What was he like, this Cardinal who was hardly a Christian, this great man who felt that he could not afford to be good? Philippe de Champaigne sent him down the ages in one of the most famous paintings in the Louvre: the tall figure saved from absurdity by raiment, given authority by red robe and hat, posing as if in some forensic plea, proclaiming his nobility in his clear-cut features and delicate hands, challenging his enemies with his sharp eyes, but pale with exhausting years and saddened with the consciousness of inexorable time. Here is the worldliness of power crossed with the asceticism of dedication.

He had to be strong to keep his faults from defeating his purposes. He began his career at court with an ingratiating humility, which he later avenged with a pride that admitted only one superior. Once, when the Queen visited him, he remained seated—a discourtesy permitted only to the King. He was (like most of us) vain of his appearance, avid of titles, resentful of criticism, eager for popularity. Jealous of Corneille, he wished to be known also as a dramatist and a poet; actually he wrote excellent prose, as his memoirs show. As readily as Wolsey he reconciled the following of Christ with a cautious attention to Mammon. He refused bribes and took no salary, but he appropriated the income of many benefices, alleging his need to finance his policies. Like Wolsey, he built himself so splendid a palace that before he died he thought it wise to present it to the Dauphin; so the Palais Cardinal became the Palais Royal; we may suppose that it was built for an administrative staff and diplomatic show rather than for personal extravagance. He was no miser; he enriched his relatives and could be generous with the money of the state. He bequeathed half of his personal hoard to the King, advising him to use it “on occasions which cannot abide the tardiness of financial forms.”30

What appears as his unfeeling cruelty was to him a necessity of rule: he took it for granted that men—certainly states—could not be managed by kindness; they had to be intimidated by severity. He loved France, but Frenchmen left him cold. He agreed with Cosimo de’ Medici that a state cannot be governed with paternosters, and with Machiavelli that the ethics of Christ cannot be safely followed in ruling or preserving a nation. “A Christian,” he wrote, “cannot too soon forgive an injury, but a ruler cannot too soon punish it when it is a crime against the state…. Without this virtue [of severity]—which becomes mercy insofar as the punishment of one culprit prevents a thousand from forgetting it—states cannot survive.”31 It was Richelieu who gave currency to the phraseraison d’état: i.e., the ethical code must give way to reasons of state.32 He seems never to have questioned the identification of his policies with the needs of France; hence he persecuted his personal enemies as firmly as he punished the foes of the King.

Within his castle and his diplomatic front he was human, longed for friendship, and felt the loneliness of the exalted. Tallemant’s gossipy Historiettes would have us believe that Richelieu tried to make a mistress of Marie de Médicis, who was twenty years older than he;33 it is highly improbable. There are other legends of the Cardinal’s secret amours, even with Ninon de Lenclos; and it would not have violated the mores of the time if the harassed statesman had consoled himself with contours. All that we know clearly of his affections is that he was profoundly attached to his niece, Marie-Madeleine de Combalet. Widowed soon after marriage, she wished to enter a convent, but Richelieu persuaded the Pope to forbid it; he kept her near him to manage his household, and he received from her a devotion intenser than most loves. She dressed like a nun and concealed her hair. Richelieu conducted himself toward her with all due propriety, but the Queens refused her the benefit of any doubt, and gave a lead to gossip that added another sting to the Cardinal’s tale. He loved “not man, nor woman neither,” and both took their revenge.

What he had above all was will. Few lives in all history have been so unified in their aim, so undeviating in its pursuit; the laws of motion could not be more constant. We must admire his devotion to his tasks, his wearing himself out in them through years of labor and nights without sleep. He dedicated those labors to those who could sleep without fear under cover of his sleepless care. We must concede him a surpassing courage, which faced powerful nobles and scheming women, stood them off, killed them off, dauntlessly, amid repeated plots against his life. He risked his head time and again on the issue of his policies.

He was seldom well. Having contracted a fever from the marshes of Poitou, he was subject to repeated headaches, which sometimes lasted for days on end. Probably his nervous system was genetically weak or congenitally injured; one sister was feeble-minded, one brother was for a while insane, and court rumor said that the Cardinal himself had fits of epilepsy and mad hallucinations.34 He suffered from hemorrhoids, boils, and a disease of the bladder; as in Napoleon’s case, his political crises were occasionally complicated by inability to urinate.35 More than once his illnesses led him to think of retiring; then, imprisoned in his will, he took hold again and fought on.

We cannot judge him fairly unless we see him wholly, including features that will take form as we proceed. He was a pioneer of religious toleration. He was a man of wide and sensitive culture: a connoisseur of music, a discerning collector of art, a lover of drama and poetry, a helpful friend of men of letters, the founder of the French Academy. But history properly remembers him above all as the man who freed France from that Spanish dominance which had resulted from the Religious Wars and which, in the League, had made France a pensioner, almost a dependency, of Spain. He achieved what Francis I and Henry IV had longed and failed to do: he broke the cordon strangulaire with which Hapsburg powers had encircled France. Later pages must detail the far-seeing strategy whereby he decided the Thirty Years’ War, saved German Protestantism as the ally of Catholic France, and made it possible for Mazarin to mold the constructive Peace of Westphalia. For France itself he created unity and strength at the cost of a dictatorship and a royal absolutism that in time generated the Revolution. If it is a statesman’s prime duty to make his people happy and free, Richelieu fell far short; Cardinal de Retz—a shrewd but not impartial judge—condemned him as having “established the most scandalous and dangerous tyranny that perhaps ever enslaved a state.”36 Richelieu would have replied that the statesman is required to consider the happiness and freedom of future generations as well as of his own, that he must make his country strong to guard it against alien invasion or domination, and that for this purpose he may justly sacrifice a present generation for the security of its successors. In this sense Richelieu’s Spanish rival, Olivares, rated him “the ablest minister that Christendom has possessed these last thousand years”;37 Chesterfield ranked him as “the ablest statesman of his time, and perhaps of any other.”38

His return from his final victory at Roussillon was the funeral procession of a still living man. From Tarascon to Lyon he took a barge on the Rhone; at Lyon he remained till Cinq-Mars and de Thou were tried and dead; then, weak from the pain of an anal fistula, he had himself carried to Paris in a litter borne by twenty-four men of his bodyguard, and large enough to contain a bed for the dying man, a table, a chair, and a secretary to take dictation of army orders and diplomatic messages. Six weeks that death march took; and along the road people gathered to get a glimpse of the man to whom they could give not love but fear, respect, and reverence, as the awesome embodiment of both Church and state, the vicar of God and king. Arrived in Paris, he was moved into his palace without leaving his couch. He sent in his resignation to his master, who refused to accept it. Louis came to his bedside, nursed him, fed him, wondered what he would do if this incarnate will should cease. The Cardinal’s confessor, giving him the last sacrament, asked him if he had forgiven his enemies; he answered that he had never had any except the enemies of France. After a day of coma he died, December 4, 1642, aged fifty-seven. The King decreed an entire week of funeral ceremonies; through a day and a half sight-seers filed by his corpse. But in many provinces people kindled bonfires in gratitude that the iron Cardinal was dead.39

He continued for a time to rule France. He had recommended Giulio Mazarini as successor to his ministry; Louis complied. He left ten volumes of memoirs, recording the actions of the state as if they had been not his but the King’s. In his final years he had dedicated to Louis a Testament politique, “to serve after my death for the administration and conduct of your realm.” Here, amid some platitudes, are precise and pithy maxims of government, in a style rivaling any other prose of the time. He advises the King to avoid war, as something for which his Majesty was by nature unfit. “It is more profitable, and more glorious, to reconcile a dozen enemies than to ruin one.”40 Besides (he confided), the French are not constituted for war; at the start they are all ardor and bravery, but they lack the patience and flegme to await the propitious moment; as time goes on “they lose interest, and become soft to the point where they are less than women.”41 A king, like a general, must have a masculine courage capable of resisting emotional inclinations. He should give women no voice in government, for they follow their moods and passions rather than their reason.42 However, intellect in a woman is unbecoming; “I have never seen a woman of much learning who was not marred by her knowledge.”43 Women cannot keep secrets, and “secrecy is the soul of statesmanship.”44 “A prudent statesman will talk little and listen much.”45 He will watch lest he give offense by some careless word; he will never speak ill of anyone unless the interest of the state requires it.46 The King should get “a general knowledge of the history and constitution of all states, especially his own.”47 And the author asks some understanding for his ministry and his character. “Great men who are appointed to govern states are like those condemned to torture, with only this difference, that the latter receive the punishment of their crimes, the former of their merits.”48

The King survived him by five months. Louis’ brief rule was gratefully remembered, for he released political prisoners, suffered exiles to return, and allowed France to breathe. He complained that the Cardinal had not permitted him to act as he wished. His mother had died a few months before Richelieu; he had her remains brought from Cologne and gave them stately burial, and in his last moments he repeatedly prayed that God and man would pardon the harshness he had shown to her.

He saw himself failing, but rejoiced in the vigor and beauty of his four-year-old son. “What is your name?” he asked playfully. “Louis the Fourteenth,” answered the boy. “Not yet, my son, not yet,” said the King, smiling. He bade the court accept the regency of the Queen until his son should come of age. When he was told that death was near, he said, “Then, my God, I consent, with all my heart.”49 He died on May 14, 1643, aged forty-one. “People went to his funeral as to a wedding,” Tallemant reported, “and appeared before the Queen as at a tourney.”50 The terrible Cardinal had made everything ready for le grand monarque and le grand siècle.

I A like development weakened “states’ rights” in the United States in the twentieth century.

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