Historical Tales: 6— French - Charles Morris

Richelieu and the Conspirators

In a richly-furnished state apartment of the royal palace of the Luxembourg, on a day in November, 1630, stood Louis XIII., king of France, tapping nervously with his fingers on the window-pane, and with a disturbed and irresolute look upon his face. Beside him was his favorite, St. Simon, a showily-dressed and handsome gentleman of the court.

"What do you think of all this?" asked the king, his fingers keeping up their idle drumming on the glass.

"Sir, I seem to be in another world," was the politic reply. "But at any rate you are master."

"I am," said the king, proudly, "and I will make it felt, too."

The royal prisoner was stirring uneasily in the bonds which hard necessity had cast round his will. It was against Cardinal Richelieu that his testy remark was made, yet in the very speaking he could not but feel that to lose Richelieu was to lose the bulwark of his throne; that this imperious master, against whose rule he chafed, was the glory and the support of his reign.

Just now, however, the relations between king and cardinal were sadly strained. Mary de' Medici, the king's mother, once Richelieu's ardent friend, was now his active foe. The queen, Anne of Austria, was equally hostile. Their influence had been used to its utmost to poison the mind of the monarch against his minister, and seemingly with success. To all appearance it looked as if the great cardinal was near his fall.

Rumor of what was afloat had invaded the court. Everywhere were secret whisperings, knowing looks, expectant movements. The courtiers were flocking to the Luxembourg, in hopes of some advantage to themselves. Marillac, the keeper of the seals, was at his country house at Glatigny, very near Versailles, where the king was expected. He remained there in hopes that Louis would send for him and put the power of the disgraced cardinal into his hands. The colossus seemed about to fall. All waited expectantly.

The conspiracy of the queen-mother had gone farther than to use her personal influence with her son against the cardinal. There were others in league with her, particularly Marillac, the keeper of the seals, and Marshal Marillac, his brother, then in command of a large force in Piedmont. All had been carefully prepared against the fall of the minister. The astute conspirators had fully laid their plans as to what was to follow.

Unfortunately for them, they did not reckon with the two principal parties concerned, Louis XIII. and Cardinal Richelieu. With all his weaknesses of temper and mind, the king had intellect enough to know what were the great interests of his kingdom and power, and on whose shoulders they rested. Above all the littleness of a court cabal he could not but discern the great questions which impended, and with which he felt quite incompetent to deal. And he could perceive but one man in his kingdom able to handle these great problems of state.

As for Richelieu, he was by no means blind to what was going on around him. He was the last man in the world to be a dupe. Delaying until the time seemed ripe to move, he requested and obtained an interview with the king. They were a long time closeted, while all the courtier-world of Paris waited in expectation and suspense.

What passed in that private cabinet of the palace no one knew, but when the interview was over it quickly became evident that the queen-mother and her associates had lost, the cardinal had won. Michael de Marillac had hopeful dreams that night, as he slept in his house at Glatigny; but when he awoke in the morning it was to receive the disturbing news that the king and the cardinal were at Versailles together, the minister being lodged in a room under that of the monarch. Quickly came still more disturbing news. The king demanded a return of the seals. Before this tidings could be well digested, the frightened plotter learned that his own arrest had been ordered, and that the exons were already at his door to secure his person.

While the courtier conspirator was being thus attended to, the soldier, his brother, was not forgotten. A courier had been despatched to the headquarters of the army in Piedmont, bearing a letter to Marshal Schomberg, who, with Marshals La Force and Marillac, had formed there a junction of the forces under their control. Marillac was in command on the day of the courier's arrival, and was impatiently awaiting the news, for which he had been prepared by his brother, of the cardinal's disgrace.

Schomberg opened his despatches. The first words he saw, in the king's own handwriting, were these:

"My dear cousin, you will not fail to arrest Marshal Marillac; it is for the good of my service and for your own exculpation."

Schomberg looked at the document with startled eyes. What could this mean? And was it safe to attempt an arrest? A large section of the troops were devoted to Marillac. He consulted with La Force, who advised him to obey orders, whatever the consequences. Schomberg thereupon showed Marillac the despatch. He beheld it with surprise and alarm, but without thought of resistance.

"I can protest that I have done nothing contrary to the king's service," he said. "The truth is, that my brother, the keeper of the seals, and I have always been the servants of the queen-mother. She must have had the worst of it, and Cardinal Richelieu has won the day against her and her servants."

So it proved, indeed, and he was to suffer for it. He was tried,—not on any political charge, however, the crimes alleged against him were peculation and extortion, common practices with many of his fellow-generals.

"It is a very strange thing," said he, bitterly, "to prosecute me as they do; my trial is a mere question of hay, straw, wood, stones, and lime; there is not case enough for whipping a lackey."

He was mistaken; there was case enough for beheading a marshal. It was not a question of peculation, but of offending the great cardinal, for which he was really put on trial, and the case ended in his being found guilty of malfeasance in office and executed. His brother died in prison three months afterwards,—of decline, so the records say.

"Dupes' Day," as the day we have described came to be called, was over. The queen-mother had lost. Her dupes had suffered. Richelieu was more powerful than ever. She had but strengthened his ascendancy over the king. But Mary de' Medici was not the woman to acknowledge defeat easily. No sooner had her first effort failed than her enmity against the too-powerful minister showed itself in a new direction, the principal agent of her purposes being now her son, the Duke of Orleans, brother to the king. The duke, after an angry interview with the cardinal, left Paris in haste for Orleans, his mother declaring to the king that the occasion of his sudden departure was that he could no longer tolerate by his presence Richelieu's violent proceedings against herself. She professed to have been taken by surprise by his departure, which Louis doubting, "she took occasion to belch forth fire and flames against the cardinal, and made a fresh attempt to ruin him in the king's estimation, though she had previously bound herself by oath to take no more steps against him."

Her malignity defeated itself. Richelieu was too skilful an adept in the game of politics to be so easily beaten. He brought the affair before the council, seemingly utterly indifferent what might be done; the trouble might be ended, he suggested, by his own retirement or that of the queen-mother, whichever in their wisdom they might deem best.

The implied threat settled the matter. The king, alarmed at the idea of having the government of France left on his weak hands, at once gave the offending lady to understand that she had better retire for a time to one of his provincial palaces, recommending Moulins. Mary de' Medici heard this order with fiery indignation. She shut herself up in the castle of Compiègne, where she then was, and declared that she would not leave unless dragged out by main force. In the end, however, she changed her mind, fled by night from the castle, and made her way to Brussels, where she took refuge from her powerful foe. Richelieu's game was won. Mary de' Medici had lost all influence with her son. She was never to see him again.

A number of years passed before a new plot was hatched against the cardinal. Then a conspiracy was organized which threatened not only his power but his life. It was in 1636. The king's headquarters were then at the castle of Demuin. The Duke of Orleans, who had been recently in armed rebellion against the king, and had been pardoned for his treason, determined, in common with the Count of Soissons, that their enemy, the cardinal, should die. There were others in this plot of assassination, two of the duke's gentlemen, Montrésor and Saint Ibal, being chosen to deal the fatal blow. They were to station themselves at the foot of the grand stairway, meet Richelieu at his exit from the council, and strike him dead. The duke was to give the signal for the murderous assault.

The door of the council chamber opened. The king and the cardinal came out together and descended the stairs in company, Richelieu attending Louis until he had reached the foot of the stairway, and gone into an adjoining room. The cardinal turned to ascend again, without a moment's suspicion that the two gentlemen at the stair-foot clutched hidden daggers in their hands, ready, at a signal from the duke, who stood near by, to plunge them in his breast.

The signal did not come. At the last moment the courage of Gaston of Orleans failed him. Whether from something in Richelieu's earnest and dignified aspect, or some sudden fear of serious consequences to himself, the chief conspirator turned hastily away, without speaking the fatal word agreed upon. What the duke feared to do, the count dared not do. The two chosen assassins stood expectant, greeting the cardinal as he passed, and waiting in nervous impatience for the promised signal. It failed to come. Their daggers remained undrawn. Richelieu calmly ascended the stairs to his rooms, without a dream of the deadly peril he had run.

The conspiracy against the cardinal which has attained the greatest historical notoriety is that associated with the name of Cinq-Mars, the famous favorite of Louis XIII. Brilliant and witty, a true type of the courtiers of the time, this handsome youth so amused and interested the king that, when he was only nineteen years of age, Louis made him master of the wardrobe and grand equerry of France. M. Le Grand he was called, and grand enough he seemed, in his independent and capricious dealings with the king. Louis went so far as to complain to Richelieu of the humors of his youthful favorite.

"I am very sorry," he wrote, under date of January 4, 1641, "to trouble you about the ill-tempers of M. Le Grand. I upbraided him with his heedlessness; he answered that for that matter he could not change, and that he should do no better than he had done. I said that, considering his obligations to me, he ought not to address me in that manner. He answered in his usual way; that he didn't want my kindness, that he could do very well without it, and that he would be quite as well content to be Cinq-Mars as M. Le Grand, but as for changing his ways and his life, he couldn't do it. And so, he continually nagging at me and I at him, we came as far as the court-yard, where I said to him that, being in the temper he was in, he would do me the pleasure of not coming to see me. I have not seen him since."

This letter yields a curious revelation of the secret history of a royal court. There have been few kings with whom such impudent independence would have served. Louis XIII. was one of them. Cinq-Mars seems to have known his man. The quarrel was not of long continuance. Richelieu, who had first placed the youth near the king, easily reconciled them, a service which the foolish boy soon repaid by lending an ear to the enemies of the cardinal. For this Richelieu was in a way responsible. He had begun to find the constant attendance of the favorite upon the king troublesome to himself, and gave him plainly to understand so. "One day he sent word to him not to be for the future so continually at his heels, and treated him even to his face with as much tartness and imperiousnesss as if he had been the lowest of his valets." Such treatment was not likely to be well received by one of the independent disposition of Cinq-Mars. He joined in a plot against the cardinal.

The king was ill; the cardinal more so. Gaston, Duke of Orleans, was again in Paris, and full of his old intriguing spirit. The Duke of Bouillon was there also, having been sent for by the king to take command of the army of Italy. He, too, was drawn into the plot which was being woven against Richelieu. The queen, Anne of Austria, was another of the conspirators. The plot thus organized was the deepest and most far-reaching which had yet been laid against the all-powerful minister.

Bouillon was prince-sovereign of the town of Sedan. This place was to serve the conspirators as an asylum in case of reverse. But a town was not enough; an army was needed; whence should it come? Spain might furnish it.

The affair was growing to the dimensions of a conspiracy against the crown as well as the minister. Viscount de Fontrailles, a man who detested the cardinal, and would not have hesitated to murder him as a simpler way of disposing of the difficulty, was named by Cinq-Mars as a proper person to deal with the Spaniards. He set out for Madrid, and soon succeeded in negotiating a secret treaty, in the name of the Duke of Orleans, by whose terms Spain was to furnish the conspirators with twelve thousand foot, five thousand horse, and the necessary funds for the enterprise. The town of Sedan, and the names of Cinq-Mars and Bouillon, were not mentioned in this treaty, but were given in a separate document.

While this dangerous work was going on the cardinal was dangerously ill, a prey to violent fever, and with an abscess on his arm which prevented him from writing. The king was with the army, which was besieging Perpignan. With him was Cinq-Mars, who was doing his best to insinuate suspicions of the minister into the mind of the king. All seemed promising for the conspirators, the illness of the cardinal, in their opinion, being likely to carry him off in no long period, and meanwhile preventing him from discovering the plot and setting himself right with the king.

Evidently these hopeful people did not know the resources of Cardinal Richelieu. In all his severe illness his eyes had not been blind, his intellect not at rest. Keen as they thought themselves, they had a man with double their resources to deal with. Though Richelieu was by no means surrounded by the intricate web of spies and intrigues with which fiction and the drama have credited him, he was not without his secret agents, and his means of tracing the most hidden movements of his enemies. Cinq-Mars lacked the caution necessary for a conspirator. His purposes became evident to the king, who had no thought of exchanging his great minister for a frivolous boy who was only fitted to amuse his hours of relaxation. The outcome of the affair appears in a piece of news published in the Gazette de France on June 21, 1642.

"The cardinal-duke," it said, "after remaining two days at Arles, embarked on the 11th of this month for Tarascon, his health becoming better and better. The king has ordered under arrest Marquis de Cinq-Mars, grand equerry of France."

Had a thunderbolt fallen in their midst, the enemies of Richelieu could not have been in greater consternation than at this simple item of news.

How came it about? The fox was not asleep. Nor had his illness robbed his hand and his brain of their cunning. The king, overladen with affairs of state from which his minister when well had usually relieved him, sent a message of confidence to Richelieu, indicating that his enemies would seek in vain to separate them. In reply the cardinal sent the king a document which filled the monarch with an astonishment that was only equalled by his wrath. It was a copy of the secret treaty of Orleans with Spain!

The king could hardly believe his eyes. So this was what lay behind the insinuations of Cinq-Mars? An insurrection was projected against the state! The cardinal, mayhap the king himself, was to be overthrown by force of arms! Only the sleepless vigilance of Richelieu could have discovered and exposed this perilous plot. It remained for the king to second the work of his minister by decisive action. An order was at once issued for the arrest of Cinq-Mars and his intimate friend, M. de Thou; while a messenger was sent off in all haste to the army of Italy, bearing orders for the arrest of the Duke of Bouillon at the head of his troops.

Fontrailles, just arrived from his mission to Spain, returned to that kingdom with all haste, having first said to Cinq-Mars, "Sir, you are a fine figure; if you were shorter by the whole head you would not cease to be very tall. As for me, who am already very short, nothing could be taken off me without inconveniencing me and making me cut the poorest figure in the world. You will be good enough, if you please, to let me get out of the way of edge tools."

The minor parties to the conspiracy, with the exception of the prudent Fontrailles, were in custody. The most guilty of all, the king's brother, was at large. What part was he to play in the drama of retribution? Flight, or treachery to his accomplices, alone remained to him. He chose the latter, sending an agent to the king, who had just joined the cardinal at Tarascon, with directions to confess everything and implore for him the pardon of his royal brother. The cardinal questioned this agent, the Abbé de la Rivière, with unrelenting severity, made him write and sign everything, and was inclined to make the prince-duke appear as a witness at the trial, and yield up his accomplices in the face of the world. This final disgrace, however, was omitted at the wish of Louis, and an order of exile was sent from the king to his brother, which bore this note in the cardinal's hand,—

"Monsieur will have in his place of exile twelve thousand crowns a month, the same sum that the king of Spain had promised to give him."

The dying cardinal had triumphed over all his foes. He had, from his bed at Tarascon, dictated to the king the course to be pursued, entailing dishonor to the Duke of Orleans and death to the grand equerry of France. The king then took his way back to Fontainebleau in the litter of the cardinal, which the latter had lent him. Richelieu did not remain long behind him. He was conveyed to his house in Lyons in a litter shaped like a square chamber, covered with red damask, and borne on the shoulders of eighteen guards. Within, beside his couch, was a table covered with papers, at which he worked with his ordinary diligence, chatting pleasantly at intervals with such of his servants as accompanied him. In the same equipage he left Lyons for the Loire, on his return to Paris. On the way it was necessary to pull down walls and bridge ditches that this great litter, in which the greatest man in France lay in mortal illness, might pass.

What followed needs few words. The Duke of Bouillon confessed everything, and was pardoned on condition of his delivering up Sedan to the king. He was kept in prison, however, till after the death of his accomplices, Cinq-Mars and De Thou, who were tried and sentenced to execution.

Bouillon had not long to wait. The execution took place on the very day on which sentence had been pronounced. The two culprits met death firmly. Cinq-Mars was but twenty-two years of age. He had rapidly run his course. "Now that I make not a single step which does not lead me to death, I am more capable than anybody else of estimating the value of the things of the world," he wrote. "Enough of this world; away to Paradise!" said De Thou, as he walked to the scaffold.

There were no more conspiracies against Richelieu. There was no time for them, for in less than three months afterwards he was dead. The greatest, or at least the most dramatic, minister known to the pages of history had departed from this world. His royal master did not long survive him. In five months afterwards, Louis XIII. had followed his minister to the grave.