After the siege had lasted more than a year, after five thousand were found remaining out of fifteen thousand, the people yielded and Richelieu entered the city as master.
Continuing Cardinal Richelieu’s Administration,
our selection from Special Article to Great Events by Famous Historians, Volume XI. by Andrew D. White published in 1905. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in nine easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in Cardinal Richelieu’s Administration
But all other obstacles Richelieu had to break through or cut through constantly. He was his own engineer, general, admiral, prime minister. While he urged on the army to work upon the dike, he organized a French navy, and in due time brought it around to that coast and anchored it so as to guard the dike and to be guarded by it. Yet daring as all this work was, it was but the smallest part of his work. Richelieu found that his officers were cheating his soldiers in their pay and disheartening them; in the face of the enemy he had to reorganize the army and to create a new military system. He made the army twice as effective and supported it at two-thirds less cost than before. It was his boast in his Testament that, from a mob, the army became “like a well-ordered convent.”
He found also that his subordinates were plundering the surrounding country, and thus rendering it disaffected; he at once ordered that what had been taken should be paid for, and that persons trespassing thereafter should be severely punished. He found also the great nobles who commanded in the army half-hearted and almost traitorous from sympathy with those of their own caste on the other side of the walls of La Rochelle, and from their fear of his increased power should he gain a victory. It was their common saying that they were fools to help him do it. But he saw the true point at once. He placed in the most responsible positions of his army men who felt for their cause, whose hearts and souls were in it — men not of the Dalgetty stamp, but of the Cromwell stamp. He found also — as he afterward said — that he had to conquer not only the kings of England and Spain, but also the King of France. At the most critical moment of the siege Louis defeated him, went back to Paris, allowed courtiers to fill him with suspicions. Not only Richelieu’s place, but his life, was in danger, and he well knew it; yet he never left his dike and siege-works, but wrought on steadily until they were done; and then the King, of his own will, in very shame broke away from his courtiers and went back to his master.
And now a royal herald summoned the people of La Rochelle to surrender. But they were not yet half conquered. Even when they had seen two English fleets, sent to aid them, driven back from Richelieu’s dike, they still held out manfully. The Duchess of Rohan, the Mayor Guiton, and the minister Salbert, by noble sacrifices and burning words, kept the will of the besieged firm as steel. They were reduced to feed on their horses; then on bits of filthy shellfish; then on stewed leather. They died in multitudes.
Guiton, the mayor, kept a dagger on the city council-table to stab any man who should speak of surrender; some, who spoke of yielding, he ordered to execution as seditious. When a friend showed him a person dying of hunger, he said: “Does that astonish you? Both you and I must come to that!” When another told him that multitudes were perishing he said, “Provided one remains to hold the city gate, I ask nothing more.”
But at last even Guiton had to yield. After the siege had lasted more than a year, after five thousand were found remaining out of fifteen thousand, after a mother had been seen to feed her child with her own blood, the Cardinal’s policy became too strong for him. The people yielded and Richelieu entered the city as master.
And now the victorious statesman showed a greatness of soul to which all the rest of his life was as nothing. He was a Catholic cardinal; the Rochellois were Protestants; he was a stern ruler; they were rebellious subjects who had long worried and almost impoverished him; all Europe, therefore, looked for a retribution more terrible than any in history.
Richelieu allowed nothing of the sort. He destroyed the old franchises of the city, for they were incompatible with that royal authority which he so earnestly strove to build. But this was all. He took no vengeance; he allowed the Protestants to worship as before; he took many of them into the public service, and to Guiton he showed marks of respect. He stretched forth that strong arm of his over the city and warded off all harm. He kept back greedy soldiers from pillage; he kept back bigot priests from persecution.
Years before this he had said, “The diversity of religions may indeed create a division in the other world, but not in this.” At another time he wrote, “Violent remedies only aggravate spiritual diseases.” And he was now so tested that these expressions were found to embody not merely an idea, but a belief. For when the Protestants in La Rochelle, though thus owing tolerance — and even existence — to a Catholic, vexed Catholics in a spirit most intolerant, even that could not force him to abridge the religious liberties he had given.
He saw beyond his time, not only beyond Catholics, but beyond Protestants. Two years after that great example of toleration in La Rochelle, Nicholas Antoine was executed for apostasy from Calvinism at Geneva. And for his leniency Richelieu received the titles of “Pope of the Protestants” and “Patriarch of the Atheists.” But he had gained the first great object of his policy, and he would not abuse it: he had crushed the political power of the Huguenots forever.
Let us turn now to the second great object of his policy. He must break the power of the nobility: on that condition alone could France have strength and order, and here he showed his daring at the outset. “It is iniquitous,” he was wont to tell the King, “to try to make an example by punishing the lesser offenders; they are but trees which cast no shade: it is the great nobles who must be disciplined.”
It was not long before he had to begin this work — and with the highest — with no less a personage than Gaston, Duke of Orléans, favorite son of Mary, brother of the King. He who thinks shall come to a higher idea of Richelieu’s boldness when he remembers that for many years after this Louis was childless and sickly, and that during all those years Richelieu might awake any morning to find Gaston — king.
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