September is National Bourbon Heritage month, an amazing time of the year that is actually a legitimately real thing and not just some promotional material I read on a coaster at a fancy bar last week trying to convince me why I should order a round of twelve dollar cocktails for everybody in the establishment. Apparently, National Bourbon Heritage Month was proposed in 2007 by a U.S. Senator from Kentucky (because of course it was), and was passed that same year by a unanimous act of the United States Congress (also of course)… so I guess that when I’m sitting at a bar later tonight slamming back Whiskey Sours and Old Fashioneds with a beautiful woman I can rest easy knowing that I’m doing my patriotic duty as a good honest hard-working American. And even after my date flees the bar through the bathroom window and some gigantic bald bouncer with a skull tattooed over his actual face is suplexing me into a garbage can at two o’clock in the morning, I can drunkenly pass out in that dirty back alley dumpster comfortable in the knowledge that this is what the Founding Fathers probably would have wanted.
So, in celebration of the Pope visiting the United States during National Bourbon Heritage Month, I figure it’s appropriate to write this week’s story on a badass, infamous, iron-fisted clergyman who served the French Royal House of Bourbon during the height of the seventeenth century and utterly demolished all enemies of France, both foreign and domestic – the notorious Armand-Jean du Plessis, better known to history and Three Musketeers novels as Cardinal Richelieu.
Armand-Jean du Plessis was born in 1585, the third son of a down-on-their-luck family of French aristocrats who were on the downswing of the “good old days”. Armand-Jean was skinny, not particularly strong, and got sick a lot, and from a very young age was forced to rely on his wits to stay on his feet. His dad was a French soldier who got his ass killed during the Wars of Religion, leaving the family in crushing debt, financially ruined, and with little more than their manor and a hereditary title of Bishop of Lucon to their name. France, meanwhile, was also completely broke, and the recent assassination of King Henri IV meant that the country was now ruled in name only by a pre-teen King whose balls hadn’t dropped yet. France was a feudal realm full of local medieval-style knights, Catholics and Protestants were murdering each other in the street on the regs, and the ancient enemies of France -- the hated Hapsburgs of Austria -- had powerful family members ruling over Prussia, Spain, and Italy… meaning that in addition to internal religious anarchy, France was also completely surrounded by pissed-off Germans that basically just wanted to kill all French people anywhere they could be found. Bitchin.
The first time the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” appears in print is in a play written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839. The words are being spoken by Cardinal Richelieu. Even though he may never have actually uttered the words in real life, the phrase fits, because without ever unsheathing a blade on the battlefield, fucking Armand-Jean du Plessis still managed to grind France into what would be the most dominant military, economic, and political force on the European continent for nearly a century. By the time he was done, this sickly poor kid from the countryside would be known as L’Eminence Rouge – “The Red Eminence,” and people would be naming goddamn World War II battleships and Paris Metro stops after him.
Richelieu had two older brothers, but the eldest inherited the family manor and the middle bro decided he’d rather peace out and become a monk than have to wear one of those silly bishop’s hats. Eager to do his duty to help out the family, Armand quit the military academy and resolved to become the most badass priest in the history of the Catholic Church. He was only 21 and technically wasn’t old enough to be a bishop, but it didn’t stop him – he traveled to Rome and convinced the Pope to appoint him Bishop of Lucon anyways.
As Bishop, Richelieu supported the Crown, and was the first Bishop to give sermons and write texts in French instead of Latin. When he wasn’t saving souls, he also sent bribes and other presents to the King’s mom, Marie de Medici, an Italian woman who was running the show while the King wasn’t old enough to do his thing. Carefully calculating his moves paid off, and Richelieu eventually got in so tight with the Queen Mother that he was appointed to run the Palace Chapel for the King and Queen themselves. All it took after that was for him to personally negotiate the peaceful resolution to a possible French Civil War between the nobility and the King and the next thing you know King Louis XII is appointing him to wear the cool red robes of a Roman Catholic Cardinal.
Tl;dr – Richelieu was a non-inheriting son of a dirt-poor family of minor nobles. He convinced the Pope to make him the youngest Bishop in France. Then he convinced the Queen to let him look over the spiritual health of the Royal Family. Then he defused a potentially-horrific Civil War. He then became Cardinal, and was made First Minister of France in 1624.
It was around that time that the Queen decided Richelieu had become too powerful and was actually becoming a threat to her power. She tried to convince her now-grown son to banish Richelieu and exile him. The King chose Cardinal Richelieu over his own momma, and had her exiled instead.
As First Minister of France, Cardinal Richelieu had one goal and one goal only – to fucking forge France into the most badass realm the world had ever seen, no matter how many assholes he needed to eviscerate or demolish to get there. As far as he could tell, he had three main enemies – Protestant rebels, Hapsburg Germans, and disloyal noblemen who weren’t happy about the idea of Feudalism coming to an end.
He dealt with the nobles first. His first move was to create a professional private army that was loyal to him alone, and then he sent these badass mercenaries to the homes of potentially-disloyal aristocrats to rip apart their castle walls brick-by-brick and discourage them from rising against him. He put regional governors in different counties, having them report to him directly instead of to the local lords. He created a hardcore cloak-and-dagger spy network that spread its tendrils throughout France, and his agents, disguised as monks, nuns, minstrels, peasants, prostitutes, guards and maids infiltrated nearly every prominent aristocratic household in France. Before long, this guy was running a war room that would give him an early-warning indication of any potentially-disloyal nobleman from the Pyrenees to the Rhine. Anyone suspected of potential treason (or anyone he decided he wanted to frame for potential treason) was either shanked to death in his home or was dragged out into the middle of Paris and publicly had his head chopped off with an axe.
"If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men,
I would find something in them to have him hanged."
Next it was time to deal with the Huguenots, which sounds like a shitty band name but was actually a term to refer to French Calvinists who weren’t down with the Roman Catholic Church and started setting up their cities where the Church wouldn’t have any power. Well, this was a problem for Cardinal Richelieu, but not for the reasons you’d think. You see, Richelieu didn’t really even care that much that these guys were Protestants – what pissed him off was that they were rebels.
The Huguenots got some military and financial support from England, who sent the Duke of Buckingham to the port city of La Rochelle to help the Huguenots seize control of it. The Protestants took over the city, which at the time was the third biggest city in France, and, as you can imagine, this really really super mega pissed Cardinal Richelieu off. He slapped on his badass red Cardinal plate armor, grabbed a rapier, assembled his personal red-cloaked Musketeers, and led an army to lay siege to the city. Personally commanding a force of over 20,000 soldiers, Richelieu surrounded La Rochelle, and encircled it with eleven forts and almost eight miles of trenches packed with riflemen. He set up cannons, began bombarding the city, and then blocked off the city’s harbor with an insane act of badass engineering – he sailed a bunch of ships into the harbor, sunk them, packed them up with gravel, and then built a fucking impenetrable sea wall and put cannons on there so no English reinforcements could enter the harbor. Just for added effect, Richelieu also bought a couple badass warships from Holland, an act that to this day is referred to as the Birth of the French Navy. Richelieu would serve as the navy’s Admiral for the rest of his career, and would also order construction of the French Naval Academy.
When it first opened fire on the Cardinal’s troops, the City of La Rochelle was home to roughly 25,000 soldiers and civilians. After fourteen months of being hammered on all sides by the Cardinal’s artillery, only 5,000 people remained.
Cardinal Richelieu overseeing the siege.
Finally, Richelieu had to deal with the fucking Hapsburgs, who were a problem for him because they were German. The Hapsburgs heard about the La Rochelle thing and tried to fuck with France by attacking Venice, a strong ally of France in Northern Italy, but fuck that. It turns out that Richelieu actually had two spies in the Hapsburg court – one was the Prince’s fencing instructor, and the other was the Princess’s dancing teacher. He knew exactly what was going down, and countered it immediately.
The second the siege of La Rochelle was over, Richelieu immediately led his army south, crossed the Alps in the middle of winter, attacked the Hapsburg army from the back, and drove them away from the besieged Italian city in complete disarray.
"To mislead a rival, deception is permissible; one may use all means against his enemies."
Richelieu got his revenge on the Hapsburgs, but he didn’t do it directly – he did it by financing the enemies of the Holy Roman Empire. He gave lots of money and gear to the Dutch to fight the Spanish, and the Swedes to fight the Germans, and then he had his agents plant false evidence that discredited or otherwise ruined the best military commanders in the German army. Richelieu’s diabolical mastermind Bond villain shit turned the Thirty Years’ War into one of the most brutal and bloodiest conflicts in European history, and made a local fight into an epic world war that drove the Hapsburgs nearly completely bankrupt. It was the same tactic the Russians used in the Vietnam War and the U.S. did during the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, but this guy was pioneering that shit back before they’d invented the hot air balloon or the guillotine. When the Pope Himself came to Richelieu and was like, “hey bro, WTF, you’re supporting a bunch of godless Protestant countries in wars against a place literally called the HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE,” Richelieu told his spiritual boss – the friggin’ Pope – to cram it up his cram hole. The Pope almost excommunicated him, but didn’t, because Richelieu is a goddamn genius at manipulating even the world’s most powerful people to his every whim.
While all this was going on, Richelieu also ordered French ships and men to the New World to establish a base of power in the newly-discovered North American continent. He had his guys seize island territories like Haiti, Martinique, and Guadeloupe, and in 1629 Cardinal Richelieu signed the treaty that created the Province of Quebec.
Oh, and he also build a city near his old hometown, named it after himself, and built a huge palace there for his mistress. Hashtag Big Pimpin.
I mentioned the part about the pen being mightier than the sword, but Richelieu had another phrase he liked to use as well. He liked to refer to artillery as “The Last Reasoning of Kings.” I like this because it sums him up pretty well – he’d find some way to fuck you over first, but if that didn’t work out he was cool with just blowing your face off with grapeshot at point-blank range. The phrase became so well-known during his time that the Latin translation of it, Ultima Ratio Regum, would be inscribed on cannons in the artillery batteries of French armies under Louis XIV. And it really just doesn’t get any more fucking badass than having a phrase that sounds like a Grindcore album title embossed on a two-ton iron shotgun.
Nowadays Cardinal Richelieu is most well-known for being the bad guy in the Three Musketeers, where he’s basically a diabolical evil genius who fucks with people but still lets D’Artagnan go even after he has to chance to execute him. Tons of actors have played him (including Vincent Price!) but for my money I’ll always just picture this guy looking like Tim Curry. I can’t find any good clips that don’t have shitty audio but if you can hang then here’s a rad clip of Richelieu shooting Charlie Sheen in the dick, and if this doesn’t make you happy I don’t know what will.
He’s also apparently on a pretty popular BBC show right now as well. I don’t know anything about this, but it did give me this photo so I’m happy:
Here’s another insane thing about Cardinal Richelieu – did you know that the Man in the Iron Mask was a real person? It was! Nobody knows who he was (the best money is that he was an illegitimate brother of Louis XIV), but pretty much every conspiracy theory involving him has something to do with Cardinal Richelieu slapping that metal gimp-mask on an important guy as a means of protecting the Cardinal’s position of power in the government. I don’t have a theory on this, because I haven’t dug too far into it, but I do know that in 1642 a nobleman libertine asshole known as the Marquis de Cinq-Mars made a deal with Spain to overthrow Richelieu, and Richelieu’s spies snagged that fucker at the Spanish border, dragged him to Paris, and had his dome lopped off in front of thirty thousand screaming fans.
Cardinal Richelieu died in December of 1642 at the age of 57, passing the reins of government on to another Cardinal he’d personally trained in the fine art of knife-point diplomacy. At the time of his death, the King of France was a four year-old boy who would become Louis XIV, the Sun King. Thanks to the Red Eminence, Louis XIV would inherit a strong, stable, powerful country that would go on to establish complete dominance over the European mainland for decades.
History Learning Site
New World Encyclopedia
Bergin, Joseph. Cardinal Richelieu: Power and the Pursuit of Wealth. Yale University Press, 1990.
Blanchard, Jean-Vincent. Eminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France. Bloomsbury, 2011.
Bradford, James C. International Encyclopedia of Military History. Routledge, 2004.
Carlisle, Rodney. Encyclopedia of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Routledge, 2015.