Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Secret History of an Elective Monarchy.

A Political Sketch.

Poland, once a potent and magnificent kingdom, when it sunk into an elective monarchy, became “venal thrice an age.” That country must have exhibited many a diplomatic scene of intricate intrigue, which although they could not appear in its public, have no doubt been often consigned to its secret, history. With us the corruption of a rotten borough has sometimes exposed the guarded proffer of one party, and the dexterous chaffering of the other: but a masterpiece of diplomatic finesse and political invention, electioneering viewed on the most magnificent scale, with a kingdom to be canvassed, and a crown to be won and lost, or lost and won in the course of a single day, exhibits a political drama, which, for the honour and happiness of mankind, is of rare and strange occurrence. There was one scene in this drama which might appear somewhat too large for an ordinary theatre; the actors apparently were not less than fifty to a hundred thousand; twelve vast tents were raised on an extensive plain, a hundred thousand horses were in the environs — and palatines and castellans, the ecclesiastical orders, with the ambassadors of the royal competitors, all agitated by the ceaseless motion of different factions during the six weeks of the election, and of many preceding months of preconcerted measures and vacillating opinions, now were all solemnly assembled at the diet. — Once the poet, amidst his gigantic conception of a scene, resolved to leave it out:

So vast a throng the stage can ne’er contain —

Then build a new, or act it in a plain!

exclaimed “La Mancha’s knight,” kindling at a scene so novel and so vast!

Such an electioneering negotiation, the only one I am acquainted with, is opened in the “Discours” of Choisin, the secretary of Montluc, Bishop of Valence, the confidential agent of Catharine de’ Medici, and who was sent to intrigue at the Polish diet, to obtain the crown of Poland for her son the Duke of Anjou, afterwards Henry the Third. This bold enterprise at first seemed hopeless, and in its progress encountered growing obstructions; but Montluc was one of the most finished diplomatists that the genius of the Gallic cabinet ever sent forth. He was nicknamed in all the courts of Europe, from the circumstance of his limping, “le Boiteux;” our political bishop was in cabinet intrigues the Talleyrand of his age, and sixteen embassies to Italy, Germany, England, Scotland, and Turkey, had made this “connoisseur en hommes” an extraordinary politician!

Catharine de’ Medici was infatuated with the dreams of judicial astrology; her pensioned oracles had declared that she should live to see each of her sons crowned, by which prediction probably they had only purposed to flatter her pride and her love of dominion. They, however, ended in terrifying the credulous queen; and she, dreading to witness a throne in France, disputed perhaps by fratricides, anxiously sought a separate crown for each of her three sons. She had been trifled with in her earnest negotiations with our Elizabeth; twice had she seen herself baffled in her views in the Dukes of Alençon and of Anjou. Catharine then projected a new empire for Anjou, by incorporating into one kingdom Algiers, Corsica, and Sardinia; but the other despot, he of Constantinople, Selim the Second, dissipated the brilliant speculation of our female Machiavel. Charles the Ninth was sickly, jealous, and desirous of removing from the court the Duke of Anjou, whom two victories had made popular, though he afterwards sunk into a Sardanapalus. Montluc penetrated into the secret wishes of Catharine and Charles, and suggested to them the possibility of encircling the brows of Anjou with the diadem of Poland, the Polish monarch then being in a state of visible decline. The project was approved; and, like a profound politician, the bishop prepared for an event which might be remote, and always problematical, by sending into Poland a natural son of his, Balagny, as a disguised agent; his youth, his humble rank, and his love of pleasure, would not create any alarm among the neighbouring powers, who were alike on the watch to snatch the expected spoil; but as it was necessary to have a more dexterous politician behind the curtain, he recommended his secretary, Choisnin, as a travelling tutor to a youth who appeared to want one.

Balagny proceeded to Poland, where, under the veil of dissipation, and in the midst of splendid festivities, with his trusty adjutant, this hair-brained boy of revelry began to weave those intrigues which were afterwards to be knotted, or untied, by Montluc himself. He had contrived to be so little suspected, that the agent of the emperor had often disclosed important secrets to his young and amiable friend. On the death of Sigismond Augustus, Balagny, leaving Choisnin behind to trumpet forth the virtues of Anjou, hastened to Paris to give an account of all which he had seen or heard. But poor Choisnin found himself in a dilemma among those who had so long listened to his panegyrics on the humanity and meek character of the Duke of Anjou; for the news of St. Bartholomew’s massacre had travelled faster than the post; and Choisnin complains that he was now treated as an impudent liar, and the French prince as a monster. In vain he assured them that the whole was an exaggerated account, a mere insurrection of the people, or the effects of a few private enmities, praying the indignant Poles to suspend their decision till the bishop came: “Attendez le Boiteux!” cried he, in agony.

Meanwhile, at Paris, the choice of a proper person for this embassy had been difficult to settle. It was a business of intrigue more than of form, and required an orator to make speeches and addresses in a sort of popular assembly; for though the people, indeed, had no concern in the diet, yet the greater and the lesser nobles and gentlemen, all electors, were reckoned at one hundred thousand. It was supposed that a lawyer who could negotiate in good Latin, and one, as the French proverb runs, who could aller et parler, would more effectually puzzle their heads, and satisfy their consciences to vote for his client. Catharine at last fixed on Montluc himself, from the superstitious prejudice, which, however, in this case accorded with philosophical experience, that “Montluc had ever been lucky in his negotiations.”

Montluc hastened his departure from Paris; and it appears that our political bishop had, by his skilful penetration into the French cabinet, foreseen the horrible catastrophe which occurred very shortly after he had left it; for he had warned the Count de Rochefoucault to absent himself; but this lord, like so many others, had no suspicions of the perfidious projects of Catharine and her cabinet. Montluc, however, had not long been on his journey ere the news reached him, and it occasioned innumerable obstacles in his progress, which even his sagacity had not calculated on. At Strasburgh he had appointed to meet some able coadjutors, among whom was the famous Joseph Scaliger; but they were so terrified by Les Matinées Parisiennes, that Scaliger flew to Geneva, and would not budge out of that safe corner: and the others ran home, not imagining that Montluc would venture to pass through Germany, where the protestant indignation had made the roads too hot for a catholic bishop. But Montluc had set his cast on the die. He had already passed through several hair-breadth escapes from the stratagems of the Guise faction, who more than once attempted to hang or drown the bishop, who, they cried out, was a Calvinist; the fears and jealousies of the Guises had been roused by this political mission. Among all these troubles and delays, Montluc was most affected by the rumour that the election was on the point of being made, and that the plague was universal throughout Poland, so that he must have felt that he might be too late for the one, and too early for the other.

At last Montluc arrived, and found that the whole weight of this negotiation was to fall on his single shoulders; and further, that he was to sleep every night on a pillow of thorns. Our bishop had not only to allay the ferment of the popular spirit of the evangelicals, as the protestants were then called, but even of the more rational catholics of Poland. He had also to face those haughty and feudal lords, of whom each considered himself the equal of the sovereign whom he created, and whose avowed principle was, and many were incorrupt, that their choice of a sovereign should be regulated solely by the public interest; and it was hardly to be expected that the emperor, the czar, and the King of Sweden would prove unsuccessful rivals to the cruel, and voluptuous, and bigoted duke of Anjou, whose political interests were too remote and novel to have raised any faction among these independent Poles.

The crafty politician had the art of dressing himself up in all the winning charms of candour and loyalty; a sweet flow of honeyed words melted on his lips, while his heart, cold and immovable as a rock, stood unchanged amidst the most unforeseen difficulties.

The emperor had set to work the Abbé Cyre in a sort of ambiguous character, an envoy for the nonce, to be acknowledged or disavowed as was convenient; and by his activity he obtained considerable influence among the Lithuanians, the Wallachians, and nearly all Prussia, in favour of the Archduke Ernest. Two Bohemians, who had the advantage of speaking the Polish language, had arrived with a state and magnificence becoming kings rather than ambassadors. The Muscovite had written letters full of golden promises to the nobility, and was supported by a palatine of high character; a perpetual peace between two such great neighbours was too inviting a project not to find advocates; and this party, Choisnin observes, appeared at first the most to be feared. The King of Sweden was a close neighbour, who had married the sister of their late sovereign, and his son urged his family claims as superior to those of foreigners. Among these parties was a patriotic one, who were desirous of a Pole for their monarch; a king of their fatherland, speaking their mother-tongue, one who would not strike at the independence of his country, but preserve its integrity from the stranger. This popular party was even agreeable to several of the foreign powers themselves, who did not like to see a rival power strengthening itself by so strict a union with Poland; but in this choice of a sovereign from among themselves, there were at least thirty lords who equally thought that they were the proper wood of which kings should be carved out. The Poles therefore could not agree on the Pole who deserved to be a Piaste; an endearing title for a native monarch, which originated in the name of the family of the Piastis, who had reigned happily over the Polish people for the space of five centuries! The remembrance of their virtues existed in the minds of the honest Poles in this affectionate title, and their party were called the Piastis.

Montluc had been deprived of the assistance he had depended on from many able persons, whom the massacre of St. Bartholomew had frightened away from every French political connexion. He found that he had himself only to depend on. We are told that he was not provided with the usual means which are considered most efficient in elections, nor possessed the interest nor the splendour of his powerful competitors: he was to derive all his resources from diplomatic finesse. The various ambassadors had fixed and distant residences, that they might not hold too close an intercourse with the Polish nobles. Of all things, he was desirous to obtain an easy access to these chiefs, that he might observe, and that they might listen. He who would seduce by his own ingenuity must come in contact with the object he would corrupt. Yet Montluc persisted in not approaching them without being sought after, which answered his purpose in the end. One favourite argument which our Talleyrand had set afloat, was to show that all the benefits which the different competitors had promised to the Poles were accompanied by other circumstances which could not fail to be ruinous to the country: while the offer of his master, whose interests were remote, could not be adverse to those of the Polish nation: so that much good might be expected from him, without any fear of accompanying evil. Montluc procured a clever Frenchman to be the bearer of his first despatch, in Latin, to the diet; which had hardly assembled, ere suspicions and jealousies were already breaking out. The emperor’s ambassadors had offended the pride of the Polish nobles by travelling about the country without leave, and resorting to the infanta; and besides, in some intercepted letters the Polish nation was designated as gens barbara et gens inepta. “I do not think that the said letter was really written by the said ambassadors, who were statesmen too politic to employ such unguarded language,” very ingeniously writes the secretary of Montluc.

However, it was a blow levelled at the imperial ambassadors; while the letter of the French bishop, composed “in a humble and modest style,” began to melt their proud spirits, and two thousand copies of the French bishop’s letter were eagerly spread.

“But this good fortune did not last more than four-and twenty hours,” mournfully writes our honest secretary; “for suddenly the news of the fatal day of St. Bartholomew arrived, and every Frenchman was detested.”

Montluc, in this distress, published an apology for les Matinées Parisiennes, which he reduced to some excesses of the people, the result of a conspiracy plotted by the protestants; and he adroitly introduced as a personage his master Anjou, declaring that “he scorned to oppress a party whom he had so often conquered with sword in hand.” This pamphlet, which still exists, must have cost the good bishop some invention; but in elections the lie of the moment serves a purpose; and although Montluc was in due time bitterly recriminated on, still the apology served to divide public opinion.

Montluc was a whole cabinet to himself: he dispersed another tract in the character of a Polish gentleman, in which the French interests were urged by such arguments, that the leading chiefs never met without disputing; and Montluc now found that he had succeeded in creating a French party. The Austrian then employed a real Polish gentleman to write for his party; but this was too genuine a production, for the writer wrote too much in earnest; and in politics we must not be in a passion.

The mutual jealousies of each party assisted the views of our negotiator; they would side with him against each other. The archduke and the czar opposed the Turk; the Muscovite could not endure that Sweden should be aggrandised by this new crown; and Denmark was still more uneasy. Montluc had discovered how every party had its vulnerable point, by which it could be managed. The cards had now got fairly shuffled, and he depended on his usual good play.

Our bishop got hold of a palatine to write for the French cause in the vernacular tongue; and appears to have held a more mysterious intercourse with another palatine, Albert Lasky. Mutual accusations were made in the open diet: the Poles accused some Lithuanian lords of having contracted certain engagements with the czar; these in return accused the Poles, and particularly this Lasky, with being corrupted by the gold of France. Another circumstance afterwards arose; the Spanish ambassador had forty thousand thalers sent to him, but which never passed the frontiers, as this fresh supply arrived too late for the election. “I believe,” writes our secretary with great simplicity, “that this money was only designed to distribute among the trumpeters and the tabourines.” The usual expedient in contested elections was now evidently introduced; our secretary acknowledging that Montluc daily acquired new supporters, because he did not attempt to gain them over merely by promises — resting his whole cause on this argument, that the interest of the nation was concerned in the French election.

Still would ill fortune cross our crafty politician when everything was proceeding smoothly. The massacre was refreshed with more damning particulars; some letters were forged, and others were but too true; all parties, with rival intrepidity, were carrying on a complete scene of deception. A rumour spread that the French king disavowed his accredited agent, and apologised to the emperor for having yielded to the importunities of a political speculator, whom he was now resolved to recall. This somewhat paralysed the exertions of those palatines who had involved themselves in the intrigues of Montluc, who was now forced patiently to wait for the arrival of a courier with renewed testimonials of his diplomatic character from the French court. A great odium was cast on the French in the course of this negotiation by a distribution of prints, which exposed the most inventive cruelties practised by the Catholics on the Reformed; such as women cleaved in half in the act of attempting to snatch their children from their butchers; while Charles the Ninth and the Duke of Anjou were hideously represented in their persons, and as spectators of such horrid tragedies, with words written in labels, complaining that the executioners were not zealous enough in this holy work. These prints, accompanied by libels and by horrid narratives, inflamed the popular indignation, and more particularly the women, who were affected to tears, as if these horrid scenes had been passing before their eyes.

Montluc replied to the libels as fast as they appeared, while he skilfully introduced the most elaborate panegyrics on the Duke of Anjou; and in return for the caricatures, he distributed two portraits of the king and the duke, to show the ladies, if not the diet, that neither of these princes had such ferocious and inhuman faces. Such are the small means by which the politician condescends to work his great designs; and the very means by which his enemies thought they should ruin his cause, Montluc adroitly turned to his own advantage. Anything of instant occurrence serves electioneering purposes, and Montluc eagerly seized this favourable occasion to exhaust his imagination on an ideal sovereign, and to hazard, with address, anecdotes, whose authenticity he could never have proved, till he perplexed even unwilling minds to be uncertain whether that intolerant and inhuman duke was not the most heroic and most merciful of princes. It is probable that the Frenchman abused even the license of the French éloge, for a noble Pole told Montluc that he was always amplifying his duke with such ideal greatness, and attributing to him such immaculate purity of sentiment, that it was inferred there was no man in Poland who could possibly equal him; and that his declaration, that the duke was not desirous of reigning over Poland to possess the wealth and grandeur of the kingdom, and that he was solely ambitious of the honour to be the head of such a great and virtuous nobility, had offended many lords, who did not believe that the duke sought the Polish crown merely to be the sovereign of a virtuous people.

These Polish statesmen appear, indeed, to have been more enlightened than the subtle politician perhaps calculated on; for when Montluc was over anxious to exculpate the Duke of Anjou from having been an actor in the Parisian massacre, a noble Pole observed, “That he need not lose his time at framing any apologies; for if he could prove that it was the interest of the country that the duke ought to be elected their king, it was all that was required. His cruelty, were it true, would be no reason to prevent his election, for we have nothing to dread from it: once in our kingdom, he will have more reason to fear us than we him, should he ever attempt our lives, our property, or our liberty.”

Another Polish lord, whose scruples were as pious as his patriotism was suspicious, however observed that, in his conferences with the French bishop, the bishop had never once mentioned God, whom all parties ought to implore to touch the hearts of the electors in the choice of God’s “anointed.” Montluc might have felt himself unexpectedly embarrassed at the religious scruples of this lord, but the politician was never at a fault. “Speaking to a man of letters, as his lordship was,” replied the French bishop, “it was not for him to remind his lordship what he so well knew; but since he had touched on the subject, he would, however, say, that were a sick man desirous of having a physician, the friend who undertook to procure one would not do his duty should he say it was necessary to call in one whom God had chosen to restore his health; but another who should say that the most learned and skilful is he whom God has chosen, would be doing the best for the patient, and evince most judgment. By a parity of reason we must believe that God will not send an angel to point out the man whom he would have his anointed; sufficient for us that God has given us a knowledge of the requisites of a good king; and if the Polish gentlemen choose such a sovereign, it will be him whom God has chosen.” This shrewd argument delighted the Polish lord, who repeated the story in different companies, to the honour of the bishop. “And in this manner,” adds the secretary with great naïveté, “did the sieur, strengthened by good arguments, divulge his opinions, which were received by many, and run from hand to hand.”

Montluc had his inferior manœuvres. He had to equipoise the opposite interests of the Catholics and the Evangelists, or the Reformed: it was mingling fire and water without suffering them to hiss, or to extinguish one another. When the imperial ambassadors gave fêtes to the higher nobility only, they consequently offended the lesser. The Frenchman gave no banquets, but his house was open to all at all times, who were equally welcome. “You will see that the fêtes of the imperialists will do them more harm than good,” observed Montluc to his secretary.

Having gained over by every possible contrivance a number of the Polish nobles, and showered his courtesies on those of the inferior orders, at length the critical moment approached, and the finishing hand was to be put to the work. Poland, with the appearance of a popular government, was a singular aristocracy of a hundred thousand electors, consisting of the higher and the lower nobility, and the gentry; the people had no concern with the government. Yet still it was to be treated by the politician as a popular government, where those who possessed the greatest influence over such large assemblies were orators, and he who delivered himself with the most fluency and the most pertinent arguments would infallibly bend every heart to the point he wished. The French bishop depended greatly on the effect which his oration was to produce when the ambassadors were respectively to be heard before the assembled diet; the great and concluding act of so many tedious and difficult negotiations —“which had cost my master,” writes the ingenuous secretary, “six months’ daily and nightly labours; he had never been assisted or comforted by any but his poor servants, and in the course of these six months had written ten reams of paper, a thing which for forty years he had not used himself to.”

Every ambassador was now to deliver an oration before the assembled electors, and thirty-two copies were to be printed, to present one to each palatine, who in his turn was to communicate it to his lords. But a fresh difficulty occurred to the French negotiator; as he trusted greatly to his address influencing the multitude, and creating a popular opinion in his favour, he regretted to find that the imperial ambassador would deliver his speech in the Bohemian language, so that he would be understood by the greater part of the assembly; a considerable advantage over Montluc, who could only address them in Latin. The inventive genius of the French bishop resolved on two things which had never before been practised: first, to have his Latin translated into the vernacular idiom; and, secondly, to print an edition of fifteen hundred copies in both languages, and thus to obtain a vast advantage over the other ambassadors, with their thirty-two manuscript copies, of which each copy was used to be read to 1200 persons. The great difficulty was to get it secretly translated and printed. This fell to the management of Choisnin, the secretary. He set off to the castle of the palatine, Solikotski, who was deep in the French interest; Solikotski despatched the version in six days. Hastening with the precious MS. to Cracow, Choisnin flew to a trusty printer, with whom he was connected; the sheets were deposited every night at Choisnin’s lodgings, and at the end of a fortnight the diligent secretary conducted the 1500 copies in secret triumph to Warsaw.

Yet this glorious labour was not ended; Montluc was in no haste to deliver his wonder-working oration, on which the fate of a crown seemed to depend. When his turn came to be heard, he suddenly fell sick; the fact was, that he wished to speak last, which would give him the advantage of replying to any objection raised by his rivals, and admit also of an attack on their weak points.

He contrived to obtain copies of their harangues, and discovered five points which struck at the French interest. Our poor bishop had now to sit up through the night to re-write five leaves of his printed oration, and cancel five which had been printed; and worse! he had to get them by heart, and to have them translated and inserted, by employing twenty scribes day and night. “It is scarcely credible what my master went through about this time,” saith the historian of his “gestes.”

The council or diet was held in a vast plain. Twelve pavilions were raised to receive the Polish nobility and the ambassadors. One of a circular form was supported by a single mast, and was large enough to contain 6000 persons, without any one approaching the mast nearer than by twenty steps, leaving this space void to preserve silence; the different orders were placed around; the archbishop and the bishops, the palatines, the castellans, each according to their rank. During the six weeks of the sittings of the diet, 100,000 horses were in the environs, yet forage and every sort of provisions abounded. There were no disturbances, not a single quarrel occurred, although there wanted not in that meeting for enmities of long standing. It was strange, and even awful, to view such a mighty assembly preserving the greatest order, and every one seriously intent on this solemn occasion.

At length the elaborate oration was delivered: it lasted three hours, and Choisnin assures us not a single auditor felt weary. “A cry of joy broke out from the tent, and was re-echoed through the plain, when Montluc ceased: it was a public acclamation; and had the election been fixed for that moment, when all hearts were warm, surely the duke had been chosen without a dissenting voice.” Thus writes, in rapture, the ingenuous secretary; and in the spirit of the times communicates a delightful augury attending this speech, by which evidently was foreseen its happy termination. “Those who disdain all things will take this to be a mere invention of mine,” says honest Choisnin: “but true it is, that while the said sieur delivered his harangue, a lark was seen all the while upon the mast of the pavilion, singing and warbling, which was remarked by a great number of lords, because the lark is accustomed only to rest itself on the earth: the most impartial confessed this to be a good augury.1 Also it was observed, that when the other ambassadors were speaking, a hare, and at another time a hog, ran through the tent; and when the Swedish ambassador spoke, the great tent fell half-way down. This lark singing all the while did no little good to our cause; for many of the nobles and gentry noticed this curious particularity, because when a thing which does not commonly happen occurs in a public affair, such appearances give rise to hopes either of good or of evil.”

The singing of this lark in favour of the Duke of Anjou is not so evident as the cunning trick of the other French agent, the political Bishop of Valence, who now reaped the full advantage of his 1500 copies over the thirty-two of his rivals. Every one had the French one in hand, or read it to his friends; while the others, in manuscript, were confined to a very narrow circle.

The period from the 10th of April to the 6th of May, when they proceeded to the election, proved to be an interval of infinite perplexities, troubles, and activity; it is probable that the secret history of this period of the negotiations was never written. The other ambassadors were for protracting the election, perceiving the French interest prevalent: but delay would not serve the purpose of Montluc, he not being so well provided with friends and means on the spot as the others were. The public opinion which he had succeeded in creating, by some unforeseen circumstance might change.

During this interval, the bishop had to put several agents of the other parties hors de combat. He got rid of a formidable adversary in the Cardinal Commendon, an agent of the pope’s, whom he proved ought not to be present at the election, and the cardinal was ordered to take his departure. A bullying colonel was set upon the French negotiator, and went about from tent to tent with a list of the debts of the Duke of Anjou, to show that the nation could expect nothing profitable from a ruined spendthrift. The page of a Polish count flew to Montluc for protection, entreating permission to accompany the bishop on his return to Paris. The servants of the count pursued the page; but this young gentleman had so insinuated himself into the favour of the bishop, that he was suffered to remain. The next day the page desired Montluc would grant him the full liberty of his religion, being an evangelical, that he might communicate this to his friends, and thus fix them to the French party. Montluc was too penetrating for this young political agent, whom he discovered to be a spy, and the pursuit of his fellows to have been a farce; he sent the page back to his master, the evangelical count, observing that such tricks were too gross to be played on one who had managed affairs in all the courts of Europe before he came into Poland.

Another alarm was raised by a letter from the grand vizier of Selim the Second, addressed to the diet, in which he requested that they would either choose a king from among themselves, or elect the brother of the King of France. Some zealous Frenchman at the Sublime Porte had officiously procured this recommendation from the enemy of Christianity; but an alliance with Mahometanism did no service to Montluc, either with the catholics or the evangelicals. The bishop was in despair, and thought that his handiwork of six months’ toil and trouble was to be shook into pieces in an hour. Montluc, being shown the letter, instantly insisted that it was a forgery, designed to injure his master the duke. The letter was attended by some suspicious circumstances; and the French bishop, quick at expedients, snatched at an advantage which the politician knows how to lay hold of in the chapter of accidents. “The letter was not sealed with the golden seal, nor enclosed in a silken purse or cloth of gold; and farther, if they examined the translation,” he said, “they would find that it was not written on Turkish paper.” This was a piece of the sieur’s good fortune, for the letter was not forged; but owing to the circumstance that the Boyar of Wallachia had taken out the letter to send a translation with it, which the vizier had omitted, it arrived without its usual accompaniments; and the courier, when inquired after, was kept out of the way: so that, in a few days, nothing more was heard of the great vizier’s letter. “Such was our fortunate escape,” says the secretary, “from the friendly but fatal interference of the sultan, than which the sieur dreaded nothing so much.”

Many secret agents of the different powers were spinning their dark intrigues; and often, when discovered or disconcerted, the creatures were again at their “dirty work.” These agents were conveniently disavowed or acknowledged by their employers. The Abbé Cyre was an active agent of the emperor’s, and though not publicly accredited, was still hovering about. In Lithuania he had contrived matters so well as to have gained over that important province for the archduke; and was passing through Prussia to hasten to communicate with the emperor, but “some honest men,” quelques bons personnages, says the French secretary, and no doubt some good friends of his master, “took him by surprise, and laid him up safely in the castle of Marienburgh, where truly he was a little uncivilly used by the soldiers, who rifled his portmanteau and sent us his papers, when we discovered all his foul practices.” The emperor, it seems, was angry at the arrest of his secret agent; but as no one had the power of releasing the Abbé Cyre at that moment, what with receiving remonstrances and furnishing replies, the time passed away, and a very troublesome adversary was in safe custody during the election. The dissensions between the catholics and the evangelicals were always on the point of breaking out; but Montluc succeeded in quieting these inveterate parties by terrifying their imaginations with sanguinary civil wars, and invasions of the Turks and the Tartars. He satisfied the catholics with the hope that time would put an end to heresy, and the evangelicals were glad to obtain a truce from persecution. The day before the election Montluc found himself so confident, that he despatched a courier to the French court, and expressed himself in the true style of a speculative politician, that des douze tables du Damier nous en avons les Neufs assurés.

There were preludes to the election; and the first was probably in acquiescence with a saturnalian humour prevalent in some countries, where the lower orders are only allowed to indulge their taste for the mockery of the great at stated times and on fixed occasions. A droll scene of a mock election, as well as combat, took place between the numerous Polish pages, who, saith the grave secretary, are still more mischievous than our own: these elected among themselves four competitors, made a senate to burlesque the diet, and went to loggerheads. Those who represented the archduke were well beaten, the Swede was hunted down, and for the Piastis, they seized on a cart belonging to a gentleman, laden with provisions, broke it to pieces, and burnt the axle-tree, which in that country is called a piasti, and cried out The Piasti is burnt! nor could the senators at the diet that day command any order or silence. The French party wore white handkerchiefs in their hats, and they were so numerous as to defeat the others.

The next day, however, opened a different scene; “the nobles prepared to deliberate, and each palatine in his quarters was with his companions on their knees, and many with tears in their eyes, chanting a hymn to the Holy Ghost; it must be confessed that this looked like a work of God,” says our secretary, who probably understood the manœuvring of the mock combat, or the mock prayers, much better than we may. Everything tells at an election, burlesque or solemnity!

The election took place, and the Duke of Anjou was proclaimed King of Poland — but the troubles of Montluc did not terminate. When they presented certain articles for his signature, the bishop discovered that these had undergone material alterations from the proposals submitted to him before the proclamation; these alterations referred to a disavowal of the Parisian massacre; the punishment of its authors, and toleration in religion. Montluc refused to sign, and cross-examined his Polish friends about the original proposals; one party agreed that some things had been changed, but that they were too trivial to lose a crown for; others declared that the alterations were necessary to allay the fears, or secure the safety, of the people. Our Gallic diplomatist was outwitted, and after all his intrigues and cunning, he found that the crown of Poland was only to be delivered on conditional terms.

In this dilemma, with a crown depending on a stroke of his pen — remonstrating, entreating, arguing, and still delaying, like “Ancient Pistol” swallowing his leek, he witnessed with alarm some preparations for a new election, and his rivals on the watch with their protests. Montluc, in despair, signed the conditions —“assured, however,” says the secretary, who groans over this finale, “that when the elected monarch should arrive, the states would easily be induced to correct them, and place things in statu quo, as before the proclamation. I was not a witness, being then despatched to Paris with the joyful news, but I heard that the sieur evesque it was thought would have died in this agony, of being reduced to the hard necessity either to sign, or to lose the fruits of his labours. The conditions were afterwards for a long while disputed in France.” De Thou informs us, in lib. lvii. of his history, that Montluc after signing these conditions wrote to his master, that he was not bound by them, because they did not concern Poland in general, and that they had compelled him to sign, what at the same time he had informed them his instructions did not authorise. Such was the true Jesuitic conduct of a grey-haired politician, who at length found that honest plain sense could embarrass and finally entrap the creature of the cabinet, the artificial genius of diplomatic finesse.

The secretary, however, views nothing but his master’s glory in the issue of this most difficult negotiation; and the triumph of Anjou over the youthful archduke, whom the Poles might have moulded to their will, and over the King of Sweden, who claimed the crown by his queen’s side, and had offered to unite his part of Livonia with that which the Poles possessed. He labours hard to prove that the palatines and the castellans were not pratiqués, i.e., had their votes bought up by Montluc, as was reported; from their number and their opposite interests, he confesses that the sieur evesque slept little, while in Poland, and that he only gained over the hearts of men by that natural gift of God which acquired him the title of the happy ambassador. He rather seems to regret that France was not prodigal of her purchase-money, than to affirm that all palatines were alike scrupulous of their honour.

One more fact may close this political sketch; a lesson of the nature of court gratitude! The French court affected to receive Choisnin with favour, but their suppressed discontent was reserved for “the happy ambassador!” Affairs had changed; Charles the Ninth was dying, and Catharine de’ Medici in despair for a son to whom she had sacrificed all; while Anjou, already immersed in the wantonness of youth and pleasure, considered his elevation to the throne of Poland as an exile which separated him from his depraved enjoyments! Montluc was rewarded only by incurring disgrace; Catharine de’ Medici and the Duke of Anjou now looked coldly on him, and expressed their dislike of his successful mission. “The mother of kings,” as Choisnin designates Catharine de’ Medici, to whom he addresses his memoirs, with the hope of awakening her recollections of the zeal, the genius, and the success of his old master, had no longer any use for her favourite; and Montluc found, as the commentator of Choisnin expresses in a few words, an important truth in political morality, that “at court the interest of the moment is the measure of its affections and its hatreds.”2

1 Our honest secretary reminds me of a passage in Geoffrey of Monmouth, who says, “At this place an eagle spoke while the wall of the town was building; and indeed I should not have failed transmitting the speech to posterity had I thought it true as the rest of the history.”

2 I have drawn up this article, for the curiosity of its subject and its details, from the “Discours au vray de tout ce qui s’est fait et passé pour l’entière Négociation de l’Election du Roi de Pologne, divisés en trois livres, par Jehan Choisnin du Chatelleraud, naguères Secrétaire de M. l’Evesque de Valence,” 1574.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53