Cardinal Richelieu: a much maligned duke

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Cardinal Richelieu: a much maligned duke

The real Cardinal Richelieu /

The real Cardinal Richelieu /

In half a dozen films, especially Hollywood films, the figure of the Duke of Richelieu has been categorized by famous actors as a plotting, conspiring, malignant courtier and politician who tried, among other dastardies, to seduce the French Queen, and dared to dissolve the King’s personal bodyguard – the Musketeers. The only thing the studios got right was Richelieu’s great height, which is why tall actors such as Vincent Price, Tim Rice and Charlton Heston played him in films.

Armand Jean du Plessis, duc de Richelieu (1585 – 1642) was Chief Minister to Louis XIII from 1628 to 1642, and certainly used the royal influence to encourage royal absolutism in France, and French influence in Europe. After his consecration as Bishop of Luçon in 1607 he joined the council of the Regent, Marie de Medici in or around 1616.

When the young Louis ascened the throne he was uncertain of Richelieu’s influences, and the duke was temporarily ousted from his position, but he had gained the new King’s confidence using his undoubted charm and political skills by 1624, and for the rest of their lives the two men worked together.

Richelieu certainly destroyed the political power and military capacity of the Huguenots, and continued Henry IV’s policy of centralized absolutism, but he also managed to antagonise the Catholics as well. Nor was he popular with the high aristocracy or the judicial hierarchy. Many, many plots were made against him but he survived them all, partly through his management of an astute and ruthless secret service that equalled Walsingham’s in the England of Queen Elizabeth I.

Some historians blame Richelieu’s consistent taxation of the lower orders for the revolution that broke out century and half after his death. They were certainly harsh enough to cause several uprisings, ruthlessly put down in many provinces by Richelieu’s troops. Richaelieu needed the money raised by excessive taxation to finance France’s active anti-Habsburg foreign policy. During the Thirty Years War he subsidized the (Protestant) Dutch, the Danes and the Swedes in their strugglke against the Habsburgs, even before France declared war on Spain in 1635.

Richelieu supported anti-Spanish revolts in Cataluña and Portugal in 1640. He trained Jules Mazarin (1602 – 1661), who also became a Cardinal, as his successor. One of the great comic mistakes made in those Hollywood films mentioned earlier conerns Mazarin. In Leo di Caprio’s film The Man in the Iron Mask its is Richelieu who is supposed to be France’s chief minister during the minority of Louis XIV, and it is Richelieu who is supposed to be courting (against her will) the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria. In fact it was Mazarin. Hollywood mixed up its Cardinals a bit. Nevertheless, Mazarin’s continuation of Richelieu’s policies enabled him to bequeath to Louis XIV the most powerful kingdom in Europe.

By | 2010-11-18T10:51:31+00:00 November 18th, 2010|French History|1 Comment

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

One Comment

  1. jay November 21, 2010 at 8:05 pm - Reply

    this is a very interesting piece of the history of France. Richelieu, the author of the Wesfalia’s peace, was one of the most reachest men of its time. In death he left a safety future for his cats and a million for the king. Reading Alejandro Dumas’ Three Musketeers anyone can understand how the 17th century was a terrible one to live, although the clowns of the court lived such as blowing pipers, that basically means like balling tasters. Anyway, I want to recommend a book about Marie Antoinette, written by Stephen Zweig a german author of biographies. As you said on October, “she was an example of frivolity at Court, and expense to the country’s purse”, as much as she could…

    Good to read you Sir

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