assiduously respecting the right of Huguenot worship, he would not stand for the injustice heaped upon him by those Huguenot subjects who chose to rebel against him or his state.  The king equally expected that the Edict of Nates’s provisions concerning Catholic church property and worship be obeyed.  For example, he took a personal interest in the Huguenot territory of Béarn’s circumvention of his decree in 1617 for the Béarnais to respect the provisions of the Edict of Nates.  After three years of frustration, in 1620, he personally forced, with his army behind him, the Béarnais to restore property to the local Catholic authorities, while at the same time he replaced local officers with loyal Catholic subjects.[32]

By 1628, Louis XIII had subdued the Huguenot throughout France, and had humiliated those great noble subjects (including his mother and the Condé) who had attempted to circumvent his sovereignty since the advent of his personal rule.  He had achieved this by learning from his past mistakes, never repeating the folly of the siege of Montauban, nor the carnage witnessed at Négrepelisse.  Much like his growth as a master of his servitors, Louis also grew as a warrior.  In the end, this success should underline how determined and intelligent a ruler Louis could be.

What then of Louis’s foreign policy?  Unfortunately, for Louis, his early years in the realm of foreign affairs were filled with growing pains.  His most painful, and damaging decision came in 1619 when he decided to aid his fellow Catholics by defending Vienna, and by his negotiation of the treaty of Ulm in 1620.  Both of these actions had increased his rival the emperor’s secular power, which was wholly against French interests in the larger game of European statecraft.  Thanks to the treaty which brought about a German truce, Catholic League troops were able to march to White Mountain (which is near Prague), join up with the forces of Ferdinand, crush the Bohemian rebels which the treaty was supposed to aid them, and thus increase the power of the Louis’s greatest European rival.  However, these events set a trend in foreign policy that Louis followed for the rest of his life, and that Richelieu aided.  In fact, Louis became a king who pursued a highly aggressive foreign policy.  He justified this policy by calling it defensive, that is in defense of traditional French interests and the interests of his allies the Protestant Dutch and German states, and eventually the runaway Portuguese state.  These interests of course  naturally collided with the gargantuan Hapsburg empire.[33]

Of course such a policy meant that France was leaning towards open war with the Austrian and Spanish Hapsburgs.  This war, as was seen above, placed a heavy burden on the populace, especially in the area of taxes.  Also, since France was often on the losing end of such affairs – as in the intervention into Valtellina – or offered a mixed-bag of results – as in the Mantuan succession – aggressive warfare itself could also not have been popular amongst much of the peasantry.  This must have been particularly true after France joined the Thirty Years’ War.  Louis’s armies met repeated reverses before the tides of war changed in 1640, and this may have lead to the last noble revolt of his regime – that of the Count of Soissons in 1641.  However, from 1640 to 1642 the kingdom of France swelled with the addition of, “two vital territories, Artois and Roussillon,” and the threat of Hapsburg hegemony seemed to have been checked.  That a strong Spanish army entered the Ardennes just days after Louis’s death in 1643 and was soundly thrashed, underscores the change in fortune which France had underwent since 1618.  In that year, it was literally unable (due to the youth of the king and his unstable monarchy) to fight in the Thirty Years’ War, however, by 1643, it could master the very strong armies of the Hapsburgs.[34]

In summary, Louis XIII was not the weak king Dumas and others have branded him as, but a king who was able to us his weaknesses and his sense of justice to mold a sometimes very effective royal council and agenda.  That he failed to reform the tax system says more about the strength of the Renaissance tax structure, than about his own weaknesses.  Further, as a military commander, both in the field and otherwise, he was very effective at marshaling his troops to his cause and defeating his enemies, especially the recalcitrant Huguenots.  Louis also pursued an aggressive foreign policy which in the end gained territory for France and checked the growth of France’s greatest enemy.


[1]These musketeers are of course Porthos, Athos, Aramis, and the future musketeer and fortune seeker d’Artagnan.

[2]Dumas, Alexandre, The Three Musketeers (New York: Penguin Books, 1952), p. 88.

[3]Ibid., p. 98.

[4]Ibid., p. 709.

[5]Moote, A. Lloyd, Louis XIII – The Just (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 6.

[6]Ibid., pp. 6-7.

[7]Tapié, Victor L., France in the Age of Louis XIII and Richelieu (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), p. 89.

[8]If this were a mark against Louis XIII, one wonders why these same tendencies were not also a debilitating factor in the reign of James I, who has seen an increase in his stock amongst historians in recent decades.

[9]Tapié, Victor L., France in the Age of Louis XIII and Richelieu, pp. 92-93.

[10]Moote, A. Lloyd, Louis XIII, p. 23.

[11]Ibid., pp. 25-26.

[12]Ranum, Orest, “Courtesy, Absolutism, and the Rise of the French State, 1630-1660,” Journal of Modern History 52 (1980), p. 434.

[13]Ibid., p. 432.

[14]Berce, Yves-Marie, The Birth of Absolutism: A History of France, 1598-1661 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), pp 69-72.

[15]Ranum, Orest, “Courtesy, Absolutism, and the Rise of the French State, 1630-1660,” p. 440-442.

[16]The king often flew into a rage (which often made him physically ill) when he felt slighted.

[17]The captain of Louis XIII’s guards and co-conspirator in the assassination of Ancre.

[18]Louis was notorious for showering Luynes with gifts and offices, much to the chagrin of those who might wish to compete with Luynes.  In many ways, Louis had created a Concini or Buckingham of his own.

[19]Moote, A. Lloyd, Louis XIII, pp. 106-107.

[20]Tapié, Victor L., France in the Age of Louis XIII and Richelieu, p. 126.

[21]Berce, Yves-Marie, The Birth of Absolutism, p. 81.

[22]Moote, A. Lloyd, Louis XIII, pp. 107-115.

[23]In many ways, Richelieu was favored because of his steadfast desire to follow the king’s policy in Italy – that is aggressively pursuing Hapsburg power there.  Marie de Medeci was opposed to this policy, and thus eventually lost her son’s favor. Moote, A. Lloyd, Louis XIII, 213-219.

[24]Moote, A. Lloyd, Louis XIII, p. 116.

[25]Ibid., pp. 56-57.

[26]Berce, Yves-Marie, The Birth of Absolutism, p. 101-102.

[27]Hickey, Daniel, The Coming of French Absolutism: The Struggle for Tax Reform in the Province of Dauphiné, 1540-1640 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), p. 178.

[28]Moote, A. Lloyd, Louis XIII, p. 116.

[29]Collins, James B., The Fiscal Limits of Absolutism: Direct Taxation in Early Seventeenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 2-4, 8, 68-69.

[30]Bercé, Yves Marie, History of Peasant Revolts: the Social Origins of Rebellion in Early Modern France (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 19.

[31]Collins, James B., The Fiscal Limits of Absolutism, pp. 220-221.

[32]Moote, A. Lloyd, Louis XIII, pp. 121-123.

[33]Ibid., pp. 132-133.

[34]Berce, Yves-Marie, The Birth of Absolutism, p. 156.

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