With this concentrated power in his hands, he did everything for France, little for the people. He thought of France as a power, not as a sum of living individuals; he did not idealize the common man, and he probably thought it dulce et decorum that such men should die for their country; he would sacrifice them to make the future France secure from Hapsburg encirclement. He labored far into the night at the business of the state, but almost always on foreign policy. He had no time to improve the economy, except to ferret out tax evaders and bring revenue and “intelligence” to Paris with less leakage on the way. In 1627 he organized a public post.
Taxes were still collected by financiers to whom they had been “farmed”; these men had exacted twice, sometimes thrice, the amount they transmitted to the government. The nobility and the clergy were exempt from the major taxes; clever businessmen and the hoards of officials found ways of avoiding or appeasing the collectors; towns paid a small composition to escape the poll tax; the brunt of the burden fell upon the peasantry; Richelieu bled it to destitution to make France the strongest power in Christendom. Like Henry IV, he preferred to conquer enemies with money rather than with blood; many of the treaties with which he waged war included subsidies to allies and douceurs to potential foes. At times, desperate for funds, he advanced his own money to the treasury; once he hired an alchemist to make gold.25 Taxation and the state corvée—unpaid labor on the roads—co-operated with drought, famine, pestilence, and ravages by soldiery to bring peasants near to suicide; several killed their families and themselves; starving mothers killed and ate their infants (1639).26 In 1634, according to a probably exaggerated report, a fourth of the population of Paris begged.27 Periodically and sporadically the poor rose in revolts that were mercilessly suppressed.
Richelieu used the taxes to build armies and a navy; right would not be heard unless it spoke with guns. Having purchased the office of grand admiral, he fulfilled its functions resolutely. He repaired and fortified harbors, established arsenals and provision depots at the ports, built eighty-five ships, founded pilot schools, trained marine regiments. He raised a hundred regiments of infantry, three hundred troops of cavalry; he restored discipline in the army; he failed only in his efforts to banish its prostitutes. With his revitalized armament he faced the chaos of foreign relations bequeathed by the regency of Marie de Médicis, returned to the policy of Henry IV, and directed all his forces to one goal—the liberation of France from the cordon of Hapsburg power in the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, and Spain.
Marie had allied France to Spain—i.e., in Richelieu’s view, she had submitted to the enemy; and she had alienated those on whom Henry IV had relied as friends—the English, the Dutch, and the Protestants of Germany. With the quick strategic eye of a general, Richelieu saw in the Valtelline passes that connected Austria and Spanish Italy the key to the united power of Spain and the Empire to exchange supplies and troops. For twelve years he struggled to win those passes; his wars against the Huguenots and the nobles distracted and defeated him; but he retrieved with diplomacy far more than he had lost in war. He had won to his faithful service François Le Clerc du Tremblay, who had taken the name Joseph on becoming a Capuchin monk; “Father Joseph” was sent everywhere on delicate diplomatic missions, and performed them skillfully; and France began to pair the gray-garbed monk as Éminence Grise—his Gray Eminence—with the red-robed Richelieu as Eminence Rouge. So aided, the Cardinal vowed that he would “prove to the world that the age of Spain is passing, and the age of France has come.”28
In 1629 the epochal conflict in Germany seemed about to end in the complete triumph of the Catholic Hapsburg Emperor over the Protestant princes. Richelieu turned the tables with money. He signed with Gustavus Adolphus (1631) a treaty by which the virile King of Sweden, aided by a million livres a year from France, was to invade Germany and rescue the Protestant states. The ultramontanists of France denounced the minister as a traitor to the faith; he retorted that neutrality was treason to France. When Gustavus died in victory at Lützen (1632) and most German princes yielded to the Emperor, Richelieu actively entered the war. He expanded the French armies from 12,000 in 1621 to 150,000 in 1638; he helped the revolt of the Catalans in Spain; his diplomacy gave him control of Trier, Coblenz, Colmar, Mannheim, and Basel; his troops took Lorraine and forced their way through Savoy to Milan, the center of Spanish power in North Italy.
Then the pendulum of fortune veered, and all these victories seemed meaningless. In July and August, 1636, a strong force of Spanish and Imperial troops crossed the Netherlands into France, took Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) and Corbie, advanced to Amiens, laid waste the green valleys of the Somme and the Oise. Richelieu’s armies were far away; the road to Paris lay open and defenseless to the enemy. The Queen Mother in Brussels, the Queen in St.-Germain, and her pro-Spanish party in France rejoiced, and counted the days before the Cardinal’s expected fall. In Paris angry multitudes pullulated in the streets, calling for his death. But when he appeared among them, outwardly calm on his stately horse, no one dared touch him, and many prayed God to give him strength to save France. Then appeared not only his courage, but his foresight and industry: he had long ago organized the citizens of Paris into a reserve militia; he had stored up arms and materials for them; now he inspired them with fervor, and they responded to his call; the Parlement of Paris, the corporations, and the guilds voted funds; in a few days a new army was on the march, and it laid siege to Corbie. Gaston of Orléans, in command, dillydallied; Richelieu came up, took charge, ordered assault. On November 14 Corbie was taken, and the Hapsburg troops retreated into the Netherlands.
In 1638 Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar, leading a German army financed by Richelieu, took Elsass; dying a year later, he bequeathed it to France; Elsass and Lothringen became Alsace-Lorraine and began to be French. In 1640 Arras was taken. In 1642 a force under the command of the King and the Cardinal captured Perpignan, and the surrounding province of Roussillon was detached from Spain. Everywhere Richelieu seemed now the organizer of victory.
The unreconciled nobles, the Spanish faction at the court, the highborn ladies palpitating with intrigue, made a last effort to unseat the minister. In 1632, after long serving the Cardinal in diplomacy and war, the Marquis of Effiat died, leaving a widow and a handsome twelve-year-old son, Henri Coiffier de Ruzé, Marquis of Cinq-Mars. Richelieu took the lad under his protection and introduced him to the King; perhaps he thought with this toy to distract Louis from Mlle. de Hautefort, who was among theintriguantes. It so transpired. The King was charmed by the youth’s looks and wit and insolence, made him Master of the Horse, begged him to share the royal bed.29 But Cinq-Mars, maturing to twenty-one, preferred the pretty courtesan Marion Delorme and the exalted Marie de Gonzague, future Queen of Poland, now one of the Cardinal’s loveliest enemies. Probably at her suggestion, and inflamed by her strategic retreats, the youth importuned Louis for admission to the royal Council and for a command in the army. When Richelieu discountenanced these proposals, Cinq-Mars begged the King to dismiss the minister. Refused, he joined Gaston of Orléans, the Duke of Bouillon, and others in a plot to surrender Sedan to a Spanish army; with this army at their back the conspirators were to enter Paris and take possession of the King; and Gaston pledged himself to arrange the assassination of the Cardinal on the way to Perpignan. Cinq-Mars’ friend, Jacques Auguste de Thou, solicited the co-operation of the Queen. But Anne of Austria, expecting Louis’ early death and her elevation to power as regent, sent a hint of the scheme to Richelieu. He pretended to have a copy of the agreement with Spain; Gaston, believing it, confessed and, as usual, betrayed his associates. Cinq-Mars, de Thou, and Bouillon were arrested; Bouillon, as the price of pardon, confirmed Gaston’s confession. The two youths were tried by a court at Lyon; they were unanimously condemned, and they dignified their treason with a stoic death. The King hurried back to Paris to protect his power. Richelieu, mortally ill, was carried in a litter through a France dying of victories and crying out for peace.