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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor


 

 

THE SIEGE OF LA ROCHELLE

[328] YOU remember that Beam was the birthplace of Henry IV., the father of Louis XIII. It had been a Protestant state since the days of the brave Queen of Navarre. Her grandson had decreed that the Catholic religion should be the only form of worship in Beam, and the Huguenots had at once taken arms to fight for freedom to worship God in their own way.

In 1621 the king marched with his constable and a large army against the daring rebels. But fever crept into his camp and attacked not only many of the soldiers, but the Constable Luynes himself, who died after only three days' illness.

The constable had been hated by the nobles, yet because he was so powerful many had stooped to win his favour. When he lay ill, his power slipping from his grasp, no one cared for him enough to attend to his wants. His own servants would not stay in the room with him, but leaving the door open, went in and out as they pleased, as though the sick man was one of themselves.

The war against the Huguenots still lingered on after the constable's death, until October 1623, when the Edict of Nantes was confirmed.

La Rochelle and Montauban were the only fortified towns left in the hands of the Huguenots. These they were allowed to garrison, and even to shut the gates against the royal troops and the king himself should they so desire.

A year before the war ended Richelieu's wish had come [329] true. He had become a cardinal, and since the death of the Duke of Luynes no one had greater influence with the king than he.

In 1624 the cardinal was asked to attend the king's councils. He was now thirty-nine years of age, tall and frail in body, but with a will that nothing could bend, much less break.

Richelieu begged that as he was delicate he might give Louis his advice while still living at a distance from court. To this the king would not listen, and so Cardinal Richelieu came to Paris. From that day until his death he ruled France.

The new minister had three chief objects in view. He wished above all other things to destroy the Huguenots, to humble the nobles, and to weaken the House of Austria. Louis had married Anne of Austria, and it is not surprising to find that the queen was disliked by the great cardinal.

As has happened so often in this story, the king's favourite soon found that the nobles disliked him just because he was a favourite. Their jealousy awoke, and they eagerly joined the king's brother, Gaston, Duke of Anjou, in a plot against Richelieu's life.

But the cardinal had spies everywhere, and the plot was discovered, the Duke of Anjou meanly saving himself by betraying his companions. For this base act Richelieu persuaded the king to give his brother the Duchy of Orleans and a large pension.

Meanwhile the cardinal began to carry out his plans against the Huguenots by besieging their chief stronghold, La Rochelle.

The Huguenots appealed to England for help, and a fleet led by the Duke of Buckingham at once set sail for France. Queen Anne, who was a friend of Buckingham's, encouraged the duke to thwart Richelieu's plans in every possible way.

But the cardinal had, as I have told you, a relentless [330] will in his thin spare body, and he now bent every nerve to take the besieged city. Germany, Spain, Austria, all were left undisturbed, even the rebellious nobles might do as they pleased until La Rochelle should yield.

The English fleet meantime arrived, but after a fierce fight Buckingham was defeated, and in November 1627 he went home to England. The French had captured many English flags, and these were carried on Christmas Day with great rejoicings to the church of Notre Dame in Paris.

Meanwhile the citizens of La Rochelle made John Guiton mayor of their city. Guiton had once been a merchant, but lately had led a more adventurous life as a sea-pirate. He accepted the trust the citizens offered him, throwing his dagger on the council-table as he did so, and saying:

"I accept the honour you have done me on condition that yonder poniard shall serve to pierce the heart of whoever dares to speak of surrender."

Guiton then sent to Richelieu to ask that all the women might leave the town. But the cardinal refused, saying, "All the Rochellese shall go out together."

Louis was in the camp with his resolute soldier-cardinal, watching his unflinching face as the heavy winter seas again and again washed away the entrenchments he had ordered to be flung up around the city.

It was the cardinal and not the king who ruled the camp. Under Richelieu's eye the soldiers were as well behaved as on parade. Not a home or a farm in the neighbourhood of the camp was disturbed or plundered, the men being well fed and well disciplined.

All the while that the cardinal worked so persistently to take La Rochelle, he knew that at any moment all his labour might be lost.

It needed but a sea a little rougher than usual, or a stormy west wind, and his barriers would be blown to pieces. It needed but an English admiral more daring than Buckingham, and he might never hope to take the city.

[331] And the citizens of La Rochelle were looking for fresh help from England. Before long another fleet, under the Earl of Denbigh, lay outside the harbour which Richelieu had now succeeded in closing with a solid bulwark of stone. But the English tried in vain to relieve the town.

Twice they attempted to blow up the barricade, but all their efforts were useless, and the citizens of La Rochelle to their dismay saw the English turn and sail away.

By this time Louis had grown tired of the camp, tired too, perhaps, of the influence of his minister, and he had gone back to Paris.

Then, while the king was away, Richelieu had not a moment's peace. No one knew better than the cardinal how fickle Louis was, how weak.

In Paris he would be surrounded by the nobles who were the minister's enemies, by the queen-mother too, who, jealous of Richelieu's influence, was no longer his friend.

The cardinal knew well that there was nothing to prevent his fall save his hold on the unstable king and his own iron will.

But the danger passed. Louis came back to camp, apparently still pleased with his warlike cardinal. He found that La Rochelle was now being starved into submission.

So great was the misery in the town that the gates were opened that the women, children and old men might go out to try to find food.

In their desperate hunger they came timidly to the enemy's camp, but the king ordered them to be driven back into the town, for Louis XIII. fought his subjects in other ways than did his father Henry IV.

Even the cardinal was forced to admire the determination of the citizens, and when at length, after holding their city for about twenty-five months, famine forced them to plead for terms, Richelieu was not harsh in his treatment of the brave defenders.

[332] The walls of the city were indeed broken down and all her privileges taken away, save only that the Huguenots were still allowed to worship in their own way.

When Louis entered the conquered town the streets were strewn with the dead, for none had had strength to bury them, while those of the garrison who were still alive were unable to hold a pike, to such weakness had hunger brought the strongest.

The capture of La Rochelle was a great triumph for Richelieu. It increased, if that indeed were possible, his power and influence with the king.


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