Red Eminence: The Iron Will Of Cardinal Richelieu

Of the many leadership traits, willpower has special significance.  Difficult to describe, it is best illustrated by historical example, rather than by general discussion.  That sustained application of effort over a long period of time, and that concentrated focus on ends in the face of myriad obstacles, are manifested in the life of Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu (1585-1642).  Cardinal Richelieu was France’s most subtle, iron-willed, and ruthless statesman.  He was will incarnate, and arguably more than any other, he was the maker of modern France.

From an early age he showed an ability to grasp the essentials of a complicated situation and mold them to his advantage.  His maternal grandfather had been a Parisian political figure, and his father, the Seigneur de Richelieu, had been Grand Provost of the Royal Household under Henry IV.  In an age when the titles of nobility meant far more than they do today, he made the most of his connections.  His family had him nominated for the position of a bishopric in 1606, but he was only twenty one.  The young lad then traveled to Rome and made a direct appeal to Pope Paul V; he charmed the pope by first lying about his age, and then by asking for forgiveness for his lie.  Paul, not knowing whether to be angry or pleased, was won over by the audacity and keenness of the French youngster.  He here demonstrated that remarkable ability to influence men of power, a skill he was to use to great effect throughout his long career.

He discharged his duties as bishop with patient application and a probing intelligence that few of his contemporaries possessed.  While others focused on enriching themselves with the spoils of office, Richelieu was more interested in advancement.  He was nominated by his peers in 1614 to serve as delegate to the States-General; and from there it was but a short jump to be made secretary of state two years later with the help of Marie de Medicis (queen consort of Henry IV, and regent for her son Louis XIII).  He knew how to make himself indispensable to those holding the reins of power.  But he was no mere court sycophant.  His intellect and memory were second to none, and he had an quiet tenacity of purpose that preserved the ends, while permitting a remarkable flexibility of means.  Frequently underestimated, he frustrated all who crossed swords with him.

His fortunes temporarily fell when one of his allies in court was killed.  The Queen Mother was banished along with Richelieu, and she soon joined an opposition faction.  Richelieu, at the request of the new powers in court, managed to mediate the dispute between the parties and get her back into the king’s favor.  Louis awarded him the position of cardinal, and from there he became prime minister in 1624 at the age of thirty nine.

The working relationship of King Louis and Richelieu was so successful because each was aware of, and complemented, the qualities of the other.  Too many kings err, Richelieu felt, in not letting themselves be served by their ministers.  Although the king was always jealous of Richelieu’s abilities, he recognized that he could not do without him.  No one else had the will and means to keep the Huguenots in check, the French nobles in their place, and ambitious Spain at bay.  Richelieu cared little about theology; his purpose was to make France a powerful, centralized state, and to this end, any means was permitted.  He would confound many of his clerical colleagues in Rome by his ability to make alliances equally with Protestant as well as Catholic powers.  But for him, the interests of France came first.


The Cardinal at war:  Richelieu at La Rochelle

The siege of the city of La Rochelle shows Richelieu at his most tenacious.  This Huguenot stronghold had become nearly an independent city, a situation no sovereign in Paris could tolerate.  Richelieu assumed the role of military commander and, acting on behalf of the king, ordered a relentless blockade of the recalcitrant city.  Showing an amazing grasp of siege warfare and engineering problems, he had the harbor sealed, and closed all land approaches to the city.  The starving city surrendered after thirteen months of misery, and Richelieu entered in triumph on horseback.  Yet his peace terms to the Huguenots thereafter were lenient and just.  He later explained that “differences in religion never prevented me from rendering to the Huguenots all sorts of good offices.”  In an age of religious intolerance, it was a revolutionary view.

He also put France’s arrogant nobility in its place.  France at the time was still very feudal in character; the nobles in the provinces still maintained private armed forces, castles bristling with weapons, and courts of law.  These semi-independent potentates could on a whim undermine the central authority in Paris.  It was a situation that was impeding France’s national development, and Richelieu, with the tacit approval of the king, was determined to bring the aristocracy to heel.  In 1626 he issued an order mandating the disarming of all private castles and fortresses, and outlawed the aristocratic diversion of dueling.  When two barons defied the ban, Richelieu had them executed.  “It is a question of breaking the neck of duels or of your Majesty’s edicts”, he explained to the king.

Frances’s nobles were furious, and plotted his downfall.  But he was far more adroit then they.  The Queen Mother, who had originally promoted Richelieu, made no secret of the fact that she had come to despise his special confidence with the king.  She had underestimated her one-time protege, and woken up to find him running France.  She demanded that Louis get rid of the subtle cardinal, who had now become informally known as “his red eminence” (L’Eminence Rouge).  Richelieu, surprising the Queen Mother by entering her private chamber from a secret passage, confronted her.  What precisely he said (or did) to her is not known.  There followed a palace drama that was as startling as it was revealing.


Red Eminence:  a paragon of willpower

The king, not temperamentally suited to showdowns, wavered, and left the palace in distress.  Richelieu, in a private audience with Louis, persuaded him of his indispensability.  He was so successful in this that Louis ordered his own mother banished, had several rebellious nobles executed, and had Richelieu confirmed once again in power.  It was a counter-coup of stunning brilliance.

Richelieu then went on ruthlessly to clip the wings of France’s provincial governors and the local parlements.  “Nothing so upholds the laws,” he said when meting out punishments to the nobles, “as the punishment of persons whose rank is as great as their crime.”  He had made France an authoritarian state, but this was seen by most at the time as an improvement over the feudal oppression and chaos that had haunted France for centuries.

He was a man of austere and pale expression, whose delicate features masked a ferocious willpower and tenacity of purpose.  In the practice of statecraft and political maneuvering, he was without peer.  The famous portrait of him by Philippe de Champaigne (now in the Louvre) shows an almost ascetic figure, a man weary with the exercise of authority.  He understood the nature of man, and knew that a sovereign could not rule with pleas to moral virtue.  Severity was mostly a virtue in a ruler, he believed, and without it a king would not be on the throne for long.  Like all of us, he had his faults.  He paid too little attention to France’s domestic affairs, he taxed the peasantry to the point of destitution, and he set a precedent for absolutism that would be inherited and abused by those who followed him (most notably Louis XIV).


But above all, his willpower was supreme.  Frequently ill, he accomplished nearly all of the king’s (or his own) purposes that he set out to do, and left France better than he had found it.  He knew of the loneliness of power, and accepted the price paid by those who would wield it. “Great men”, he once said, “who are appointed to govern states are like those condemned to torture, with only this difference, that the latter receive the punishment of their crimes, the former of their merits.”

It is a judgment that we would be hard pressed to dispute.

Read More:  Nothing Is Permanent

61 thoughts on “Red Eminence: The Iron Will Of Cardinal Richelieu”

  1. Another great article brother Quintus, what I’m starting to hate more and more though is that your articles don’t get near enough comments or views as the quality of writing merits. Don’t get me wrong I love reading the other articles about game, lifestyle etc etc but articles with substance and a certain maturity in writing like yours should receive a bit more recognition and debate. Anyway great article mate all the best.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. This is top of the line. I would like to state that while many of us are lamenting the giant central government that is crushing the life out of us, Cardinal Richelieu lived and operated in an entirely different time. He was trying with all his might to bring his beloved nation out of the chaos of feudalism. Note his treatment of the two barons who defied him. Our own government is headed for a collapse and then don’t be surprised if things degenerate Somali style with hundreds of “warlords” vying for power in the decay and chaos that will ensue. Where will we then find our own Cardinal Richelieu?

      1. Good comment, Paul, and thanks.
        I thought Richelieu was a great exemplar for lessons in leadership. I am ashamed to admit that I have not read Richelieu’s memoirs, but the historians I consulted for this article speak highly of them. I am sure they are packed with practical wisdom.
        Richelieu is a misunderstood figure, as you observed. French novelists (Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, etc) liked to portray him as a diabolically Machiavellian figure. In some ways, he was this, but he was operating in a pool full of sharks.
        His ability to dodge bullets and checkmate all his opponents have much to say about his resilience. We should learn from his example.
        I suspect that he must have “had something” compromising on the King and the Queen Mother, for him to have dominated them so totally.
        I wonder if we’ll be able to get through the comments section here without someone making a reference to the Monty Python skit about Richelieu…

      2. You probably wouldn’t want to live in a regime governed by a person such as Richelieu. Absolute rule with execution being the punishment for defiance and those not in power being taxed out of existence (this laid the ground for the later Revolution). I think the future for the US is a surveillance based police state by which the current elites hold on to power. That will be its last phase and I would hope it would be replaced by self-governance rather that socialists. Given what Americans know of freedom, I think this is the most likely outcome, barring foreign invasion.

        1. This is certainly a valid criticism of authoritarians such as the Cardinal. On the one hand, he centralized authority, diminished the negative impact of the aristocracy’s greed, and enhanced France’s national power. The price for all that was that he turned France into something that looked much like a police state. Was the trade off worth it? I think so.

        2. I think that depends on whether you think a powerful nation state is a good thing or not. Personally I do not. I think that powerful states attract psychopathic people (of which the Cardinal was certainly one) who are willing to do almost anything to extend their own power or the power of the state. They see the state as something existing separately, apart from the individuals that make it up. The state becomes a deity and some of the most horrific crimes are committed in its name, not just in France but in countries across the world. When survival of the state is threatened, people pay the cost.

        3. I’ve got to part ways with QC on this one.
          Richelieu gave us raison d’etat and removed morality and religion from governing. I don’t think that was a good thing at all, neither did his contemporaries.
          France became less of an abstraction and more of a nation, but to what end? So that 99% of the people would suffer more? Be more poor? Have fewer rights and protectors? Consider the disaster of the Revolution and the greater suffering to follow under Napoleon.
          Richelieu helped the king and himself. If there were some other power greater than the king to suck up to, he would have done so. He was no true patriot. Everyone else was worse off for generations to come, but his potentate loved him and he increased his personal “power”.
          Americans should detest this guy and the modern politicians that emulate him. Frankly, I was shocked to see his bust on a building outside the Louvre.

        4. Yeah, the only freedom he really took away was that of screwing the future of the entire country.

        5. I think that was the best thing ever, rationality before mysticism and emotion.
          This is exactly what current western societies needs, throw away the morality, emotion and muysticism of cultural marxism and replace it by rationality.
          2 + 2 = 4

    2. I agree with your take on the quality of writing, Jeeb, but there’s a silver lining in the fact that there are fewer comments: there are also fewer asinine comments. Quintus’ writing is among the best. Fortunately, the comments he provokes tend to be of a higher quality than those following more generic articles. Men attracted to ROK out of an interest in game or whatever will eventually run into articles like this and learn that there is far more to life than notches. I’m an optimist, at least in this regard. Quality over quantity.

    3. Articles like these don’t tend to attract the ignorant masses. Sadly, intellectualism and scholarly writing is not prized by the average man. But then, that perhaps is why he is average.

    4. Perhaps the reason many fail to comment is that in the presence of greatness an honest response is muted awe. QC’s articles always make me shake my head in wonder, nod in silence, and go discover more about the red pill truths he’s unearthed to vivid life from history’s bloody pages.

  2. Fantastic article. I haven’t thought about Richelieu since French class in high school, but I might have to pick up a book. You can plainly see his influence in the conditions building up to the tipping point of the revolution a century and a half later.
    “It is a question of breaking the neck of duels or of your Majesty’s edicts”

      1. I’m adding this to my reading list. I have long been puzzled by Richelieu. Some of his deeds give the impression that he did not care much for the more spiritual obligations of the cloth. Yet he woke every night at midnight to say his entire Office (which all clergy are bound by Divine Law to pray daily, though the Office is traditionally divided into eight separate services which are not usually prayed all at once). I have on several occasions recalled this fact, and have puzzled over what it says about the man. Up to now, I’ve only known *about* Richelieu. After reading his Testament, maybe I’ll have more insight into his character, and will better understand this element of his behaviour.

        1. It appears that he “checked the box” on his religious duties, but spent his days consolidating power for his sovereign, at the expense of his flock. We should all be so lucky to have a national spiritual leader who wants to trample us in the dust in exchange for personal power and the glory of “insert state here”.
          Because of Richelieu’s influence, France ceased trying to be just, Godly or do the right thing. Morality was no longer a factor. Power was the end state and justified the means. How many millions would suffer in the future when the traditional western rulers adopted his methods and abandoned their role as enlightened leaders and servants of the people? I feel like he greased up an already slippery slope.
          Yes, there were oppressive governments, tyrants and barbarians before him, but his methods caused a paradigm shift among the west’s leading lights. Western civilization suffered massively as a result.

  3. I may be seeing some character parallels between Richelieu & the later era Prussian-German statesman, Otto Von Bismarck. Can’t really remember now. I’m glad material like this makes me go back & read about these figures again.

    1. Reelpolitik. The use of power politics and a “realistic” approach that disdains ideological partisanship, idealism and such, in favour of ruthless pragmatism. This is what likens Bismarck to Richelieu.

  4. Thanks for this Article, I’m french and never got interested in history at school but this is interesting to read.

  5. Richelieu is the kind of man who would’ve put it in a cunt’s butt. No questions asked.

  6. It’s a pity men like Richelieu are so far and few between. Political realism is a requirement for effective rule, and it’s always amazed me how the west puts this down as not being “Idealistic enough”.

    1. On the contrary, the West (especially the USA) spends all its time lecturing other countries about “idealism and freedom and democracy,” then promptly turns around and funds autocratic puppet regimes that do the exact opposite of what the West says publicly.

  7. The difference between an authoritarian, Machiavellian realist and an authortarian idealist is that the realist produces something worthwhile as a tradeoff.
    Compared Richelieu to say, Robespierre and it becomes obvious. The cardinal may have been harsh, but he unified French power to become the dominant force on the continent. What did Robespierre’s extremism do? Make France even poorer than it had been under monarchy?
    This is the same thing that plays out in modern times. Your right-wing, hierarchical, capitalistic society has a chance to be successful, where as left-wing equalism fails right out of the gate. The very pinnacle of left-wing ideals is only mediocrity for all, and they’ve never even managed to attain that.

    1. You think a right-wing, hierarchical, capitalistic society is not as much of an empty ideal as a left-wing one? Dude, you gotta book yourself a trip to somalia one of these days. Libertarian paradise, or so I hear.

      1. There are quite a number of successful right-wing hierarchical, capitalistic societies.
        How many successful left-wing societies can you name?

      2. Nearly all of the Western world rose due to capitalism. Even China only started to grow in the 80s after it implemented a huge number of capital reforms to allow capitalism. Name me one system that improved with socialism? Capitalism isn’t perfect–especially with crony fascism like we see today–but its still by far the best of the bunch.
        You do realize one of the basic tenants of libertarianism is private property rights are respected and violent crime is the only thing you punish? Somalia does neither.

      3. Somalia is not a particularly ordered and hierarchical society, and thus capitalism is far from thriving there. It was managed by the UN in the middle of the century, and torn apart by warlords and civil wars since then. Islam, which dominates the country, is a radically authoritarian, left-wing religious ideology; even if its purely social morals are strict, they are not therefore “traditional” morals from the viewpoint of Western society (“traditional” and “strict” are not the same, and are often opposites). Rather, Islamic morality is not understood within a framework of divine law, but in the particularly Islamic understanding of Allah’s laws as being arbitrary and utterly incomprehensible by any creature, demanding a blind obedience to an authority which not only does not, but cannot, make an appeal to the human soul’s faculties of reason, will and desire. This is practically identical with left-wing ideology, which deconstructs any meaningful framework of transcendent morality, but then demands blind obedience to its moral whimsies. “Libertarian” it certainly is not. In fact, it is none of the things you described: neither right-wing, nor hierarchical, nor capitalist. Maybe you should stop getting your political talking points from Andy Cobb and the know-nothings at Huffpo.

    2. Liberalism brought us the weekend, 8 hour work days, child labor laws etc. The fact is if you see the world through the glasses that one side is completely right while the other is wrong than you are just a pawn of the powers that be.

      1. Not really. Judaism and Christianity brought you the weekend, which was being observed in Christian society long before liberalism was a factor.
        Classical Liberalism and what we now call “LIberalism” (in a rather Orwellian way) are not the same thing. Classical Liberalism by definition remains (somewhat) tethered to the natural law, and thus to conservative morality, and has indeed produced many good things. But what we call liberalism today, has long since been untethered from the natural law and has done nothing but pave the road to hell with good intentions. You could make the argument that Classical Liberalism gave us schools, child labor laws, etc., but modern liberalism gave us propagandizing school curricula, burdensome regulations, etc. For example, the traditional, conservative morality of Classical Liberalism said “don’t put those eight-year-olds in those dangerous coal mines for 14 hours a day.” Modern Liberalism says “don’t let those 14-year-olds bus dishes or help out on their own family’s farm!” This is a revolutionary, anti-traditional approach that actually undermines morality and child development.
        Modern liberalism is simply the playing out of a particularly bankrupt form of modernist thought to its own harsh and inevitable, logical conclusions. It likes to feel as though it is the continuation of a trajectory of classically liberal thought, but in reality we see that it is a form of deviant thought that was able to incubate well in the host of Classical Liberalism – better there, certainly, than in the traditional order of society – and which, as the course of history has rendered Classical Liberalism obsolete, can be seen to have never had any fundamental relationship to its principles at all.

  8. This fellow looks stone cold but get a few pints in him and I bet he has some good jokes.
    Seriously though, he’s one more example of why Game is NOT just for getting laid. I keep hoping that the concept of game breaks away from being wasted on narcissistic women and actually gets used by all men in their daily lives.

    1. Right. If nothing else, Richelieu had game. In a big way. He played everyone: the royal family, foreign dignitaries, nobles, aristocrats, Spain, the pope, etc.

  9. Quintus always treats us with top notch articles. This one is no exception, thanks.
    Sadly, the nation building Statesman of ‘Richelieu caliber’ is an extinct unicorn in our beleaguered times.
    We live in an era where state policy is made by The Cathedral based on polls, powerful lobbying interests and economic cost / benefit analyses that ultimately have nothing to do with enforcing and promoting a set of moral values or with building a better nation.
    Our modern system touts questionable ‘values’. It’s rigged and flawed and outright dangerous for many of its citizens. Some of the ‘values’ being promoted are:
    * a lack of real consideration for the human life (poisoning through pollution is ok, garbage food is ok, wars are ok not a racket)
    * consumerism (i.e. spending all your money on things you do not need such that you’ll have zero financial independence and be perpetually a serf – it’s ok to be a serf)
    * greed (such that, for example, taking things from people whose life depends on them for cents on the dollar becomes morally acceptable; it’s ok it’s just a trade)
    * a general degradation in socially accepted behavior, via media (it’s ok for teenage role models to twerk like whores in front of teenage semi-naked female audiences; this is ‘liberating’ and ok)
    * unhealthy habits not conducive to personal development
    * massive losses of individual freedoms (sold as ok)
    * narcissism (it’s ok to encourage it, out of ‘respect for the individual’; where narcissism is in actuality a personality disorder inflicting significant social damage to communities)
    Assuming such a rare animal will show up at some point, somewhere, how is an honest Statesman supposed to rule in modern times, in earnest, over a society where the majority is actually not doing well and has little prospects of improvement under the existing status quo?

  10. Great article…. concise and gives the reader a taste for more… I’ll be boning up on Richelieu soon…..

  11. Quintus left out an essential point: Richelieu was utterly alpha in his dealings with women.
    It is told that once, Richelieu came upon his mistress while she was fucking another man, he unintentionally walked in on them in the act. With an air of mild annoyance, he said: “Madame, you really need to be more careful. What if it would have been someone else than me entering now?”.
    Yeah. A woman he had an intimate relationship with had jumped into bed with another man. Granted, her relationship with Richelieu was illicit to begin with, but still. And he reacted not with anger, heartbreak, contempt or anything of the sort, but rather with a mild annoyance, as if she had just done an inoffensive minor screwup, showing (in Game terms) outcome indifference like a boss.
    As a woman who had managed to become the mistress of one of the most powerful men in the country, probably only second to a royal mistress, she might have thought her pussy had magical powers to ensnare men. I bet she had no such illusions after this incident.

  12. Great job on this.
    It’s really sad to see what happened to France. From 1589 to 1723 it was blessed with a string of competent, capable, visionary leaders the likes of which perhaps had not been seen since Rome’s “Five Good Emperors.”
    And then starting with the reign of Louis XV (after the regency ended) France degenerated and hasn’t shone as brightly since, as is often the case. Perhaps the best question to ask is – what ultimately causes the degeneration in the leaders of a society, often after a period of greatness?

  13. Henry Kissinger has a chapter on Richelieu in his book Diplomacy. It’s a solid read all the way, but the chapter on Richelieu is one of the best in the book.

  14. Richelieu was a hoss. House of cards ain’t got nothing on the stuff he pulled.
    Sadly, my humanities professor gave him the token treatment before moving on. It wasn’t until Great Power Diplomacy that I got a good look into what exactly he was all about, and realized how negligent the previous professor was. European history, nay world history, would be radically different without him.
    Stellar as always QC

  15. Any article about Richelieu which fails to mention The Thirty Year War, and his role in it, is incomplete. It’s been termed a war between the Scarlet and the Gray. Richelieu was the Scarlet. Ruthless does not begin to describe the absolute carnage of this war. Many provinces in Germany lost a third or more of their population in a savage war of attrition. Christianity basically imploded in Europe as a result and was never quite the same afterward. Not even WWII approached the levels of depopulation of this war.

  16. Our current system seems to be rapidly degrading into a global feudal system under the international banks and their board members. This seems to be the system of choice for those who like to rule over us.

  17. One of my favorite quotations from him: “I don’t have enemies, France has enemies”

  18. Yet another excellent article. Richelieu was one of a kind in time dominated by weak-willed tyrants and pointless internecine conflict. As a suggestion, would you consider writing your next article on the dynamics between Henry II and Thomas Becket?
    I believe the interplay between these two eminent men of history would be most edifying.

  19. Above all Richelieu was a patriot. He did everything for the advancement of France and not self enrichment or fame. No one like him now in the USA . All our pols are attention whoring greedy fucks…

    1. Hurray for France! Never mind the French people, they are only servants to be tread upon and used up for the glory of France.
      Richelieu is EXACTLY the kind of pol we suffer from now. We started a new country on a entirely different continent to get away from the Richelieus of the world.

  20. The cardinal, he has the face of a man who craves the exotic taste of french quisine. I bet he screwed the queen. He had to, judging by his personna. He grabbed her by the labe and gnarled on that thing. The wood soap and lavender oils back then were all there were for fumigating even a royal hole. But he held her stiff by the horn till she orged from crown to toe, levitating her like a penn and teller show, and all the while downloading onto her his edicts, his plans and her role. Damn he was good. Even if he flat out raped her, she wanted it. He played her like a champ.

  21. Quintus delivers again with another well-written article which adds a more mature flavor to the ROK site. I love the way your articles encourage wisdom in life from a battered and tested historical perspective instead of just the contemporary simplistic definitions of game, success, money and so on. Keep em coming brother.

  22. In that picture above “Richelieu at La Rochelle”,
    what are those structures to the right side of the picture?

    1. I’m not sure, but they may have something to do with the siege works he erected around the city. Or they may be some sort of structure related to the blocking of the harbor with a “mole.”

  23. “Of the many leadership traits, willpower has special significance.
    Difficult to describe, it is best illustrated by historical example,
    rather than by general discussion”
    Willpower is the combination of determination and a healthy body, specifically a healthy adrenal function.

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