Born in Paris, France, September 5, 1585, Cardinal de Richelieu was a younger son in a minor French noble family. He planned to enter military service until the resignation of his brother from the Bishopric of Lucon in 1605 offered him the opportunity to advance through the Catholic Church's hierarchy.
He made his name politically at the 1614 States-General, where he pledged to Louis XIII the clergy's loyalty and the supremacy of the royal power over all other interests in France. Richelieu also insinuated himself into the circle of Marie de Medici, the queen mother, through enormous gifts and bribes, contacts that led to a 1616 appointment as secretary of state. Richelieu immediately began using state funds to establish a vast network of informers and agents throughout France, a move so threatening that the queen mother accused him, in 1618, of complicity in the murder of her favorite royal adviser and had him banished to Avignon until his return to power as a member of the Council of Ministers and a cardinal in 1624.
Richelieu's political ideas closely followed those of Niccolo Machiavelli (author of The Prince), and he sought to strengthen France through a powerful monarchy and the subordination of aristocratic, religious, and regional factions. In service of this goal, Richelieu used his revived intelligence network to strike at Huguenot Protestants using military force as well as blackmail, assassination, and intimidation. He also relied on his operatives to prosecute plotting members of the royal family such Gaston of Orleans and the queen mother, thus eliminating rivals within the Catholic Church hierarchy.
In order to break down regional nobles, he instituted the system of intendents, provincial authorities responsible to the crown, while supporting the buildup of a professional army and navy. The cardinal backed the Gallican church against the pope, claiming for the French king the right to tax church estates and select bishops. He enhanced French prestige through patronage of the Royal Academy and encouraged the acquisition of colonies in the Caribbean and west Africa (and the application of absolutist governing principles in all French possessions). A firm believer in punishing the most trivial transgression of royal law in the interest of maintaining order, Richelieu even had informers at the village level of French society to make him aware of tax evasion, talk against the monarchy, and regional interests.
Richelieu's real genius, however, was in using his vast network of agents for the foreign-policy interests of France. An implacable enemy of the Austrian-Spanish Hapsburgs, he worked to ruin their military and diplomatic efforts in the Thirty Years' War, most successfully using an agent close to the Emperor Ferdinand II to discredit his best general, Albrecht von Wallenstein.
Richelieu also masterminded the backing and financing of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden as a combatant. Many of his agents throughout Europe used their positions as fashionable dancing masters, tailors, maids, and fencing masters to obtain the secrets of Europe's elite. Richelieu also deployed priests and nuns in his service as agents in the interest of France.
A source of vast patronage and influence, Richelieu created a more powerful French government from the medieval structures that survived the 16th century and ruled on behalf of a fundamentally weak monarch, Louis XIII. When he died in Paris on December 4, 1642, he had put in place a functional secret service of immense value to France, and passed it on to his successor, Cardinal Mazarin, and Louis XIV, who continued the absolutist and centralizing policies begun by Richelieu.
SEE ALSO: France; Fouché, Joseph.
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