How does a man make his way to the top? In those days it helped to be wellborn. Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu had for mother the daughter of an advocate in the Parlement of Paris, and for his father the Seigneur de Richelieu, Grand Provost of the Royal Household under Henry IV. The ancient Poitou family inherited the right to recommend to the king a candidate for the bishopric of Luçon. Armand, twenty-one, was so nominated by Henry (1606). Two years too young for episcopacy, he hastened to Rome, lied about his age, and delivered before Paul V so handsome a Latin harangue that the Pope surrendered the see. This fait being accompli, Richelieu confessed his lie and asked for absolution. The Pope complied, remarking, “Questo giovane sarà un gran furbo”(This youth will be a great knave).17
The young bishop described his bishopric as the “poorest and nastiest” see in France, but there was some money in the family, and he soon had his coach and his silver plate. He did not take his office as a lazy sinecure; he devoted himself assiduously to his duties, but he found time to flatter every influence and pull every wire. When the clergy of Poitou chose a delegate to the States-General (1614), Armand was their man. In that assembly his grave face, his tall, slim figure, his almost legal ability to grasp an issue clearly and present it persuasively, impressed everyone, especially Marie de Médicis. Through her and Concini he was made a secretary of state (1616). A year later Concini was killed and Richelieu lost his post. After a brief service with the banished Queen Mother at Blois he returned to Luçon. Marie plotted to escape; Richelieu was suspected of complicity; he was exiled to Avignon (1618); his political career seemed finished. But even his enemies recognized his abilities; and when Marie let herself out by night from a window of her castle at Blois and joined a force of rebel aristocrats, Luynes recalled the young bishop and commissioned him to win the Queen Mother back to reason and the King. He succeeded; Louis secured a cardinal’s hat for him and appointed him to the Council of State. Soon Richelieu’s superiority of mind and will made itself evident, and in August 1624, aged thirty-nine, he became prime minister.
The King found in him precisely the objective intelligence, the clear purpose, the tenacity of ends, and the flexibility of means wherein he himself was wanting; and he had the wisdom to accept the Cardinal’s guidance in the triple task of subduing the Huguenots, the nobles, and Spain. In his memoirs Richelieu remarked appreciatively, “The ability to let himself be served [to delegate authority] is not among the least qualities of a great king.”18 Louis did not always agree with his minister; sometimes he rebuked him; always he was jealous of him; now and then he thought of dismissing him. But how could he reject a man who was making him absolute in France and supreme in Europe, and who was bringing in more taxes than even Sully had gleaned?
The spirit of the Cardinal showed itself first in his treatment of religion. He accepted without discussion the doctrines of the Church, and added a few superstitions surprising in so powerful a mind. But he ignored the claim of the “Ultramontanist” party that the popes had full dominion over kings; he preserved the “Gallican liberties” of the French Church as against Rome; and in things temporal he subordinated the Church to the state as resolutely as any Englishman. He banished Father Caussin, who, as the royal confessor, had intervened in politics; no religion, in his view, should mingle with affairs of state. The alliances he formed for France were made with Protestant and Catholic powers indifferently.
He applied his principles firmly to Huguenots playing politics. Despite the peace of 1622, they had made La Rochelle a virtually sovereign city, under the control of its merchants, ministers, and generals. From that strategic port the merchants plied their trade with the world, and pirates sailed out to seize any booty or any ship, even those of France; through this port, given Huguenot permission, any enemy of France might enter. Louis too had violated the treaty; he had promised to demolish Fort Louis, which was a standing threat to the city; instead he strengthened it, and assembled a small fleet in the nearby harbor of Le Blavet. Benjamin (brother to Henri) de Rohan, Seigneur de Soubise, commanding a Huguenot squadron, captured this royal fleet and towed it in triumph to La Rochelle (1625). Richelieu built another fleet, organized an army, and accompanied the King to the siege of the Huguenot stronghold.
Soubise persuaded the Duke of Buckingham to send an armada of 120 vessels to protect the city. It came, but suffered so sorely from the artillery of the royal forts on the island of Ré that it crept back to England in disgrace (1627). Meanwhile Richelieu, acting as general for his sick King, had captured all the land approaches to La Rochelle; it remained only to blockade it by sea. He ordered his engineers and his soldiers to build a mole of masonry, 1,700 yards long, across the entrance to the harbor, leaving an opening for the movement of the tides. These were so strong, rising and falling twelve feet, that the enterprise seemed impracticable; every day half the stones laid that day were washed away. The King grew weary of this bloodless warfare and went off to Paris; many courtiers expected him to dismiss Richelieu for failing to take the city by assault. But at last the mole was complete and began its scheduled work. Half the population of La Rochelle died of hunger. Only the richest could get a little meat; they paid forty-five livres for a cat, two thousand for a cow. Jean Guiton, the mayor, threatened to kill with his own dagger anyone who spoke of yielding. Nevertheless, after thirteen months of famine and disease, the city capitulated in despair (October 30, 1628). Richelieu entered on horseback, followed by soldiers mercifully distributing bread.
Half of France clamored for the total extinction of the Huguenots. Exhausted, they could only pray. Richelieu surprised them with peace terms that seemed to the Catholics outrageously lenient. La Rochelle lost its municipal independence, its forts, and its walls, but the persons and property of the inhabitants were spared, the surviving Huguenot troops were allowed to depart with their arms, and the free exercise of both the Protestant and the Catholic worship in the city was guaranteed. Other Huguenot towns, surrendering, received similar terms. Catholic property expropriated by Protestants had to be restored, but the temporarily homeless Huguenot ministers were compensated by a state subsidy of 200,000 livres, and, like the Catholic clergy, they were exempted from the head tax, ortaille.19 A general amnesty was granted to all who had shared in the rebellion. Henry IV’s Edict of Nantes was confirmed in every essential by Richelieu’s Edict of Grace (June 28, 1629). Positions in the army, navy, and civil service were kept open to all without question of creed. Europe was startled to see French Catholics following and honoring Protestant generals like Turenne, Schomberg, and Henri de Rohan. “From that time,” said Richelieu, “differences in religion never prevented me from rendering to the Huguenots all sorts of good offices.”20 With a wisdom tragically lacking in Louis XIV, the great Cardinal recognized—as Colbert was to do—the immense economic value of the Huguenots to France. They abandoned revolt, gave themselves peacefully to commerce and industry, and prospered as never before.