Louis XI

Louis XI

Louis XI, son of Charles VII, was a king of France from the Valois dynasty that had replaced the Capetian dynasty a century earlier. A schemer whose reputation in history was solidified when Sir Walter Scott condemned him a century later, Louis was nicknamed “the Spider King” for his weaving of webs of intrigue. At age 16, he tried to overthrow his father, Charles VII.

The so-called Praguerie—Prague had been the site of similar uprisings—was the second such led by the duke of Bourbon, as the nobility sought to remove Charles from power and replace him with Louis, in response to Charles’s limits on noble power and reforms increasing the power of the monarchy. When the revolt failed, the major participants, including Louis, were forgiven after their surrender and submission.

Six years later, Louis was sent to the province of Dauphine to govern and never saw his father again. They continued to plot against each other, and Charles even sent soldiers to retrieve Louis in 1456, but the prince was given shelter by Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy. Charles died five years later, and Louis succeeded him at the age of 38.

Two Charleses—Louis’s brother the duke of Berry and Normandy, and Philip’s son Charles the Bold—led a revolution against Louis, each motivated by the desire to expedite his inheritances and seeking Louis’s removal in the name of breaking down the centralized authority of the French monarchy. Like Louis’s rebellion against his father, it was unsuccessful—and like the aftermath of that rebellion, the participants were forgiven after submitting to the king’s authority.

Louis was the king of France during England’s Wars of the Roses, and since the rebel Charles the Bold was an ally of the Yorkists, Louis supported the Lancastrians, even manipulating events in order to force France’s Yorkist king Edward IV into exile.

When Edward was restored to power, Louis prevented his planned retaliatory invasion of France by relinquishing any French claim to the English throne—which became another bone of contention between the king and the nobility. When Louis finally decisively defeated Charles, there were no pardons this time—the rebel was killed in battle and many of his noble supporters executed.

Louis strengthened the monarchy, further limiting the powers of the nobility even as he granted more power to common-born merchants. Though he was poorly remembered, France prospered under him—prosperity it lost under the reign of his son, Charles VIII, a pleasant-natured man called Charles the Affable whose bumbling led to mounting debts, ill-considered wars, and treaties that put the kingdom at severe disadvantage as the Middle Ages waned.

Louis XIV

Louis XIV was born in 1638, the son of King Louis XIII and his wife, Anne of Austria, from the Habsburg dynasty. Anne served as regent until Louis XIV began to govern in his own name in 1651.

However, he was carefully guided by Cardinal Jules Mazarin, who had been the protégé of Cardinal Richelieu. Anne’s loveless marriage to Louis XIII fueled the rumor that Louis XIV’s father was actually Jules Mazarin, with whom the love-starved Anne shared a romance.

As he settled into his reign, he increased the size of his bureaucracy. To fill expanding government positions, Louis XIV turned toward the middle class. These men, rather than owing their positions to ancestral power, were truly “the king’s men”; everything they gained was from the king, and they knew the king could take it away if he became displeased with their service.

Louis XIV began construction outside Paris of his Palace of Versailles, which earned him the name “Sun King.” This not only was a reflection of his wealth and power, but also served to provide distance from the danger of rebellious Paris mobs.

The palace itself and its grounds are huge. Under the scepter of the Sun King, Versailles became the cultural capital of Europe. Among many creative personalities stimulated by the cultural atmosphere was the playwright Molière, who, in October 1658, staged his first royal performance before the king.

Absolutist Policies

Louis XIV continued pursuing the absolutist policies of Richelieu and Mazarin. In domestic affairs, Jean-Baptiste Colbert assured a steady and reliable system of finance for the king, while overseeing spending by the various departments of the French government’s budgets.

Colbert also became the father of the French navy, establishing a fleet of the best-designed warships in the world, a distinction they would hold until the Napoleonic Wars. What Colbert did for the French navy, Michel Le Tellier, and his son Michel Le Tellier, marquis de Louvois, did for the French army. The combined efforts of these men gave France military might.

The sun king

In one of the last state acts before he died, Mazarin negotiated peace between France and Habsburg Spain. However, eight years later, Louis XIV began a series of wars that consumed most of the rest of his reign, and the royal treasury.

When Philip IV of Spain died, territory in the Spanish Netherlands was ceded to Charles II of Spain and not to Louis XIV’s wife, Marie-Thérèse, who was Charles’s half sister. Louis XIV went to war in 1667 under a claim for the territory in the Spanish Netherlands. Once again, Spain and France were at war.

The Dutch feared that Louis XIV could easily lay claim to Holland, because it too had once been ruled by Spain. In 1668, the Dutch formed the defensive Triple Alliance with England and Sweden against Louis XIV. But Charles II of England signed a separate peace with Louis XIV in 1670 guaranteeing Charles a secret subsidy, which freed him from dependence on the money annually voted him by the British parliament.

In 1672, Louis XIV and Charles smashed into the Dutch United Provinces in one of the most devastating invasions in European history. Although Charles left the war in 1674, Louis XIV continued until 1678. He gained more territory in Spanish Netherlands and the strategic border region of the Franche-Comte but was still not satisfied with his territorial enlargement.

Edict of Nantes Revoked

A decade of peace followed, in which Louis continued to assert his royal power both in France and in its colonies. In 1685, Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had granted religious toleration to the Huguenots; this caused thousands of them to flee.

Consequently, the Huguenots and their children became some of France’s most bitter enemies during the wars of the 18th century. Since Jansenist (a sect of the Roman Catholic Church) ideas bore some resemblance to Calvinism, Louis waged war against the Jansenists, even closing their spiritual center, the Abbey of Port-Royal.

Louis XIV receiving the submission, the Doge of Genoa in May 1685
Louis XIV receiving the submission, the Doge of Genoa in May 1685

In 1688, the diplomatic balance of power in Europe suddenly shifted against Louis XIV. His ally, Charles II of England, had died in 1685 to be succeeded by his Catholic brother, James II. James’s religious stance brought on the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

James was forced to flee, to be supplanted by his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, the stadtholder of the Dutch Netherlands, who had come to power as a result of Louis’s Dutch War.

William in the same year brought England into the League of Augsburg with the Dutch Netherlands, then known as the United Provinces, the Holy Roman Empire, and other European powers. With England now part of the coalition to frustrate Louis XIV’s European ambitions, the War of the Grand Alliance broke out in 1688; it would continue until 1697.

A major series of battles was fought in Europe, but Louis XIV neglected to support James II fully when James II attempted to regain his English throne in 1688. A victory by James could have removed William from the throne, thus taking the most relentless adversary out of the coalition. However, the death of Charles II of Spain led Louis XIV to pursue seeing his grandson become King Philip V of Spain.

Louis succeeded, only to wreck his diplomatic triumph by decreeing in 1701 that the future rights of Philip and his line were to go to the French Crown. The prospect of a French-Spanish union was something the other powers in Europe could never accept, and the War of the Spanish Succession broke out.

The war devastated both Europe and the European colonies until 1713. Two years later, in September 1715, Louis XIV died. Although he had lived to see his ultimate diplomatic triumph, his Bourbon grandson Philip on the throne of Spain, the cost of his wars had inflicted such a toll that the royal treasury never really could recover before the French Revolution swept the monarchy away entirely in 1789.

Louis XV

Louis XV

When Louis XIV died in 1715, his great-grandson and heir Louis XV was five years old. The child king’s regent was Philippe II, duc d’Orléans, related to the royal Bourbon dynasty. Philippe II, in the period of French history often called “the Regency,” became known for a sensational lifestyle.

The duke, famous for his sensual appetite, resigned his regency in 1723 largely because of the adverse publicity brought about by his lifestyle that was in effect funded by the French people. He died later that year.

Philippe II’s downfall was followed by that of the financial network set up in France by the Scottish economist John Law. Philippe II had employed Law to help the French economy, which had suffered severely from the almost incessant wars of Louis XIV.

Law’s note-issuing bank was a spectacular success, until it collapsed after a bank run in 1720, plunging France and Europe into a severe economic crisis that contributed to the French Revolution. John Law was exiled from France.

Had Louis XV followed a more conservative fiscal policy, the revolution might have been delayed, or averted. However, with dire consequences, Louis XV’s reign was marked by the same disastrous spending on maintaining France’s position in Europe as the reign of Louis XIV.

With the resignation of Orléans, catastrophe was averted by the appointment of Cardinal André-Hercule de Fleury, who essentially served as the king’s first minister. Louis XV left most of the government of France to Cardinal Fleury.

Fleury stabilized France’s currency, built roads, expanded the reach of the merchant marine, and stimulated the economy. He set his sights on peace, although the War of the Polish Succession was unavoidable because of Louis XV’s marriage to Marie Leszcynska, a member of Polish royalty.

Although Cardinal Fleury attempted to make the kingdom more fiscally responsible, the dynastic wars of Europe continued to drain the French treasury, as they had during the reign of King Louis XIV. Indeed, during the reign of King Louis XV, two of the largest wars in French history, the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War, took place.

Louis XV at the Battle of Fontenoy
Louis XV at the Battle of Fontenoy

These wars would be global conflicts, because not only were France and England combatants in Europe, but the fighting spread to overseas colonies. The War of the Austrian Succession highlighted the rise of Maurice de Saxe to French command; he had joined the French army in 1720. De Saxe was a son of King Augustus II of Poland.

The era of Maurice de Saxe marked the apogee of the reign of King Louis XV. With the death of Cardinal Fleury during the war in 1743, Louis XV lost his most important minister. He sought to govern on his own but lacked the abilities to do so.

Too much influence was given to his mistresses, Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry. At the same time, unchecked by the king, corruption worked to sap the strength and morale of the army.

In 1756, in a move at least partly attributed to Madame de Pompadour’s influence, Louis XV embarked on what has become known as the diplomatic revolution of the 18th century. Orchestrated by Maria Theresa’s foreign minister von Kaunitz, the diplomatic revolution saw the alliance of France, the Holy Roman Empire (of which Austria-Hungary was the most important part), and Russia.

With Frederick the Great of Prussia occupied with the Russians and Austrians, in the fall of 1757, Louis XV sent a French army under Marshal Soubise to attack Frederick from the rear. Unfortunately, Soubise, a product of the favoritism now governing France, proved no match for Frederick.

Then on August 1, 1759, a French army commanded by the marquis de Contades suffered a serious defeat at the hands of a British, Hanoverian, and Prussian army led by Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick. Contades was only saved a near-rout like Soubise’s because Sir George Sackville, through cowardice or incompetence, refused to charge the enemy with his cavalry squadrons.

While the war was going badly for Louis XV in Europe, it was worse overseas. British prime minister William Pitt had set as his goal the destruction of France’s colonies. The war began in 1754 with a skirmish in North America where George Washington made his first appearance in command against forces from New France (Canada). In North America, the conflict became known as the French and Indian wars.

In 1760 the French finally surrendered to Jeffrey, Lord Amherst at Montreal. In India, the British East India Company, supported by regular British troops, fought its own struggle with the French Compangnie des Indes, buttressed by French troops sent from France to support it. Yet, in India too, the balance of power tipped in favor of the British.

In February 1763, the Seven Years’ War was brought to an end for England and France by the Treaty of Paris, by which France relinquished its claims on New France. France, however, retained its islands in the French West Indies which, because of their great production of sugar, the French government valued more than New France. The end of the war found the reputation of French arms, raised to new heights by Maurice de Saxe, at its lowest point in the century. Financially, the years of war were a calamity for France.

Efforts to reform the financial system of France proved frustrated by opposition, and Louis XV lacked the personal determination to force them through opposition. Although the last decade of Louis XV’s reign passed in relative peace, it was only the quiet before the storm. Only 15 years after his death, the French Revolution destroyed the monarchy.

Marie-Thérèse of Austria

Marie-Thérèse of Austria

Marie-Thérèse’s role as the queen of France and the wife of King Louis XIV was a precarious one, as she was used by the Spanish branch of the Habsburg dynasty to secure peace with France in the 17th century.

King Philip IV of Spain and Elisabeth of France welcomed the birth of their daughter Marie on September 10, 1638. The ambitions of Cardinal Jules Mazarin and Anne of Austria, the mother of King Louis XIV, to link the Bourbon dynasty to the Spanish branch of the Habsburg family extend back to 1646.

These two individuals wanted to create a marriage union between Louis XIV and Marie-Thérèse to stabilize relations between the French and Spanish governments as these two countries had been at war since 1635.

There were complications with the proposed marriage between the two families because the Spanish Habsburg family did not want to give the Bourbon dynasty an opportunity to inherit any part of the Spanish Empire.

The Spanish court was also reluctant to allow the proposed marriage for it feared that the offspring of this union would create instability within the Spanish empire for rival claimants might seek to acquire various parts of the empire.

The anxiety of the Spanish court over this proposed marriage was relieved by the fact that Mariana of Austria, Philip IV’s second wife, gave birth to a son named Philip Prospero in 1657. Despite the fact that infant mortality rates were high in the 17th century, the birth of this son made Philip IV more agreeable to the marriage between Marie and Louis XIV. The marriage contract between Marie and Louis XIV was completed when the Treaty of the Pyrenees was finalized in 1659, and the two were married in June 1660.

Marriage of Louis XIV with Marie-Therese of Austria
Marriage of Louis XIV with Marie-Therese of Austria

In accordance with the marriage contract, Marie abandoned any territorial claim she possessed to the Spanish Empire, and the Habsburg family had to provide 500,000 gold escudos for Marie’s dowry. Because of the financial weakness of the Spanish Empire, the Habsburg family could not pull together enough funds for the dowry. Despite the fact that Marie renounced her claims to the Spanish Empire, she was unable to do this on the part of her offspring, which Mazarin knew at the time of the wedding.

Mazarin also intended to use the inability of the Spanish government to pay the dowry as an excuse to ignore the fact that Marie renounced her inheritance to parts of the Spanish Empire. The French government used the failure of the Spanish government to pay the dowry as a justification to attack the Spanish Netherlands in 1667, resulting in the War of Devolution.

Marie was a devout woman who believed it was her responsibility to marry Louis XIV and to provide him with offspring to succeed him. Marie fulfilled these obligations to Louis XIV by providing him with a number of children, but only their son Louis survived into adulthood. She often prayed and had great admiration for priests but was also concerned for the Catholic religious community.

Despite this extreme faith in her religion, she failed to possess a strong influence in the French government, probably as a result of her lack of education and her poor relationship with her husband. Marie’s relationship with Louis XIV was a strenuous one, but she continued to be loyal to him and fulfilled her obligations as a wife and queen.

Marie did exercise some influence over the French court as regent in 1672 when Louis XIV was fighting in Holland, but this was for a short period. Louis XIV had several mistresses, a well-known fact in the French court. Marie learned of many of these relationships, but it usually took time before she was made privy to this information.

Despite the fact that Marie had no major influence at the French court, her death on July 30, 1683, was properly mourned in France as she was given a state funeral. There is some degree of speculation that Marie might have been poisoned, but there is no firm evidence to support this claim.

Marie’s funerary rites possessed similarities to the funerary rites observed by Egyptian pharaohs, as her heart was removed from her body, placed in a silver box, and deposited in a chapel situated at Val-de-Grâce, while her intestines were also removed from her body and deposited in an urn.

Maroon Societies in the Americas

Maroon societies is a term designating communities of runaway slaves in the Americas, the formation of which constituted a recurrent feature of the history of African slavery over nearly 400 years, from the first importation of African slaves in the early 1500s through the final abolition of slavery in the Western Hemisphere in Brazil in 1888. The term derives from the Spanish cimarrón, originally referring to feral cattle but by the early 1500s also signifying runaway slaves.

Maroon societies were most common in the Caribbean and Brazil but were also widespread in North America and elsewhere. To slave owners and ruling groups they represented a constant and serious challenge to the institution of African slavery generally, while to slaves they represented the possibility of life outside the shackles of the slave regime. Often called palenques in the Caribbean region and Quilombos in Brazil, they had a history closely linked to the hundreds of slave rebellions that also mark the history of the Americas.

Ranging from small nomadic bands to extensive settled communities of thousands of people that endured for decades, even centuries, on the fringes of the plantation economy, Maroon societies came into existence almost as soon as African slavery in the Americas did. Most of their members were African-born, as they reproduced many of the social and cultural features of their homeland in their new surroundings.

Among the first official acknowledgments of the existence of such communities was a report to the Council of the Indies from Hispaniola of March 1542, in which Archdeacon Álvaro de Castro estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 runaway slaves were at large on the island. A follow-up report of July 1546 described some of the island’s numerous Maroon communities, some hundreds strong, and the mixed success of Spanish efforts to subdue them.

Often mixing with indigenous groups and allying with their slave masters’ enemies, Maroon communities displayed tremendous resilience in the face of persistent efforts to eradicate them and horrific punishments meted out to captured runaways, which included castration, amputation of limbs, branding, garroting, and burning alive.

The hinterlands of plantation economies throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, Brazil, North America, and elsewhere witnessed the formation of Maroon societies alongside the very introduction of slavery.

In Mexico, rapid Indian depopulation prompted colonists to import upward of 120,000 African slaves in the years between 1521 and 1650. Many thousands were compelled to work in the silver mines and ranches north of Mexico City centered on Zacatecas.

From the 1560s to the 1580s, a series of revolts and uprisings rocked the region, as runaway African slaves joined forces with besieged Indians to raid ranches and storehouses, attack travelers, and return to their hidden hamlets in caves, arroyos, and other places beyond the reach of the authorities.

Jungles of Veracruz

In the 1570s, the Crown issued a series of draconian laws intended to discourage such uprisings, which nonetheless failed to have the desired effect. In 1609, a rebel Maroon community in the jungles of Veracruz, led by Yanga, successfully negotiated a peace treaty with the Spanish authorities that granted them their freedom. Nearly a century later, the community was thriving. Slave uprisings and the formation of Maroon societies continued until the final abolition of slavery in Mexico in 1829.

Some palenques survived for decades, later becoming towns and municipalities, such as El Cobre in eastern Cuba, where a slave uprising in 1731 led to the creation of a stable community that 50 years later had a fugitive slave population of over 1,000 scattered throughout the Sierra del Cobre.

In 1800, following a recommendation of the Council of the Indies, the Crown declared the slave-descended inhabitants of El Cobre free. Other well-known palenques in eastern Cuba included El Frijol and Ciénaga de Zapata, which survived through much of the 19th century.

Despite their best efforts to extinguish such fugitive slave communities, colonial authorities were often compelled to negotiate with them—as in the district of Popayán in Colombia, where in 1732 the Audiencia of Quito authorized a local official to offer a treaty of peace to the palenque called El Castillo, granting its inhabitants their freedom if they would agree to accept no more runaway slaves. The palenque refused the offer, and in 1745 a series of military expeditions finally captured and defeated El Castillo.

More than a century earlier, in the early 1600s, in the Cartagena district of Colombia, a runaway slave named Domingo Bioho, claiming to be African royalty and adopting the title King Benkos, staged a series of raids on plantations and farms around Cartagena and founded a fortified palenque called San Basilio.

After defeating two expeditions sent to subdue his independent kingdom, in 1619 King Benkos negotiated a favorable treaty with the Spanish authorities, only to be betrayed, captured, and hanged. Despite this setback, San Basilio survived for another century and was finally suppressed in 1713–17.

Slave hunt in Dismal Swamp area
Slave hunt in Dismal Swamp area

Similar episodes unfolded in the British and French Caribbean islands. In Martinique in 1665, a Maroon who called himself by his master’s name, Francisque Fabulé, led a group of 400–500 Maroons who staged repeated attacks against plantations and settlements. The French Sovereign Council negotiated a treaty with Fabulé that granted him his freedom and a promise that his band would not be punished. He was later condemned to life in the galleys.

In 1771, a decree of the Supreme Council of Martinique lamented the existence of fugitive slave communities on the island, where they had built huts, cleared land, and planted crops, and from which they sallied forth to commit various depredations. In the French island of Guadeloupe in 1668, the governor reported more than 30 Maroons living in Grande-Terre and recommended an example be made by capturing and beheading them.

Despite the authorities’ best efforts, however, the Maroon societies could not be eradicated. Nearly 70 years later in Guadeloupe, in 1737, a group of 48 Maroons led by one Bordebois was put on trial; eight were sentenced to be garroted. Similar events transpired on Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados, and other islands in the British Antilles.

North American Societiea

In British North America and, after 1783, the United States of America, Maroon societies formed and reformed repeatedly. There is evidence for at least 50 such communities during the period 1672–1864 in the mountains, forests, and swamps from Florida to Louisiana to Virginia.

Most notable among these were those in the Dismal Swamp area in the Virginia–North Carolina borderlands, where thousands of runaway slaves and their descendants survived repeated efforts to capture and subdue them. Sometimes Maroons allied with local Indians, forming mixed communities of Indians and fugitive slaves.

Other times Indian individuals and polities allied with Euro-American authorities, assisting them in their eradication efforts, as occurred among the Notchee Indians in South Carolina in 1744, in Georgia in 1772, and in other places.

Communities descended from Maroon societies can be found in many parts of the Americas. In the 1980s, it was estimated that more than 10 percent of the population of the Republic of Suriname was descended from six Maroon or “Bush Negro” communities or tribes that formed in the 1500s and waged a century-long war for liberation against the Dutch authorities before finally winning their freedom in 1762.

The collective memory of the modern-day descendants of such Maroon societies has provided fertile ground for historians, anthropologists, linguists, and other scholars interested in exploring this chapter of the history of Africans in the Americas.