15. Cardinal de Richelieu transformed French politics and society by making himself a powerful voice in the King’s ear
In 17th century France, the King had absolute power. The Church, however, was also highly powerful. Both institutions were reliant on the support of the other, something Cardinal Arman Jean du Plessis, the 1st Duke of Richelieu realized all too well. Far from being a humble man of God, he was ambitious and power-hungry and used his position in the Catholic Church, as well as his cunning, to become the most powerful man in the court of Louis XIII. While he may not have been born with royal blood, he was seen by many as the true power behind the French throne.
Richelieu’s rise to prominence was swift and spectacular. Born in 1585, he was a Catholic bishop by the age of 32. By 1616, he was France’s Foreign Secretary and then, two years after being made a Cardinal, he was named Louis XIII’s chief minister in 1624. It was a position he would held for almost two decades until his death in 1642. He used his unique position to block the nobles’ access to the king. This way, he steadily kept the nobility out of government. Many go so far as crediting Richelieu with the transformation of France into a strong, highly-centralized state.
Outside of domestic politics, Richelieu also dictated French foreign policy. He made allies and he made enemies, always seeking to ensure French dominance, even if it meant signing agreements with Protestants. The ‘Red Eminence’ also transformed the nation’s cultural life, above all promoting and protecting the French language. Even when he died, he still had a say in the affairs of state – after all, his successor was Cardinal Mazarin, a man who he had personally chosen and groomed for the role.
While for many, Richelieu is the ultimate example of the ‘power behind the throne’ phenomenon, historians of 17th century France often argue that, though he undoubtedly had huge amounts of power and influence, ultimately, the King was in charge. The so-called Day of the Dupes is held up as evidence for this. On this day in November 1630, it looked like Richelieu’s time was up. His enemies joined forces and gained the queen mother’s backing. They demanded the King dismiss his closest adviser. Apparently, even Richelieu himself expected to be dismissed. In the end, however, Louis XIII kept him in power – proof that Richelieu’s elevated status at the Court was wholly dependent on royal approval.