Who Was Cardinal Richelieu?

Nathan Forbes, Jessica Elam Miller
  • Author
    Nathan Forbes
  • Instructor
    Jessica Elam Miller

    Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

Cardinal Richelieu was one of the most powerful men in France in the 17th century. As the Chief Minister to King Louis XIII, he was influential in military and political decision making. During his tenure, Cardinal Richelieu helped to create an absolute monarchy in France, and end various religious conflicts through his persecution of the Huguenots. Updated: 03/06/2022

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Who Was Cardinal Richelieu?

Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu, better known as Cardinal Richelieu, was born in September 1585 in Poitou, France. Born to a lesser noble house, Cardinal Richelieu became a prominent statesman, and is best known for being the chief minister and advisor to King Louis XIII.

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  • 0:05 16th Century Europe
  • 0:52 Who Was Richelieu?
  • 1:41 Richelieu's Career
  • 3:53 Richelieu Versus the Huguenots
  • 6:53 Lesson Summary
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Cardinal Richelieu: Background and Context

France in the 16th century was one of the most powerful nations on earth with Paris being the most populated city in Europe. Ruled by a king with absolute power, there were few elected positions and political appointments largely relied on favor from the reigning monarch. Though the nation as a whole flourished, one of the biggest problems of the time were the series of religious conflicts between the traditional Catholic Church and the recently established Protestant Church. Known as the French Wars of Religion, these bloody conflicts divided France both politically and religiously. From an early age these religious wars had a significant impact on Cardinal Richelieu, from the death of his father to an eventual tool to further his political agendas.

At the beginning of Cardinal Richelieu's political career, King Henry III of France was assassinated and since his heir Louis XIII was not old enough to take power, the authority in the government was passed to his mother Marie de Medici until he was of age. As regent to King Louis XIII, Marie de Medici's policies were seen as corrupt by the lower classes, and caused numerous issues both in court as well as among the common people. Cardinal Richelieu spent most of his early career as advisor to Marie de Medici, and eventually to King Louis XIII.

The Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation began in 1517 and was a political, religious, and cultural fracturing of the Catholic Church and Europe as a whole. Based on the ideas of Martin Luther, the Reformation questioned the authority of the Pope and the practices of the Catholic Church at the time. This schism broke Europe into various pro-Catholic and pro-Protestant factions, which would spend the next several hundred years warring between one another for religious dominance. France in particular was heavily influenced by The Reformation, and numerous wars would be fought in the 16th and 17th century. As a high ranking member of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Richelieu resisted the advancements of The Reformation, and used his political power to prosecute and eliminate Protestant citizens of France, called Huguenots.

The Expansion of France

From the early 16th century France, much like the rest of Europe, spent a good deal of time exploring the New World, in particular the St. Lawrence River and Canada. Though France had attempted small settlements in Brazil and Florida, the first truly successful colony began in modern day Nova Scotia and Quebec at the beginning of the 17th century. Cardinal Richelieu played a pivotal role in the regulation of colonies, and created the Council of Marine to administer existing colonies as well as expand into new territories. While Cardinal Richelieu served as Chief Minister, France expanded to the Caribbean and toward the end of the 17th century had made some smaller colonies in India.

Cardinal Richelieu: Early Life

Armand Richelieu was born in September 1585 in Poitou, France during the reign of King Henry III. Often described as thin, weak, and sickly, he was the third son of a noble family of limited renown and was from an early age inclined toward education and schooling. This inclination is what eventually required Armand to be a member of the Catholic Church and pave the way for his future political career.

Family

Traditionally the family history of Richelieu was that of an insignificant noble house that gained some prominence just prior to Armand's birth in 1585. Armand Richelieu's father was a relatively important individual, as he was the Grand Provost of France under Henry III in charge of certain duties such as taxation and administering justice. One of five children, Armand was the youngest son which meant he was of little political importance to his house which was reserved for the eldest son in 16th century France.

Childhood and Early Adulthood

Armand was five years old when his father died during a campaign against the Protestants, and his family quickly went into debt. It was only through a royal grant issued by King Henry III that the Richelieu family was able to avoid complete political and financial destruction. This early brush with poverty motivated Armand to restore family honor and wealth which were immensely important at the time.

Influences

With the help of a royal grant from King Henry III, Armand was able to attend the College de Navarre in Paris at nine years old. Noted as being particularly gifted, Armand began studying theology at 17 years old. At 20 years old King Henry III nominated Armand to be Bishop of Lucon, though he was well below the minimum age of 35. Armand traveled to the Vatican to receive special permission from the Pope, and was made Bishop in April 1607 at 22 years old.

What Did Cardinal Richelieu Do?

Cardinal Richelieu was one of the most powerful men in France during the mid 17th century. Though he was considered at one point to be second only to the King of France, he had numerous accomplishments both during and after his rise to extreme power. From his early career as a member of the Estates-General to his highest position as Chief Minister, Cardinal Richelieu had immense influence in the political and religious decisions of 17th century France.

The Estates-General and Early Offices

After becoming Bishop of Lucon, Cardinal Richelieu quickly gained favor with local clergy and was elected as a member of the Estates-General in 1614. The Estates-General was an assembly of three different Estates made up of political or socioeconomic groups.

As a member of the Estates-General, Cardinal Richelieu was a supreme advocate of the church and argued for the advancement of the Council of Trent; a series of responses to the questions raised by the Protestant Reformation. Though this stance caused numerous conflicts with the Third Estate, his fervent defense of Catholicism gained him favor in other noble families.

After the Estate-General was dissolved in mid 1616, Richelieu was appointed as the personal chaplain of Anne of Austria, the soon to be queen of France. From this position Richelieu was made Secretary of State by Concino Concini, the most powerful minister in France. As Secretary of State, Richelieu was in charge of many foreign affairs and a close advisor to Marie de Medici. This did not last very long, because in 1617 Marie de Medici was overthrown, and her son Louis XIII officially took power as King of France.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What did Cardinal Richelieu do to the Huguenots?

Cardinal Richelieu waged a series of wars against the Huguenots in the 17th century. These conflicts ended in the Edict of Grace that removed all military and political power from the Huguenots, but gave them religious freedom.

Who was Cardinal Richelieu to Louis XIII?

Cardinal Richelieu was Chief Minister to King Louis XIII. He served as his advisor, and had power of military and economic decisions.

What is Cardinal Richelieu famous for?

Cardinal Richelieu was famous for his persecution of the Huguenots. Also, his focus on the creation of an absolute monarchy.

Was Cardinal Richelieu Catholic or Protestant?

Cardinal Richelieu was Catholic. Although many of his policies aided the Protestants, and he made numerous allies with Protestants over his tenure, he was a member of the Catholic faith.

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