“C’est un rempart que notre Dieu, une invincible armure. Notre délivrance en tout lieu, notre défense sûre. Satan, notre ennemi, en fureur s’est promis. D’user de son pouvoir. Pour vaincre et décevoir. Sur terre il n’y a plus d’abri,” sang Anne Rochefeuille as she played the harpsichord in the main drawing room of the Palais Cardinal, Cardinal Richelieu’s grand palace built just north of the Louvre and bequeathed to King Louis XIII upon his death on the 4th of December 1642. Though Americans rarely hear it in French, the first verse of the above hymn is well-known by Protestants around the world as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” by Martin Luther. It is, like so many songs in this latest biography, an unusual choice for the story of France’s greatest and most transformative first minister.
Jean-Armand du Plessis, cardinal and duc de Richelieu transformed France into the first truly modern and secular state of the western world. Still essentially a collection of feudal states owing nominal loyalty to the king of France when he took up the bishopric of Luçon in 1608, the cardinal’s ability to put aside religious considerations in favour of complete subordination of the French people and its institutions to the king had inevitable cultural implications as well. Carefully patronizing writers, poets, dramatists, painters, sculptors, architects, composers, musicians, and other artisans, regardless of his personal opinions about their creations, his patient efforts carefully moved French culture into the celebrated baroque era we associate with King Louis XIV.
In my new biography, “His Red Eminence, Jean-Armand du Plessis de Richelieu,” I celebrate the cardinal’s life through music. Eight songs in French, Latin, and English fill these pages, helping the story to come alive. Given my habit for setting scenes during the Christmas holiday season, there are of course Christmas carols, more than any other book so far. 15th century French carol “Noël Nouvelet” makes an appearance, as does “Adeste Fideles” which was originally written by French monks in the medieval era but not translated to English as “O Come All Ye Faithful” until Victorian times.
Two decidedly English songs make an appearance: the 16th century English “Coventry Carol” is heard for the first time in one of my books as does the medieval version of the popular song “Quoth John to Joan.”
Popular French music arrives in the form of Pierre Guédon’s “Aux plaisirs, aux délices.” Guédon’s music is very special because it’s one of the few surviving songs we have specific to King Louis XIII’s reign instead of dating to either the Valois dynasty or Louis XIV’s reign.
Aux plaisirs, aux délices, bergères,
Il faut ètre du temps ménagères,
Car il s’écoule et se perd d’heure en heure;
Et le regret seulement en demeure.
A l’àmour, aux plaisirs, au bocage
Employez les beaux jours de votre àge.
But perhaps the most poignant of the two popular music pieces in this book is also the most familiar. “Belle Qui Tiens Ma Vie” by Thoinot Arbeau is a love song written at the end of the 16th century. Popular with re-enactors, it is slow, stately and full of quiet passion. Just the sort of song that rises to the many diverse occasions found in not only this beautiful biography, but many of the Legendary Women of World History biographies as well.
We first encounter “Belle Qui Tiens Ma Vie” in 1618 during Armand-Jean’s exile in Avignon when best friend Anne Rochefeuille sings the first two verses. Then, in 1628, facing the horrors of war and missing home and the love waiting for him in Paris, Armand-Jean sings verses three through eight for us, allowing us to hear the song in full. Drama arises when his song is overheard by Father Joseph, his “grey eminence” as history remembers him. For one of the most consistent sources of drama in this biography is the constant question by those around the good cardinal as to whether or not, and if so who, is he taking to his bed as his lover.
Historically, the question is never proven either way but rather is a matter of persistent rumour spanning his entire adult life.
My belief is that he did have a lover, a woman whom he loved and faithfully took to bed for over twenty years. But more than a vessel for his sexual appetites, she was best friend, confidant, nurse, and intellectual equal. She was everything for Armand-Jean du Plessis that Katharina von Bora was for Martin Luther almost a century before—except of course that du Plessis could not marry her in the church without stepping down from the priesthood and his only means of supporting himself. Even after becoming a cardinal in 1622 and first minister of France in 1624, Richelieu’s economic survival depended on him keeping secret what the true nature of his relationship with his Anne really was. If the truth were ever discovered, the scandal stood to cost him not only his position (and the money he depended on to live), but his life as well.
With this dramatic context in mind, I invite you to enter King Louis XIII’s court with all its music and dance and courtly romance and intrigues to meet the real man you never knew from reading Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers.”