Richelieu, cardinal and duke of (1585-1642)

Cardinal et duc de Richelieu, Armand-Jean du Plessis, byname The Red Eminence, French L'Éminence Rouge, chief minister to King Louis XIII of France from 1624 to 1642. His major goals were the establishment of royal absolutism in France and the end of Spanish-Habsburg hegemony in Europe.

Heritage, youth, and early career

The family of du Plessis de Richelieu was of insignificant feudal origins but by intermarriage with the legal and administrative classes had risen to some prominence and had acquired the seigneury of Richelieu in Poitou. Armand-Jean's father, François du Plessis, seigneur de Richelieu, was grand provost (chief magistrate) to Henry III, and his mother, Suzanne de la Porte, was the daughter of a councillor of the Parlement of Paris (the supreme judicial assembly). In his intelligence, administrative competence, and instinct for hard work, he resembled his middle-class ancestors.

He was five years old when his father died, leaving estates that had been ruined by inflation and mismanagement during the Wars of Religion (1562-98), and he was conscious from his earliest years of the threat of penury. This inspired in him the ambition to restore the honour of his house and evoked in him the sense of grandeur he was to attribute vicariously to France. His provident mother, with three boys and two girls, set about reorganizing the family's precarious resources. The principal of these was the benefice of the bishopric of Luçon near La Rochelle, which had been granted by Henry III to the Richelieus under the Concordat of 1516. Unrest of the cathedral chapter threatened a revocation of the grant, and it became necessary for a member of the family to be consecrated bishop as soon as possible. Henri, the eldest son, was heir to the seigneury of Richelieu; and Alphonse, the second son, had become a Carthusian monk; so the obligation fell on Armand-Jean, who was a student.

The prospect of a career in the church was not displeasing to the thin, pale, and at times sickly boy, for he had an inclination toward learning, a facility for debate, and a relish for the prospect of governing the lives of others. Because he was below the canonical age for consecration upon the completion of his studies, he needed a papal dispensation. To gain it he went to Rome, where Paul V fell victim to the young man's skill as a charmer. On April 17, 1607, at the age of 22, he was ordained priest and consecrated to the see of Luçon. He found on his arrival a diocese ruined by the Wars of Religion, a hostile chapter, and a demoralized clergy, but his opponents quickly succumbed to the unaccustomed authority that radiated from the episcopal palace.

Richelieu was the first bishop in France to implement in his diocese the reforms decreed by the Council of Trent, and he was also the first theologian to write in French and to establish the conventions of vernacular theological exposition. He was a hard-working, conscience-stricken man, combatting forces dedicated to divisive political and social ends--a man obsessed with order as a superior moral end.

Rise to power

The France on which the Bishop of Luçon pondered gave every indication of falling again into the disorder of the Wars of Religion. The assassination of Henry IV in 1610 released separative forces that were endemic in the administrative system. The government of the queen mother, Marie de Médicis, as regent for Louis XIII, was corrupt, and the magnates of the realm, motivated by personal self-interest, struggled to control it. Their disobedience was accompanied by predatory expeditions of armed men and complex negotiations with the court, and on one of these occasions the Bishop of Luçon found himself an intermediary, which led to his being elected one of the representatives of the clergy of Poitou to the States General of 1614. He put all his energy into persuading the assembly of his talents and the court of his support for royal authority. In a clash between the clergy and the Third Estate (the middle classes, artisans, and peasants) on the subject of the relationship between the crown and the papacy he played a conciliatory role, and he was prominent in moves of the clergy to persuade the Third Estate that the decrees of the Council of Trent should be promulgated.

Some months later he was appointed chaplain to the new queen, Anne of Austria, which held the promise of eventual entry into the royal council, which, Richelieu had argued at the States General, should accord first place to prelates of distinction. Clever negotiations with another disobedient faction led to his appointment as a secretary of state in 1616.

Up to this time Richelieu had had no insight into international relations, and the regard for Spain with which he was credited was probably genuine because he had had no occasion to question Spain's ambitions. His year of office, however, coincided with war between Spain (ruled by a Habsburg dynasty) and Venice, which invoked its alliance with France. The resultant involvement persuaded Richelieu of the vulnerability of France to Habsburg political and economic encirclement, the domestic ramifications of various European movements in the religious controversy between Catholics and Protestants, and the dependence of the small states in France's borderlands upon an equilibrium of power between France and Spain.

Richelieu's tenure of office was terminated in April 1617 when a palace revolution overthrew the regency of Marie de Médicis. Richelieu was banished to Luçon and then exiled to the papal city of Avignon, where he sought distraction from his melancholy in writing. A rebellion of the princes, gravitating this time to Marie de Médicis as the focus of opposition to the royal council, led in 1619 to the King recalling Richelieu to his mother's entourage on the assumption that he would exercise a moderating influence. The ascendency that he gained over her, however, did not lead to her submission. There followed four years of intricate negotiation and even overt hostilities during which the King's nomination of Richelieu for a cardinal's hat became one of the issues involved in a settlement. A revolt of the Huguenots and the death of the King's favourite brought about Marie de Médicis' recall to the council and Richelieu's promotion.

First minister of France

In 1624 another crisis, over the Valtellina in northern Italy, led to a ministerial reconstruction and to the Cardinal's appointment as secretary of state for commerce and marine and chief of the royal council. Four years later the title of first minister was to be created for this office. The controversy occurred when the Protestant Swiss canton of Grisons invoked a treaty of protection with France against Spanish ambitions in the Valtellina valley. The struggle had ramifications throughout Europe as the Protestants made common cause with Grisons and the Catholics with the Habsburgs. Richelieu recognized that vacillation would threaten domestic stability, and so he struck, expelling the papal troops. It was an action that gained for Richelieu an instant reputation for decision and ruthlessness. It also disillusioned those who had seen in him a defender of Catholic interests and of a Franco-Spanish alliance.

From his first days in office Richelieu was the object of conspiracies to remove him, and the success of his security organization in ferreting out the disaffected and his manipulation of state trials made him misunderstood, feared, and detested. Yet according to the standards of the age, his administration of justice did not depart from the moral principles that he believed to underlie all government.

The goals that Richelieu set himself were to counter Habsburg hegemony in Europe, which threatened France's independence of action, and "to make the king absolute in his kingdom in order to establish therein order," but at no time was Richelieu powerful enough to achieve his domestic ends by overt measures. A respecter of law and history, he accepted the necessity of working with the traditional framework of administration. His sense of the feasible and his gift for seeing both sides of a question resulted in a pragmatism in practice that often contradicted his proclaimed theories, and he confused his critics by unexpected compromise and moderation.

Richelieu's great intellectual capacity enabled him to penetrate to the essence of events, and his tremendous willpower drove him to incessant work. In his theory of politics he shared the rationalism of contemporary philosophers, believing in "the light of natural reason." While he did not doubt the capacity of the mind to know what is naturally enjoined, he participated in the prevailing pessimism about man's will to act accordingly. A twofold view of moral causes, the natural and the divine, provided a philosophical axiom for state supervision of conduct in both the secular and the spiritual spheres. Sin and civil disobedience were, to Richelieu, but two aspects of disorder.

The gravest divisive factor in French society was religion. To Richelieu the Huguenots constituted a state within a state, with the civil government of major cities in their hands and considerable military force at their disposal. Yet Richelieu was prepared to tolerate this religious dissent so long as it did not amount to a political challenge. In this attempt to preserve social harmony at the expense of confessional difference he failed at first, for the Huguenot community was foolishly drawn into the intrigues of the Protestant magnates, who instigated England to war with France. Richelieu laid siege in 1628 to La Rochelle, the Huguenot centre, but it took a year to reduce the city, during which time Spain took advantage of the distraction to extend its hegemony in northern Italy at the expense of France's allies. While promising Richelieu help to combat the Protestants, Spain in fact subsidized their leaders in order to keep the French government preoccupied, and seized the strategic fortress of Casale in northern Italy. Again Richelieu acted with surprising vigour. The moment La Rochelle fell, he led the army in winter over the Alps and checked the Spanish design. This reverse was countered by the Habsburgs with the introduction of imperial garrisons into parts of the duchy of Lorraine, which were claimed as fiefs of France. There followed intricate diplomatic maneuvers, culminating in Richelieu's dramatic refusal to ratify the peace Treaty of Regensburg in 1630, and the Habsburgs' appeal to Pope Urban VIII to excommunicate Louis XIII for this supposed breach of faith.

This was Richelieu's moment of greatest political insecurity. His relationship with the king was distant, and Catholic zealots provoked Marie de Médicis into a state of hysteria concerning the man who she believed had deprived her of influence. On Richelieu's return from Italy in 1630, she tried to influence her son to dismiss his minister. The king, however, perceived that the issue was his own independence or his mother's domination and that there was no one but Richelieu who could relieve him of the responsibility of decisions at a moment of bewildering complications. After a day of suspense, he supported the cardinal and thereafter did not waver in his support. Marie de Médicis and the king's brother Gaston fled to the Spanish Netherlands, there to constitute a focus of sedition that Richelieu countered by a fatal involvement with the enemies of the Habsburgs. The central objective of his foreign policy was to restore the equilibrium in the empire that Habsburg victories had disturbed. Although Bavaria was disposed to seek French protection, the emperor's military successes and the Edict of Restitution occasioned a new mutual antagonism of Catholics and Protestants, which made neutrality of the Catholic League an impossibility.

Richelieu's German policy fell into ruins as a result of his grant of subsidies to Gustav II Adolf of Sweden, who was then engaged in the conquest of Pomerania. The subsidies liberated Gustav Adolf from constraint, and he fell on southern Germany, became embroiled with the armies of the Catholic League, and so consolidated the imperial and Catholic causes. The war spilled over the Rhine, and France's client states were by degrees drawn into the Habsburg orbit. The seizure by Spain in 1635 of the archbishop of Trier, who was under French protection, led to France's alignment with the Protestant powers in the Thirty Years' War.

This involvement on behalf of the Protestants was regarded by many Catholics in his own time and later as a betrayal of the church by one of its princes, and Richelieu has been criticized for intensifying a war whose horrors have rarely been equaled. That Richelieu was drawn unwillingly by events into the vortex is clear, just as it is clear that the cost paid in social suffering and economic decline, leading to more frequent agrarian revolts, was high. Almost as soon as war broke out with Spain in 1635, Richelieu initiated secret peace negotiations and renewed them repeatedly. His justification for war was the same as that for rigorous domestic discipline: only the statesman, furnished with all available information and equipped for judicious appraisal of events, is competent to judge policy.

In economic matters Richelieu was an amateur. He committed war expenditure with little regard for the difficulties of raising revenue, and he was given to economic improvisation that was often unsound, but he eschewed doctrinaire views and retained flexibility of mind. Whereas he was early influenced by the theories of the economist Antoine de Montchrestien, who argued for economic self-sufficiency so as to conserve specie, he was later persuaded that the drain of specie could be compensated for by trade. He promoted products and industries that could give France an export advantage and discouraged imports of luxury goods. Glassmaking, tapestry and silk, sugar, and the extractive industries attracted his interest. He planned canal systems and promoted overseas trading companies, in which he was a shareholder and which began the process of French colonization in Canada and the West Indies, and he gained economic footholds in Morocco and Persia.

His vast horizon reflected in part his concern with the French religious missions, which spread in Africa, the Middle East, and America and which extended French influence and created a vast intelligence network that fostered his political and economic designs. He laid the foundations for the French navy by buying ships from the Dutch, and, though he failed to have much influence on seapower, he developed shipping connections with the Baltic. The legal reforms of his period were spasmodic and often frustrated by the Parlement, and how much of their content is due to him is questionable. The Code Michaud of 1629--which regulated industry and trade, companies, public offices, the church, and the army and standardized weights and measures--was promulgated under his authority, although he may not have been its architect.

Later years in the church

In his last years Richelieu found himself involved in religious conflict, in opposition to the pope, and in a struggle with the French church over the allocation of revenues to the financing of the war. His relationship with Urban VIII became strained over diplomatic grievances, church administration, and his own ambitions to extend French political influence by acquiring benefices for himself in the Holy Roman Empire. In spite of these conflicts, Richelieu remained orthodox in his views on the relationship between church and state and resisted the Gallican challenge to the absolutism of papal authority.

The theocratic concept of the state that resulted from his notion of kingship caused Richelieu to regard heresy as political dissidence, and he harried the apparently unorthodox, such as the first Jansenists, on the ground that they disturbed the spiritual and secular orders, just as he harried the recalcitrant nobles and stamped out dueling. Although there were canonical irregularities in his life, notably in the matter of pluralism (the multiplication of ecclesiastical benefices), there is no evidence of a serious departure from the principles or practices of the church. His accumulation of wealth was excessive even by the standards of the age, but it was largely dedicated to public service and to patronage of the arts and of the University of Paris. Richelieu was a playwright and musician of some talent, and his establishment of the French Academy is one of his best-remembered achievements.

His last months were agitated by the most dangerous of all the conspiracies against his life, that of the youthful royal favourite Cinq-Mars, who was exposed by Richelieu's secret service and died on the block. The cardinal's health, bad for some years, had deteriorated, and it was virtually from his deathbed that he was compelled to dictate to the king five propositions respecting royal behaviour toward ministers that he considered essential for proper government. He died in 1642 and was buried in the chapel of the Sorbonne, which he had financed.


Both as statesman and churchman, Richelieu was the acknowledged architect of France's greatness in the 17th century and a contributor to the secularization of international politics during the Thirty Years' War. While in detail he was only moderately successful, Richelieu in substance attained his goals of orderly government under the royal authority and the defeat of Habsburg hegemony. Whether the centrifugal forces in Germany that he promoted--and which the Peace of Westphalia institutionalized--were advantageous to Europe in the long run is questionable, but the political fragmentation of the empire and the military eclipse of Spain made possible the grandeur of France that Richelieu foresaw and his successors realized. This mystical aspect of his designs is difficult to articulate but is essential to his greatness. The conspiracies that erupted under his successor, Cardinal Mazarin, failed as much because Richelieu had wrought a fundamental psychological change in favour of the moral ascendency of the crown as because, by the destruction of castles and city walls and the centralization of military authority, he had eliminated the power base of both aristocratic and religious dissent.

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