The Magazine

Cardinal of State

Richelieu and the invention of modern France.

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By KENNETH WEINSTEIN
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Richelieu’s rapid rise and lasting achievements are all the more startling given the court climate of rapidly shifting alliances. Richelieu went from opponent to prime adviser to Louis XIII over the period following his appointment as adviser to the king’s mother, the domineering Marie de’Medici. Louis XIII, widely believed to be ill-fitted for the throne, stunned many by ordering the murder of his mother’s favorite adviser, Concino Concini, in 1617, thereby effectively ending Marie’s regency. After the execution, the king called out to Richelieu before the court: “Finally I am free from your tyranny.” A lesser figure might have fled politics for a safer career in the church, but by negotiating an arrangement whereby the queen mother retreated from Paris in a manner befitting her rank, Richelieu saved his political career.

Following a period of intense turmoil and the resurgent specter of civil war, the queen mother and her son finally met in reconciliation near Tours. But in August 1620, when troops loyal to the queen and the royalists clashed at the Ponts-de-Cé, Richelieu sided with the queen, deceiving both the king and his favorite, Charles d’Albert, Duke of Luynes. The wily Richelieu, who acknowledged that “those who fight against a legitimate power have already lost half of the battle,” managed to broker a peace accord that included a provision for Richelieu’s promotion to cardinal as a protection against any reversal of fortune.

In 1622, Richelieu was named cardinal. The Marquis de La Vieuville took over the stuttering royal council but, after mismanagement of the royal finances, asked Louis XIII to call on Richelieu to secure the goodwill of the queen mother. General approval and relief granted Louis’s choice.

Cardinal Richelieu rapidly surprised by his broad mindedness. Unlike more zealous Catholics, he never denounced accords with France’s Huguenots. Louis XIII gained growing respect for Richelieu and realized that the cardinal represented the king’s best hope for success. Following the emergence of the Chalais conspiracy against Richelieu’s life, the king ordered the arrest of his own two half-brothers, the Vendômes, and wrote to Richelieu: “Be assured that I will protect you against everyone.” Until the very end of their lives, Louis never broke this solemn commitment.

Blanchard’s treatment of the frequently troubled, yet ultimately critical, relationship between king and minister is both comprehensive and accessible. Given the richness and complexity of the source material, this is no mean accomplishment. According to Blanchard, “For a large part of France’s population, Richelieu’s death came with relief, because they had come to associate him with public executions and endless wars.” Nevertheless, he quotes this epitaph:

Ci-gît en ce lieu

Le Cardinal de Richelieu

À qui il faudrait un tombeau

Plus magnifique et plus beau

Puisque avec son Éminence

Repose toute la France


(Here rests

Cardinal Richelieu

Who surely deserves a tomb

More magnificent and beautiful

Since with His Eminence

Rests all of France)

Kenneth Weinstein is president and CEO of the Hudson Institute.