History 540: France
1600-1815 Prof. Jeremy
France’s Mid-17th-Century Crisis: The
increase in royal power in France
was dramatically interrupted in 1648 by the outbreak of a series of challenges
to absolutism that came to be known collectively as the Fronde. From 1648 to 1653,
the Fronde plunged France
into a somewhat toned-down version of the disorders it had experienced during
the wars of religion. The king was
driven from his capital, several provinces revolted, and revolutionary claims
for the rights of magistrates, nobles, and even some of the common people to
participate in government were put forward.
The Fronde ended, however, with a restoration of absolute royal authority
rather than a change in the French system of government. For historians, the Fronde raises fascinating
questions about the failure of resistance to develop into a genuine revolution,
like the one that occurred in England
at almost the same time (1640-1660) or the one that occurred in France itself
of Cardinal Richelieu in 1642 and Louis XIII in 1643 plunged France into
another period of uncertainty, like the one that had followed Henri IV’s death
in 1610. The heir to the throne, the
future Louis XIV, was only five years old.
His mother, Anne of Austria,
became regent, assisted by Cardinal
Mazarin, an Italian diplomat recruited to the French government by Richelieu in the years before his death. Within a few years of Louis XIII’s death,
they would find themselves facing a crisis that almost became a
revolution: the Fronde, a series of uprisings that seemed for several years to be
on the verge of toppling the system of absolute monarchy painstakingly created
by Henri IV, Sully, Louis XIII and Richelieu.
The weakness of the Fronde was revealed from the first in its name,
taken from a children’s game played with slingshots (“frondes” in French). The adoption of this label suggested that the
movement was never entirely serious.
Austria and Mazarin did not have to face the religious conflicts that had
confronted Catherine de Medici or Marie de Medici, but they had enough problems
of their own. As in previous regencies,
high-ranking nobles such as the prince of Condé, France’s leading general, and the
duke of Orléans, Louis XIII’s younger brother, insisted on their right to
exercise political influence. In Paris,
the judges of the Parlement, France’s
main court, as well as the members of other royal courts, challenged the
regent’s authority. Another threat to royal
authority came from the head of the Catholic Church in Paris, the Cardinal de Retz. As the “boss” of the city’s clergy, he
controlled a network whose influence extended to the whole population.
Since 1635, France had been fully engaged in
the Thirty Years’ War, fighting against the Spanish Habsburgs. The high cost of the war had forced Richelieu to raise taxes to record levels, creating
fierce discontent that had resulted in a series of peasant rebellions in the
late 1630s. Many royal officials were
also upset by the burden of taxes. The judges of the Parlement were reluctant to
approve unpopular taxes on the rest of the population, and they were also
concerned because they knew that the paulette
tax, which guaranteed their ownership of their offices, was due for renewal in
1648. Mazarin intended to use the
expiration of the paulette as a bargaining tool
to put pressure on the judges to accept his other tax proposals.
Mazarin was particularly anxious to
avoid a domestic crisis in 1648 because he was expecting a victorious end to
the Thirty Years’ war. If he could find
the money to keep the French army in the field, he would be in a position to
achieve a settlement that would significantly weaken France’s
In their anxiety to force through
new tax edicts, Anne of Austria and Mazarin drove the judges of the Parlement
too far. On 15 January 1648, they
brought the nine-year-old king to a formal session of the court, called a lit de justice, to force the judges to
register an unpopular tax measure. The
judges exercised their right to remonstrate
or criticize the edict, starting a series of events that culminated in a call
for the judges of all the Paris
courts to come together to consider reforms in the kingdom. On 26 June 1648, acting without the Regent’s
approval, the Parlement summoned those judges to meet in a body called the Chambre Saint Louis. This date marked the beginning of the
Fronde. Street demonstrations, organized
by Retz, showed that the judges had strong popular support.
The frondeurs focused their anger especially on Mazarin. They denounced him as a foreigner who had no
respect for the laws and institutions of France, and as an intriguer who was
using his influence over Anne of Austria to enrich himself and ruin the
country. Paris was flooded with printed pamphlets
called mazarinades, vicious personal
attacks on the minister, “this foreign rogue, juggler, comedian, famous robber,
low Italian fellow only fit to be hung,” as one of them put it. Anne, a foreigner herself, nevertheless
remained loyal to Mazarin throughout the Fronde, and may even have secretly
married him, although definite proof of this is missing.
The summoning of the Chambre Saint Louis was a dramatic
defiance of royal authority. It looked
like the beginnings of the English
Revolution in 1640, when Parliament had defied king
Charles I. One reason the two movements
took a very different course, however, was that the defiant judges failed to
build a broad base of support.
Initially, nobles like Condé and Orléans remained loyal to Anne and
When they could not subdue the unrest in Paris, Anne and Mazarin decided to flee the
city, taking the young Louis XIV with them, and threaten a military siege of
the capital. On 8 January 1649, the royal
family escaped to the suburb of Saint-Germain.
breakdown of central authority in Paris led to
frondeur movements in many of France’s
provinces as well. In January 1649 in Aix-en-Provence, for
example, judges of the local parlement led a popular uprising against the royal
governor, who had been ordered to replace them with more cooperative
magistrates. “You could even see
disshevelled women, as furious as bacchantes… running through the streets to
arouse the people, some with pistols or naked swords in their hands, others
with sacks of money to win them over; some shouting loudly, ‘Long live liberty
and no taxes’…” one witness wrote.
next few months, Anne and Mazarin negotiated with the leaders of the Paris parlement and
finally reached an agreement with them.
This angered many nobles, however, because their demands for a greater
voice in politics were ignored. The parlementary Fronde launched in 1648
now gave way to the Fronde of the
princes. Revolts broke out in
several provinces, often led by their royal governors or other prominent
nobles. Among those who turned against
Mazarin was the prince of Condé.
Suspecting his treachery, Mazarin had him arrested in January 1650. Condé’s supporters now fought against Mazarin,
while he tried to win some of the original frondeurs over to his side. By February 1651, however, Mazarin’s position
had become so shaky that he and Anne agreed that he should leave the
country. Condé was released from prison
and became the dominant figure in a new royal council.
factions in the country continued to fight among themselves in the rest of
1651, and circumstances gradually permitted Anne to insist on the return of
Mazarin. In September 1651, Louis XIV
was officially recognized as king, giving his mother stronger authority. Condé revolted against being edged out of
power, but the royalist forces were able to defeat him. Support for a return to absolutist government
grew in reaction to the most radical manifestation of the Fronde, the Ormée movement in Bordeaux.
Driven to extremes by the harsh treatment they had suffered from rival
Fronde factions, the people of that city had risen up and formed a
revolutionary government, claiming the right to govern themselves and dismiss
officials such as the judges of their local parlement. Rather than risk the spread of such dangerous
ideas, nobles and parlement members preferred to help restore the
authority of the king, even at the cost of allowing Mazarin to regain
power. By the fall of 1652, the last
elements of frondeur resistance were crumbling; Mazarin returned to France
as the young Louis XIV’s principal minister, a role he would maintain until his
death in 1661.
has gone down in French history as a confusing episode with few permanent
effects. In contrast to the English
Puritan revolution that occurred at the same time, the French rebels had no unifying program. Much of the movement was directed against a
single minister—Mazarin—and the divisions among the frondeurs became apparent
when he withdrew from the scene. The
English revolution resulted in a permanent increase in the powers of
Parliament. The Fronde instead further
discredited the notion of any limit on royal authority in France.
experience of the Fronde had an especially significant impact on the young
Louis XIV. He was deeply marked by the
experience of having to sneak out of his disobedient capital city in 1649. When he became king, he would make sure that
no such threat to his authority would ever arise again. His insistence on his own absolute authority
and his decision to move the royal palace from the center of Paris
to an isolated location at Versailles
reflected his memories of the Fronde.