Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

Richeleau—Under the Red Robe

Never was king more beloved by his subjects than Henry of Navarre, who had so many of the frank and genial qualities which his nation valued. There was mourning as for a father when the fanatic, Ravaillac, struck him to the ground. It seemed strange that death should come in the same guise to the first of the Bourbon line and the last of the Valois.

Henry had studied the welfare of the peasantry and the middle class, striving to crush the power of the nobles whose hands were perpetually raised one against the other. Therefore he intrusted affairs of State to men of inferior rank, and determined that he would form in France a nobility of the robe that should equal the old nobility of the sword. The paulette gave to all those who held the higher judicial functions of the State the right to transmit their offices by will to their descendants, or even to sell them as so much hereditary property.

In foreign affairs Henry had attempted to check the ambitious schemes of the Spanish Hapsburg line and to restore the ancient prestige of France in Europe, but he had to leave his country in a critical stage and hope that a man would be found to carry on his great work. Cardinal Richelieu was to have the supreme honour of fulfilling Henry IV's designs, with the energy of a nature that had otherwise very little in common with that of the first King of the Bourbons.

Armand Jean Duplessis, born in 1585, was the youngest son of Francois Duplessis, knight of Richelieu, who fought for Navarre upon the battle-fields of Arques and Ivry. He was naturally destined for a military career, and had seen, when he was a little child, some of the terrible scenes of the religious wars. Peering from the window of the chateau in the sad, desolate land of Poitou, he caught glimpses of ragged regiments of French troops, or saw foreign soldiers in their unfamiliar garb, intent on pillaging the mean huts of the peasantry. Armand was sent to Paris at an early age that he might study at the famous College of Navarre, where the youths of the day were well equipped for court life. He learned Spanish in addition to Latin and Greek, and became an adept in riding, dancing and fencing. When he left the humble student quarter of the capital and began to mingle with the crowd who formed the court, he soon put off the manners of a rustic and acquired the polished elegance of a courtier of the period. He spent much time in studying the drama of Parisian daily life, a brilliant, shifting series of gay scenes, with the revelation now and then of a cruel and sordid background.

The very sounds of active life must at first have startled the dreamy youth who had come from the seclusion of a chateau in the marsh land. Cavaliers in velvet and satin rallied to the roll of a drum which the soldiers beat in martial-wise, and engaged in fierce conflicts with each other. Acts were constantly passed to forbid duelling, but there were many wounded every year in the streets, and the nobility would have thought themselves disgraced if they had not drawn their swords readily in answer to an insult. Class distinctions were observed rigidly, and the merchant clad in hodden grey and the lawyer robed in black were pushed aside with some contempt when there was any conflict between the aristocrats. The busy Pont Neuf seemed to be the bridge which joined two different worlds. Here monks rubbed shoulders with yellow-garbed Jews, and ladies of the court tripped side by side with the gay filles of the town. Anyone strolling near the river Seine could watch, if he chose, the multicoloured throng and amuse himself by the contrast between the different phases of society in Paris.

Richelieu, who held the proud title of Marquis de Chillon, handled a sword skilfully and dreamed of glory won upon battle-fields. He was dismayed when he first heard that his widowed mother had changed her plans for his career. A brother, who was to have been consecrated Bishop of Lucon, had decided to turn monk, and as the preferment to the See was in the hands of the family, it had been decided that Armand Jean should have the benefit.

Soon a fresh vision had formed before the eyes of the handsome Bishop, who visited Rome and made friends among the highest dignitaries. He was tall and slender, with an oval face and the keenest of grey eyes; rich black hair fell to his shoulders and a pointed beard lent distinction to his face. The Louvre and the Vatican approved him, and many protesting voices were heard when Richelieu went down to his country diocese.

Poitou was one of the poorest districts of France, the peasants being glad enough to get bread and chestnuts for their main food. The cathedral was battered by warfare and the palace very wretched. Orders to Parisian merchants made the last habitable, Richelieu declaring that, although a beggar, he had need of silver plates and such luxuries to "enhance his nobility." The first work he had found to do was done very thoroughly. He set the place in order and conciliated the Huguenots. Then he demanded relief from taxation for his overburdened flock, writing urgently to headquarters on this subject. He had much vexation to overcome whenever he came into contact with the priests drawn from the peasantry. These were far too fond of gambling and drinking in the ale-houses, and had to be prohibited from celebrating marriages by night, a custom that led to many scandals.

But Lucon was soon too narrow a sphere for the energy and ambition of a Richelieu. The Bishop longed to establish himself in a palace "near to that of God and that of the King," for he combined worldly wisdom with a zeal for religious purity. He happened to welcome the royal procession that was setting out for Spain on the occasion of Louis XIII's marriage to Anne of Austria, a daughter of Philip II. He made so noble an impression of hospitality that he was rewarded by the post of Almoner to the new Queen and was placed upon the Regent's Council.

Richelieu had watched the coronation of the quiet boy of fourteen in the cathedral of Notre Dame, for he had walked in the state procession. He knew that Louis XIII was a mere cipher, fond of hunting and loth to appear in public. Marie de Medici, the Regent, was the prime mover of intrigues. It was wise to gain her favour and the friendship of her real rulers, the Italian Concini.

Concini himself was noble by birth, whereas his wife, the sallow, deformed Leonora, was the daughter of a laundress who had nursed the Queen in illness. Both were extravagant, costing the Crown enormous sums of money—Leonora had a pretty taste in jewels as well as clothes, and Marie de Medici even plundered the Bastille of her husband's hoards because she could deny her favourites nothing.

Richelieu rose to eminence in the gay, luxurious court where the weak, vain Florentine presided. He had ousted other men, and feared for his own safety when the Concini were attacked by their exasperated opponents. Concini himself was shot, and his wife was lodged in the Bastille on a charge of sorcery. Paris rejoiced in the fall of these Italian parasites, and Marie de Medici shed no tears for them. She turned to her secretary, Richelieu, when she was driven from the court and implored him to mediate for her with Louis XIII and his favourite sportsman-adventurer, de Luynes, who had originally been employed to teach the young King falconry.

Richelieu went to the chateau of Blois where Marie de Medici had fled, a royal exile, but he received orders from Luynes, who was in power, to proceed to Lucon and guide his flock "to observe the commandments of God and the King." The Bishop was exceedingly provoked by the taunt, but he was obliged to wait for better fortunes. Marie was plotting after the manner of the Florentines, but her plans were generally fruitless. She managed to escape from Blois with Epernon, the general of Henry IV, and despite a solemn oath that she would live "in entire resignation to the King's will," she would have had civil war against the King and his adviser.

Richelieu managed to make peace and brought about the marriage of his beautiful young kinswoman to the Marquis of Cambalet, who was de Luynes' nephew. He did not, however, receive the Cardinal's Hat, which had become the chief object of his personal ambition.

The minister, de Luynes, became so unpopular, at length, that his enemies found it possible to retaliate. He favoured the Spanish alliance, whereas many wished to help the Protestants of Germany in their struggle to uphold Frederick, the Elector Palatine, against Ferdinand of Bohemia. The Huguenots rose in the south, and Luynes took the field desperately, for he knew that anything but victory would be fatal to his own fortunes. Songs were shouted in the Paris taverns, satirizing his weak government. Richelieu had bought the service of a host of scribblers in the mean streets near the Place Royale, and these were virulent in verse and pamphlet, according to the dictates of their master.

Fever carried off de Luynes, and the valets who played cards on his coffin were hardly more indecent in their callousness than de Luynes' enemies. The Cardinal's Hat arrived with many gracious compliments to the Bishop of Lucon, who then gave up his diocese. Soon he rustled in flame-coloured taffeta at fetes and receptions, for wealth and all the rewards of office came to him. As a Prince of the Church, he claimed precedence of princes of the blood, and was hardly astonished when the King requested him to form a ministry. In that ministry the power of the Cardinal was supreme, and he had friends in all posts of importance. With a show of reluctance he entered on his life-work. It was a great and patriotic task—no less than the aggrandisement of France in Europe.

France must be united if she were to present a solid front against the Spanish vengeance that would threaten any change of policy. The Queen-Regent had intended to support Rome, Austria and Spain against the Protestant forces of the northern countries. Richelieu determined to change that plan, but he knew that the time was not yet ripe, since he had neither a fleet nor an army to defeat such adversaries.

The Huguenot faction must be ruined in order that France might not be torn by internal struggles. The new French army was sent to surround La Rochelle, the Protestant fort, which expected help from England. The English fleet tried for fourteen days to relieve the garrison, but had to sail away defeated. The sailors of the town elected one of their number to be Mayor, a rough pirate who was unwilling to assume the office. "I don't want to be Mayor," he cried, flinging his knife upon the Council-Table, "but, since you want it, there is my knife for the first man who talks of surrender." The spirit of resistance within the walls of La Rochelle rose after this declaration. The citizens continued to defy the besiegers until a bushel of corn cost 1,000 livres and an ordinary household cat could be sold for forty-five!

It was Richelieu's intention to starve the inhabitants of La Rochelle into surrender. He had his will, being a man of iron, and held Mass in the Protestant stronghold. He treated the people well, allowing them freedom of religion, but he razed both the fort and the walls to the ground and took away all their political privileges. The Huguenots were too grateful for the liberty that was left to them to menace the French Government any longer. Most of them were loyal citizens and helped the Cardinal to maintain peace. In any case they did not exist as a separate political party.

Richelieu reduced the power of the nobles by relentless measures that struck at their feudal independence. No fortresses were to be held by them unless they lived on the frontiers of France, where some defence was necessary against a foreign enemy. When their strong castles were pulled down, the great lords seemed to have lost much of their ancient dignity. They were forbidden to duel, and dared not disobey the law after they had seen the guilty brought relentlessly to the scaffold. The first families of France had to acknowledge a superior in the mighty Cardinal Richelieu. Intendants were sent out to govern provinces and diminish the local influence of the landlords. Most of these were men of inferior rank to the nobility, who found themselves compelled to go to the wars if they wished to earn distinction. The result was good, for it added many recruits to the land and sea forces.

In 1629, the Cardinal donned sword and cuirass and led out the royal army to the support of the Duke of Mantua, a French nobleman who had inherited an Italian duchy and found his rights disputed by both Spain and Savoy. Louis XIII accompanied Richelieu and showed himself a brave soldier. Their road to Italy was by the Pass of Susa, thick with snow in the early spring and dangerous from the presence of Savoy's hostile troups. They forced their way into Italy, and there Richelieu remained to make terms with the enemy, while Louis returned to his kingdom.

Richelieu induced both Spain and Savoy to acknowledge the rights of the Duke of Mantua, and then turned his attention to the resistance which had been organized in Southern France by the Protestants under the Duke of Rohan. The latter had obtained promises of aid from Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain, but found that his allies deserted him at a critical moment and left him to face the formidable army of the Cardinal. The Huguenots submitted to their fate in the summer of 1629, finding themselves in a worse plight than they had been when they surrendered La Rochelle, for Richelieu treated with them no longer as with a foreign power. He expected them to offer him the servile obedience of conquered rebels. Henceforth he exerted himself to restore the full supremacy of the Catholic faith in France by making as many converts as was possible and by opening Jesuit and Capuchin missions in the Protestant places. "Some were brought to see the truth by fear and some by favour." Yet Richelieu did not play the part of a persecutor in the State, for he was afraid of weakening France by driving away heretics who might help to increase her strength in foreign warfare. He was pleased to find so many of the Huguenots loyal to their King, and rejoiced that there would never be the possibility of some discontented nobleman rising against his rule with a Protestant force in the background. The Huguenots devoted their time to peaceful worship after their own mind, and waxed very prosperous through their steady pursuit of commerce.

Richelieu returned to France in triumph, having won amazing success in his three years' struggle. He had personal enemies on every side, but for the moment these were silenced. "In the eyes of the world, he was the foremost man in France." For nineteen years he was to be the King's chief minister, although he was many times in peril of losing credit, and even life itself, through the jealous envy of his superiors and fellow-subjects.

Mary de Medici forsook the man she had raised to some degree of eminence, and declared that he had shown himself ungrateful. The nobility in general felt his power tyrannical, and the clergy thought that he sacrificed the Church to the interests of the State in politics. Louis XIII was restive sometimes under the heavy hand of the Cardinal, who dared to point out the royal weaknesses and to insist that he should try to overcome them.

Richelieu was very skilful in avoiding the pitfalls that beset his path as statesman. He had many spies in his service, paid to bring him reports of his enemies' speech and actions. Great ladies of the court did not disdain to betray their friends, and priests even advised penitents in the Confessional to act as the Cardinal wished them. When any treachery was discovered, it was punished swiftly. The Cardinal refused to spare men of the highest rank who plotted against the King or his ministers, for he had seen the dangers of revolt and decided to stamp it out relentlessly. Some strain of chivalry forbade him to treat women with the same severity he showed to male conspirators. He had a cunning adversary in one Madame de Chevreuse, who would ride with the fearless speed of a man to outwit any scheme of Richelieu.

[Illustration] from Heroes of Modern Europe by Alice Birkhead


The life of a king in feeble health was all that stood between the Cardinal and ruin, and several times it seemed impossible that he should outwit his enemies. Louis XIII fell ill in 1630. At the end of September he was not expected to survive, and the physicians bade him attend to his soul's welfare.

The Cardinal's enemies exulted, openly declaring that the King's adviser should die with the King. The heir to the throne was Louis' brother Gaston, a weak and cowardly prince, who detested the minister in office and hoped to overthrow him. When the sufferer recovered there was much disappointment to be concealed. The Queen-Mother had set her heart on Marillac being made head of the army in Richelieu's place, and had secret designs to make Marillac's brother, then the guard of the seals, the chief minister.

Louis was induced to say that he would dismiss the Cardinal when he was completely recovered from his illness, but he did not feel himself bound by the promise when he had rid himself of Marie de Medici and felt once again the influence of Richelieu. He went to Versailles to hunt on November 11th, 1630, and there met the Cardinal, who was able to convince him that it would be best for the interests of France to have a strong and dauntless minister dominating all the petty offices in the State instead of a number of incapable, greedy intriguers such as would be appointed by Marie de Medici. On this Day of Dupes the court was over-confident of success, believing that the Cardinal had fled from the disgrace that would shortly overtake him. The joy of the courtiers was banished by a message that Marillac was to be dismissed. The Queen-Mother knew at once that her schemes had failed, and that her son had extricated himself from her toils that he might retain Richelieu.

Marshal Marillac and his brother were both condemned to death. Another noble, Bassompierre, was arrested and put in the Bastille because he was known to have sympathized with the Cardinal's enemies. Richelieu did not rid himself so easily of Marie de Medici, who was his deadliest enemy. She went into banishment voluntarily, but continued to devise many plots with the Spanish enemies of France, for she had no scruples in availing herself of foreign help against the hated minister.

After the Day of Dupes, Richelieu grasped the reins of government more firmly. He asked no advice, and feared no opposition to his rule. His foreign policy differed from that pursued by Marie de Medici, because he realized that France could never lead the continental powers until she had checked the arrogance of Spanish claims to supremacy. It seems strange that he should support the Protestant princes of Germany against their Catholic Emperor when the Thirty Years' War broke out, but it must be remembered that the Emperor, Ferdinand II, was closely allied to the King of Spain, and that the success of the former would mean a second powerful Catholic State in Europe. The House of Austria was already strong and menaced France in her struggle for ascendancy.

In 1635, war was formally declared by France against the Emperor Ferdinand and Spain. Richelieu did not live to see the conclusion of this war, but he had the satisfaction of knowing that, at its close, France would be established as the foremost of European nations, and he felt that the result would be worth a lavish expenditure of men and money. In 1636, France was threatened by a Spanish invasion, which alarmed the people of the capital so terribly that they attacked the minister who had plunged them into warfare. Richelieu displayed great courage and inspired a patriotic rising, the syndics of the various trades waiting on the King to offer lavish contributions in aid of the defence of Paris. Louis took the field at the head of a fine army which was largely composed of eager volunteers, and the national danger was averted.

Harassed by the cares of war, the Cardinal delighted in the gratitude of men of letters whom he took under his protection. He founded the famous Academy of France and had his own plays performed at Ruel, the century-old chateau, where he gave fetes of great magnificence. His niece, Mme. de Cambalet, was made Duchesse D'Aiguillon that she might adorn the sphere in which the Cardinal moved so royally. She was a beautiful woman of simple tastes, and yearned for a life of conventual seclusion as she received the homage of Corneille or visited the salon of the brilliant wit, Julie de Rambouillet.

Richelieu had a dozen estates in different parts of France and spent vast sums on their splendid maintenance. He adorned the home of his ancestors with art treasures—pictures by Poussin, bronzes from Greece and Italy, and the statuary of Michael Angelo. His own equestrian statue was placed side by side with that of Louis XIII because they had ridden together to great victory. The King survived his minister only a few months; Richelieu died on December 4th, 1642, and Louis XIII in the following May. They left the people of France submissive to an absolute monarchy.