The Fronde

Battle of the Faubourg St Antoine (1652) by the walls of the Bastille, Paris
Battle of the Faubourg St Antoine (1652) by the walls of the Bastille, Paris

The Fronde (1648–53) was a civil war that took place in France during the era of Louis XIV. Although not a particularly unified movement, the Fronde was nevertheless a protest against both the power of the Crown and the perceived loss of privilege.

The term fronde came from the word signifying a child’s slingshot, and a game whereby children would fling stones at the nobility. The term frondeur soon meant a person who believed in limiting monarchial power, or one who simply speaks out against the current government.

Louis XIV was barely 10 years old when the revolt erupted. The Fronde itself was not directed against the boy king; rather, it was directed mostly against the policies of Cardinal Mazarin and Louis’s mother, Anne of Austria, who were at the time ruling France until Louis would come of age to rule on his own.

By the time Louis XIV was born, France was in serious financial difficulties. The Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) placed extreme demands upon the French treasury. Mazarin resorted to several tactics to raise money, including increasing taxes, selling government offices, and forcing creditors to make government loans.

The Three Estates

Society in prerevolutionary France was divided up into the Three Estates. In the first estate was the clergy, followed by the nobility in the second. Whoever was not in the first two was clearly in the third, which was the bulk of the population. While the struggle for power and authority may have caused the first two estates to hate each other intensely, they would always band together to block any attempts by the third to assert themselves.

But the third estate was beginning to make strides toward improving their lot. With the discovery of the New World, and improved methods of sea travel, international trade improved the economy of Europe. Many people who were not part of the third estate tapped into the opportunities and often amassed personal fortunes greater than that of the nobility, and thus a new middle class was born.

Cardinal Mazarin
Cardinal Mazarin

This new middle class often loaned money to kings and nobles alike, often to finance wars or expeditions. But with that came another demand from the middle classes—political power. Mazarin was happy to provide these offices, much to the chagrin of the nobility, who believed such power was reserved to them.

In May 1648, judicial officers of the parlement, a high court, were taxed. The officers met with Mazarin, refusing to pay. The officers presented Mazarin with a list of demands, which were constitutional reforms, including giving them the power to approve any new taxes. Not to be bullied, Mazarin had the leaders of the parlements arrested.

Open revolt broke out in Paris in August. Since the army was engaged elsewhere, there was little choice but to release those arrested, along with an empty promise to enact reforms. As soon as this was done, Mazarin and the court fled Paris in October, taking the young Louis with them.

Upon the signing of the Peace of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years’ War, the army returned to Paris and began to fight the insurgents. Both the middle and lower classes joined in the struggle, also unhappy with the rate of taxation. But the movement was anything but unified.

Throughout France, various armies were formed by local city government units, such as parlements and councils, and by social groups such as the nobility. Many of these armies fought against the Crown, while other armies fought against each other.

The army began a siege of Paris by January 1649, but the number of casualties was small. By March, the Peace of Rueil was signed, which would last only until the end of the year. The battles and intrigue, however, did not cease. Princes and nobles alike still conspired to unseat Mazarin and gain more power for themselves.

In January 1650, Mazarin arrested three such leaders and then turned to the army to suppress any remaining rebellion throughout the kingdom. In 1651, the prisoners were released, and the royal army managed to quell the rest of the minor revolts.

Eventually, the royal court returned to Paris. Frondeurs continued to fight, although against each other, and with the royal army. Some frondeurs fashioned their own government in Paris in 1652, and Mazarin, feeling pressure from outside, once again left France.

Constant infighting among the frondeurs doomed the movement, and Louis XIV was allowed to reenter Paris in October 1652. By the next year, Mazarin returned to France, and with that, the Fronde was officially over. But long term Louis XIV never trusted nobility, and upon ascending the throne, he ruled as an absolute monarch.

While he may have utilized the skills of advisers, he ruled without a minister or the Estates General. Furthermore, remembering Paris as a place of violent revolt, he built the palace of Versailles, at tremendous cost to the country, and moved the seat of government there.