The "Grand Design"

The "Grand Design" was a European confederation project that was progressively drawn up by the duc de Sully between the end of Henri IV's reign in 1610 and Sully's own death in 1641. Sully stated on several occasions that it was Henri IV's concept, and although it is likely that Sully and the king discussed the major points, the evidence seems to indicate that the lion's share of the work was done after 1610.

On 26 January 1611, Maximilien de Béthune , the duc de Sully, submitted his resignation to Marie de Médicis, who was acting as regent in the name of her son Louis XIII. Sully had been Henri IV's friend and had loyally served him on the battlefield and in the government, but the king's assassination had changed everything for this Protestant minister. Sully was gradually being marginalised within a government that had become distinctly ultramontanist (i.e. deferential to papal authority) and more closely allied with Spain, and he preferred to simply retire to his estates.

Disappointed and embittered by how his role in restoring France was being ignored, Sully set about drawing up an apologia. In 1638, at the age of 78, he anonymously published the first volume of his memoirs, which passed into posterity with the title Œconomies royales. In it, Sully laid out the structure and goals of the Grand Design, on which he had worked tirelessly for thirty years.

Those goals were nothing less than ambitious, and involved putting an end to the geopolitical imbalance embodied by the Habsburg "superpower", which had been a source of unending conflict since the early 16th century, and thereby bring universal and lasting peace to Europe. Since 1519, when Charles I of Spain was elected Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V, France had been literally surrounded by the possessions of the House of Habsburg, including Aragon, Castile, Milan, the kingdom of Naples, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, not to mention the American colonies. One can easily understand the series of conflicts during this period, ending with the signature of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659.

The aim of Sully's project was to free France from its isolation by proposing a complete redistribution of the European continent's geopolitical landscape. The Grand Design called for bringing the European powers under a single "High Christian Republic" – a sort of 17th-century European Union. The new structure would have six hereditary monarchs (France, Spain, Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden and Lombardy), six elective powers (the Papacy, Venice, the Empire, Poland, Hungary and Bohemia) and three federated republics (Helvetia, Italy and Belgium, along with the Spanish Netherlands).

The Grand Design was a comprehensive project, albeit a utopian one. Sully made provisions for governing institutions – there were to be six individual councils, all under the control of a general council whose job it was to settle differences between sovereigns and their subjects, but also between States. Thus pacificed, Europe could join forces to fight the Turks, who were still a threat despite their defeat at the Battle of Lepanto . The general council would levy troops and direct military operations, and subsequently preside over the division of the spoils.

Although the greater part of the Grand Design was fashioned after Henri IV's death, we can see the king's influence in at least one aspect. Sully called for cohabitation of the three Christian families – Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist – with each group enjoying a full right to worship as it chose. This looks a great deal like the compromise introduced by Henri IV with the Edict of Nantes in 1598.

Related multimedia

Title: Sully's Grand Design

Map of Europe showing "Sully's Grand Design"
Sully's Grand Design. Source: Bernard Barbiche, In: Historia n°652, April 2001

Title: Portrait of the duc de Sully

Portrait of Sully
© RMN / René-Gabriel Odéja
Portrait of the duc de Sully from the painting gallery of the Chateau de Saint-Germain-Beaupré. Painting, French School, 16th c. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Blois

Title: Lettre from Henri IV to François de Savary de Brèves

Lettre from Henri IV to François de Savary de Brèves
© Archives départementales de l'Indre
Lettre from Henri IV to François de Savary de Brèves, ambassador to the Ottoman Court (11 November 1595), coded diplomatic letter. Côte: 49 J 1/62

Title: French publication to use the Oriental typefaces

French publication to use the Oriental typefaces
© Bibliothèque Mazarine / cl. Suzanne Nagy
Title page of the first French publication to use the Oriental typefaces of François Savary de Brèves, Paris, 1615