The speaker, Brian Freeland, had a personal interest in his subject, having spent five years running a shop in Cité de Richelieu in France, built by the Cardinal to accommodate his court. Armand Jean du Plessis (1585-1642), commonly known as Cardinal Richelieu, was the architect of the French state, sowing the seeds of the nationalism which eventually spread throughout Europe.
In 1606 King Henri IV nominated him Bishop of Luçon, for which, being under age, he received papal dispensation and was consecrated the following year. After the assassination of Henri IV he continued as an advisor to the nine-year old Louis XIII, through his regent, the Queen Mother, Marie de Médici. He delivered a harangue to the States-General which strengthened Marie’s position.
Mother and son later fell out and, following a plot in 1617, Marie was deposed and exiled, leading to Richelieu’s dismissal as Secretary of State and similar exile. Eventually he brokered a reconciliation between the king and his mother and was reinstated, also becoming a cardinal in 1622 and chief minister to Louis in 1624.
During the Thirty Years’ War his aim was to centralise power in France as a bulwark against the Habsburg Empire, which he perceived as threatening to encircle France. Though a cardinal, he was prepared to make alliances with Protestants where necessary. Indeed, he supported the Protestant Swiss canton of Grisons against papal garrisons in the Lombard pass of Valtellina.
Within France he was quite prepared to co-exist with the Protestant Huguenots in the interests of national unity. When he besieged La Rochelle, a Huguenot stronghold, in 1627, it was not on religious grounds but because the Huguenots, supported by King Charles I of England, were seeking autonomy. Thirteen thousand people starved to death in the siege.
As well as for his clerical and political achievements, Richelieu is also remembered for his patronage of the arts and as the founder of the Académie Française, the arbiter of the French language. Henri IV had unified the language; Richelieu standardised it. The language of France was to be French, to the detriment of the regional languages of the country.
Materially he was affluent. He had inherited the family estates on the death of his elder brother and built the Palais-Cardinal in Paris, designed by the royal architect Jacques Lemercier. On his death in 1642 the palace passed to the king and became the Palais-Royal. Lemercier also built him the Château de Richelieu in Cité de Richelieu. This housed his art collection but was demolished during the Revolution, the art collection being dispersed.
Richelieu never enjoyed good health. He had had gonorrhea in his youth and for many years suffered from several illnesses. As he approached death, he appointed Cardinal Jules Mazarin, who had been a close political ally, to follow him as the king’s chief minister. He died aged 57 on 4th December 1642, followed in 1643 by Louis XIII, whose widow Anne became regent.