While Henri du Plessis, made his way at court, the young Richelieu began a course of study which gained him entrance to the College de Sorbonne, France’s prestigious school of theology. In 1606, with a little influence on his brother’s part, Henri IV finally named Armand, Bishop of Lucon. Because he was only twenty-one, five years under the required age to become a bishop, he was sent to Rome for dispensation by Pope Paul IV, who made him first a priest and then a bishop. The Pope had been impressed by the young man who displayed uncommon composure and intelligence for his age, as well as a sense of piety. At that time there was also a call for young Catholic evangelists to counter the Protestant reformation.
In 1608, Richelieu returned to a Paris that had profited along with the rest of France under the reign of Henry IV. The King was an ebullient person and this showed in his attention to Paris which now had a new town square in the Marais and the new Pont-Neuf bridge across the Seine. It is still there today, the oldest standing bridge in Paris.
Sadly for the young bishop, he would not be able to share in the glitter of Paris, the city he considered to be his home. He was to travel to Lucon, a place still mired in the medieval darkness and ignorance of so many towns in France at that time. Set on the western coast, Lucon was swampy and mosquitoe infested. The town itself had suffered the ravages of the Wars of Religion, leaving many of it’s prominent buildings, including the cathedral and the bishop’s residence devastated.
Richelieu’s youth and one may think, his naivety, were very probably an aid to him in this undertaking, for in spite of the Church’s presence, the practice of witchcraft was still very common. In 1634, he would become involved in the “possessions of Loudon” and execute the priest responsible for exhorting a convent of nuns into hysteria. For now, his main concern was to get control of his diocese following the Council of Trent as a guide. It would prove to be no easy task. His days were spent preaching, training the clergy and repairing the run-down cathedral. He dredged the canal which led to the ocean while “keeping an eye” on the local Protestants. He did make attempts to convert them but did not infringe on the right to free worship granted to them by the Edict of Nantes. Even before he arrived, the cathedral chapter set up a list of grievances and demands and were preparing to go to court. The area had been so long neglected, his great uncle Jacques hadn’t even set foot in the place. They demanded that some of the revenue gained by Richelieu be put into the town. Showing his future talent for diplomacy, he agreed to put a third of his own money towards the restoration of the cathedral buildings. He would not take any further responsibility for its repair or upkeep.
Lucon had been a part of the much larger diocese of Poitou and had within it a number of major abbeys which were often in the hands of great nobles. Learning to move in these circles would require deference, tact and firmness, much more easily given at this stage of his life. Before he arrived in Lucon, the Capuchin monks were already at work in the area, at their head, Pere Joseph Francois le Clerc du Tremblay. “Pere Joseph” was a former soldier who had taken up the Catholic cause. Richelieu asked him to help within the diocese and a life long friendship would commence between them. Joseph would become known as the “Grey Eminence” after the color of his smock.
On the other side, Lucon was only one of the “places de surete” in Poitou that Henri IV, himself known as “the Protestant King”, had set up for the Huguenots. Here they lived confidently and prospered. The great Protestant fortress of La Rochelle was nearby and the leading academy of Saumur turned out leading scholars. This was not an auspicious start. The Protestants refused to pay taxes and were burying their dead in the Catholic cemeteries. They also used the Catholic churches for their own services. All of this the young bishop put to an end. Then he sat down to write “The Principaux Points de la Foy de l’Eglise Catholique”.
Main Sources: The Rise of Richelieu: Joseph Bergin 1991, Eminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France: J.V .Blanchard 2011