essays

Dec 1, 1980

The Parisian League

“League partisans championed an elective monarchy and the sovereignty of the “people.””

“La Ligue Parisienne (1585–94): Ancêtre des partis totalitaires modernes?” French Historical Studies11(Spring 1979):29–57.

The latter half of the sixteenth century witnessed a new development in the political history of France and the West. During that period, French Catholics grew increasingly concerned over Henri III’s weakness in dealing with the Protestant threat in their country, in particular with the influence of his distant Protestant cousin and probable heir, Henri de Navarre (later Henri IV). To counter this danger, zealous French Catholics led by the Duc de Guise formed the Sainte Union (otherwise known as la Ligue) for the purpose of restoring undisputed Catholic hegemony in the realm. Established in all major French cities, the League succeeded in capturing control of Paris in 1588, relinquishing its hold on the city with the accession of Henri IV, newly converted to Catholicism.

Regarding the organization, membership, and ideology of the League, it becomes clear that the characteristics of the traditional political faction have been superceded and that something resembling a political party (and a revolutionary one at that) has come to birth. Unlike most factions, for example, the League’s existence did not seem to depend on the leadership of a particular individual. Henri III sought to extinguish the threat of radical Catholics by executing the Duc and Cardinal de Guise on Christmas Eve, 1588. To the King’s surprise, however, the League survived to struggle against him with renewed vigor.

In addition, the power of the League rested on an extremely broad social base, again unlike traditional factions. It incorporated members of the aristocracy and clergy, to be sure, but also merchants, butchers, tradesmen, and even sailors. In numbers, membership in Paris alone has been variously estimated at between eight and thirty thousand.

The League also incorporated a carefully structured series of deliberative councils which directed the organization’s activities and set its policies. As with modern political parties, close-knit organization assured the movement’s survival even after the passing of a prominent leader.

Many of the League’s characteristics thus link it to the political groupings of our own day. However, its ideology specifically identifies it as a distant ancestor of revolutionary parties, active in the West since the eighteenth century. Like all opposition movements of the time, League members claimed to be struggling for a restoration of ancient French traditions. However, this necessary cloak of tradition grew thin as government persecution pushed the League to ever more radical positions.

In their defense of the Catholic faith and Christian society, League theoreticians completely redefined the notion of nobility. Aristocracy by birth was viewed as mere usurpation of privilege. Religious zeal conferred the mark of true aristocracy. Without devotion to God, the king himself might be considered base-born.

In keeping with this revolutionary spirit, League partisans championed an elective monarchy and the sovereignty of the “people.” To stem the march toward tyranny among even elected monarchs, the ideologists of the League espoused the “primacy of the law,” as a bulwark against arbitrary government. They even set forth proposals for a “loi fondamentale,” a constitution which would empower the Estates-General to act as the highest court and supreme legislative authority of the land.

Finally, the League evidenced revolutionary traits in deed as well as in words. After their takeover of the French capital in 1588, leaders of the League created the Conseil des Dix, a veritable Committee of Public Safety which inflicted a reign of total terror on all suspected enemies of the regime.

The power of the League was to evaporate in the 1590s, when the conversion of Henri de Navarre to Roman Catholicism and his military victories assured the restoration of the traditional Catholic monarchy to France. Despite its eventual demise, however, the organization of the League stands as a new departure in the political experience of the West.

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