Richelieu and absolutism

Richelieu and absolutism

Cardinal Richelieu was a strong believer in the power of the crown - as had been his predecessor the Duke de Luynes. Richelieu served his master - Louis XIII - well and did much to make Seventeenth Century France a classic example of the expansion of royal absolutism at the expense of noble power.

With the success against the Huguenots behind Richelieu, and the increase in the status it gave him, Richelieu set about expanding royal power. The equation was very simple. If the power of the crown was expanded, the power of the magnates had to decrease. Also, any successful dealings against the magnates, would increase the power of Richelieu.

By 1630, Richelieu dominated the Royal Court though Louis XIII always insisted on the final say with regards to final policy decisions - as befitted their relationship. Those who ran the administration were hand picked by Richelieu, and they were chosen for their ability not their family background. As a result of this, the senior nobility was excluded from these important positions. This created resentment and the senior nobility gathered around the Duke of Orleans, the king’s uncle, and the Queen Mother, Marie de Medici. Both of these people wanted Richelieu removed from office. Curiously, Anne of Austria, the wife of Louis, blamed Richelieu for her unhappy marriage and also wanted him out (even though she had married in 1615 when Richelieu had no political power!).

However, Richelieu had one huge advantage over all his enemies – the support of Louis XIII. Orleans and Marie de Medici played a dangerous game in which there was no alternative but to succeed as Richelieu dealt with known opponents with extreme ruthlessness.

The first major conspiracy Richelieu had to deal with was in 1626 and was known as the Chalais Conspiracy.

This involved the Princes of the Blood (the Vendômes, Louis XIII’s two bastard half-brothers, his cousins Condé and Soissons, and his wife, Anne of Austria) and court magnates (the widow of Luynes, the Duchess of Chevreuse and her lover the Count of Chalais, who was Master of the Wardrobe to the king). Their plan was to kill Richelieu, depose Louis XIII and then share out power amongst themselves.

This plot failed to recognise one issue – Richelieu had built up a superb spy system. The plot was quickly uncovered but it left Richelieu with a problem. What was he going to do?

Such disloyalty had to be punished but how? Some of those involved were very senior nobles and there could be repercussions. Richelieu decided to execute the minor nobles such as Chalais, put in prison some of the important nobility and exile Chevreuse. What of the most important nobleman, Orleans?

He was brought into the Royal Council by Richelieu when he could have expected prison and property confiscation at the least. However, Richelieu believed that it was better to bring him in to the government rather than punish him and make him grateful to Richelieu for sparing him from the executioner. Richelieu also used his relationship with Louis to bring some form of reconciliation between the king and Anne.

To show the nobility who was in charge, Richelieu also ordered the beheading of the Count of Bouteville for dueling. This had been banned by Richelieu and Bouteville had deliberately challenged Richelieu decision. Bouteville was executed outside of Richelieu’s window in 1627 having rejected all pleas for clemency.

A far greater challenge came with the so-called Day of Dupes (1630) and the Montmorency Affair (1632).






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