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The Political Career and Personal Qualities of Richelieu

(a research paper on Richelieu)

by Orlin Damyanov
for Histrory of Western Civilization II
with Prof. Dr. Von Bawey
The American University of Paris

The greatness and admiration of Richelieu do not come only from his ideas on government comprehensibility, intelligence and progressiveness but also because during his time as a minister he was able, to great extent, to fulfill his clear-cut plan to create the strong state and the absolute monarchy. Richelieu achieved this goal through several courses of action. First-of-all, the central policy of Richelieu was to preserve and extend the authority of the government. Richelieu created an administration apparatus with men completely dependent himself and thus facilitated tremendously the implementation of his policies. He established a church utterly loyal to the monarchy. In fact, the French state had far more extensive control over the revenue of the church than in any other Catholic country. Richelieu had achieved another goal--neutralizing the Huguenots. "As a party" he claimed, the Huguenots had been ruined but this was not so in the direct sense of the word. He did so by tolerating religious differences in order to preserve national unity. Although the Premier Minister considered the noblesse as a vital factor in the state machine, he foresaw the danger of those nobles that were considering themselves excluded from a share of central power and thus could revert to territorial independence (Pennington, 266-67). Contrary to the intention of Richelieu to consolidate sovereignty, their whole life was a defiance of sovereign law. Richelieu had the skills and intellect to find a way to deal with the conspiracies and plots against his regime--selective revenge, counter-attacking and finally lèse-majesté. He was also able to diminish the role of the Parliement that was an evident obstacle to centralization and absolutism. When confronted with the problem of Huguenot apprisings, Richelieu with both his political shrewdness and genuine humanity advised the King to confirm the Edict of Nantes and pardon the rebellion. The "Peace of Grace" achieved the deserved award for the Huguenots did not disturb the security of the state the next few decades (Briggs, 98). With the king supreme at home, Richelieu in 1635 carried France into the Thirty Years' War. The reason was mostly imbedded in the threat that the Hapsburg states, Austria and Spain presented to France. Another motive that lies behind it was that although a risky endeavor the war contributed to the consolidation of the state.
Richelieu was a man of many personal qualities. His powerful and analytic intellect was characterized by a reliance on reason, strong will and ability to govern others. He was, in fact, a born leader who possessed in abundance the personal qualities that are associated with effective use of political power. Even before becoming Premier Minister, the political ideas and concepts of Richelieu are well-matured. In his early statements, authoritarianism is essential. He believed in the divine right of the king and adhered to the doctrine of divine right sovereignty. He had a comprehensive view of well-defined, divinely ordained authority at all levels of society and was devoted to authoritarianism and legitimacy. Richelieu had a clear view of the way the society was supposed to function. Everyone played a specific role in the system, making their contributions--the clergy through their prayers, the nobles with their arms under the control of the king, and the peuple, as the Cardinal used to call the common people, through continued obedience. For him the monarchy was the divinely appointed mechanism. Its purpose was peace and order in society, every subject contributing to the life of the whole. The final result that he envisioned was peace for the state, prosperity for the king, and greatness for the monarchy (Church, 82-85).
The reality was, however, completely different from what Richelieu was striving towards. As O1Connell put it: "France was not an entity, but a congeries of antiquated centres of administrative gravity". The provincial governments were the main source of instability. The provinces were ruled by governors, who were nominally for the Crown but more often stood against it. some of them used the royal authority to become "petty sovereigns". In certain provinces there were provincial Estates, duplications of the States General. All the Midi had a vast degree of autonomy, and even the center and west had not renounced their privileges and were engaged in constant struggle with the Crown to defend them. Even when the Crown proposed trivial things it encountered the obstacle of provincial liberties. In addition, the cities, composed of oligarchies of men of the robe and of trade, had their liberties. Richelieu followed the traditional logic of absolute monarchy and reinforced the system of penetration into the provincial administrative structure by creating officers answerable to the Crown, who would duplicate and gradually absorb the function of revenue-raising, defense, police and the courts. Richelieu went much further in consolidating the role of the Crown in the whole country and created the so-called intendants. They were given authority over the justices, officers and subjects of the Crown, with the power of resolution and decision of "affairs concerning our service, repose and security, to receive request, administer justice, preside over courts and policy, and assist the governors and lieutenant-generals" (O'Connell, 130). Richelieu had also managed to create an extensive network of spies, men of confidence, pamphleteers who disseminated the ideas of Richelieu before their implementation. All this effectively contributed to a centralization of authority and reduced the risks of promoting the policies of state-building.
It is interesting to note that even as a mere Bishop of Luçon, Richelieu was convinced that the state, because of its special purposes and interests, had to differentiate itself from the code of Christian ethics that prevailed among individuals and to operate on a different level. The Cardinal always adhered to the maxim that the means justify the ends. His religious beliefs, therefore, are quite explainable. Although he devoutly believed in the Roman Church1s great mission, Richelieu sought to assign the church a more practical meaning. There was are distinctive tendency in his policies towards laxism and willingness to accommodate religious principles to practical, human reality. Richelieu realized that reason of state necessitated a partial autonomy of political affairs from theological determinants. A more loose religious morality was needed. In his Instruction du chrétien he repeatedly emphasized the sufficiency of a far less rigorous route to salvation than it was required by most of the contemporary religious leaders (Church, 86-87). Richelieu used such arguments to justify his position that the state is above everything and that religion is a mere instrument to promote the policies of the state. The church, thus became a mere tool for the promotion of state policies and increasing the royal power. The Cardinal also considered it to be entirely normal and appropriate to work for religious objectives through the instrumentality of the state. He gave his policies a religious justification, usually defining the good of the state in religious terms. It is clear that to Richelieu the monarchical state and church were the two great, correlative, interlocking institutions and according to him they were "divinely authorized to lead and control humanity in their respective spheres" (Church, 86). Richelieu did not use the church to defend his intentions but the Cardinal did not hesitate infringe on the traditionally established rights of the clergy. When the treasury was short of money because the involvement of France in the Thirty Years War, Richelieu made it clear that the crown might tax clerical wealth without the consent of its holders. Thus the administration demanded on several times subsidies from the clergy and claimed the right to tax them. Although Pope Urban VIII condemned such attacks upon ecclesiastical property, the Parlement did not react. As we can see, Richelieu adroitly and extensively used the potential of the church in realizing his idea of centralized state.
An important obstacle to the solidification of absolutism and centralization of power was the Parlement, which was conservative, independent and resistant to pressure. Bernard de La Roche-Flavin in 1617 summed up its authority as follows: "It has the function of verifying, ratifying, limiting or restraining" (O1Connell, 131). In eight provinces there were parlements similar in role and function to the Parliement in Paris. This only demonstrates the incongruity of the state system. The Parlement at the time of Richelieu claimed that all decrees were of legal effect only if ratified or approved by it. This was true even if they were made in the presence of the King. Richelieu had to struggle during his whole career in order to gain control over the judicial system and finally succeeded when an ordinance was issued in 1641 which forbade the Parlement in future to occupy itself with political concerns. The restriction of judicial functions of the Parlement would have been something unheard of twenty years before and particularly here we can see the contribution of the Cardinal to the creation of a more centralized authority. According to Bernard de La Roche-Flavin, France was composed of "three sorts of government on the whole, that is to say, the monarchy, aristocracy and republic, so that one may serve as a brake upon and a counterpoise to the other." Richelieu put all his effort in undoing this system by placing as much power as possible in the hands of the monarch. The opposition of the Parlement to his measures he described as "altogether beyond the bounds of reason" (O1Connell, 131).
It is the reason of things that lies behind the logic of Richelieu1s conceptions of solidifying the central authority. In an age when there was solid faith in the power of human reason to perceive the true structure of things, the Cardinal derived his concepts of absolutism on the basis of a firm belief in the institution of monarchy as a rational system of government. On the other hand, he assumed that the monarchy was the necessary power to restrain the irrational tendencies in men. Richelieu made every reasonable effort to make the existing system more efficient by staffing it with his protégés, controlling its operations and adding certain elements that increased effective power at the center (Church, 174).
When we discuss the consolidation of the French monarchy, the notion of sovereignty is essential. We cannot talk of Richelieu1s increasing the effective power of the administrative system and institutions of government without mentioning his strive for fulfillment of the concept that every Frenchman was equally subject to the Crown regardless of his position in the hierarchy and ensuring that all elements of the population were in every sense the king1s loyal subjects (Church, 174). Although the Cardinal had some religious constraints because of the mediaeval ideas of Christian morality which was still present to date, he nevertheless regarded public interest as of primary importance. The idea of sovereignty was introduced as the keystone and major factor of French political thinking without which Richelieu would have undoubtedly found it hard to realize his policy of centralizing authority. Richelieu had to reestablish the balance between fundamental law and royal sovereignty which had been seriously disturbed. The work of Cardinal Le Bret in 1632 demonstrates this. Sovereignty, he said "is a supreme power bestowed on an individual, which gives him the right to command absolutely, and which has for its end the repose and advantage of the public"(De la souveraineté du roy, 1). The reasoning of Le Bret makes it clear that the change of institutions and customs by the royal authority is possible, "for all persons being equally subjects of the same King, are equally subject to the same law". Le Bret also criticizes the anarchic character of the feudal rights and privileges whose belittlement will become one Richelieu1s main objectives.
Probably the strongest impediment to the policies of Richelieu, aimed at intensifying the royal power throughout France, were the traditional privileges, liberties and feudal rights of the nobility. Some of the higher nobles were constantly involved in conspiracy against the crown and at times their personal armies were outnumbering that of the crown. Thus in the beginning of his rule as a Premier Minister, Richelieu1s major problems on the domestic front consisted of counterattacking the noble conspiracies and reducing the political power of the Huguenots. On the pretext of combating the heresy, Richelieu embarked upon hostilities against the Huguenots. His major concern, however, in both reducing La Rochelle and restricting the activities of the nobles was the elimination of all resistance within the monarchy which hampered the expansion and exercise of state power and to demonstrate that all French citizens, Catholic or Huguenot, noble or peasant, must be loyal subjects to the Crown (Church, 175). The fact which proves the Cardinal1s desire was to submit all elements of French society to the power of the state was the Peace of Allais (1629). Richelieu succeeded in reducing the Huguenots to the position of unquestionable obedience. It was clear to the Cardinal that it was not the heresy that limited royal absolutism but rebellion and war. The bitter experience of religious strife that meant undesirable chaos which inevitably would weaken the power of the ruler was another factor for the peaceful settlement of the problem with the Huguenots. The words of Louis XIII at the capitulation of the rebellious La Rochelle are indicative of this: "I well know that you have done everything in your power to throw off the burden of obedience to me. I forgive your rebellions. If you are my good and faithful subjects, I shall be a good prince to you" (Church, 196).
Before the Peace of Allais, the reasons for the rebellions of the Huguenots were very similar to the pretensions of the nobles in general. They maintained that they were loyal subjects but the privileges that had been conceded them by earlier royal edicts had been continually violated. The position of Richelieu, however was indisputable. As seen from his work Advis designated for the king, the primary duty of the king is to wield his power for the benefit of his state without regard to personal or humanitarian considerations. By winning the king entirely on his side, Richelieu was ready to pursue his goal of controlling the great nobles and limiting their seditious activity. Richelieu who "gloried in the majesty of Louis XIII" persisted in explaining the continuing danger from the nobility and stated the according measures that need to be taken (Church, 198). Here, it is imperative to mention that the self-effacement of Louis XIII must be counted as not the least of the causes which contributed to the consolidation of the French state, for the achievement of the Cardinal was made possible only by the conduct of the King (Wedgwood, 37). Richelieu insisted that the King should exert greater effort to enforce his laws, especially those that touched the nobles, and he specifically mentioned the edict against dueling. The laws must be applied with extraordinary severity, for otherwise the state cannot survive. The Cardinal emphasized to the King that he had to rigorously punish all crimes so as to forestall greater ones. Through such kind of reasoning, Richelieu sought to provide to his sovereign a rationale for the harsh rule and occasionally immoral policies that both knew to be requisite to strengthening the French State.
The edict against dueling as well as the royal declaration ordering the destruction of fortresses that were not on the frontiers were both for the purpose of increasing royal control over the nobles. There was need for extensive psychological adjustment before the nobles could view themselves as mere subjects of the crown. The period was such that for the nobility the king was but the highest ranking member of the order. The attempt of Richelieu to exclude the nobles from the government affairs on any level was within the scope of the royal prerogative but ran counter to many elements of noble1s traditional way of life, therefore involved the violation not of legal rights but of social values. The aristocracy had failed to transform itself into a political oligarchy capable of resisting the intrusion of absolute monarchy. It consumed itself and the resources of the nation in senseless pursuit of noble values and honor. In this way it had become an impediment to the centralization of the state, upon which the grandeur of France depended. The reasonable policy of Richelieu was to reduce the great nobility to loyalty and to use their energy for the benefit of the state (O1Connell, 128).
The explanation for the continuous threat to central authority and more precisely the secret noble conspiracies against Richelieu, whom many regarded as a tyrant and a menace to their way of life, can be explained by the personal concept of service that the nobles used to have, their loyalty to the order and the clientele system. An effective way of dealing with the numerous conspiracies and secret revolts of the nobles was the accusation of lèse-majesté. The crime was considered to consist of overt and covert acts against the person of the king, members of his family, or the safety of his realm. Richelieu expanded the definition of lèse-majesté to include the composition, publication, and distribution of defamatory libels concerning political matters. Richelieu did not hesitate to accuse the followers of the Queen Mother and Gaston d'Orleans of lèse-majesté (Church, 178-79). The idea appeared that in political affairs a special standard of justice without proofs of guilt was both necessary and justified. Many opponents of Richelieu, thus, found themselves in the prison or were sentenced to death because they were plotting against the state, and disrupting the public peace.
Another device that Richelieu used to diminish the power of the nobles and respectively aggrandize that of the state was the practice of selling offices. This was not merely a device to raise revenue from the proprieted classes but it blocked the formation of grandee clientage systems within the state. Richelieu stressed in his Testament Politique the critical Œsterilizing1 role of the paulette in putting the whole administrative system beyond the reach of tentacular aristocratic lineages like that of the House of Guise (Anderson, 52).
After the Day of Dupes when most of Richelieu1s opponents were neutralized, the ambitious minister realized that the moment has come for a more serious foreign policy. War was unavoidable according to Richelieu although he saw war as a needed process before a all-reaching peace was obtained. War was also the prime necessity to building state power and prestige of the monarchy. The emergency of the war also allowed the taking of measures and the implementation of domestic policies aimed at consolidating the monarchical state which without this emergency are practically impossible. Aggressive foreign policy was also the only means of neutralizing threats from abroad and advancing state interests. It is argued that Richelieu, following his program of state-building, had been caught in the spiral in which the survival of the state necessitated armed combat which in turn caused further rivalry. Others also say that he used the resources of the nation in vain in order to participate in an useless conflict. Whatever the sacrifices, the foreign policy of Richelieu presented, it had promoted and had brought further the consolidation, power, security, prestige, and discipline to the monarchical state.
Although the system that Richelieu created can be viewed as artificial because it did not appear as a natural continuation of the past, his idea of government from above had its enormously beneficial outcome on the historical development of France. By adapting his policies to changing circumstances, with great flexibility and exploitation of opportunity, enabled Richelieu to achieve his goal of the integrity and grandeur of France. Richelieu had found a country with unrealized potential, vigorous but divided people. He had found France inefficiently governed and inadequately armed. By involving every subject in the service of a strong state, Richelieu opened up more perspectives in front of the people. He saw this tremendous potential for order, skillful government and military greatness. His whole life he worked towards this objective and he left contentious nation, a coherent domain, a political system soon to become the example for the rest of Europe. Richelieu formed a model upon which the new ideal of Nationalism should frame itself. He centralized political power and worked towards a more uniform legal system. Richelieu built for France the stable and powerful monarchy which gave her a long pre-eminence among nations and contributed to the whole European development. The only factor that was on his side during his mission as principle minister of the state was the need and desire in the society for authority and peace after the prolonged disorder of the past. The energy and will-power of the Cardinal reconstructed the state and made France a great power in the face of the most formidable obstruction.
All these merits of Richelieu to his country is the reason why many French historians consider him as the founder of French unity as well as the person who released France from its medieval nature.


Church, William. Richelieu and Reason of State. Princeton University Press, 1972

O1Connell, D.P. Richelieu. Wiedenfeld and Nocolsen, London. The Garden City Press Limited, 1968.

Hill, Henry Bertram. The Political Testament of Cardinal Richelieu. The significant chapters and supporting selections translated by Henry Bertram Hill. The University of Winsconsin Press. Madison, 1961

Belloc, Hillaire. Richelieu. Philadelphia&London. J.B. Lippincott Company. 1929.

Coveney, P.J. France in Crisis 1620-1675 Selection, introduction, editorial material and translation done by the author. Rowmann and Littlefield. Totowa, New Jersey. 1977.

Tapie, Victor. La France de Louis XIII et Richelieu. L1Histoire, Flammarion 1967.

Elliott, J.H. Richelieu and Olivares. Cambridge Studies in Early Modern History Editors: J. H. Elliott, Olwen Hufton, H. G. Koenigsberger. The Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton. Cambridge University Press 1984.

Wedgwood, C. V. Richelieu and the French Monarchy. Penguin Books 1974, First published in the "Teach Yourself History" series by the English University Press. Copyright 1949.

Martin, Marie-Madeleine. The Making of France. The Origins and Development of the Idea of NAtional Unity (Histoire de l1Unité Française) Translated by Barbara and Robert North. Eyre&Spottiswood, London 1951.

Briggs, Robin. Early Modern France 1560-1715. An Opus Book. Oxford University Press 1977.

Pennington, D. H. Seventeenth-Century Europe. A General History of Europe edited by Denys Hay. Longman Group Limited, London 1970.

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