Remembering Cardinal Richelieu

A new movie version of “The Three Musketeers” was released earlier this fall, roughly based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas, first published in 1844.  

The story, based on fictional events in the 17th century, is not friendly to the Catholic Church, chiefly because of its depiction of Cardinal Armand-Jean de Plessis de Richelieu, France’s virtual ruler from 1624 to 1642. 

While some Catholics have read about Cardinal Richelieu, he is not exactly a household word today. Who was he — really? 

He was born in 1585, in Poitou, France, to parents from the lesser nobility. At first, he preferred a military career, and as a soldier he evidently led a rather risqué life. 

King Henri IV had promised Richelieu’s father that one of his sons, as a reward for the father’s military service, would be bishop of the Diocese of Luçon. (At the time, French kings appointed bishops, with popes merely confirming the royal choices.) 

Since the son envisioned for this role decided to become a Carthusian monk, Armand had to study for the priesthood. Ordained a priest, he was named bishop in 1607, at the age of 22! 

Such situations were common across Europe. Bishops were appointed by kings, and many had little, if any, interest in the Church or in their dioceses. It was one reason why so many people soured on the Church and accepted the Reformation. 

Richelieu was not that bad a bishop, however. Revolt against the Church was surging across Europe. The Reformation was gaining strength in France. 

In Luçon, Bishop Richelieu realized that the Church would die in that diocese if he did not correct abuses. Correct abuses he did. He was the first French bishop to implement the Council of Trent’s decrees. 

His efforts succeeded. Luçon was regarded as a model diocese, its faith and Christian witness refreshed. He was a skillful administrator and obvious leader. His fame spread. 

Among those taking note of his abilities was Queen Marie, of the Medici family in Florence, Italy, wife of King Henri IV. She brought Bishop Richelieu to Paris as her personal confessor and adviser. 

In 1610, Henri IV died. Louis XIII, elder son of Henri and Marie de Medici, succeeded him. Since Louis was still just a boy, his mother served as regent, or the actual ruler. Bishop Richelieu’s influence soared. In 1616, he was named secretary of state, responsible for foreign affairs. Under royal pressure, Pope Gregory XV named Richelieu a cardinal in 1622. 

For a while, the cardinal lost his place in government. He left Paris and wrote a catechism of Catholic teaching. 

Then, he was brought back, and for a generation he was the most powerful person in the Western world’s greatest power. 

Many historians credit him with creating the modern French state, with its high level of culture and, most of all, its stability as a unified nation. 

From the religious angle, his allegiance primarily was to France. He quarreled with popes, but while breaking with the Church would have won the cardinal political friends, he stayed with Rome, also a good political move. 

While a politician, it also is said that he never abandoned his religious obligations. For many years, his closest personal adviser was his own confessor, a Capuchin, Father Joseph. 

So, from the religious standpoint, his life gets mixed reviews. A story, probably apocryphal, conveys an important message for anyone. It is said that as he lay dying he told a priest attending him, “Had I exchanged my cardinal’s red for the Carthusian white [perhaps a reference to his brother the monk] and my palace for a monk’s cell, I would not be afraid to die.” 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.