“Downton Abbey.” Few period dramas have earned the critical acclaim and popularity as the story of its Crawley family as they navigate the dramatic changes faced in the early 20th century. Featuring lavish estates and stories centred on both the upstairs nobles and downstairs servants, it can be no wonder so many of us are excited about the September 2019 release of a theatrical film that continues the stories of these beloved characters.
Important to Downton Abbey’s appeal stems from its window into how the upper classes live and how they interact with the servants whose labours empower their lifestyle. It’s a time gone by for nearly all of us, a culture few of us experience or understand. A culture that was very much part of life in 17th century France.
In “His Red Eminence, Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu” we are taken through the good cardinal’s entire adult life, starting at the age of twenty when he was a student at his beloved Sorbonne. Along the way, he lived in everything from a spartan dormitory to modest cottages to palaces. Each of these held a very different lifestyle. Each of them enlightened by watching “Downtown Abbey.” Let’s take a look at his homes.
Du Plessis Manor/Château Richelieu – Poitou (1585-1594, intermittent thereafter)
The cardinal’s childhood home was the medieval manor built by his ancestors and resided at for centuries. The 16th century Wars of Religion which ultimately claimed the life of Armand’s father François in 1590 bankrupted the family, forcing Armand’s mother Suzanne de la Porte to cut what few staff they had before. Odds are the frugality Suzanne de la Porte imposed on her household meant Armand grew up with few if any of the luxuries normally enjoyed by the nobility, a simplicity in lifestyle he maintained for the rest of his life.
Upon the death of his father in 1590, eldest brother Henri du Plessis became Seigneur de Richelieu. Through political skill and the kindness of King Henri IV, Henri improved the du Plessis fortunes by convincing the king to appoint Armand as Bishop of Luçon and with it, a yearly income of 15,000 livres for his brother and, by extension, the family.
(engraving of the Château Richelieu before its demolition in 1805.)
As Armand’s career improved over the years, he invested in the family home, transforming it in the Château Richelieu built by architect Jacques Lemercier, and employing a proper household staff to attend him whenever he or other family members stayed there. From footmen to housemaids, valets, and lady’s maids, the château scenes in chapter twelve are modelled closely after those in Downton Abbey and the many adventures of those who lived there, both upstairs and downstairs.
Dormitory at the Sorbonne (1606-1607)
Like most students, Armand-Jean lived simply in a bedroom that served as bedroom, library, office, and beyond. He probably shared both a kitchen and lavatory with others living in the same building. It is the style of life most familiar to us today and therefore most relatable.
Bishop’s Mansion – Luçon (1608-1614)
More spacious than his dormitory, ordination as a priest and investiture as a bishop was a step up for His Excellency, Bishop du Plessis. As bishop he lived in a parsonage where he lived, maintained an office complete with a secretary, and entertained. No less than a cook and a housekeeper maintained the residence and probably other servants as well, though likely fewer than ten altogether. Though the sizes of bishop mansions varied with the wealth and important of individual dioceses, the mansion in Luçon probably maintained at least five guest bedrooms in addition to the master bedroom the bishop occupied and those reserved on the top floor for residential staff.
Mansions – Blois and Avignon Exiles (1617-1620)
Historically speaking, we know essentially nothing about where exactly Bishop du Plessis lived during his years in exile in Blois and Avignon created by his service to Marie de Medici. As a civil servant, he most likely lived in the same home as the dowager queen while in Blois. Given Marie de Medici was essentially running a quasi-independent, rival French government, it is logical to deduce that she and her staff (du Plessis included) lived in a modest mansion sufficiently sized to accommodate a household of at least thirty and probably closer to sixty. Upon being ordered away from de Medici in the form of being sent to Avignon, Bishop du Plessis and those exiled with him probably experienced a more scaled down version of his life in Blois with a smaller mansion-prison and fewer staff, but still attended somewhat by cooks, housekeepers, and perhaps a footman or two whose real function was to enforce the house arrest while spying on the prisoners.
Parisian Cottages (1614-1617, 1620-1629)
In September, 1614 Bishop du Plessis arrived in Paris as a delegate from Poitou representing its clergy at the meeting of the Estates-General in Paris. Though we know nothing about how or where the bishop was housed, it was most likely a modest cottage not unlike Crawley House in Downton Abbey. The bishop probably had a cook and a housekeeper to look after him. Upon being appointed to the large stream of government positions showcased in “Eminence” that staff level would have slowed increased, but rarely exceeding more than five or ten total servants plus or minus the red guards who protected his person. These cottages probably looked and felt a great deal like Crawley House, modest but comfortable, but better suited to city life than the rural-centric Crawley House.
Apartment at the Louvre (intermittent, 1622-1629)
Living at the Louvre was a special honour granted as a reward to favourite courtiers. It was also given to those ministers the king wanted kept close to him—either because he wanted him closely watched and/or because he needed that minister available to him at all hours of the day and night.
As seen in “Eminence,” Richelieu most likely divided his residency between an apartment in the Louvre and a nearby cottage. While staying at the Louvre, housemaids would have kept his apartment tidy and cooks would have provided him with his meals. Footmen summoned him into the royal presence.
Following his 1628 success at La Rochelle, King Louis XIII gifted him with his own estate mere metres from the Louvre which Richelieu designed with architect Jacques Lemercier, the Palais Cardinal, a grand home that survives to this day as the “Palais Royal.”
Palais Cardinal (1629-1642)
In 1629 Jacques Lemercier completed the Palais Cardinal, the ultra-modern palace estate which became Cardinal Richelieu’s principle residence from 1629 until his death on 4 December, 1642. The Palais Cardinal featured Paris’ first theatre at which the many plays Richelieu penned were performed. Though the cardinal maintained the simple lifestyle one expects of a parish priest, he spent generously on a massive household staff at the Palais Cardinal. With an income exceeding two million livres per year at the end of his life, he could afford it. But as with everything else, his spending was far more about the principle than his own needs or interests. In patronizing the visual, dramatic, and musical arts at the Palais, he fostered French culture in ways he believed were essential to the longevity of the State. In offering employment to a far larger household staff than he needed, he invested in his community.
In the end, Armand-Jean du Plessis, cardinal and duc de Richelieu was not the mean-spirited and heartless villain of the Dumas novels, but rather the kind, extremely generous, and far-sighted statesman who invested in people, in the arts, in long-term diplomacy, and in a strong, unified France. Instead of using his income from government service for his own creature comforts and agendas, he invested in the French people, in French culture, and in the French State.
The fictional Earl of Grantham considered himself the custodian of Downtown Abbey. The very real Cardinal Richelieu made himself the custodian of France itself. Few ministers have done more or served better than His Red Eminence, Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu.