Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu wore many hats on both the religious and secular fronts, making him both famous and infamous. Cardinal Richelieu is hailed as being the second most powerful Frenchman of his time, second only to King Louis XIII. He had many enemies, which makes the truth of his life difficult to discern through potentially biased chronicles. It’s certainly true that Cardinal Richelieu held immense sway over both religious and political decisions in France, and certainly influenced French foreign policy.
Who was Cardinal Richelieu?
Richelieu became a bishop at the age of 21 with a special papal dispensation. This younger son of a minor noble family rose in the ranks of influence as cardinal, chief minister to the king, and secretary of state. He had amazing influence over both domestic and foreign policy, as well as control of the military.
Foreign policy under Louis XIII
While Louis XIII was reportedly a much stronger king than the weakling that literature portrays, many of his policies were formed and enacted by Cardinal Richelieu. As the Secretary of State for war and foreign affairs, Richelieu had the ability to determine how France would interact with and be perceived by the rest of the world.
The cornerstone of Cardinal Richelieu’s foreign policy was that he was completely anti-Habsburg. Richelieu saw the power of the Habsburg dynasty as the only real threat to French power, despite (or perhaps because of) the French queen being Austrian. It is said that prior to his political career, Cardinal Richelieu was sympathetic to Spain in many ways. After his ascent to power in government, Spain and Austria became his mortal enemies and he made many military decisions specifically to thwart any advancement of the Habsburg dynasty.
Cardinal Richelieu did come under fire from the papacy and other Catholic nations for his willingness to ally with Protestant nations, and he was declared a traitor to the Catholic Church for these actions despite ongoing efforts to quell domestic Protestant rebellion. In addition, he subsidized the armies of smaller countries whose military aims matched his vendetta against the Habsburgs. Richelieu himself seemed determined to keep the affairs of state separate from his duties to the church, and made his alliances based on strategic advantage rather than religious leanings.
Richelieu in North America
Due primarily to Cardinal Richelieu’s efforts, France kept a firm foot in North America in modern-day Eastern Canada and Northeastern United States. Today, francophone North America is said to owe its existence to the aid given to French troops on the continent. French troops were given financing and support to hold Quebec, and Richelieu’s desire to perfect the French language carried over into what is now French Canada.
Today, Cardinal Richelieu is remembered in history and literature in a number of ways, but often as a villain.