Henry found the task of reconstruction more arduous than the conquest of power. Thirty-two years of “religious” wars had left France almost as devastated and chaotic as after the Hundred Years’ War the century before. The French merchant marine had practically vanished from the seas. Three hundred thousand homes had been destroyed. Hatred had declared a moratorium on morals and had poisoned France with the lust for revenge. Demobilized soldiers harried the roads and villages with robbery and murder. The nobles plotted to exact, as the price of their loyalty, a return to feudal seignorial sovereignties; the provinces, long left to their own resources, were dividing France into autonomous states; and the Huguenots were clamoring for political independence as well as religious liberty. The League still had a hostile army in the field; Henry bought its leader, Mayenne, to truce and finally to peace (January 1596). The terms having been signed, Henry walked the fat Duke into panting exhaustion, and then assured him that this was the only revenge he would take.20 When one of his own generals, Charles de Gontaut, Duke of Biron, led a conspiracy against him, Henry offered him pardon for a confession; this being refused, Henry had him tried, convicted, and beheaded (1602). By this time France realized that Navarre was King. The people of France, tired of anarchy, allowed him—the business classes begged him—to make the new Bourbon monarchy absolute. Royal absolutism, which was the cause of civil war in England, was the effect of civil war in France.
Since the first necessity of government is money, Henry collected taxes. The existing Council of Finance emitted more than the normal odor of corruption; Henry made the fearless Sully superintendent of finance, and gave him a free hand to clear the air and the road between taxes paid and those received. Maximilien de Béthune, Baron of Rosny, Duke of Sully, had been Henry’s faithful friend for a quarter of a century, had fought at his side for fourteen years; now (1597), still only thirty-seven, he attacked embezzlers and incompetents with such uncompromising energy that he became the most valuable and unpopular member of the royal Council. His portrait, by Dumonstier, hangs in the Louvre: large head, massive brow, sharp suspicious eyes; here was the practical genius needed to check the romantic spirit of a king who was too busy as Casanova to be quite Charlemagne. Sully made himself the watchdog of the administration. As superintendent of finance, highways, communications, public buildings, fortifications, and artillery, as governor of the Bastille and surveyor general of Paris, he was everywhere, supervised everything, insisted on efficiency, economy, and integrity. He worked through every waking hour, lived austerely in a simple room bearing pictures of Luther and Calvin on the walls. He guarded the interests of his fellow Huguenots. He stabilized the currency, reorganized and disciplined the bureaucracy, and forced thieving officials to disgorge. He reclaimed for the state all property and revenues that had been appropriated by individuals during the wars. He compelled 40, 000 tax dodgers to pay their taxes. He had found the national treasury in debt by 296,000,000 livres; he paid off these obligations, balanced the budget, and gathered a surplus of 13,000,000 livres. He protected and encouraged all phases of economic life; built roads and bridges, planned the great canals that were to join the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the Seine and the Loire;21 he declared all navigable rivers to be part of the royal domain, forbade obstructions in them, and renewed the flow of goods through the land.
With the help of such wisely chosen ministers Henry proceeded to recreate France. He restored to the courts and the parlements their lawful functions and authority; and if he allowed the bureaucratic officials, for a price, to transmit their positions to their sons, it was not merely to raise money, but to ensure stability of administration and to raise up the middle classes—in particular the legal fraternity, or noblesse de la robe—as offsets and balances to the hostile aristocracy. Usually too eager for life and work to read a book, the King studied carefully Olivier de Serres’ Les Théâtre d’agriculture (1600), which suggested more scientific methods of farming; he established these improvements on the crown lands as examples and prods to the vegetative peasantry; he longed, as he said, to see la poule an pot, a chicken in every pot on Sunday.22 He forbade nobles to ride over vineyards or cornfields on their hunts; he suppressed the ravages of troops on peasant lands. He canceled twenty million livres of tax arrears owed by the peasants (perhaps because he knew he could never collect them), and lowered the poll tax from twenty to fourteen million livres. Anticipating Colbert, he protected existing industries with tariffs, and introduced new industries like the making of fine pottery and glass, and the culture of silk; he planted mulberry trees in the gardens of the Tuileries and Fontainebleau and required that ten thousand should be planted in every diocese. He helped and enlarged the tapestry works of the Gobelins. To evade the restrictive policies of the masters in the guilds, he reorganized French industry on a corporative basis—employers and employees united in each craft and subject to regulation by the state. Poverty continued, partly because of war, pestilence, and taxes, partly because the natural inequality of ability, amid the general equality of greed, ensures in each generation that the majority of goods will be absorbed by a minority of men. The King himself lived economically, extravagant only with his mistresses. To occupy the unemployed and clear the countryside of idle and voracious veterans, he financed a large variety of public works: streets were broadened and paved, canals were dug, trees were planted along the highways; parks and squares—like the Place Royale (now the Place des Vosges) and the Place Dauphine—were opened to let Paris breathe. For the disabled destitute the King founded the Hôpital de la Charité. Not all these reforms matured before his sudden death, but by the end of his reign the country was enjoying such prosperity as it had not known since Francis I.
Above all, Henry ended the Religious Wars, and taught Catholics and Protestants to live in peace. Not in amity, for no thoroughgoing Catholic would admit the right of a Huguenot to exist, and no fervent Huguenot could view the Catholic worship as anything but pagan idolatry. Taking his life in his hands, Henry issued (April 13, 1598) the historic Edict of Nantes, authorizing the full exercise of the Protestant faith, and freedom of the Protestant press, in all of the eight hundred towns of France except seventeen, in which (as in Paris) Catholicism was overwhelmingly predominant. The eligibility of Huguenots to public offices was confirmed; two were already in the Council of State, and the Huguenot Turenne was to be a marshal of France. The government was to pay the salaries of Protestant ministers and of the rectors of Protestant schools. Protestant children were to be admitted, on an equality with Catholics, to all schools, colleges, universities, and hospitals. Towns already controlled by the Huguenots—such as La Rochelle, Montpellier, and Montauban—were to remain so, and their garrisons and forts were to be maintained by the state. The religious liberty so granted was still imperfect; it included only Catholics and Protestants; but it constituted the most advanced religious toleration in Europe. It took a man of doubtful faith to turn “His Most Christian Majesty” into a Christian.
Catholics throughout France cried out against the edict as a betrayal of Henry’s promise to support their creed. Pope Clement VIII condemned it as “the most accursed that can be imagined, whereby liberty of conscience is granted to everybody, which is the worst thing in the world.”23 Catholic writers proclaimed anew that a heretic king might justly be deposed or slain; and Protestant authors like Hotman, who under Henry III had defended popular sovereignty, now praised the virtues of absolutism—in a Protestant king.24 The Parlement of Paris long refused to give the edict that official registration without which, according to custom, no royal decree could become accepted law. Henry summoned the members and explained that what he had done was indispensable to peace and the reconstruction of France. The Parlement yielded, and it received six Huguenots into its membership.
Perhaps to quiet the Catholic opposition and placate the Pope, Henry allowed the Jesuits to return to France (1603). Sully argued stoutly against the move. The Jesuits, he urged, were “men of genius, but full of cunning and artifice”; they were committed to the cause of the Hapsburgs, therefore of France’s enemies, Spain and Austria; they were pledged and in clined to unconditionally obey the pope, who was a geographical prisoner and financial dependent of the Hapsburgs; they would sooner or later dictate Henry’s policies, or, failing therein, they would persuade some fanatic to “take away your life by poison or other means.” Henry replied that the support of the Jesuits would be a great help to him in unifying France, and their continued exile and hostility would be more dangerous to his life and policies than their re-entry into France.I He accepted the Jesuit Pierre Coton as his confessor, found him likable and faithful, and devoted himself to the administration of France and the turbulence of love.