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Cardinal Richelieu

Portraits of Cardinal Richelieu

Portraits of Cardinal Richelieu by Philippe de Champaigne (1637)

Richelieu's real name was Armand Jean du Plessis. He was born in Paris in 1585 and was a member of one of the less important noble families. He took the name of Richelieu from one of the estates which his family owned. At the age of twenty one he was given the hereditary title of Bishop of Luçon. Even though he was really too young, the pope consecrated him one year later.

Richelieu turned out to be a competent bishop and worked hard at his job. He was twenty nine when he joined Parliament as the Poitou representative. Here he continued to make a good impression, so much so that Marie de Medici took notice of him. Marie de Medici was acting as regent for the thirteen year old King Louis XIII and she made Richelieu a member of the Royal Council in 1616. His stay on the Council was a short one, however; Louis XIII was jealous of the new and able young advisor. The king convinced his mother to exile Richelieu in 1617.

He was not out of favour for long and returned in 1624 as advisor to the king. He proceeded to literally rule France for the next eighteen years. In addition he returned to France as a cardinal, an honour bestowed on him by the pope in 1622.

His aims were twofold; one, to create a strong and powerful France to dominate the Habsburg Empire and two, to create a strong and powerful monarchy which would rule in the absolute sense. Richelieu was disliked by the people because he imposed heavy taxes and employed harsh and dirty tactics. The following lists some of his policies during his eighteen years in power:

  • He negotiated with the English king's advisor, the Duke of Buckingham, that Charles I of England should marry Louis XIII's sister, Henrietta-Maria. This, it was hoped, would bring better relations between the two counties and a possible pro-Catholic heir to the English throne.

  • He threw the Huguenots out of their fortified cities. One of the last cities to fall was La Rochelle. It was under siege for a long time. At first the Huguenots received supplies from English ships, but Richelieu went to La Rochelle himself to supervise the building of a breakwater. This wall formed a barrier to the English supply ships and, although the Huguenots held out for fourteen months, they were eventually starved into surrender in 1628.

  • To increase the security of the monarchy he needed to make the French nobles less powerful. First he used Intendants as spies who reported any news of plots and suspicious activity. Any noble who was deemed guilty on either count would be imprisoned. Second, in 1626, he made sure that all fortified castles which were not necessary to France's defense were pulled down.

  • In order to weaken the Habsburgs he gave financial support to Protestant Germanic States, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark during the Thirty Years' War.

  • He sent armies to fight the Spanish for territory to add to France. between 1628 and 1642 (the year Richelieu died) there were many battles. He even persuaded Louis XIII to personally lead 36000 troops across the Alps to conquer Mantua. Overall his tactics paid off and France was able to claim Alsace and Lorraine as additional territories in 1642.

Richelieu's aggressive policies achieved his two political ambitions. He did have another side to his character, however. He wrote many books and supported literary people. He was the founder of the French Academy.

   

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© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2014

Footnote : As far as the Open Door team can ascertain the images shown on this page are in the Public Domain.