Cardinal Richelieu (as Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu et de Fronsac is commonly known) is renowned in popular culture as the villain antagonist in Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. In truth, he was a very successful leader who helped transform the government. Famed as l’Eminence Rouge (“the Red Eminence”) in his flowing scarlet robes and his imperious manner, he was much more than just a clergyman; he was also a nobleman and a statesman who rose to the position of Chief Minister of France, with powers almost equal to those of King Louis XIII. Today, he is often seen as the world’s first ever Prime Minister.
Armand Jean du Plessis was born in Paris to a family of lesser nobility; his father Francois was a soldier and courtier who served as the Grand Provost of France. He was sent to the College of Navarre to study philosophy at the tender age of nine, and then he was sent to train in the military, but everything changed in 1506 when King Henry IV nominated him for the Bishopric of Lucon. Du Plessis was still under the official minimum age to be consecrated as a Bishop, so he had to travel to Rome to ask the Pope for a special dispensation, which he was granted. After that, his rise through the ranks of government and clergy was stratospheric; he became Secretary of State in 1616, Cardinal in 1622, and on 13 August 1624 he was appointed Chief Minister of France.
While in power, Richelieu restrained the power of the feudal French nobility. He abolished the position of Constable of France and had many of their fortified castles razed; he subdued the rebellious Protestant Huguenot faction by attacking them at La Rochelle; and consolidated royal authority and centralised government, preparing the ground for the absolute monarchy that soon followed.
Richelieu also cultivated alliances—very pragmatically, with Protestant as well as Catholic rulers—and strategies that eventually helped to ensure French supremacy in the Thirty Years War that engulfed Europe. Although the war continued after his death on 4 December 1642, he had transformed it from a battle between Catholicism and Protestantism to a struggle against the hegemony of the Hapsburg dynasty that ruled Austria and Spain.
Although the French Enlightenment writer Voltaire argued that Richelieu only started wars to make himself indispensable to the King, his foreign policy was actually rather a success. When the hostilities of the Thirty Years War finally ended in 1648, France was on the rise and the Holy Roman Empire was falling apart, and Louis XIV was perfectly positioned to become the most powerful ruler in all of Europe.
After his death, Cardinal Richelieu quite literally lost face. He was embalmed and interred in the Church of the Sorbonne, and during this process the front of his head was removed and then replaced. During the French Revolution his corpse was exhumed, and his embalmed face was stolen from his grave; it somehow ended up in the hands of a family in Brittany, who would occasionally exhibit it or lend it out for study. Finally, in 1886 Napoleon III persuaded them to return Richelieu’s face, and had it returned to his body in its underground tomb. In 1895 the grave was excavated once again as part of an investigation into subsidence in the church, and a photograph was taken of his disembodied, mummified face, which is fixed with a ghostly smile.