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The Idea of Europe

Catriona Seth
Rotraud von Kulessa

2. Henry IV of France’s Great Design

Texte intégral

1The Memoirs of Maximilien de Béthune, Duke of Sully (1559–1641),i are the only account of the great design imagined by Henry IV (1553–1610), King of France from 1589 onwards: the confederation of a Christian Europe. This seemed so chimerical to the statesman that he hardly paid any attention the first time the monarch spoke of ‘a political system through which the whole of Europe could be shared and led like a family’. The French sovereign believed none of the nations concerned could afford to reject the idea bearing in mind its advantages: ‘The profit they will withdraw, above and beyond the inestimable value of peace, is far greater than that which they will have to spend’. In the context of the conflicts in Europe and, in particular, the aim of limiting the Spanish crown’s power and appeasing religious conflicts, the French head of state developed his project in consultation with Queen Elizabeth I, in order to guarantee a solid peace for Europe. His project was not without importance for someone like the Abbé de Saint-Pierre in the eighteenth century.

2To render France happy for ever was his [the King of France’s] desire; and she cannot perfectly enjoy this felicity, unless all Europe likewise partake of it; so it was the happiness of Europe in general which he laboured to procure, and this in a manner so solid and durable, that nothing should afterwards be able to shake its foundations. […]

3The troubles in which all the following years were engaged, the war which succeeded in 1595, and that against Savoy after the peace of Vervins, forced Henry into difficulties which obliged him to lay aside all thoughts of other affairs; and it was not till after his marriage, and the firm re-establishment of peace, that he renewed his thoughts upon his first design, to execute which, appeared then more impossible, or at least more improbable than ever.

4He nevertheless, communicated it by letters to Elizabeth, and this was what inspired them with so strong an inclination to confer together in 1601, when this princess came to Dover, and Henry to Calais. […] I found her deeply engaged in the means by which this great design might be successfully executed; and notwithstanding the difficulties which she apprehended in its two principal points, namely, the agreement of religions, and the equality of the powers, she did not to me appear at all to doubt of its success. […]

5We considered the death of the King of Spain as the most favourable event that could happen to our design, but it received so violent a shock by the death of Elizabeth, as had like to have made us abandon all our hopes. Henry had no expectation that the powers of the North, nor King James, the successor to Elizabeth, when he was acquainted with his character, would any of them so readily consent to support him in his design, as this princess had done. However, the new allies which he daily gained in Germany, and even in Italy, comforted him a little for the loss of Elizabeth. […]

6For what did he [Henry] hereby require of Europe? Nothing more than that it should promote the means by which he proposed to fix in the position, towards which, by his efforts, it for some time had tended. […] By this he would have discovered the secret to convince all his neighbours that his whole design was to save, both himself and them, those immense sums which the maintenance of so many thousand soldiers, so many fortified places, and so many military expenses require; to free them for ever from the fear of those bloody catastrophes so common in Europe; to procure them an uninterrupted repose; and, finally, to unite them all in an indissoluble bond of security and friendship, after which they might live together like brethren, and reciprocally visit like good neighbours, without the trouble of ceremony, and without the expense of a train of attendants, which princes use at best only for ostentation, and frequently to conceal their misery. […]

7I am persuaded such an armament would have been so highly approved of by all these princes, that, after they had conquered with it whatever they would not that any stranger should share with them in Europe, they would have sought to joint to it such parts of Asia as were most commodiously situated, and particularly the whole coast of Africa, which is too near to our own territories for us not to be frequently incommoded by it. The only precaution to be observed in regard to these additional countries, would have been to form them into new kingdoms, declare them united with the rest of the Christian powers, and bestow them on different princes; carefully observing to exclude those who before bore rank among the sovereigns of Europe.

8Maximilien de Béthune, Duke of Sully, Memoirs (1778).

Read the free English text online (1781 edition):​books?id=9OI9AQAAMAAJ&lpg=PA313&dq=sullyvervinsmemoirs&hl=fr&pg=PA66
Read the free text in the original language (1778 edition):​books?id=t-iAVIeyd8UC&printsec=frontcover

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