In 1621, Armand-Jean du Plessis, then only Bishop of Luçon, bought the Seigneurie of Richelieu for the sum of 79,000 livres. The mediocrity of the manor and hence the revenues that it produced, did not really justify this action which the future Cardinal Richelieu had done for solely sentimental reasons; the glory of the name and the desire to win fame for his family gave him from this early period the idea of re-shaping the existing buildings. However it wasn't until 1624 that Richelieu, having by then become Cardinal and First Minister, found himself in the position to actually carry out the proposed works. But once the preparations were in place, the project was very efficient and things went forward very quickly. In 1625 Jacques Lemercier got Richelieu's approval for the designs of a vast palace; four master-masons and an entrepreneur-developer from Tours are given the responsibility of carrying out the works. In the period 1625-1626 alone, the Cardinal spends 24,595 livres on the construction of the new château.
At the end of 1626, Richelieu comes on site to take stock of the progress of the works. Apparently the project has already advanced a long way, as the Cardinal is preoccupied with the decorations. But the buildings which were then under construction only constitute the first phase of the realisation of the magnificent castle that the Cardinal is soon going to decide to construct on the site. In effect, the new visit to the estate at Richelieu in 1627 convinces Armand Jean du Plessis of the neccessity of a greater scope and amplitude to his projects. The siege of La Rochelle, the war in Italy, the difficulties in disputes around Marie de Medici do not prevent him from leading - at the same time - the enlargement of his estates and the construction works on the large castle that he has now decided to build there. In 1628, Richelieu buys the estates of Mirebeau. This acquisition is follwed up in 1635 by purchases of the lands of l'Ile-Bouchard, the lordship of Faye-la-Vineuse, of Champigny-sur-Veude and the Seigneurie of Chinon. After the month of August 1631, the Seigneurie of Richelieu has a strong allure; now Louis XIII has elevated the estate to have 'Duke and Peer' status. Acquisitions and works are carried out without a break. The site at Richelieu occupies the efforts of several hundred workmen.
The new buildngs that are rising on the banks of the Mable river are isolated, far from other towns. The closest village, at a distance of four miles, is that of Braye, a tiny parish of which the church had seen the boy Richelieu with his mother, brothers and sisters on Sunday at mass. The Cardinal now wishes a real town to be at the gates of his castle. A few weeks after the elevation of the Seigneurie to 'Duke and Peer' status, the King, by letters patent, authorises Richelieu to create a walled town 'which in the future will perpetuate his name with the memory of his generous and prudent actions and faithful services'. In order to attract inhabitants, he institutes four fairs a year: they take place on the day of Quasimodo (first Sunday after Easter), the 4 July, the day of Saint-Remy and the King's day. In addition, makets are to be held each week on Monday and Friday. The Cardinal sees himself permitted to to construct the market halle, the shops and all the buildings and facilities necessary for the use of business. The inhabitants of the town enjoy a total tax exemption until the completion of the first one hundred houses. After that, they will pay two hundred livres a year which will be levied on the complete community: 'the strong carrying the weak'. The King's decision was enacted on 13 December 1631 in the Chambre des Comptes, and in January 1632 in the Cour des Aides.
From now on, to the works at the castle are added those of the new town of Richelieu. The building site brings together more than 2,000 workmen. The channelled Mable river crosses the park of the château before providing to water to the moat that girdles the town, following the strict framework of a rectangle of 700 metres by 500 metres - 350 toises long by 250 toises wide. Who will live in this town? The cardinal does not preoccupy himself with this for the time being. At the moment, his wish is to give form to the little city without waiting for the arrival of the first inhabitants. In addition to the public buildings, the Cardinal builds a number of houses along the Grand Rue which marks the main axis of the town. All his allies, friends and 'creatures', as well as the entrepreneurs charged with the works, are actively encouraged to proceed in the same way. The one most pressured to make his 'court' with the Cardinal is Maréchal d'Effiat, Minister of Finance. Soon Chancellor Bouthillier imitates him; his house was at number 6 in the Grande Rue. Thiriot, the master-mason who had constructed the marvellous dyke during the siege of La Rochelle, directs the works at the Cité du Cardinal; he too does not delay to follow into the steps of Bouthillier; likewise Le Masle after him, and others as well. In 1633, Cardinal de Sourdis of Bordeaux, while on a mission of inspection, informs Richelieu that only five houses are now required to complete the Grande Rue.
The cardinal donates the plots but imposes a strict plan, as Henri IV had done for the Place Dauphine and for the Place Royale (now the Place Vendome, Paris). Richelieu-townplanner fixes a restricting design specification. The house must look out both onto the street and a courtyard, with a façade width onto the street of ten toises (about 20 metres) and a depth of 8.5 metres. The dimensions of the entry arch were also given; the carriageway must be 6 pieds wide (2 metres); on one side there should open a good room with a chimneypiece. The entire disposition of the building is in this way determined, with the location of the stair, that of the stable, that of the privy (of which even the dimensions are fixed, 12 pieds deep (that is to say 4 metres), with 2 metres under the key stone of the vault). The hôtel included a piano nobile above which an attic shelters the domestic staff. The specification of materials is composed of the same precise detail. The candidate clients for the construction have hardly any choice in the enterprise either; they must go to one of the masons that Richelieu had appointed for the job and who charge a price of 10,000 livres tournois per house.
The impatience of the Cardinal causes a rapid advance in the works. In 1634, a visitor reports that several complete houses were ready, entirely constructed, fitted-out and let. Another, in 1638, that the girdle of the town is now complete, with its moats, ramparts and gates. The actual thickness of the walls is hardly impressive: the town is obviously not made to withstand a real siege. He also recounts how the beautiful houses built along the Grande Rue are occupied by 'small fry'; workers from the site, laborers, innkeepers. In 1637, the Township of Richelieu has been elevated into a Parish. A presbytery is constructed, the enormous size of which is going to allow shelter to an important mission of Lazaristes. Vincent de Paul comes in person to check in situ the conditions of the installation of his missionaries. Their busy activities, with those of the Filles de la Charité who have joined them, satisfies him completely. "I have never seen people more assiduous and devout to the Holy Mass" he wrote in 1638.
The chief architect, Jacques Lemercier, monopolised by the numerous projects that Richelieu has entrusted him in Paris, hardly comes any more. His brother Pierre establishes himself on site to supervise the building work. He dies in mid-task in 1639. He was buried in the church, now complete, just in front of the altar. Another of the Lemercier brothers, Nicholas, takes his place. In 1640 the château is practically complete, and the town starts to live a life of its own. Under its magnificent timber beams, the market place shelters fairs and markets which attract lots of people. Marriages are celebrated, baptisms carried out and, equally, the first tombs appear in the cemetery.
The same year, 1640, sees the foundation by the Cardinal of an academy or Royal College for the children of gentlemen living in the town and its surrounding countryside. The new building rises on the Grande Place (Place des Religieuses today). The King's declaration creating the Royal College recalls in its preamble that 'there is nothing in the governace of a State that is more dignified for a grand prince than to oversee the instruction of youth'. The text itself contains a critique of the education that is generally conducted elsewhere; is the Cardinal by any chance hoping to make the academy of his new town a temple to avant-garde pedagogy? It is explained to us in effect that instruction in 'dead' languages, by consequence of the extended time that it requires, discourages the young gentlemen and draws them to pass far too quickly to exercise in arms. We must foresee in his intent a better adapted and more modern education. It is for this reason that the Royal College of Richelieu will teach in the morning 'the purety of the French language, poetry, rhetoric, all parts of mathematics and philosophy in French'; the afternoon will be reserved for Greek and Latin and for exercises that 'go to the seemliness of our nobility'. The teaching staff will comprise eight royal professors, a director, a master-of-horse, a master-at-arms, an almoner, and six masters: for pike, dance, drawing, musical instruments, writing and physical exercise. The Royal College sees itself granted a monopoly of instruction in the town for a duration of twenty years - less for courses in the French language. Students from outside the region are welcome as well; furnished accommodation is supplied for this purpose. Everything is arranged to receive them comfortably, even a tavern.
Richelieu will never see the completed château, any more than he will the town. After his early death in December 1642, the works slow down, despite the obligation made in his will to his niece, the Duchesse d'Aiguillon, to lead them both to completion.
The Will that animated them is No More.
In 1633, La Fontaine visited the castle and the town; he records that the constructions are practically complete, but finds that the ensemble reveals an air of sadness. In the letter that he addresses to his wife to deliver his impressions, he writes that Richelieu 'will soon have the glory of being the most beautiful village in the universe'. The creation of the town ex nihilo seems to him to be an error, and the effect a pointless vanity. The town is implanted 'off the beaten track' of the big flows of transportation. It is true that the Cardinal had made a project to connect the Mable river to the Vienne river in a manner to allow navigation to serve his town, and that he had the grandiose intention of making the main route from Paris to Spain pass through Richelieu. But death intervened and prevented him from doing so. The new city is far from everything - in a rather infertile area - a living symbol of the limits of the human will.
The castle of the Cardinal has now disappeared. After the French Revolution, the inheritors of the Richelieu estate, judging the maintenance of the castle too costly, let it be destroyed. The vast park that you can admire today was reconstituted at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. A few pieces of the construction remain, two entry pavillions, the Chinon gate, an admirable Rotunda which was part of the stables. That is all. The town, in contrast, has survived. With its regular organisation, by the rythym of its façades, by the indisputable air of grandeur that emanates from it, the new town continues to bear proud witness to the man who gave it his name.
(translated from 'La France de Richelieu' by Michel Carmona published by Fayard in 1984, with many thanks.
463 pages, Publisher: Fayard (1984), Language: French, ISBN-10: 2213013462, ISBN-13: 978-2213013466)