Cardinal Richelieu has not been treated kindly by journalists, novelists or movie-makers. I suppose it is an honour to have been played on the screen by, in alphabetical order, Mr Tim Curry, Mr Charlton Heston and Mr Vincent Price among others. In Man in the iron mask (Curry), the Cardenal schemes against the future Louis XIV, tries to seduce of the wife of Louis XIII, imprisons a mysterious twin brother, masking his face with a cruel contraption, and forces war against England. In two of the dozens of Three Musketeers Hollywood films, the Cardenal (Heston in one and Price in another) conspires with Milady de Winter to murder both Buckingham and the girl D’Artagnan has fallen for, persuades the King to disband the loyal (and fashionably dressed) Musketeers, sends his lackeys off to murder and rob. Fiction regards Cardinal Richelieu as a baddie.
Armand-Jean du Plessis was born in September 1585, was Chief Minister to King Louis XIII of France. As a priest, he became known for the use of power for ecclesiastical and political ends, but he was also responsible for France’s rapid ascent to top nation in the seventeenth century, as he was a master politician, plotter and schemer.
Richelieu was not a great aristocrat; he was born into the lower nobility (the du Plessis family). He did not permit this class distinction to thwart his ambition. He was ordained priest and became Bishop of Luçon at the age of twenty-two. Rapidly coming to Court, he gained power as advisor to Marie de Médicis, a formidable lady who was Louis XIII’s mother.
In 1624 Richelieu became Cardinal and Chief of the Royal Council. He was not yet forty. He was determined to reduce the power of the Hapsburgs in Europe, and establish a tradition of royal abolutism. Success in the first of these ventures is doubtful, but in the second he was wholly successful. The future Rey Soleil (Louis XIV) was an absolute king who ruled absolutely: Richelieu had prepared the ground.
He introduced internal reform to weaken nobles more noble than he was, and also worked hard to diminish the power of traditional political institutions. Not content with this he attacked the growing ascendance of French Protestants (Huguenots). During his meteroric career he established good relations with other Protestant powers in the Thirty Years War (q.v.). In this was he significantly increased French power at the expense of Spain. He died (at 57) in 1642.
Armand-Emmanuel du Plessis, also Duc de Richelieu was born in 1776, one hundred and thirty-four years after the death of his ancestor the Cardinal. He was the son of Louis-Antoine-Armand de Plessis, Duc de Fransac, and grandson of Louis-François-Armand de Vigneron du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu and Marshal of France.
The young man took over his grandfather’s duties as First Lord of the Bedchamber in 1785, though he was only nine. On a visit to Germany and Austria in 1790 he actually joined the Russian Army fighting against the Turks. He was fourteen.
He returned from these juvenile adventures in 1791 to assume his titles as Duc de Richelieu. When the French Revolution brought the whole of Europe to a scandalized halt, he joined the royalist forces. Quickly moving to Russia as a result of refusal to agree with the revolutionaries, he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the Cuirassiers of St. George and was later appointed by Czar Alexander I as Governor of Odessa, not bad for a French duke.
He then became Governor-General of ‘New Russia’, the area between the Dniester River and the Caucasus. It was 1805, the year of Trafalgar. It was Richelieu who cleaned up corruption in Caucasus politics, and transformed Odessa into a modern city.
Richelieu returned full of honours to France in 1814, but when he heard of Bonaparte’s escape from Elba and subsequent return to France, he joined the Czarist forces against him. In 1815 he succeeded Talleyrand as Prime Minister with special control of foreign affairs. It was his friendship with the Czar that helped him to mitigate the demands of the Allies (Britain, Prussia etc.) after Waterloo. At the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818 it was Richelieu who obtained the withdrawal of the Allied occupying army, and the inclusion of France into the Quadruple Alliance. He resigned in 1818, was in power again briefly in 1820, and died young (55) in 1821.