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PODs of the Thirty Years War XXIV

By Alex Richards

Philippe de Champaigne's painting of the Cardinal de Richelieu, one of the major figures of the Thirty Years War

The period of the Thirty Years war from the Peace of Prague to the Treaty of Westphalia is usually termed the French Phase of the war, to distinguish it from the earlier Palatinate, Danish and Swedish phases. Yet as has been repeatedly mentioned throughout these articles, French funding to those opposing the Emperor had been a constant feature of the war before this point, only intervening directly when it became clear that the Swedes could no longer mount an effective military campaign themselves. To understand why France felt the need to do this, in this article I’ll be taking a moment to look back over French foreign policy leading up to 1635.

The Franco-Habsburg Rivalry

While trying to pick a ‘starting point’ for historical trends and events is often a futile manner, the most convenient one for this article is the marriage of the Emperor Maximilian I to Mary of Burgundy, last Valois ruler of the Duchy of Burgundy in 1477. Then, in 1496, their son Phillip the Handsome married Joanna of Castile, who soon became heir to the thrones of Castile and Aragon after her elder brother, elder sister and nephew all died in quick succession. By 1519, all four realms had been inherited by their son Charles, who was soon crowned Emperor Charles V, effectively encircling France.

The next 60 years saw France at near-continuous war with the Habsburgs and their allies in a struggle for dominance in the Italian peninsular- a conflict that would spill over with events such as the Spanish conquest of the French-protected Kingdom of Navarre south of the Pyrenees, the French conquest of Picardy and the Duchy of Burgundy proper, and clashes with the Ottoman Empire. At the end of these, the 1559 Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis defined the new balance of power in Europe. Charles V abdicated and his empire was split between the Austrian Habsburgs- who effectively retained the Imperial title as a hereditary fief, and the Spanish Habsburgs- who also ruled Milan, Naples and what was left of the Burgundian lands, notably the Netherlands and the Free County of Burgundy (today more usually known as the Franche Comté). France had (as part of a deal to give aid to the Schmalkaldic League during the clashes between the Emperor and the protestant princes before the Peace of Augsburg) also occupied the three small Prince-Bishoprics of Metz, Toul and Verdun, which were largely surrounded by the Duchy of Lorraine, and while nominally remaining part of the Holy Roman Empire these were essentially annexed to France.

For the remainder of the 16th Century, both France and the Habsburgs had major internal issues to deal with- for Spain it was the Dutch Revolt, for Austria the Ottomans, conflicts in the Empire and the infighting in the family, and for France it was the Wars of Religion which saw the monarchy try, and fail, to prevent major bloodshed in clashes between the fervently Catholic House of Guise and the Calvinist-friendly House of Condé. Throughout this conflict, the Protestant Huguenots received support from England and the small remnant of the Kingdom of Navarre, while the Guise faction received support from Spain and the Duchy of Savoy.

Henri of Navarre, who ended the French Wars of Religion, as painted by Frans Pourbus the Younger

It would be difficult to overstate the scale of the French Wars of Religion- it’s believed that about 3 million people were killed over the course of them, making it by far the deadliest of the religious wars to date, and second only to the Thirty Years War itself. Resolution was only reached after 1589, when after the assassination of Henri III of France, Henri of Navarre- his distant cousin and the next heir under Salic succession rules- converted to Catholicism in order to win the loyalty of enough of the French populace to enforce his claim to the throne. Even then military action was required to establish his rule, first against the Catholic League (based around the Guise supporters), and eventually against Spain itself. While unrest was to continue for some years afterwards, it is the double act of the Edict of Nantes, granting toleration to the Huguenots, and the Peace of Vervins, where Spain recognised Henri IV as King of France and withdrew support for the Catholic League in 1598 that are seen as the end of the French Wars of Religion.

Cardinal Richelieu: Towards Centralisation

Needless to say the cultural effects of this bloodshed were extreme. Henri IV’s reign was focused on mediation at home (usually by simply paying off potential opponents) and rebuilding the nation through measures to support the lower classes (a combination which means he’s been much better regarded in retrospect than he was contemporarily). Abroad, Henri first used the peace with Spain to crush Savoy, winning some territorial concessions, then helped to mediate an end to the War of Jülich succession in the Empire, marking the return of the French to a more active role in the internal conflicts of The Empire. When he was assassinated in 1610 by a Catholic fanatic, his wife Marie de’ Medici served as regent for their young son Louis XIII until he came of age in 1617, offering rapprochement towards Spain for the time being- most significantly through the marriage of the king to the Spanish princess Anne of Austria (the ‘of Austria’ being due to the fact she also had the title of Archduchess of Austria).

It was at this point that the other key French figure for the period steps onto the stage. Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu, the Bishop of Luçon, initially began his career by sticking close to Marie de’ Medici, then after her downfall in 1617 gained the King’s confidence when he was successfully able to mediate peace between King and Queen Mother and stave off a new round of aristocratic conflict in 1619. He was made a cardinal in 1622, and by 1624 had established himself as the king’s First Minister.

Henri's widow, Maria de' Medici also as painted by Frans Pourbus the Younger

French policy since 1598 had, understandably, been shaped by an all-consuming desire to prevent a repeat of the Wars of Religion, but where Henri IV had used bribery and Marie de’ Medici had sought to placate the Habsburgs to prevent foreign intervention, Richelieu, with the backing of the king, chose a different tact. At home, efforts were made to centralise power in the royal court-first the nobility were ordered to raze fortified castles unneeded for national defence to reduce the number of strongpoints in the country, then the remaining military strongholds of the Huguenots were besieged and captured, culminating in the fall of La Rochelle in 1628. For the remainder of his time in office, Richelieu would take ruthless action against any threats to his, and the king’s, position using force, threats, harsh punishments and an extensive network of spies to do so.

In terms of foreign policy, meanwhile, the three interlocking goals were to expand the position and influence of France, to weaken the power of the Habsburgs as opponents of France, and to try and end the encirclement of France by Habsburg lands. But as with the Spanish funding of the Huguenots to distract France in the 1620s, Richelieu believed that France would be better served by funding other powers to fight the Habsburgs while preserving peace at home to allow for his centralising reforms to take place- it was also significantly cheaper than the alternative, as demonstrated by the fact that after only a year of military intervention in northern Italy to attempt to prevent the Spanish from taking control of the Valtellina the poor state of French finances forced Richelieu to sign a peace treaty with Spain in 1626.

By 1630, however, Richelieu had won the ire of Marie de’ Medici, who conspired with the king’s brother- Gaston, duc d’Orleans- to convince the king to remove Richelieu from power. The result has come to be known as the Day of the Dupes, where the Queen-Mother demanded the king choose between her and the Cardinal. While initially everyone, including Richelieu, believed that his career was over, the Cardinal followed the King to Versailles and secured his approval, leading to Marie de’ Medici exiling herself from court, beginning a chain of events that would see the French brought into direct conflict with the Empire.


Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP


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