When Richelieu became chief minister in 1624, he was very aware that the navy of France was weak. This became even more apparent during his campaign against the Huguenots when Louis XIII was not able to put one warship into the English Channel or the Atlantic. During Richelieu’s campaign against the Huguenots, France had to borrow boats to transport their troops and supplies. With Europe engulfed in the Thirty Years War, such weakness was unacceptable to Richelieu.
Part of French history meant that France had two noblemen titled the Admiral of the Channel and the Admiral of the Atlantic. But this was not an indication of the naval power that France possessed – they were merely inherited titles and more important for status rather than anything else. Ironically, one of the holders of one of these titles was Soubise who fought against Richelieu in La Rochelle and was a rebel against the authority of Louis XIII!
Richelieu also worked off of the logic that a major European power needed a navy to survive and to protect any expanding merchant fleet.
In 1626, Richelieu appointed himself as Grandmaster, Chief and Superintendant General of Navigation and Commerce. In the following year he abolished the office of admiral and in the Ordonnance de la Marine, he put all coastal land under the direct control of the central government.
In 1629, Richelieu decided that France needed a proper and modern navy. An edict was issued to this effect and by 1636, France had a navy of nearly 40 ships.
Richelieu had a dislike of the Spanish despite Spain being Roman Catholic. In his early days at court he had found favour with Marie de Medici as a pro-Spanish man but now he viewed the border with Spain as a potential weak spot and he used the new navy of France to attack Spanish shipping and to harass the Spanish colonies. In 1638, France defeated the Spanish at Fuentarrabia in what was their first major sea battle.
The navy, as well as protecting France, was meant to encourage overseas trade now that shipping could be sufficiently protected. Overseas trade was making both England and the United Provinces a great deal of money and Richelieu wanted a cut of this. In 1627, Richelieu had decreed that all French trade had to be carried in a French ship and that the use of foreign ships was to be kept to a minimum.
In 1629, nobles were encouraged to participate in foreign trade by a guarantee by the king that they would lose any of their social status if they did get involved. The government also protected domestic industries so that those with spare capital would be willing to risk it in overseas ventures.
To promote the establishment of overseas colonies, Richelieu created the Company of New France in 1628 which encouraged settlement in French Canada. The government gave its backing to the French West India Company as well.
What did all this achieve?
In 1629, Richelieu concluded a treaty with Denmark, which allowed French merchant ships to round the Sound at a lower toll than the rest of Europe thus opening up the Hanseatic League for French trade. BY 1631, 70 French ships were trading with the area; in 1628, there had been none!
What happened to colonial enterprises?
They were too disorganised to be successful and Spain was a constant problem to France in areas in or near the West Indies – though the French settled Guadeloupe in 1635.
Developments in the navy may have been better if Richelieu had not been too occupied with the Thirty Years War. This war tied down both money and men, which could have been invested in an expanding navy. With little investment in the navy, Richelieu also failed to build on the colonies France acquired.
Richelieu and the French Army
Richelieu knew that France had a weak army and that power in Europe was measured by your military capability and status. Richelieu also knew that a powerful army greatly assisted his drive for absolute rule for his master - Louis XIII. Richelieu also knew that at some stage France would have to get involved with the Thirty Years War.
Richelieu used some of the money his financial policies had collected to modernise the army of France. The task for doing this was left to Fracois Sublet de Noyers, though he remained closely supervised by Richelieu.
The ‘new’ army did participate in the Thirty Years War but with mixed results. However, both in navy and army, France was a lot stronger in 1642, the year of Richelieu’s death.