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Two cardinals laid the foundations of royal power in France. Armande Jean du Plessis, Duke of Richelieu (1585-1642), was made a cardinal in 1622. He was chief minister of Louis XIII from 1624, reduced the strength of great nobles by operating through regional officials, called “intendants”. Through diplomacy, then armed intervention, he supported Protestant states fighting the mighty Catholic Habsburgs in the 30 Years War. His successor Mazarin (1602-61), running the kingdom for young Louis XIV, ensured the victory of French forces.

Richelieu's one ambition was to make France great. To achieve it he destroyed all rivals to his power at home and followed an aggressive policy abroad. In 1628 he dealt with the troublesome French Protestants, the Huguenots, by capturing their stronghold of La Rochelle. He personally oversaw their defeat. The Huguenots had resisted the king's power for a long time. For over a year they were besieged in La Rochelle, an Atlantic port. Richelieu supervised the construction of a breakwater (a wall) across the mouth of the harbour. This meant that British ships could not bring in supplies of food and goods. The starving Huguenots were forced to surrender in 1628. Richelieu went on to destroy the last Huguenot refuge at Montauban. After this they had no power to cause him any further trouble.

Next, Richelieu destroyed the power of the noble families of France. The Intendants were royal officials who made tours of inspection round the country on behalf of the king. In the 1630s, Richelieu gave them wider powers as a means of uncovering and crushing opposition to his rule. They acted as his spies. Any suspicious activity was reported to Richelieu by them. They supervised taxation, the local police and the courts of law. They had the authority to try and sentence people on the spot. All who plotted against Richelieu risked imprisonment or death. He was hated for this harsh rule, and for the heavy taxes he imposed.

Abroad, Austria and Spain were the main threats to France. Members of the Habsburg family ruled both countries and, if they were to combine, France would face an overwhelming attack on two fronts at the same time. Richelieu's aim was therefore to weaken and divide the Habsburg powers.

By 1631, in the course of the Thirty Years War, Habsburg Austria had overrun most of Germany and threatened to dominate Europe. To weaken Austria, Richelieu paid the Swedes, the Dutch and the Danes to support their armies in war against their common enemies, the Habsburgs.

In 1635 Richelieu set up the French Academy to maintain the standards of the French language. It still performs this function today. In the same year France declared war on Spain. The fighting went on until 1648 and outlasted Richelieu. He died in 1642 but as he would have wished, by the end of the war the French armies had become the finest in Europe.

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