The French statesman and cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu (1585-1642) devoted himself to securing French leadership in Europe and royal domination of the existing social order in France.
The policies and personal conduct of Richelieu were distinguished by self-restraint, flexibility in response to changing opportunities, and alertness to remote consequences. His long-range intentions could be achieved only at the expense of Spain abroad and of the King's family and the great noblemen at home.
In the early 17th century a precarious balance existed between reasons of state and religious sectarianism as principles for international action. A similar balance existed in France between the rights of the King and the particular rights of provinces, localities, classes, and persons. Each balance was tipped toward the first alternative during Richelieu's career. The alignments of European states shifted and their relative power changed. The French political system began to define anew the relation of each social group to the monarchy and thus to other social groups. These historical developments eventually went far beyond Richelieu's plans, but he played a significant part in them.
Armand du Plessis was born on Sept. 9, 1585, in Paris, fourth of the five children of François du Plessis, the lord of Richelieu, and Suzanne de La Porte. His father was provost of the King's central administrative establishment and grand provost of France under Henry III and conducted the investigation of the King's murderer in 1589; he remained in the same post serving Henry IV but in 1590 died of a fever. His mother, the self-effacing daughter of a learned, vain lawyer prominent in the Paris bourgeoisie, was placed in severe financial difficulties by early widowhood. She moved to the old stone manor house of Richelieu, a few miles east of Loudun in Poitou, to reside with her mother-in-law, a proud noblewoman originally of the Rochechouart family. About 4 years later, Armand returned to Paris to study grammar and philosophy at the College de Navarre, from which he went on to a military academy.
The Du Plessis family's plans appeared to be settled. The eldest son, Henri, was seeking to become established in the entourage of the new queen, Maria de' Medici. The second son, Alphonse, was destined to be bishop of Luçon; the mother received the income of the benefice. But Alphonse declined the nomination and became a Carthusian monk. Armand was designated instead, and in 1603 he began serious study of theology. Younger than the canonical age to become a bishop, he went to Rome for a papal dispensation in 1607 and was consecrated there. He returned to Paris, obtained his degree in theology, and lingered to multiply his acquaintances among clergymen and among the associates of his brother Henri.
At the end of 1608 Richelieu arrived in Luçon, then little more than a village amid the marshes, a short distance from the Atlantic and north of La Rochelle. He found it "the most ignoble, mud-covered, unpleasant bishopric in France." He was an assiduous bishop, controlling his canons, carefully choosing parish priests, encouraging the preaching missions of the Capucin monks led by Father Joseph of Paris (François Le Clerc du Tremblay), and, while residing at his priory of Coussay between Loudun and Poitiers, cooperating with other active churchmen.
Richelieu's first important political opportunity came with the convocation of the Estates General in 1614. The clergy of Poitou elected him a deputy. At Maria dé' Medici's suggestion he was chosen to speak for the clergy as a whole at the last session of the Estates (Feb. 23, 1615). He then went back to Poitou but a year later returned to Paris, served her in negotiations with the Prince of Condé, and was appointed secretary of state for foreign affairs and war. He held the post for only 5 months because Louis XIII seized power in April 1617 and dismissed his mother's councilors. Further steps against them followed, and in 1618 the bishop of Luçon was ordered into exile in the papal city of Avignon.
From Poitou, in 1617, Richelieu had joined in a pamphlet controversy between the King's Jesuit confessor and four Protestant ministers. In Les Principaux points de la foi de l'église Catholique, he employed moderate terms and rejected force as a means of conversion. He answered the Protestant ministers on several issues and told them, "You give to the people a power much greater than the one you deny to the pope, which is greatly disadvantageous to kings." In Avignon, in 1618, he finished a catechism he had been preparing in his diocese, L'Instruction du Chrétien, a calm, simple explanation of dogma and commandments which makes clear the sovereignty of God by comparing it to the sovereignty of the King.
Among Louis XIII's advisers, Father Joseph and others believed that Richelieu would be a moderating influence on the King's mother. Accordingly the King recalled him from Avignon in March 1619 and ordered him to resume serving her. Thereafter Richelieu's biography merges increasingly with the history of the monarchy. Representing the queen mother that spring, he negotiated an agreement with the King's commissioners that she would reside in Anjou. She designated his brother Henri de Richelieu as governor of the provincial capital; but 7 weeks later Henri was killed in a duel at Angoulême. This event, the personal sorrow of Armand de Richelieu's life, deprived him of a valued political ally.
The queen mother aspired to sit in the King's council. She also wanted the King to obtain Richelieu's nomination as a cardinal; for him this would mean undisputed political eminence, a voice in important decisions of state, and greater security than a bishop could expect. She hoped in the end to control royal policy through the influence Richelieu would exercise as a member of the King's council. These motives played an important part in the threat of an armed uprising in the summer of 1620 and in the tangle of duplicity and argument that ensued, with Richelieu in the role of mediator between the queen mother and her opponents. The resistance of the King and his ministers gradually crumbled. The queen mother was invited into the council at the beginning of 1622; in the following September, the Pope appointed Richelieu a cardinal; finally, the King called Richelieu to his council in April 1624 and designated him chief councilor 3 1/2 months later.
Richelieu remained the King's principal minister until his death, and he was made a duke in 1631. He was never the only royal adviser, but he gradually built up in the council a group of men, his "creatures," loyal to him as well as to the King. He was never free from potential rivals. He relied on his family, which he extended by carefully arranging marriages of his nieces and cousins into great families. Thus he used intensively the kind of patron-client relation that had assisted his early career. He made clear that the King was his patron, and he made sure that Louis XIII knew that Richelieu was the King's creature.
From the first, Richelieu encountered a strong current of "devout" Catholic opinion that regarded Protestants everywhere as the enemy or as possible converts and insisted on reforms within France. The queen mother, Maria, the queen consort, Anne, and the keeper of the seals, Michel Marillac, shared that opinion. Richelieu partly satisfied it for a time, negotiating the marriage of the King's sister Henriette to Charles I of England, conducting the siege of the Huguenot city of La Rochelle, and cooperating with Marillac on a program of proposed reforms. But he firmly advised Louis XIII to intervene in northern Italy, against the Spanish king and the Emperor, in order to maintain a foothold on the route between Madrid and Vienna. Over this question the queen mother finally broke with Richelieu in 1630. The King eliminated her clientele and influence from his court.
Opposition to Richelieu and his policies arose also from ambitious, dissatisfied noblemen. This led to plots sanctioned by the King's brother Gaston (1626, 1632, 1636, and 1642), Queen Anne (1633), and a second cousin of the King, the Comte de Soissons (1636 and 1641). These all failed. Three scions of great families were beheaded (the Comte de Chalais in 1626, the Duc de Montmorency in 1632, and the Marquis de Cinq-Mars in 1642).
Richelieu gave first priority to foreign policy. He concluded, probably very early, that war against Spain in the long run would be unavoidable. He strove to delay it by encouraging German resistance to the Hapsburg emperor in Vienna, thereby diverting into central Europe the resources and attention of the Hapsburg king in Madrid. In his German policy, he relied heavily on Father Joseph. He subsidized the Dutch Republic and the Swedish warrior king Gustavus Adolphus (Gustavus II) and in 1634 was prepared to aid the Bohemian general A. E. W. von Wallenstein against the Emperor.
From 1635 until his death Richelieu was preoccupied by an overt war against Spain and by the diplomacy it entailed. The fighting occurred principally on the northern and eastern frontiers of France, secondarily on the Mediterranean coast and in the Pyrenees. It was complicated by armed revolts of the populace, especially in western provinces. Richelieu negotiated often with emissaries of Spain but insisted on French control of Lorraine and French garrisons in northern Italy. The negotiations broke down. The war was still going on when Richelieu died on Dec. 4, 1642.
The best brief study of Richelieu in English is a thoughtful essay by Dietrich Gerhard in Leonard Krieger and Fritz Stern, eds., The Responsibility of Power: Historical Essays in Honor of Hajo Holborn (1968). A narrative concentrating on international relations is Daniel Patrick O'Connell, Richelieu (1968), with a good bibliography. A more personal treatment is provided in Carl J. Burckhardt's trilogy, Richelieu and His Age (1934-1966), of which two volumes have appeared in English: His Rise to Power, translated by Edwin and Willa Muir, and Assertion of Power and Cold War, translated by Bernard Hoy. Valuable special studies include Orest A. Ranum, Richelieu and the Councillors of Louis XIII (1963), and Aleksandra D. Lublinskaya, French Absolutism: The Crucial Phase, 1620-1629, translated by Brian Pearce (1968).