فصل 31

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فصل 31

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31

AN UNLUCKY KING AND A LUCKY KING The only important country not to join in the fighting of the Thirty Years War was England. Lucky English, you may say. But they too were going through troubled times even if the end, when it came, was not as devastating as it was in Germany. Now you may remember that in 1215 King John of England signed a great Charter of Liberties ­ the Magna Carta ­ in which he made a solemn promise that he and his successors would never act without first consulting the barons and the nobility. For nearly four hundred years English monarchs kept this promise, until one day a new king, Charles I, the grandson of the beheaded Mary Stuart, came to the throne, and he didn’t wish to abide by the agreement. He disliked having to consult the nobility and the elected members of his parliament. He preferred to govern as he pleased, and this cost the country a great deal of money. The English didn’t like it at all. Many of them were strict and zealous Protestants, called Puritans, who had a deep loathing for all forms of wealth and display. A farmer and member of parliament named Oliver Cromwell was their leader in the conflict that

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eventually broke out between Parliament’s supporters and those of the king which split the country in two. (People called Cromwell’s supporters Roundheads because they wore their hair closecropped, unlike the long-haired royalists who were known as Cavaliers.) Cromwell was a deeply religious man and a brave, determined and ruthless commander. His soldiers were well trained and no less ardent than he was. After many battles the king was taken prisoner and brought to trial at Westminster, where he was charged with high treason. He refused to recognise the court and made no effort to defend himself, for he believed that only God could be the judge of the king of England. Charles was sentenced to death, and in 1649 he was beheaded. Oliver Cromwell then ruled England, not as king, but as ‘Lord Protector of the Commonwealth’, as he described himself. And this wasn’t just a title, because it is exactly what he did. Following in Elizabeth’s footsteps he devoted himself to increasing England’s power ­ through her colonies in America and trading settlements in India, and by building a strong fleet and expanding sea trade ­ and did his utmost to weaken England’s Dutch neighbours. After his death, however, kings soon ruled England once again. But government was now less difficult than it had been before and went on becoming easier. And since that time no other English monarch has ever dared break the ancient promises laid down in the Magna Carta. It was easier for the kings of France. There they had no great charter. Moreover, they ruled over a prosperous, well-populated country which was in no danger of collapse, even after the terrible wars of religion. But above all, at the time of the Thirty Years War the real ruler of France had been that formidably gifted minister, Cardinal Richelieu. He achieved at least as much for France as Cromwell did for England ­ if not more. Richelieu had been especially good at winning over the knights and the nobility. Through skill and cunning ­ like a good chess-player who knows how to exploit every move and turn a small advantage into a greater one ­ he gradually reduced their powers until he was able to assume them all himself, including, as you saw, the power of France in Europe. And because he had helped weaken the German emperor

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in the Thirty Years War, and because Spain had been reduced to poverty and Italy dismembered, and because England wasn’t yet very powerful, by the time Richelieu died France was the dominant country in Europe. A year after the cardinal’s death, in 1643, King Louis XIV ascended the throne. He was then four years old and still holds the world record for the length of his reign. He ruled until 1715: that is, for seventy-two years. And what’s more, he really did rule. Not, of course, when he was a child, but as soon as his guardian, Cardinal Mazarin, had died (Mazarin had been Cardinal Richelieu’s successor), he was determined to rule himself. He gave orders that no passport was to be issued to any Frenchman unless he himself had granted it. The court was highly amused, imagining his interest to be no more than a young king’s whim. He would soon tire of ruling. But he didn’t. For to Louis, kingship was no mere accident of birth. It was as if he had been given the leading role in a play which he would have to perform for the rest of his life. No one before or since has ever learnt that role so well, or played it with such dignity and ceremony to the end. All the powers that Richelieu, and later Mazarin, had held, Louis XIV now took upon himself. The nobility had few rights other than that of watching him perform his role. This solemn performance ­ the so-called lever ­ began early, at eight o’clock in the morning, when he deigned to rise. First to enter the bedchamber were the royal princes of the blood together with the chamberlain and the doctor. Then two great curled and powdered wigs, like flowing manes, were ceremoniously extended to him on bended knee. Depending on his inclination, he chose one, and then inserted himself into a magnificent dressing gown, before seating himself beside the bed. Only at this point were the noblemen of highest rank, the dukes, permitted to enter the bedchamber, and while the king was shaved his secretaries, officers and various officials all entered in their turn. After which the doors were thrown wide to admit a host of splendid dignitaries ­ marshals, governors, princes of the Church and royal favourites ­ all there to gaze with admiration upon the solemn spectacle of His Majesty the King getting dressed.

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Everything was regulated down to the last detail. The greatest honour was to be permitted to offer the king his shirt, which had first been carefully warmed. This honour belonged to the king’s brother or, in his absence, to the person next in rank. The chamberlain held one sleeve, a duke the other and the king inserted himself. And so it went on, until the king was fully dressed, in brightly coloured silk stockings, silk knee-breeches, a satin brocade doublet and a sky-blue sash, with his sword at his side, and an embroidered coat and a lace collar which a high official with the title of Guardian of the King’s Collars held out to him on a silver tray. The king then left his bedchamber, plumed hat on his head and cane in hand, smiling and elegant, to make his entry into the Great Hall with a well-turned and courteous greeting for each, while all those around gaped at him with awestruck expressions and declared that today he was more beautiful than the sun god Apollo, stronger than Hercules, hero of the ancient Greeks. He was the God-given sun itself, le Roi Soleil ­ the Sun King ­ on whose warmth and light all life depended. Just like the pharaoh, you might think, for he had been called the Son of the Sun. But there was one big difference. The ancient Egyptians really believed it, while for Louis XIV it was only a sort of game which he and everyone present knew was no more than a ceremonious, well-rehearsed and magnificent performance. In his antechamber after morning prayers the king announced the programme for the day. There then followed many hours of real work which he undertook in order to have personal control over all affairs of state. Apart from this there was a lot of hunting, and there were balls and theatrical productions by great poets and actors which the court enjoyed and which he, too, always attended. Every meal involved a ceremony no less wearisome and solemn than the lever, and even his going to bed was a complicated balletlike production that gave rise to some comical moments. For example, everyone had to bow to the king’s bed, like the faithful before the altar in church, even when the king wasn’t in it. And whenever the king played cards and made conversation there was always a swarm of people standing around him at a respectful distance, hanging on his every word.

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To dress like the king, to carry one’s cane as he did, to wear one’s hat as he did, to sit and move as he did, was the aim of all men at court. And that of the women was to please him. They wore lace collars and ample, rustling robes made of the richest fabrics and were adorned with precious jewels. Life revolved around court and was staged in the most magnificent palaces anyone had ever seen. For palaces were Louis XIV’s great passion. He had one called Versailles built for himself outside Paris. It was almost as big as a town, with an infinite number of rooms covered in gold and damask, and crystal chandeliers, mirrors in their thousands, and furniture that was all gilded curves, upholstered in velvets and silks. The walls were hung with splendid paintings where people could see Louis in many guises. There is one that shows him dressed as Apollo, receiving homage from all the peoples of Europe. Grander still than the palace was its park. Everything about it was magnificent, elaborate and theatrical. No tree might grow as it pleased, no bush retain its natural form. Everything green was clipped, trimmed and shaped into walls of green foliage, curved hedges, vast lawns and spiralling flowerbeds, avenues and circuses, set with statues, lakes and fountains. Forced to live out their lives at court, once-mighty dukes and their ladies strolled up and down white gravel paths, exchanging witty and well-turned phrases on the way the Swedish ambassador had recently performed his bow, and things of that sort. Just think what such a palace and such a way of life must have cost! The king had two hundred servants for himself alone, and that was only the start of it. But Louis XIV had clever ministers, mainly men of humble origin chosen for their outstanding ability. These men were all experts at extracting money from the country. They kept tight control of foreign trade and encouraged France’s own crafts and industry as much as they could. But the true cost fell on the peasants, who were burdened with crippling taxes and duties of all kinds. And while at court people ate off gold and silver dishes, piled high with the choicest delicacies, the peasants ate scraps and weeds.

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But it wasn’t life at court which cost the most. Far more expensive were the wars that Louis XIV kept waging, often with no other purpose than to increase his own power at the expense of the neighbouring states. With his immense and well-equipped army he invaded both Holland and Germany, seizing, for example, Strasbourg from the Germans, without offering any real pretext for his actions. He saw himself as the master of all Europe which, in a sense, he was. All the great men of Europe imitated him. Soon every German prince ­ even those who owned no more than a miserable patch of land ­ had his own gigantic castle in the style of Versailles, with all the gold and damask, the clipped hedges, the men in great wigs, the powdered ladies in voluminous gowns, the courtiers and the flatterers. They tried to imitate him in every way, but there was always something missing. They were what Louis XIV only played at being: somewhat comical puppet-kings, with pompous airs and glittering fancy dress. Louis XIV himself was more than that. And in case you don’t believe me, I’m going to quote something from a letter he wrote to his grandson, when his grandson was leaving to become king of Spain: ‘Never favour those who flatter you most, but hold rather to those who risk your displeasure for your own good. Never neglect business for pleasure, organise your life so that there is time in it for relaxation and entertainment. Give the business of government your full attention. Inform yourself as much as you can before taking any decision. Make every effort to get to know men of distinction, so that you may call on them when you need them. Be courteous to all, speak hurtfully to no man.’ These really were the guiding principles of King Louis XIV of France, that remarkable mixture of vanity, charm, extravagance, dignity, indifference, frivolity and sheer hard work.

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