Click here to get started today!
1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
Armand Jean Du Plessis, Cardinal de Richelieu
ARMAND JEAN DU PLESSIS DE, CARDINAL RICHELIEU (1585-1642), French statesman, was born of an ancient family of the lesser nobility of Poitou. The original name of the family was Du Plessis, but in the 15th century a younger branch obtained by marriage the estate of Richelieu with its strong castle surrounded by the waters of the Mable, and took the name of Du Plessis de Richelieu. The family produced not a few turbulent warriors during the Hundred Years' War, and the cardinal's father, Francois du Plessis, seigneur de Richelieu, began his career by killing the murderer of his elder brother and then fighting through the wars of religion, first as a favourite of Henry III., and after his death under Henry IV. He was a typical fighting gentleman of the period. The mother of the cardinal, Susanne de La Porte, belonged to a family of the magistrature, her father, Francois de La Porte, being one of the first advocates of the parlement of Paris. Armand was the third son and was born in Paris on the 9th of September 1585. When he was five years old his father died while assisting at the siege of Paris (on the 10th of July 1590); and his mother was left with five children and the estate heavily in debt. By care and economy, however, aided by generous royal grants, she was enabled to pay off mortgages and to bring up the children in a way befitting their rank. At the age of nine Armand was sent to Paris to the College of Navarre, where he passed with credit the regular courses in grammar and philosophy, and then entered a "finishing academy" which prepared the sons of nobles for the life of a courtier or a cavalier. But his training for a military career was suddenly cut short by the refusal of his elder brother, Alphonse, to accept the office of bishop of Luton. The right of preferment to that see had been given to the Richelieu family by Henry III. as a reward for the services of Armand's father, and the family drained its revenues for private use. When the cathedral chapter found courage to oppose this and opened suit to recover the ecclesiastical revenues for ecclesiastical purposes, Richelieu's mother proposed to make her second son, Alphonse, bishop. He defeated this scheme, however, by becoming a monk of the Grande Chartreuse, and Armand, whose health was rather feeble in any case for a military career, was induced to propose himself for the priesthood.
In 1606, at the age of twenty-one, Richelieu was nominated bishop of Luton by Henry IV. As he was almost five years under the canonical age, he was obliged to go to Rome to obtain a dispensation and was consecrated there in April 1607. In the winter of 1608 Richelieu went out to his poverty-stricken little bishopric, and for the next six years devoted himself seriously to his episcopal duties. He became favourably known among the zealous reformers of the church, and it was during this stage of his career that he made a friend of Father Joseph. Meanwhile he was impatiently waiting for an opening to a larger career. This came in 1614 when he was elected by the clergy of Poitou to the last States-general which met before the Revolution. In this he attracted the favourable attention of Marie de' Medici, the queen-mother, and was chosen at its close to present the address of the clergy embodying its petitions and resolutions. After the States-general was dissolved he remained in Paris, and the next year he became almoner to Anne of Austria, the child-queen of Louis XIII. Then, by adroit courtly intrigue and faithful service to Concini, he was appointed in 1616 a secretary of state to the king. But he owed all to Concini, and his taste of power ended with the murder of his patron on the 24th of August 161 7.
The reign which Richelieu was to dominate so absolutely began with his exile from the court. He had, however, already shown his ability, his firmness, and his diplomatic skill, and conducted the negotiations on the part of the queen-mother with Luynes, the king's representative. Then, as he had incurred too much of the odium of a creature of Concini to hope for royal favour, he resigned himself to the post of chief adviser to Marie de' Medici in her exile at Blois. Here he sought to ingratiate himself with Luynes and the king by reporting minutely the actions of Marie and by protestations of loyalty. As this ungrateful work brought no reward, Richelieu, in spite of the earnest entreaties of the queen-mother, retired once more to his bishopric. But the king, while approving his conduct, was still suspicious of him, and he was exiled to Avignon, along with his brother and brother-in-law, on the 7th of April 1618. There he lived in discreet, if melancholy retirement, writing "A Defence of the Main Principles of the Catholic Faith," and had apparently little hope of a further political career when the escape of Marie de' Medici from Blois, on the 2 2nd of February 1619, again opened paths for his ambition. Luynes and the king recalled him to the post at Angouleme with the queen-mother, who received him ungraciously but who soon yielded to his judgment and allowed him to sign the treaty of Angouleme with the Cardinal de la Rochefoucauld, acting for the king. By this treaty Marie was given liberty to live wherever she wished, and the government of Anjou and of Normandy with several castles was entrusted to her. The bishop of Lugon was led to believe that the king would recommend him for a cardinalate, but, if we may trust the evidence, Luynes secretly opposed the request, and it was not until after his death that Richelieu was made a cardinal by Pope Gregory XV., on the 5th of September 1622. His rank in the church was due to his skill in intrigue with Marie de' Medici.
Luynes's death on the 15th of December 1621 made possible a reconciliation a month later between the king and his mother. Although Louis still distrusted her at heart, and disliked her dominating minister more, he allowed her to take up her residence in the Luxembourg palace in Paris, thus rendering intercourse possible. Richelieu seized his opportunity. He furnished Marie de' Medici with political ideas and acute criticisms of the king's ministry, especially of the Brularts. Marie zealously pushed her favourite towards office, and had gone so far as to absent herself from court for three months on account of the king's persistent refusal, when Charles, duc de La Vieuville, then head of the council, in need of her aid in his negotiations with reference to the marriage of her daughter Henriette Marie, finally agreed to force Richelieu's appointment to office upon the king, Louis XIII. La Vieuville thought to compromise by forcing the cardinal into a "council of despatches," with merely the privilege of advising the king's council but entrusted with no power. Richelieu raised many objections to such a partial realization of his ambition, but the king ended them in April 1624 by naming him as a member of his council. By August Vieuville's worst fears were realized; he was arrested on the 13th of the month for corrupt practices in office, and the intriguing cardinal who had caused his overthrow became chief minister of Louis His advent was hailed with joy by both the Catholic party and the patriotic party, eager for the overthrow of Habsburg supremacy in Europe.
For the next eighteen years the biography of Richelieu is the history of France, and to a large degree that of Europe. His work was directed toward a twofold aim: to make the royal power - his power - absolute and supreme at home, and to crush the rival European power of the Habsburgs. At home there were two opponents to be dealt with: the Huguenots and the feudal nobility. The former were crushed by the siege of La Rochelle and the vigorous campaign against the duc de Rohan. But the religious toleration of the edict of Nantes was reaffirmed while its political privilegeswere destroyed, and Huguenot officers fought loyally in the foreign enterprises of the cardinal. The suppression of the independence of the feudal aristocracy was inaugurated in 1626 by an edict calling for the destruction of all fortified castles not needed for defence against invasion.
The local authorities proceeded to carry this out with a zeal due to long suffering, and the ruined medieval chateaus of France still bear witness to the action of Richelieu. Still there was no serious opposition to the new minister. The first serious conspiracy took place in 1626, the king's brother, Gaston of Orleans, being the centre of it. His governor, Marshal D'Ornano, was arrested by Richelieu's orders, and then his confidant, Henri de Talleyrand, marquis de Chalais and Vendome, the natural sons of Henry IV. Chalais was executed and the marshal died in prison. The overthrow of the Huguenots in 1629 made Richelieu's position seemingly unassailable, but the next year it received its severest test. Marie de' Medici had turned against her "ungrateful" minister with a hatred intensified, it is said, by unrequited passion. In September 1630, while Louis XIII. was very ill at Lyons, the two queens, Marie and Anne of Austria, reconciled for the time, won the king's promise to dismiss Richelieu. He postponed the date until peace should be made with Spain. When the news came of the truce of Regensburg Marie claimed the fulfilment of the promise. On the 10th of November 1630 the king went to his mother's apartments at the Luxembourg palace. Orders were given that no one should be allowed to disturb their interview, but Richelieu entered by the unguarded chapel door. When Marie had recovered breath from such audacity she proceeded to attack him in the strongest terms, declaring that the king must choose between him or her. Richelieu left the presence feeling that all was lost. The king gave a sign of yielding, appointing the brother of Marillac, Marie's counsellor, to the command of the army in Italy. But before taking further steps he retired to Versailles, then a hunting lodge, and there, listening to two of Richelieu's friends, Claude de Saint-Simon, father of the memoir writer, and Cardinal La Valette, sent for Richelieu in the evening, and while the salons of the Luxembourg were full of expectant courtiers the king was reassuring the cardinal of his continued favour and support. The "Day of Dupes," as this famous day was called, was the only time that Louis took so much as a step toward the dismissal of a minister who was personally distasteful to him but who was indispensable. The queen-mother followed the king and cardinal to Compiegne, but as she refused to be reconciled with Richelieu she was left there alone and forbidden to return to Paris. The next summer she fled across the frontiers into the Netherlands, and Richelieu was made a duke. Then Gaston of Orleans, who had fled to Lorraine, came back with a small troop to head a rebellion to free the king and country from "the tyrant." The only great noble who rose was Henri, duc de Montmorenci, governor of Languedoc, and his defeat at Castelnaudary on the 1st of September 1632 was followed by his speedy trial by the parlement of Toulouse, and by his execution. Richelieu had sent to the block the first noble of France, the last of a family illustrious for seven centuries, the feudal head of the nobility of Languedoc; then, unmoved by threats or entreaties, inexorable as fate itself, he cowed all opposition by his relentless vengeance. He knew no mercy. The only other conspiracy against him which amounted to more than intrigue was that of Cinq Mars in 1642, at the close of his life. This vain young favourite of the king was treated as though he were really a formidable traitor, and his friend, De Thou, son of the historian, whose sole guilt was not to have revealed the plot, was placed in a boat behind the stately barge of the cardinal and thus conveyed up the Rhone to his trial and death at Lyons. The voyage was symbolical of Richelieu's whole pitiless career.
Richelieu's foreign policy:was as inflexible as his home policy. To humble the Habsburgs he aided the Protestant princes of Germany against the emperor, in spite of the strong opposition of the disappointed Catholic party in France, which had looked to the cardinal as a champion of the faith. The year of Richelieu's triumph over the Huguenots (1629) was also that of the Emperor Ferdinand's triumph in Germany, marked by the Edict of Restitution, and France was threatened by a united Germany. Richelieu, however, turned against the Habsburgs young Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, paying him a subsidy of a million livres a year by the treaty of Barwald of the 23rd of January 1631. The dismissal of Wallenstein, which is often attributed to the work of Father Joseph, Richelieu's envoy to the diet of Regensburg in July and August of 1630, was due rather to the fears of the electors themselves, but it was of double value to Richelieu when his Swedish ally marched south. After the treaty of Prague, in May 1635, by which the emperor was reconciled with most of the German princes, Richelieu was finally obliged to declare war, and, concluding a treaty of offensive alliance at Compiegne with Oxenstierna, and in October one at St Germain-en-Laye with Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, he proceeded himself against Spain, both in Italy and in the Netherlands. The war opened disastrously for the French, but by 1642, when Richelieu died, his armies - risen from 12,000 men in 1621 to 150,000 in 1638 - had conquered Roussillon from Spain; they held Catalonia, which had revolted from Philip IV. of Spain, and had taken Turin and forced Savoy to allow French troops on the borders of the Milanese. In Germany Torstensson was sweeping the imperialist forces before him through Silesia and Moravia. The lines of the treaty of Westphalia, six years later, were already laid down by Richelieu; and its epochal importance in European history is a measure of the genius who threw the balance of power from Habsburg to Bourbon. The predominance of Louis XIV. in European politics was largely due to the statesman who prepared France for his absolutism at home.
The magnitude of Richelieu's achievement grows when one considers his relations with the king. Louis XIII. cordially disliked him, and would gladly have got rid of him if he had not been able to convince the king of the wisdom of everything he did. Thus obliged to assume the unpleasant role of tutor when delicate flattery was often most needful, the minister lectured and cajoled his master, always, until towards the last, giving credit to the king for his own successes, and overawing opposition by his imperious presence even when Louis was dabbling in plots against him (as in the case of Cinq Mars) behind his back. The king's consciousness of his weakness was combined with a sense of duty, and it was upon these two. chords that Richelieu played. Besides, he was eternally on the alert. Spies in every salon in Paris and every court in Europe kept the grim courtier informed of every change in his. master's disposition and every intrigue against himself. The piquant comments of his platonic friend, Mademoiselle de Hautefort, upon Richelieu were relished by the king until he was informed of others said to have been made by her upon himself. Then it was easy to supplant her with another favourite, Mademoiselle de Lafayette. When this devout maiden began to denounce the ungodly cardinal who was allied with heretics, her confessor - in Richelieu's service - succeeded in inducing her to become a nun. Father Caussin,. the king's confessor, ventured the same comments, and Louis. plotted like a schoolboy to turn his devotions into secret criticisms of state policies. Caussin was sent into Brittany, and the judicious and learned Jesuit, Jacques Sirmond, who succeeded him, kept clear of politics. Such was the atmosphere of the court in which Richelieu had to maintain his authority.
His own personality was his strongest ally. The king himself quailed before that stern, august presence. His pale,, drawn face was set with his iron will. His frame was sickly and wasted with disease, yet when clad in his red cardinal's. robes, his stately carriage and confident bearing gave him the air of a prince. His courage was mingled with a mean sort of cunning, and his ambition loved the outward trappings of power as well as its reality; yet he never swerved from his. policy in order to win approbation, and the king knew that his one motive in public affairs was the welfare of the realm - that his religion, in short, was "reason of state." A clear conscience, not less than a sense of his own superiority to others at the court of Louis XIII., made the cardinal haughtily assert his ascendancy, and the king shared his belief in both.
No courtier was ever more assertive of his prerogatives. He claimed precedence over even princes of the blood, and one.
like Conde was content to draw aside the curtains for him to pass, and to sue for the hand of Richelieu's niece for his son, the "Great Conde." His pride and ambition were gratified by the foundation of a sort of dynasty of his nephews and nieces, whose hands were sought by the noblest in the realm. Like all statesmen of his time, Richelieu made money out of politics. He came to court in 1617 with an income of 25,000 livres from his ecclesiastical benefices. In the later years of his life it exceeded 3,000,000 livres. He lived in imperial state, building himself the great Palais Cardinal, now the Palais Royal, in Paris, another at Rueil near Paris, and rebuilding his ancestral chateau in Poitou. His table cost him a thousand crowns a day, although he himself lived simply. He celebrated his triumphs to the full with gorgeous fetes in his palace, especially with lavish theatrical representations. In January 1641 the tragedy of Mirame, said to have been his own, was produced with great magnificence. Richelieu was anxious for literary fame, and his writings are not unworthy of him. But more important than his own efforts as an author were his protection and patronage of literary men, especially of Corneille, and his creation of the French Academy in 1635. His influence upon French literature was considerable and lasting. Hardly less important was his rebuilding of the Sorbonne and his endowments there. When he died, on the 4th of December 1642, he was buried in the chapel of the Sorbonne, which still stands as he built it. His tomb, erected in 1694, though rifled at the Revolution, still exists.
Many writings are attributed to Richelieu, although owing to his habit of working with substitutes and assistants it is difficult to settle how much of what passes under his name is authentic. Les Thuileries, La Grande Pastorale, Mirame, and the other plays, over whose fate he trembled as over the result of an embassy or a campaign, have long been forgotten; but a permanent interest attaches to his Memoires and correspondence: Memoire d'Armand du Plessis de Richelieu, eveque de Lucon, ecrit de sa main, l'annee 1607 ou 1610, alors qu'il meditait de paraitre d la cour, edited by Armand Baschet (1880); Histoire de la mere et du fill (i.e. of Marie de Medici and Louis XIII.), sometimes attributed to Mezeray, published at Amsterdam in 1730 and, under the title Histoire de la regence de reine Marie de Medicis, femme de Henry IV., at the Hague in 1743 Memoires sur la regne de Louis XIII., extending from 1610 to 1638, and of which the earlier portion is a reprint of the Histoire de la mere et du fils, published in Petitot's collection (Paris, 1823 seq.); Testament politique d'Armand du Plessis, cardinal de Richelieu (Amsterdam, 1687 seq.); Journal de 1630-31 (Paris, 1645); "Lettres, instructions diplomatiques, et papiers d'etat," published by G. d'Avenel in the Coll. de doc. fined. (Paris, 18 53-77); and "Maximes d'etat et fragments politiques," published by G. Hanotaux in Mélanges historiques: Choix de doc. iii., in the same collection.
See G. Hanotaux, Cardinal Richelieu (1893), one volume of the four then promised, an exhaustive history of the period down to 1614; and G. d'Avenel, Richelieu et la monarchie absolue (4 vols., 1895). The most important sources for Richelieu's statesmanship are the "Lettres, instructions diplomatiques, et papiers d'etat," mentioned above, and Richelieu's Memoires (1610-38) may be consulted in Petitot's and J. F. Michaud and J. Poujoulat's collections. Innumerable memoirs of the time also bear upon his life, e.g. those of Madame de Motteville, Mathieu Mole, De Brienne, and Bassompierre. In English there are short biographies by Richard Lodge (in the Foreign Statesmen series, 1896) and by J. B. Perkins (in Heroes of the Nations series, 1900). (J. T. S.*)
These files are public domain.
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Armand Jean Du Plessis, Cardinal de Richelieu'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/bri/a/armand-jean-du-plessis-cardinal-de-richelieu.html. 1910.
the Fifth Week after Easter