France: The Life & Times of Cardinal Richelieu

by Lori-Anne Cohen

Cardinal Richelieu was born Armand Jean du Plessis in Paris in September of 1585. The name Richelieu came from the name of his family's estate. The du Plessis' were considered minor nobility and Armand's grandfather, Louis, secured their place in court through marriage to Francoise de Rochechouart, an important family at the time. Louis died young and left five sons, the second oldest of whom, Francois, was Richelieu's father. Francois also died young, leaving his family in dire financial straits due to some bad investments. As a child, Richelieu was sickly and unfortunately would suffer from various maladies for the rest of his life.

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Armand was extremely intelligent and at the age of nine was sent to College de Navarre in Paris. Originally, Armand was to have had a military career and his older brother Alphonse was to have a religious life, but Alphonse suffered mental problems that precluded taking the role his family had planned for him. And so, at the age of seventeen, Armand began to study theology seriously, in order to keep the Bishopric in the family. Armand's mother had fought hard for this title and would not let it go easily. He took to his religious studies easily and because of his health problems was ideally suited to this life. In 1606 then Abbe Armand de Richelieu was appointed Bishop of Lucon and in 1622, Pope Gregory appointed him a Cardinal.

Like his grandfather and father before him, serving the monarchy was very important to Richelieu. To this end he allied himself with Marie de Medici, the queen mother, and was appointed to the court as Secretary of State to foreign affairs in 1616. This position did not last long as Marie's favorite, Concino Concini, was assassinated; this caused a falling out between mother and son. The king, Louis XIII, had decided to take a more direct hand in government at this time. For a time Richelieu was in disgrace but then king and his mother soon reconciled, which was good news for Richelieu.

He was made Prime Minister under Louix XIII in 1624. He was dedicated to the supreme authority of the crown. At the time, there was political corruption galore, an independant nobility and problems with the Protestant Huguenots. Richelieu saw all of these things as impediments to his goals and through coercion, manipulation and oppression, set about changing things. In 1628, he defeated a Huguenot rebellion and although they were banned from military service, he allowed them to practice their religion. By 1631, he had brought the Huguenots and any treasonous nobles to heel. Richelieu, like many before him, installed his own people in government and seats of power where he could, unseating the king's and his own enemies. He also tried to press France's advantage beyond it's borders by advocating colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.

Richelieu was also a patron of the arts, founding the Acadamie Francaise and rebuilding the Sorbonne. He built the Palais Royal beginning in 1624, also referred to as the Palais Cardinal. Of the original structure, only a part of the second court remains today.

In 1630, Marie de Medici, seeing that her influence over her son was lessened by Richelieu's influence, plotted to be rid of the Cardinal once and for all. During a serious illness for the king, the queen mother stayed by his bedside the whole time while plotting against the Cardinal. If the king died, and it did seem as if he would, Richelieu was to be executed immediately, and the heir apparent at the time, Gaston, would marry his brother's widow and take over the monarchy. . .ensuring Marie's supremacy. She let it be known that she blamed Richelieu for the king's illness. Even though he had few friends at court, he did what he could to protect himself should the king die.

Eventually, the king returned to normal and after a nasty confrontation with Marie, decided against getting rid of the Cardinal. Marie and Gaston were disgraced and Marie fled to Spanish territory under advice from others. It turned out to be bad advice as this territory was controlled by Richelieu for the next twelve years. This was known as the "Day of Dupes"

Richelieu was a solitary figure and often insecure and not generally well liked. His position depended on the king's favor and the king was often ill and indecisive. The monarch wanted full control for himself but often could not take it when he had it. Richelieu is responsible for establishing the absolute rule of the monarchy and securing France as a power in Europe. He believed he was doing God's will, but didn't believe God's will extended any further than his own boundaries. He used the power of the crown at will and when it suited his purposes most. In The Three Musketeers, Richelieu is seen as a master at intrigue, with spies everywhere, always in the name of the king. This is true enough, but only one side of the man. To retain his authority he needed to be a master of intrigue and manipulation. His tireless energy helped in this, but it took it's toll on his health. He died on December 4, 1642 in the Palais Royal. He left the Palais to the king but Louis followed him to the grave five months later. It was now up to the new Regent and Mazarin, a protege of Richelieu's to keep up what Richelieu laid down.

Historical Timeline:

1585 - Born in France as Armand Jean du Plessis
1606 - Becomes a roman catholic bishop
1616 - Becomes Secretary of State for foreign affairs
1622 - Ordained a Cardinal by Pope Gregory
1624 - Becomes Prime Minister of France
1624-34 - Builds Palais Royal
1627 - Sets out to secure Supremacy of the crown
1628 - Defeats the Huguenot rebellion
1629 - Founds the Academie Francaise
1630 - Day of Dupes
1642 - Dies

Note from Lori-Anne: I used a 3 volume set called Richelieu & His Age by Carl Burkhardt. I thought it would be dry but it wasn't. Also, I gleaned info from the Americana Encylopedia and the Encylopedia Brittanica

Lori-Anne Cohen reviewed at AAR for many years and also edited the Reader of the Moment feature

 

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