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Armand Jean Du Plessis, Duke of Richelieu, the future cardinal, was the third son of Francois Du Plessis, Grand Provost of the French Court, and was born on September 5, 1585, at Paris, say his biographers, Aubery and Leclerc; while tradition claims this honor for the family chateau in Poitou. He received the elements of education at home from the Prior of St. Florent, but soon quitted the paternal mansion, first for the College of Navarre, subsequently for that of Lisieux. From thence he removed to a military academy, being intended for the profession of arms. But on his brother, who was Bishop of Lucon, resolving to quit the world for the cloister, young Armand was advised to abandon the sword for the gown, in order that he might succeed to his brother's bishopric.
A Concert At Richelieu's Palace.
The escape of the queen-mother from her place of confinement, excited the fears of her enemies and the hopes of Richelieu. He wrote instantly to court, to proffer his services toward bringing about an accommodation. In the difficulty of the moment, the king and his favorite accepted the offer. Richelieu was released from exile, and allowed to join the queen at Angouleme, where he certainly labored to bring about a reconciliation. There were long and bitter struggles, but an agreement was finally concluded, and it was found that Richelieu, the negotiator, had himself reaped all the benefits. He received the cardinal's hat from the king's hand at Lyons, toward the close of the year 1622.
Not content with this advancement of her counsellor, Mary de Medici continued to press the king to admit Richelieu to his cabinet. Louis long resisted her solicitations, such was his instinctive dread of the man destined to rule him. Nor was it until 1624, after the lapse of sixteen months, and when embarrassed with difficult state questions, which no one then in office was capable of managing, that the royal will was declared admitting Richelieu to the council. Even this grace was accompanied by the drawback that the cardinal was allowed to give merely his opinion, not his vote.
Once, however, seated at the council table, the colleagues of the cardinal shrunk before him into ciphers. He boldly avowed his determination to adopt the policy and resume the scheme of Henry IV., for the humiliation of the House of Austria. His anchor of safety was in the confidence reposed in him by Louis XIII. This prince, although of most feeble will, was not without the just pride of a monarch; he could not but perceive that his former ministers or favorites were but the instruments or slaves of the noblesse, who consulted but their own interests, and provided but for the difficulties of the moment. Richelieu, on the contrary, though eager for power, sought it as an instrument to great ends, to the consolidation of the monarchy, and to its ascendancy in Europe. He was in the habit of unfolding these high views to Louis, who, though himself incapable of putting them into effect, nevertheless had the spirit to admire and approve them. Richelieu proposed to render his reign illustrious abroad, and at home to convert the chief of a turbulent aristocracy into a real monarch. It forms indeed the noblest part of this great statesman's character, that he won upon the royal mind, not by vulgar flattery, but by exciting within it a love of glory and of greatness to which, at the same time, he pointed the way.
Accordingly, through all the plots formed against him, Louis XIII. remained firmly attached to Richelieu, sacrificing to this minister's pre-eminence his nobility, his brother Gaston, Duke of Orleans, his queen, and finally the queen-mother herself, when she too became jealous of the man whom she had raised.
If Richelieu thus imprudently indulged his passion or his pique, he redeemed the error by activity and exertion unusual to the age. He at once formed the project of attacking the Huguenots in their chief stronghold of La Rochelle. Buckingham, the English minister, could not fail to attempt the relief of this sea-port, and the cardinal anticipated the triumph of personally defeating a rival. He accordingly himself proceeded to preside over the operations of the siege. To render the blockade effectual, it was requisite to stop up the port. The military officers whom he employed could suggest no means of doing this. Richelieu took counsel of his classic reading, and having learned from Quintus Curtius how Alexander the Great reduced Tyre, by carrying out a mole against it through the sea, he was encouraged to undertake a similar work. The great mound was accordingly commenced, and well-nigh finished, when a storm arose and destroyed it in a single night. But Richelieu was only rendered more obstinate: he recommenced the mole, and was seen with the volume of Alexander's History in his hand, encouraging the workmen and overruling the objections of the tacticians of the army. The second attempt succeeded, the harbor was blocked up, and the promised aid of England rendered fruitless. The cardinal triumphed, for La Rochelle surrendered. In his treatment of the vanquished, Richelieu showed a moderation seldom observable in his conduct. He was lenient, and even tolerant, toward the Huguenots, content with having humbled the pride of his rival, Buckingham.
La Rochelle was no sooner taken, and Richelieu rewarded by the title of prime minister than he resumed those projects of humbling the House of Austria, in which he had previously been interrupted. A quarrel about the succession to Mantua afforded him a pretext to interfere; and he did so, after his fashion, not by mere negotiations, but by an army. This expedition proved a source of quarrel between him and the queen-mother, Mary de Medici, who hitherto had been his firm and efficient friend.
The voice of the conqueror of La Rochelle triumphed in council, and his project in the field. The French were victorious in Italy, and the minister equally so over the mind of the monarch.
But Mary de Medici could not forgive, and she now openly showed her hatred of Richelieu, and exerted herself to the utmost to injure him with the king. Though daily defeating her intrigues, the cardinal dreaded her perseverance, and resolved to drag the king with him to another Italian campaign. Louis obeyed, and the court set out for the south, the queen-mother herself accompanying it. Richelieu, however, did not tarry for the slow motions of the monarch. He flew to the army, took upon him the command, and displayed all the abilities of a great general in out-manoeuvring and worsting the generals and armies of Savoy. In the meantime Louis fell dangerously ill at Lyons. His mother, an affectionate attendant on his sick-couch, resumed her former empire over him. At one moment his imminent death seemed to threaten the cardinal with ruin. Louis recovered, however, and his first act was to compel a reconciliation, in form at least, between the cardinal and the queen-mother.
The king's illness, although not so immediately fatal to Richelieu as his enemies had hoped, was still attended with serious consequences to him. The French army met with ill success through the treachery of the general, Marillac, who was secretly attached to the queen's party, and the failure was attributed to Richelieu.
Mary de Medici renewed her solicitations to her son, that he would dismiss his minister. Louis, it appears, made a promise to that effect; a reluctant promise, given to get rid of her importunity. Mary calculated too securely upon his keeping it; she broke forth in bitter contumely against Richelieu; deprived him of his superintendence over her household, and treated Madame de Combalet, the cardinal's niece, who had sunk on her knees to entreat her to moderate her anger almost with insult. The king was present, and seemed to sanction her violence so that Richelieu withdrew to make his preparations for exile. Louis, dissatisfied and irresolute, retired to Versailles; while Mary remained triumphant at the Luxembourg, receiving the congratulations of her party. Richelieu, in the meantime, ere taking his departure, repaired to Versailles, and, once there, resumed the ascendant over the monarch. The tidings of this was a thunder-stroke to Mary and her party, who became instantly the victims of the cardinal's revenge. Marillac was beheaded, and Mary de Medici, herself at length completely vanquished by her rival, was driven out of France to spend the rest of her days in exile.
The trial of Marillac had roused the spirit and indignation even of those nobles who had previously respected, and bowed to, the minister of the royal choice. Richelieu not only threatened their order with the scaffold, but his measures of administration were directed to deprive them of their ancient privileges, and means of wealth and domination. One of these was the right of governors of provinces to raise the revenue within their jurisdiction, and to employ or divert no small portion of it to their use. Richelieu, to remedy this, transferred the office of collecting the revenue to new officers, called the Elect. He tried this in Languedoc, then governed by the Duc de Montmorenci, a noble of the first rank, whose example, consequently, would have weight, and who had always proved himself obedient and loyal. Moved, however, by his private wrongs, as well as that of his order, he now joined the party of the nobles and the king's brother, Gaston, Duke of Orleans. That weak prince, after forming an alliance with the Duke of Lorraine, had raised an army. Richelieu lost not a moment in despatching a force which reduced Lorraine, and humbled its hitherto independent duke almost to the rank of a subject. Gaston then marched his army to Languedoc and joined Montmorenci. The Marechal de Breze, Richelieu's brother-in-law, led the loyal troops against them, defeated Gaston at Castelnaudari, and took Montmorenci prisoner. This noble had been the friend and supporter of Richelieu, who even called him his son; yet the cardinal's cruel policy determined that he should die. There was difficulty in proving before the judges that he had actually borne arms against the king. "The smoke and dust," said St. Reuil, the witness, "rendered it impossible to recognize any combatant distinctly. But when I saw one advance alone, and cut his way through five ranks of gens-d'armes, I knew that it must be Montmorenci."
This gallant descendant of five constables of France perished on the scaffold at Toulouse. Richelieu deemed the example necessary to strike terror into the nobility. And he immediately took advantage of that terror, by removing all the governors of provinces, and replacing them throughout with officers personally attached to his interests.
Having thus made, as it were, a clear stage for the fulfilment of his great political schemes, Richelieu turned his exertions to his original plan of humbling the House of Austria, and extending the territories of France at its expense. He formed an alliance with the great Gustavus Adolphus, who then victoriously supported the cause of religious liberty in Germany. Richelieu drew more advantage from the death than from the victories of his ally; since, as the price of his renewing his alliance with the Swedes, he acquired the possession of Philipsburg, and opened the way toward completing that darling project of France and every French statesman, the acquisition of the Rhine as a frontier.
The French having manifested their design to get possession of Treves, the Spaniards anticipated them; and open war ensued betwixt the two monarchies. Richelieu in his wars was one of those scientific combatants who seek to weary out an enemy, and who husband their strength in order not to crush at once, but to ruin in the end. Such, at least, were the tactics by which he came triumphant out of the struggle with Spain. He made no conquests at first, gained no striking victories; but he compensated for his apparent want of success by perseverance, by taking advantage of defeat to improve the army, and by laboring to transfer to the crown the financial and other resources which had been previously absorbed by the aristocracy. Thus the war, though little brilliant at first, produced at last these very important results. Arras in the north, Turin in the south, Alsace in the east, fell into the hands of the French; Roussillon was annexed to the monarchy; and Catalonia revolted from Spain. Richelieu might boast that he had achieved the great purposes of Henry IV., not so gloriously indeed as that heroic prince might have done, but no less effectually. This was effected not so much by arms as by administration. The foundation was laid for that martial pre-eminence which Louis XIV. long enjoyed; and which he might have retained, had the virtue of moderation been known to him.
It was not without incurring great personal perils, with proportionate address and good fortune, that Cardinal Richelieu arrived at such great results. Constant plots were formed against him, the most remarkable of which was that of Cinq-Mars, a young nobleman selected to be the king's favorite, on account of his presumed frivolity. But he was capable of deep thoughts and passions; and wearied by the solitude in which the monarch lived, and to which he was reduced by the minister's monopoly of all power, he dared to plot the cardinal's overthrow. This bold attempt was sanctioned by the king himself, who at intervals complained of the yoke put upon him.
Great interests were at stake, for Richelieu, reckoning upon the monarch's weak health, meditated procuring the regency for himself. The Queen, Anne of Austria, aware of this intention, approved of the project of Cinq-Mars, which, of course, implied the assassination of the cardinal. No other mode of defying his power and talent could have been contemplated. But Richelieu was on the watch. The court was then in the south of France, engaged in the conquest of Roussillon, a situation favorable for the relation of the conspirators with Spain. The minister surprised one of the emissaries, had the fortune to seize a treaty concluded between them and the enemies of France; and with this flagrant proof of their treason, he repaired to Louis, and forced from him an order for their arrest. It was tantamount to their condemnation. Cinq-Mars and his friends perished on the scaffold; Anne of Austria was again humbled; and every enemy of the cardinal shrunk in awe and submission before his ascendancy. Among them was the king himself, whom Richelieu looked upon as an equal in dignity, an inferior in mind and in power. The guards of the cardinal were as numerous as the monarch's, and independent of any authority save that of their immediate master. A treaty was even drawn up between king and minister, as between two potentates. But the power and the pride of Richelieu reached at once their height and their termination. A mortal illness seized him in the latter days of 1642, a few months after the execution of Cinq-Mars. No abatement of his pride marked his last moments. He summoned the monarch like a servant to his couch, instructed him what policy to follow and appointed the minister who was to be his own successor.
Such was the career of this supereminent statesman, who, although in the position of Damocles all his life, with the sword of the assassin suspended over his head, surrounded with enemies, and with insecure and treacherous support even from the monarch whom he served, still not only maintained his own station, but possessed time and zeal to frame and execute gigantic projects for the advancement of his country and of his age. It makes no small part of Henry IV.'s glory that he conceived a plan for diminishing the power of the House of Austria. Richelieu, without either the security or the advantages of the king and the warrior, achieved it. Not only this, but he dared to enter upon the war at the very same time when he was humbling that aristocracy which had hitherto composed the martial force of the country.
The effects of his domestic policy were indeed more durable than those of what he most prided himself upon, his foreign policy. He it was, in fact, who founded the French monarchy, such as it existed until near the end of the eighteenth century--a grand, indeed, rather than a happy result. He was a man of penetrating and commanding intellect, who visibly influenced the fortunes of Europe to an extent which few princes or ministers have equalled. Unscrupulous in his purposes, he was no less so in the means by which he effected them. But so long as men are honored, not for their moral excellences, but for the great things which they have done for themselves, or their country, the name of Richelieu will be recollected with respect, as that of one of the most successful statesmen that ever lived.
As a patron of letters and of the arts, Richelieu has acquired a reputation almost rivalling that of his statesmanship. His first and earliest success in life had been as a scholar supporting his theses; and, as it is continually observed that great men form very erroneous judgments of their own excellences, he ever prided himself especially in his powers as a penman.
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