Cardinal Richelieu


Cardinal Richelieu was the French chief minister from 1624 until his death.
Cardinal Richelieu was the French chief minister from 1624 until his death.

Armand Jean Du Plessis, Cardinal et Duc de Richelieu (9 September 15854 December 1642) was a French clergyman, noble, and statesman.

Consecrated as a bishop in 1607, he later entered politics, becoming a Secretary of State in 1616. Richelieu soon rose in both the Church and the state, becoming a cardinal in 1622, and King Louis XIII's chief minister in 1624. He remained in office until his death in 1642; he was succeeded by Jules Cardinal Mazarin.

As chief minister, the Cardinal de Richelieu sought to consolidate royal power and crush domestic factions. By restraining the power of the nobility, he transformed France into a strongly centralised state. His chief foreign policy objective was to check the power of the Austro-Spanish Habsburg dynasty; although a Roman Catholic cardinal, he did not hesitate to make alliances with Protestant rulers in attempting to achieve this goal. His tenure was marked by the Thirty Years' War that engulfed Europe.

Richelieu was also famous for his patronage of the arts; most notably, he founded the Académie française, the learned society responsible for matters pertaining to the French language. Richelieu is also known by the sobriquet l'Éminence rouge ("the Red Eminence"), from the red shade of a cardinal's vestments and the style "eminence" as a cardinal.


Early life

Richelieu was the fourth of five children and the last of three sons, born in Paris in 1585. His family, although belonging only to the lesser nobility of Poitou, was somewhat prominent: his father, François Du Plessis, seigneur de Richelieu, was a soldier and courtier who served as the Grand Provost of France; his mother, Susanne de La Porte, was the daughter of a famous jurist. When he was only five years old, his father died fighting in the French Wars of Religion, leaving the family in debt; with the aid of royal grants, however, the family was able to avoid financial difficulties. At the age of nine, young Richelieu was sent to the College of Navarre in Paris to study philosophy. Thereafter, he began to train for a military career, following in his father's footsteps.

King Henry III had rewarded Richelieu's father for his participation in the Wars of Religion by granting his family the bishopric of Luçon. The family appropriated most of the revenues of the bishopric for private use; they were, however, challenged by clergymen who desired the funds for ecclesiastical purposes. In order to protect the important source of revenue, Richelieu's mother proposed to make her second son, Alphonse, the bishop of Luçon. Alphonse, who had no desire to become a bishop, instead became a monk. Thus, it became necessary that Armand end his ambitions for a military career and instead join the clergy. Richelieu was not at all averse to the prospect of becoming a bishop; he was a frail and sickly child who preferred to pursue academic interests.

In 1606, King Henry IV nominated Richelieu to become Bishop of Luçon. As Richelieu did not yet reach the official minimum age, it was necessary that he journey to Rome to obtain a special dispensation from the Pope. The agreement of the Pope having been secured, Richelieu was consecrated bishop in April 1607. Soon after he returned to his diocese in 1608, Richelieu was heralded as a reformer; he became the first bishop in France to implement the institutional reforms prescribed by the Council of Trent between 1545 and 1563.

At about this time, Richelieu became a friend of François Leclerc du Tremblay (better known as "Père Joseph" or "Father Joseph"), a Capuchin monk, who would later become a close confidant. Because of his closeness to Richelieu (éminence), and the grey colour of his robes, Father Joseph was also nicknamed l'Éminence grise ("the Grey Eminence"). Later, Richelieu often used Father Joseph as an agent during diplomatic negotiations.

Rise to power

The young King Louis XIII was only a figurehead during his early reign; power actually rested with his mother, Marie de Médicis.
The young King Louis XIII was only a figurehead during his early reign; power actually rested with his mother, Marie de Médicis.

In 1614, the clergymen of Poitou elected Richelieu as one of their representatives to the States-General. There, he was a vigorous advocate of the Church, arguing that it should be exempt from taxes and that bishops should have more political power. He was the most prominent clergyman to support the adoption of the decrees of the Council of Trent throughout France; the Third Estate (commoners) was his chief opponent in this endeavour. At the end of the assembly, the First Estate (the clergy) chose him to deliver the address enumerating its petitions and decisions. Soon after the dissolution of the States-General, Richelieu entered the service of King Louis XIII's wife, Anne of Austria, as her almoner.

Richelieu advanced politically by faithfully serving Concino Concini, the most powerful minister in the kingdom. In 1616, Richelieu was made a Secretary of State, and was given responsibility for foreign affairs. Like Concini, the Bishop was one of the closest advisors of Louis XIII's mother, Marie de Médicis. Queen Marie had become Regent of France when the nine-year old Louis ascended the throne; although her son reached the legal age of majority in 1614, she remained the effective ruler of the realm. However, her policies, and those of Concini, proved unpopular with many in France. As a result, both Marie and Concini became the targets of intrigues at court; their most powerful enemy was Charles de Luynes. In April 1617, in a plot arranged by Luynes, King Louis XIII ordered that Concini be arrested, and killed should he resist; Concini was consequently assassinated, and Marie de Médicis overthrown. His patron having died, Richelieu also lost power; he was dismissed as a Secretary of State, and was removed from the court. In 1618, the King, still suspicious of the Bishop of Luçon, banished him to Avignon. There, Richelieu spent most of his time writing; he composed a catechism entitled L'Instruction du chrétien.

In 1619, Marie de Médicis escaped from her confinement in the Château de Blois, becoming the titular leader of an aristocratic rebellion. The King and the duc de Luynes recalled Richelieu, believing that he would be able to reason with the Queen. Richelieu was successful in this endeavour, mediating between Marie and her son. Complex negotiations bore fruit when the Treaty of Angoulême was ratified; Marie de Médicis was given complete freedom, but would remain at peace with the King. The Queen was also restored to the royal council.

After the death of the King's favourite, the duc de Luynes, in 1621, Richelieu began to rise to power quickly. Next year, the King nominated Richelieu for a cardinalate, which Pope Gregory XV accordingly granted on 19 April 1621. Crises in France, including a rebellion of the Huguenots, rendered Richelieu a nearly indispensable advisor to the King. After he was appointed to the royal council of ministers in April 1624, he intrigued against the chief minister, Charles, duc de La Vieuville. In August of the same year, La Vieuville was arrested on charges of corruption, and Cardinal Richelieu took his place as the King's principal minister.

Chief minister

Cardinal Richelieu's policy involved two primary goals: centralisation of power in France and opposition to the Habsburg dynasty (which ruled in both Austria and Spain). Shortly after he became Louis's principal minister, he was faced with a crisis in the Valtellina, a valley in Lombardy (northern Italy). In order to counter Spanish designs on the territory, Richelieu supported the Protestant Swiss canton of Grisons, which also claimed the strategically important valley. The Cardinal deployed troops to Valtellina, from which the Pope's garrisons were driven out. Richelieu's decision to support a Protestant canton against the Pope won him many enemies in the predominantly Catholic France.

Missing image
Cardinal Richelieu at the Siege of La Rochelle.

In order to further consolidate power in France, Richelieu sought to suppress the influence of the feudal nobility. In 1626, he abolished the position of Constable of France and he ordered the destruction of all fortified castles, excepting only those needed to defend against invaders. Thus, he stripped the princes, dukes, and lesser aristocrats of important defences that could have been used against the King's armies during rebellions. As a result, Richelieu endured the hatred of most of the nobility.

Another obstacle to the centralisation of power was religious division in France. The Huguenots, one of the largest political and religious factions in the country, controlled a significant military force, and were in rebellion. Moreover, the English king, Charles I, declared war on France in an attempt to aid the Huguenot faction. In 1627, Richelieu ordered the army to siege the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle; the Cardinal personally commanded the besieging troops. English troops under the Duke of Buckingham led an expedition to help the citizens of La Rochelle, but failed abysmally. The city, however, remained firm for over a year before capitulating in 1628.

Although the Huguenots suffered a major defeat at La Rochelle, they continued to fight, led by Henri, duc de Rohan. Protestant forces, however, were defeated in 1629; Rohan submitted to the terms of the Peace of Alais. As a result, religious toleration for Protestants, which had first been granted by the Edict of Nantes in 1598, was permitted to continue; however, the Cardinal abolished their political rights and protections. Rohan was not executed (like leaders of rebellions later in Richelieu's tenure); in fact, he later became a commanding officer in the French army.

On the "Day of the Dupes" in 1630, it appeared that Marie de Médicis had secured Richelieu's dismissal. Richelieu, however, survived the scheme, and Marie was exiled as a result.
On the "Day of the Dupes" in 1630, it appeared that Marie de Médicis had secured Richelieu's dismissal. Richelieu, however, survived the scheme, and Marie was exiled as a result.

Habsburg Spain exploited the French conflict with the Huguenots to extend its influence in northern Italy. It funded the Huguenot rebels in order to keep the French army occupied, meanwhile expanding its Italian dominions. Richelieu, however, responded aggressively; after La Rochelle capitulated, he personally led the French army to northern Italy to restrain Spain.

In the next year, Richelieu's position was seriously threatened by his former patron, Marie de Médicis. Marie believed that the Cardinal had robbed her of her political influence; thus, she demanded that her son dismiss the chief minister. Louis XIII was not, at first, averse to such a course of action, for his relations with the Cardinal were poor. The King disliked Richelieu, but the persuasive statesman was capable of convincing his master of the wisdom in his plans. On 11 November 1630, Marie de Médicis and the King's brother, Gaston, duc d'Orléans, secured the King's agreement for the dismissal. Cardinal Richelieu, however, was aware of the plan, and quickly convinced the King to repent. This day, known as the Day of the Dupes, was the only one on which Louis XIII took a step toward dismissing his minister. Thereafter, the King, although continuing to dislike Richelieu, was unwavering in his political support for him; the courtier was created duc de Richelieu and was made a Peer of France.

Meanwhile, the unsuccessful Marie de Médicis was exiled to Compiègne. Both Marie and the duc d'Orléans continued to conspire against Cardinal Richelieu, but their schemes yielded nothing. The nobility, also, remained powerless. The only important rising was that of Henri, duc de Montmorency in 1632; Richelieu, ruthless in suppressing opposition, ordered the duke's execution. Richelieu's harsh measures were designed to intimidate his enemies. The Cardinal also ensured his political security by establishing a large network of spies in France as well as in other European countries.

Thirty Years' War

Before Richelieu's ascent to power, most of Europe had become involved in the Thirty Years' War. In 1629, the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor humbled many of his Protestant opponents in Germany, thereby greatly increasing his power. Cardinal Richelieu, alarmed by the Emperor Frederick II's influence, incited Sweden to attack. He also agreed to aid King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden with financial subsidies. France was not openly at war with the Empire, so aid was given secretly. In the meantime, France and Spain continued to remain hostile over the latter kingdom's ambitions in northern Italy. When, in 1630, French ambassadors in Regensburg agreed to make peace with Habsburg Spain, Richelieu refused to uphold them. The agreement would have prohibited French interference in the hostilities in Germany. Thus, Richelieu advised Louis XIII to refuse to ratify the treaty.

During the early 1630s, German Protestant princes fared poorly against the Catholic forces of the Empire, and, in 1635, many of them agreed to the Peace of Prague. As the Habsburgs remained powerful, the French were unsatisfied with the treaty, and were forced to declare war on the Holy Roman Empire. Because he openly aligned France with Protestant powers, Richelieu was denounced by many as a traitor to the Roman Catholic Church. Military hostilities, at first, were disastrous for the French, with many victories going to Spain and the Empire. Neither side, however, could obtain a decisive advantage, and the conflict lingered on until after Richelieu's death.

Military expenses put a considerable strain on the King's revenues. In response, Cardinal Richelieu raised the gabelle (a tax on salt) and the taille (a tax on land). The clergy, nobility, and high bourgeoisie were either exempt or could easily avoid payment, so the burden fell on the poorest segment of the nation. To collect taxes more efficiently, and to keep corruption to a minimum, Richelieu bypassed local tax officials, replacing them with intendants—officials in the direct service of the Crown. Richelieu's financial scheme, however, caused unrest amongst the peasants; there were several uprisings between 1636 and 1639. Cardinal Richelieu crushed the revolts violently, and dealt with the rebels harshly.

Last years

Towards the end of his life, Richelieu managed to alienate many individuals, including the Pope. Richelieu was displeased by Pope Urban VIII's refusal to name him the papal legate in France; in turn, the Pope did not approve of the administration of the French church, or of French foreign policy. However, the conflict was largely healed when the Pope granted a cardinalate to Jules Mazarin, one of Richelieu's foremost political allies, in 1641. Despite troubled relations with the Roman Catholic Church, Richelieu did not support the complete repudiation of papal authority in France, as was advocated by the Gallicanists.

Missing image
Jules Cardinal Mazarin succeeded Richelieu in office.

As he neared his death, Richelieu faced a threatening plot to remove him from power. Cardinal Richelieu had introduced a young man named Henri Coiffier de Ruzé, marquis de Cinq-Mars to Louis XIII's court. The Cardinal had been a friend of Cinq-Mars' father. More importantly, Richelieu hoped that Cinq-Mars would become Louis' favourite, so that he could indirectly exercise greater influence on the monarch's decisions. Cinq-Mars had become the royal favourite by 1639, but, contrary to Cardinal Richelieu's belief, he was not easy to control. The young marquis recognised that Richelieu would not permit him to gain political power. In 1641, he participated in the comte de Soissons' failed conspiracy against Richelieu, but was not discovered. Next year, he schemed with leading nobles (including the King's brother, the duc d'Orléans) to raise a rebellion; he also signed a secret agreement with the King of Spain, who promised to aid the rebels. Richelieu's spy service, however, discovered the plot, and the Cardinal received a copy of the treaty. Cinq-Mars was promptly arrested and executed; although Louis approved the use of capital punishment, he grew more distant from Richelieu as a result.

In the same year, however, Richelieu's health was already failing. The Cardinal suffered greatly from eyestrain and headaches, among other ailments. As he felt his death approaching, he named as his successor one of his most faithful followers, Jules Cardinal Mazarin. Although Mazarin was originally a representative of the Holy See, he had left the Pope's service to join that of the King of France. Mazarin succeeded Richelieu when the latter died on 4 December 1642.

Arts and culture

Cardinal Richelieu was a famous patron of the arts. Himself an author of various religious and political works (most notably his Political Testament), he funded the literary careers of many writers. He was a lover of the theatre, which was not considered a respectable art form during that era. Among the individuals he patronised was the famous playwright Pierre Corneille. Richelieu was also the founder and patron of the Académie française, the pre-eminent French literary society. The institution had previously been in informal existence; in 1635, however, Cardinal Richelieu obtained official letters patent for the body. The Académie française includes forty members, promotes French literature, and continues to be the official authority on the French language. Richelieu served as the Académie's "protector"; since 1672, that role has been fulfilled by the French head of state.

In 1622, Richelieu was elected the proviseur or principal of the Sorbonne. He presided over the renovation of the college's buildings, and over the construction of its famous chapel, where he is now entombed. As he was Bishop of Luçon, his statue stands outside the Luçon cathedral.

Richelieu oversaw the construction of his own palace in Paris, the Palais-Cardinal. The palace, renamed the Palais Royal after Richelieu's death, now houses the French Constitutional Council, the Ministry of Culture, and the Conseil d'État. The architect of the Palais-Cardinal, Jacques Lemercier, also received a commission to build a château and a surrounding town in Indre-et-Loire; the project culminated in the construction of the Château Richelieu and the town of Richelieu. To the château, the Cardinal he added one of the largest art collections in Europe. Most notably, he owned Slaves (sculptures by the Italian Michelangelo Buonarroti), as well as paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Nicolas Poussin and Titian.


Richelieu's tenure was a crucial period of reform for France. Earlier, the nation's political structure was largely feudalistic, with powerful nobles and a wide variety of laws in different regions. Parts of the nobility periodically conspired against the King, raised private armies, and allied themselves with foreign powers. This haphazard system gave way to centralized power under Cardinal Richelieu. Local and even religious interests were subordinated to those of the whole nation, and of the embodiment of the nation—the King. Equally critical for France was Richelieu's foreign policy, which helped restrain Habsburg influence in Europe. Richelieu did not survive until the end of the Thirty Years' War; however, the conflict ended in 1648, with France emerging in a far better position than any other power, and the Holy Roman Empire entering a period of decline.

Cardinal Richelieu's successes were extremely important to Louis XIII's successor, King Louis XIV. Louis XIV continued Richelieu's work of creating an absolute monarchy; in the same vein as the Cardinal, he enacted policies that further suppressed the once-mighty aristocracy, and utterly destroyed all remnants of Huguenot political power with the Edict of Fontainebleau. Moreover, Louis took advantage of his nation's success during the Thirty Years' War to establish French hegemony in continental Europe. Thus, Richelieu's policies were the requisite prelude to Louis XIV becoming the most powerful monarch, and France the most powerful nation, in all of Europe during the late seventeenth century.

Richelieu is also notable for the authoritarian measures he employed to maintain power. He censored the press, established a large network of internal spies, forbade the discussion of political matters in public assemblies such as the Parlement de Paris (a court of justice), and had those who dared to conspire against him prosecuted and executed. The Canadian historian and philosopher John Ralston Saul has referred to Richelieu as the "father of the modern nation-state, modern centralised power [and] the modern secret service." The Cardinal's motives are the focus of much debate among historians; some see him as a patriotic supporter of the monarchy, whilst others view him as a power-hungry cynic. (Voltaire even argued that Richelieu started wars to make himself indispensable to the King.) The latter image gained further currency due to Alexandre Dumas, père's work of historical fiction, Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers). The novel depicts Richelieu as a power-hungry and avaricious minister. Many adaptations of Dumas' story portray Richelieu even more negatively; the 1993 film version depicts him as a prototypical villain, devoid of any redeeming qualities.

Despite such arguments, Richelieu remains an honoured personality in France, particularly for his stubborn refusal to let courtly intrigues and foreign interests dominate the government. He has given his name to a battleship class, a battleship, and an aircraft carrier (which was later renamed after Charles de Gaulle).

His legacy is also important for the world at large - his ideas of a strong nation-state and aggressive foreign policy helped create the modern system of international politics. The notions of national sovereignty and international law can be traced, at least in part, to the policies and theories of Richelieu, especially as enunciated in the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years' War.


  • Belloc, Hilaire. (1929). Richelieu: A Study. London: J. B. Lippincott.
  • Burckhardt, Carl J. (1967). Richelieu and His Age. (3 volumes). Translated by Bernard Hoy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • Levi, Anthony. (2000). Cardinal Richelieu and the Making of France. New York: Carroll and Graf.
  • Lodge, Sir Richard. (1896). Richelieu. London: Macmillan.
  • Richelieu, Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal et Duc de. (1964). The Political Testament of Cardinal Richelieu. Translated by Henry Bertram Hill. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

External links

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de:Armand Jean du Plessis (Herzog von Richelieu) es:Cardenal Richelieu fr:Richelieu ga:Cairdinéal de Richelieu he:קרדינל רישלייה la:Armandus Ioannes Plessaeus de Richelieu nl:Kardinaal Richelieu ja:リシュリュー no:Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu pl:Armand Jean Richelieu sv:Armand-Jean du Plessis Richelieu uk:Арман Жан дю Плессі, герцог де Рішельє


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