Cardinal Richelieu was born in 1585 and died in 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 was the third son of the Lord of Richelieu. He was educated in Paris at the Collège de Navarre. From here he went to a military school and then on to the Collège de Calvi where he studied theology. The plan was for Richelieu to take over the family bishopric at Luçon in Poitou. In April 1607, after receiving a papal dispensation as he was only 21, he was ordained as a priest and bishop.

How did a man born into a minor noble family and who administered a small and poor diocese, come to dominate France from 1624 to 1642?

Richelieu had huge ambitions to achieve far reaching power. By 1614 had achieved a reputation as a fine administrator in his diocese and he was considered a very good speaker at the meetings of the Estates-General. He became known as a dévot (a very strong supporter of Roman Catholicism) who then held pro-Spanish views. These were made known to the regent, Marie de Medici, who rewarded Richelieu by bringing him to the Royal Court in November 1515 where he was appointed Chaplain to the new queen, Anne of Austria. The royal favourite, Concini, also believed that Richelieu was talented and had him appointed Secretary of State for War and Foreign Affairs.

When Concini was murdered in 1517, it appeared as if the political career of Richelieu was over. Marie de Medici was exiled to a chateau at Blois and Richelieu went with her.

Between 1617 and 1622, Richelieu faded into relative obscurity. The one avenue he had to the king was, ironically, via Marie’s association with rebellion. Richelieu acted as a go-between when mother and son fell out over her associations with those who were deemed less than trustworthy in the royal court.

In 1622, Marie was successfully re-instated at court as a result of Richelieu’s skilled negotiations with Louis XIII. Marie persuaded her son that Richelieu was a highly skilled politician. None of the politicians who had replaced Luynes on his death in 1621, proved to be successful and with France becoming more and more involved at a non-military level in the Thirty Years War, Louis knew that a long term replacement for Luynes was needed and in April 1624, Richelieu was given a seat on the Royal Council and in August 1624, was made Chief Minister.

Richelieu’s time as chief minister is notable for many reasons.

He attacked the Huguenots; reformed the navy and army; crushed any rebellions and advanced royal absolutism; he raised money by any methods required and he supervised a foreign policy that was designed to make France the greatest power in Europe. It was said that you either liked Richelieu or hated him – there was no half-way.

In November 1642, Richelieu fell ill. He died on the 4th December 1642. His time as Chief Minister had brought untold suffering to the general population of France but he had pushed the nation on to the path of glory. Just days before he died, Richelieu wrote to Louis XIII:

“I have the consolation of leaving your kingdom in the highest degree of glory and of reputation.”

Louis XIII died shortly after in May 1643. His son Louis was only 4 so a regency was formed headed by Anne of Austria, the Queen Mother, and the Duke of Orleans, the former noble rebel. In Louis’ will, Anne was ordered to work with the ministers appointed by Richelieu to succeed him so that Richelieu’s policies would continue. Anne succeeded in forcing the Parlement de Paris to free her from the restraints of the will and allowed her to rule as she wished on behalf of her son.

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