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Cardinal Richelieu

Armand-Jean du Plessis, Duke of Richelieu (September 9, 1585 - December 4, 1642) was a French cardinal and statesman, usually known as simply Cardinal Richelieu. Considered by some to be the inventor of the nation-state and nationalism.

The brilliant and energetic Richelieu played a major role in king Louis XIII's administration, decisively shaping the destiny of France for the next 25 years. To reduce the power of the provincial dukes and princes, he ordered the destruction of their strongholds, reducing such Vendean castles as Talmont[?], La Garnache[?], Les Essarts[?] and Chateau Apremont[?] to ruins. As a result of this and other actions by Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIII became one of the first exemplars of an absolute ruler.

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The Cardinal's Policies and Opposition

The cardinal's policies made most of France his enemy. French bureaucracy at the time by office-holder who had bought their positions to benefit from the social status attached. These people were called noblesse de la robe, and they were notorious for ignoring their duties. Richelieu replaced or bypassed many of these officials -- primarily the tax officials -- with intendants, who were paid directly by the crown and could be easily fired. This won him the hatred of many office-holders.

Richelieu reformed the tax system because the Crown needed more money to fight the Thirty Years War. The result of the new system was a heavier burden on the poorest segment of the population. This triggered several peasant revolts, often supported by local aristocrats, between 1636 and 1639. These were put down by violence. Richelieu argued in his political autobiography that, "Harshness towards individuals who flout the laws and commands of the state is for the public good," and thus brutality was necessary to preserve order.

Richelieu's few friends and admirers often pointed out that one of his great accomplishments was reducing the power of the great military noble families. In the course of his career, Richelieu helped put down a number of threats to the king's power. In 1630, King Louis' mother, Marie de Medici, attempted to have Cardinal Richelieu removed. She was not successful and as a result was exiled by her son to Compiègne[?]. The king's brother, Duke Gaston of Orléans, made a number of attempts to get rid of Richelieu, and was forced into exile several times.

Richelieu's defeat of the Protestant nobles at La Rochelle broke the power of the one of the largest political factions in the country, the Huguenots. Although the Huguenots were still tolerated after La Rochelle, they had lost all their political privileges and special protections. Nor was Richelieu kind with the dévots, the Catholic nobility who objected to France's allegiance with the Protestant countries against Catholic Spain and Austria. Dissenting nobles of either faction were treated harshly, and the fortifications of rebellious towns -- and any castle situated a certain distance from Paris -- were dismantled. Richelieu hoped to centralize government by stripping the competing nobility of their ability to defend themselves. Additionally, Richelieu crusaded against the beloved noble custom of settling disputes through duels. Killing another person in a duel became high treason.

Richelieu's relationship with his own Church was strained. France's support of Protestant countries against Spain was a continuing problem for many Catholics, and in 1624, shortly after Richelieu was made the King's chief minister, he ordered troops into the strategically important Vatelline valley to expel the Pope's armies from the forts there, and reinstall the Protestant overlords, the Grisons, who had previously ruled the corridor.

At the end of his life, Richelieu even managed to alienate the king. In 1642, Louis had no "favourite" (a close friend, usually a lover at court, who usually had a major influence on the King's decisions). Richelieu had introduced a young man named Henri Coiffier de Ruzé, Marquis of Cinq-Mars, to Louis, hoping Louis would take Cinq-Mars as a lover. The cardinal believed Cinq-Mars was easy to control. Instead, the marquis tried to convince the king to have Richelieu executed, and when Cinq-Mars took matters into his own hands, Richelieu had him imprisoned and then executed. Although the king approved the execution, the death of Cinq-Mars appears to have driven a wedge between him an the cardinal.

The Cardinal, the Arts, and Culture

The Cardinal was famous as a patron of the arts. when he rebuilt his ancestral home at Richelieu, he added to it one of the largest collections of statues anywhere in Europe at the time. The most famous sculpture work he owned may be Michelangelo's Slaves. He also owned paintings by Titian, Rubens, and Poussin.

The cardinal had a special love of theatre, which was not considered a respectable art form at the time. The historian R.J. Knecht has said, "It was largely thanks to his patronage that the acting profession acquired social respectibility after 1635." Richelieu's patronage, however, was a double-edged sword. Richelieu's Académie française tried to force the great playwright Pierre Corneille to change parts of his plays Le Cid and Horace to conform to what were considered the proper rules for tragedy. Richelieu also founded the Académie française to give unity to the French language by deciding the proper spelling and grammar of the French language, inventing new words as needed, and enforcing the traditional rules for literature. This Académie still exists today.

Cardinal Richelieu was a principal of the Sorbonne and presided over the construction of its famous chapel in 1635, one of the first Classical buildings in Paris, where he is buried. At one time, he was the bishop of Luçon[?], Pays de la Loire, and today a statue of him stands outside the Luçon cathedral.

The Cardinal's Legacy

It has sometimes been argued that Richelieu invented the nation-state and nationalism. The historian and philosopher John Ralston Saul has called the cardinal "Father of the modern nation-state, modern centralized power, [and] the modern secret service."

It is true that France after Richelieu was a very different construct than anything else that had existed in Europe in the middle ages. The patchwork political structure of feudalism, with its powerful nobles and wide variety of laws from region to region, had begun to give way to a centralized bureaucracy. In the middle ages, one had identified primarily with one's family, political faction, class, and religion. Richelieu subordinated all these things to the interests of France. Questions of religion and class became secondary to the interests of the nation, and the nation's embodiment, the King. This is certainly a form of nationalism, though whether Richelieu invented it or not is up for debate.

And in some ways, Richelieu's ministry does resemble modern politics. Deeply concerned with public opinion, Richelieu operated a powerful public relations machine that included extensive press censorship, an official newspaper called The Gazette, a relatively large number of publicists, and the power to put to death anyone guilty of criticizing the government. He had a system of informants who helped him stay on top of things.

History has, not surprisingly, not been kind to Richelieu. Voltaire believed the cardinal had started wars to make himself indispensible to the king. The most famous portrayal of Richelieu now is in fiction: Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers has reproduced the image of the cardinal as a cynical man, hungry for power and money. As recently as 1993, the cardinal appeared in film (Disney's Three Musketeers) as a prototypical villain, devoid of redeeming qualities.

Consequently, Richelieu's motives are the focus of much debate among historians. While some do see him as a power-hungry cynic, others are more inclined to see him as a true believer in French absolutism, who believed that the end justified the means. This is how Richelieu presents himself in his autobiographies.


  • "If you give me six lines written by the most honest man, I will find something in them to hang him."

  • "Reason must be the universal rule and guide; all things must be done according to reason without allowing oneself to be swayed by emotion."

  • "Harshness towards individuals who flout the laws and commands of the state is for the public good; no greater crime against the public interest is possible than to show leniency to those who violate it."

  • "I have never had any [enemies], other than those of the state."

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