Childhood & Early Life
Cardinal Richelieu was born as Armand du Plessis on September 9, 1585 in the family of François du Plessis, seigneur de Richelieu and Suzanne de la Porte. He was fragile and frequently fell sick since his childhood throughout his life.
His father, a courtier and a soldier, served as the grand provost or the chief magistrate under Henry III. His maternal grandfather was a councillor of the Parliament of Paris.
His father died fighting the ‘French Wars of Religion’ when he was five years old. The family faced financial crisis which was overcome through royal aids.
At 9, he attended the ‘College of Navarre’ in Paris and studied philosophy following which he took training for a career in military. In 1605, he suffered from gonorrhoea.
His family was made the bishopric of Lucon by King Henry III in recognition to his father’s service in the ‘French Wars of Religion’. The clergymen wanted the revenue thus received be used for ecclesiastical purposes. Thus to protect the revenue, his mother proposed his brother Alphonse be made the bishop of Lucan. However, his brother’s disinclination made him fill up the clergy.
In 1606, he was nominated by King Henry IV for the position of Bishop of Lucon but as he was short of the required age he travelled Rome to receive special dispensation from the Pope.
In April 1607, he was consecrated bishop and in 1608 he became a reformer in his diocese. He was instrumental in implementing institutional reforms mentioned by the ‘Council of Trent’ during 1545-63, thus becoming the first ever French Bishop to do so.
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After the assassination of King Henry IV in 1610, the government under queen mother Marie de Medici as regent for her son King Louis XIII went through a tumultuous phase. The system became corrupt erupting self-interest and escalating royal factions and revolt.
Bishop Richelieu’s roles as an intermediary led him represent the clergy of Poitou in the meetings of ‘Estates General’ in 1614. He faced major opposition from the ‘Third Estate’ comprising the commoners on the matter of interrelationship between the papacy and the crown. He was instrumental in convincing the ‘Third Estate’ that the conventions of the ‘Council of Trent’ should be established.
He eventually became the chaplain of the Queen Anne of Austria, wife of Louis and in 1616 he was inducted as ‘Secretary of State’.
Marie de Medici along with Concino Concini continued to govern even after Louis XIII came of age. Her poor judgement along with Concini’s dominance over the royal council and court compounded the regal weakness and resurgence of revolt and instability in regency.
In 1617, King Louis XIII, who had already achieved legal majority few years back took control over the regal authority dominated by Marie and Concini through veritable coup d'état. It resulted in reversing the pro-Habsburg policy, arrest of Marie and her exile to the Château de Blois. On April 24, Charles d’Albert de Luynes, one of Louis’s favourites assassinated Concini.
Cardinal Richelieu was dismissed from his post and in 1618 he was banished to Avignon. During his stay there he penned down a catechetical composition, ‘L'Instruction du chrétien’.
He was subsequently successful in reconciling Marie and Louis after her escape from exile and subsequent revolt against the king. The ‘Treaty of Angoulême’ was formalised and later Marie was brought back at the royal council.
In 1621, he rose to power following the death of Charles d’Albert de Luynes. On April 19, 1622 following the King’s recommendation, the Pope Gregory XV granted Richelieu cardinality.
He went on to become the main guiding force of Louis and in April 29, 1624, he was inducted in the royal council of ministers. He plotted against the then chief minister Charles, duc de La Vieuville who was eventually arrested on corruption charges on August 12 and on the very next day Richelieu took over the position.
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He worked towards restricting the power of the Habsburg dynasty. Although a devoted cardinal he aided Protestant Swiss canton of Grisons to counteract Spanish dominancy in Valtellina, Italy.
He sought to eliminate royal factions by clipping defences of princes and lesser aristocrats. He favoured centralisation of power in the country by restricting the power of the nobles and abolishing the position of ‘Constable of France’ in 1626.
In 1627, he ordered the army to besiege La Rochelle, controlled by Huguenot rebels who were aided by King Charles I of England. Finally, it capitulated to France in 1628.
Marie conspired against Richelieu along with her son Gaston to remove him as chief minister. She planned a coup on a day of November 1630, referred as ‘Day of Dupes’ but was dramatically beaten by Richelieu who at the end won the King’s confidence. Marie was sent in exile to Compiègne but she continued to conspire against Richelieu but remained unsuccessful every time.
He combated his opposition ruthlessly including order of execution of Henri, duc de Montmorency in 1632. He formed a network of spies across France and other European countries to safeguard his political position.
He strengthened the army and the navy, made sure that France holds a dominating position in the ‘Thirty Years’ War’ in Europe. He levied ‘taille’ or land tax and ‘gabelle’ or salt tax to raise funds for the army. Most of it fell on the poor who raised a revolt during 1636 – 1639 but was overpowered by Richelieu violently.
He was successful in converting the ‘Thirty Years’ War’ from a dispute between Catholics and Protestants to that between nationalism and Habsburg hegemony following the defeat of Habsburg.
He helped in establishing French colonies in New France including ‘Compagnie de la Nouvelle France’ and encouraged integration of the natives in the colonial society. The 1627 Ordinance was issued enabling Indians to convert as Catholics thus becoming ‘natural Frenchmen’. .
At later stage of his life he became a target of several plots including that of his protégée Henri Coiffier de Ruzé, marquis de Cinq-Mars. Finally Cinq-Mars was arrested and executed.
His patronage in arts was profound starting from rebuilding the Sorbonne and constructing its chapel in Paris to aiding prospective writers to founding the ‘Académie Française’.