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La France et les Français

The French, those Monkies of Mankind”: the Fronde as seen by the newsbook Mercurius Politicus

Laurent Curelly
p. 29-50


Voix officielle du Commonwealth, le Mercurius Politicus devint, après le coup d’état perpétré par Cromwell en 1653, l’organe de presse du Protectorat. Ce journal était réputé pour son traitement de l’actualité internationale ; la France recevait dans ses pages la place qui lui était due, singulièrement quand les nouvelles venant d’outre-Manche étaient nombreuses. Cet article étudie la représentation de la France et des Français dans les colonnes du journal pendant la Fronde. Il rend également compte de la façon dont les journalistes évoquent la révolution qui vient de s’accomplir en Angleterre relativement aux événements qui secouent la France. Pour finir, l’attention suscitée par la Fronde bordelaise, plus radicale, fait l’objet d’une réflexion.

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  • 1  This comment, possibly borrowed from Shakespeare’s Henry V (1.2.258-63), refers to an imaginary hi (...)
  • 2  Mercurius Politicus (henceforth MP in citations) was one of the official newsbooks of the Interreg (...)
  • 3  Antoine de Bordeaux-Neufville was appointed French agent in London on 2 December 1652, a move that (...)
  • 4  Dureteste was the man “whose head is to be set upon a stake, and his sentence written underneath, (...)

1“The French, those Monkies of mankind, are very busie at Tennis, and they bandy Bullets instead of Bals. Now the game begins indeed, and the Crown is at hazard; especially at Bourdeaux” (MP, n° 1, 6-13 June 1650).1 This satirical quip aimed at the French was published in the official Commonwealth and Protectorate newsbook Mercurius Politicus at a time when France was plagued by political instability known as the Fronde.2 Slightly less than four years later the Paris correspondent of the newsbook wrote a dispatch in which he rejoiced in more settled Anglo-French relationships, finding in the official recognition of the Protectorate by France a genuine cause for celebration: “This Court [the Court of France] hath at last resolved to congratulate his Highness the Lord Protector by their Ambassador Mr Neufville,3 to whom they have sent Authentique Commission of Ambassador, who is to make known to his said Highnes the great desire the King hath to enter into amity with the commonwealth of England” (MP, n° 193, 16-23 February 1654). In the same issue he evoked the punishment that befell one of the leaders of the troubles in Bordeaux, “an example to all those who will imitate him in his rebellion” (MP, n° 193, 16-23 February 1654),4 thus intimating that political agitation had ceased in Guyenne and that the once rebellious people of Bordeaux were no longer at loggerheads with the French monarchy. The tennis game was over, it seems, for the French Court had finally defeated the Frondeurs, and the readers of Mercurius Politicus were no longer to watch the players from the sidelines as they had done for nearly four years. During that time, the editor and his correspondents on the Continent had not merely provided their readers with updates on the latest developments in France, but they had also commented on French news now playfully, now maliciously, sometimes approvingly. The interest they showed in the events that took place across the Channel quite obviously stemmed from their desire to inform their readers, but it also reflected their concern over the political turmoil that they assumed, and sometimes hoped, could ultimately have led France, like England, down the revolutionary avenue.

  • 5  The Commonwealth was established on 19 May 1649 with supreme authority vested in the House of Comm (...)

2A brief survey of the historical context is necessary for the scene to be set before the news articles themselves are thoroughly discussed. The troubles that had beset the British Isles for over 10 years culminating in the 1649 regicide had come to a close with the establishment of the Commonwealth a few months after King Charles i had been executed. However, England’s republican regime was rather fragile and only survived until December 1653, by which time the Rump Parliament had been dissolved and replaced with the so-called Nominated Assembly, which had itself surrendered its powers to Oliver Cromwell.5 The royalist camp had been defeated in England when the Commonwealth was set up in 1649 but there was still a risk that an invasion of England led by Prince Charles, later Charles ii, might be staged from Scotland or later from the Continent, where the Stuart Court had sought refuge. This fear was compounded by the fact that England and its potential Protestant and republican partner across the Channel, the United Provinces, had failed to conduct successful negotiations for an alliance; skirmishes involving merchant ships escalated into a full blown war from May 1652 to July 1653. On the domestic front, the new regime had to face mounting opposition from disgruntled radicals within the Army who were unhappy with the oligarchic nature of the government and pressed for political and religious reform to advance the cause of the people against the elite. This notably led Commonwealth authorities to pass the Engagement Act early in 1650, whereby all adult males were required to declare loyalty to the regime. It is no surprise, therefore, that having to cope with such unfavourable political conditions the Commonwealth attempted to play France and Spain off against each other in a bid to ward off a general peace on the Continent, that is to say a Catholic alliance between the two major continental powers, which might have proved detrimental to the interests of England.

  • 6  Parliament judge Pierre Broussel, who had spoken out against tax rises, was arrested on 26 August (...)
  • 7  The accords of Saint-Germain-en-Laye were signed in March 1649 by the more moderate Parliament Fro (...)
  • 8  The Princes’ Fronde or princely Fronde began with the unexpected arrest of the Prince of Condé, hi (...)
  • 9  Guyenne or Aquitaine became an English possession when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II of En (...)

3France was much worse off than England in the early 1650s considering that the Fronde showed no sign of abating. The troubles had broken out in Paris in August 1648 following the arrest of a member of the Paris Parliament who had stood up to Cardinal Mazarin over his tax policy. The Paris Parliament thus gained political clout as it challenged royal authority and, as a result, was able to secure the support of the people of Paris.6 Arbitrary detention and increased tax levies came to be seen as the unfair instruments of royal prerogative and of a corrupt system of government, just as they had in England when the English Parliament had put up resistance against King Charles. The Paris Parliament signed a peace agreement with Mazarin in the spring of 16497 but unheeded grievances were left to simmer and only enhanced people’s resentment. Mazarin was as unpopular as ever and the Parliament’s rebellion was soon succeeded by the more aristocratic Princes’ Fronde, provoking unrest in Paris as well as in the provinces and causing Mazarin to flee the country.8 The Frondeurs were ultimately defeated with the notables of Paris calling for negotiations with the Court in October 1652. Stability returned to the kingdom except in Guyenne, where troubles had erupted on and off since 1648 before dying out in the summer of 1653. Bordeaux was in the spotlight and especially attracted the attention of the editor of Mercurius Politicus because of the strong historical and economic ties between Guyenne and England,9 and because of the popular strand in the revolt there with the Ormée movement pushing for radical political and religious reform.

4Given France had to tend to serious domestic problems, it recognised the Commonwealth of England much later than Spain did. The Spanish Crown set up diplomatic relationships in December 1650, while it took France another two years to give the Commonwealth formal recognition. It seems that the consolidation of the monarchy in France in the wake of the Fronde and the establishment of the Protectorate in England in December 1653, which put an end to the short-lived republican experiment, offered favourable conditions for strengthened relationships between both countries. Thus, England and France signed a commercial treaty in October 1655, an entente which was to be crowned with the signing of a treaty for a military alliance against Spain in March 1657. By then, Cromwell was King in all but name. Back in the early 1650s, however, the position of Commonwealth leaders on Anglo-French relationships was somewhat hazier, and England even fostered France’s internal divisions by backing the rebels in Bordeaux while making overtures to the French government.

5This paper will especially focus on news spanning the Common-wealth years, from June 1650, when the first issue of Mercurius Politicus came out, to the early months of 1654 immediately after the Protectorate had been set up and the oath of allegiance to the Commonwealth repealed. The way the French are depicted in Mercurius Politicus will be examined. Next, what makes the English system of government a political model perceived as a counterpoint and a remedy to politics à la mode de France will be discussed. The reasons why the authors of the newsbook developed an interest in the events taking place in Bordeaux will be considered last.

“The French, those Monkies of Mankind”

  • 10  It is not easy to identify the authorial voice in this or other newsbooks. The editorials topping (...)
  • 11  For example, see Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 8, chapter 80. Medieval bestiaries acc (...)

6Saying that the authors of Mercurius Politicus10 adopted a deliberate Francophobic bias is somewhat of an overstatement, but they did give full vent to their prejudices, such as when they portrayed the French as animals of various kinds. Thus, they conjured up elements of a bestiary to underpin their criticism of French people who, being compared to monkeys, asses and fleas, were supposedly the laughing stock of the whole world. In medieval allegories, apes were assimilated to the devil, and this equation between monkeys and evil may have influenced the authors of the newsbook. According to ancient natural history, monkeys were also seen as shrewd animals, the closest species to mankind but an inferior species all the same.11 French people were thought to be infected by the gross manners of their Court, and the authors consistently pointed out the corruption prevalent in the entourage of the Queen Regent and her minister Mazarin using animal imagery: in the same issue of the newsbook, “Royal Apes” were said to hold the people in bondage with the help of “Court-leeches [who] suck’t the people,” while “the Court-baboons” “amble[d] up and down from one good Town to another” (MP, n° 6, 11-18 July 1650) in an attempt to stop the advance of the rebellious Princes’ army.

7The authors occupied the moral high ground as they denounced corruption and sexual depravity, two qualities repeatedly associated with France, especially in royal and aristocratic circles. Their condemnation of French manners had a satirical rather than a lofty dimension to it, and, shaped by long years of Civil War journalism, the style of the authors had much more to do with mudslinging than preaching. It is no wonder, therefore, that the French Court should have been derided as a “walking Bordelli” [sic] (MP, n° 7, 18-25 July 1650), or that the Duke of Orleans should have been described as “the true Monsieur, who ever stands straddling, and when he converses even with the civilest Ladies, faces them in the same posture, ordering and tossing his Pike, with his hands in his Cod-piece” (MP, n° 2, 13-20 June 1650). The journalists made great use of stereotypes when it came to mocking the “voluptuous inclinations of the French” (MP, n° 37, 13-20 February 1651) or criticising the misdemeanour of French soldiers which, one of them assumed, was the result of “that barbarous policy of licentiousness” (MP, n° 55, 19-26 June 1651). This author glossed over the fact that even English soldiers in the New Model Army had acted with impunity as they committed exactions and imposed free quarter on civilian populations during the military campaigns of the Civil Wars. Accurate reporting, it seems, was only secondary to editorialising, and the coverage of events in France certainly reflected an overwhelming polemical intent or a complacent appetite for sensationalism rather than high regard for objectivity.

  • 12  The arrest of the Princes in January 1650 sparked further unrest in Bordeaux. With the royal army (...)

8The likely explanation is to be found in the authors’ intellectual involvement in the troubles across the Channel or, to put it differently, in their partisan sympathy for the Fronde as a political movement liable to destabilise the French monarchy. This is why one of the authors made a point of criticising the French for their alleged inconstancy, as when the people of Bordeaux were about to broker a peace treaty with the King in September 1650.12 He claimed that this attitude “showeth the French (at long running) to be very Trifles, of volatile and inconstant Spirits; soon frighted out of their wits, by the Royal Bug-Bear, called, Rebellion” (MP, n° 17, 26 September - 3 October 1650), and even pinned his hopes on Spanish intervention in Guyenne, if only to teach French turncoats a lesson in political courage. What he intimated was needed to defeat the King’s camp was steadfast resistance to royal prerogative and tyranny, as the authors of Mercurius Politicus would so often put it. The newsbook correspondent in the Netherlands boasted that he ran away from France as fast as he could and, “amazed at [French people’s] volatile and Quick-silver Spirits,” summed up the rivalry between Louis XIV and the Prince of Condé as a mere sign of the two royals’ “Antipathy, that they are not of kin at all,” and compared them to “Fleas hopping in and out of places so lightly, and so slightly” (MP, n° 70, 2-9 October 1651). It appears that French people had the leaders they deserved.

9As to the outcome of the Fronde, the authors were not sure whether they should be hopeful or not. They tapped into the shared bestiary mentioned above, which they found convenient to tailor to their needs. For instance, to express their hope that the Fronde would result in political emancipation whereby the French would be able to shake off the yoke of royal oppression, the newsbook contributors highlighted French people’s resolve “to be Monkified no longer with Chains at their heels, and Collars about their Necks” (MP, n° 4, 27 June - 4 July 1650). On the other hand, they regretfully described what they thought was the inherent submissiveness of the French to royal domination or, as one issue of Mercurius Politicus had it, their “slavish dispositions” (n° 39, 27 February - 6 March 1651) by drawing upon similar animal metaphors. Thus, the landholding allies of Prince Charles in Scotland were said to subdue their farmers “after the French fashion, and make them bow like Asses under every burthen” (MP, n° 2, 13-20 June 1650). The authors also regretted that some in the country were already willing to “give over the Game, yield up their Rackets, and pay for the Balls; which if they do, then they deserve to be made Monkies indeed” (MP, n° 2, 13-20 June 1650). Acceptance of enslavement was shown as being part and parcel of the character of French people who, unlike English people, would allegedly balk at supporting an all-out revolution conducive to the demise of monarchy. The Fronde of the Princes was viewed as an aristocratic squabble caused by “Emulation, Ambition and Faction: the three French Furies” (MP, n° 40, 6-13 March 1651), although credit was given to the rebellious Princes for undermining Mazarin’s authority.

  • 13  Henrietta Maria Queen of England escaped to France in June 1644. Prince Charles joined her two yea (...)
  • 14  The destructive Thirty Years’ War which had affected the whole of the European Continent had come (...)

10The authors’ criticism of the French mirrored the widespread view in England that, as a rule, the French could not be trusted. Alleged plans of a French invasion of England became cause for concern in early Commonwealth years, although the threat was probably more fanciful than real, but such rumours clearly failed to ease Anglo-French relationships. The French government’s decision to offer shelter to the English royalist exiles, including the royal family, when civil war was raging in England,13 only heightened Commonwealth authorities’ distrust of Mazarin and the Queen Regent. To complicate matters the French embargo on English cloth which began in the autumn of 1648 and continued in the succeeding years drove the English government to impose strictures on French trade in retaliation. France’s protectionist policy was viewed by the English not as a commercial mishap but as a punishment for its republicanism (Knachel 120-24). This is not to say that all diplomatic ties were cut off between the two countries: even if France recalled its ambassador in London as a signal that it would not recognise the Commonwealth, it still had an unofficial delegate there who made it possible for relations to continue (Knachel 119-20). At the same time, the troubles in France attracted the interest of the English government and England conducted intelligence operations to try and establish contact with the rebels. The Commonwealth clearly played a double game, devising plans to lend the Frondeurs a hand without officially antagonising the French Crown. Persistent rumours circulated that England would capitalise on agitation in France and enter into an alliance with Spain but the fact was that, in its infancy, the Commonwealth was as much concerned about securing political stability at home and protecting its trade interests as about championing the cause of the republic abroad and exporting its revolution. The ruling Council of State in England was split over Anglo-French relationships and was therefore unwilling to commit itself to an open conflict with France while the international situation was volatile.14

11The authors of Mercurius Politicus did not report on the English government’s hesitations, possibly because they were unaware of them, but mostly because what mattered to them was to show off their republican credentials. In their many accounts of the revolt in France, indeed, the factual information they provided was often beefed up with disparaging comments on the French and the French monarchy. Not that the editor and the newsbook correspondents indulged in bashing the French out of xenophobic bigotry, but they used events in France as a foil, a mirror held to England so that it was plain to see that, by overthrowing the monarchy, English people had achieved emancipation. Their reports, especially in the heyday of the Fronde, which coincided with the early years of the Commonwealth, were clearly vehicles for republican propaganda in England and served to buttress the new regime.

12Thus, they repeatedly criticised Mazarin and the French monarchy. They blamed the French minister for being a foreigner, which was actually a commonplace used in the libels written against him, the so-called “Mazarinades”. In one issue of the newsbook the Paris correspondent called for the downfall of the Cardinal by referring to his Italian origins: “That Italian head fits very ill upon a French Body, and its like, that neither of them will be at ease till they are parted, so that it is high time the Queen Regent turned her backside to him after the Italian manner, and turned him out at the Back-dore into Italy” (MP, n° 3, 20-27 June 1650). In the same issue the author showed just as little sympathy for the Queen Regent, whom he claimed was under the influence of Mazarin, described as “the Queens Generalissimo” and the commander of the “She-Militia.”

13Mercurius Politicus writers were only too pleased to spell doom for the French monarchy, a regime which they insisted was beset by a great many evils. France’s “tottering monarchy,” to take up the phrase they used (MP, n° 4, 27 June - 4 July 1650; n° 15, 12-19 September 1650; n° 170, 8-15 September 1653), supposedly harboured parasites or “Court-pickpockets,” as the authors put it (MP, n° 5, 4 - 11 July 1650; n° 7, 18-25 July 1650), chief among whom was Mazarin (MP, n° 2, 13-20 June 1650) who bore the brunt of the criticism. The Cardinal was pictured as a corrupt and duplicitous politician whose high-handed manner was the hallmark of tyrannical government. He was said to lord it over the King’s subjects by misusing a kingly instrument – royal prerogative. In a 1650 issue, for example, the Bordeaux correspondent rejoiced that the rebels in Guyenne would soon defeat beleaguered Royalists, thus paving the way for France’s liberation: “The work (no doubt) will goe on well enough, for the rescue of France, out of the Clawes of the Cardinall and his Prerogative-Creatures” (MP, n° 11, 15-22 August 1650). The mishandling of royal prerogative, it was claimed by the authors, had sparked the troubles in France and might ultimately lead to the collapse of monarchy. Those who “dare[d] but nibble at the sacred Trifle of Prerogative and Monarchy” (MP, n° 4, 27 June - July 1650) faced charges of treason, but they would prevail in the end. Kingly privilege would thus turn into a mere “Prerogative-bubble” as the “grand Idol of Prerogative subsist[ed] only upon a few mercenary Reeds, which [were] ready to break asunder” (MP, n° 6, 11-18 July 1650).

14That the authors were supportive of the Fronde had much to do with their belief in the final triumph of popular sovereignty over royal oppression. The conflict in France allowed them to provide extensive coverage of the liberation of a people whose struggle was akin to what they considered had been achieved by the recent victory of liberty over tyranny in England and which culminated in the establishment of the Commonwealth. Reporting on these events mattered so much to Mercurius Politicus writers because they were thus contributing to the grand historical narrative of England’s emancipation about to be completed after what they regarded as long years of enslavement. Royal prerogative and the way it was used proved to be one of the major bones of contention between Charles i of England and his parliaments: if the 1628 Petition of Right acknowledged prerogative as a kingly privilege provided it did not infringe upon the rights and freedoms of subjects, later petitions and legal texts argued that it was inconsistent with England’s ancient liberties and ran counter to people’s interest. The charge against Charles i as expounded to him at his trial spelt out the grievances of the people which boiled down to the misuse of his prerogative:

All [these] wicked designs, wars, and evil practices of him, the said Charles Stuart, have been, and are carried on for the advancement and upholding of a personal interest of will, power, and pretended prerogative to himself and his family, against the public interest, common right, liberty, justice, and peace of the people of this nation, by and from whom he was entrusted as aforesaid (Constitutional Documents 371).

15The reason why royal prerogative was loathed was that it was associated with the perversions of a monarchical regime liable to degenerate into tyranny. These included favours granted to friends, the evil influence of overambitious and incompetent counsellors, unfair taxes, summary justice, the subjugation of parliament and oppressive policies imposed on the people. The authors of Mercurius Politicus found virtually all these ingredients in the French monarchy, hence their withering criticism of the Court, and in particular of Mazarin and the Queen Regent.

  • 15  Also see MP, n°8, 25 July - 1 August 1650; n°10, 8-15 August 1650.

16They occasionally derided the French, “those Monkies of Mankind,” as members of a nation who sometimes made themselves prone to ridicule and contempt, but they especially vituperated against the French monarchy which featured all the vices traditionally associated with the French and with monarchy. They gave encouragements to the rebels whom they hoped could break off France’s chains and allow it to attain liberty, as exemplified in this exhortation: “Away then, ye gentlemen of France, with your old Vive le Roy’s, and let A liberté, Monsieur, be the new cry throughout all your Nation” (MP, n° 5, 4-11 July 1650).15 This rallying cry suggested by the newsbook’s Paris correspondent reflected the general tone of the publication as expressed in the editorial for the same issue: “How sweet the Air of a Commonwealth is beyond that of a Monarchy.” Precisely, Mercurius Politicus writers felt they could teach the French a lesson or two in the art of revolution.

Revolution à la mode d’Angleterre

  • 16  The theories of the so-called “Monarchomachs” who, at the turn of the seventeenth century in Franc (...)
  • 17  There is evidence in correspondence that Mercurius Politicus was read in Paris, including by Frenc (...)
  • 18  Milton’s work, published in Latin in 1651 as Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, was written as a respo (...)
  • 19  Milton defended free speech and the freedom of the press against censorship in his celebrated pamp (...)

17The authors’ ideological positioning was influenced by anti-monarchical writings which considered it lawful for free-born people to dispose of monarchs when the latter misused their authority or prerogative to tyrannise over their subjects.16 Thus, absolutism called for revolution, and the deposition of despotic kings was necessary for popular sovereignty to be restored. Mercurius Politicus writers aimed to promote the English revolutionary model, both on their home turf and across the Channel,17 as they appeared to spur on French rebels and relentlessly champion the cause of liberty. Against a backdrop of intellectual cross-fertilisation in Europe, they were confident that the propensity of the French to export their way of life would be matched by the ability of the English to contribute to the liberation of other nations. One of the correspondents in the Netherlands wrote, in a 1651 issue using the same monkey metaphor as in other issues: “We and you have been their Apes in Fashions, and they will now become our Apes in delivering Liberty out of the hands of Tyrants, into the peoples” (MP, n° 60, 24-31 July 1651). When the cause was good, aping one’s neighbours was a sign of intelligence rather than foolishness. The authors’ attachment to the defence of liberty may explain why one of them was outraged when Milton’s Defence of the People of England18 was burnt publicly in Paris on the grounds that it was a seditious pamphlet: “So great a hatred is born to any piece that speaks liberty and Freedom to this miserable people” (MP, n° 58, 10-17 July 1651). Milton’s treatise spoke volumes about the recent accomplishments of the English, not just because Milton occupied an official position in government, but also because he had himself campaigned for the defence of free speech.19 In contrast to France, where they thought obscurantism still prevailed, the writers viewed England as an enlightened nation radiating a democratic glow that would ultimately benefit other countries.

  • 20  On 6 December 1648 Colonel Purge prevented Presbyterian MPs from taking their seats in the House o (...)

18What made England unique and the English people superior to other peoples, according to Mercurius Politicus contributors, derived from the dogged determination of the people of England not to renounce their rights either to their King or to what they considered to be an accommodating Parliament. The writers extolled this so-called English spirit as they established parallels between the political situation in France and England’s recent past. In a 1650 issue, for example, the Paris correspondent gave an account of the debates in the Paris Parliament pointing out that “the honest party in Parliament holding firm to their principles, smelt out the Plot [hatched by the Duke of Orleans], […] at length began to vote with an English spirit, for the suppressing of Delinquents, and all oppressors of the people” (MP, n° 10, 8-15 August 1650). The word “delinquent” was commonly used in England during the Civil War to refer to the supporters of Charles i. More significantly, perhaps, in a later dispatch, the same or another Paris correspondent described the French Parliament’s inability to defend people’s liberties against Mazarin’s repression in English terms, as when the Long Parliament’s dithering over negotiations with Charles, especially conducted by the Presbyterian majority who favoured an agreement rather than an escalation into further violence, infuriated the Independent faction which rejected any compromise. As the Independents feared that, if talks dragged on, Parliament would eventually be outmanoeuvred by the royalists, they staged a coup with the help of the Army to oust Presbyterian parliamentarians. Thus, Colonel Pride’s purge gave birth to the Rump Parliament.20 Precisely, the Mercurius Politicus Paris correspondent rejoiced in a plan to trim the French Parliament after the English manner: “[The people] are Tong-tied hereby from speaking the bad, and from complaining of his Tyrannies, and those miseries brought upon them by his Tyrannical exactions. Yet, rather than endure any longer, they are resolved to make up a purge for their Parliament, by the Receipt out of England” (MP, n° 10, 8-15 August 1650). As Mazarin was tightening his grip over the King’s subjects by making anyone of them who dared speak out against him liable for corporal punishment, the writer considered that the onus was on the people to take control of their lives, in particular if Parliament could not be trusted to offer resistance.

19The comparison between the rebellion in France and the events that, in England, gave rise to the Commonwealth, as well as the use of notions specific to England to write about France, allowed this and other contributors to the newsbook to enliven and spice up their stories for their readers, obviously, but also to express their faith in what they considered to be an English model fit to be exported. England had pioneered a revolution, and its blessings would soon be felt in France, they assumed, if French people were but willing to embrace it. The events that were playing themselves out in France were seen as a copy of those that England had experienced a dozen months or so before. This is probably the reason why the Bordeaux correspondent of the newspaper found some satisfaction in commenting on the news in Guyenne, comparing the rebels there to “Roundheads,” that is to say, the undaunted supporters of the English Parliament:

By this [Letter] you may perceive what opinion most of the French (setting aside the Courtiers) have of the Honourable Founders of this Commonwealth, and what Humor is afloat in that Nation. It boiles high at Bordeaux, where the French Roundheads have cashiered all the Royalists, and put them (sans Complement) out of the lines of Communication, after the Mode of England. We have been such Fools as to follow their Fashions a long time, and now it is but reason they should be so wise as to follow ours a little (MP, n° 3, 20-27 June 1650).

20Addressing their readers now in a solemn tone, now in a playful mode, the authors frequently expressed their vindication of popular sovereignty in the form of republican patriotism. For all the suspicion they had of the French, their assumption was that France and England shared a common destiny. In some of his leading articles the editor conjured up both English and French history. In keeping with other anti-monarchical writings of the time, he presented the Norman Conquest as the root of oppression that had caused the Anglo-Saxon past to be consigned to oblivion. Norman kings supposedly put a yoke on their subjects by imposing their laws and their administration, while England’s so-called “good English Lawes and Liberties” (MP, n° 64, 21-28 August 1651) were wiped out of the country. In his editorial for the same issue Nedham hailed the establishment of the Commonwealth as a sign of English people’s recovery of their ancient liberties, a process that highlighted “the noble temper of Our Nation.” As a republican patriot, the editor thought that the English revolutionary example would be followed by others since “the world [was] grown wiser now, than to throw away their lives and estates for a Trifle called a King” (MP, n° 64, 21-28 August 1651). He drew upon the history of other nations, such as France, to bolster his denunciation of monarchy; not only did France and England share a common history, but their situation in early modern times, he argued, resulted from the same historical dynamic. William the Conqueror’s counterpart in French history was Louis xi, not that he was reputedly the first monarch to disregard the Assembly of the Three Estates and enslave his subjects, but he consolidated the power his predecessors had gained by granting the nobility financial advantages to secure their support (MP, n° 89, 12-19 February 1652). His tyrannical government in turn influenced Charles i’s despotism (MP, n° 109, 1-8 July 1652), or so the editor claimed, while in another editorial he praised “that ancient Courage, which was seen in the old Galls and Franks” (MP, n° 85, 15-22 January 1652), as if to suggest that France had once experienced a Golden Age similar to pre-Conquest England.

21Since England and France had parallel histories, Mercurius Politicus writers assumed that there was all the more reason to export the English revolution to France. They were not as cautious as Commonwealth officials when they sought to whip up support for the French rebels, especially in Bordeaux. The fact was that those who fought royal tyranny in Guyenne embodied something of England’s exceptional character.

Long live “the brave Bourdelois”!

22The reason why the contributors to Mercurius Politicus and Commonwealth authorities alike had an interest in the events unfolding in Bordeaux was that they regarded South-western France, like the Duchy of Aquitaine of yesteryear, as England’s backyard. There were strong economic ties between England and the province of Guyenne, chiefly based on the export of wine, a thriving economic activity upon which English wine merchants had built huge fortunes. Bordeaux had a Parliament of its own, a law court whose jurisdiction extended far beyond city boundaries. The judges sitting in the Bordeaux Parliament resented any royal encroachment on what they perceived was their authority, and there were frequent clashes between them and the provincial government. The centralisation of power in the hands of Mazarin gave them a further axe to grind, especially concerning the levy of new taxes and the creation of new administrative offices, not to mention the erection by the much-hated governor, the Duke of Epernon, of an impregnable castle built to command a view of navigation on the river Garonne (Ranum 215‑27).

23The arrest of Condé and his princely friends brought things to a head in January 1650 and caused other notables in Condé’s camp to request the protection of the city of Bordeaux. The judges in the Bordeaux Parliament were unwilling to open hostilities with the French Court. The people, however, did not see eye to eye with the political elite (Westrich 15). The Bordeaux Parliament eventually declared for Condé. Mercurius Politicus writers, notably the Bordeaux correspondent, repeatedly praised the “Brave Bourdelois” for standing up to the royal army. The people of Bordeaux’s unwavering resistance to royal power became a motif in the articles: “None are so eminent for their activity and courage as the brave Bourdelois” (MP, n° 8, 25 July - 1 August 1650). They were especially admired for their unflinching determination to secure their liberty against the “poor Beast of Prerogative […] [that] goes now upon its last legs in France, and they so feeble, that it had need to have crutches” (MP, n° 10, 8-15 August 1650). What made the authors so confident about the ability of the people of Bordeaux to fight to the bitter end was that the latter were supposedly endowed with an English spirit, and the cause they defended, that is to say the liberty of the people, was reputed to be a good one.

24The writers were hesitant, though, as to whether their support should go to the Bordeaux Parliament or to the people. There were different factions among the rebels in Guyenne: Parliament and its supporters on the one hand, and the popular Ormée faction on the other hand. The Ormistes, who drew their name from the platform planted with elm trees where they had retired when they were chased by the troops of the Bordeaux governor (Westrich 21), were mostly members of the lower bourgeoisie and artisans (Westrich 44-48). They pushed for the removal of Epernon as well as political reform which went as far as the establishment of a democratic state. Drawing upon the language of the English Revolution Mercurius Politicus writers backed the Bordeaux Parliament’s opposition to Mazarin: “The Parliament have (like brave Roundheads indeed) sent forth a defiance to the Court-Cavaliers, and all the crew of the Cardinall” (MP, n° 11, 15-22 August 1650). However, they condemned Parliament’s reluctance to join the popular rebellion, hence one of the correspondents’ warning that “the Parliament of Bourdeaux hath found out the old knack of England, and intends to play over our game for King and Parliament, reserving a little cranie still in the Conscience, for that fawning Cur, which some call Loyalty though it be but contented Slavery” (MP, n° 7, 18-25 July 1650). This comparison with England was reminiscent of the heated debates between the Presbyterians and the Independents that occurred in the Long Parliament during the second Civil War. Thus, while giving the Bordeaux Parliament credit for opposing the French Court, Mercurius Politicus authors found a particular appeal in the Ormée rebellion and its vindication of popular sovereignty.

25Some within the Ormée were committed to sweeping political change which was to result in the establishment of a republic in Bordeaux. The popular rebellion in Bordeaux sparked the interest of the newsbook writers who reported on the advance of republican ideas with satisfaction. In a May 1652 issue, the Bordeaux correspondent rejoiced that “the people are extream high for declaring themselves a Commonweal, and this whether the Parliament will or no” (MP, n° 103, 20-27 May 1652). He used the word “commonweal” not only for the sake of clarity with his readers in England, but also because there was a whiff of Englishness attached to it in the contemporary context. The apparent success of the Ormée movement was seen as an encouraging sign that the English republican regime would not only prevail but also be emulated by other nations. The confidence of Mercurius Politicus writers in the propagation of republicanism was further heightened, and their task as Commonwealth propagandists facilitated, by the fact that rebels in Bordeaux were seeking assistance from England:

  • 21  These emissaries were “a Councillor of Parliament called Franquart, a Pewterer called Tausin, a Ge (...)

Here arrived lately the four Deputies from the City of Bordeaux, who were sent thence with intent to have addressed themselves to the Parliament. And notwithstanding the late alteration [i.e. the dissolution of the Rump Parliament], they are departed hence towards London. Its reported, as if that City, and the Province of Guienne (wherein it stands) intended to declare themselves a Free-State; or at least to run any course, rather then come to an Accommodation with the King of France (MP, n° 152, 5-12 May 1653).21

  • 22  For intelligence revealing the English government’s ambiguous attitude towards the Bordeaux rebels (...)
  • 23  Sexby translated the third and last version of the Agreement of the People, produced in May 1649 b (...)

26The next issues of the newsbook mentioned the possibility of a treaty between England and Bordeaux; however, intelligence documents show that the English government was unwilling to supply assistance to the rebels.22 While England had qualms about openly supporting the insurrection for fear of antagonising France altogether, it used other channels to inflame tensions. Thus, in the summer of 1653, an ex-New Model Army officer and Agitator, Colonel Sexby, who was serving as an English intelligence agent in France, was commissioned to Bordeaux to promote the rebellion. Interestingly enough, he translated the Leveller Agreement of the People into French, a document that was to provide the future republic of Bordeaux with a constitutional framework.23 Whether the English government threw its weight wholeheartedly behind this scheme is anybody’s guess. True, Sexby received payment for his intelligence work, but he was a thorn in the side of Commonwealth leaders, in particular Cromwell, who had argued with him bitterly in the Putney debates in 1647 when the issue of an extended franchise was brought up. While Sexby called for a democratic regime based on natural rights, Cromwell had opposed the idea of popular sovereignty, and the fact was that the English Commonwealth took an oligarchic turn almost from the outset. It is unlikely, therefore, that the Council of State devoted much energy to Sexby’s manoeuvring in Bordeaux, except to keep him away from England, although it would certainly have been happy to reap the benefits if the former Army officer had succeeded in undermining the French monarchy. The Commonwealth’s role in the Bordeaux revolt was not clear but, if anything, it was characterised by political expediency rather than a strong commitment to the defence of the republican cause in Guyenne. Mercurius Politicus writers, however, proved to be more enthusiastic in their support of the rebels there than the English government, and expressed bitter disappointment when the red flag, the symbol of the Ormée movement, was taken down from the steeple of the City Hall, and monarchical power was finally restored in France (MP, n° 163, 21-28 July 1653).

27From “those Monkies of Mankind” to the “Brave Bourdelois,” the judgments passed on the French by Mercurius Politicus writers ran the gamut of perceptions and emotions. From cultural prejudices based on stereotypes to political identification with at least one segment of the French population, these authors expressed ambivalent feelings which seemed to reflect the geostrategic uncertainties of the times as well as the Commonwealth’s ambiguous relationships with France. Debates such as the following may well have occurred within government circles: would England lose a commercial rival and gain political stability if it encouraged France’s internecine divisions? But then Spain was another potential destabilising factor for England. Would the Commonwealth as a political regime secure further legitimacy if it exported the English revolution to France? But then there was the possibility that an institutional and aristocratic rebellion, with the parliamentary Fronde first and the Fronde of the Princes following, might actually grow into a people’s revolution which could backfire against England and give hope to those in England who were dissatisfied with Commonwealth policies. Political radicalisation could not be ruled out.

28Mercurius Politicus writers never departed from what they thought was the Commonwealth’s official line. This was not much of a challenge considering the editor himself was a “serial turncoat” (Worden 14) given to shifting allegiances, and his opportunism certainly shaped his journalism. Reports on events in France became less polemical and more neutral as the 1650s edged on, coinciding in fact with the end of the Fronde, the establishment of the Protectorate and the subsequent rapprochement between England and France. The dawn of a new political era in England was more or less contemporaneous with the last bout of revolutionary agitation in Bordeaux in the summer of 1653, after which Anglo-French relationships took a more peaceful turn and Mercurius Politicus authors’ excitement at witnessing a revolution across the Channel wore off. Clearly, the Commonwealth’s realpolitik was given expression in the newsbook’s depiction of the French, England’s much-despised but much-talked about neighbours.

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Primary Sources

Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series (1649-1654).

Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution 1625-1660. Ed. Samuel R. Gardiner. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1906.

Mercurius Politicus, Comprising the Summ of all Inteligence, with the Affairs, and Designs now on foot, in the three Nations of England, Ireland and Scotland. In defence of the Common-wealth, and for Information of the People, June 1650-April 1660.


Secondary Sources

Frank, Joseph. The Beginnings of the English Newspaper 1620-1660. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1961.

Gardiner, Samuel Rawson. History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate 1649-1660. vol. 2. London, New York & Bombay: Longmans, Green & Co., 1897.

Giry-Deloison, Charles. “Le Rôle de l’Angleterre dans les événements de la Fronde bordelaise 1649-1653.” Adhésion et résistances à l’État en France et en Espagne 1620-1660. Ed. Anne-Marie Cocula & Marie Boisson-Gabarron. Bordeaux : PU de Bordeaux, 2001.

Knachel, Philip A. England and the Fronde. The Impact of the English Civil War and Revolution in France. Ithaca, NY : Cornell UP, 1967.

Pastoureau, Michel. Bestiaires du Moyen Âge. Paris : Seuil, 2011.

Ranum, Orest. The Fronde. A French Revolution 1648-1652. New York : Norton, 1993.

Raymond, Joad. The Invention of the Newspaper. English Newsbooks 1641-1649. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.

Vicherd, Christine. “La ‘République’ dans les mazarinades : à propos des événements anglais contemporains de la Fronde.” Monarchie et république au xviie siècle. Ed. Yves-Charles Zarka. Paris: PUF, 2007.

Westrich, Sal. The Ormée of Bordeaux: a Revolution during the Fronde. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1972.

Worden, Blair. Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England: John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Marchamont Nedham. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

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1  This comment, possibly borrowed from Shakespeare’s Henry V (1.2.258-63), refers to an imaginary historical event in 1414 when the French Dauphin allegedly had tennis-balls taken by English ambassadors as gifts to their King, Henry V. Tennis as a game was born in France, hence the condescending references to it in the articles on the troubles in France.

2  Mercurius Politicus (henceforth MP in citations) was one of the official newsbooks of the Interregnum. Like other newspapers of its kind, it was a weekly publication. Its first number was published on 13 June 1650 and its last issue came out on 12 April 1660. It was edited throughout by Marchamont Nedham, who topped it with editorials for over two years. News, both domestic and foreign, was published on sixteen small pages. The newsbook had correspondents overseas, two to three of whom contributed dispatches from France. Although there are no circulation figures, it is estimated that it ran to 2,000 copies, a wide readership by seventeenth-century standards (Frank 206-07). It had reasonably few competitors since a stringent law on censorship was passed in September 1649 that forced a great many newsbooks out of business. Thus, fifteen different newspapers were on sale in early September 1649 while the number fell to five in June 1650 when Mercurius Politicus first came out. Even if censorship was eased in the summer of 1650, thus making it possible for newspapers to enter or reenter the market, the days of free journalism were gone by then. Scholars specialising in the dissemination of news in seventeenth-century England have come to see Civil War newsbooks as bearing upon the literary production of the time as well as underpinning dynamic news networks in Europe. While acknowledging the significance of other historiographical approaches to early modern periodicals, this paper is mostly concerned with the political role played by Mercurius Politicus in the circulation of news and ideas in the early 1650s.

3  Antoine de Bordeaux-Neufville was appointed French agent in London on 2 December 1652, a move that made it possible for diplomatic talks between France and England to resume. On 21 December, France formally recognised the Commonwealth of England. Mazarin ordered Mr de Bordeaux to recognise Cromwell’s Protectorate in February 1654.

4  Dureteste was the man “whose head is to be set upon a stake, and his sentence written underneath, for an example to all those who will imitate him in his rebellion.” He was one of leaders of the Ormée faction (Westrich 129-30).

5  The Commonwealth was established on 19 May 1649 with supreme authority vested in the House of Commons. Cromwell dissolved the Rump Parliament on 20 April 1653 and replaced it with the Nominated Assembly, also known as Barebones Parliament or the Assembly of Saints. He was installed as Lord Protector on 16 December 1653, a few days after the Nominated Assembly had transferred its powers to him. A constitutional document, the Instrument of Government, was drafted, which served as an institutional framework to the Protectorate and ushered in a new era which ended with the 1660 Restoration.

6  Parliament judge Pierre Broussel, who had spoken out against tax rises, was arrested on 26 August 1648. News of the arrest spread fast so that the people of Paris took to the streets almost immediately, erected barricades and demanded the release of Broussel (Ranum 149-60). Rather than a legislative body like the English Parliament, the Paris Parliament was a court of appeal, the most prestigious law court in the kingdom. Its role was also to register royal decrees, which it refused to do when it considered they encroached on ancient liberties. Parliament judges bought their offices, which explained why they were unhappy with Mazarin’s decision to increase the number of these offices.

7  The accords of Saint-Germain-en-Laye were signed in March 1649 by the more moderate Parliament Frondeurs who feared that the popular rebellion in Paris might no longer be kept under control. The execution of Charles i in England may have played a part in this choice.

8  The Princes’ Fronde or princely Fronde began with the unexpected arrest of the Prince of Condé, his brother the Prince Conti and brother-in-law the Duke of Longueville on 18 January 1650 as an act designed by Mazarin to prevent them from intriguing against him (Ranum 271-77).

9  Guyenne or Aquitaine became an English possession when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II of England in 1154. It was annexed by France in 1453.

10  It is not easy to identify the authorial voice in this or other newsbooks. The editorials topping each of the issues of Mercurius Politicus from June 1650 to August 1652 were in all likelihood written by the editor, Marchamont Nedham. He may well have edited the first issues, that is to say collated correspondents’ contributions so that they followed a fairly linear pattern. In later issues, however, the format changed somewhat and correspondents’ dispatches appeared in chronological order, just as in previous numbers, but in the form of unsigned letters. The editor certainly reviewed them before publication but there is no reason to believe that he actually tampered with them. Here and in other occurrences, “authors,” “writers” or “contributors” may refer to the editor himself but more frequently to correspondents in France – whether in Paris or Bordeaux – and, in one case, to a correspondent in the Netherlands.

11  For example, see Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 8, chapter 80. Medieval bestiaries accounted for the alleged similarity between monkeys and human beings by presenting the former as creatures pretending to look like humans and behave like them as they aped their manners. They were actually seen as cunning animals associated with the devil (Pastoureau 86-88) and also as symbols of lust. Such symbolism may well have continued to shape popular lore in the seventeenth century.

12  The arrest of the Princes in January 1650 sparked further unrest in Bordeaux. With the royal army commanded by La Meilleraie standing outside Bordeaux, a peace settlement was negotiated late in September 1650 by the Princes and the King, following which Louis XIV and the Queen Regent made their entry into the city (Ranum 243-47).

13  Henrietta Maria Queen of England escaped to France in June 1644. Prince Charles joined her two years later. He remained in Paris on and off until June 1654 when he and his brother James were forced to leave France as Cromwell’s prerequisite for formal negotiations between his Protectorate and the French monarchy. In the intervening years the royalist faction around Henrietta Maria known as the Louvre group continued to scheme against England.

14  The destructive Thirty Years’ War which had affected the whole of the European Continent had come to an end only months before the establishment of the Commonwealth in England.

15  Also see MP, n°8, 25 July - 1 August 1650; n°10, 8-15 August 1650.

16  The theories of the so-called “Monarchomachs” who, at the turn of the seventeenth century in France and in the British Isles, had opposed absolute monarchy and justified tyrannicide in their writings, continued to influence anti-royalist prose in these revolutionary years.

17  There is evidence in correspondence that Mercurius Politicus was read in Paris, including by French readers. I am grateful to Joad Raymond for this suggestion.

18  Milton’s work, published in Latin in 1651 as Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, was written as a response to Claudius Salmasius’ Defensio pro Carolo i (Royal Defence on behalf of Charles i), a condemnation of the English regicides.

19  Milton defended free speech and the freedom of the press against censorship in his celebrated pamphlet Areopagitica, published in 1644.

20  On 6 December 1648 Colonel Purge prevented Presbyterian MPs from taking their seats in the House of Commons. The Long Parliament henceforth became the Rump Parliament, consisting of around 80 MPs out of a total of 470. The Rump Parliament, in its turn, was dissolved in April 1653.

21  These emissaries were “a Councillor of Parliament called Franquart, a Pewterer called Tausin, a Gentleman called La Cassagne, and another who is a Protestant, who are gone with an Herald bearing the armes of England, as they were when the said Bordeaux was under the dominion of the English” (MP, n°151, 28 April - 5 May 1653). This was not the first time in the early 1650s that agents from South-western France had been commissioned to request assistance from England but, unlike their predecessors who took their orders from Condé, the four emissaries mentioned in these issues of Mercurius Politicus were dispatched by the Ormée. For further details on Bordeaux agents in England see Gardiner, History 154-65.

22  For intelligence revealing the English government’s ambiguous attitude towards the Bordeaux rebels see CSP Domestic, vol. 5, 1652-53, [19/05/1653] 340 & [23/06/1653] 436.

23  Sexby translated the third and last version of the Agreement of the People, produced in May 1649 by the imprisoned Leveller leaders Liburne, Overton, Prince and Walwyn. Unlike the second draft of the document resulting from a compromise between Army Grandees and radicals, the third version clearly emphasised popular sovereignty and ruled out the establishment of a Council of State, while the second version provided that such an executive body should rule the country when Parliament was not sitting. The May 1649 version supplied a democratic alternative to Commonwealth institutions. There is therefore some irony in the fact that Sexby, who was serving as a Commonwealth agent in France, chose to translate just this “radical” version of the document into French, even if the final document mentioned a “Conseil d’Estat” while the original had “Committee” instead, that is to say, a parliamentary committee rather than an executive body. The reason may have been that this was sloppy work completed without serious proofreading intended to meet immediate needs, or that Sexby was somewhat of an uncontrollable individual who never quite renounced his radicalism. He was to write a scurrilous pamphlet against Cromwell a few years later, Killing Noe Murder, in which he made a case for tyrannicide.

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Laurent Curelly, « The French, those Monkies of Mankind”: the Fronde as seen by the newsbook Mercurius Politicus »XVII-XVIII, 69 | 2012, 29-50.

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Laurent Curelly, « The French, those Monkies of Mankind”: the Fronde as seen by the newsbook Mercurius Politicus »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 69 | 2012, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2016, consulté le 09 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurent Curelly

Université de Haute Alsace – Mulhouse

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