Cardinal Richelieu had a simple philosophy with regards to money and finance. If his master, Louis XIII, needed money, the people of France had to pay for it. Richelieu also wanted to develop a more robust foreign policy and he got France involved in the Thirty Years War and this cost France a great deal. He, with the support of Louis XIII, wanted to expand and modernise the French Navy. All this cost money.
Richelieu had a desire to see France as a major European power. A power vacuum was developing with the Thirty Years War; the Holy Roman Empire appeared to be imploding and Sweden under Gustavus Adolphus appeared to be the rising European power. The overseas power France had was minimal. She had no colonial power to speak of, therefore all finance had to come from France internally.
In 1621, on the death of Luynes, Marillac was in charge of finance. He had attacked the privileges the nobility had regarding finance. Corruption was endemic at regional and local level.
Many regions in France had what was known as pays d’état status. This meant that they themselves stated what their tax burden was and paid accordingly. This was considered to be a huge privilege and one which local nobles were very keen to keep as it allowed them to control their own tax destiny.
The less attractive alternative to this status was pays d’élection where Paris told a region/area how much they were going to pay and they had to provide that sum and nothing less. This system took financial freedom away from the regions and placed it directly in the hands of those who controlled the Treasury in Paris.
Marillac wanted to make all areas pays d’élection. This would have given Paris far greater control over the regions and would have been a major extension of royal power. When Richelieu took over from Marillac after he was removed from office after the Day of Dupes affair, logic dictates that he would have supported and implemented what Marillac wanted especially as he was a keen supporter of royal absolutism.
In fact, Richelieu decided not to pursue the same line as Marillac and he ended any plans to convert any area’s status. With his success against the Huguenots and his treatment of La Rochelle, Richelieu could have easily brought the regions to heel and put into place Marillac’s ideas.
Instead he continued with the same system allowing some regions to effectively pay what they wanted to pay in tax. It is believed that Richelieu’s plan was to use a ‘carrot and stick’ approach. Regions could keep their status as long as they were loyal to the king, Louis XIII. If they were not loyal, they would lose their pay d’état status. Therefore, there was a great incentive for them not to be disloyal to Louis. Therefore, it can be argued that Richelieu’s approach was an extension of royal absolutism and it put the onus of loyal behaviour fully on the regions. Therefore, for good financial reasons, the nobles needed to be loyal.
Richelieu relied for revenue on the Taille. He simply ordered that any required finance should be met with an increase in this tax. Between 1626 and 1636, the Taille was increased by nearly 100%. In the same period of time, the Gabelle was doubled. This approach put a huge burden on those who could least afford to pay it – the poor. Despite all of this, and the continued sale of offices, the Treasury never had enough money. In 1633 and 1639, Richelieu was warned that he was pushing France towards civil war as the poor were being pushed to the financial limit.
Richelieu’s response was to appoint more and more Intendants to ensure that all taxes were collected and that corruption was kept to a minimum. Richelieu himself took control over Brittany. The Intendants found out that some local nobles were encouraging peasants in their region not to pay tax as they feared a local rebellion against any source of local authority; i.e. the local nobles. These nobles could have been sent to prison without trial if the king issued a lettres de cachet.
In 1629, Intendants were given the right to override local authorities and communicate directly with the Royal Council. This was forced through the parléments by a lit de justice whereby the king could force through legislation he wanted. This development was a severe blow to local autonomy. Richelieu also simply duplicated the offices of those he believed did not fully support him. These were sold to the highest bidder but only to people who were trusted by Richelieu.
In February 1641, a law was brought in which allowed the Parlement de Paris two remonstrances before a new tax law was introduced. This allowed the Parlement de Paris to voice its views twice, but their stance could only delay a tax law not change it. The Parlement de Paris was only allowed to discuss affairs of state with permission which invariably had to come from Richelieu.
Richelieu attempted to win some form of public favour by producing a newspaper called the "Gazette" which explained government actions. However, those most affected by new taxes were also the ones who were predominantly illiterate. The nouveau riche who were literate were the ones with the greatest opportunities to avoid tax.
Richelieu’s financial stance was symbolic of the centralised power he had accrued. Soldiers were made available to assist the Intendants if they needed them and local nobles were put under intense pressure to assist them. While some local nobles may have encouraged non-payment of tax, the majority preferred to side with the government as they were more fearful of the masses than they were of Richelieu. Because of this, the Intendants frequently found that they received more help than obstacles from the lower nobles.
The increasing tax demands on the poor took their toll. In the spring of 1636, a peasant rebellion took place in Angoulême. It spread to a quarter of France before being put down by troops who should have been involved in the Thirty Years War
In the summer of 1639 another revolt took place in Normandy. This was called the Va-nu-pieds rebellion. Its immediate cause was the introduction of a tax on salt. Salt was used for many purposes by the poor and such a tax pushed their tolerance over the limit. The peasants were lead by the local gentry who resented both the government’s massive demands from the people of Normandy and also the ever growing power that central government seemed to have at the expense of their authority. 20,000 rebelled and rampaged through Normandy. The city of Rouen was at the heart of the rebellion.
A royal army lead by Seguier was sent to the region in January 1640 and was used to restore the peace. Unlike Richelieu’s treatment of the Huguenots in the Grace of Alais, there was no mercy shown to the Normandy rebels. Mass executions took place and martial law was introduced. Normal provincial and local organs of government were suspended and Normandy was treated like an occupied country.
Despite these clear warnings regarding the anger of the peasants, Richelieu maintained his fiscal policy – if the king needed money, he got it.