Cardinal de Richelieu

Cardinal de Richelieu

Armand-Jean du Plessis, duc de Richelieu, was a French noble, clergyman, and statesman instrumental in laying the foundations of an absolutist state in France. Richelieu left a legacy of the use of authoritarian measures, such as censorship and the banning of political assemblies, to maintain power.

Historians have viewed Richelieu as either a patriot or a tyrant, and he was later vilified in Alexandre Dumas’s classic novel The Three Musketeers (1844). Richelieu also pioneered such ideas of modern international politics as national sovereignty and international law.

Richelieu was born in Paris in September 1585. His father, former grand provost of France, died fighting in the French Wars of Religion (1562–98). The family avoided debt through royal assistance and received the bishopric of Luçon as a reward.

Initially destined for a military career, Richelieu joined the Catholic clergy following his brother’s resignation of the bishopric of Luçon and became a bishop in 1607. He became the first French bishop to implement the institutional reforms issued by the Council of Trent between 1545 and 1563.

He began his political career representing the clergy of Poitou in the States General of 1614. Richelieu demanded church exemption from taxation, the clergy’s retention of its privileges, summoning of bishops and prelates to the royal councils, and the condemnation of Protestantism. After the dissolution of the States General, Richelieu became the queen’s almoner.

His ambition drove his rapid political promotion. Richelieu became secretary of state in 1616 but left the position amid political intrigue. The advisers of Louis XIII (1601–43) continued to present Richelieu as a threat to royal authority. Consequently, Richelieu went into exile in 1618.

In 1619 Marie de Medici (1573–1642), the king’s mother, rebelled to regain the authority she held previously as regent. Richelieu was recalled to negotiate peace terms. He became a cardinal in 1622 and in 1624 reentered the king’s Council of Ministers, quickly becoming chief minister by conspiring against those who stood in his way.

As chief minister of France, Richelieu sought to consolidate royal authority while weakening that of the nobility. In 1626, he eliminated the prestigious military position of constable of France and ordered the feudal nobility to tear down most fortified castles, leaving only those necessary for defense against invaders.

Cardinal de Richelieu at the Siege of La Rochelle
Cardinal de Richelieu at the Siege of La Rochelle

These actions minimized the military threat of the nobility to the throne, thereby increasing and securing the king’s authority. While attempting to consolidate royal power, Richelieu also had to contend with the rising political ambitions of French Protestants, known as Huguenots, who countered national unity by threatening a religious schism.

The Huguenots controlled a large military and, aided by Charles I of England (1600–49), rebelled against the king. In 1627, Richelieu led a siege of the Huguenot fortress of La Rochelle and fended off an English expedition under command of the duke of Buckingham (1592–1628).

The fall of La Rochelle in 1628, and the peace of Alais in 1629, eliminated the political influence of Protestantism in France. Religious toleration, granted previously under the Edict of Nantes (1598), continued. Such a centralization of power within the person of the French king created an absolute monarchy.

Foreign Policy

Richelieu’s foreign policy focused on neutralizing the growing influence of the royal Habsburg family, which ruled both Austria and Spain. Despite being a member of the Catholic clergy, he brokered controversial alliances with foreign Protestant nations to counter the influence of Catholic Austria and Spain. Many within the Catholic clergy were opposed to Richelieu’s policies. Richelieu also supported the development of New France in North America.

While France was warring with its Huguenots, Spain attempted to spread its influence in northern Italy. Following La Rochelle’s capitulation, Richelieu led an army into northern Italy to counter Spanish ambitions.

Marie de Medici sought revenge against Richelieu and conspired with the king’s brother, Gaston, duc d’Orléans (1608–60), for his dismissal. On November 11, 1630, known as Day of the Dupes, the king agreed to the request of his mother and brother, only to be persuaded by Richelieu to alter this decision.

While Louis XIII was never fond of Richelieu, this was his only attempt to remove him. The king later created his chief minister duc de Richelieu and a peer of France. Richelieu continued to consolidate his position through a large network of spies in France and abroad.

During the 1630s, Richelieu aligned France with Protestant German princes during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) to counter the threat to France posed by Habsburg control of the Holy Roman Empire to the east and of Spain to the west. France suffered initial defeats and Richelieu was declared a traitor to the Catholic Church.

Financial costs of the war caused a strain on the king’s finances and Richelieu imposed taxes on salt and land. The clergy and nobility were exempt from such taxes, thereby placing the burden on the peasants and bourgeoisie. For more efficient tax collecting, tax officials were replaced with intendants who worked directly for the king. There were several peasant uprisings between 1636 and 1639, all of which were crushed.

Richelieu and the Arts

Richelieu was a patron of the arts and in 1636 founded the Académie française to promote French literature. Richelieu authored numerous religious and political works while funding the careers of notable literary figures, including Pierre Corneille (1606–84). In 1622, Richelieu became principal of the Sorbonne, sponsoring the college’s renovation and the construction of a chapel.

He also amassed one of the largest art collections in Europe. Richelieu continued to have uneasy relations with Pope Urban VIII (1568–1644) and the Catholic Church. The pope, to amend the situation, made Jules Mazarin (1602–61), one of Richelieu’s closest political allies, a cardinal in 1641. With his health increasingly failing, Richelieu named Mazarin his successor. Richelieu died in 1642 and was interred at the Sorbonne.

Louis XIV (1638–1715) inherited the throne in 1643 and continued Richelieu’s work of creating an absolute monarchy by further reducing the nobility’s power and the remnants of political power held by Huguenots. Following success in the Thirty Years’ War, Louis XIV positioned France as the dominant European continental power.