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Maximilien de Béthune, Duke of Sully

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Maximilien de Béthune, Duke of Sully

Duke of Sully
Maximilien de Béthune
Maximilien de Béthune in 1630.
Chief Minister
In office
2 August 1589 – 29 January 1611
Monarch Henry IV
Succeeded by Nicolas de Neufville
Superintendent of Finances
In office
1600 – 26 January 1611
Monarch Henry IV,
Louis XIII
Preceded by Henry I of Montmorency
(first of a council)
Succeeded by Pierre Jeannin
(first of a council)
Personal details
Born (1559-12-13)13 December 1559
Rosny-sur-Seine, France
Died 22 December 1641(1641-12-22) (aged 82)
Villebon, France
Nationality French
Spouse(s) Anne de Courtenay (m. 1583–89); her death
Rachel de Cochefilet (m. 1592–1641); his death
Children Maximilien,
Parents François de Béthune and Charlotte Dauvet
Alma mater University of Burgundy
Religion Calvinism (Huguenot)
Military service
Allegiance  Kingdom of France
Service/branch Royal Army
Years of service 1576–1598
Rank Marshal of France

French Wars of Religion (1562–1598):

Rohan Wars (1621–1629):

Maximilien de Béthune, 1st Duke of Sully, Marquis of Rosny and Nogent, Count of Muret and Villebon, Viscount of Meaux (13 December 1560 – 22 December 1641) was a nobleman, soldier and statesman, faithful right-hand man who assisted king Henry IV of France in the rule of France. Historians emphasize Sully's role in building a strong centralized administrative system in France using coercion and highly effective new administrative techniques. His policies were not original, and most were reversed. Historians have also studied his neo-Stoicism and his ideas about virtue, prudence, and discipline.[1]


  • Biography 1
    • Early years 1.1
    • A warrior with Henry 1.2
    • Sully in power 1.3
    • Fall from power and last years 1.4
  • Family 2
  • Accomplishments 3
  • Titles 4
  • Legacy 5
  • Sources 6
  • Portraits in fiction 7
  • Further reading 8
  • References 9
  • Ancestry 10


Early years

Maximilien de Béthune

He was born at the Château de Rosny near Mantes-la-Jolie into a branch of the House of Béthune a noble family originating in Artois, and was brought up in the Reformed faith, a Huguenot. In 1571, at the age of eleven, Maximilien was presented to Henry of Navarre and remained permanently attached to the future king of France. The young Baron of Rosny was taken to Paris by his patron and was studying at the Collège de Bourgogne at the time of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, from which he escaped by discreetly carrying a Catholic book of hours under his arm. He studied mathematics and history at the court of Henry of Navarre.[2]

A warrior with Henry

On the outbreak of civil war in 1575, he enlisted in the Protestant army. In 1576, he accompanied the Duke of Anjou, younger brother of king Henri III, on an expedition into the Netherlands in order to regain the former Rosny estates, but being unsuccessful he attached himself for a time to the Prince of Orange. Later, rejoining Henry of Navarre in Guyenne, he displayed bravery in the field and particular ability as a military engineer. In 1583, he was Henry's special agent in Paris, and during a respite in the Wars of Religion he married an heiress who died five years later.[3]

On the renewal of civil war, Rosny again joined Henry of Navarre, and at the battle of Ivry (1590) he was seriously wounded. He counselled Henry IV's conversion to Roman Catholicism but steadfastly refused to become a Catholic himself. Once Henry IV of France's succession to the throne was secured, the faithful and trusted Rosny received his reward in the shape of numerous estates and dignities.[3]

Sully in power

From 1596, when he was added to Henry's finance commission, Rosny introduced some order into France's economic affairs. Acting as sole Superintendent of Finances at the end of 1601, he authorized the free exportation of grain and wine, reduced legal interest, established a special court to try cases of peculation, forbade provincial governors to raise money on their own authority, and otherwise removed many abuses of tax-collecting. Rosny abolished several offices, and by his honest, rigorous conduct of the country's finances, he was able to save between 1600 and 1610 an average of a million livres a year.[3]

His achievements were by no means solely financial. In 1599, he was appointed grand commissioner of highways and public works, superintendent of fortifications and grand master of artillery; in 1602, governor of Nantes and of Jargeau, captain-general of the Queen's gens d'armes and governor of the Bastille; in 1604, he was governor of Poitou; and in 1606, made first duke of Sully and a pair de France, ranking next to princes of the blood. He declined the office of constable of France because he would not become a Roman Catholic.[3]

Statue of Sully at the Palais du Louvre, Paris.

Sully encouraged agriculture, urged the free circulation of produce, promoted stock-raising, forbade the destruction of the forests, drained swamps, built roads and bridges, planned a vast system of canals and actually began the Canal de Briare. He strengthened the French military establishment; under his direction, the construction of a great line of defences on the frontiers began. Abroad, Sully opposed the king's colonial policy as inconsistent with French interests, in opposition to men like Champlain who urged greater colonial efforts in Canada and elsewhere. Neither did Sully show much favor toward industrial pursuits but, on the urgent solicitation of the king, he established a few silk factories. He fought together with Henry IV in Savoy (1600–1601) and negotiated the treaty of peace in 1602; in 1603, he represented Henry at the court of James I of England; and throughout the reign, he helped the king to put down insurrections of the nobles, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. It was Sully, too, who arranged the marriage between Henry IV and Marie de' Medici.[3]

Fall from power and last years

The political role of Sully effectively ended with the assassination of Henry IV on 14 May 1610. Although a member of the Queen's council of regency, his colleagues were not inclined to put up with his domineering leadership, and after a stormy debate he resigned as superintendent of finances on 26 January 1611, retiring into private life.[3]

The queen mother gave him 300,000 livres for his long services and confirmed him in possession of his estates. He attended the meeting of the Estates-General in 1614, and on the whole was in sympathy with the policy and government of Richelieu. He disavowed the Blockade of La Rochelle, in 1621, but in the following year was briefly arrested.[3]

The baton of marshal of France was conferred on him on 18 September 1634. The last years of his life were spent chiefly at Villebon, Rosny and his château of Sully. He died at Villebon at the age of 81.[3]


By his first wife, Anne de Courtenay (died 1589), daughter of François, Lord of Bontin, he had one son, Maximilien, Marquess of Rosny (1587–1634), who led a life of dissipation and debauchery. By his second wife, Rachel de Cochefilet (1566–1659), the widow of François Hurault, Lord of Chateaupers, whom he married in 1592 and who turned Protestant to please him, he had nine children, of whom six died young. Their son François (1598–1678) was created first Duke of Orval. The elder daughter Marguerite (1595-1660) in 1605, married Henri, Duke of Rohan, while the younger Louise in 1620 married Alexandre de Lévis, Marquess of Mirepoix.


Château de Rosny-sur-Seine, the stately home built by Duc de Sully.

Sully was very unpopular because he was a favorite and was seen as selfish, obstinate, and rude. He was hated by most Catholics because he was a Protestant, and by most Protestants because he was faithful to the king. He amassed a large personal fortune, and his jealousy of all other ministers and favorites was extravagant. Nevertheless, he was an excellent man of business, inexorable in punishing malversation and dishonesty on the part of others, and opposed to ruinous court expenditures that was the bane of almost all European monarchies in his day. He was gifted with executive ability, with confidence and resolution, with fondness for work, and above all with deep devotion to his master. He was implicitly trusted by Henry IV and proved himself the most able assistant of the king in dispelling the chaos into which the religious and civil wars had plunged France. After Henry IV, Sully was a major driving force behind the happy transformation in France between 1598 and 1610, in which agriculture and commerce benefitted, and peace and internal order were reestablished.[3]


During his life, Sully inherited or acquired the following titles: Duke of Sully; Peer of France; Marshal of France; Sovereign Prince of Henrichemont & Boisbelle; Marquess of Rosny & of Nogent-le-Béthune; Count of Muret and of Villebon; Viscount of Meaux and of Champrond; Baron of Conti, of Caussade, Montricoux, Montigny, Breteuil & Francastel; Lord of La Falaise, of Las, Vitray, Lalleubellouis & other places.


  • Sully left a collection of memoirs written in the second person very valuable for the history of the time and as an autobiography, in spite of the fact that they contain many fictions, such as a mission undertaken by Sully to Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1601. Perhaps among his most famous works was the idea of a Europe composed of 15 roughly equal states, under the direction of a "Very Christian Council of Europe", charged with resolving differences and disposing of a common army. This famous "Grand Design," a utopian plan for a Christian republic, is often cited as one of the first grand plans and ancestors for the European Union. Two folio volumes of the memoirs were splendidly printed, nominally at Amsterdam, but really under Sully's own eye, at his château of Sully in 1638; two other volumes appeared posthumously in Paris in 1662.[4]
  • The Pavillon Sully (Pavillon de l'Horloge) of the Palais du Louvre is named in honor of the Duc de Sully.
  • In the independent principality of Boisbelle, which he acquired in 1605, he started construction of a capital at Henrichemont.


His ancestry is traced at length and his career more briefly, reproducing original documents, in the monumental Histoire généalogique de la Maison de Béthune by the historian André Duchesne (Paris, 1639)

Portraits in fiction

  • In the 1938 Die Vollendung des Königs Henri Quatre book by Heinrich Mann.[5]

Further reading

  • Buisseret, David. Sully and the growth of centralized government in France, 1598-1610 (1968)


  1. ^ James A. Moncure, ed. Research Guide to European Historical Biography: 1450-Present (4 vol 1992); 4:1812-22
  2. ^ André Duchesne, Histoire généalogique de la Maison de Béthune, Paris, 1639.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Chisholm 1911.
  4. ^ Bogumil Terminski, "The Evolution of The Concept of Perpetual Peace in The History of Political-Legal Thought," Perspectivas Internacionales, 2010, p286
  5. ^ David Roberts, Artistic consciousness and political conscience: the novels of Heinrich Mann, 1900-1938, H. Lang, 1971, p. 223.


Preceded by
Informal Chief Minister to the French Monarch
Succeeded by
Concino Concini
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