Premier of Louis XIII's ministers from 1624 to 1642, Cardinal Richelieu occupies an eminent place in the pantheon of great French statesmen. He chaired, alongside the king with whom he formed a memorable political duo, the great return of France on the international scene after the bloodletting of the Wars of Religion. Often seen as an apostle of raison d'etat, he talentedly embodied the project to strengthen the monarchical authority of the Bourbons and laid the foundations for the greatness of the kingdom of France in the Great Century.
From the service of the Queen to that of the King
Armand Jean du Plessis cardinal de Richelieu born September 9, 1585 is the fifth of a family of six children. Coming from a line of noble Poitou, he initially intended for the profession of arms. Fatherless at 5 years old, he enjoys no less a privileged position due to the gratitude of King Henry IV towards his family (Armand’s father having served as Provost Marshal of France).
As a result of a careful education combining learning of weapons and classical humanities, Armand did not however have the opportunity to shine in the military field. Following the refusal of one of his brothers to assume the charge of the bishopric of Luçon (entrusted to the Richelieu by the King), he was forced to become a clergyman. Although he describes his diocese as "the dirtiest in France. »The young Armand will quickly enjoy his new functions.
It must be said that the new 22-year-old bishop does not lack talents. Intellectually brilliant, charismatic and subtle, he has the soul of a reformer committed to the theses of the Council of Trent. Richelieu also benefits from the bond he forges with Father Joseph (François Leclerc du Tremblay), his future eminence grise and his inspiration in many matters.
Deputy of the Poitvein clergy at the Estates General of 1614 (the last before those of 1789), the handsome and ambitious prelate stood out for his oratorical talent. He particularly caught the attention of the Queen and Regent Marie de Medici, who made him her grand chaplain the following year. In 1616 Richelieu joined the king’s council as secretary of state.
Originally, relations between Louis XIII and the Bishop of Luçon could only be strained. Richelieu is the liege man of the Queen Mother, whom Louis dreams of freeing himself from. So when the young king had Concini, Marshal d'Ancre and Marie’s favorite, Eliminated, Armand Jean du Plessis found himself clearly rejected in the losing camp. It was the beginning for him of several difficult years, where in exile in Blois with the queen or in his bishopric, he took the time to reflect on his future and that of France.
A time cut down by this reversal of fortune, the ambitious will eventually pull himself together and play a leading political role. Convinced that the latent war between the King and his mother destroys any hope of stability for the kingdom, he strives to bring the two camps together. Skillful diplomat, willingly charmer, he is the architect of several treaties putting an end to the "wars of mother and son" that they earned him sufficient esteem to win the cardinal's hat in 1622. Living symbol of reconciliation (alas very fragile) between Marie and Louis, he returned to the King's Council in 1624, before becoming its prime minister a few months later.
Richelieu and Louis XIII, the recovery of France
Returning to business and at the highest level, Richelieu quickly showed himself to be a convinced supporter of strengthening monarchical authority. Managing to dispel the mistrust he initially inspired in the King, the cardinal shared with him the vision of a consolidated and powerful kingdom and posed as a continuator of the work of Henry IV. In doing so, Richelieu cannot but ultimately attract the hostility of Marie de Medici, who does not share his political views. Indeed if Louis and the cardinal both plan to ensure the religious unity of the kingdom by cutting back on the privileges acquired by the Huguenots following the wars of religion, they also intend to assert France's European position against the Habsburgs, who have the favors of the devout party of which the Queen is a figure. On the other hand, both Richelieu and Louis clearly intended to discipline a great French nobility, quick to rebellion and with whom the queen mother maintained close relations.
In short, in a few years, Richelieu, architect of the reconciliation between Louis and Marie, became the latter's worst enemy. During the famous "day of the dupes", Louis XIII put under pressure from the devout party pretends to give in to them before changing his mind and deciding in favor of his cardinal-minister, forcing his mother into exile. Richelieu then has a free hand to vigorously apply his "program. ". The internal war against the Protestants supported by England is waged with full force, giving the cardinal the opportunity to distinguish himself as warlord as at the siege of La Rochelle. The Peace of Alès of 1629, although confirming the freedom of worship, suppressed the Protestant strongholds, a legacy of the Wars of Religion. This is the first questioning of the Edict of Nantes, which will gradually be emptied of its substance. It is also the assertion of royal power, which tends to arrogate to itself control of military infrastructure.
At the same time as the clash with the Protestants Louis XIII and Richelieu stubbornly faced attempts for independence and the revolt of the "Great." ". From 1626 to 1638 (date of the birth of the heir to the throne, the future Louis XIV) there were no less than half a dozen major plots, some of which involved the King's own wife: Anne of Austria and frequently leading to armed revolts. They are indicative of a tense context fueled by the assertion of the authority of the royal state.
Because during this period of twelve years what reforms for France! The cardinal and the king will rationalize and strengthen the administration, put an end to certain feudal survivals (including duels), develop the navy, trade and colonies, supervise cultural development ... A work that will be continued by another cardinal, Louis XIV's first master in politics: Mazarin. The latter joined Richelieu's team in 1639, who saw in this diplomat in the service of the Pope a possible successor.
In the exercise of power Richelieu and Louis XIII prove to be complementary. Where the King shows boldness and firmness, the cardinal uses prudence and flexibility. Richelieu knows better than anyone how to put the King's wishes into practice, giving them the substance and realism necessary for their success. The two men respect each other, respect each other, but a certain distance will persist between them, the result of their differences in character.
Thirty Years' War
However, their association is a success amply demonstrated by the return of France to the European scene. The powerful France, dreamed of by the cardinal and his king, could not stay long away from the conflict which is ravaging the Holy Empire. The Thirty Years' War gave France the possibility of lowering the power of the Habsburgs which surrounded it. In terms of foreign policy, the French are content to support the enemies of Vienna and Madrid, especially Sweden.
In 1635 this "Cold War" ended when war broke out between France and Spain. It is a cruel and costly conflict. By virtue of their possessions of Franche-Comté, the Milanese and the Netherlands (present-day Belgium and part of present-day northern France) the Spaniards were able to strike on all French borders. The Habsburg troops can count on the support of many allies and on various betrayals. The first years are therefore difficult for the French arms.
The end of Richelieu's career
If the Thirty Years' War was an opportunity for Richelieu to further develop the power and resources of the state apparatus, it attracted new enmities for him. In the twilight of his life, although almighty the cardinal was widely hated by a population he burdened with taxes. With age, Richelieu, whose fragile health was then clearly declining, lost the flexibility and subtlety that had served him so much at the start of his career. "The Red Man" yet protector of the arts (he formalized the French Academy in 1635) and enlightened prelate was given a reputation as a bloodthirsty tyrant. During the last months of his life, his relations were strained with a Louis XIII consumed by doubts and remorse over his war against the Catholic power of Spain.
Carried away by a devastating pleurisy Richelieu died on December 4, 1642. His death caused an explosion of popular jubilation, with which the King did not publicly associate himself. King Louis XIII finally emancipated from his minister of cardinal survived him only a few months. On his death, it is Richelieu's spiritual son who will take the reins of the kingdom alongside Queen Anne of Austria: Mazarin ...
- Richelieu by Françoise Hildesheimer. Flammarion, 2008.
- Richelieu: The ambitious The revolutionary The dictator by Philippe Erlanger. Tempus, 2006.
- La France de Richelieu by Michel Carmona. Fayard, 1998.