Friday, March 11, 2011

March 11, 1649 – Parlement Rejects Peace of Rueil

Like most revolutions, the French Fronde began because of money. Participation in the Thirty Years War had helped France weaken its Hapsburg competitors by supporting Sweden against Austria and then going into direct war with Spain in 1635, but the coffers of the king had run dry and all the fighting had not delivered France any greater power over Europe. Instead, it had created a generation of battle-hardened, unemployed young men who had fought under their own leadership in Germany. The nation had been turned into a powder keg, and taxation would be the match.

The Thirty Years War was nearly closed with the Peace of Westphalia, but the ongoing war with Spain needed more funding. Cardinal Mazarin, who had taken over after the death of Cardinal Richelieu, effectively ruled France while the young King Louis XIV was being groomed toward adulthood. He knew he could not tax the princes without losing political power, so he decided to tax the Parlement of Paris, the elected officials of the bourgeoisie. Unlike the Parliament of England, which held the right to tax, the Parlement acted more like the tribunes of Ancient Rome, speaking up in judicial review of laws passed by the royal Court. Strictly, Parlement was a council for advice and meant to record the law, but Mazarin's measure in May of 1648 had been a step taken too far. Taxes had built upon the middle class for some time, and they now marched out against it. Not only did Parlement refuse to pay, but they demanded reform to eliminate previous unfair taxes.

Mazarin, a cardinal in anti-cardinal Paris, bought time for some months when victory over the Spanish at the Battle of Lens gave his government clout. He arrested those who stood against him, but the action only led to uprising. Barricades were erected in the streets, and panic erupted. The nobles called for the first union of the Estates General since 1615 to arrange for an army, but cardinal-led royals realized that would give them an unbeatable upper hand. Instead, Mazarin and the royalty fled. With the Treaty of Westphalia, the Prince of Condé returned with his army to begin to besiege a divided Paris. Terms of peace began to be discussed, but Parlement saw its one chance for a leap forward against the royalists. Taking up allies among the nobles, particularly Prince of Conti (brother of Condé and distantly royal), they appealed to Spain for aid. Conti invaded the north of France, and the country fell into civil war, mirroring the one that had been seen in England only a few years before. The Fronde (named after the sling Parisians had used to smash windows) had begun and would drag on for ten years.

Spanish aid would buy Parlement time to build their faction, but it would ultimately run out as Spain fell to its own "fronde." Campaigns crisscrossed France, and the tide of battle ebbed and flowed until Parlement and its noble allies finally triumphed over the royals. Rather than exiling their king as the English had done, the French embraced the young Louis XIV, who would initially struggle against the strong constitution that bound him. Still, he would rule effectively and prove an impeccable statesman and politician, guiding his Parlement to grant funds for public works, such as the Gardens of the People at Versailles.

The success of a parliamentary system on the Continent would magnify the advances in political theory made in England. Absolutism would be seen as a great evil, even though the committees and councils of Parlement would be unquestionable at various points, turning France against Sweden as well as its old opponents in Austria and Spain, who effectively defeated their republicans. The next century was tumultuous as England, the Netherlands, France, and several smaller republics in Italy and Germany would be pitted against the ideals of absolutists, which would eventually fall to their own revolutions.

Ultimately, however, the system would prove corruptible. Massive bureaucracy and political impotence would call for a return of seemingly royal powers to a single person who would be direct in using it, ushering in a new era of "fascism" under powerful rulers such as Governor-General Nathaniel Greene, Napoleon of Corsica, Lord Protector Arthur Wellesley.


In reality, the Parlement of Paris refused to call for aid from Spain and quickly ratified the Peace of Rueil, which granted many of their demands. The matter of sharing political power with Parlement would be solved, but the greater disagreement between the nobles and the royals would continue. In the Second Fronde from 1650 to 1653, Mazarin and allies would defeat the nobles through arrests, intrigue, and warfare. Upon his coronation in 1654, young Louis XIV would establish himself as an autocrat and rule single-handedly as one of the wealthiest and most powerful dictators in human history.

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