Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Louis XIV and religion

During the reign of Louis XIV religion was still a vital issue. The king had been granted the title of ‘most Christian King’ by the pope. Though he could not define doctrine, it was the king’s right to direct affairs of religion in France and therefore to govern relations between church and state. The church was the strongest moral and ideological support for the monarchy. The crown made use of priests and bishops to inform the population of laws and victories and bishops often played an important role in local government. The Church formed the First Estate. Although it was exempt from the taille, the Assembly of Clergy which met every year was obliged to grant a free gift of several million livres to the monarchy.

Following the Concordat of Bologna,  the monarchy was anxious to extend its jurisdiction to the institutions of the church and to reject papal interference. Under the Declaration of the Clergy of France (1682) the king gained even more powers. The Gallican Church created by this constitution remained in existence until 1791.

The church was a great landowner with huge revenues from rents, seigneurial dues and clerical tithes. The bishops and abbots often lived in the style of aristocrats - this was hardly surprising as 90% of them were aristocratic by birth. Church benefices served as valuable sources of patronage for the sons and daughters of the nobility.

The Catholic Church was going through a period of dynamism, with the Catholic Reformation well underway. By the 1660s the priests were better trained and more conscientious and numerous religious communities had been set up for preaching the gospel to the peasantry and for charitable works.The first half of the century had been the age of saintly ecclesiastics such as Vincent de Paul and François de Sales. Reformed Catholicism was full of missionary zeal, which included a desire to convert the Huguenots.

Jesuits v. Jansenists.
The Catholic church was not a monolith and had within its ranks several opposing groups.

The Jesuits were dominant especially because the king’s confessors were Jesuit, but they aroused much opposition for their alleged casuistry.  Among their opponents the Jansenists represented the strictest form of Catholicism, pessimistic about human nature, profoundly influenced by St Augustine’s doctrine of predestination, and uncompromising on the issues of grace and free will. This led to a moral rigorism, not because salvation could be achieved through such behaviour, but because that behaviour acted as a witness to one’s salvation.

Jansenism was a harshly logical creed. Part of its appeal lay in the fact that it became a focus of dissatisfaction for a range of dissatisfactions against the clergy, and that it drew great strength from the unpopularity of the Jesuits. Louis XIV intensely disliked Jansenism and did his best to eliminate it from the Church.

Jansenism owed its existence to two friends, Jean du Vergier de Hauranne, Abbé of Saint-Cyran  and Cornelius Jansen, bishop of Ypres.  In 1636 Richelieu had Saint-Cyran imprisoned as a dangerous heretic. In 1640 Jansen’s posthumously published Augustinus set out the doctrine of predestination. The Jansenists of the next generation, Antoine Arnauld and the mathematician Blaise Pascal (left), made open attacks on the ideas of the Jesuits. Jansenism became synonymous with moral rigorism rather than rigid predestinarianism. This did not prevent Antoine Arnauld from being deprived of his position as Doctor of the Sorbonne in 1655. As a result, Pascal wrote his Provincial Letters, which poured ridicule on the theology and casuistry of the Jesuits.

One of the centres of Jansenism was the abbey of Port-Royal and its abbess, Antoine Arnauld's sister, Marie-Angélique Arnauld. The nuns were expelled from their convent in 1709 and Jansenism was officially condemned in a papal bull in 1713.

 This failed to end the challenge of Jansenism. The movement acquired political overtones and during the eighteenth century it became a focus of opposition to absolute monarchy.

‘The great misfortune of the French church was the involvement of the monarchy, and the resulting attempt to impose a quite unnatural uniformity, if necessary by the use of force…There is a very real sense in which the quarrel over Unigenitus contributed both to the desacralization of the monarchy and the Revolution itself. The only people to gain anything from the whole great conflagration were those who were becoming increasingly sceptical of authority and received opinion in every sphere of life.’ Robin Briggs, Early Modern France 1560-1715 (Oxford, 1998), 184. 

The Huguenots
The Huguenots had enjoyed protected status since Henri IV promulgated the Edict of Nantes in 1598. However their position was affected by Richelieu’s break up of their military power by destroying their fortresses. As a community they were in slow decline yet their very existence was anomalous in an age when the principle that everyone in the state ought to follow the religion of the ruler held force. In addition, the Huguenots had a history of disloyalty from the 16th century, when they had formulated revolutionary theories on the state and kingship.

However, in his mémoires for 1661 Louis had advocated nothing more than gentle proselytising, made more palatable by financial incentives. Colbert’s policy had been to entice foreign Protestants into France and they were encouraged to establish much needed industries with the protection of royal monopolies and grants of privileges.

The mood changed in the late 1670s and when the Peace of Nijmigen ended the Dutch War in 1679 some Huguenots were already apprehensive about their future. In the same year it was reported that 3000 had abjured during the last two years in the Languedoc, and that 25,000 écus had been spent there since 1676 in order to encourage them to do so. Yet many of those who claimed to be converts, continued to practise their religion in secret.

The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes: As the decade neared its end the crown, either of its own volition or on the advice of its provincial agents, began to make life more difficult for the Protestants. In 1681 the first dragonnades took place in Poitou. It was this decision which really caused alarm among Protestants and anger among their co-religionists in other countries. Violent soldiers were billeted on Protestant communities, leading to 30,000 conversions. The dragonnades were stepped up in 1683 and 1684, and in the first months of 1685 some 300 to 400,000 conversions took place.

 Louis seems to have worked on the assumption that the number of conversions undermined the need for the Edict of Nantes, therefore on 17 October 1685 he revoked it in the Edict of Fontainebleau

The revocation was extremely popular in France. Some 300,000 left France even though officially forbidden to do so. However twice that number remained there. Most converted to Catholicism but their sincerity could not be guaranteed. Protestants remained strong in the difficult mountain areas of the south.

See here for information about the Huguenot community in eighteenth-century London.

Consequences: This one action did more than any other to harm the reputation of Louis XIV in his own country and in many parts of Europe. Pamphlets from Huguenots in exile poured into France, castigating Louis XIV in very violent terms. A minority of Catholics, too, deplored the policy of forcible conversions. A worrying number of critics implied, and a few openly stated, that the king himself had made a major error of judgement. This was an extraordinary assertion, as the usual convention was to blame the ministers. Now Louis was being blamed for a tyrannical act towards thousands of loyal subjects, and from then on the criticism would mount. From this time onwards Louis seemed less and less in control of events.

The revocation damaged France diplomatically. It added to fears that she was an aggressive, tyrannical power. In 1686 the League of Augsburg was formed (the Empire, Spain, Sweden, Bavaria).