Armand Jean du Plessis, Duke of Richelieu (September 9, 1585 – December 4, 1642), known as Cardinal Richelieu, was a French clergyman and statesman. He was also known as l’Éminence rouge, or “the Red Eminence”, a term derived from the title “Eminence” applied to cardinals, and the red robes they customarily wore.
In 1606 Henri IV nominated Richelieu to become Bishop of Luçon. As Richelieu had not yet reached the canonical minimum age, it was necessary that he journey to Rome for a special dispensation from Pope Paul V. This secured, Richelieu was consecrated bishop in April 1607. Soon after he returned to his diocese in 1608, Richelieu was heralded as a reformer. He became the first bishop in France to implement the institutional reforms prescribed by the Council of Trent between 1545 and 1563.
Richelieu advanced politically by faithfully serving the Queen-Mother’s favourite, Concino Concini, the most powerful minister in the kingdom. In 1616, Richelieu was made Secretary of State, and was given responsibility for foreign affairs. Like Concini, the Bishop was one of the closest advisors of Louis XIII’s mother, Marie de Médicis.
The Queen had become Regent of France when the nine-year-old Louis ascended the throne; although her son reached the legal age of majority in 1614, she remained the effective ruler of the realm. However, her policies, and those of Concini, proved unpopular with many in France. As a result, both Marie and Concini became the targets of intrigues at court; their most powerful enemy was Charles de Luynes.
In April 1617, in a plot arranged by Luynes, Louis XIII ordered that Concini be arrested, and killed should he resist; Concini was consequently assassinated, and Marie de Médicis overthrown. His patron having died, Richelieu also lost power; he was dismissed as Secretary of State, and was removed from the court. In 1618, the King, still suspicious of the Bishop of Luçon, banished him to Avignon. There, Richelieu spent most of his time writing; he composed a catechism entitled L’Instruction du chrétien.
In 1619, Marie de Médicis escaped from her confinement in the Château de Blois, becoming the titular leader of an aristocratic rebellion. The King and the duc de Luynes recalled Richelieu, believing that he would be able to reason with the Queen.
Richelieu was successful in this endeavour, mediating between her and her son. Complex negotiations bore fruit when the Treaty of Angoulême was ratified; Marie de Médicis was given complete freedom, but would remain at peace with the King. The Queen-Mother was also restored to the royal council.
Richelieu continued to rise in both the Catholic Church and French government, becoming a cardinal in 1622, and Chief minister to Louis XIII of France on April 29, 1624. He retained this office until his death in 1642, when he was succeeded by Cardinal Mazarin, whose career he had fostered.
Cardinal Richelieu played a major role in Louis XIII’s reign from 1624, determining France’s direction over the course of the next eighteen years. As a result of Richelieu’s work, Louis XIII became one of the first examples of an absolute monarch.
Under Louis XIII and Richelieu, the crown successfully intervened in the Thirty Years’ War against the Habsburgs, managed to keep the French nobility in line, and retracted the political and military privileges granted to the Huguenots by Henri IV (while maintaining their religious freedoms). Louis XIII successfully led the important Siege of La Rochelle. In addition, Louis had the port of Le Havre modernised, and he built a powerful navy.
Richelieu sought to consolidate royal power and by restraining the power of the nobility, he transformed France into a strong, centralized state. In foreign policy, his primary objective was to check the power of the Habsburg dynasty in Spain and Austria, and ensure French dominance in the Thirty Years’ War that engulfed Europe.
On November 26, 1629, he was created duc de Richelieu and a Peer of France. In the next year, Richelieu’s position was seriously threatened by his former patron, Marie de Médicis. Marie believed that the Cardinal had robbed her of her political influence; thus, she demanded that her son dismiss the chief minister.
Louis XIII was not, at first, averse to such a course of action, as he personally disliked Richelieu. Despite this, the persuasive statesman was able to secure the king as an ally against his own mother. On November 11, 1630, Marie de Médicis and the King’s brother, Gaston, duc d’Orléans, secured the King’s agreement for the dismissal.
Richelieu, however, was aware of the plan, and quickly convinced the King to repent. This day, known as the Day of the Dupes, was the only one on which Louis XIII took a step toward dismissing his minister. Thereafter, the King was unwavering in his political support for him.
Meanwhile, Marie de Médicis was exiled to Compiègne. Both Marie and the duc d’Orléans continued to conspire against Richelieu, but their schemes came to nothing. The nobility also remained powerless.
The only important rising was that of Henri, duc de Montmorency in 1632; Richelieu, ruthless in suppressing opposition, ordered the duke’s execution. In 1634, the Cardinal had one of his outspoken critics, Urbain Grandier, burned at the stake in the Loudun affair. These and other harsh measures were orchestrated by Richelieu to intimidate his enemies.
Despite suppressing French Protestants, he made alliances with Protestant states like the Kingdom of England and the Dutch Republic to achieve his goals. Though he was a powerful political figure, events such as the Day of the Dupes, or Journée des Dupes, show this power was still dependent on the king’s confidence.
An alumnus of the University of Paris and headmaster of the College of Sorbonne, he renovated and extended the institution. He was famous for his patronage of the arts, and founded the Académie Française, the learned society responsible for matters pertaining to the French language.
As an advocate for Samuel de Champlain and New France, he founded the Compagnie des Cent-Associés; he also negotiated the 1632 Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, under which Quebec City returned to French rule after its loss in 1629.
He is also known for being the inventor of the table knife. He was bothered by the bad mannerisms that sharp knives brought to the dining table, so in 1637 he ordered that all of the knives on his dining table have their blades dulled and their tips rounded. The design quickly spread and was popularized all around France and other countries.
Towards the end of his life, Richelieu alienated many people, including Pope Urban VIII. Richelieu was displeased by the Pope’s refusal to name him the papal legate in France; in turn, the Pope did not approve of the administration of the French church, or of French foreign policy. However, the conflict was largely resolved when the Pope granted a cardinalate to Jules Mazarin, one of Richelieu’s foremost political allies, in 1641. Despite troubled relations with the Roman Catholic Church, Richelieu did not support the complete repudiation of papal authority in France, as was advocated by the Gallicanists.
As he neared death, Richelieu faced a plot that threatened to remove him from power. The cardinal had introduced a young man named Henri Coiffier de Ruzé, marquis de Cinq-Mars to Louis XIII’s court. The Cardinal had been a friend of Cinq-Mars’s father. More importantly, Richelieu hoped that Cinq-Mars would become Louis’s favourite, so that he could indirectly exercise greater influence over the monarch’s decisions. Cinq-Mars had become the royal favourite by 1639, but, contrary to Cardinal Richelieu’s belief, he was not easy to control.
The young marquis realized that Richelieu would not permit him to gain political power. In 1641, he participated in the comte de Soissons’s failed conspiracy against Richelieu, but was not discovered. Then, the following year, he schemed with leading nobles (including the King’s brother, the duc d’Orléans) to raise a rebellion; he also signed a secret agreement with the King Felipe IV of Spain, who promised to aid the rebels. Richelieu’s spy service, however, discovered the plot, and the Cardinal received a copy of the treaty. Cinq-Mars was promptly arrested and executed; although Louis approved the use of capital punishment, he grew more distant from Richelieu as a result.
Painting by Philippe de Champaigne showing Cardinal Richelieu on his deathbed
However, Richelieu was now dying. For many years he had suffered from recurrent fevers (possibly malaria), strangury, intestinal tuberculosis with fistula, and migraine. Now his right arm was suppurating with tubercular osteitis, and he coughed blood (after his death, his lungs were found to have extensive cavities and caseous necrosis). His doctors continued to bleed him frequently, further weakening him. As he felt his death approaching, he named Mazarin, one of his most faithful followers, to succeed him as chief minister to the King.
Richelieu died on December 4, 1642, aged 57. His body was embalmed and interred at the church of the Sorbonne. During the French Revolution, the corpse was removed from its tomb, and the mummified front of his head, having been removed and replaced during the original embalming process, was stolen. It ended up in the possession of Nicholas Armez of Brittany by 1796, and he occasionally exhibited the well-preserved face.
His nephew, Louis-Philippe Armez, inherited it and also occasionally exhibited it and lent it out for study. In 1866, Napoleon III persuaded Armez to return the face to the government for re-interment with the rest of Richelieu’s body. An investigation of subsidence of the church floor enabled the head to be photographed in 1895.
Richelieu has frequently been depicted in popular fiction, principally as the lead villain in Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 novel The Three Musketeers and its numerous film adaptations.