Reign of Louis XIII

King Louis XIII’s government, under the leadership of Cardinal de Richelieu, laid the foundations of royal absolutism, economic development, and French military hegemony in Europe. The government also patronized artists and writers and established the French Academy to standardize the French language.

Summary of Event

In 1610, the assassination of King Henry IV Henry IV (king of France) plunged France into a period of political instability, religious quarrels, and aristocratic rebellion. The new monarch, Louis XIII, was only nine years old. His mother, Marie de Médicis Marie de Médicis , despite her sympathies with the Spanish Habsburg Dynasty (she sought alliances with them), controlled the government as regent. Her pro-Spanish sentiments presented problems and alienated the king and the French people because France had been at war with the Habsburgs for more than a century. [kw]Reign of Louis XIII (1610-1643)
[kw]Louis XIII, Reign of (1610-1643)
Government and politics;1610-1643: Reign of Louis XIII[0560]
Economics;1610-1643: Reign of Louis XIII[0560]
Cultural and intellectual history;1610-1643: Reign of Louis XIII[0560]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1610-1643: Reign of Louis XIII[0560]
France;1610-1643: Reign of Louis XIII[0560]
Louis XIII

The Queen Mother rebuilt the Luxemburg Palace and hired Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens Rubens, Peter Paul to paint twenty-one portraits of the royal family. She showed little affection for her son, however, who spent much of his time on hunting excursions with his falconer, Charles d’Albert, duke de Luynes Luynes, duke de . At the age of fourteen, Louis was obliged to enter into a political marriage with Anne of Austria Anne of Austria , daughter of the king of Spain.

The great nobles and the judges of the courts took advantage of the weakness of the Crown to assert their independent powers. Attempting to rally support for the Crown, Anne in 1614 called a meeting of the Estates-General, the national representative assembly. Some of the delegates to the assembly hoped it might acquire powers like those of England’s Parliament, but the conflicts among its three social orders—clergy, nobility, and middle-class commoners—prevented it from getting institutional vetoes over taxes or spending.

During her regency, Marie de Médicis turned over many governmental functions to her Italian favorite, Concino Concini, Concini, Concino marquis d’Ancre. She also relied on the assistance of Cardinal de Richelieu Richelieu, Cardinal de;Marie de Médicis and (Armand-Jean du Plessis), the young bishop of Luçon and an efficient administrator who had trained for a military career before entering the priesthood. In November, 1616, Richelieu was named secretary of state for foreign affairs. By then, however, Louis was becoming dissatisfied with the situation. In April of 1617, encouraged and assisted by the duke de Luynes, he arranged the assassination of the unpopular Concini. The police and courts quickly accepted claims of Concini’s treason, despite a lack of evidence. Louis sent his mother into exile under house arrest in Bloise, and he also dismissed Richelieu, who temporarily returned to his bishopric tasks.

For the next four years, Louis’s chief adviser was the duke de Luynes, who was promoted to constable of the country. After Luynes reduced the pensions of the nobles, they revolted and rescued the Queen Mother. Luynes defeated the nobles in battle and then ended the rebellion by negotiations. Like most rulers of the century, Louis and Luynes assumed that religious unity was necessary for public order. When Luynes tried to restore Catholicism to Navarre and other regions of France, the Protestant Huguenots Huguenots;revolt of (1625-1628) revolted. Luynes led successful campaigns against them in 1620 and 1621. Following Luynes’s death, the principal government adviser was Charles de La Vieuville, La Vieuville, Charles de the superintendent of finance.

After reconciling with his mother in 1621, Louis readmitted Richelieu into his government. Richelieu became a cardinal and joined the royal council in 1624. After La Vieuville’s disgrace, the ambitious cardinal emerged as the dominant minister in the government—a position he would hold until his death eighteen years later. Although Louis allowed Richelieu a great deal of discretion, he usually oversaw the overall direction of governmental policies, rarely allowing his minister to forget who was king.

Richelieu’s memoirs and political testament (both probably compiled by assistants) indicate that his policies included three major objectives: to deprive the French Protestants (Huguenots) of their fortresses, to reduce the independence of the great nobles, and to check the power of the Habsburgs in Germany, Spain, and Italy. Although he sometimes spoke of France’s natural borders (the Rhine River, Alps, and Pyrenees), he was primarily concerned with securing strategic bridgeheads for protection against external enemies.

Louis XIII.

(Library of Congress)

At home, Richelieu soon faced the challenge of overcoming a series of insurrections. In 1626, a revolt of nobles involved the king’s younger bother and heir, Gaston d’Orléans Orléans, Gaston d’ . Richelieu reacted ruthlessly, executing one conspirator, Henri de Talleyrand Talleyrand, Henri de . The Huguenot insurrections were even more dangerous. In October of 1628, royal troops captured the fortress port at La Rochelle La Rochelle, Siege of (1627-1628) . Once Richelieu captured their southern strongholds, the resulting Peace of Alais (1629) Alais, Peace of (1629) deprived the Huguenots of military power, while allowing them limited freedom to exercise their religion. Ignoring religion in his foreign policy, he intervened militarily in the duchy of Mantua in an effort to oppose Habsburg power in northern Italy.

Richelieu’s policies of allowing religious freedom for Protestants and opposing the Habsburgs infuriated the French ultra-Catholics, called devots. The Queen Mother, who had close ties with them, turned against the cardinal. In 1630, during a life-threatening illness, Louis XIII yielded to his mother’s pressures and promised to dismiss Richelieu. After the famous Day of Dupes Dupes, Day of (1630) (November 10), however, Louis recovered and decided to retain Richelieu. The Queen Mother fled into the arms of France’s enemies in the Spanish Netherlands. Gaston also fled into exile, and two years later he invaded France with foreign troops. The governor of Languedoc, Duke Henri de Montmorency, Montmorency, Henri de joined the invasion, but Richelieu’s forces prevailed. Montmorency was executed and others on his side were brutally punished.

With his belief in royal absolutism and the divine rights of kings, Richelieu would not tolerate illegal acts or opposition to the regime. He insisted that the death penalty for dueling be enforced. When the abbot of Saint-Cyran, a leader of the Jansenist movement, criticized French foreign policy for not supporting international Catholicism, the cardinal had him imprisoned for nearly a decade. Often he commissioned the sinister baron Jean Martin de Laubardemont Laubardemont, Jean Martin de as a special prosecutor against opponents of the regime, as in the Loudun witch trial of Urbain Grandier, Grandier, Urbain who was an opponent of royal policies.

As the Thirty Years’ War Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648);Richelieu and progressed, Richelieu expanded his efforts to check the power of the Habsburgs. He did not hesitate to subsidize Protestant leaders, such as Swedish king Gustavus II Adolphus Gustavus II Adolphus . In 1635, France formally declared war against Spain. After some initial reverses, French troops won a series of significant victories. By 1640, they were in possession of Alsace, Artois, and other regions that they would acquire in treaties of 1648 (Peace of Westphalia Westphalia, Peace of (1648) ) and 1659 (Treaty of the Pyrenees Pyrenees, Treaty of the (1659) ). Richelieu’s military operations were extremely expensive, however. In order to raise money, he resorted to a variety of means, including skyrocketing taxation, loans, and the sale of offices.

In industrial policy, Richelieu supported mercantilist Mercantilism;France schemes to make France self-sufficient. He constructed a network of canals and established commercial companies to trade overseas, especially in Canada. An enthusiastic builder, he renovated the palace at Fontainbleau and constructed a number of famous buildings, including the large residential complex, the Palace Cardinal, now called the Palace Royale. Architecture;France His educational projects included the beginning of the College du Plessis and enlargement of the Sorbonne. Education;France

In this age of outstanding cultural accomplishments, Richelieu used both his own great wealth and funds of the state to patronize an exceptionally large number of artists, architects, playwrights, and philosophers. Art patronage;France For instance, he sponsored the so-called Society of Five Authors Society of Five Authors , of whom the most famous was dramatist Pierre Corneille, Corneille, Pierre author of Le Cid (1636-1637; The Cid
Cid, The (Corneille) , 1637). The artists he patronized included Louis Le Nain Le Nain, Louis , who painted the realistic life of peasants; Jacques Callot, Callot, Jacques who realistically depicted the miseries of warfare; Georges de La Tour, La Tour, Georges de who emphasized religious themes; and painter Philippe de Champaigne, Champaigne, Philippe de who produced many portraits of the period. Among philosophers, Richelieu supported René Descartes Descartes, René , perhaps the most influential philosopher of the period; Marin Mersenne, Mersenne, Marin defender of orthodox Christianity; Pierre Gassendi, Gassendi, Pierre who did much to popularize Epicurean ethics; and Tommaso Campanella, Campanella, Tommaso who had spent many years in Italian prisons for his unorthodox views.

Throughout his tenure, Richelieu never lost sight of his long-term objective of concentrating as much authority as possible into institutions controlled by the Crown. In 1635, he established the French Academy French Academy in an effort to bring about national standards for a common language throughout the kingdom. Also, he began to strengthen the royal agents in the provinces by making them permanent residents, called intendants, with authority to supervise the police force under French marshals. He also spent considerable funds for an informal system of spies to provide information about possible threats to the Crown. He easily prevented a calling of the Estates-General, but to limit the powers of the powerful courts, called parlements, was more difficult. He particularly opposed their traditional practice of making remonstrances, or formal protests, of royal edicts, and by 1641, he had temporarily checked this power.

Louis XIII never had a very close relationship with Queen Anne. Early in the reign he was greatly disappointed by her three miscarriages. With age, the king had a series of platonic as well as sexual relationships with both women and men. After he learned of Anne’s indiscretions with the duke of Buckingham in 1625, he avoided her company. During the war with the Habsburgs in the 1630’, her continuing association with the enemy was an additional source of hostility. Richelieu had her interrogated and closely supervised. In December of 1637, however, a storm reportedly obliged the king to stay with Anne in the Louvre, apparently resulting in the birth of the future king Louis XIV Louis XIV .

After 1639, the king’s favorite was a young courtier, Henri Coeffier-Ruzé d’Effiat Coeffier-Ruzé d’Effiat, Henri , marquis de Cinq-Mars. Richelieu’s spies discovered that Coeffier-Ruzé d’Effiat had entered into a conspiracy with Gaston and Habsburg agents. On September 12, 1642, at Richelieu’s insistence, the marquis was executed, and his death produced coolness between the king and his minister. Three months later, Richelieu died from overwork and chronic illness, and the king died of tuberculosis on May 14, 1643. Four-year-old Louis XIV inherited the throne. Anne of Austria assumed the powers of the regency. As chief administrator, she relied on another strong cardinal, Jules Mazarin, Mazarin, Jules who had been trained by Richelieu.


Encouraged by Louis XIII, Cardinal de Richelieu initiated a process of centralization that later developed into a system of near-absolute monarchy during the reign of Louis XIV. The cardinal’s accomplishments included the limitations on the parlements and the establishment of residential intendants in the provinces. In the realm of religious unity, Richelieu’s subduing of the Protestants made it possible for Louis XIV in 1685 to abolish religious freedom for Protestants.

The Battle of Rocroi, which occurred shortly after the deaths of Louis XIII, usually is considered to have inaugurated French military domination of Europe. Although Louis XIII’s reign was less spectacular than that of his son, it was a part of France’s Great Century, with impressive accomplishments in economic development and cultural achievements.

Further Reading

  • Bercé, Yves-Marie. The Birth of Absolutism: A History of France, 1598-1661. Translated by Richard Rex. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Bercé argues that absolutism was a modern creation growing out of the disorders and political conflict of the period.
  • Bergin, Joseph. The Rise of Richelieu. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. A detailed account of the cardinal’s early career until his joining the royal council in 1624.
  • Church, William. Richelieu and Reasons of State. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972. A scholarly work dealing with how the cardinal tried to harmonize his ideals of a Christian statesman with the exigencies of a monarchical system.
  • Hayden, J. Michael. France and the Estates General of 1614. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1974. A scholarly monograph that provides an excellent analysis about why the Estates-General failed to meet again until 1789.
  • Knecht, Robert. Richelieu. London: Longman, 1991. An outstanding synthesis of the cardinal’s life and career, especially good on the topics of absolutism and the patronage of the arts. Highly recommended.
  • Marvick, Elizabeth. Louis XIII: The Making of a King. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. A detailed account of the king’s complex personality and his life before the coup of 1617.
  • Moote, A. Lloyd. Louis XIII, the Just. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. A controversial work because of its thesis that Louis was an efficient monarch and more intelligent than usually thought. Moote includes interesting information about the king’s personal life.
  • Ranum, Orest. Richelieu and the Councilors of Louis XIII. London: Oxford University Press, 1963. A standard and useful work that describes the internal workings of Louis’s government.
  • Rapley, Robert. Case of Witchcraft: The Trial of Urbain Grandier. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queens University Press, 1998. The story of a famous witch trial that reveals much about the judicial system of the time and Richelieu’s ruthlessness in dealing with his enemies.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Anne of Austria; Jacques Callot; Tommaso Campanella; Charles I; Jean-Baptiste Colbert; The Great Condé; Pierre Corneille; René Descartes; Pierre Gassendi; Gustavus II Adolphus; Cornelius Otto Jansen; Georges de La Tour; Louis XIII; Louis XIV; Marie de Médicis; Marin Mersenne; Jules Mazarin; Axel Oxenstierna; Philip IV; Cardinal de Richelieu; Urban VIII. Louis XIII