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By the beginning of the 17th century, it had become standard practice to present young men of royal or noble descent with toy armies. Some were utilitarian armies such as the wooden soldiers of Flanders produced for King Philip IV of Spain. Others were meticulously crafted brass, silver or gold toys meant as trinkets as much as educational toys.

Such was the case when the Queen of France, Marie de’ Medici, wife of Henry IV, commissioned the silversmith Nicolas Roger to produce 300 silver military figurines for her son Louis. The toy army must have been a god-send for the introverted Dauphin. He had a robust physique, strong enough to keep him in the saddle for days, and in later life would lead several armies in battle. But as a boy he was insecure and a stutterer, traumatised by the murder of his father in 1610 and clearly intimidated by his elevation to the throne at the age of eight. On top of which he despised his overbearing mother and her Italian clique led by Marshall Concino Concini.

When Edward of Cherbury came to pay his respects to the French king on behalf of James I in 1619, he remarked [1] on the young man’s speech impediment:

[…] his words were never many, as being so extream a stutterer that he wou’d sometimes hold his tongue out of his mouth a good while before he cou’d speak so much as one word […]

Court historian Tallemant de Réaux relates [2] that a certain

.. Monsieur d’Alambon was also a heavy stutterer. The King, when he first met him, asked him something with a stutter. As you can imagine, the other responded in kind. [..] And if by-standers hadn’t succeeded in convincing the King that the gentleman was also a stutterer, he might have caused him great harm.

Louis, who as a boy was a bad loser, will have loved his toy army with which he could play in the privacy of his quarters whilst dreaming of the glory that awaited him as soon as he was his own man. For apart from music, dance and hawking, Louis was interested in all things military. At the age of four he had been given a finely crafted musket and bandolier with golden ammunition and he had soon mastered both his musket and the crossbow. He regarded live soldiers as toys and liked to inspect and drill the palace guard dressed in a toy harness.

When he was married to Anne of Austria at the age of fourteen, their wedding-night seems to have been a disaster and the young spouse soon found that His Highness showed a keener interest in his toy army than in her. ‘A monarch and a husband lolling on his couch and playing with his silver soldiers during his queen’s visit, within a few months of marriage, must have damped enthusiasm,’ writes his biographer Katherine Alexandra Patmore [3].

But appearances may deceive, certainly in a young man who under the heavy pressure of opposing palace factions seems to have developed a gift for dissimulation. Three years later Louis had ordered Concini’s murder and pushed his mother aside to assume full control of the realm. In 1620 he proved to be an able commander when he led his troops against the Protestant strong-hold of Saint-Jean-d’Angély, which he conquered and renamed Bourg-Louis.

Louis XIII and Richelieu, victorious at La Rochelle in 1628. Author and date unknown. Source: Sorbonne, Paris

Together with his chancellor and companion, the Cardinal Richelieu, he would inaugurate the remarkable political, economic and military revival of France which was crowned by the achievements of his son Louis XIV – who, by the way, also considerably enlarged his father’s toy army.

[1] The life of Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, written by himself, 1830

[2] Tallemant des Réaux, Les Historiettes, Paris, 1834

[3] K.A. Patmore, The Court of Louis XIII, 1909