Jules Mazarin

The French statesman Jules Mazarin (1602-1661) was the chosen successor of Richelieu. He governed France from 1643 until his death and laid the foundations for the monarchy of Louis XIV.

Jules Mazarin was born Giulio Mazarin on July 14, 1602, at Pescina, a village in the Abruzzi, Italy. He began his career as a soldier and diplomat in the service of the Pope. In this capacity he met Cardinal Richelieu in 1629 and decided to transfer his allegiance to him. He earned Richelieu's regard by acting in the French interest rather than the Pope's in certain treaty negotiations. He went to France as papal nuncio in 1636 and was naturalized as a French subject in 1639. In 1641 Richelieu persuaded the Pope to make Mazarin a cardinal, though he was not a priest.

Before Richelieu died in December 1642, he recommended Mazarin to Louis XIII as his successor, and the king accepted. Louis XIII died in May 1643, and the regent for the 5-year-old Louis XIV was his widow, Anne of Austria. The nobility welcomed the change. Anne was known to have been Richelieu's enemy, and Mazarin, though acknowledged as his nominee, was universally regarded as soft, ingratiating, and harmless. To everyone's utter astonishment, Anne confirmed Mazarin as first minister, and it soon became clear that she was in love with him. It is possible, though there is no proof, that later they were secretly married. They remained intimate friends and allies to the end of Mazarin's life.

Mazarin's task was to maintain the royal authority established by Richelieu and to win the war against France and Spain that he had started. Austria was humbled at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648; the war with Spain dragged on until 1659. The maintenance of royal authority was the most difficult task. Nobles who had reluctantly given way to Richelieu would not accept his successor, who was despised as a lowborn foreigner and thought to be weak-willed. The country was bitter at the taxes imposed by Richelieu to support the war, and its mounting resentment found dangerous expression in the Parliament of Paris, whose opposition was supported by all classes in the city.

To suppress the defiance that immediately arose in Paris, Mazarin had to call on the Prince de Condé, a cousin of the King and a very successful general. Finding himself indispensable, Condébecame intolerably greedy and arrogant, and Mazarin finally had him and his friends arrested. The result was that the civil war that had already broken out became much worse, and several times it appeared as if Mazarin could not survive.

This war was called the Fronde, a name used to this day in France to denote irresponsible opposition. Paris, led by its Parliament, had rebelled in 1648. When this revolt was settled a year later, it was soon followed by the break with Condé. More humane than Richelieu, Mazarin imprisoned his enemies but did not put them to death, and as a result he could not make himself feared. The Fronde dragged on until 1653, but in the end, thanks to his own cleverness, the Queen's loyalty, and the mistakes of his enemies, Mazarin was completely victorious.

For the rest of his life Mazarin was the unchallenged master of France. His final triumph came with the Peace of the Pyrenees in November 1659. France had finally defeated Spain and was rewarded with territorial acquisitions and the fateful marriage of Louis XIV to a Spanish princess. When Mazarin died on March 9, 1661, he had accomplished his task as he saw it. He had also accumulated a colossal fortune for himself.

In some ways Mazarin was a worthy successor to Richelieu. Behind a mask of affability, he was equally resolved to tolerate no opposition; his method of eliminating it was more devious and much less bloody but equally effective. As far as any man could have done, he fulfilled Richelieu's declared purpose of making "the king supreme in France, and France supreme in Europe." But, unlike Richelieu, he took no interest in the economic or cultural development of France. Once the Fronde was over, the country simply stagnated. The recovery that came in the 1660s was essentially the work of Jean Baptiste Colbert, whom Mazarin had picked out and recommended to the King.


Further Reading on Jules Mazarin

There is no adequate biography of Mazarin. James Breck Perkins, France under Mazarin, with a Review of the Administration of Richelieu (1886), and Arthur Hassell, Mazarin (1903), contain biographical information, but both are dated. For an excellent general history of the period see John Laugh, An Introduction to Seventeenth Century France (1954).

Additional Biography Sources

Treasure, G. R. R. (Geoffrey Russell Richards), Mazarin: the crisis of absolutism in France, London; New York: Routledge, 1995.