The administration of Cardinal Richelieu (1624–42) was of paramount importance for the development of royal absolutism in seventeenth–century France. But his achievements were not the result of a carefully formulated design; rather they were introduced when required, their timing decided by his own practical experience. As far as possible, Richelieu sought to control the ideological preferences which he undoubtedly possessed and relied on proven remedies. He derived much of the inspiration for his reforms from the past but made extensive adjustments to correspond with his vision of the future. It does not, therefore, diminish his importance to say that he was a dominant force in a long period of evolution rather than the active formulator of revolution. His methods were based on selection and synthesis rather than on invention.
The extent to which Richelieu referred back to the past, together with the impact which he actually had on the future, can be examined in three sections: constitutional developments; the condition of the economy; and his policy towards the three Estates of France.
For Richelieu the linchpin of any constitution was the king, whose power must be absolute in both theory and practice. Furthermore, this authority had a religious base, for ‘Kings are the living images of God’. This concept, generally labelled ‘Divine Right of Kings’ certainly preceded Richelieu and was expressed, for example, in the works of Bodin in the late sixteenth century. Absolutism was also claimed by the monarchy in its legislative process long before Richelieu became Principal Minister; the traditional way of ending royal edicts was with the phrase ‘car tel est notre plaisir’.1 Nevertheless, the second half of the sixteenth century was a period of constitutional dislocation for France, when both the theory and the practice of absolutism suffered a severe blow. The Wars of Religion undermined the reputation and prestige of the monarchy, and it required the reign of Henry IV (1589–1610) to restore the credibility of kingship. When the assassination of Henry IV was followed by a period of regency on behalf of Louis XIII, the position of the monarchy was again uncertain and virtually anything could have happened. The importance of Richelieu at this precise moment was that he recognized the weaknesses of royal power in practice, and concentrated on using traditional ideologies and previously tried methods to enable it to rise from its ashes, fully restored for the future. Richelieu achieved this by developing ministerial absolutism in the name of the Crown. He undertook the process of reform with the full authority and cooperation of Louis XIII, observing: ‘The ability to let himself be served is not among the least qualities of a great king.’2 The success of Richelieu's aim became apparent by 1661. Mazarin, Principal Minister between 1643 and 1661, overcame the anti–absolutist movements known as the Frondes and, by 1661, Louis XIV felt sufficiently confident to assume full control of his administration. Incomparably more powerful than any of his predecessors, Louis XIV owed the security of his absolutism to Richelieu, whose very success meant the future redundancy of the office of Principal Minister.
The growing power of the Crown was exercised through an evolving bureaucracy. This was not created by Richelieu; he merely defined it more carefully and provided a more systematic structure at the centre. The precedents went back to the twelfth century, when the original Curia Regishad contracted into an inner Royal Council. By the end of the sixteenth century this had been subdivided into more specialized units which included the Conseil d'Etat, the Conseil des Parties and the Conseil des Finances. When Richelieu became Principal Minister in 1630, after the dévotsand Marillac had fallen from favour, the trend was towards tighter control over the conciliar system by the king and a few key ministers in the Conseil d'en Haut, contact with the provinces being maintained by the Conseil des Depeches. Richelieu continued the process of elevating a few ministers and reducing the size of the decision–making bodies, a trend which had begun under Sully and Henry IV and was completed by Louis XIV. Yet, at the same time, Richelieu had no pre–arranged blueprint for reform, regarding piecemeal measures as more likely to be effective in the long run. He even opposed sections of Marillac's Code Michaud in 1629 because he considered that the proposed institutional changes which it contained would be unworkable. Richelieu's methods proved successful in the immediate future; the conciliar system was not substantially altered by Mazarin and was therefore inherited as Richelieu had left it by Louis XIV. It proved quite capable of sustaining royal absolutism, although Louis XIV liked to work more directly with individual ministers, and avoided further subdivisions of the councils already in existence. On the other hand, Richelieu provided no guidance as to the long–term direction which the councils should take in their relationship with absolutism. As a result they were, by the end of the seventeenth century, becoming ossified and in need of substantial overhaul.
Richelieu's administration also increased royal authority over the provinces. This, too, was neither without precedent nor based on systematic planning. The powers of the provincial governors had already been partially curbed by, for example, the Ordinance of 1545 and by the reforms of Henry IV. Richelieu went further. He used the power of the Crown to dismiss any governors who resisted royal absolutism, and his task in identifying them was eased by a tendency for families like the Vendomes of Brittany to participate in plots. By the end of Richelieu's administration twelve of the original sixteen governors had been replaced. The powers of the traditional authorities were gradually conferred on the intendants, agents representing the Crown in the provinces and responsible for the enforcement of royal edicts. These officials were by no means a new creation; they had been in existence since the mid–sixteenth century. But Richelieu regarded them as an ideal means of dealing with local disorder and maladministration. Since these problems were expected to be temporary, the position of intendant would not be a permanent appointment. Nor would any appointee be allowed to establish permanent connections with the area under his jurisdiction. As Richelieu's administration progressed, however, the intendant played an increasingly important role, assuming control over the raising of troops, the administration of justice and the implementation of decrees. By 1637 these ‘temporary’ officials had been established over most of France and were in control of provincial subdivisions known as généralités. Richelieu's successor, Mazarin, continued the process of transferring local powers to the intendants by making them responsible for tax assessment and collection. Although the backlash of the Frondes resulted in their temporary withdrawal, the intendants were reinstated during the 1650s and, by the time Louis XIV assumed personal power in 1661, there were no fewer than thirty of them, under the systematic supervision of Colbert. More than any other official, the intendant came to typify the administration of the ancient régime in France, the direct, if unintentional, result of Richelieu's reforms.
A major potential source of resistance to the growth of absolutism was the Paris Parlement, which regarded itself as the traditional guardian of laws and liberties. The predecessors of Louis XIII had always been careful to avoid a direct confrontation, and compromises had usually been arrived at whereby the Parlement registered royal edicts after a token delay and nominal remonstrance. Richelieu saw that the Parlement could easily become an obstructive organ within the constitution, and concentrated on reducing its powers without destroying it altogether. His methods were not carefully calculated but were more or less related to the needs and opportunities of the moment. In 1631, for example, he established the Chambre d'Arsenal which assumed the power to conduct trials of major political offenders, thus bypassing the judicial powers of the Parlement.In 1635 Richelieu used a traditional expedient of placing major offices for sale, applying this to the Parlement itself. The result was that twenty– four new conseilleurs of Parlement were created, the funds being used to assist the French war effort. The process was repeated in 1637. As Richelieu had anticipated, the prestige of the Paris Parlement suffered from the new association with venality, and Richelieu was able to make use of this discomfiture. In 1641 he confronted it with an order that all edicts were to be registered before any remonstrance would be permitted. Richelieu did not live to see the attempt of the Parlement to regain its rights and privileges in the First Fronde, but his measures set the pattern for the future policies of Louis XIV. Again, the Parlement was gradually weakened, and the 1673 Letters Patent imposed a restriction on its powers which was virtually identical to the Order of 1641. Richelieu could not, however, provide a long–term solution to the counter claims of absolutism and the Parlement. He merely deferred the climax of the struggle, which occurred well into the eighteenth century.
Richelieu was confronted by greater difficulties with the finances and the economy. The entire fiscal structure was unbalanced and, to make matters worse, France was experiencing a period of serious economic depression, part of what some historians have referred to as a general European crisis. Richelieu's administration provided no major advances or reforms, but it was an important phase in the development of the financial system so characteristic of the ancien Régime.
The fundamental problem was the lack of a uniform structure. Most of the revenue was derived from direct taxes, like the taille, and indirect taxes, like the gabelle, both of which were unequally assessed and distributed. There was no shortage of criticism of the exemptions of the nobility and clergy from a substantial number of taxes. Bodin, the writer, and Bullion, the Surintendant des Finances, added their voices to the demand for a more systematic method of assessment. There is no doubt that Richelieu's personal preference was also for reorganization, but he came to the conclusion that more effective use of the present system was a safer policy, particularly since he confessed his ‘ignorance on financial matters’ and had no precedents to guide him if he committed himself to institutional reform. Therefore, he resorted to doubling the taille and gabelle and to removing blockages from the existing structure. This course of action was continued by Richelieu's successors, D'Emery, Colbert, Louvois, Pomponne and other finance ministers who served Louis XIV. All sought to maximize the yield of existing taxes and some introduced new taxes (like the dixieme and the capitation). But none was able to overcome the inherent inequalities and lack of justice which had eaten into the whole fabric and which contributed directly to the crisis of 1789.
France's financial difficulties were accentuated by a venality which was common throughout Europe. This was of two types: personal enrichment from public revenues, and political advancement from the sale and purchase of offices. The first was restrained but not actually stopped by Richelieu; it would have been impossible to eradicate it altogether since leading ministers from Sully to Pomponne all benefited. The second was dealt with more systematically. At first Richelieu urged Louis XIII to ‘banish the sale of offices’.3 Gradually, however, he came round to the view that this would be impractical. ‘Venality of office would be a crime in a newly established republic but prudence does not allow us to act in the same way in a monarchy, whose imperfections have passed into habit and whose disorder is part of the state.’4 If the sale of offices could not be eliminated it could at least be conducted for the greater benefit of the Crown. Recognized as a form of revenue since 1522, the sale of offices had been made more attractive by the paulette of 1604, which allowed offices to become hereditary, subject to regular payments. Richelieu made more extensive use of the paulette and greatly increased the range of offices for sale. Sometimes this could be used as a political weapon as, for example, in his attempts to reduce the prestige of the Paris Parlement. Richelieu's approach devalued many offices and caused the duplication of others. No doubt this enhanced the authority of the Crown in relation to its servants. But, at the same time, it increased dependence on this form of revenue until it eventually became an addiction; between 1689 and 1715 Louis XIV's government relied on the sale of offices to raise the huge sum of 900 m. livres.
In his policy towards commerce and manufactures Richelieu was one of a line of mercantilists extending from Sully to Colbert. He fully subscribed to the view expressed by Henry IV that royal edicts were the best method of stimulating growth, although he redefined one or two major priorities. According to Sully, the main emphasis should be placed on the development of agriculture, whereas Richelieu concentrated on commerce, which he regarded as ‘the creator of new values, the generator of wealth for all peoples’.4 As Superintendent of Commerce and Navigation from 1626, he had a vision of France as a major seapower, second to none in the volume of her trade and the wealth of her colonial possessions. Unfortunately, he was obliged to reduce the scope of his aspirations because of the practical difficulties involved, particularly the widespread resistance among French merchants to policies so obviously formulated and dominated by the central administration. He also lacked the necessary personnel to enforce orders banning all imports into France in foreign ships. Nevertheless, Richelieu did provide a clue as to the way in which the economy could expand in the future. Some of his ideas were implemented by Colbert after 1664, the navy being increased from 20 to 196 ships and a series of commercial companies being established to organize trade with the West Indies, the East Indies, the Levant and Northern Europe.
The official social structure of France constituted the clergy as the First Estate, the nobility as the Second Estate and the bourgeoisie and peasantry as the Third Estate. Richelieu was connected with the First Estate by profession and the Second by birth. The Third remained something of an unknown quantity to him, and his policy towards it lacked the subtlety which displayed his confidence in dealing with the other two.
In his attitude to the Church, Richelieu is often projected as a materialist, basing his whole approach on a pragmatic and Machiavellian concept of the utility of religion as a social cement. Yet Richelieu was fundamentally in harmony with the approach of his predecessors. He followed Henry IV and Sully in departing from the mentality of the Wars of Religion and tried to prevent the dévots from establishing the full force of the Counter Reformation as official government policy in the 1620s. He was by no means radical in his attitude to the relationship between King and Church; he pursued a cautiously neutral line between Gallicanism and Ultra-montanism, although he put pressure on the Assembly of Clergy to conform to his policies on financial matters (for example, he persuaded the Assembly in 1635 to increase its annual subsidy). Mazarin followed a similar diplomatic course, avoiding commitment to either side, and it was not until Louis XIV's majority that Gallicanism and Ultramontanism became contentious issues. When this did occur, the result was so complex that it would be difficult to perceive any direct influence exerted by Richelieu. A clearer pattern emerges over Richelieu's attitude to minorities, particularly the Huguenots. He followed the official policy of Henry IV, as laid down in the Edict of Nantes (1598), and reaffirmed some of the guarantees in his Peace of Alais (1629). Nevertheless, he had no sympathy for the basic principle of toleration nor for the Huguenots as a group. He abhorred heresy and he urged Louis XIII to reduce any political autonomy which Protestants had acquired in France. ‘As long as the Huguenots retain their position in France, the King will never be master within the realm.’5 It is possible that Richelieu envisaged the time when concessions to the Huguenots could be withdrawn. Louis XIV later believed that this time had arrived in 1685, when he was informed that Protestantism was in such a weak state that the Edict of Nantes could be revoked without the danger of massive resistance. On the whole, Richelieu was an orthodox Church leader, devoid of mysticism and aggressive fervour for reconversion, but also anxious to prevent heresy from gaining any permanent position of strength.
Richelieu lived in a period when the nobility had high hopes of restoring their status and privileges after the restraining rule of Henry IV by taking advantage of the power vacuum during the Regency of Marie de Medici (1610–23). Richelieu, himself an aristocrat, sympathized with what he regarded as ‘one of the principal sinews of the state’.6 But, at the same time, he was fully aware of France's long history of aristocratic plots and revolts. His basic policy, therefore, was to allow the nobility to retain their privileged social position, but to weaken their political influence by making full use of already tried methods. His main concern was to stamp out coups wherever they occurred, the main examples being the Chalais Revolt (1626), the Montmorency Revolt (1632) and the Cinq-Mars Revolt (1641). Richelieu made full use of the powers given in the Code Michaud(1629) to deal with lèse majesté. These, in turn, were a reaffirmation of the Royal Declaration of 1610, the Ordinance of Blois (1579) and the 1539 Ordinance of Francis I, which had pointed to the dangers of ‘conspiring, plotting or moving against our person or children or against the state of our realm’.7 In his search for security Richelieu often proceeded harshly against those accused of lèse majesté, believing that ‘public utility often benefits from injury to individuals’. It is hardly surprising that Richelieu was thoroughly detested by the entire noblesse anti-Dutch ,and that the administration of Mazarin saw the backlash in the form of the unsuccessful Second Fronde. Nevertheless, Richelieu's measures had been effective. The nobility were increasingly isolated from the real source of political authority, a process which was taken to its logical conclusion in the next reign. During the entire period of his majority (1661–1715) Louis XIV selected most of his ministers from outside the ranks of the noblesse d’épée and carefully neutralized the latter by requiring their attendance at Versailles from 1683 onwards.
The Third Estate covered a huge spectrum of French society, and two examples can be used to show that Richelieu's attitudes and policies fit into a general pattern of evolutionary development.
At one extreme, the Third Estate overlapped into the Second since those members of the bourgeoisie who aspired to political power could merge into the nobility, either by buying offices or by genuine appointment. This process was well under way by the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the growing bureaucracy was recruited partly from the ranks of the bourgeoisie. Richelieu encouraged this as a means of reducing the political influence of the noblesse d’épée and of increasing the royal revenues through the sale and proliferation of offices. During the reign of Louis XIV the blurring of the distinctions between the two Estates was complete. As the top level of the Third Estate passed into the Second, upward mobility would be sought by new aspirants.
At the other extreme the Third Estate remained downtrodden and exploited. None of the seventeenth-century ministers had any basic concept of social justice which would relate the level of taxation to the degree of wealth. Richelieu tended to echo traditional views that the role of the peasantry was purely productive. ‘All politicians agree that when the people are too comfortable it is impossible to keep them within the bounds of their duty … they must be compared with mules, which, being used to burdens, are spoiled more by rest than labour.’8 Any protest or rising was, therefore, to be treated severely, and Richelieu observed of the ‘Nu–pieds’ rebellion of 1639: ‘We cannot make too great an example in this instance.’9 He inherited and perpetuated the assumption that the productive sections of the Third Estate were capable of sustaining frequent increases in taxation. The lesson offered by the numerous rebellions of the 1630s and 1640s was lost, as violence came to be accepted as normal in the provinces. There is no evidence, for example, that Louis XIV's taxation policy was ever moderated because of popular uprisings, even though these occurred virtually every year during his reign.
Richelieu once stated that his first concern was the prestige and power of the king, the second the strength of the kingdom. This is an apt comment on his overall achievement. He succeeded in rescuing the authority of the Crown from possible oblivion and made available some of the resources used by the ‘Roi Soleil’ after 1661. At the same time, however, his methods were dependent on the use of traditional expedients which tended to damage French society as much as they benefited the French monarchy.