Famous Men of Modern Times - John Haaren

Cardinal Richelieu


While Wallenstein on the one side, and Gustavus Adolphus on the other, were fighting the battles of the "Thirty Years' War" in Germany, a similar religious war was going on in France. Louis XIII and his famous prime minister, Richelieu, were fighting with the Huguenots, or Protestants of France.

Louis sat on the throne, but the real ruler of France was Cardinal Richelieu. The full name of the Cardinal was Armand de Richelieu; Richelieu being the name of his father's estate, upon which, in 1585, Armand was born.

When he was twenty-two he entered the ministry and soon became a bishop. His people were mostly poor; and Richelieu felt that there was a grander career before him than to remain their bishop.



He determined to make something of himself, and to be the equal of any nobleman in the kingdom. There was only one way in which he could do this. That was by becoming a politician. His ambition was to become a leader of men.

In Richelieu's time, there was an assembly in France called the states-general. It was composed of delegates who represented the nobles, the clergy, and the commons—the three great classes into which the nation was divided.

But the states-general had no real power. It did not, like our congress, make laws. It could only petition the king. The delegates presented addresses to His Majesty, telling him of any trouble in the kingdom and begging him to remedy it.

Richelieu, being a bishop, was a member of the states-general, and although he was one of the youngest—perhaps the very youngest of the bishops—he got himself chosen as the orator who should deliver the address of the clergy.

This gave him a good opportunity to win the favor of Louis XIII's mother, the famous Marie de Medici, who was acting as regent of the kingdom until Louis should come of age. The young orator could not say enough in her praise, and she naturally took a liking to him.

Louis XIII and Richelieu


About a year after his oration at the meeting of the states-general, Richelieu was invited by the queen mother to become a member of the council of state. He remained in the council, however, only a short time; for a quarrel arose between the king and his mother, and Richelieu retired from office.

Soon, however, the death of Luynes (lu'een), a favorite minister of Louis, gave him the opportunity to return to Paris. He again took a position under the king, and became the most valuable officer that Louis ever had.

When Henry of Navarre granted to the Huguenots the celebrated Edict of Nantes, the French people generally hoped that the religious troubles in France were forever ended. But unfortunately, this was not the case. In 1621 some of the Huguenots held a great meeting at La Rochelle, which was their richest city, and there made a kind of declaration of independence.

The king of France had several fortresses in that part of the country. One of these, called "St. Louis," commanded La Rochelle.

King Louis considered that he had a right to maintain fortresses anywhere in France, but the Huguenots insisted that the fortress of St. Louis should be demolished. The king, instead of pulling it down, made it stronger.

The Huguenots then did a very unwise thing. In 1622 they rose in a general revolt, and made an attack on some of the king's war vessels and captured them. Richelieu, however, managed to put down the revolt.



Two years later the English made war upon France and again the Huguenots revolted. Richelieu then decided that their power must be destroyed.

So with an army of twenty-five thousand men he marched to La Rochelle and besieged it. The city was well protected. On the land side were vast swamps through which an army could neither march nor drag siege guns. An attack might have been made by sea, but at that time the king had no navy.

To prevent food being taken into the city across the marshes was easy; but the only way to prevent its going in by ships was to close the harbor. To do this, a great stone dike, a mile long, was built across the channel that led to the city.

Richelieu paid his men twice ordinary wages, and in that way, although it was winter, he succeeded in getting the work done. The harbor was thus practically closed. Food soon became scarce, and great suffering prevailed in La Rochelle.

But no one thought of surrender. The women were just as determined to hold out as were the men. Months passed, and still the siege went on. The starving citizens hoped every day to see an English fleet come to their aid; and an English fleet did come.

When the English commander learned of the great dike that Richelieu had built, he was afraid to approach it lest his ships should be wrecked. He therefore sailed away without firing a gun.

At the close of the summer the besieged were obliged to eat horses, dogs, and cats. It is said, that they boiled the skins of these animals, and even boiled old leather trying to make it fit for food.

In September a second English fleet attempted to enter the harbor; but by this time Richelieu had equipped a number of large war vessels, and the English met with determined resistance. A storm damaged many of their vessels, and the battered fleet was forced to sail back to England. By this time one half of the population had died; and, of those left, few were strong enough to do military duty.

At length after a siege of fifteen months, La Rochelle surrendered, and the king made a triumphal entry into the city. The fortifications were destroyed, and the power of the Huguenot nobles was forever at an end.

Richelieu compelled the nobles to admit that Louis was master of France. Many of them, however, were extremely angry at the loss of their power, and conspiracies against the life of Richelieu were more than once formed; but he always managed to find out about them and to punish those engaged in them. Many of the conspirators were executed; and thus Richelieu's power was actually increased instead of destroyed.

It should be said that though Richelieu destroyed the fortresses of the Huguenots, he was not unfair to them about their religion. They were allowed to worship God according to their own consciences; for he was wise enough to know that people cannot be forced to worship in ways they do not like.

While Richelieu wished the king of France to be strong, he wished his neighbor, the emperor of Germany, to be weak. So in the same year in which he had broken down the power of the Protestant nobles, he actually gave help to the Protestant princes of Germany, who were fighting against the emperor just as the Huguenots had fought against King Louis.

He not only persuaded the great Gustavus Adolphus to lead his army of Swedes against the emperor, but he paid large sums of money to him for the support of his troops. Thus the great victories of Gustavus Adolphus, which were so valuable to the German Protestants, were won in part by soldiers paid and fed by Richelieu and the king of France.

Richelieu saw that if the emperor of Germany should overcome the Protestant princes and make himself head of the whole country, and as absolute as Richelieu had made Louis, Germany would be a more powerful country than France. Then Germany might take to herself some of the territory of France. Richelieu fought the Protestants in France to make France united and strong; he paid and fed the Protestant armies in Germany to keep Germany divided and weak.

While Richelieu was prime minister of France, the English and Dutch were planting colonies in America; and commerce in the fish and furs which were brought from the New World was becoming very active and profitable.

Richelieu desired France to be the equal of England as a colonizing and commercial nation. He therefore gave a charter to the Company of "New France," as Canada was often called. He granted to the Company the sole right to collect furs in America, and the sole right to sell them in France. In return, the Company was required within fifteen years to land at least four thousand colonists in Canada.

To protect trading vessels from pirates who then infested the seas, to defend the coast of France, and to protect her colonies, Richelieu saw that a navy was required. He created the navy of France. When Louis XIII came to the throne the country had not a single war ship. When he died, the French navy consisted of twenty men-of-war and eighty smaller vessels.

Long before Richelieu died he had accomplished the object of his life. He had made the king of France an absolute monarch, and himself as absolute as the king.

Wallenstein had desired to accomplish the same thing in Germany, but he had miserably failed. Charles I was trying to make his power absolute in England, but the English people rebelled against him.

Many years after the death of Richelieu, the Czar, Peter the Great, visited Paris. As he stood before the splendid marble monument of Richelieu, he exclaimed, "Thou great man! I would have given thee one half of my dominions to learn from thee how to govern the other half."