Cardinal Richelieu
Ou: Un Bâtard Magnifique

An unpopular Frenchman, sure enough. That in and of itself is fairly unremarkable. Richelieu, however, is one of history's most famous unpopular Frenchmen.

Prime Minister of France from 1624 to 1642, he mixed with Popes, Kings, and the Medici family, any one of which might have you killed you for breathing the air that was theirs by Divine Right, and he navigated them safely to the other side of his life.

A staunch Royalist and Catholic, the King and Vatican loved him; he supported the Crown and suppressed the life out of many a Huguenot. But he did so with such unremitting brute force, cunning, and ruthlessness that he has gone down in history as a right villain--he was the bad guy in The Three Musketeers, thanks to Alexandre Dumas, and is usually shown with a sinister moustache and swirling red cloak.

Read on, and feel free to judge as harshly as a Counter-Reformation Pontiff.

Le Petit Rascal

The fancy name of Richelieu came from the family estate. Richelieu was in fact born a du Plessis, a family of lesser nobility that earned its position at Court via a prior and highly advantageous marriage into the de Rochechouart clan.

  • 1585: Richelieu born in Paris with the given name Armand Jean. No moustache yet visible.
  • 1586-1593: The future megalomaniacal tyrant turns out as a sickly, weak, highly intelligent over-achiever. Sound like any cartoonish arch-villains you know?
  • 1594: The budding brain is sent to College de Navarre at the tender age of nine. Other nine year olds parents' tell their children he'll be totally screwed up, but are secretly disappointed.
  • 1602: Richelieu returns to the countryside as a theologian.
  • 1605: His religious studies obtain for him the See of Luçon, and he continues to work under the direction of Bishop Cospéan of Aire. This by age twenty. When I was twenty, I bought a Trainspotting poster for my dorm room.

It is commonly theorized that Richelieu developed his taste for politics and Machiavellian maneuvering during this time, and so now must be counted an adult.

Lies and Deceit: A Career in the Church

Richelieu sought upward mobility in true 17th Century religious fashion, and started out on quite the right foot.

  • 1607: Twenty-one is a bit young to be consecrated a Bishop, which is why many believe that Richelieu lied to Pope Paul V about his age during a trip to Rome the previous year.

He spent the next few years in his diocese, making it a personal mission to convert as many Protestants as he could get to sit still long enough. He recruited Oratorians and Capuchins to the spread the word about town that Martin Luther was an utter prat, and it soon became clear that a vote for Catholicism was a vote for not being run out of town.

  • 1614: Richelieu steps into the political limelight by representing Poitou in the Estates General, and makes a huge splash, advancing with great confidence and antic gesticulation a lot of Church policies of which people now make light.

    Par Example:

    1. Forbidding the distribution of ecclesiastical benefices to the laity
    2. The exemption of the Church from taxation
    3. The punishment of Protestants who took over churches or had fellow heretics buried in them
    4. The unquestioned upholding and promulgation of the Decrees of the Council of Trent.

    A lot of power to the Church in that diatribe, and the newly crowned and still young King Louis XIII would have been clutching at his jewelled collar had not Richelieu reassured him that these and other of his strategems were intended to maintain the Monarchy 'comme un ferme rocher qui brise tout ce qui le heurte'--as a firm rock which crushes all that oppose it.

    Insert uncertain applause and subdued murmurs here.

  • 1616: The King buys it at least halfway, and names Richelieu Secretary of State.

La Merde Frappe le Ventilateur

Intrigues begin directly Richelieu arrives on the scene.

  • 1616: Suspicion falls on him for the assassination of Concino Concini, minister, spymaster, and favorite of Queen Mother Maria de Medici.

    Concini was probably involved in the assassination of her husband, King Henry IV, and had her in his sway for years, making him no love of Louis XIII--but the young King still didn't completely trust him.

  • 1617: The scandals force Richelieu to retire from his post to the priory of Coussay while the Queen Mum splits for Blois after an intense Mother/Son squabble.
  • 1618: The King names Avignon as Richelieu's place of exile, at Richelieu's request.
  • 1619: Richelieu is enlisted to make peace between the estranged family members, and isn't so thick as to close the window of opportunity on his own fingers. He regains the King's confidence, and looks to the Vatican for backup.

Encore, Encore!

The wheels get bigger and turn faster for Richelieu in the 1620s as his influence over King and country expand.

To those ends, Richelieu made some pretty bold alliances with Protestant foreign nations, getting into bed with the Grisons, the Swedes, and the Germans at one point or another, even while keeping a heeled boot on the collective neck of his own domestic Huguenots.

These tactics earned him the reputation of shrewd politician and singularly tough cookie throughout Europe, though they jeopardized his standing at home. Constant plots on the part of the high nobility and Queen Mother kept him well occupied, claiming his actions would hurt the Catholic cause; the King's Confessor actually enlisted the aid of a potential King's mistress-turned-nun to garner influence against the Cardinal, sending her in to weaken the King's confidence.

But Richelieu was not to be outdone.

  • 1638: The King's Confessor is banished to Rennes. His successor is given specific instructions to report only to Richelieu.
  • 1639: Richelieu has the King consecrate the Kingdom of France to the Virgin Mary.
  • 1640-1642: The wounds among Richelieu, Holy See, and French Government are patched up through a series of well-timed and mutually beneficial compromises, largely over the matter of taxation and land ownership.
  • 1642: Richelieu dies after his lifelong battle with recurrent weakness and disease.

The machinations of all his courtly doings are extraordinarily complicated, to say the very least. Richelieu kept afloat by a readiness to make unlikely friends and an equal willingness to eliminate enemies, with the requisite amount of executions, political sabotage, and the unflagging belief that he knew what he was doing.

For better or worse, he was responsible for a great portion of France's infrastructure, and he laid the foundations for the monarchy that would see France a force to be reckoned with in the coming years.

Les Beaux Arts

When he wasn't running the country and watching his back, Richelieu was a great benefactor of arts and education. He founded the Academie Française, rebuilt the Sorbonne, and actually wrote several plays of no great distinction that he had performed at a theatre in his possession.

This in a time when across the Channel, religious authorities were doing their best to keep actors and playwrights neither seen nor heard.

Les Mots Justes

A few Richelieu quotations. Guaranteed to break the ice at parties.

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

'Had Luther and Calvin been confined before they had begun to dogmatize, the states would have been spared many troubles.'

'One must believe neither the people of the palace, who ordinarily measure the power of the king by the shape of his crown, which, being round, has no end, nor those who, in the excesses of an indiscreet zeal, proclaim themselves openly as partisans of Rome.'

And that about sums him up.

Merci beaucoup a:

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