Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

The Minister — The Cardinal Duke of Richelieu.

Richelieu was the greatest of statesmen, if he who maintains himself by the greatest power is necessarily the greatest minister. He was called “the King of the King.” After having long tormented himself and France, he left a great name and a great empire — both alike the victims of splendid ambition! Neither this great minister nor this great nation tasted of happiness under his mighty administration. He had, indeed, a heartlessness in his conduct which obstructed by no relentings those remorseless decisions which made him terrible. But, while he trode down the princes of the blood and the nobles, and drove his patroness, the queen-mother, into a miserable exile, and contrived that the king should fear and hate his brother, and all the cardinal-duke chose, Richelieu was grinding the face of the poor by exorbitant taxation, and converted every town in France into a garrison; it was said of him, that he never liked to be in any place where he was not the strongest. “The commissioners of the exchequer and the commanders of the army believe themselves called to a golden harvest; and in the interim the cardinal is charged with the sins of all the world, and is even afraid of his life.” Thus Grotius speaks, in one of his letters, of the miserable situation of this great minister, in his account of the court of France in 1635, when he resided there as Swedish ambassador. Yet such is the delusion of these great politicians, who consider what they term state-interests as paramount to all other duties, human or divine, that while their whole life is a series of oppression, of troubles, of deceit, and of cruelty, their state-conscience finds nothing to reproach itself with. Of any other conscience it seems absolutely necessary that they should be divested. Richelieu, on his death-bed, made a solemn protestation, appealing to the last judge of man, who was about to pronounce his sentence, that he never proposed anything but for the good of religion and the state; that is, the Catholic religion and his own administration. When Louis the Thirteenth, who visited him in his last moments, took from the hand of an attendant a plate with two yolks of eggs, that the King of France might himself serve his expiring minister, Richelieu died in all the self-delusion of a great minister.

The sinister means he practised, and the political deceptions he contrived, do not yield in subtilty to the dark grandeur of his ministerial character. It appears that, at a critical moment, when he felt the king’s favour was wavering, he secretly ordered a battle to be lost by the French, to determine the king at once not to give up a minister who, he knew, was the only man who could extricate him out of this new difficulty. In our great civil war, this minister pretended to Charles the First that he was attempting to win the parliament over to him, while he was backing their most secret projects against Charles. When a French ambassador addressed the parliament as an independent power, after the king had broken with it, Charles, sensibly affected, remonstrated with the French court; the minister disavowed the whole proceeding, and instantly recalled the ambassador, while at the very moment his secret agents were, to their best, embroiling the affairs of both parties.1 The object of Richelieu was to weaken the English monarchy, so as to busy itself at home, and prevent its fleets and its armies thwarting his projects on the Continent, lest England, jealous of the greatness of France, should declare itself for Spain the moment it had recovered its own tranquillity. This is a stratagem too ordinary with great ministers, those plagues of the earth, who, with their state-reasons, are for cutting as many throats as God pleases among every other nation.2

A fragment of the secret history of this great minister may be gathered from that of some of his confidential agents. One exposes an invention of this minister’s to shorten his cabinet labours, and to have at hand a screen, when that useful contrivance was requisite; the other, the terrific effects of an agent setting up to be a politician on his own account, against that of his master.

Richelieu’s confessor was one Father Joseph; but this man was designed to be employed rather in state-affairs, than in those which concerned his conscience. This minister, who was never a penitent, could have none. Father Joseph had a turn for political negotiation, otherwise he had not been the cardinal’s confessor; but this turn was of that sort, said the nuncio Spada, which was adapted to follow up to the utmost the views and notions of the minister, rather than to draw the cardinal to his, or to induce him to change a tittle of his designs. The truth is, that Father Joseph preferred going about in his chariot on ministerial missions, rather than walking solitarily to his convent, after listening to the unmeaning confessions of Cardinal Richelieu. He made himself so intimately acquainted with the plans and the will of this great minister, that he could venture at a pinch to act without orders: and foreign affairs were particularly consigned to his management. Grotius, when Swedish ambassador, knew them both. Father Joseph, he tells us, was employed by Cardinal Richelieu to open negotiations, and put them in a way to succeed to his mind, and then the cardinal would step in, and undertake the finishing himself. Joseph took businesses in hand when they were green, and, after ripening them, he handed them over to the cardinal. In a conference which Grotius held with the parties, Joseph began the treaty, and bore the brunt of the first contest. After a warm debate, the cardinal interposed as arbitrator: “A middle way will reconcile you,” said the minister, “and as you and Joseph can never agree, I will now make you friends.”3

That this was Richelieu’s practice, appears from another similar personage mentioned by Grotius, but one more careless and less cunning. When the French ambassador, Leon Brulart, assisted by Joseph, concluded at Ratisbon a treaty with the emperor’s ambassador, on its arrival the cardinal unexpectedly disapproved of it, declaring that the ambassador had exceeded his instructions. But Brulart, who was an old statesman, and Joseph, to whom the cardinal confided his most secret views, it was not supposed could have committed such a gross error; and it was rather believed that the cardinal changed his opinions with the state of affairs, wishing for peace or war as they suited the French interests, or as he conceived they tended to render his administration necessary to the crown.4 When Brulart, on his return from his embassy, found this outcry raised against him, and not a murmur against Joseph, he explained the mystery; the cardinal had raised this clamour against him merely to cover the instructions which he had himself given, and which Brulart was convinced he had received, through his organ, Father Joseph; a man, said he, who has nothing of the Capuchin but the frock, and nothing of the Christian but the name: a mind so practised in artifices, that he could do nothing without deception: and during the whole of the Ratisbon negotiation, Brulart discovered that Joseph would never communicate to him any business till the whole was finally arranged: the sole object of his pursuit was to find means to gratify the cardinal. Such free sentiments nearly cost Brulart his head: for once in quitting the cardinal in warmth, the minister following him to the door, and passing his hand over the other’s neck, observed, that “Brulart was a fine man, and it would be a pity to divide the head from the body.”

One more anecdote of this good father Joseph, the favourite instrument of the most important and covert designs of this minister, has been preserved in the Memorie Recondite of Vittorio Siri,5 an Italian Abbé, the Procopius of France, but afterwards pensioned by Mazarin. Richelieu had in vain tried to gain over Colonel Ornano, a man of talents, the governor of Monsieur, the only brother of Louis XIII.; not accustomed to have his offers refused, he resolved to ruin him. Joseph was now employed to contract a particular friendship with Ornano, and to suggest to him, that it was full time that his pupil should be admitted into the council, to acquire some political knowledge. The advancement of Ornano’s royal pupil was his own; and as the king had no children, the crown might descend to Monsieur. Ornano therefore took the first opportunity to open himself to the king, on the propriety of initiating his brother into affairs, either in council, or by a command in the army. This the king, as usual, immediately communicated to the cardinal, who was well prepared to give the request the most odious turn, and to alarm his majesty with the character of Ornano, who, he said, was inspiring the young prince with ambitious thoughts — that the next step would be an attempt to share the crown itself with his majesty. The cardinal foresaw how much Monsieur would be offended by the refusal and would not fail to betray his impatience, and inflame the jealousy of the king. Yet Richelieu bore still an open face and friendly voice for Ornano, whom he was every day undermining in the king’s favour, till all terminated in a pretended conspiracy, and Ornano perished in the Bastile, of a fever, at least caught there:— so much for the friendship of Father Joseph! And by such men and such means the astute minister secretly threw a seed of perpetual hatred between the royal brothers, producing conspiracies often closing in blood, which only his own haughty tyranny had provoked.

Father Joseph died regretted by Richelieu; he was an ingenious sort of a creature, and kept his carriage to his last day, but his name is only preserved in secret histories. The fate of Father Caussin, the author of the “Cours Sainte,” a popular book among the Catholics for its curious religious stories, and whose name is better known than Father Joseph’s, shows how this minister could rid himself of father confessors who persisted, according to their own notions, to be honest men, in spite of the minister. This piece of secret history is drawn from a narrative manuscript which Caussin left addressed to the general of the Jesuits.6

Richelieu chose Father Caussin for the king’s confessor, and he had scarcely entered his office when the cardinal informed him of the king’s romantic friendship for Mademoiselle La Fayette, of whom the cardinal was extremely jealous. Desirous of getting rid altogether of this sort of tender connexion, he hinted to the new confessor that, however innocent it might be, it was attended with perpetual danger, which the lady herself acknowledged, and, warm with “all the motions of grace,” had declared her intention to turn “Religieuse;” and that Caussin ought to dispose the king’s mind to see the wisdom of the resolution. It happened, however, that Caussin considered that this lady, whose zeal for the happiness of the people was well known, might prove more serviceable at court than in a cloister, so that the good father was very inactive in the business, and the minister began to suspect that he had in hand an instrument not at all fitted to it like Father Joseph.

“The motions of grace” were, however, more active than the confessor, and Mademoiselle retired to a monastery. Richelieu learned that the king had paid her a visit of three hours, and he accused Caussin of encouraging these secret interviews. This was not denied, but it was adroitly insinuated that it was prudent not abruptly to oppose the violence of the king’s passion, which seemed reasonable to the minister. The king continued these visits, and the lady, in concert with Caussin, impressed on the king the most unfavourable sentiments of the minister, the tyranny exercised over the exiled queen mother and the princes of the blood;7 the grinding taxes he levied on the people, his projects of alliance with the Turk against the Christian sovereigns, &c. His majesty sighed: he asked Caussin if he could name any one capable of occupying the minister’s place? Our simple politician had not taken such a consideration in his mind. The king asked Caussin whether he would meet Richelieu face to face? The Jesuit was again embarrassed, but summoned up the resolution with equal courage and simplicity.

Caussin went for the purpose: he found the king closeted with the minister; the conference was long, from which Caussin augured ill. He himself tells us, that, weary of waiting in the ante-chamber, he contrived to be admitted into the presence of the king, when he performed his promise. But the case was altered! Caussin had lost his cause before he pleaded it, and Richelieu had completely justified himself to the king. The good father was told that the king would not perform his devotions that day, and that he might return to Paris. The next morning the whole affair was cleared up. An order from court prohibited this voluble Jesuit either from speaking or writing to any person; and farther, drove him away in an inclement winter, sick in body and at heart, till he found himself an exile on the barren rocks of Quimper in Brittany, where, among the savage inhabitants, he was continually menaced by a prison or a gallows, which the terrific minister lost no opportunity to place before his imagination; and occasionally despatched a Paris Gazette, which distilled the venom of Richelieu’s heart, and which, like the eagle of Prometheus, could gnaw at the heart of the insulated politician chained to his rock.8

Such were the contrasted fates of Father Joseph and Father Caussin! the one, the ingenious creature, the other, the simple oppositionist of this great minister.

1 Clarendon details the political coquetries of Monsieur La Ferté; his “notable familiarity with those who governed most in the two houses;” ii. 93.

2 Hume seems to have discovered in “Estrades’ Memoirs” the real occasion of Richelieu’s conduct. In 1639 the French and Dutch proposed dividing the Low Country provinces; England was to stand neuter. Charles replied to D’Estrades, that his army and fleet should instantly sail to prevent these projected conquests. From that moment the intolerant ambition of Richelieu swelled the venom of his heart, and he eagerly seized on the first opportunity of supplying the Covenanters in Scotland with arms and money. Hume observes, that Charles here expressed his mind with an imprudent candour; but it proves he had acquired a just idea of national interest, vi. 337. See on this a very curious passage in the Catholic Dodd’s “Church History,” iii. 22. He apologises for his cardinal by asserting that the same line of policy was pursued here in England “by Charles I. himself, who sent fleets and armies to assist the Huguenots, or French rebels, as he calls them; and that this was the constant practice of Queen Elizabeth’s ministry, to foment differences in several neighbouring kingdoms, and support their rebellious subjects, as the forces she employed for that purpose both in France, Flanders, and Scotland, are an undeniable proof.” The recriminations of politicians are the confessions of great sinners.

3 “Grotii Epistolæ,” 375 and 380, fo. Ams. 1687. A volume which contains 2500 letters of this great man.

4 “La Vie du Cardinal Duc de Richelieu,” anonymous, but written by Jean le Clerc, vol. i. 507. An impartial but heavy life of a great minister, of whom, between the panegyrics of his flatterers and the satires of his enemies, it was difficult to discover a just medium.

5 Mem. Rec. vol. vi. 131.

6 It is quoted in the “Remarques Critiques sur le Dictionnaire de Bayle,” Paris, 1748. This anonymous folio volume was written by Le Sieur Joly, a canon of Dijon, and is full of curious researches, and many authentic discoveries. The writer is no philosopher, but he corrects and adds to the knowledge of Bayle. Here I found some original anecdotes of Hobbes, from MS. sources, during that philosopher’s residence at Paris, which I have given in “Quarrels of Authors.”

7 Montresor, attached to the Duke of Orleans, has left us some very curious memoirs, in two small volumes; the second preserving many historical documents of that active period. This spirited writer has not hesitated to detail his projects for the assassination of the tyrannical minister.

8 At page 154 of this work is a different view of the character of this extraordinary man: those anecdotes are of a lighter and satirical nature; they touch on “the follies of the wise.”

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