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Cardinal Richelieu
Prime Minister of France

1585 - 1642

If you give me six lines written
by the most honest man, I will find
something in them to hang him.

                                 —Cardinal Richelieu

Cardinal Richelieu was born Armand Jean du Plessis in Paris on September 9, 1585. He took the name Richelieu from the name of his family's estate. Armand was extremely intelligent and at the age of nine was sent to College de Navarre in Paris. In 1602, at age seventeen he began studying theology seriously. In 1606 he was appointed Bishop of Luçon, and in 1622 Pope Gregory made Richelieu a Cardinal.

Cardinal Richelieu rose from his provincial post in Luçon to become France's Secretary of State for foreign affairs in 1616, and then on to head the royal council as prime minister of France in 1624. His powerful, analytical intellect was characterized by a reliance on reason, strong will, the ability to govern others and use political power effectively.

Even before becoming Prime Minister, Richelieu's political views were well-defined. He had a clear idea of how society should function. Everyone played a specific role in the system, making their unique contributions: the clergy through prayer; the nobility with arms under the control of the king, and the common people through obedience. Richelieu believed in the divine right of the king, whose role it was to promote peace and order in society.

Richelieu adhered to the maxim that "the ends justify the means." Although he devoutly believed in the mission of the Roman Church, he sought to assign the church a more practical role. Richelieu argued that the state is above everything, and that religion is a mere instrument to promote the policies of the state.

When Richelieu rose to power France's King Louis XIII had not solidified his authority in France. A combination of political corruption, an independent nobility, and the power of a Protestant group called the Huguenots, threatened the monarchy's rule. In 1627 Richelieu set out to secure the authority of the crown through force and political repression. By 1631 he had crushed Huguenot resistance, severely punished nobles who plotted against the king, and replaced his enemies in the government. In addition, he expanded the king's authority in the provinces through the use of royal agents called intendants.

Richelieu insisted that the king apply the law with severity, otherwise the state could not survive. He emphasized that rigorous punishment of even small crimes would forestall greater ones. Through this reasoning, Richelieu provided his sovereign a rationale for the harsh rule he knew to be requisite with strengthening and maintaining the authority of the French State.

Cardinal Richelieu has been admired by many historians for his intelligence and energy. During his service as prime minister he helped France become the leading power in Europe. He supported the French navy and the establishment of French colonies in Africa and the Caribbean. Richelieu was also a great patron of the arts. He rebuilt the Sorbonne in Paris, supported promising writers and founded the French Academy. Many French historians consider Richelieu as the founder of French unity, as well as the person who released France from its medieval nature.

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Copyright © 1995-2016 Robin Chew
Article written by Robin Chew - September 1995