Cardinal Richelieu

(Armand Jean du Plessis)


Cardinal Richelieu was extremely influential in seventeenth-century France, as he was both a powerful member of the clergy and the prime minister to Louis XIII during his reign as king. He is most well-known for his large part in the Thirty Years’ War and the establishment of L’Académie français, an organization acting as official authority on the French language. He also worked to remove Protestants and the feudal nobility from power, creating a centralized, unified state that responded only to the king. Richelieu was unpopular among the common people as well as the nobility, though, and several rebellions and political plots were attempted against him, only to be found out and put down by the crafty cardinal.

After his father passed away while fighting in the French Wars of Religion, the young Richelieu and his family were granted diocesan funds by King Henry III to console them for their loss. Clergymen, however, wished the money to be spent for ecclesiastical purposes, and in order to secure their claim to the much-needed income, Richelieu was chosen to become bishop of the area at the age of twenty-three. He was the first bishop in France to implement changes brought about by the Council of Trent, and was therefore thought of as a reformer, admired by his fellow Church leaders but despised by the lower classes. He was made a representative in the Estates-General of 1614, and he effectively became the voice of the upper-class clergy; he was a strong advocate of the Church and pressed for more power for bishops and exemption from taxes. Richelieu was initially influential in the French court but fell from power after the assassination of his patron, a great minister much loved by the Queen. After the death of the king’s favorite, however, he secured a position as Louis XIII’s chief minister. He then turned to more political matters, specifically his goals of centralizing France and destroying the Habsburg monarchy. He strived toward the first by suppressing the power of the nobility, tearing down their defenses and quickly arousing their anger. Seeking religious unity to complete the process, he warred with the Protestant Huguenots and removed their political rights and protections. He also fought the Habsburgs in Northern Italy, leaving his large network of spies to oversee tensions at home. Despite several schemes meant to lead to his downfall, he was still in power during the later half of the Thirty Years’ War, and he organized several alliances with Protestant powers to give France the upper hand in battle. Strapped for funds, he raised salt and land taxes, leading the peasants to revolt against his unfair measures and greatly increasing their dislike for the cardinal. These rebellions were easily put down, and Richelieu dealt harshly with the conspirators. He successfully ended the Habsburg monarchy during the Thirty Years’ War, and he remained in power until a year before his death.

After suffering from several long-term diseases, Richelieu passed away at the age of 57. He was embalmed and buried in the church of the Sorbonne. His mummified and well-preserved face was stolen during the French Revolution and changed hands multiple times before being returned to its owner during the reign of Napoleon.

Key events during the life of Cardinal Richelieu:

Born in Paris
Father died during the French Wars of Religion
Consecrated as a bishop
Chosen as Secretary of State, but was dropped from favor and removed from the court
Banished to Avignon
Thirty Years' War
Became a cardinal
Became Louis XIII's chief minister
Established the Academie francais (French Academy)
Died; succeeded by Cardinal Mazarin

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
House of Bourbon  in  France: Peeps at History  by  John Finnemore
Massacre of the Huguenots  in  The Story of Old France  by  H. A. Guerber
Richelieu and Louis XIII.  in  The Story of Old France  by  H. A. Guerber
Cardinal Richelieu  in  Famous Men of Modern Times  by  John H. Haaren
Italian Favourite  in  The Story of France  by  Mary Macgregor
Richelieu and the Conspirators  in  Historical Tales: French  by  Charles Morris
Story of the Huguenots  in  The Awakening of Europe  by  M. B. Synge

Image Links

Cardinal, duc de Richelieu
 in France: Peeps at History

Richelieu on the dike at La Rochelle
 in The Story of Old France

His Gray Eminence
 in The Story of Old France

Tomb of Richelieu
 in The Story of Old France

 in Famous Men of Modern Times

Louis XIII and Richelieu
 in Famous Men of Modern Times

Richelieu on the dike at la Rochelle
 in Famous Men of Modern Times
Cardinal Richelieu
Cardinal Richelieu
 in Back Matter
A Concert at Richelieu's Plalace
A Concert at Richelieu's Plalace
 in Back Matter

Short Biography
Jules Cardinal Mazarin Minister of France during the early reign of Louis the XIV. Followed in the footsteps of Richelieu.
Henry IV Popular Huguenot King who converted to Catholicism, but decreed religious toleration.
Samuel de Champlain Founded French colonies in the St. Lawrence seaway and great lake region. Father of 'New France.'
Louis XIII King of France during the Thirty Years' War. Established the Academie francais.