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Cardinal de Richelieu, by Philippe de Champaigne *

* Philippe de Champaigne (26 May 1602 – 12 August 1674)

Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu et de Fronsac (9 September 1585 – 4 December 1642) is probably the best example of an éminence grise, the name given persons who stand behind the official ruler, and ensure his or her success.  Richelieu was a clergyman, a noble and a statesman.  He became a public figure when he was elected one of the representatives of the clergy of Poitou to the States General of 1614.[i]  He became Secretary of State in 1616, six years after Henri IV was assassinated by François Ravaillac.

Marie de Médicis

In 1610, when her husband Henri IV was assassinated, Marie de Médicis or Marie de’ Medici (26 April 1575 – 4 July 1642), a potentially powerful widow, could have ruled France.  The future Louis XIII (27 September 1601 – 14 May 1643) was only nine when his father was killed.  But the French did not like Marie.  She was not very intelligent and there was something vulgar about her: “[t]he queen feuded with Henri’s mistresses in language that shocked French courtiers.” (Wikipedia)

Marie’s main mistake was to befriend the corrupt Concini family, nipping in the bud her chances to govern and leaving room for the then bishop and brilliant Richelieu to enter into the service of Louis XIII and become the chief architect of absolutism.

Cardinal de Richelieu, by Philippe de Champaigne (c.1640)

Absolute Monarchy: one king, one language, one religion

As for Richelieu, he would centralize France and establish absolutism as firmly as he could.   Put in a nutshell, absolutism required the people of France to have one king, to speak one language, and to practice the same religion.  Between 1624 until his death in 1642, Armand Jean du Plessis did achieve the three goals he had set as his objective.

Louis XIII

In theory, Richelieu was nothing more than King Louis XIII‘s chief minister but, in reality, he was king regent and extremely powerful.  Louis de Bourbon was a reluctant and unlikely king and therefore needed Richelieu, which goes a long way in explaining the authority afforded Richelieu.  The relationship between the king and his chief minister was well nigh symbiotic.  In other words, Marie’s intellectual deficiencies and Louis’s inability to rule were ideal circumstances for a bright young Bishop to become a ruler.

Louis XIII was not cut out to be an absolute ruler.  Louis liked to go hunting and he and his minions gathered in his hunting lodge at Versailles.  He was a homosexual and, as I recently discovered, he was also a composer, as was Frederick the Great.

On the Day of the Dupes (November 10, 1630), when the rumour circulated that Richelieu had been killed, Louis XIII took his chief minister to his hunting lodge in Versailles.  According to Britannica, “[a]fter initially agreeing to the cardinal’s dismissal, the king recovered and chose to support Richelieu against the wishes of his mother, his wife, and his confessor.”[ii]  Marie was sent to Blois and Richelieu started to rule unopposed, as did his successor Jules Mazarin, the chief minister from December 5, 1642 until March 9, 1661.

La Fronde

The Fronde, a revolt which began in 1635, at the time of the Franco-Spanish War, was the acid test that confirmed absolutism as exercised by Richelieu/Louis XIII.  The Fronde opposed, on the one hand, the people (les parlements) and the king, and, on the other hand, the nobility and the king, or his chief minister.  Frondeurs actually entered Louis XIV’s bedroom at the Louvre when he was a child.  As a result, Louis XIV’s advisors were “bourgeois” who lived upstairs at Versailles which, as I have mentioned recently, fully explains their being called, le conseil d’en haut.  Here “en haut” meant upstairs.

One language

We have named the three conditions demanded by absolutism: one king, one language and one religion.  I will write about these goals, but not in the order I just used.  We will begin with the linguistic condition.  All of France had to speack and spoke French.

Well, in this regard, we owe the creation of the Académie-Française (1635) to Richelieu.  Very early in the century, Catherine de Vivonne or Madame de Rambouillet, born in Rome, opened her salon.  The people who gathered in her chambre bleue, including aristocrats and Richelieu himself, were by an large honnêtes hommes, a term which as I have written in an earlier blog does not mean honest men.  Honest men would be called hommes honnêtes.  Not only would l’honnête homme speak French, but he would speak it well. 

L‘honnête homme is the perfect gentleman.  He has Italian roots in that he embodies Baldassare Castiglione‘s courtier.  Castiglione is the author of Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier), published in 1528.  During his stay at the Court of Urbino, in what is now Italy, Castiglione observed an “art,” the art of being a courtier, an “honnête homme,” but not necessarily an aristocratic honnête homme.  Aristocrats had to learn honnêteté.

In the salons, one spoke well, hence the creation of the above-mentioned Académie-Française whose mission it would be to regulate the French language.  The French court and courtiers would have to be as civilized as persons attending salons, but the court could not be “précieuse.”  The movement known as La Préciosité was an instance of what Jean Cocteau described as “not knowing just how far one can go too far.”  Chairs are chairs and an armchair, an armchair or fauteuil (fautei).  Neither are “les commodités de la conversation.” 

Ironically, Jean Cocteau’s famous phrase about audacity summarizes l’honnêteté.  An honnête homme knew how far he could go too far.  “Avoir du tact, c’est savoir jusqu’où on peut aller trop loin.” or “Being tactful in audacity is knowing how far one can go to far.” (Jean Cocteau [5 July 1889 – 11 October 1963]).  What a quotation!

The Edict of Nantes, 1598

One Religion

Under Richelieu, being a protestant was a major disadvantage.  One could pay a price.  So despite the Edict of Nantes, promulgated under Henri IV, in 1598, and dictating tolerance towards Huguenots, Richelieu, our éminence grise, but rouge, given his red garments, brought Louis XIII to La Rochelle when it was besieged, in 1627-1628.  That year, some twenty-two thousand Huguenots were starved to death.  Out of a population of twenty-seven thousand Huguenots, five thousand survived.

“[Richelieu] believed that their [the Huguenots] right under the Edict of Nantes to maintain armed fortresses weakened the king’s position at home and abroad. Protestant rebellions in 1625 and 1627 persuaded the cardinal of the need for a direct confrontation.”[iii]  The British tried to rescue the starving Huguenots, but were defeated.

So the Edict of Nantes was revoked long before its official revocation by Louis XIV, on 18 October 1685.

One King

The centralization of France, absolute monarchy in this case, also demanded that France have but one king.  This takes us to La Fronde.  Various grands seigneurs, dukes who had owned large portions of France, resented being disempowered, which was a requirement of absolutism as designed by Richelieu and put into pratice by his chosen successor, Jules Mazarin (1602–1661), born Giulio Raimondo Mazzarino.

La Fronde des nobles was severely repressed.  No one was drawn and quartered by four horses racing respectively east, west, north and south, which had been Ravaillac’s fate, Henri IV’s assassin.  But the story of Cinq-Mars (pronounced: Mar), whose father was a friend of Richelieu, illustrates how ruthlessly Richelieu made everyone in France march to the beat of one drummer.

Henri Coiffier de Ruzé, Marquis de Cinq-Mars (1620 – September 12, 1642)  became Louis XIII’s lover and told Louis XIII that Richelieu should be executed.  Cinq-Mars had a powerful supporter in Gaston de France, Henri IV’s and Marie de Médicis’s son and Louis XIII’s brother.  The conspiracy failed and it would appear that Cinq-Mars’s family did not believe Richelieu would have young Cinq-Mars beheaded.  At any rate, they did not hire a good executioner and the head took forever to fall.  This type of torture led to the invention of the guillotine.

Not only was Richelieu pitiless, but he insisted on being transported to Lyons where the executions took place, lying on his death-bed.  He wanted to be a witness to 22 year-old Cinq-Mars’s execution.  François-Auguste de Thou (Paris c. 1607 – Lyon 12 septembre 1642), not a conspirator, but one who knew about the conspiracy and did not tell, was also executed on that day.  As for Gaston de France, or Gaston d’Orléans, he lost his claim to the throne of France.


So, to conclude, Richelieu

  • was the main architect of French absolute monarchy: one language, one religion and one king;
  • he was or seemed an éminence grise, the man behind Louis XIII;
  • he ruled France as though he was the king, which makes him look like an impostor, yet he wasn’t.

In other words, Richelieu ruled, but if he did rule, it was because he could not be king.  He had no claim to the throne of France, nor did his successor, Mazarin.  Both were chief ministers, except that Richelieu was, if not a crowned king, the ruler of France.  And if he was, though unofficially, king of France, it is because circumstances created a breech in an otherwise impenetrable world.  As mentioned above, his relationship with Louis XIII was all but symbiotic.  They were two in one.

There have been several éminences grises. Wikipedia gives a long list of éminences grises.  But Richelieu was no ordinary éminence grise.  There is always more to tell…

 * Henri Motte (1846-1922), peintre historique (Siège de La Rochelle)

(please click on the picture to enarge it and on the titles to hear the music)


[i] J. H. Shennan. “France.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 28 Feb. 2012. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/215768/France>.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.