Birth of a Wayward Cardinal: September 9, 1585

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations I: The History of Christian Civilization.


As long as the Huguenots held political and military power in France, they remained a real threat to the peace and unity of the kingdom. No one, king or Catholic nobleman, had found a solution to the Huguenot problem. In 1624, however, the king appointed Cardinal Richelieu to be prime minister. It was the able and energetic Richelieu who finally ended the religious wars in France and set the stage for the establishment of a strong French kingdom, united under its sovereign.


Triple Portrait of Cardinal Richelieu, by Philippe de Champagne

Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu was born September 9, 1585, the third son of a minor nobleman. When Armand was only five, his father died, leaving his estates nearly bankrupt. Through Armand-Jean’s mother’s influence, in 1605 King Henry IV named the young Richelieu bishop of Luçon, a diocese near La Rochelle that was controlled by the Richelieu family. Richelieu was both pious and ambitious. Intent on making his diocese both holy and orderly, he was the first bishop in France to implement the reforms of Trent. But Richelieu was ruthless and single-minded in the pursuit of his policies, and he believed intensely not only in God, but France.


As prime minister, Richelieu (who had been made a cardinal in 1622) worked tirelessly to make the king the absolute power in the state. Because Cardinal Richelieu believed that “the king receives his crown and his temporal power from God alone,” he viewed all disobedience to the king as sin. In time, Richelieu even came to hold that the Church in France was subject to the king in all areas except doctrine. The pope had the authority, Richelieu thought, to make laws for the entire Church; but the king could force the Church in France to pay taxes and could even take Church lands. Richelieu, thus, became a defender of Gallicanism.


Richelieu La Rochelle at the siege of La Rochelle

The Huguenots were the first obstacle to the king’s power, and Richelieu soon found an occasion to crush them. In the south of France, the Huguenots again rose in rebellion; and in 1627, an English fleet with 10,000 men attempted to land at the Huguenot city of La Rochelle to aid the Protestants. Acting quickly, Richelieu and Louis XIII led a force to La Rochelle, drove off the English, and laid siege to the city. Unable to receive aid from the English or its Huguenot allies, La Rochelle surrendered to the cardinal. Richelieu granted the Huguenots in the city complete religious freedom but forced them to give up their political and military power.


Richelieu’s war with the Huguenots lasted another two years after the fall of La Rochelle. Finally, in 1629, both sides signed the Peace of Alais. The Peace granted the Huguenots full religious and civil liberty but forbade them to control towns or fortresses or hold political assemblies. Basically, the Peace of Alais ended the political power of the Huguenots in France. Never again would they be a threat to the peace of the kingdom.

Lament for a Wayward Son


In the year Cardinal Richelieu concluded the Peace of Alais with the Huguenots, the German composer, Heinrich Schütz, published the first part of his Symphoniae Sacrae. What follows is a selection from the Symphoniae, Fili Mi, Absalon, a setting of King David’s lament for the death of his traitorous son, Absalom.




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