The 1620s to the 1650s were decades of rule in France by two very secular cardinals. The first was the stern, implacable, cunning, and charismatic Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal de Richelieu (1585–1642). A scion of an old family of lesser nobility in Poitou, Richelieu's father, François, had been a particular favourite of Henry III and Henry IV. As a result, young Armand was made bishop of Luçon by Henry IV in 1606. Eight years later, Richelieu attracted the attention of the Queen Mother, Marie de Medici, and became chief adviser in her exile. He was made a cardinal in 1622, and became prime minister in 1624, to remain so until his death 20 years later.
Richelieu's main interest was his participation in the Thirty Years’ War (161848), which devastated Germany for decades to come. This war symbolized a fundamental shift in European wars from the strictly religious conflicts of the previous century to the political nation-state ambitions of the seventeenth century. Thus Richelieu, the at least nominally Catholic (albeit politique) cardinal of a Catholic country, found himself heading a largely Protestant European coalition against the Catholic Habsburgs of Austria and Spain.
The cardinal's theoretical views were set forth in two books written near the end of his life, his Memoirs on the Reign of Louis XIII and his Political Testament. While his major practical interest had not been domestic or economic affairs, he had helped build up the absolutism of the French state. In his works, he repeated the usual absolutist mercantilist views of the France of his era. France should be self-sufficient in all things, the navy and merchant marine built up, monopolies granted, the idle put to work or locked up in institutions, and luxurious consumption prohibited.
An interesting new variant was Richelieu's candid attitude towards the mass of Frenchmen as simply animals to be prodded or coerced in ways that were optimal for the French state. Thus taxes should not be so high that commerce and industry are discouraged, but neither should they be so low as to leave the public too well off. For if the people were too comfortable and complacent, it would be impossible to ‘contain them in the rules of their duty’. Richelieu added the revealing comment that ‘It is necessary to compare them [the people] to mules, who, being accustomed to burdens, are spoiled by a long rest more than by work’.
It is clear that in the course of promoting the interests of the nation-state and of his monarch, Richelieu did not neglect his own concerns. A receiver of a modest annual income of 25 000 livres upon his entry into the post of prime minister, by the end of his career in office Cardinal Richelieu was earning some 3 million livres per annum. Apparently, the cardinal had no problem in serving the enrichment of his sovereign and of himself at the same time.
Richelieu's successor was a fascinating character, a Sicilian whose father was a high official attached to the powerful Colonna family. Jules Mazarin (1602–61) was educated in Rome by the Jesuits, and then became a Church official at the University of Alcala in Spain. Returning to Rome to earn his doctorate in law, Mazarin was a captain of infantry, and then a papal diplomat of note. He was made a church canon without ever having been a priest. While serving as papal nuncio to France, he gained the favour of the great Richelieu, who offered Mazarin a high official post if he should become a naturalized French citizen.
It is not many men who emigrate, become a citizen of another land (as Mazarin did in 1639), and then become prime minister of that country only three years later. Mazarin, however, achieved that feat, becoming cardinal (still without being a priest) in 1641, and succeeding Richelieu when the latter died a year later. Mazarin was shrewd enough to court the favour of the queen, so that when Louis XIII died the next year, and the queen became regent, Mazarin could continue in his powerful post. Except for a year or two's hiatus, Mazarin continued as prime minister until his death in 1661.
Mazarin had far less interest in economic affairs than his predecessor, and was no theoretician, devoting himself largely to diplomacy and war. He didn't need much theoretical insight, however, to amass a fortune in high office that put even his predecessor to shame. By the end of his rule, he had accumulated an immense personal fortune of approximately 50 million livres.
One noteworthy work written during Mazarin's term was by a Carmelite monk, Jean Éon, whose religious name was Mathias de Saint-Jean (c.1600–81). Eon was born in Saint-Malo, in Brittany, and became a friend and adviser of the governor of Brittany, a relative of Richelieu's, Marshal de la Meilleraye. Éon eventually became Carmelite provincial in Touraine, and refused the opportunity to become attorney-general of that province.
During Éon's life in Brittany, the Breton merchants became interested in founding a privileged commercial company, and in 1641 a group of merchants, consulting with de la Meilleraye, worked out plans for a large company, centred at Nantes, to be called the Société de la Bourse Commune de Nantes. The company was approved by the council of state in 1646, but it provoked an anonymous pamphlet in opposition. Eon was hired by the city of Nantes, and encouraged by la Meilleraye to write a book in defence of the company. The result was the lengthy Honourable Commerce or Political Considerations (Le Commerce honorable ou considerations politiques) (Nantes, 1647). The book was dedicated to Eon's friend and patron la Meilleraye, whom he extolled as inheriting the mantle of economic leadership of the nation from Richelieu.
Éon's book was a compilation of standard mercantilist doctrines and need not be examined in detail here. He almost rivalled Montchrétien in his hatred for foreigners, and in his wish to drastically curtail their activities in or selling to France. Two of his personal and original contributions were his paean to the sea, shipping, and the seafaring life, and his eulogy to the city of Nantes, its glory and its unique suitability for locating a privileged company.