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From Some Lies and Errors of History by the Rev. Reuben Parsons, D.D.; Notre Dame, Indiana: The Ave Maria; 7th edition; 1893; pp. 217-232.


HISTORY has involved the characters of some persons in an obscurity as impenetrable to our inspection as that mask with which the famous prisoner of Pignerol and the Bastille was made to hide his identity from not only his contemporaries, but, it would seem, from all future investigators. One of these subjects is Louis XIII. But critics have succeeded in showing at least whom the iron mask did not conceal, though they have failed in determining whom it did; and just so we of the present — provided, of course, that we wish to see — can unmask the countenance of Louis XIII., and regard him, not as the puppet of Richelieu, not as a mere nonentity among kings, but as a monarch worthy of serious consideration.

Louis XIII. had the misfortune of being born between two consummately great sovereigns: he was the son of Henry IV. and the father of Louis XIV.; and we are tempted to discern, in all the grandeur of his reign, either a continuation of the work of the Bearnais or a preparation for the glories of the grand monarque. At most, we echo the mass of historians, 218 and regard him as a Roi Fainéant, dropped out of the eighth century, obeying a red-cassocked Master of the Palace with all the nonchalance of a true Merovingian — albeit, not lolling in an oxen-drawn car; for his warlike qualities are never denied. Again, while Henry IV., in comparison with Sully, can hold his own in our estimation, the personality of Louis XIII. is nearly obliterated by that of Richelieu; and we forget that just as we think no less of Sully because of the greatness of Henry IV. so the greatness of Richelieu should not lessen that of Louis XIII.; for in the case of each pair the two chief constituents of true greatness were allies, not rivals. Henry IV. was a man of genius, Sully one of common-sense; Louis III. possessed common-sense, Richelieu genius.

Louis XIII. has been well styled the Just, and he would have merited the title had he been known for nothing else than his steadfast confidence in his Cardinal-Minister. But his contemporaries inform us that the monarch chafed under the yoke of the great statesmen whom he could not but admire. We are told that he both envied and feared him, without whom, to use the words of Mme. de Motteville (the first to affirm this aversion), 219 “he could not live, nor with him.” La Rochefoucauld, another contemporary, says that the King “bore the yoke impatiently”; and that “he hated Richelieu,” though “he never ceased to bend to the Cardinal’s will.” Montglat is illogical enough to insist that although Louis, after the death of his minister, assured the mourning relatives that he could never forget the prelate’s great services, nevertheless “he was very glad to be rid of him.”1 Omer Talon tells us that “master and valet worried each other to death.” Pontis makes of Louis a man without gratitude; for he describes the King as coolly remarking, when he heard of the Cardinal’s demise, “A great politician has gone”;2 and nearly all writers from Pontis to Bulwer have consecrated the phrase as an illustration of the King’s real appreciation of Richelieu. Bazin goes so far as to proclaim that Louis XIII. entertained no friendship whatever for the Cardinal.3 Guizot would have us believe that “Louis experienced an instinctive repugnance for his Minister, and he never showed more than a 220 reasonable fidelity toward a servant whom he did not love.”

Well, if Louis XIII. felt all the jealousy for Richelieu that these authors discern, if he was merely what most small-minded men are in the face of the great, then he exercised a magnanimity toward his bête noir which ought to excite our veneration. By keeping power in the hands of one who dwarfed him, when by a word he could have relegated him into obscurity; by sacrificing his jealousy to the glory of France; he gained a victory over self such as we may seldom find in the annals of monarchy. But alas! this picture is imaginary. Louis XIII. was simply the friend of Richelieu.

In 1875 Marius Topin published two hundred and fifty-eight letters of Louis XIII. to Richelieu, which he had dug out of the archives of the Foreign Office at Paris, that immense sleeping chamber of history. These letters are authentic in style, orthography, and signature, and they completely destroy the common idea concerning the relations of Louis with his great Minister, while they furnish a view of the King’s character which differs much from that obtained, for instance, from the impressive drama of Bulwer. They show us that Louis never ceased to love the 221 Cardinal, or to confide entirely in him. Every line manifests the fact that, while their minds were of very unequal calibre, they were equally devoted to the welfare of their country. And what was the secret, demands M. Topin, by which Richelieu ever preserved the full confidence of his sovereign? He never acted but for the good of the State, and he never kept the King in ignorance of his projects. This is proved also by the seven enormous volumes of the Cardinal’s letters, published by Avenel.

The most ambitious and able intriguer could scarcely hope to supplant Richelieu in the heart of him who was informed of every project immediately on its conception. When separated far from each other, even though, as was generally the case, the Cardinal enjoyed unlimited powers, couriers were constantly bearing from Richelieu to the King detailed accounts of the public business. And we notice that generally it was Louis who formed the decisive resolution, even though the genius of his Minister may have prepared the royal mind for such action. In fact, many reports of the Cardinal bear marginal notes which indicate that Louis frequently resolved on a course diametrically opposite to that advised by the former. When the King was 222 not with the army, he assisted at every meeting of his council, and clearly asserted his will.

“Richelieu,” says Topin, after having carefully examined these letters of both Cardinal and King, “while charging himself with the execution of the royal will, of course gave to it the imprint of his own strength; and hence he appeared as its originator to the governors, intendants, generals, ambassadors, etc., to whom he communicated his development of the royal opinion. Doubtless the salient traits of the royal policy were the Cardinal’s own insinuation, and it was nearly always his genius which discerned the means most adapted to secure the end in view. But for persistence in following the path once chosen, for firmness and energy in maintaining their common system, we must place Louis XIII. alongside his Eminence.”

It might interest the reader were we to quote extensibely from the correspondence so fortunately rescued from oblivion by the researches of M. Topin, but our space confines us to one letter. In 1626 the French court was divided as to the feasibility of marriage which had been projected by Henry IV. between Gaston d’Orléans, the brother of Louis, and Mlle. de Montpensier. Richelieu and the King favored this union, while the Cardinal’s foes persuaded 223 Gaston that his own treacherous ambition would be better advanced by an alliance with some foreign princess. As a coup de main, Richelieu tendered his resignation, whereupon Louis wrote thus: “My cousin,4 I have read your reasons for seeking repose. I desire your comfort and health more than even you can desire them, provided that you find them in the guidance of my affairs. Since you have been with me all has gone well under the divine blessing, and I have full confidence in you. Therefore I beg of you not to retire. . . . . Be assured that I shall protect you against all persons whomsoever.” Nor was his promise mere empty words; Louis XIII. could enforce respect to his will. “It is enough that it is I who wish it,” he once said to the Cardinal, when making a similar promise. We shall give another instance of the King’s solicitous affection for Richelieu.

The war for the Mantuan succession, begun in 1629, was at its height when the King was seized by a dangerous illness. During the crisis of the malady all the anxiety of Louis was for his Minister. The enemies of Richelieu, headed by the queen-mother, Marie 224 dei Medici, were making every effort to unseat him; but Louis was indomitably faithful to the interest which he felt to be that of France. On the decisive day of his illness he sent for the Duke of Montmorency and said to him: “I have two favors to ask of you. One is that you continue to show your wonted interest in the State; the other, that for love of me you love the Cardinal Richelieu.”5 And the affection of Louis XIII. for his Minister survived the life of its object. Witness the following letter written by the monarch on the day after the Cardinal’s death (1642), and compare the impression produced by it to that conveyed concerning the shallowness of Louis by the drama of Bulwer.

“M. the Marquis de Fontenay: As everyone knows the signal services rendered me by my cousin the Cardinal-Duke de Richelieu, and the many advantages which, by God’s blessing, I have obtained through his counsels, no one can doubt that I grieve as I ought for the loss of so good and faithful a Minister. But I wish the world to know, by means of my own testimony on every possible occasion, how dear his memory is to me. . . . I have resolved to retain in office all the persons who have served me under the administration of my cousin the 225 Cardinal de Richelieu, and to all to my assistance my cousin the Cardinal Mazarin, who has given me so many proofs of his capacity and fidelity on the many occasions when I have employed him, — proofs of a devotion as great as though he had been born my subject. . . . You will communicate all the foregoing to our Holy Father the Pope, that he may know that the affairs of this kingdom will continue in the same course they have so long followed.”

And this devotion to the memory of Richelieu was proved not only by the appointment of Mazarin, whom he had desired as a successor, but was evinced by Louis XIII. when death called upon him. When he found that his life was drawing to a close, he actuated the design of Richelieu, by appointing the Queen, Anne of Austria, regent indeed of the kingdom, but with Mazarin as guide, that the policy of the great Minister might continue in force.

Besides the letters of Louis XIII. to Richelieu, the French archives disgorged, a few years ago, another important historical monument which administrative imbecility had hitherto hidden from the student. M. Paul Faugères, like a Benedictine in miniature, disinterred from the dust of centuries 226 and published an unedited work of the Duke de Saint-Simon, nothing less than a “Comparison between the First Three Bourbon Kings.” Saint-Simon was seventy-two years old when he began his work; age had somewhat mollified the irritated passions of the “great disdained” of Louis XIV., but had not lessened the talent of probably the most accomplished delineator who ever came to the aid of history. He had not been personally acquainted with Louis XIII., as he was with the more glorified son; but his own father, who owed everything to the former monarch, had imbued his young mind with sentiments of ardent admiration for one whom he rightly regarded as pre-eminent among the misunderstood of history.

Saint-Simon saw Henry IV. and Louis XIV. resplendent with a glory which was undeniable, even in the face of hatred, while Louis XIII. was almost effaced by the proximity of his father and his son. To draw from his own father’s benefactor forth from an unmerited obscurity became the ambition of the great portrayer; and they who have been accustomed to recur to his “Memoirs” for most of their knowledge of the period in which he lived, have now the opportunity of contemplating a restored Louis XIII., — a figure, 227 strange to say, even more resplendent than those which have hitherto attracted exclusive admiration. A contemporary critic of great acumen, M. Barbey d’Aurevilly, is enthusiastic in his praise of the manner in which Saint-Simon fulfilled his task:

“The part of genius in history is to discover. In history, where nothing is created (for otherwise it would not be history); in history, where the imagination has the right only to depict, but not to invent, as it may in many other spheres of human activity, — genius can only play the part of a superior faculty in discovering, in men and things as they were, new but real points of view until then unknown and even unsuspected. The more of these points of view that are discovered, the greater is the genius. It is this power of genius, equal in history to the power of creation in the other domains of thought, which shines in all its fulness and strength in this parallel of the first three Bourbon kings, as it is styled by Saint-Simon, in his special and singular language. In this long comparison he speaks admirably of the two whom we knew; but he has discovered the third, of whom we knew nothing, at least in his complete and sublime entireness. . . . The violent and irritated soul of this man baffled in his ambition, of this 228 ‘despised one’ of Louis XIV., this soul whose rage may have produced its genius promised itself as a supreme duty and a last satisfaction, to some day narrate that life of Louis XIII. which he knew from his father, and to compare it with those of the two glorified kings between whom his favorite had been buried in insignificance. Such was to be the swan’s song of that man who was anything rather than a swan; who was rather an eagle, — the cruel eagle of history, which in his ‘Memoirs’ he so often lacerated.

And this tardy justice, rendered to the memory of a man who had disappeared behind the intersecting rays of his father’s and his son’s glory, produces two novelties. It gives us a Louis XIII., we must admit, greater than the man who caused him to be forgotten; and a Saint-Simon whose genius attains its fulness in an emotion of the heart, and who reaches, for the first time, to the divine in tenderness. . . . Of course the crushing club of Hercules, used of old in the ‘Memoirs,’ falls as furiously as ever on all that Simon hates; but it is rather for their qualities than their faults that he compares the three kings whom he judges; and it is his serene manner of comparison which endows 229 his book with an imposing sweetness of impartiality. . . . ”6

After a study of the parallel by Saint-Simon and of the correspondence unearthed by M. Topin, one finds that our pleasing dramatist, Bulwer, is guilty of gross injustice to the oral character of Louis XIII. The whole underplot of his play, some of its most impressive situations, and many of its most elevated sentiments run on the supposed libertinism of the monarch. Now, he was pre-eminently a chaste man; so much so that he excited ridicule in a court too often the resort of mauvois sujets. One of the chief reasons for the extravagant admiration felt for Henry IV. by Frenchmen is the fact that he was a lady’s man, the vert galant. A people overgiven to gallantry and raillery may admire the virtue of a St. Louis or a St. Edward the Confessor — a virtue which is the development of religious heroism in conflict with passion — but they will scarcely respect mere frigidity of temperament, which, according to common report, was the source of the virtue of Louis XIII.

Behold, then, one reason for the relegation of this monarch to obscurity. As the idea is 230 expressed by Aurevilly, Louis XIV. could say to La Vallière, like Hamlet to Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery”; but it was then too late. Louis XIII. might have said so to Mlle. La Fayette, but before the catastrophe. As for the assertions concerning the morality of Louis XIII., they are perverse even unto indecency; but at most they assign to Louis accomplices who are very uncertain.

We have shown that we are not obliged to accept our view of the character of Louis XIII., or of his relations with Richelieu, from the olden historians or from modern romancists and playwrights. To obtain a view of Louis it is not necessary to peer over the shoulders of his Minister. Richelieu did not absorb in his own the very personality of his sovereign, but rather, to use his own language, was the most passionately devoted of subjects and servants. In fine, Richelieu existed as Minister only by the will of Louis; and it is to the glory of that monarch that he never dismissed him whom a recalcitrant and jealous nobility, a cowardly and treacherous brother, and an unscrupulous and soulless mother, united in opposing even to the death. Each was the complement of the other; and the reign of Louis XIII. may well be called that of Richelieu, 231 the ministry of Richelieu that of Louis XIII.

The death of this so long misunderstood monarch occurred on May 14, 1643, and it was one befitting a sovereign whose devotion to Our Lady had caused him to institute as the national feast of France the festival of her glorious Assumption.7 The great Protestant juriconsult, Grotius, then Swedish ambassador to the French court, wrote of the edifying scene: “I do not believe that we can find an instance of any king — nay, of any Christian — disposing himself for death with greater piety.” Well may Cardinal Mazarin have written, during the King’s illness, to the Cardinal-Archbishop of Lyons, a brother of the great Minister, his predecessor:

“I would be wanting in gratitude were I wanting in sadness. The beautiful and wonderful circumstances attending the King’s illness increase this sentiment, although in some sense they lessen it; and I can not contemplate them without a kind of pleasure, seeing as I do that they must add to his glory. 232 Nor can I behold them without a fuller realization of the extent of our imminent loss. In fact, it is impossible to imagine a greater force of soul in so much weakness of body than his Majesty has shown. No one in his condition could have arranged his affairs more clearly or more judiciously. No one could regard death more calmly, or show more resignation to the will of God. In a word, if Providence has decreed that this malady shall take the King from us, we shall be able to say that no career was ever more Christianly, more charitably or more bravely fulfilled.”


1  “Mémoires de Montglat,” idem. — Brienne uses almost the same terms: “Le roi fût tout ravi d’en être défait.”

2  “Mémoires de Pontis,” idem, vol. ii.

3  “Histoire de France sous Louis XIII., in preface, and in vol. ii, p. 456. Paris, 1842.

4  This was the style in which the kings of France always wrote to cardinals, as well as to marshals.

5  Ducros, “Histoire du Duc de Montmorency,” vol. i, ch. 22.

6  “Les Œuvres et Les Hommes du XIXme Siècle: Sensations d’Histoire,” vol. viii, p. 60. Paris, 1887.

7  “L’idée d’une belle mort ou d’une mort Chrétienne dans le récit de la fin heureuse de Louis XIII., surnommé le Juste, roi de France et de Navarre, tiré des Mémires de feu Jacques Dinet, son confesseur, etc.” in the Lib. Nat., cited by Barthélemy, loc. cit.

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