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Navy and Government in Early Modern France, 1572-1661 Review


Great institutions often have founding mythologies, and like any founding mythology, they often are found more on the side of "myths." The French Navy is no different, for its founding myth, that it was created tabula rasa by the great French naval minister Colbert, and that nothing existed before him, is at best a dreadful over-simplification and at worst outright wrong. Navy and Government in Early Modern France is an excellent book which shows that the French navy existed long before Colbert's reforms, even if it was in very different molds, reliant upon a mixture of state and private enterprise to provide for its forces, and a compromise between the interests of the crown and of the peripheries. Alan James shows that the French Navy served real strategic goals for the French crown, examines the role of coastal communities and interests in the formation of France's maritime landscape, and provides a new look at how the French Navy's administration developed, defined not by absolutist rationalism but rather by private individuals building up their own power bases. This book gives a n excellent understanding of how an early modern navy operated, and how it evolved and changed.

The famous portrait of Richelieu at the siege of La Rochelle

The famous portrait of Richelieu at the siege of La Rochelle

Organizationally, the first chapter of the book, "Containing Huguenot naval strength, 1572-1628," examines the Huguenot's naval power and local independence, and the crown's strategies to attempt to deal with them, complicated by occasional Protestant control of the French admiralty and the chaos of France's internal strife.

Chapter 2, "Royal Navy Authority, 1582-1628" tracks the shifting politics of French admirals during the Wars of Religion, where they were a site of confrontation between Protestant and Catholic competition for the office, and a tool used by the crown to attempt to enforce its own authority.

Chapter 3, "Richelieu as Grand-Marite de la Navigation" how Richelieu attempted to increase the personal prestige and prerogatives of the position he had as grande-maitrise, the admiral of France and Brittany, as the strengthening of the French navy. But rather than being a dramatic change, this in fact represented major continuity with the past, as the French naval administration continued to be a deeply personal affair and was highly reliant upon relationships with the French provinces and local elites. Richelieu's navy grew much more powerful with naval expansion, development of naval ports at Brouages and Le Havre, and administrative development, but it was much more in line with the old naval administration than any attempt at "rationalization" or bureaucratic centralization.

Chapter 4, "The Naval Command and War with Spain" both examines various reforms in naval governance, such as the end of private control and maintenance of the ships in preference of state upkeep (although the men and officers on the now-state directed ships continued to be much the same as they were before, and at times it was a great struggle to attempt to control them), and the role of the French navy during the War of the Pyrenees with Spain. The French fleet's expansion enabled it to play an important role in this war through forays against the Italians in Italy, repulsing attempted invasions of France, and supporting, unfortunately unsuccessful, French army offensives against Spain.

Chapter 5, "The Royal Galley Fleet," shifts the focus of attention to the administrative, organizational, and command aspects of the galley fleet, based at Marseille in Province. Here, tensions were rife between the Duc de Guise, the French admiral of Provence, and Gondi, general of the galleys.

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Chapter 6, "Building a Warship Fleet," argues that the French navy's warship policy of the era, based on chartering private ships, purchasing ships abroad, and the problematic states of repair and maintenance of many of its vessels were either wise decisions or understandable in light of conditions of the time. Naval construction under Richelieu helped build new vessels, including prestigious ones such as La Couronne, the flagship of the navy, and the French fleet, far from declining with the death of Richelieu, continued to grow and was put to much use under his successor Mazarin.

Chapter 7, "Financing Naval Warfare," is another crucial look into how naval administration and financing worked in early modern France, showing that naval financial administration was a very personal and political affair, where Richelieu achieved his successes by supporting his own allies to develop a hegemony over naval administration, and examines at extensive length how the financial accounting and administration of the navy worked.

Chapter 8, "The Legacy, 1646-1661" makes the case that the French navy had succeeded in supporting the crown's objectives and matching the Spanish navy, that the French had an important naval fleet, if not on the level of the Dutch or by the end of the era English (even if the French tracked them in strength or exceeded them for much of the period), and the French were able to harness the Dutch and English to secure objectives against the Spanish. Colbert's later accomplishments thus appear as natural developments and in line with the spirit of the times, rather than being a unique stroke of genius, and his reforms would themselves run into the problem of the political autonomy and resistance to external control that defined French maritime communities.

The conclusion stresses the themes of the navy as an important perspective on French governance and how it shines light on Richelieu's administration in France, and stresses the broad success of the French navy in meeting its strategic objectives during the period.

There are many excellent features in James's book, but particularly intriguing is the way in which he treats maritime communities and local interests in France, such as the Huguenots and La Rochelle. Looking at early modern naval history in Europe is often a process of examining the development of state navies, examining the story of how central kingdoms established their dominance over their periphery regions and older, "feudal" institutions. Alan James's book concerns this to some extent of course, since it charts the development of Richelieu's fleet, which even if it was a deeply personal affair, and not the rationalizing, absolutist, project which it is often portrayed as, nevertheless concentrated increasing power into the hands of the King and the central French state. However, the examination of La Rochelle and Huguenot naval power, in its curious semi-independent stance from the central French government, and the incentives and interests of the local Rochelais elites is fascinating to understand the relationship between local maritime communities and the central state. This is particularly so since La Rochelle is easily comparable to the Dutch, who at the same time established full independence from the Spanish: both were protestant, maritime, regions, based upon cities, in effective revolt against large Catholic monarchies, who engaged heavily in privateering and were heavily dominated by mercantile elites. And yet James shows how different legal evolutions and strategies adopted by the Rochelais elite generated very different results for the Huguenots and their naval power, as they preferred mercantile trade and their quasi-independence did not permit the development of an independent power base.

Furthermore, the book is an excellent example of early modern administration and governance in action, showing that Richelieu's control of the French fleet was achieved by concentrating power into his own, personal, hands, and into those of his immediate family and relatives. Richelieu might have developed a centralized French fleet, which replaced the independent authority of Provencal and Breton admiralties with his own control - but it was not a rationalizing and impersonal, bureaucratic project, but rather his own personal, private, interests, and one which was intensely dependent on Richelieu himself. Examples of this abound in the early modern age where the conflation of private and government interests were very common: this book shows that they apply just as well to the navy, where Richelieu had substantial personal financial stakes in the navy, as well as attempting to ensure his own family's control of it.

But the greatest part of the book is doubtless its effort to rehabilitate the strategy and operations of the French Navy in the period before Colbert, showing that far from being a completely non-existant force or a ramshackle group of hired foreign warships, its approach to naval development with a mixture of private interests (such as hiring and chartering ships for the crown), state development, and careful usage of foreign relations ranging from the Netherlands, to Sweden, to England, generated a fleet which was surprisingly effective. It was able to check Spanish naval power and support French operations against the Spanish, to render important service in the siege of La Rochelle, and which put major fleets to sea which equaled the capabilities of the other major European naval powers. Navy and Government in Early Modern France is an excellent defense of the effectiveness and even just the fact of the existence of a French navy before Colbert, and is thus quite fascinating to read to see its operational and strategic impacts.

Certainly, the book could have been improved through the addition of maps, diagrams, and charts, to show the location of new French naval ports, the lines of control in administration, and the division of authority in France. In addition, while I speak French, there are a massive amount of untranslated phrases and quotations from the book - and not only are these in French, but they are in the 17th century original texts! At times some words are exceedingly difficult to make out for the modern reader, and this is if one speaks French: I think that English translates should have either been given or all of them translated. But other than this, it is superlative book which is excellent for understanding the birth of the French Navy.

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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