The royal army was the French monarchy’s principal body of armed force in the early modern period. For much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Crown was at war and the army changed notably during this time. It grew tremendously in size and comprised a greater number of native, permanent soldiers. In 1494, Charles VIII invaded Italy with an army of some 20,000 men, composed largely of foreign mercenaries; by 1693, Louis XIV was fielding over 300,000 troops, most of whom were French. The growing importance of gunpowder impacted the units and tactics used by the army: in particular, artillery and infantry became more important at the expense of heavy cavalry. There were also notable developments in the army’s organization and administration. Altogether, by the end of Louis XIV’s reign, the army had a large, permanent core, was staffed by career soldiers and officers, and had a more modern military culture; this stood in marked contrast to the largely impermanent forces fielded by the Crown in the late fifteenth century.
The transformation of the army did not occur, however, in a linear fashion. If anything, military change and major conflicts of this era frequently pushed the royal army to the brink of disintegration. Moreover, the Crown certainly did not construct its new force via a “military revolution,” in which the monarchy imposed a rationalized bureaucracy on the army and broader society as part of a well-considered response to changes in military tactics and strategy. Instead, throughout this period, the effective operation of the army required the cooperation and credit of societal elites. The crucial determinant of military development was whether the Crown was able and willing to create a rationale and structure for military service that benefited both itself and the nobility who staffed the army. Also important was the growth of the French “fiscal-military state”—the Crown’s ability to raise revenues and direct these funds to its army—even if the size and competency of this apparatus was limited in nature, and incomparable to the scope and efficacy of the modern administrative state. Taken together, these were the crucial factors that facilitated the army’s growth and enhanced stability during the increasingly lengthy and resource-intensive warfare of this period.