Friday, February 3, 2012

The End of Richelieu by Jean-Vincent Blanchard

With each day, Richelieu’s health deteriorated. Louis appeared to be as melancholic and sickly as ever. The question courtiers and diplomats asked was not so much who would have the upper hand, but, rather, which of the two would go first. Eventually, Richelieu left Rueil and came to Paris. He felt an urgent need to indulge in his cherished pastime, the theater. For a long time now, the cardinal had wanted to celebrate his political accomplishments in grand style. After months of collaboration and effort with his favorite playwright and producer, Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin, he was ready to present a machine-play titled Europe. There could be no blazing gala at the Palais-Cardinal under such circumstances. On November 19, however, the cardinal asked his servants to lift him off his bed and transport him to his theater, where the comedians staged a dress rehearsal for him.

The play’s title character, Europe, is ravished by a prince named Ibere – an allegory of Spain – after she refuses his advances. Enter Francion, the French hero who will save the damsel from Ibere’s lurid designs.

[Ibere] can speak of peace, but I know how to procure it.
He runs away from peace and even fears it;
I seek peace and put my hopes in it.
He insists that all he desires is common repose,
Then suddenly his actions his intentions expose.
It is I, with no pretense of being a lover of peace,
Who will actually define common liberty.

Richelieu came back to Paris thinking that he could survive the king. This time, however, he would not have his way. A week after the performance of Europe, on Friday, November 28, he complained of a sharp pain in his side. A high fever took hold of him. Doctors diagnosed a kind of pleurisy. Both the pain and the fever grew through that Sunday. Fearing the worse, his relatives the Marechaux de Maille-Breze, de La Meilleraye, and Madame de Combalet decided to stay for the night at the Palais-Cardinal. On the following Monday the cardinal coughed blood and could hardly breathe. Doctors recognized there was nothing they could do.

Since the beginning of this illness, courtiers advised Louis that a visit to his dying minister would be appropriate. On Tuesday, December 2, at around two o’clock in the afternoon, the king entered Richelieu’s bedroom in the company of several captains of his guard. With Louis by his bedside, Richelieu declared that he would die with the satisfaction of leaving France at a high point. He asked the king to protect his relatives and recommended to him those he esteemed capable of helping him rule his kingdom after his passing, men such as Mazarin. Louis appeared genuinely moved. He fed the cardinal two egg yolks. To exit the Palace, as he returned to the Louvre, Louis crossed the grand gallery where the cardinal had hung his own portrait by Philippe de Champaigne, alongside that of the king, and of other illustrious men in French history. One of these figures was Sugar, an abbot-statesman who had been a regent of the kingdom. Louis took time to stroll through the gallery and observe the paintings. For some reason he burst into laughter, a laugh that was heard as far back as the chambers of his dying servant.

Cardinal Richelieu’s fever and pain in the chest worsened later that evening. He asked for communion, which the priest of the Church of Saint-Eustache delivered. “Here is the judge who will decide my fate,” said Richelieu before the Eucharist. “I pray with all my heart that He will convict me if I have ever had any other intention than the good of religion and the state.”

At three o’clock in the morning, the priest performed the last rites before a swell of onlookers, including the inconsolable Madame de Combalet, and many dignitaries of the Church and government. By all accounts, the cardinal showed courage, constancy, and genuine piety in his agony. He prayed constantly, worshiped, and kissed his crucifix.

On Wednesday, December 3, a doctor from Troyes who had a reputation as a wise man gave him a pill that improved his condition. The cardinal rallied. Enough to raise hopes for his recovery. But it was merely a sedative, probably an opiate concoction. Louis came to pay a last visit at the end of the afternoon. His words to the cardinal were gentle. He assured Richelieu that he would continue his minister’s work with diligence, that he would obtain a lasting peace with the Hapsburgs in terms honorable to France. The king, many Parisians thought, seemed liberated, and much less chagrined than one would have expected.

Cardinal Richelieu’s condition improved once more the next morning, enough for rumors to spread that he was out of trouble. Most of those who watched over him went to have their luncheon. But around eleven , Richelieu felt great dizziness and his body became drenched with cold sweat. The doctors, the relatives, and the priests came back at once and filled the room with sobs and prayers. The cardinal offered more signs of religious devotion. To Madame de Combalet, who was nearby, he said: “My niece, I am not well at all, I am going to die. Please excuse yourself. Your tenderness already touches me so much.”

Shortly after she left the room, he sighed and passed away. It was Thursday, December 4, 1642. Armand –Jean du Plessis, Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu, was dead at the age of fifty-seven. He had been the principle minister of King Louis XIII for eighteen years.

On a night not long afterward, parents, friends, members of the clergy, and his entire household accompanied Cardinal Richelieu’s casket to the church of the Sorbonne. The procession made its way from the Palais-Cardinal to the Left Bank, through crowded streets. A six-horse carriage, decorated in black velvet with a chevron motif of white satin, representing the Richelieu arms, carried the casket Every marcher held a large white candle. The streets of Paris, says the Gazette de appeared as bright as if it were still daylight.

At the same time, for a large part of France’s population, Richelieu’s death came with relief, because they had come to associate him with public executions and the heavy tolls of a seemingly endless war. One eighteenth- century historian of Louis XIII’s reign, the Jesuit Henri Griffet, wrote of old men who remembered the joyous bonfires that lit up France when the news of the cardinal’s passing spread. But those who revered him – and even many who loathed him- understood that Richelieu was an exceptional statesman.

After the siege at La Rochelle, the Huguenots remained subdued. Visions of bloody scaffolds* discouraged rebellion in the high nobility. Perpignan in the Roussillon, Pinerolo and Susa in Savoy, Lorraine and Franche-Comte, Brisach in the Rhineland, Arras and Hesdin in Flanders – all these contested territories and outposts constituted a defensive belt from which the French King threatened the possessions of the Habsburg monarchs Philip IV and Ferdinand III. The French navy, which was non-existent when Louis came to power, was rebuilt, and a new generation of capable men of war had emerged.

In the context of a France made up of a mosaic of institutions and corporations, each with its own regional specificity and privileges, the minister had affirmed the king’s power with his extraordinary judicial commissions, or by laying the foundations of a national administration, notably when he increased the number and responsibilities of his intendants. These were crucial assets on which Mazarin could build to assert France’s influence in 1648, sic years after Cardinal Richelieu’s passing, when the Treatise of Westphalia delineated a new European map based less on religious orthodoxy than political sentiment, and in 1659, when the Treaty of the Pyrenees put an end to the war with Spain, to France’ advantage.

Cardinal Richelieu’s oeuvre might have been a work in progress when he died, so much so that his successor had to live through one last jolt of princely and parliamentary independence, the Fronde, but still, he allowed his countrymen to think of a grand future for themselves, and that is no small legacy for a leader

*Bloody scaffolds, no kidding! When it came time for high profile executions of princely rebels, Richelieu seemed always to lack, on one excuse or another, the services of a real professional; the result being grisly ‘hack-jobs’.

Eminence; Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France by Jean-Vincent Blanchard (Swarthmore College); Walker Publishing,, N.Y. 2011

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes the Cardinal felt too ill to travel in a carriage so often his servants carried him on a litter or, when possible,went by boat, as in the second painting. Of course in later years he had a huge entourage and many guards. Either his or the King's presence was usually required on the battlefield in order to maintain morale and keep the various nobles and princes harnessed to their plows.