1636: The Cardinal Virtues – Snippet 43

The comte de Soissons and Archbishop Gondi were talking in hushed tones as they arrived, with the comte de Montrésor trailing like a little pet hound. Soissons was beaming as he spoke, oblivious to everything else: Vendôme knew that he had been waiting for moments like this.

A few others entered — all in advance of the king-to-be. The last to arrive was Épernon’s brother-in-law, Vendôme’s half-brother Gaston-Henri, légitimé by Vendôme’s mother’s successor, Catherine Henriette de Balzac. Though he carried the name Gaston he went by Henri, their father’s name; he had been Bishop of Metz since he was eleven — a few years after King Henry IV was murdered by the mad monk Ravillac.

As the councilors gathered in groups and settled into seats, the two half-brothers remained separate, acknowledging each other’s presence with polite nods. None of the others thought it worthwhile to approach them.

“I think we’re scaring them off,” the bishop said at last. “None of them want to talk to us, César.”

“I sometimes have that effect on people. You?”

“I move in many circles.” Henri began to extend his right hand, on which he wore a beautiful episcopal ring; but he thought better of it and let the hand fall to his side.

“Including this one. Our brother –”


“Thank you for reminding me of the obvious. Gaston has chosen to add you to his council, then?”

“He’s adding you, isn’t he? He brought you back out of exile to serve him. He didn’t have to send so far to bring me.”

“And you came running.”

“There may be a Cardinal’s hat in it, César. And you? What did he promise you? Or did he just have something for you to do?”

The comment sounded innocent and unassuming, but it caught Vendôme by surprise. His first thought was that it was that Gaston had put him up to this — to see what he’d say.

“Eh, César, ne vous mettez pas dans tous vos états,” the bishop said, smiling, folding his hands in front of his soutane.

“I’ll get as exercised as I please, Henri,” Vendôme said, trying to keep a snarl from his voice. “My relations with our new King are none of your business.”

“Everyone is everyone’s business in Gaston’s Paris, César.”

“When I wish to share my private affairs with you,” Vendôme answered, “I shall assign one of my servants to give you whatever trivialities that are of no consequence. Until then — ”

He turned away, but Gaston-Henri grabbed his arm. Vendôme shook it loose with a jerk abrupt enough to make his half-brother stumble backward. He grabbed Gaston-Henri’s shoulder and steadied him.

“You really must be more careful, Your Grace,” he said. Then he hissed in his younger half-brother’s ear, “What do you want?”

“I told you. A cardinal’s hat.”

“From me,” Vendôme said. “What do you want from me?”

Gaston-Henri, the bishop of Metz, straightened his clothes, disengaging himself from Vendôme’s grasp.

“Nothing,” he said quietly. “Like most of the people in this room, César, I want nothing from you.”

Whether Gaston’s arrival was intentionally late, or if he simply felt that he had a more important place to be, Vendôme wasn’t sure — but it was clear that his half-brother, soon to be the king of France, liked to make an entrance.

The members of the Conseil turned their attention at once to Monsieur Gaston, offering polite bows or making a leg. Gaston caught his eye; Vendôme inclined his head but made no further indication or gesture.

Gaston’s smile never wavered as he acknowledged the obeisances of his councilors, but Vendôme could see that he was a bit annoyed at his own lack of deference.

“My lords,” Gaston said at last. “We offer our apologies for being tardy. Matters of state,” he added, allowing his smile to extend even further than usual.

Matters of state, my ass, Vendôme thought to himself. One more toss with Marguerite, I’ll wager.

Pierre Séguier, the duc de Villemor, stepped forward and offered an additional bow. His chain of office, which marked him as the king’s chancellor and Keeper of the Seals, jingled as he lowered his head and then raised it.

“Your Majesty’s Council awaits your pleasure, Sire.”

“Excellent, excellent,” Gaston said, and walked to the great oblong table. He took his seat at its head, and the others gathered, taking various places. Vendôme took a seat at the other end, directly opposite Gaston, with Gaston-Henri to his left, much to the other’s annoyance.

“There is much for us to discuss, Monsieurs,” Gaston began. “We will progress to Saint-Denis tomorrow to visit the grave of our dear brother.” He stopped for a moment and looked down, placing his hand on his forehead in a gesture of grief. “But there are matters we must address immediately.

“Monsieur de Bullion,” he began, addressing the Minister of Finance. “We have read your report on our exchequer with interest. It is certain that there are many areas that you address that have fallen short in their obligations to the Crown. Effective at once, you are to direct that these omissions be corrected, by force if necessary.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Bullion said. “It shall be done.”

“In particular,” Gaston added, “those of our subjects who derive profit from the paulette and the lettre de maîtresse should be informed that if they wish to continue under our patronage, they should . . . encourage their clients to live up to these modest requirements. Is that clear?”

“Abundantly,” the minister said, smiling. “It will be as you command, Sire.”

Both the paulette — a ‘voluntary’ tax upon office holders — and the lettre de maîtresse, by which the crown derived revenue from craft guilds by recognition of mastership, were intrusive and much disliked (and often avoided). Such impositions were hardly uncommon: King Charles of England had been funding his royal government with such things since he dismissed his last Parliament eight years earlier. Richelieu had regulated them desultorily, depending on whether the affected party was a client or not.

“We are most grateful,” Gaston said. “Now to the next item. Monsieur le Márechal,” he said, addressing Bassompierre. To Vendôme’s eyes, the man perked up like a bantam rooster with free rein in the hen-house.

“Sire,” Bassompierre said. “If I may take a moment to extend my gratitude to your royal favor in freeing me from unjust imprisonment –”

“Yes, yes, a small matter,” Gaston said, waving it away as if freeing him from prison after five years were simply a small matter. “Monsieur, we have a particular charge for you. A military force presently under the command of the comte d’Auvergne — Marshal Turenne — ” he added the last almost as if with distaste — “has chosen to re-deploy to the south without strict royal order. As it took place after my brother’s death and before my return to the kingdom, it might be argued that this was a matter of military necessity. But now that the coronation is at hand, this force will need to be in the charge of someone with demonstrated loyalty to the Crown. What is more, he employs up-timers — and their loyalty is completely unpredictable.

“You will gather whatever staff you need and depart at once to take command.”

“Does Your Majesty have any notion of its present location?”

“What information is thus far available indicates that it is in or on its way to Gascony or Béarn — somewhere near the Spanish border. We consider this very provocative, and ultimately contrary to France’s interests.”

“The Spanish border, Sire?”

“Yes. In the south, near a range of mountains called the Pyrenees. Perhaps you are acquainted with them, Monsieur.”

There was the slightest titter of amusement among the councilors; Bassompierre reddened very slightly.

“I believe I can locate them on a map, Sire,” he managed to retort. “But surely the Spanish cannot be considered friends — so the presence of an army close to our border, provocative or not, is of no moment to them.”

“Why do you say that the Spanish cannot be considered friends, Bassompierre? Have they insulted you personally in some way?”

“I . . . do not understand. The Spanish –”

“The Spanish,” Gaston interrupted, “are an upright Catholic nation. Our sister is married to its King, while his sister was married to our late brother. Surely there are many other nations that might hold greater enmity to France than Spain.”

“That . . . was not the opinion of your late brother, Sire.”

There was silence from everyone else at the table. Bassompierre looked around at the other councilors; no one said a word, or betrayed any emotion — except Gaston himself, whose smile had vanished. He placed his hands on the table in front of him, palms down, the rings on his fingers catching the light from the candles in their sconces.

“Our brother is dead,” Gaston said, and with a glance up the table at Vendôme, added, “as is his chief minister. What policies and positions they held are a matter of history. The crown rests — or soon will rest — upon our brow. It is we who will occupy the royal throne. It is our policies and positions which will govern.

“You may believe as you wish, Bassompierre; but if you wish to sit in this Conseil, and if you wish to continue to enjoy our royal favor, you will endorse them. You will carry out your direction without question, and without objection. Is that clear?”

There was a short, tense silence and then Bassompierre said, “Very clear, Sire. Very clear indeed.”

Gaston looked down at his hands for several moments; when he looked up again, his smile had returned. “There is one other matter that we would choose to lay before you at this time, my lords. Since the ambush that occasioned our brother’s death, nothing has been heard of the queen. It is difficult to believe that this is coincidence.

“Monsieur de Villemor,” he said to the Chancellor, “it is our wish that a proclamation be drawn up regarding our sister-in-law, commanding her to appear at Reims two weeks hence when we take upon ourselves the crown of this realm. There she shall be received with all honors due a grieving widow and Queen. It is our royal wish — no, as we said, our royal command — that she be present.

“What is more,” he added, lifting his hands from the table and extending them in front of him, “if she chooses to absent herself from this august ceremony, it will be taken as an affront and a sign not only of our disfavor — but a clear indication of her complicity in the death of King Louis.”

Once again, the table was silent. Gaston folded his hands before him and looked directly at Villemor.

“When can the proclamation of our royal will be ready?”

“A day or two, Sire,” Villemor said. “It will take some time to be distributed beyond Paris, but that can begin as soon as it receives the seal.”

“You may begin at once,” Gaston said. Again he looked up the table at Vendôme; clearly most of the councilors noticed this. Some seemed merely curious, but a few had expressions of scarcely-concealed malice, as if they perceived a sign of royal favor.

If you only knew, Vendôme thought.