Sep 092013
 

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Today is the birthday (1585) of Armand Jean du Plessis, cardinal-duc de Richelieu et de Fronsac, French clergyman, noble and statesman. Cardinal Richelieu is one of those historical figures who is very well known, but mostly from fiction.  So people have a certain stereotyped image of him that tend to be caricatures.  I won’t mince my words about him; he was thoroughly nasty in lots of ways.  Then again, so were a lot of people in his era. He once wrote:

“If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”

I suspect Machiavelli could have taken lessons from him.  But the simple truth is that when he became, effectively, the ruler of France the country was weak and divided, and when he died the country was strong and unified. He set the stage for the brilliant reign of Louis XIV. On the other hand, he also sowed all the seeds that were reaped during the French Revolution.  Here are the bare bones.

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At birth Richelieu’s prospects were not rosy. He had two older brothers who were in line to inherit family titles, and his father died in battle leaving the family heavily in debt. But fortune was on his side.  The king, Henry III, bestowed the bishopric of Luçon on the family in recognition of his father’s war service, which provided a substantial income. His elder brother died in a street brawl over a prostitute, and his other brother preferred to become a monk than serve as a bishop.  So after a stint in the army where, apparently, his most notable achievement was to get gonorrhea, he was made bishop of Luçon.  Thus, at 21 (1608) he was both a duke and bishop. His rise in the church was swift. He was a Secretary of State by 1616, a Cardinal in 1622, and Louis XIII’s chief minister in 1624. He remained in office until his death in 1642.

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Richelieu gained such immense power because Louis XIII was a weak king. He came to the throne at the age of 8. His mother, Marie de’ Medici, acted as regent during his minority. Mismanagement of the kingdom and ceaseless political intrigues by Marie de’ Medici and her Italian favorites led the young king to take power in 1617 by exiling his mother and executing her followers.  Louis was beset with political troubles from the start, chiefly because the Huguenots and the French nobility had considerable power, dividing the country into regional factions.  With Richelieu as his guide, Louis was able to consolidate power and become an absolute monarch over a unified nation.  In brief Richelieu strengthened France in the following ways:

• Subsidized Protestant powers opposing the Hapsburg monarchs who were beginning to dominate Europe, and then successfully intervened in the Thirty Years War to reduce the power of the Hapsburgs in neighboring states.
• Reduced the power of the nobility to a role of service to the crown, and restricted the individual rights and privileges of towns and the church which hitherto had acted independently.
• Reformed the army.
• Defeated the Huguenots at the Siege of La Rochelle and retracted the political and military privileges granted to them Henry IV (while maintaining their religious freedoms).
• Forbade all dealings with foreign powers by any other than the crown.
• Had the port of Le Havre modernized, and built a powerful navy, which subsequently allowed France to begin colonial expansion in Canada and the Caribbean to challenge the supremacy of the E