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Etienne Marcel

Etienne Marcel



Etienne MarcelThe story of Etienne Marcel is connected chiefly with that document of liberty which in French history approaches nearest to the Magna Charta of England. The difference between the two and their supporters marks the difference between French and English ideas of liberty, just as does the still greater difference between the American and French Revolutions of tile eighteenth century. The French aim at an ideal impracticable at the time, if not forever; the English and their descendants in America are content to secure the utmost which is practicable at the time, and has therefore the greater assurance of continuing in existence.


Of the early life of Etienne Marcel we know nothing; but from 1356 to 1360 he was provost of the merchants of Paris under the reign of John the Good, the unfortunate king who became the captive of Edward III., of England, at Poitiers. The people of Pans, angered at the mismanagement of the government during the king's captivity, demanded the institution of a council of prelates, knights, and burgesses from the several states to assist the Dauphin in the administration of the kingdom. The States of the North responded promptly and met in Paris on October 17, 1356. Etienne Marcel, more aspiring than his colleagues, became the chief leader of the "third estate," which comprised about four hundred persons. The barons and even the bishops could appear only by proxy many of them were prisoners. France was exposed to all the perils of anarchy. The impetuous conduct of the reformers produced the Great Ordinance of 1357. It satisfied the virtuous and peace-loving part of the nation but its sudden sweeping away of old-established forms and usages made many regret the disturbance thus caused. Even many of the third estate refused to follow Marcel and his adherents.


The unstable Dauphin soon seized an opportunity to shake off the yoke which had been imposed on him, and visited many of the provincial towns in order to solicit assistance. His mission was a failure for at the end of six weeks he returned to Paris, and again put himself in the power of Marcel and his party. The times were very critical. There was danger of the restoration of an inefficient government, the renewal of extravagance, the neglect of national defense, and general anarchy. Then Marcel, at a secret meeting with a few of his trusty friends-officers of the city of Paris-decided on bringing about the release of Charles of Navarre, in the hope that his influence might be a counterpoise to that of the regent It was the chief object of Marcel to bring about a reconciliation of the two Charleses. He urged the regent to come to terms with Navarre, and to give to him bis rights, which was promised. Marcel performed this act front a patriotic desire for the relief of the sufferings of France, not seeking self-advancement. But his effort was foredoomed to failure i his instruments being princes in whom no trust could be placed.


Immediately after this, the regent, Charles the Wise, threw off his disguise, assuring the Parisians of his good will, and stating that he was gathering troops to fight their foes. He further accused Marcel and the popular party of keeping for their own use the funds and supplies. At this Marcel grew provoked and all Paris, at the provost's order, rose again to resist the regent. Seeing the importance of the work the capital was trying to do the towns around Paris also took up arms on behalf of their rights, and assumed the civic cap of red and blue, the colors of Paris. Marcel, with some armed citizens entered the Regent's quarters, after calling out the city militia to support him.


He sharply addressed the Regent, and bade him take heed to the business of the country. The Dauphin replied that he would gladly do it, but that he was kept penniless and could not; that those who took the money ought to defend the laws and land, meaning the provost and his party. At this Marcel became enraged, and with his men slew all the marshals who surrounded the prince. The Regent, thinking that his hour was come also, fell on his knees and begged that his life might be spared. Marcel placed the civic cap on his head and ordered him to be without fear. The bodies of the murdered marshals were thrown to the people in the street.


The revolutionist Marcel now became the actual head of the government. He sat as President of the Thirty.six" in Paris, and organized similar bodies to govern the provinces. he also bought the Place de Greve," called the House on Pillars," and there established the headquarters of the municipal government; thus Marcel is the true founder of the Parisian Hotel de Ville, destined to be the scene of many stirring and tragic acts in the later history of the French nation. For a short period only did this government work successfully, as the too rapid revolution of Paris did not command sympathy and secure support throughout France. Nor did other large cities in any number come to Marcel's help; on the contrary, in will broke out; the towns were jealous of the capital the States when they met were jealous of Marcel, and even in Paris factions sprang up against him.


In March, 1358, the Dauphin was named regent of the kingdom. Seizing this opportunity, he escaped from his half captivity and fled from Paris to Meaux. Here he made efforts against Marcel. The provost, with what power he had left fortified Paris, but the Dauphin's army cut off the city supplies. Marcel, seeing growing in will appear, sought help from the outside. He sent for Charles of Navarre, who was no more a friend to Paris than the regent. Between the two princes there was soon made a deal to betray the city into the hands of the royal party. Charles of Navarre consequently refused all offers of Marcel. Paris was now penniless; famine-stricken, the burghers soon grew suspicious; with no soldiers, and having little hold on the citizens, the provost was driven to write and invite the regent to return to Paris and assist him. Almost heart-broken, Marcel received answer that he could not re-enter Paris while the murderer of his marshals lived.


The last and only remaining step for Ute provost to take was to call Charles of Navarre back, and give him entry into the city by night, promising to proclaim him king of France at the Hotel de Ville. To this appeal Charles of Navarre listened. It was at this attempt that one of the sheriff's at St. Antoine, by the name of Mailort, with some partisans, fell on Marcel and killed him. Thus perished this ill-starred attempt to build up France on civic liberties. With it fell Etienne Marcel, a man who, with happier fortunes, might have rescued France from the miseries that were before her.




Four hundred deputies from the good cities, and at their head Etienne Marcel, provost of the merchants, met and constituted the States of the North, on the 17th of October, 1356. A5 the barons were mostly prisoners, they could only appear there by proxy, and so with the bishops. All the power rested with the deputies from the towns, and especially with those from Paris. In the memorable result of the meeting of these States-the Ordinance of the year 1357-the revolutionary spirit, and, at the same time, the administrative genius of the great commune, are striking. The clearness and unity of the views which characterize this act are susceptible of no other explanation. France would have done nothing without Paris.


The States, who at first assembled in the parliament house, and then at the Franciscan convent, nominated a committee of fifty deputies to inquire into the state of the kingdom. They desired "to have further information as to what had become of the immense sums levied on the kingdom in time past by tenths, maltoltes, subsidies and minting of coin and extortions of every kind, with which their folk had been vexed and harassed, and the soldiers ill-paid, and the kingdom badly guarded and defended-but no one could render an account of it.


All that was known was, that there had been monstrous prodigality, malversation, and shock to general credit. When the public distress was at its height, the king had given fifty thousand crowns to one of his knights. Not one of the royal officers had clean hands. The committee gave the dauphin to understand that in full assembly they would demand of him to prosecute his officers, to set the king of Navarre at liberty, and to associate with himself thirty-six deputies of the States, twelve from each order, in the government of the kingdom.


The dauphin could hardly place the kingly power in the hands of the States on this fashion. He adjourned the sitting of the States, alleging letters that he had received from the king and emperor, and then recommended the deputies to return and consult their fellow-townsmen while he would advise with his father.


The States being again assembled on the 5th of February, 1357, Marcel and Robert le Coq. Archbishop of Laon, laid before them a schedule of grievances, and it was resolved that each deputy should communicate the same to the province which sent him and this communication, which was made with exceeding rapidity for that age, especially taking into account the season of the year, occupied no longer than a month. The schedule was handed in to the dauphin on the 3d of March, by Robert le Coq. formerly a lawyer of Paris, and who, having filled the offices of counselor to Philippe de Valois, and president of the parliament, had become bishop duke of Laon, and enjoyed the independence of the great dignitaries of the church. Le Coq. at once the king's man and the commons' man, mediated between the two, and was counselor to both parties. He was likened to the carpenter's twibill, which cuts at both ends. After he had spoken the lord of Pequigny on behalf of the nobles, a lawyer of Divine on behalf of the commons, and Marcel on behalf of the burgesses of Paris, declared their concurrence in all he had just said.


This remonstrance of the States was at once a harangue and a sermon. They began with exhorting the dauphin to fear God, to honor him and his ministers, and to keep his commandments. He was to dismiss evil counselor, and to transact nothing through the medium of the young, simple, and ignorant. He could Dot, he was told, possibly entertain any doubt as to the States expressing the sentiments of the people at large, since the deputies were nearly eight hundred in number, and had advised with the provinces which had sent them. As to what he had been told of the plot of the deputies to make way with his counselors, it was, they assured him, a calumnious falsehood.


They required him to take to assist him in the government of the kingdom, during the intervals of the sittings of the States, thirty-six deputies chosen by the States, twelve from each order i and others were to be sent into the provinces with almost illimitable powers, to condemn without the formality of trial, to borrow, to constrain, to decree, to pay, to chastise the king's officers, to assemble provincial states, etc.


The States voted an aid for the equipment of thirty thousand men-at-arms. But they made the dauphin promise not to levy or expend the aid by his own officers, but by good, prudent, loyal, solvent men, appointed by the three States. A new coinage was to be issued, after the pattern and models in the hands of the provost of the merchants of Paris. No change was to be made in the coin, without the consent of the States.


Truces were not to be entered into or the arriere-ban called out, without their authorization. Every man in France is to provide himself with arms. The nobles are not to quit the kingdom on any pretext. They are to suspend all private war. "To case of infringement of this regulation, the authorities of the place, or, if need be, the good people of the country, do arrest such peace breakers and compel them, by imprisonment and fines, to make peace, and cease to carry on war." Here are the barons subjected to the supervision of the commons. The right of presage is to cease. The collectors may be resisted, and the people assemble against them by summons, or by tolling the bell.


No more gifts out of the royal demesnes; and all such gifts from the days of Philippe-le-Bel to the present time are to be revoked. The dauphin promises to put a stop to all superfluous and voluptuous outlay in his own expenses. He is to exact an oath from his officers that they will ask him for no grants, save in the presence of grand council. One office is to content any individual. The number of officers of justice is to be reduced. Provostsbips and viscounlships are no longer to be farmed out. Provosts, etc., are not to be appointed to the districts in which they were born. No more commissions are to be issued for trials. Criminals are not to be allowed to make composition, but full justice is to be done.


Although one of the principal framers of the ordinance. le Coq. had been an advocate and president of the parliament, it deals severely with magistrates. They arc prohibited from carrying on trade, from entering into understandings with each other, and from encroaching on each others jurisdiction. They are upbraided with their idleness. In some cases their salaries are reduced. These reforms are just; but the language in which they are couched is rude, and its tone bitter and hostile. It is evident that the parliament refused to abet the States and the communes.


The presidents, and other members of the parliament, who sit on courts of inquiry, are to take only forty sous a day. "Many have been wont to take too large a salary, and to use four or five horses, whereas, had it been at their own expense, they would have been contented with two or three." The grand council, the parliament, and the chamber of accounts are accused of negligence. Decrees, which ought to have been pronounced twenty years ago, are still to pronounce. The counselors assemble late, their dinners are long, their afternoons unprofitable. The officers of the chamber of accounts are to swear on God's holy gospels, that they will expedite the causes of the good people well, loyalty and in due order, without keeping them waiting.


The grand council, the parliament, and chamber of accounts, are to meet at sunrise. Those members of the grand council also who shall not be present betimes in the morning, shall lose their day's salary. Notwithstanding their high office, these members are treated unceremoniously by the burgess legislators. This Great Ordinance of 1357, which the dauphin was compelled to sign, was much more than a reform. It effected a sudden change of government. It placed the administrative power ill the hands of the States, and substituted a republic for the monarchy. It gave the supreme authority to the people, while as yet there was no people. To construct a new government in the midst of such a war, was as singularly perilous an operation, as for an army to change its order of battle in the presence of an enemy. The odds were that France would perish in thus putting about.


The ordinance destroyed abuses. But it was all abuses the crown lived. To destroy them was to destroy authority, to dissolve the state, to disarm France.


Did France really enjoy a political personality; could one attribute one common will to it? All that can be affirmed is, that authority seemed to it wholly vested in the crown. It desired only partial reforms. In all probability the ordinance approved by the States was only the work of one commune, of one great and intelligent commune, which spoke in the name of the kingdom at large, but which would be abandoned by the kingdom in the hour of action.


The dauphin's noble counselors, full of baronial contempt for the burgesses, and of provincial jealousy of Paris, instigated their master to resistance. It was March when he signed the ordinance presented to the States and, by the 6th of April, he forbade payment of the aid which the States had voted. On the 8th, on the representations of the provost of the merchants, he revoked this prohibition. Thus the young prince fluctuated between two impulses, following the one today, the other the day after and both, perhaps, sincerely at the time. There was large room for doubt at this obscure crisis. All doubted none paid. The dauphin was left disarmed; the States as well as public authority was defunct there was nor king, nor dauphin, nor States.


Without strength, expiring as it were, and losing all self consciousness, the kingdom lay prone like n corpse. Gangrene had set in, the worms swarmed-by worms, I mean brigands, English and Navarrese. In this general decay and corruption, the members of the poor body fell away from each other. The States General of the kingdom were talked of but there were no longer any States that could be truly termed general: there was nothing general no communication, and no roads to carry it on. The roads were cut-throats; the country, a battle-field, the combat raging in every direction, and no possibility of distinguishing friend from foe.


In the midst of this dissolution of the kingdom, the commune remained living. But how: could the continue live alone, unassisted by the surrounding country? Paris, not knowing where to lay the blame of her distress, accused the States. The dauphin, taking courage, declared that he would govern, and would henceforward dispense with a guardian. The commissioners of the States took their leave. But he was only the more embarrassed. He endeavored to raise a little money by selling offices i but the money did not come. He quieted Paris the country was in flames. There was no town in which he would not risk being carried off by brigands. He returned to hide himself in Paris, and throw himself into the hand of the States.-J. MICHELET.


Etienne Marcel

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