Biography of Richelieu


CARDINAL DUC DE RICHELIEU, ARNAND JEAN DU PLESSIS, was born of a noble but impoverished family at Paris, September 5th 1585, and was educated for the military profession at the College de Navarre. On the retirement to a religious life, however, of his elder brother who held the bishopric of Lucon, Richelieu, with a view of succeeding to this preferment, betook himself to ecclesiastical studies, and underwent the preliminary examination for his degree at Sorbonne.

In 1607, he was consecrated Bishop of Lucon, at Rome, by Cardinal de Givry, in presence of Pope Paul V, and for some time devoted himself zealously to the discharge of his duties in his diocese. At the States-General in 1614, being appointed one of the representatives of the clergy, he attracted the attention of the Queen-Mother, by an address which he delivered in the presence of the young King, Louis XIII; and by his appointment in 1616 as Secretary of War and Foreign Affairs, the way seemed open to his success in political life; but in one of the vicissitudes of state intrigue common at that period, he soon found it necessary to withdraw from Court, and return to his diocese. Meanwhile, a rupture occurred between the Queen-mother and the King, and Richelieu, through the agency of a very remarkable man - the Capuchin Father Joseph - whose fortunes thenceforward were inseparably united with those of Richelieu, succeeded in effecting their reconciliation (August 1620), and the restoration of the Queen to her position at Court. The foundation of Richelieu's influence was thus solidly laid; but he appears to have acted with much tact and patient forbearance. He formed an alliance with the powerful favorite, the Duc de Luynes, and in 1622 was named Cardinal, and two years later was made Minister of State - a position which though frequently menaced, and beset by every variety of court intrigues, he retained to the end of his life. His first important measure was the conclusion of the alliance with England, by the marriage of Henrietta, sister of the King, with Charles, then Prince of Wales, in 1624. His enemies, however, were constantly on the watch for opportunities of undermining his influence, and even of bringing about his death. The Queen withdrew her favor, and the King, while he trusted him implicitly, never ceased to fear him. The crisis of the struggle took place December 11th 1630, when Richelieu himself believed that his fate was inevitable. His disgrace had indeed been decided; the King fearing to meet him face to face, had refused him an audience. His attempts to force an entrance to the King in the Luxembourg were defeated; but Louis, in the weak fear of Richelieu having withdrawn to Versailles, the Cardinal there succeeded in obtaining an audience, and having once effectually overborne the weakness and alarmed the fear of the Sovereign, his supremacy remained from that day, firmly and irrevocably established.

The administration of Richelieu forms an epoch in the history of the Constitution of France, as well as of her relations with other countries. It is memorable for several great measures or series of measures, through which the posture of affairs underwent a complete and permanent change, Of these, the first and most lasting in its results, was that by which the absolute authority of the sovereign was established. From the medieval period, the power of the French Kings had been controlled and in many cases overridden by the feudal privileges of the nobles: and in the stormy conflicts of the 16th and of the beginning of the 17th centuries, the power of the Crown had often been reduced to a cipher. By a succession of vigorous and energetic, and it must be added not unfrequently unscrupulous measures, he succeeded in breaking down the political power, and subduing the arrogant assumption of the great families; the heads of several among which were brought to the scaffold, while not a few were condemned to life-long imprisonment. Among his most powerful and inveterate enemies, was Gaston, Duke of Orleans, brother of the King; but Richelieu triumphed over him, and even the Queen-mother, Marie de Medicis, was obliged to bow before the unbending spirit of Richelieu, and to withdraw into exile at Cologne; and Richelieu, at the close of his career, delivered up the royal authority which he had wielded for 18 years, almost without a single constitutional check upon its absolute exercise.

Another of the great measures of this minister, was the overthrow of the Huguenot party as a political power, and a rival of the throne of France. The siege and capture of Rochelle, which he conducted in person (1628) was followed by the submission of other Huguenot strongholds. Richelieu, however, secured for the Huguenot body a certain measure of religious toleration; and on the whole is confessed to have used his success in this conflict with moderation.

In the external relations of France, the great object of all his measures, was the overthrow of the preponderance of Austria. With this in view he did not hesitate to foment the internal disaffections of Germany, even allying himself with this design with the German Protestants, and even with the great champion of the Protestant cause, Gustavus of Sweden; and in conjunction with his anti-Austrian policy, he also took part with the disaffected Spanish provinces in the Netherlands. His designs on Belgium, however, failed of success. With similar views, he lent his support to the revolt of Catalonia against Philip IV, and sent an army into Piedmont; nor is there any part of his foreign policy, to which he adhered with such pertinacity to the very end of his life.

Richelieu died at Paris December 4th, 1642. Notwithstanding his many distracting occupations, the writings which he left behind, fill several volumes.