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History of France - H. E. Marshall

The Taking of la Rochelle
Louis XIII (Richelieu, P.M.) [1610-1643]

ANd now there rose to power the greatest man of Louis's reign. This was Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu had been Queen Mary's friend. Now she no longer liked him, and indeed plotted against him time after time. Neither did Louis really like Richelieu. But he had no strength of character of his own. He had to have some one on whom to lean. He saw at least that Richelieu was wise, and so although he disliked him he kept him in power. For the last eighteen years of Louis's reign it was really Richelieu who reigned.

Richelieu was one of the greatest of French statesmen. He loved France well, and he understood France and Frenchmen perhaps better than any man has done. He was a man with a terrible strength of will, and he bent all things and all men to his own ends and aims. He would be obeyed, and he made even the King his slave. He had three great aims. One was to lessen the power of the great nobles, another to lessen the power of the Huguenots, the third to lessen the power of the German Emperor and King of Spain. By the first two he strove to unite France into one great whole. By the last he strove to make France great among the countries of Europe.

In order to lessen the power of the nobles Richelieu ordered that the fortifications of all towns and castles should be destroyed except those which were needed to defend the borders of the kingdom. He also did away with the posts of admiral and constable, as these posts put too much power into the hands of one noble.

The nobles were wild and lawless, but Richelieu showed them that they must bow to the laws of the land. They had a perfect passion for dueling. They fought duels for the slightest cause, because a man looked at another, or because he did not look, because a man trod on another's toe, because he wore a coat of a colour another did not like. Anything served as a reason. They fought at all times and in all places, in crowded streets, on lonely moors, by day, by moonlight, by torchlight. The two who began the quarrel each had a friend called a second who came to watch the fight. These seconds fought too, often without knowing in the least what the quarrel was about. And so many nobles and gentlemen were killed in those duels that it was said more died in that way than in all the wars of religion.

Richelieu made up his mind to stop all this, and he made the laws against dueling very strict. Death was the punishment for any man who killed another in a duel, and those who took part in it were banished or imprisoned. One of the greatest nobles in the land was banished for fighting twenty-two duels. In spite of that he returned and fought a twenty -third in the streets of Paris in broad daylight, just out of bravado.

Richelieu would not allow any one thus openly to flout his laws. As an example to others he caused both this noble and his second to be seized, and in spite of the prayers of their friends they were both condemned to death.

With deeds like these Richelieu showed himself powerful in the state. But Richelieu was not only leader of the state, he was leader of the army. When he went to battle he laid aside his red Cardinal's robes and wore a sword and breastplate, a coat embroidered with gold, and a plumed hat.

Richelieu continued the war against the Protestants which Louis had begun. For although he did not wish to take away their religious liberty he wished to make them of no account in the state. The struggle was nearly brought to an end with the taking of La Rochelle.

La Rochelle was the chief port of the Protestants and it was very strongly fortified. The King's army entirely shut it in upon the land side. But the British had offered the French Protestants help, and Richelieu soon saw that La Rochelle could never be taken so long as the British ships could enter the harbor freely, bringing food and men. So he began to build a huge dyke more than half a mile long right across the entrance of the harbor.

It was a tremendous undertaking, and more than once the wind and waves swept away in one night what had taken weeks to build. But nothing daunted the great Cardinal. The ruined work was begun again and again. Old ships were filled with stones and sunk along the line, piles were driven in, and thousands of loads of stone were brought to the great wall. At length the dyke rose above the waves, forts were built, cannon were mounted.

Helplessly the people of La Rochelle watched the work go on. They could do nothing to stop it. For the dyke was built just beyond reach of their cannons. Anxiously they awaited the promised help from Britain.

At length one May morning the British ships appeared in sight. The people of La Rochelle were filled with joy. They greeted the approaching fleet with loud thunder of guns, and flags were run up upon every flagstaff in the town.

But the British Admiral had expected to have nothing more to do than sail into the harbor and unload his vessels full of food. Now when he saw his way barred by the huge dyke, with forts and batteries, and French battleships to right of him and to left of him, bristling with cannon, his heart misgave him. For a week he hesitated, for a week he lingered, skirmishing with the enemy. Then one morning in the horrified gaze of the people of La Rochelle he turned about and steered for home.

Awful despair took hold upon the people when they saw the English go, but the King's party rejoiced, for now, they thought, the town must yield. Little they knew the stern courage of the people they had to deal with.

John Guiton was the mayor. He was a wiry little man who had been a merchant and a sailor. He had led a wild, rough life, hardly better than a pirate's. Used to all sorts of hardships, he was almost savage in his courage. He had become mayor since the siege began. When he was chosen he threw his dagger on the council table. "I accept," he said, "the honor you do me, but only on condition that with the point of this blade I pierce the heart of any one who talks of yielding. If I myself stoop to such cowardice may my blood wipe out my crime."

Now none dared to whisper of surrender, but the horror of hunger was awful. There was neither meat nor bread left. The people ate chopped straw and hay, soup made from parchments and skins, and a horrible paste made of bones ground to powder.

The women and children, who could not fight, were sent out of the town. But the pitiless King sent them back again. Guiton, more pitiless still in his turn, refused to open the gates to them. So many perished miserably between the royal camp and the walls of the town.

At length one of the counsellors dared to speak of yielding. Guiton did not use his dagger as he had threatened, but he boxed this counsellor's ears, and the people rose in fury against him, so that he was obliged to hide from them.

"We shall all die of hunger, " said one to the mayor.

"What matters that," he answered, "as long as one man remains to keep fast the gates?"

At length once again a British fleet arrived. But after a useless attempt to break through the dyke the British gave up the fight. La Rochelle was left to its fate. There was no more hope, and the town yielded to the King.

When next day the King and Cardinal rode into the town they saw an awful sight. Streets and houses were full of dried up corpses which no one had had strength to bury. Those who still lived were like moving shadows, wan spectres with scarce a breath of life left in them. Even the rough soldiers were filled with pity, and tears blinded the King's eyes as he saw the gaunt creatures fall on their knees, and in hollow hoarse voices whisper, "God save the King and have mercy upon us."

No massacres followed upon the taking of La Rochelle. Food was given freely to all. But its rights and liberties were taken from the town, the walls were levelled to the ground, and the Catholic religion was once more established there.

Yet in spite of the loss of their great free town the Protestants still fought on for a few months. But at length they were forced to make peace.

Richelieu had utterly crushed them. He indeed left them freedom to worship God in their own way, but they were no longer of any power in the state.