He proceeded with equal resolution, and less lenience, against the nobles who still held France to be many and not one. Feudalism was by no means dead. It had fought in the religious wars for control of the central government. The great nobles still had their fortified castles, their armed forces, their private wars, their private courts, their officers of law; they still had the peasantry at their mercy, and charged obstructive tolls on commerce traversing their domains. France, dismembered by feudalism and religion, was not yet a nation; it was an unstable and agitated assemblage of proud and semi-independent barons capable at any moment of disrupting the peace and the economy of the state. Most of the provinces were ruled by dukes or counts who claimed their governorships for life and handed them on to their sons.
It seemed to Richelieu that the only practicable alternative to this enfeebling chaos was to centralize authority and power in the king. Conceivably he might have labored to balance this by restoring some measure of municipal autonomy. But he could not restore the medieval commune, which had rested on the guilds and a protected local economy; the passage from a city to a national market had undermined the guilds and the communes, and required central rather than local legislation.I To minds frozen in the perspective of today, the royal absolutism desired by Richelieu seems but a reactionary despotism; in the view of history, and of the great majority of Frenchmen in the seventeenth century, it was a liberating progress from feudal tyranny to unified rule. France was not ripe for democracy; most of its population were ill-fed, ill-clothed, illiterate, darkened with superstitions and murderous with certainties. The towns were controlled by businessmen who could think in no other terms than their own profit or loss; and these men, hampered at every step by feudal privileges, were not disposed to unite with the lesser nobles, as in England, to establish a parliament checking the royal power. The French parlements were not representative and legislative parliaments; they were superior courts, nurtured and mortised in precedent; they were not chosen by the people, and they became citadels of conservatism. The middle classes, the artisans, and the peasants approved the absolutism of the king as the only protection they could see from the absolutism of the lords.
In 1626, in the name of the King, Richelieu issued an edict that struck at the very base of feudalism: he ordered the destruction of all fortresses except on the frontiers, and forbade, in future, the fortification of private dwellings. In the same year (his older brother having been killed in a duel) he made dueling a capital crime; and when Montmorency-Bouteville and the Count des Chapelles dueled nevertheless, he had them put to death. He confessed himself “much troubled in spirit” by this procedure, but he told his master, “It is a question of breaking the neck of duels or of your Majesty’s edicts.”21 The nobles vowed vengeance and plotted the minister’s fall.
They found an eager ally in the Queen Mother. Once the patron of Richelieu, she came to hate him when she saw him opposing her policies. When Louis fell gravely ill (July 1630), she and the Queen nursed him back to semihealth and asked, as their reward, the Cardinal’s head. In her own palace, the Luxembourg, Marie de Médicis, thinking Richelieu far away, repeated the demand with passionate urgency, and offered, as a willing replacement, Michel de Marillac, Keeper of the Seals. Richelieu, coming by a secret passage, entered the room unannounced and confronted the Queen Mother; she confessed that she had told the King that either she or he, Richelieu, must go. The harassed King withdrew and rode off to his hunting lodge at Versailles. Courtiers flocked around Marie, rejoicing in her expected victory. But Louis sent for Richelieu, confirmed him as prime minister, assured him of the royal support, and signed an order for Marillac’s arrest. The plotting nobles were thrown into angry confusion by that “Day of Dupes” (November 10, 1630). Marillac was allowed to live, but his younger brother, a marshal of France, was later indicted on a charge of peculation and was rather summarily put to death (1632). Louis ordered his mother to retire to her château at Moulins and to withdraw from politics. Instead, she fled to Flanders (1631), formed a court in exile at Brussels, and continued to work for Richelieu’s fall. She never saw the King again.
Her other son, “Monsieur,” Gaston, Duke of Orléans, raised an army in Lorraine and led it in open rebellion against his brother (1632). He was joined by several nobles, among them the highest in France—Henri, Duke of Montmorency, governor of Languedoc. Thousands of the aristocracy rallied to the revolt. Near Castelnaudary (September 1) the thirty-seven-year-old Montmorency engaged the forces sent against him by Richelieu. He fought till brought down by seventeen wounds; his and Gaston’s army, rich in titles but poor in discipline, fell to pieces under attack, and Montmorency was captured. Gaston surrendered and, as the price of pardon, named his accomplices. Louis ordered the Parlement of Toulouse to try Montmorency for treason; its verdict was death. The last of the ducal Montmorencys died without fear or complaint, saying, “I hold this decree of the King’s justice for a decree of God’s mercy.”22 Most of France condemned the Cardinal and the King for unfeeling severity; Louis replied, “I should not be king if I had the feelings of private persons”; and Richelieu defended the execution as a necessary notice to the aristocracy that they too were subject to the laws. “Nothing so upholds the laws,” he said, “as the punishment of persons whose rank is as great as their crime.”23
Two further obstacles remained to Richelieu’s supremacy: the governors and the parlements. Resenting the loss of provincial revenue through malversation and incompetence in noble governors and in bourgeois or petty-noble magistrates, the Cardinal sent to each district “intendants” to supervise the administration of finance and justice and the enforcement of the laws. These royal appointees took precedence over local officials of whatever rank; local autonomy declined, efficiency and tax collections rose. Anticipated in some measure by Henry IV, suppressed by the nobles in the Fronde, consolidated by Louis XIV, adapted by Napoleon, this system of intendants became a major feature of the centrally controlled bureaucracy that henceforth administered the laws of France.
The Parlement of Paris thought it opportune, under a weak monarchy, to extend its functions from the registration and interpretation of the laws to the role of an advisory council to the king. Richelieu would not brook such rivalry to his Council of State; probably under his prodding, and with his sharp phrasing, Louis summoned the leaders of the Parlement and told them, “You are constituted only to judge between Master Peter and Master John; if you go on as at present I will pare your nails so close that you will be sorry.”24 The Paris Parlement yielded, and the provincial parlements followed suit. Even their traditional functions were curtailed; Richelieu set up “extraordinary commissions” to try special cases. France became a police state; the Cardinal’s spies were everywhere, even in the salons; lettres de cachet (orders in secret) became a frequent instrument of government. Richelieu was now, in effect, king of France.