To what extent had France become a nation-state by 1610?

In order to determine the extent to which France had become a nation state by 1610 one must first ascertain what one means by the term nation state. Although the word ‘state’ did not come into current usage in France until the mid-sixteenth century, the idea of a state did exist; but it was called the ‘republic’ or ‘commonwealth’ (chose publique). Official documents made a distinction between the king and the state, yet the interests of both were closely identified. Thus in 1517 the chancellor Duprat declared: ‘the kingdom’s interest is the king’s interest, and the king’s interest is the kingdom’s interest. For it is a mystical body of which the king is head.’

A nation-state is also generally defined as a relatively unified territory in which there is a reasonably well developed governmental apparatus that is applied uniformly throughout the country. The unity of a country can be determined in part by the strength of the monarchy and its success in exerting power over the Church as well as a working relationship with the leading nobles, a stronghold over governmental institutions and sufficient methods of levying taxes efficiently.

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It must be remembered that the emergence of France as a nation-state was a slow and laborious process with many setbacks mainly in the form of civil war. By 1610 France may have been on the rise again after a steep decline in the middle years of the sixteenth century, but it was to take another hundred years until France could fully be described as a nation-state.

For much of the fifteenth century the French monarchy was attempting to recover from the disintegration of unity sustained during the hundred year war when at one point a one year old succeeded to the throne. From 1422 onwards the French kings were able to manage a gradual restoration of their position. The Kings gained control of many Duchies and principalities notably Burgundy, Anjou, Brittany and Orleans. For some of these however, it took nearly a century to fully recover them. The monarchs did not have sufficient resources to recapture these principalities during the latter part of the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth centuries and so they had to skilfully marry into the controlling noble family instead. Louis XI, Charles VIII and Lois XII, who were all monarchs in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century all performed this duty admirably, making secure political alliances by marrying into duchies. For example the marriage between Charles VIII and Anne the duchess of Brittany ensured that Brittany came under crown control. After Charles died Louis XII cemented this alliance by marring Anne himself. In this way greater territorial unity was achieved and thus France came closer to calling itself a nation-state.

During the reign of Francis I in particular great efforts were made to unify different French territories. Throughout the provinces, the work of extending royal authority had been considerably eased by the elimination of the great apanages-even Louis XII’s unwise creation of Bourbon had been terminated in 1523-but many problems remained. If the king could usually impose his will whenever he himself intervened in local affairs, the small number of his officiers did not permit him to intervene everywhere and at all times. Diversity and separatism, aggravated by the difficulty of maintaining efficient communication across vast distances, made it virtually impossible to treat France as a united kingdom. “Some of the provinces behaved at times as though they were independent members of a federal union, and there were many regions of France where a man could live without fear of the king’s officiers provided he did not fall foul of the local great family.” [Europe in the sixteenth century-David Maland]. France may have had many separate kingdoms but an increased sense of patriotism did develop among French people in the reigns of Francis I, Henry II and Henry IV, conversely due in large part to France’s wars with other nations.

The Italian Wars were dearly paid for at the price of bankruptcy but the warfare itself served an invaluable purpose in satisfying the ambitions of a restless nobility for more than two generations and by bringing the clergy into greater dependence upon the Crown as a result of the Concordat of Bologna in 1516. More importantly still was the fact that by their military leadership Francis I and to a lesser extent Henry II succeeded in embodying, no matter how imperfectly a growing sense of nationhood among their subjects. The same cannot be said for Henry II’s immediate successors however. The increased unity of France that occurred during the first half of the sixteenth century was largely dissolved in the intervening years of civil unrest and infighting between nobles in the Wars of Religion. There was a serious disintegration of royal power after 1559 due in large part to Henry II’s untimely death and the accession of a sickly minor to the throne. Francis II was king for just one year before he died and the throne passed to his brother Charles IX who was aged only nine at the time of his succession.

This meant that the reigns of government were handed over to Catherine de Medici who was Charles’ mother. Any sense of nationhood quickly evaporated in the following civil wars. In the 1560s alone there were three civil wars and Catherine aggravated the situation by allying herself with rival factions at different times. The greatest instability however was a direct result of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre on which day thirty thousand alleged Protestants were butchered throughout France. The royal court was complicit in this and the blame naturally fell on Catherine and Charles.

This caused a great schism in a country which had previously made tentative movements towards unity. The ensuing problems reversed in its entirety the process of becoming a nation-state. In the aftermath of the massacre Huguenot communities formed their own governments and so effectively became ‘states within a state.’ Even at a local level communities were tearing each other apart. However not only was the country fractured but also the governmental apparatus was in disrepair as illustrated by the weak and ineffectual reign of Henry III. Henry III was unable to wield any successful power and lost control of the capital which was largely under the command of Henry, Duke of Guise, head of the Catholic League. This situation was not to be overturned until the end of the sixteenth century when Henry IV came to the throne in 1589. Henry III was an astute, political figure who realised that the crown’s power would be seriously lacking until Paris was fully under the control of the king. France could in no way be described as a nation-state when Paris was being ruled independently from the rest of France. In 1593 Henry proclaimed his intention to convert from Protestantism to Catholicism and in 1594 he triumphantly entered Paris and in doing so succeeded in once more bringing territorial unity to France.

Another method of creating unity was through laws and legal institutions. In the early sixteenth century France was comparable to England, as both countries had Royal Councils which advised the king. In France it was called the conseil du roi and it consisted of leading nobles very much like England’s council. Laws were passed by an institution called parlement of which there were seven. Parlements acted as law courts and if the king wanted to pass a law he would issue a Royal Edict which would have to be passed within a parlement. Parlement was supposedly the representative of the people and is thus indicative of considerable unity in law at least, but in truth only a few leading nobles would have any say in laws that were passed. However at the end of the fifteenth century Louis XII sought to increase legal uniformity throughout the kingdom and so in 1499 he introduced the Ordinance of Blais. The Ordinance was a tool for upholding justice and contained 162 clauses on the customary laws of the country. This therefore was a direct move in the direction of becoming a nation-state but the Ordinance was not without problems. In 1510 parts of the Ordinance were reissued which would seem to suggest that it hadn’t effectively been carried out throughout the whole of France.

Louis had attempted to codify French laws but ultimately this was never able to fully happen because of the great disparity between laws in different regions of the country. In Louis’s fairly brief reign the Ordinance could never be fully operational and as a result the nobles still exerted tremendous power and authority in their own localities. A key manifestation of this was the local law courts which the nobles effectively controlled as provincial governors. The problem with this was that governorships became increasingly hereditary which resulted in a loss of the monarch’s power because he could no longer discontinue a governorship once a precedent had been set. The king’s power was further dissolved due to the nobles’ exemption from tax. Louis XII also lacked considerable influence in the church as the papacy exerted considerable jurisdiction pre Concordat of Bologna. Louis may have made attempts at reform but it was really only during the reign of Francis I that the process of general codification got underway.

Francis I succeeded in raising his income from tax from five million livres in 1515 to nine million livres by 1547. He also created a central treasury and appointed Philibert Babon as a treasurer. This was a very significant step towards becoming a nation-state as centralisation was vital for greater efficiency and cohesion.

In early sixteenth century France there was little uniformity of method in the way that money was raised. This was largely due to the lack of unity in France and is an indicator of how France cannot be referred to as a nation state before the early seventeenth century. This was because the Medieval kings of France had very little control over the separate kingdoms. Many regions were used to governing themselves and sought autonomy as they had established governing institutions and legal procedures. There were therefore two types of territory in France: there were pays d’ election which were territories directly under the control of the French monarchy and pays d’ etat which were acquired lands of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. As a result there was varied unification in France as there were different levels of administration in different regions. In the pays d’ election there was no constitutional barrier and thus tax could be collected easily and efficiently. However, in the pays d’ etat local landowners elected a governing body to decide whether a tax would go ahead. In these areas the levying of taxes was much more consensual. Therefore the king would have to send officiers to negotiate taxes and as a result collecting them proved much more difficult.

However in the late sixteenth century the method of raising taxes was revolutionised by Henry IV and his financial advisor Sully. Sully was highly innovative and developed several financial devices that placed the French monarchy on a surer financial footing. At Sully’s appointment the monarchy was 296 million livres in debt but by the time of Henry IV’s death Sully had achieved an annual surplus of fifteen million livres. Sully reformed the method of tax collecting by bringing in tax collectors to ensure that all taxes were collected. He also reduced the taille which was the general tax on population which meant that poor people had a more disposable income and introduced a tax on office-holders, the paulette, which brought in two million livres per year. Sully spent prodigiously on building roads, canals and bridges which aided greatly in the territorial unification of the country.

By 1610 France was well on its way to fully becoming a nation-state although it had met many setbacks on the way. Great steps had been taken in the early part of the sixteenth century towards increased territorial unification in the form of many principalities restoration to the crown. An effort was also made to unify the government and legal institutions in the Ordinance of Blais in 1499 although this was not to be completely established until the reign of Francis I. However there was a large hiatus in the mid sixteenth century due to prolonged in-fighting between nobles in the Wars of Religion and the subsequent succession of several minors to the French throne. It was not until the accession of Henry IV in 1589 that these catastrophic changes could be reversed with many reforms that brought France ever closer to being a nation state.


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