Cardinal Richelieu was born in September 1585 and died in December 1642. Richelieu dominated the history of France from 1624 to his death as Louis XIII’s chief minister, succeeding Luynes who died in 1621. Richelieu is considered to be one of the greatest politicians in French history.
Richelieu’s time in office is dominated by his campaign against the Huguenots, the modernisation of the military in France, especially the navy, and involvement in the Thirty Years Wars.
As an ardent Roman Catholic, Richelieu detested the Huguenots. However, in his grand scheme to elevate the international status or France, he was willing to tolerate them as long as they were loyal to France. Richelieu, in this sense was willing to turn a blind eye to the Huguenots freedom to worship.
However, the Huguenots did not show loyalty. They were frequently associated with rebellion and disloyalty and this Richelieu could not tolerate.
By 1624, when Richelieu was appointed Chief Minister, the Huguenots had 8 "circles" in the south of France and a commander-in-chief with an army. They had created provincial assemblies and a general assembly – they were essentially a republic within a monarchy! To Richelieu this was a "political monstrosity" which could not be tolerated. His views were shared by the dévots who were becoming more and more influential at court. The Huguenots viewed Richelieu appointment with great concern.
Richelieu worked on the logic that France needed international respect in Europe. He wanted France to be respected abroad and an attractive ally which could bring in much needed funds via military alliances. Any French involvement in European affairs might have given the Huguenots the freedom to expand in southern France. For Richelieu wishes to succeed, France needed internal stability and security. The Huguenots threatened this – hence the need to attack them.
In 1624, the French became involved with the Spanish in the Thirty Years War over the Valtelline affair. With the central government so occupied, the Huguenots took the opportunity to expand their power base. In 1625, the Huguenots seized the strategically important islands of Ré and Oléron. Both of these defended the sea entrance of La Rochelle and thus aided what was considered to be the Huguenots capital. Such actions, seen as base treachery by Richelieu could not be tolerated.
Richelieu sent a royal army to tame the Huguenots but in February 1626 he signed the Treaty of La Rochelle. This was a truce inspired by the English. However, Richelieu viewed the involvement of the English with concern as this was a Protestant nation seemingly supporting the Huguenots rebels, as Richelieu would have viewed them.
The truce only gave the Huguenots more time to build up their strength. By 1627, they were in open revolt yet again – this time aided by England. The English sent troops to help the Huguenots. They had this flexibility as England was not physically involved in the Thirty Years War. There was public support in England for this as the French were still seen as England’s traditional enemy.
Such actions by the English made firm action by Richelieu imperative. In 1627, he directed a campaign against the Huguenots himself. The English, lead by the Duke of Buckingham, were driven off and out of the area. Richelieu decided to cut off La Rochelle and starve out the people.
He ordered that a huge mole be built across the harbour at La Rochelle which made any Huguenot attempt to land supplies impossible. Royal troops surrounded La Rochelle inland. All Richelieu had to do was wait. The Huguenots were starved out.
Richelieu then showed his political acumen by letting Louis XIII enter La Rochelle at the head of his army on November 1st 1628. Richelieu knew that this would appeal to the king who loved to ‘lead’ his troops. It certainly appealed to his vanity.
Richelieu's tactic had a devastating impact on the Huguenots in La Rochelle. Before the blockade, the city's population stood at 25,000. After it was lifted, only 5000 remained alive and many of these people were in a very weak state. Richelieu insisted on unconditional surrender but was generous in victory.
In June 1629, the Grace of Alais was signed. This reaffirmed the Edict of Nantes but ordered that the Huguenot military organisation should be broken up, Huguenot fortresses should be destroyed and Roman Catholicism should be restored to areas where it had formally existed between the Edict of Nantes and Alais. The political rights of the Huguenots were removed and the government no longer made money available to educate and support Protestant clergy. However, all the La Rochelle survivors could have been accused of treason and executed – so the Grace of Alais was seen as generous.
To all intents, the state-within-a-state ended. The success against the Huguenots did a great deal to establish Richelieu in the eyes of all those involved in central government. Any other region in France that might have dallied with seeking greater freedom from central authority, now had an example of what could happen to you if you dared to challenge Richelieu. It also showed to any magnate what would happen to them if they dared to repeat their disloyalty to Louis XIII as was seen in the early years of his reign.