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Cardinal Richelieu exercised absolute power with cruel resolve

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Religion, Royalty on Friday, 28 February 2014

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This edited article about Cardinal Richelieu first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 573 published on 6 January 1973.

Cardinal Richelieu,  picture, image, illustration

Cardinal Richelieu

“My first goal is the majesty of the King. My second is the greatness of the realm. To achieve these goals it is sometimes necessary to turn all criticism with the stubbornness of a man who stops his ears.”

The iron-willed speaker was Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis of Richelieu, for nearly 20 years the greatest man in France and in Europe, greater in power and authority than even his own King.

The people played a minor role in Richelieu’s goals. “If they are too prosperous they cannot keep their minds on their duty. They must be subjected, like mules, who, knowing always the burden they must carry, are spoiled by long idleness when they should be working.”

“Cold, cruel, petty and avaricious,” is how he has been described. But for all that, he was also determined, courageous and amazingly competent.

Richelieu came from a noble family in Poitou and was trained for a soldier’s life when he was still a boy. Quite suddenly, he switched from a uniform to a priest’s cloak, agreeing with his father that the ambition for glory burning inside him would best be satisfied from the pulpit rather than the battlefield.

How quickly that ambition worked can be gauged from the fact that at 21 Armand du Plessis of Richelieu was appointed Bishop of Lucon.

His diocese was tiny and in the poorest part of France. But it was a start. And although he was penniless he determined to make his presence felt in style. Having no coach, he borrowed one and hired a coachman and horses. A bishop, he said, should sleep in a velvet bed, so he scraped together some sous and bought a second-hand one.

As a bishop, Richelieu had a seat in the States-General, the Parliament of France, and as a bishop, too, he went often to Court.

This was the Court of Louis the Thirteenth. When he was nine, Louis’s father was murdered and his mother, Marie de Medici, became Regent, ruling the country while her son was still a boy. It was a situation where nobles and ambitious commoners could advance their progress by befriending the widowed Regent, in the knowledge that the game might have to be re-played when Louis was old enough to wear his own crown.

At Court it was said that no one could withstand the fascinating look of Richelieu, who, with his tall, proud, slender figure, thin lips, goatee beard and cavalry-style moustache, was both a distinguished-looking and dominating man.

Marie de Medici fell under the spell of that charm and made him her almoner in 1616. His first taste of office did not last many months, for one day in 1617 the Queen-Regent’s chief favourite was murdered and young Louis, responding to the cry of his own favourite, Albert de Luynes – “Now you are truly King of France!” – decided that that would indeed be the case.

Marie and Richelieu were sent away from Court by the King, but Richelieu continued to advise the Queen Mother. When passions between Louis and his mother reached such a state that civil war was likely, it was the Bishop of Luçon who cooled the royal tempers and effected a reconciliation.

Louis was aware of the important part Richelieu had played, but he and his minister, de Luynes feared the Bishop’s thirst for power.

“Beware of him, madame, for I know him better than you,” the King told his mother. “He is a man of unbounded ambition.”

Within a few more years Louis was to find that he needed such a man, for he was hopelessly unfitted to rule. During those years Richelieu was made a cardinal and de Luynes died. Richelieu was 39 when Louis recalled him to Court, and from that moment the Cardinal dominated the King and ruled France for him.

One of Richelieu’s first acts was to set up a secret service. It was as well that he did, for his spies soon uncovered one of the many plots to kill him. Then he turned his attention to crushing the French Protestants – the Huguenots.

Richelieu did not object to the Huguenots because they were Protestants, for he was tolerant in religious matters. What irked him was that they were powerful enough to raise armies and maintain fortified places. For Richelieu, that meant that they divided the King’s realm, and that he could not permit.

Raising an army, Richelieu went with it to besiege the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle. The Huguenots resisted valiantly and had the English backing them. But Richelieu pressed harder and harder; he had to take this Protestant town, he could not contemplate raising the siege.

Richelieu himself suffered almost as much as the besieged Huguenots. Always in poor health – he suffered severe headaches and spent much time describing his various ailments to the King, who was also rarely well – he had five attacks of fever during the siege of La Rochelle.

Victory over the Huguenots raised Richelieu to the pinnacle of his fame – a statesman all France talked of with bated breath, hated by the jealous, feared by the ambitious but always masterful. Enemies abounded around him, forever seeking a chink in his armour and scheming for his fall. Richelieu treated them all like insects and outwitted them all.

“Pay no attention to insults,” he once said. “They work only for the glory of him they would injure.” Even so, frustration could lead him into terrible rages which caused him to hack with a knife at tapestries, and altogether Richelieu was a sad, melancholy man, who ate his simple meals alone and, according to Marie de Medici, “cried often.”

After La Rochelle Richelieu turned his attention to Europe and in 17 years he concluded 74 treaties with foreign countries. He doffed his cardinal’s robe for a military uniform again and marched into Italy, besieging and taking Pinerolo. His armies seized Roussillon, Catalonia and Savoy and threatened the Milanese. Nearer home, he occupied Lorraine because its duke had angered the King of France.

But the greatness of France and “the majesty of the King” depended always on containing the ambitions of the all-powerful Austria, Hapsburg Empire and the might of Spain. Richelieu declared war on both. The war split the power of these opponents and reduced their resources, and it enabled Richelieu to capture the control of international diplomacy from the Hapsburgs. This was exactly what the Cardinal wanted, and he saw to it by good government at home that France could stand the cost of the fighting better than either the Hapsburgs or Spain.

In all these things Richelieu was dictator of France: the King he set out to make great was irresolute and unstable. So it was that when the King’s turncoat mother, Marie de Medici, whispered to her son against Richelieu’s “tyranny and insolence,” Louis agreed with her, and decided in the heat of the moment to sign an order exiling the Cardinal.

No sooner had he written his name than the feeble King wondered how he would ever rule without Richelieu. He rode off to Versailles to think about it.

But the story of the exiling order soon spread and the delighted Marie de Medici called her favourites and began to distribute all Richelieu’s titles to them. “The power has come back into my hands,” she shrilled. “Even now, Richelieu must be fleeing to England.”

Indeed, Richelieu was doing no such thing. Typically, he had gone straight to Versailles, demanding to see Louis.

The feeble King welcomed him with open arms, obviously much relieved to see that he had ignored the royal command. “You are a good minister,” he said. “The trouble with my mother is that she is surrounded with mischief-makers.” At once Louis rescinded the exiling order and the day that Marie was thus deceived – November 11, 1630 – has come to be known as the Day of Dupes.

Richelieu realised now that if he was to continue to rule France the Queen Mother had to go. Steadily the Cardinal worked on the King’s reluctance to exile his mother and at last, one day when Marie was out of Paris, Louis wrote to her requesting her not to return.

For the Queen Mother the letter meant banishment and knowing that Richelieu, the man she had once promoted, was behind it must have been a bitter blow. Sadly, she rented a house in Cologne where, attended by only one servant, she died almost in poverty.

Louis, whose favourite pastime was catching birds in the palace gardens, was resigned to letting the Cardinal rule the kingdom. Richelieu’s enemies fumed with anger when the King made him a duke.

One of them, Henri de Montmorency, planned a revolt which would have plunged France into civil war. Once again Richelieu’s spy system sounded an early warning, and moving like a panther Richelieu crushed Montmorency’s rebels. “He is a traitor to the majesty of the King,” remarked the Cardinal. “Hang him!”

Henri de Cinq-Mars, a young and foolish marquis, was the next to plot against Richelieu. Believing himself in the King’s favour, Cinq-Mars entered into secret negotiations with Spain for France to restore all the possessions she had won from Spain, in order to bring about the Cardinal’s downfall.

Again the Richelieu spy system uncovered the betrayal and Richelieu sent all the details of it to Louis. The King ordered the arrest of the marquis and made Richelieu Lieutenant General of the Realm, with almost royal powers.

Cinq-Mars was beheaded and after the trial Richelieu became gravely ill. He implored a hesitant doctor to speak the truth about his condition, until at last he was told, “Sir, in twenty-four hours you will be either dead or well.”

Richelieu, who had championed clarity of thought and word all his life, replied, “I like that. That’s the way to talk.” Two days later he was dead.

Louis the Thirteenth survived him by only a few months, leaving the crown to his infant son, the great Louis the Fourteenth. That famous King had Richelieu to thank for the golden age in which he was to reign, for it was Richelieu, the dictator, who had made the absolute power of the monarchy in France that Louis the Fourteenth was so greatly to enjoy.

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