Following the delightfully silly, but entertaining television series of The Three Musketeers, recently to leave our Sunday evening screens, and inspired by the brilliant portrayal by Peter Capaldi, I thought I would re-read a life of Cardinal Richelieu which I had on my shelves, another book that I intended to revisit was L’Eminence Grise by Aldous Huxley, but sadly my copy has wandered.
Cardinal Richelieu and the Making of France by Anthony Levi is a broadly generous portrait of a complex, ruthless and determined man, driven by political will and national expediency to a place in the history books of France and, indeed, Europe.
Considering the reputation and fortune that he amassed later in life, Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu did not have such auspicious beginnings. He had two other brothers, Henri and Alphonse (who was also to become a Cardinal); even once he became a priest and then a bishop, his diocese was not one which would have led you to suppose he was destined for great things. Luçon was poor, remote and rural. Armand-Jean emerged, almost unknown, into national life when he was selected to speak on behalf of the clergy at the end of the Estates General (the three estates being the clergy, the nobility and the commoners – and the Estates General being a meeting of representatives of all three) in the presence of the King, Louis XIII in February 1615.
It is a bit hard for us to imagine Europe, especially France, in the seventeenth century. It was not a country as we know it, except in the terms of a geographical land mass. Politically it was, like Italy, a series of city states ruled, taxed and governed locally by the nobility – Dukes who had near-absolute power, even to the extent of defying the King. Loyalties were primarily feudal, local or regional and then religious, neither united by language nor law. Louis XIII too, at that time was a different king from his son, he spent a lifetime on the battlefield, fighting against rebellious barons or for territory. Louis XIV was ruler of a stable and relatively peaceful country created for him by the Cardinal, Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu who worked tirelessly, tactfully and relentlessly towards a single aim – a unified, politically singular nation, with a national identity, a national aim and secure boundaries. It is quite extraordinary to remember that this was achieved, more or less, in a single lifetime.
Starting with the complex geographical conglomerations over which different nations held sway: France was bounded in the South West by Spain, but held territory over the Pyrenees in Navarre, Spain on the other hand had political control over lands to the North East of France and the Low Countries; in the South East there was Italian influence and in the North East a very complicated arrangement of loyalties over the Alps, access to lands over which both Spain, Germany, Italy and France had interests…and over which there hung the constant threat of war, unrest and difficulty.
Internally, there were further conflicts which had a bearing on the situation abroad. At this time, the French Huguenots were tolerated, although a much larger majority of the population were Catholic, but clearly any move against the Huguenots would exacerbate tensions with Protestant countries like Holland and England, and the Hapsburg Empire. Into this mixture, one also has to factor in the colossal influence of the Pope.
Furthemore, even within the royal family there were constant tensions, Louis XIII was young when his father died, his mother Marie de Medici became a strong and not always beneficial influence, Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu was not always popular with her either and his fortune often rested on the unequal fulcrum of Louis’ loyalty and hers. In the end, Richelieu owed his success to the very great reliance that Louis felt for his advice and counsel, Marie de Medici became a bitter opponent. Added to this Louis and his wife Anne of Austria showed no sign of ever having any children, let alone the very necessary heir and spare, so the King’s younger brother Gaston, Duke of Orleans was the heir-apparent, but together with his mother was often more of a threat than a useful ally.
Somehow, amidst this maelstrom of family rivalry, political unrest, weakening nobility and growing commons revolt, Richelieu steered the parlement, the King and the country into a new, fledgling nation – one with a recognisable cultural identity and national purpose.
The other book, L’Eminence Grise, covers much the same territory but from the point of view of Père Joseph, François le Clerc du Tremblay, who was invited by Armand-Jean du Plessis to establish two religious houses in his diocese of Luçon, the Capuchins were a branch of the Franciscans and this became even more important later on in Richelieu’s life when Père Joseph became a trusted and close friend and political adviser on foreign policy.
I have hardly done justice to either of these fascinating books, the period is so complicated, the cast of players so immense and the consequences so extraordinary, that I can merely touch on the outlines and hope that you will be intrigued enough to read them, or at the very least to read The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas which though very romantic, does give you a flavour of the times.