The Early Reign of Louis XIV 101: Colbert & the Navy
Louis XIV remains, without a glimpse of a doubt, one of the greatest French kings. His reign was a synonym of cultural, intellectual and military achievements which left an undeniable footprint in French history. Unfortunately, historians have not always been complaisant in their historical assessments. For a long time, his reign was heavily criticized for its absolutism, religious intolerances, famine, endless wars, and the disastrous economic situation towards the end. Historiography has drastically changed in the last decades, offering a more positive perspective on the reign. Louis XIV is undoubtedly a complex and ambiguous historical figure that needs to be understood. His reign is extremely long and almost impossible to cover entirely. Therefore, this series of articles will offer a brief overview of some key aspects of the Sun King.
This article explores the creation and collapse of the French navy during the reign of Louis XIV. Created by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the navy stands as an unknown and forgotten accomplishment of the early reign in collective minds but which saw its potential ruined in the last decades of the reign.
The Early Reign of Louis XIV series is divided into six chapters:
The Early Reign of Louis XIV 101: Historians & Absolutism (I)
The Early Reign of Louis XIV 101: Historians & Absolutism (II)
The Early Reign of Louis XIV 101: The Sun King's Mémoires (I)
The Early Reign of Louis XIV 101: The Sun King's Mémoires (II)
The Early Reign of Louis XIV 101: Colbert & the Navy
The reign of Louis XIV was synonym of artistic, cultural, social, political, scientific and more importantly, military achievements. During his long rule, Louis XIV’s army won decisive battles and conflicts, allowing France to become a major protagonist in the European political stage. Unfortunately, the French navy held a less glorious fate. Since the 1660s, Jean-Baptiste Colbert and later his son, the marquis de Seignelay, intended to offer Louis XIV the means of competing in maritime trade and warfare against his European neighbours. Despite some successes in the Franco-Dutch War and the early years of the Nine Years War, France progressively retreated from fleet warfare in the course of the 1690s. For a long time, historians have been critical about this retreat and tended to blame Jerôme Phélypeaux, comte de Pontchartrain for it (Goubert, 1931). However, recent historical research has exonerated Pontchartrain and demonstrated the ineluctability of this decision. Colbert’s navy was an imperfect and expensive project suffering from numerous tactical, strategic and logistical flaws drastically limiting its efficiency. In both the Nine Years War and the War of the Spanish Succession, the French royal fleet struggled to meet its sovereign’s expectations. Ultimately, Louis XIV came to question the rentability and worthiness of his standing navy in an age of financial and economic crisis. This essay attempts to highlight Colbert's phenomenal contribution to the navy and explain the retreat of France from fleet warfare between 1693-1715.
Recent historians have explained the downfall of the French royal fleet because of the fundamental and long-term economic failures of the Colbert administration. Since his first day in office, Colbert regarded the navy as an essential tool in his mercantilist ambitions, which would allow French maritime commerce to expand and revive the domestic economy (Dessert, 1997). However, historians often bring up the problematic financing mechanisms on which the French navy relied (Darnell, 2017). As mentioned earlier, Colbert’s ambition was an expensive project that required massive investments not only to build ships, but to create the infrastructures, institutions and administrations as well. Although he managed to acquire the necessary funds during the first half of Louis XIV’s reign, neither him, nor Seignelay or Pontchartrain succeeded in securing a stable source of funding to maintain the navy (Symcox, 1990). Geoffrey Symcox and Benjamin Darnell explained that Colbert inherited the old system of naval accounting and disbursement run by the two trésoriers généraux de la marine (Symcox, 1990). These officers were charged with receiving, holding and distributing the navy funds according to the secretary’s orders. When the navy required funds, they would meet payment from their own private fortunes or by borrowing on their account, but they tended to use the surplus for private speculations when the coffers were full (Symcox, 1990). For historians, this system was not only insufficient, but it handicapped the navy in times of crisis. As Symcox explained: "as the state’s fiscal crisis deepened, the support provided by the trésoriers généraux became crucial, and by choosing which payments to disburse they assumed a de facto role in policy making" (Symcox, 1990, p. 136). Another obstacle to the functioning of the navy was the relationship between its administration and the financial world. Daniel Dessert illustrated such relations with the case of the munitionnaires on whom the navy heavily depended. Once again, these individuals tended to prioritize rentability over the well-being of the navy. Along with the trésoriers généraux, the munitionnaires reflected a system heavily dependent on a powerful financial microcosm, which limited its capacities, efficiency and autonomy in times of crisis (Dessert, 1996).
The fiscal situation of the kingdom was also a decisive factor in the fate of French fleet warfare in the 1690s. In his last decades, Louis XIV did not dispose of the same treasury as during his first conflicts. After the outbreak of the Nine Years War, France faced an important financial and economic depression. Tax revenues had reached their limits, maritime trade was disrupted, and an agrarian crisis had struck the kingdom (Dessert, 1996). These disruptions caused a 25 percent drop in total revenues, leaving the navy and army competing over diminishing resources (Dull, 2009). After the defeat of La Hogue in 1692, Louis XIV decided to divide the marine’s budget by half, as it went from 28.1 million livres in 1693 to 13.7 million in 1695. Recent historians argued that the impact of these budgetary restrictions has often been overstated and overestimated, but it nonetheless marked a turning point. Darnell described these disproportional consequences: "ship constructions were halted and the number of operational vessels plummeted as the rated fleet was moth-balled" (Darnell, 2017, p. 72). Even if Pontchartrain miraculously contained the catastrophe and maintained a fleet, his navy still required massive investments to have a chance to compete against its nemesis (Dessert, 1997). In the same period, the English and the United Provinces’ fleets had benefited from sustained investments. Between 1694-1697, the English Parliament had voted an overage of £2.75 million, equivalent to about 32 million livres, which allowed the English fleet to rise from "173 sails, mounting 6,930 guns and totaling 101,892 tons, to 323 sails, carrying 9,912 guns and totaling over 160,000 tons" (Symcox, 1974, p. 42). These massive investments conferred the Allied fleets a considerable advantage over the French one, especially in the ship-of-the-line context, in which superior size and better equipped fleets held a decisive advantage in frontal confrontations (Dull, 2009).
Unfortunately, the navy’s financial and fiscal difficulties were not the only gravediggers of the French navy’s ambitions. The Colbert-Seignelay administration also demonstrated significant logistical deficiencies. Standing navies required important logistical infrastructures to be successful and decisive in battles and coastal sieges. Despite Colbert’s industrialization and development of arsenals and harbours in the 1660s, the efficiency of the French navy was jeopardized by regular shortages of resources and materials. For instance, Seignelay realized, on the eve of the Nine Years War, that his dockyards were in disarray and many of his ships were unseaworthy. In 1685, he had pressed his intendant to make the conservation of warships a matter of the highest priorities, but in vain (Darnell, 2017). Harbours and ports had not disposed of enough resources to fulfil their tasks. As a result, Seignelay was only able to deploy 94 operational ships-of-the-line out of the 120 expected (Pilgrim, 1975). Besides that, artillery, munitions provisions and production were also insufficient to support the conflict. Seventeenth century European maritime warfare had been transformed with the emergence of the line-of-battle tactic, which consisted in exploiting the potentialities of artillery power and the size of the new ships that began to be built from about 1630 onwards (Symcox, 1974). From that moment on, ships were designed to be fortresses on water, carrying more and more heavy artillery to inflict as much damage as possible. In this increasingly demanding type of warfare, the French fleet found itself short of 1,600 pieces of artillery for the 1690 campaign, which represented the armament of 20 to 25 ships (Symcox, 1974). In addition, gunpowder for the ships-of-the-line, galleys, and bomb ketches also presented some serious problems. Donald Pilgrim affirmed that France had underestimated the resource requirements for a conflict of this scale. In September 1688, Seignelay believed that only 350 tons of gunpowder would be sufficient for the needs of the navy in Marseilles and Toulon. But, it appeared that the required amount exceeded 750 tons (Symcox, 1974). These supplies and munitions insufficiencies had dramatic repercussions on the military campaigns. In his study of the Mediterranean theatre, Guy Rowlands observed that "the preparation of ships and the provision of supplies for both the army and navy for the Catalan campaign of 1697 were sluggish, delaying the investing of Barcelona and nearly forcing Vendôme to withdraw before he had even started" (Rowlands, 2006, 280).
Munitions or artillery were not the only missing ingredients of a successful navy. Symcox rightly pointed that "the real strength of any fleet lay in the skill and experience of the crews who manned it; the recruitment of prime seamen was therefore one of the most vital tasks confronted by any naval administration" (Symcox, 1974, p. 12). However, France had no maritime tradition as strong as the English or the Dutch, and deeply struggled to find qualified seamen. Originally, Colbert expected the development and prosperity of maritime trade to assure the recruitment for his navy, but that was not enough. He had to set up his inscription maritime and class system. In short, this decree imposed a duty on French seamen to serve in the fleet for, in general, a year every three years (Symcox, 1974). Despite several social advantages offered, these measures were never convincing and engendered local resistance and desertions (Taillemite, 1970). Louis XIV recognized this problem "It is impossible to equip large ships, if I do not find a way to change the aversion that sailors have to enlist themselves in my navy" (quoted in Dessert, 1996, 202). Paradoxically, the monarch held an important responsibility in the recruitment problems. In 1685, the Sun-King made the questionable decision to adopt a hostile attitude to the reformed faith with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Unfortunately, many competent sailors were Protestants, and this decision was a disaster for the navy as it caused a widespread emigration, which cost France at least 5,000 sailors (Dull, 2009).
Another essential logistical issue hampering French fleet warfare was the functioning of maritime bases and harbours. Richelieu had only left rudimentary port facilities and arsenals in disrepair (Verge-Fransceschi, 1996). In the 1660s, Colbert decided to concentrate his efforts on developing Toulon, for the Mediterranean theatre, and Brest and Rochefort for the Atlantic. Although these harbours' capacities were duplicated, they remained insufficient to sustain the war effort of the Nine Years War or of the War of the Spanish Succession. Historians emphasized that for "the entire length of the English Channel, the French had no port capable of taking more than a squadron of low-rated ships" (Symcox, 1974, 49). These logistical infrastructures reduced the main axes of French naval strategy to the ports of Toulon and Brest as these were the only two bases able to host a complete battle-fleet. As a result, the French were only able to engage in fleet battles when they were in numerical superiority, for in the event of defeat the French could not count on any refuge (Symcox, 1974). In the meantime, the English maritime forces were not restricted by such problems. For instance, the port of Plymouth had been developed enough in the seventeenth century to allow the Allied forces to bring their fleets within easier range of Brest and to adopt an aggressive strategy (Symcox, 1974).
Mediterranean maritime campaigns also suffered from the same problem. Rowlands reported that Toulon was under-equipped for amphibious operations and declared that "what the navy really needed, if France was to dominate the Mediterranean, was a forward base away from the homeland to sustain littoral operations" (Rowlands, 2006, p. 281). Moreover, France also had a geographical disadvantage which, coupled with Louis XIV’s absolutist doctrine, had significantly impacted the course of the war. Whereas the English and United Provinces had their naval bases within a day’s ride of their capitals, Versailles was hundreds of miles away from any important harbour. In addition, these harbours did not possess the required autonomy to make swift decisions. Many times, the directives written in Versailles arrived out-of-date in the hand of French officers. Symcox even argued that the 1692 disaster could have been avoided if orders had arrived in time (Symcox, 1974).
In conclusion, France’s retreat from fleet warfare in the last decades of Louis XIV’s reign was the inevitable outcome of a deficient administration in an age of fiscal overextension. Both the Nine Years War and the War of the Spanish Succession exposed France’s incapacity to compete because of its logistical infrastructures, tumultuous financial mechanisms and questionable strategic decisions. From then, Louis XIV decided to turn towards a guerre de course, a strategy relying on privateering and skirmishes, rather than large-scale confrontations. Recent historiographical reconsiderations revealed that the course was neither the disaster described in older historiography nor the complete end of French fleet warfare. Rather, it was a pragmatic decision to adopt a strategy more adequate to the situation (Chapman, 2004). Although this option would become problematic in the eighteenth century, it nonetheless had performed relatively well in the course of the Nine Years War and War of the Spanish Succession, and therefore, ultimately sealing the fate of the standing navy for the rest of the reign of Louis XIV.
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