Éminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France

  • Jean-Vincent Blanchard
  • Walker
  • 320 pp.

In this biography that is at once light and scholarly, the author guides us through the life and career of Cardinal Richelieu, a ruthless manipulator who helped to shape the monarchy of 17th-century France.

Reviewed by Patricia Bochi

“He is utterly depressed when fortune is contrary to him; but when wind is in his sails, he is worse than a dragon.” –Marie de’ Medici

Éminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France plunges readers into the turbulence of 17th-century France, a time when conspiracies and court intrigues defined normalcy, political and religious passions ran high, and violence was often the practical outcome. Readers of Alexandre Dumas’ cloak and dagger novel, The Three Musketeers, will find in Jean-Vincent Blanchard’s history a more nuanced, certainly a more scholarly, version of that stormy era and the quintessential role of a key player, Cardinal Richelieu.

Beginning in 1585 with the birth of Armand-Jean du Plessis, the future Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu, and ending with his death in 1642, Eminence chronologically explores the political conflicts and the religious and personal enmities amid which the cardinal rose to power from Bishop of Luçon to Cardinal and Principal Minister of State. Richelieu’s rise owes as much to an opportunistic streak fueled by social ambitions as to a constant vigilance and mental agility that allowed him to adjust to ever-changing political circumstances while maintaining the support of both his introvert king, Louis XIII, and the king’s temperamental mother, Marie de’ Medici.

Smart, analytical, cunning and patient, Richelieu wanted it all –– the honors, the palatial life, the company of beautiful women, and above all the power. His attributes were many –– elegant, eloquent, poised, an astute diplomat, a superb strategist, a skilled horseman, and a patron of the arts (he founded the Académie Française).

He was also a man of cloth, and yet, as Blanchard notes, “no less of a man.” He enjoyed “the company of beautiful women who happened to belong to the highest aristocracy,” and was infatuated with the queen’s confidante, Madame de Chevreuse (he later fell for the queen herself), whom he nicknamed la chevrette (the little goat). At the same time, Richelieu nicknamed her suitor, the Duke of Buckingham, le bouquin (in a double entendre of the duke’s name and the French word for male goat), an example not only of the cardinal’s wit but also of his spite.

Underneath Richelieu’s carefully crafted public persona, however, lay a dark side. When necessary, he did not hesitate to change sides, always feeling that the ends justified the means. His motto, according to a contemporary historian, was “those not with him were against him,” an attitude that seemed to justify his sometimes harsh methods of operation that were informed by a network of spies and secret police.

For example, when in 1626, after having been tricked by Richelieu into confessing his plans to assassinate the king, the Comte de Chalais was accused of lèse-majesté (treason) and ordered to be decapitated, his body cut into four pieces and displayed at the city gates or on Nantes’ major roads, his family properties destroyed, and his aristocratic lineage annulled. But as if this were not enough, the carnage of his execution shows a perverse resolve on Richelieu’s part, which even the king, who had remitted the most gruesome aspects of the punishment (after an appeal by Chalais’ mother), could not stop.

Richelieu’s legacy ultimately is as complex and multidimensional as his character. While it is difficult to argue that his actions, which he grounded in the moral power of the church, did not bring him personal gain, his commitment to the affairs of state and to the king as doing God’s work remained unwavering, giving his passion for politics a higher sense of purpose: to make France a great power.

And yet, Blanchard goes further, suggesting that Richelieu’s “power-hungry, vindictive, and mean temperament” owed a great deal to his personal dynamics with the king and the courtiers. “In the king’s disposition, one was either the object of hatred or one enjoyed his full confidence; falling from his grace never happened gradually, but rather as if one stepped into a precipice,” Richelieu wrote in a memoir. Fear of disgrace may have been the strongest motivating force and one that Mathieu de Morgues inferred when he said that the cardinal’s mind was “suspended between hope and fear.”

Whatever his motivation, Richelieu’s constant effort to affirm the king’s power by subduing Protestant dissent, calming the high nobility, creating a buffer zone of territories and outposts, rebuilding the French navy, and working toward centralizing princely and parliamentary institutions, set the stage for the reign of the king’s son, Louis XIV, the Sun King, whose motto, L’État, c’est moi (The State, it is I) epitomizes absolute monarchy.

Blanchard’s lucid, unadorned prose helps the reader absorb a complex chain of events, which, in terms of numbers and multifarious twists and turns of the alliances involving the royals and their covetous courtiers, are overwhelming and difficult to follow. His colorful anecdotes bring alive the book’s many characters. For example, when Marie de’ Medici, the king’s mother, helped by the Duc d’Épernon’s men, escapes from the Château de Blois in 1619, Blanchard notes tongue-in-cheek that “exercise was not the queen’s forte. The heavyset woman struggled to reach the terrace of the chateau, still up above the town of Blois. When she saw a second ladder leading from the terrace to the ground, about a hundred feet below, the thought of dangling once more in the void scared her.” Later, upon spotting the queen in the dark in the company of men, officers of the guard shouted lewd comments.  Amused, the queen remarked, “They think I am one of those generous ladies!”

Such anecdotal material is well balanced by the scholarly apparatus which includes appendices, notes, and bibliography. A professor of French literature and politics at Swarthmore College, Jean-Vincent Blanchard has made ample use of primary sources such as Richelieu’s memoir and correspondence, reports (archived at the request of the cardinal concerned with posterity), diplomatic dispatches, and assorted contemporary writings. The result is a comprehensive and vivid portrait of the troubled reign of Louis XIII, a world in which polite society enjoyed with equal relish fêtes galantes and lethal secret plots, and Cardinal Richelieu was its master of ceremonies.

Patricia Bochi is a writer and an Egyptologist (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania). She serves on the Editorial Board of the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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