Sully, a Duke in his castle

Castle of Sully-sur-Loire

How proud the castle of Sully must be to have given its name to a figure of such importance in the history of France!

Maximilien de Béthune (1559-1641), 1st Duke of Sully
Maximilien de Béthune, 1st Duke of Sully and chief minister of King Henri IV, was the most diligent of the castle’s owners where its layout and fittings are concerned. In fact, the Great Sully spent part of his vast fortune adapting it to his tastes. The castle remained in the possession of Sully’s descendants for four centuries, retaining its general appearance.
Youthful foundations
Maximilien’s childhood was deeply affected by his mother’s death (1566) and his father’s imprisonment after the battle of Jamac (1569). However, the young man’s education does not seem to have suffered as a result: His tutors taught him Latin, Greek, history and, later, the use of arms.   Maximillien’s strong personality eclipsed that of his older brother Louis and it was Maximilien his father chose to be placed under the protection of the protestant prince Henri de Navarre.   The meeting between Maximilien and Henri took place in Paris in July 1572, just before Henri’s marriage to Marguerite de Valois. A few months earlier, Catherine de Medici, the catholic queen consort of France, and Jeanne d’Albret, Henri’s mother and the protestant queen regnant of Navarre, had negotiated the union between their children to bring peace to the kingdom. The marriage took place on August 18 1572 but was overwhelmed four days later by the Saint Bartholomew’s night massacre.   During a portentous night for the kingdom, it wallowed in horror. Thousands of protestants were killed. Henri was obliged to become a catholic. Maximilien escaped but, from then on, their futures were linked by an invisible bond.
A time of war
In 1584, Henri de Navarre became the new heir to the throne and soon had to face the hostility of a mainly catholic country. Although the Guise family was eliminated in 1588, the Catholic League was still powerful and Henri, “a king without a crown, a soldier without money, a husband without a wife”, had to confront it.   Maximilien placed himself entirely at the king’s service. He began the new military campaigns as captain of an artillery company. At the great battle of Ivry in March 1590, his courage and that of his fellow-protestants brought Henri IV a brilliant victory: more than 6,000 catholics died on that day, enabling the king‘s army to march on Paris. Gravely wounded, Maximilien narrowly escaped death. In recognition of his bravery, Henri IV appointed him a Knight of the Accolade, like a medieval hero.   However, with the support of catholic Spain, the League still enjoyed safe positions. In Pars and then in Rouen, to which he laid siege, Henri IV gave in before the resistance of the inhabitants. On those occasions, Maximilien demonstrated strong military talents, especially in the sphere of artillery.   After being wounded once more at Thoiry, Maximilien had to convalesce again. Shortly after his wife died he met the woman who was to become his second wife, Rachel de Cochefilet, whom he married on May 18 1592 and with whom he retired to his family château at Rosny. The fact is that Maximilien, exhausted by battles and wounds, was no longer content with the friendly thanks of the kingwho, for political reasons, seemed to favor the new catholics over his old protestant friends.   However, at the king’s persistent request, Maximilien returned to war. He distinguished himself at the siege of Dreux in 1593, when negotiations between Henri IV and the League were offering the hope that hostilities might end.
A stabilized monarchy?
Deeply involved in his peace negotiations with the League, Henri IV disclosed his intention of becoming a catholic once again. As a pragmatist, Maximilien knew that the king’s decision would deprive the League of its legitimacy. After Henri IV had abjured protestantism, his coronation, held on February 27 1594 in Chartres, fully established his authority far more firmly than had all his long and arduous military campaigns.   Then came the time to rally the skeptical catholics and to forearm certain disillusioned protestants with the conversion of their former leader. Maximilien took part in the negotiations and soon forged a reputation as a skilful politician, far removed from his image as an impetuous soldier. He thus rallied the city of Rouen where Henri IV triumphed on March 25 1594, three days after his entry into Paris.   Maximilien then enjoyed the king’s full trust. The time for incomprehension was over. Henri IV made him a councilor in 1596, enabling him to sit on the Business Council and the Finance Council.   The coronation of Henri IV opened a new era, but the shadows still lurked.   Confronted by the dramatic financial and economic situation of the kingdom, Henri IV called a Meeting of Notables in Rouen at the end of 1596 and charged it with finding solutions to prevent the country’s ruin. Although a novice at economics, Maximilien offered the meeting his services and his ideas caused a sensation.   Moreover, the crisis with Spain, which supported the League, continued: the victories of Fontaine-Française and then Amiens in 1597 were just two episodes in the confrontation which ended with the signature of the peace treaty of Vervins on May 2 1598.   Lastly, on the religious front, it was not until the Edict of Nantes, signed on April 13 1598, that the reduction in tension became a legal reality: protestants were granted freedom of conscience, although strict rules were imposed on them regarding the practice of their religion.
1598-1610
As peace at last returned to the kingdom of France, new responsibilities were imposed on the king: to restore a country after the decline into which it had fallen as the result of the forty years of civil war which had damaged and exhausted it. The visionary, firm and just government of the king and his ministers soon enabled France to regain its status.   Those twelve years of power are marked by the political emergence alongside the king of Maximilien de Béthune who, having demonstrated his military skill, placed his sense of organization and his devotion at the kingdom’s service.   In the eyes of his contemporaries, Maximilien appeared to be gifted with unequalled intelligence and adaptability. Those qualities were affirmed in the name of a calculated and widely proclaimed ambition and sometimes led him into relentless political disputes.   Nevertheless, he succeeded in monopolizing important duties and, as time went by, in establishing himself as the perfect craftsman of the royal will. Although his elevation to the rank of Duke of Sully and Peer of France in 1606 marked the peak of his career, on May 16 1610 Ravaillac’s knife put an end to many of his plans.
In the service of a king
Many duties were entrusted to him at the request of King Henri IV. In just a few years, he became Superintendent of Finances, Grand Voyer of France, Superintendent of Fortifications, Grand Master of the Artillery, Governor of the Bastille and Superintendent of the King’s Buildings.
From friendship to isolation
Since that meeting a few days before the fatal night of August 24 1572, the destinies of Henri de Navarre, later Henri IV, and Maximilien de Béthune seem to have become entwined. As a man entrusted with numerous spheres of action, Sully occupied a truly special place in his king’s immediate circle.   Sully was close to Henri IV but also to his Queen, Marie de Medici, and to the Dauphin, the future Louis XIII, born in 1601. Symbolizing that attachment to the royal family, Sully planned the town of Henrichemont in what is now the department of Cher. Should that be viewed as a symbol of his devotion or rather as a coarse public relations maneuver to supplant new and ambitious courtiers?   The fact is that criticisms of this opportunistic and tactless minister grew increasingly harsh and his unpopularity in all classes of society grew ever greater. Maximilien had to confront it in 1605, as shown in the famous meeting at Fontainebleau when he fell to his knees before his king, begging him to disregard the attempts to discredit him.   The grief Sully demonstrated when the death of Henri IV was announced was not faked: he had lost not only his friend but also his protector.
A political death
On the king’s death, those who, during those twelve years, had suffered from Maximilien’s intransigent financial policy but also from his rough or even violent methods, had the opportunity of expressing their discontent. Rumors spread even about the future assassination of the Duke of ….. There was no power vacancy: Louis XIII was only nine years old and Marie de Medici became regent of the kingdom, although war against the Hapsburgs was looming in the east. The Queen’s policy upset alliances and favored catholics. New councilors emerged from the shadows to supplant the ministers of the late King Henri. Sully became an annoyance, a symbol of past authority and of the pledge to adopt reformed ideas.   Disappointed by the new games at court led in particular by Concini, Queen Marie’s advisor, in 1611 Sully decided to retire to his estate. He gave up his posts as Superintendent of Finances and of the Bastille, while negotiating a large reward for the services he had rendered.   Sully’s few attempts to return to the political scene between 1611 and 1625 met with little favor from those then in authority. Like the utopian dream of Henrichemont which had become pointless and too expensive, Maximilien’s political work was gradually fading away.   The days of conquests were indeed over, giving way to the inheritance which preoccupied the deposed Grand Duke until his death on December 22 1641.
Royal ecumenicism
During the first years after his disgrace, which soon became definitive, Sully devoted his time to writing his memoirs, the Royal Ecumenicism.    The Duke’s motivation for writing that work means that it should be viewed with caution. He wanted to praise the great King Henri and, at the same time, to promulgate his own glory. In spite of his attachment to the definition of the perfectly impartial historian, Sully denies facts and interprets them with a subjectivity verging on the panegyric, leading the reader to take a long step back.   In 1638, Sully had his memoirs printed in his castle, thus evading the royal legislation. It must be admitted that the content risked causing him some trouble. After all, were not some of the people portrayed in his history still alive?    To support his theme, Sully completed his memoirs with letters from the king or from certain ministers, letters, incidentally, which he invented or transformed at will. Necessity makes law: promoting his role with the great king, promoting his action for history and, if necessary, lessening the roles and actions of others. Such activity was not unusual at the time, but Sully made it blossom.    An enigma remains, however, the enigma of the “Grand Design” which Sully presents as a visionary project devised by Henry IV to unify fifteen European states within a single confederation. Sully seems to be attributing posthumous intentions to Henri IV. The idea of such a project appears to have been Sully’s alone, an idea which was to become an immense historical success.   The policies and philosophies of future centuries will make Henri IV and Sully the men who inspired a new Europe, united in peace and prosperity.
The château of Sully, symbol of Ducal power
On July 15 1602, the château of Sully and the dukedom of the same name entered the history of France. However, before Maximilien de Béthune bought it, the old castle, built in the 14th century by the powerful La Trémoille family, did not seem destined to become the seat of power of the minister of Henri IV.   It is true that for years Maximilien de Béthune had sought to acquire estates which would enable him to enter the closed group of great landowners. He even had the ambition of collecting enough landed property to enable him one day to acquire the title of Duke and Peer, the pinnacle of the nobility. That title served as the basis of his project: in 1606, he became a Duke and Peer of France and went down in history under the name of Sully.   The castle played the honorific role due to its name and was the family seat of the de Béthunes for centuries afterwards. The Duke’s descendants, who owned it until 1962, did indeed make significant alterations but tried to maintain the spirit of a place dominated by the glorious image of their ancestor.   The four new visitors’ rooms illustrate the historical continuity of the place. On the site of the former Louis XV wing, destroyed by fire in 1918, the construction work undertaken gives a clear interpretation of a great stately home. From the medieval towers to the wood paneling of the Age of Light, from the gilding of the Grand Siècle to the neo-gothic additions of the 19th century, the stately home of the Great Sully unites the heritage of his family with the heritage of all of us.
The transmission of a heritage
At the time of his death on December 22 1641, Sully probably would not have dreamed that his memory would still be so alive four centuries later. Identifying all the reasons for such a transmission would be complex and even risky. It seems that, in addition to his memoirs, The Royal Ecumenism, his descendants also contributed to his memory.   Of his direct descendants, many were to make significant changes. Of them all, the 5th Duke of Sully, Maximilien Henri de Béthune, was the one who re-enacted his family’s glory days, especially when his friend Voltaire visited the castle in 1716 and 1719. However, although close to power through title and fortune, none of them ever acquired the glory of the prestigious minister of Henri IV.   Maximilien’s fame put his 18th century heirs in the shade. The many studies and publications about the Royal Ecumenism have thus increased their historical and political interest.   Beyond the highly physiocratic maxim “plowing and pasture are the two breasts of France, her true mines and treasures of Peru”, the late 18th century witnessed the true arrival of the Henri IV–Sully partnership. Stressing the contrast between a king who enjoyed spending and living well and his austere and economical minister, many writers transmit a caricature of the two men.   Iconographic representations multiplied in the 18th century, and certainly in 19th, often without taking a sufficiently historical standpoint, leaving the image of Sully as a smooth and ideal minister.
Credits: Story

Departmental Council of Loiret

Director of the Château de Sully-sur-Loire – Benjamin FENDLER

Texts: Thierry FRANZ
Photographs: Adeline GAFFEZ

Virtual exhibition designed by Adeline GAFFEZ

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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