A Flash of Scarlet

There can be no discussion of the founding of New France or even of France itself without mention of the great Cardinal Richelieu. The name is given to the great river running through Quebec and New York State as well as the many historic villages along it’s route. A mentor of Samuel de Champlain, he set up the Compagnie des Cent-Associés to encourage the fur trade and colonize North America for France. We have seen varying images of him in the media, mostly sensationalistic, biased portraits thanks to Alexandre Dumas’ novel, The Three Musketeers. If you have read any of the history of France you will know him to be a man of his time, a time of war, bitter struggles and court intrigues.

Richelieu was born Armand Jean du Plessis September 9, 1585 at “l’hotel de Losse” in Paris. It was situated near the Louvre, No. 4 Rue de Bollouer and became the family’s place of residence until 1588. It was not an ostentatious dwelling but certainly one suitable to Francois du Plessis’ rank of “grand prevot” of France for Henry III. Below, some photographs of No.11 Rue de Bulois (current name), No.4 not being found.

No. 11 Rue de Boloine, Paris.

No.11 Rue de Bulois (Mbzt)

In the back, a courtyard.

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Back Courtyard of No.21 Rue de Bulois (Mbzt)

There is also a small passage leading through to the “Cour de Farm” or taxation offices of the ancien regime on Rue du Louvre.

520px-P1040009_Paris_Ier_cour_des_Fermes_rwk

Cour de Farm (Mbzt)

The length of time between Richelieu’s birth and his baptism on May 5, 1856, at St. Eustache church in Paris has given rise to some conjecture as to whether he was in fact born in Paris, as he always claimed, or at “Richelieu”, the family home in what used to be Touraine. Author,  Joseph Bergin has ascertained that Suzanne,  Armand’s mother, was present in Paris both weeks before and after his birth.

The Du Plessis family were historically, one of lesser nobility, struggling to maintain their status. Based in the province of Poitou, they did not settle until the middle 14th century,  near Chinon and Loudun, where they intermarried with families of a similar status. In this way, they acquired lands and titles to become part of seigneurial society. The acquisition of the seigneurie of Richelieu came about in this way when Geoffroy du Plessis married Perrine Clerambault. Perrine’s brother, Louis held a post in the court of Charles VII and left his fortune and estates to Francois du Plessis, their son and Armand’s second great-grandfather.

If a son was not able to capture an appropriate bride, he might turn himself into a mercenary soldier, Catholic or Huguenot, or find employment in the household of a great noble of his province. A final option was  ecclesiastical  life. In this, the family was lucky, they had gained the bishopric of Lucon through Jacques le Roy, Armand’s great uncle.

The great uncle, Jacques had chosen three out of five of his great-nephews to follow him in the church (Armand’s great-uncles). Two did well but one, Antoine, turned out to be a fighting man and joined his brother Francois in the Italian wars. The two attached themselves to the Duc de Montpensier and the Guise family who were ultra Catholics, waging war against the Protestants in Poitou.  Francois was killed fighting the English at le Havre.  Antoine went on to win a place at court and a knightly order.

Armand’s grandfather, Louis du Plessis, Seigneur de Richelieu, died young but helped the family fortunes by entering the household of Antoine de Rochechouart as lieutenant of his bodyguard. He married Francoise, the daughter, which gave Armand a legitimate connection to a very old and noble family of France. Francoise was a woman of high temper and very strong character. Louis’ connection to the Rochechouart family allowed him to gain an appointment as chief butler to Henry II.  He was not a prudent man and left his widow and five children with very little money. This made Francoise a very bitter woman. She took up residence at Richelieu on the river Mable, in country torn apart by civil war. This is where Armand’s father Francois, was raised.

There was a legend that surrounded Francois du Plessis’ youth. While he was away working as a page in the court of Catherine de Medici and Charles IX, his brother Louis was slain by his neighbours after a quarrel. His mother called him back to Richelieu to avenge his brother’s death. This he did by laying down a cart wheel in the river which the horse’s hooves would get stuck in and halt any escape. After this act of revenge legend says Francois had to leave the area for 8 years, ending up in Poland under Henri III. It seems unlikely that he would then be allowed to marry the daughter of a prominent parliamentary lawyer which he did in August 1566. In his book,” The Rise of Richeleu”,  Joseph Bergin states that it is more likely that Francois was granted a pardon by the King as was commonly done at that time. After serving his military apprenticeship under his uncle Antoine,  Francois was appointed “counseller prive” by Henry III in May 1578.

As Henry III looked for ways to deal with the problems presented him during his reign,(the disaffection of his brother, failure to achieve peace with the Huguenots, the threat of the nobles joining sides with the Huguenots and the influence of the Guise family), he sought out the more level headed middle nobility. To this end, he created a position for Francois du Plessis as “Grand Prevot” or Grand Provost of France.

If we look at some of the duties Richelieu’s father was charged with we may begin to see where the son gained some of his abilities and character. Francois was given numerous commissions around the country to arrest and bring suspects to trial and execute them if necessary. He was sent to Normandy to put down an uprising there in 1579. He publicly displayed the heads of known freebooters,  made public arrests at the Estates General and even tried the dead body of Henry III’s assassin. For his services, he gained knighthoods first in the Order of St. Michael and then the Order of the Holy Spirit. After the murder of Henry III, he continued in service to the Protestant king, Henry IV, as captain of his guards. Within a year, he caught fever and died. The date was July 1590.

Main sources for this post were Joseph Bergin: The Rise of Richelieu 1991 and Eleanor C.Price: Cardinal de Richelieu 1912

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