Richelieu, Armand-Jean Du Plessis, Cardinal (1585–1642)

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RICHELIEU, ARMAND-JEAN DU PLESSIS, CARDINAL (15851642), French ecclesiastical and political figure. Richelieu was the youngest son of a middle-ranking noble family from Poitou, whose father enjoyed short-lived prominence as grand provost of France under Henry III (ruled 15741589), but whose early death and bankruptcy (1590) spelled possible disaster for his widow and young children. The support of patrons, new and old, and the goodwill of King Henry IV (ruled 15891610) enabled Armand-Jean, after foreshortened theology studies in Paris, to become a very young bishop of Luçon by 1606. Although a neglected and unattractive diocese with well-entrenched Protestant communities, Luçon could afford wider career prospects to an ambitious cleric. This and several years of active pastoral activity in Luçon gradually drewhim intocontact withtheroyal court during a time of politicalespecially ministerialinstability following Henry IV's murder in 1610. This context, rather than his role at the 1614 Estates-General, explains his appointment in 1615 as grand almoner to Louis XIII's (ruled 16101643) young queen, Anne of Austria, and then secretary of state in November 1616, but he was rapidly swept out of office (April 1617) with theassassination of his first patron, Concino Concini, the Italian favorite of the queen mother, Marie de Médicis. Alone among Concini's protégés to make a political comeback, Richelieu survived seven turbulent years during which he honed his political skills as he was successively sent into internal exile, recalled, and finally made a cardinal despite the deep-seated reluctance of LouisXIII and hisministers. Well before 1624, when he was made a minister again, he had become Marie de Médicis's right-hand man and the principal beneficiary of her insistence on playing a political role throughout the 1620s.


Richelieu's new position, which would gradually evolve toward that of a "principal" minister, struck most contemporaries as that of a conventional royal favorite. But despite the enormous power and influence he enjoyed until his death, he never became Louis XIII's favorite in the accepted sense. From the outset, his relations with Louis were tense and difficult, and they remained so even after the political ménage à trois with Marie de Médicis finally ended with her disgrace and exile abroad in 16301631. Until then, Richelieu's ministry had been highly vulnerable: he depended mainly on Marie and her supporters, the dévots, at a time when the overlapping of domestic and foreign questions created acute problems of political management. Protestant and aristocratic rebellion was an enduring feature of the 1620s, and could sometimes play havoc with pursuing a foreign policy that, because it aimed at containing Habsburg expansionism, required alliances with certain Protestant states. This required considerable dexterity, and laid Richelieua cardinal of the Roman church, after all!open to accusations of being a disciple of Machiavelli. The ending of Protestant revolt in 1629 was the only major success of this period, while France's military efforts against the Habsburgs were limited to intervention in northern Italy, when the real threat was building up elsewhere, in the empire. King and minister agreed fully on the need to oppose it, but were wary of precipitous action while aristocratic revolt and provincial discontent were still serious domestic threats.

Richelieu, whose essential duty was to articulate and manage foreign policy, fell foul of Marie and her dévot supporters, who were deeply hostile to Protestant alliances and wanted peace in order to pursue internal reforms. He barely survived the ensuing crisis, known as the Day of the Dupes (November 1630), although it took at least two more years to deal with the aftershocks from it. This partly explains the caution of foreign policy and the preference for fighting the Habsburgs using proxies like Denmark or Sweden. Thus full-scale war was postponed until it became unavoidable, in 1635. The king and minister's optimism about an early victory and peace was rudely shattered, so that the final years of Richelieu's ministry were dominated by the unending burdens of organizing and financing armies, coaxing allies, cajoling military commanders to fightall with very mixed resultsand, finally, framing plans for a peace that would only materialize in 1648.


Richelieu's position as chief minister took final shape during the 1630s, when his attention was devoted primarily to war and foreign affairs. After Marie de Médicis's fall, he no longer needed to fear opposition within the ministry itself, since all of the ministers were now clients of his who could work well together and who recognized their dependence on him. Internal affairs were, consequently, largely devolved to them, and the main changes to royal government resulted more from the pressures of war than from conscious plans for reform or centralization, plans that Richelieu progressively jettisoned by the late 1620s. His relations with Louis XIII could still be strained, thus offering hope to assorted royal favorites and conspirators to plot his downfall. The last of these, the famous Cinq-Mars conspiracy (1642), may even have had some royal sympathy and ended only months before Richelieu's own death. But Louis's waverings were always effectively countered by Richelieu's astute realization that all important decisions be taken explicitly by the king, thus making it virtually impossible for him to disown them later. The main opponents of Richelieu's accumulation of power and influence came from within the royal family and certain great noble houses. But a general assault on them was scarcely possible, given the wider political context, and Richelieu himself was no sworn enemy of the higher nobility. The best he could do was to win over as many of them as possible through offices, military commands, or advantageous marriage alliances, but some, like the Guise and the Montmorency, would not play the game by his rules, and suffered disgrace, exile, or even execution. Moreover, this policy of "divide and rule" was itself limited in its potential scope: it worked far better in peacetime than during war, when the crown depended more heavily on aristocratic goodwill. Some of Richelieu's strongest enemies had to be given army commands after 1635, and at least one used his army to provoke a rebellion in 1641. The cardinal's most spectacular success lay in turning the previously rebellious Bourbon-Condé family into allies, even to the extent of securing the marriage of its heir, the future "great" Condé, to his niece in 1641. Richelieu made additional enemies and critics by the way he used his immense power to restore and extend his family's fortunes, a sometimes ruthless process in which his wealth consolidated his power, and vice versa. His power was not confined to the "four square feet of the king's study" or council chamber but extended into the provinces, thanks to provincial and town governorships as well as tenure of the admiralty of France. When he died, he was not only Louis XIII's richest subject, but he had secured three duchies for members of his extended family, who were now well integrated into the upper reaches of the French nobility.


Richelieu's many offices, his great wealth (which included works of art, precious stones, and châteaus) and his many buildings (the Palais-Royal, Richelieu town and château in Poitou, the new Sorbonne college) all show him behaving as a Renaissance-style cardinal was expected to do. But neither wealth nor office alone could sustain political power, especially when it was as bitterly contested as his was. His early years in politics convinced him that cultural patronage, beginning but not ending with political propaganda, was indispensable.

From the early 1620s, he recruited writers into his service and initially used them to undermine existing favorites and ministers of Louis XIIIa dangerous game, which he learned to play effectively. Back in office, he needed propagandists to defend often unpopular policies. He quickly saw the advantages of crown-sponsored newsletters and gazettes, not to mention quasi-official histories of his own time. Thus, crown policies would be stoutly defended in print, successes publicly celebrated by every means available. Even the foundation of the Académie Française (1635) and Imprimerie Royale (1640), both important milestones in the French monarchy's attempts at cultural absolutism, were not divorced from such political considerations. Many of Richelieu's other projects, such as founding special academies to educate the nobility, were frustrated by the imperatives of war. Finally, as befitted a university theology graduate with enduring intellectual aspirations, he wrote extensively throughout his career on religious matterspastoral instructions, a catechism, treatises on the conversion of France's Protestants and on Christian perfection. These works may not bear comparison with those of his greatest contemporaries (François de Sales, Pierre de Bérulle), but they show a genuine desire to apply religious precepts to the daily life lived by ordinary mortals. In theological terms Richelieu was essentially a Thomist who, despite being influenced by neo-Stoic ideas, never shared the Augustinian pessimism of contemporaries like Bérulle or Saint-Cyran. Psychologically and intellectually, he was comfortable with a relatively optimistic view of humankind as inhabited by a God-given reason. It may be claimed that his Political Testament, the most problematic of his works but not published in his lifetime, was itself typical of this lifelong didactic passion, and it was aimed at the Christianas exemplified by his master, Louis XIIIrather than the Machiavellian prince.

See also Absolutism ; Louis XIII (France) ; Mantuan Succession, War of the (16271631) ; Marie de Médicis ; Provincial Government ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) .


Bergin, Joseph. Cardinal Richelieu: Power and the Pursuit of Wealth. New Haven and London, 1985.

. The Rise of Richelieu. New Haven and London, 1991.

Church, William F. Richelieu and Reason of State. Princeton, 1972.

Elliott, J. H. Richelieu and Olivares. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1984.

Levi, Anthony. Cardinal Richelieu and the Making of France. London and New York, 2000.

Ranum, Orest A. Richelieu and the Councillors of Louis XIII: A Study of the Secretaries of State and Superintendents of Finance in the Ministry of Richelieu, 16351642. Oxford, 1963.

Joseph Bergin

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Richelieu, Armand-Jean Du Plessis, Cardinal (1585–1642)

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