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From Some Lies and Errors of History by the Rev. Reuben Parsons, D.D.; Notre Dame, Indiana: The Ave Maria; 7th edition; 1893; pp. 123-133.


AS has been the case with nearly all great men, Cardinal Richelieu had his alter ego, to whom he perhaps owed much of his success and celebrity, and to whom he was certainly indebted for aid in bearing burdens such as probably have fallen to the lot of no other Minister of State. During the greater part of his official career, wherever was discerned the sheen of the great Minister’s cardinalitial red, not far off, although generally in the background, was the ashen-hued tunic of Friar Joseph. “I have lost my consolation and my support,” moaned Richelieu when death laid his hand on the Capuchin.

Few historians have given much time to Friar Joseph. His constant devotion to the great Minister, his invariable connection with every political act of that prelate, gave him the designation of the Grey Cardinal — “son Eminence grise,” — and he was the red cardinal’s familiar demon. This is about all which is told us by Bazin1 and by Henri Martin,2 who have dwelt more on this subject than 124 other writers. The impressive play of Bulwer is the source of the ideas that most people have concerning both Richelieu and his Capuchin secretary, and these ideas are as just as would be an estimate of Joan of Arc derived from the absurd play of Schiller or the obscene poem of Voltaire. According to Bulwer, the friar-secretary was a man of low cunning — a sneak, but at the same time ambitious, and he was as ready to betray the secrets of the confessional as his master was to use them.

In a future article we shall have occasion to speak of the morality of Richelieu, but at present we would ask the reader’s attention to a brief sketch of the career of the humble Capuchin, who may well be numbered among the many celebrated statesmen that have been found in the cloister. Although less famous, because the subject of less attention, than the two Abbots Suger, than St. John Capistrano, than the Franciscans Calatagirone and Ximenes, his career must be interesting, if only because of its connection with that of the great Richelieu.

François le Clerc du Tremblay was born of noble parents in 1577. From his sixteenth year he desired to become a religious, but to please his family he entered the army, and at 125 the siege of Amiens was noticed for his bravery by the Constable de Montmorency. When his relative, M. de Mesle de Berzeau, was sent as extraordinary ambassador to Elizabeth of England, the young François accompanied him, and the woes of the English Catholics and the many devastations of heresy so excited the zeal of the apostolate in his heart, that on his return to France in 1599 he joined the Capuchin branch of the Franciscan Order. He soon acquired fame as a preacher and controversialist, and it was while engaged in a mission at Poitou, in 1619, that he formed his first relations with Armand du Plessis de Richelieu, then Bishop of Luçon.

Friar Joseph (for such was the name adopted by Du Tremblay in religion) soon became cognizant of the sublime genius and extraordinary administrative talent of the provincial prelate, and he drew the attention of the Queen, Marie de Medici, to his discovery. This was the starting point of Richelieu’s glorious career. But Friar Joseph had been known as a zealous churchman and as an accomplished diplomatist several years before he became connected with Richelieu. In 1615 Rome had appreciated his apostolic spirit, when, bearing letters of approbation from Louis XIII., he laid before the Holy See three 126 grand projects — viz., the establishment of permanent missions to combat heresy in France; a new crusade against the Crescent; and the foundation of the Daughters of Calvary, a society destined to perpetual meditation on the woes of Mary at the feet of her crucified Son.3

Joseph’s first diplomatic achievement was the effecting of the Treaty of Loudun, in 1615, between the court and the faction of the Prince de Condé without that schismatic clause which the Third Estate — then composed chiefly of heretics and bad Catholics — wished to insert: i.e., that the King, being sovereign in his realm, could recognize in it no superior, spiritual or temporal.4 To compass the withdrawal of this clause, the royal Minister Villeroi sought the aid of our friar, then making his provincial visitation to the houses of his order in Poitou. The Nuncio Ubadani 127 also added his entreaties, and Joseph, who had long ago gained the esteem of Condé, began a series of negotiations which finally succeeded; and thus was obviated a danger which threatened France with the same horrors as those experienced by England at the hands of Henry VIII. That this blessing was due to the exertions of the Capuchin Provincial, was openly acknowledged by Villeroi, who, entering Tours after the signature of the treaty, cried out to the applauding citizens: “Thank not me, but Friar Joseph!”

Marie de Medici did not forget the warm recommendation of the Bishop of Luçon proffered by the humble Capuchin. It was through her influence that Richelieu was raised to the cardinalate in 1622, and two years afterward was made Prime Minister of France. One of his first acts was to send the following letter to Friar Joseph:

As you have been the chief agent used by God in according me my present honors, I feel it a duty to inform you, before all others, that the king has hearkened to the Queen’s prayer to appoint me his Prime Minister, I also beg you to make all possible haste to come and share with me the management of affairs, some of which are of such a nature that I can confide them to no other person. Come, then, at once to receive the proof of the esteem in which you are held by the


Joseph obeyed the summons, but as he never, 127 amid all his occupations, forgot his duty to his Order, he prepared to journey to Rome to attend the approaching General Chapter of the Franciscans. The Cardinal Minister made no objections, but availed himself of the opportunity to entrust his secretary with the settlement of many difficulties then troubling the Italian policy, notably the question of the Valteline — a knotty dispute between the Grisons and Valtelins, principally owing to religious differences. In this controversy were involved the King of France and the House of Austria-Spain, the Duke of Savoy and the Holy See. So well did Joseph acquit himself of his difficult task that he merited the encomiums of all the disputants, and strengthened his influence for evermore with Richelieu.

We can not, of course, follow the details of Friar Joseph’s political career, but we must not omit to notice one of his most brilliant strokes of statesmanship — the reduction of La Rochelle. This bulwark of Calvinism in France, this centre of rebellion and constant menace against the integrity of French nationality, had defied the crown for two hundred years. From the day of its revolt against Louis XI. in favor of his brother, the Duke of Guyenne, down to the capture of Amiens by Henry IV., devotion to France had become 129 an unknown quantity to the Rochellois; and as soon as the latter event ceased to impress their minds, they made war on Louis XIII. Many good patriots deemed the reduction of La Rochelle impossible; many also thought that Louis would do better by aiding Mantua and Montferrat against Spain than by warring against his own subjects, rebels though they were. But Friar Joseph realized, and he forced the King, Richelieu, and the great Cardinal de Bérulle to realize, that La Rochelle was a hot-bed of discord for France, that it was a port of entry for hostile foreigners, especially for the English, whose queen had been convinced by Blancard, the Rochellois deputy, that it was better for her to lose Ireland than to permit the surrender of La Rochelle to King Louis; that Huguenot rebellion and Protestant arrogance would continue to torment France so long as the formidable rock remained the arsenal of treason.

The celebrated siege of La Rochelle was undertaken, and Friar Joseph — present to the end — was its moving spirit: advising with the engineers whom he had employed to construct the famous dike; animating the spirits of the soldiers, and working as indefatigably as did Angoulême or Bassompierre. Of course Richelieu was also on the spot, and had been 130 entrusted by Louis XIII. with absolute command; but so great was the part of the Capuchin secretary in the siege, that after it had been brought to a successful issue, the King publicly avowed that, like Abraham, the friar had hoped against hope, that God had rewarded his faith, and that history would accord to him an equal share with the Cardinal de Bérulle of the glory attending the enterprise.

Friar Joseph had been called ambitious, and yet he constantly refused many dignities offered him. The See of Albi was tendered him in vain, as well as the projected diocese of La Rochelle. Certainly King Louis XIII. again and again named him to the Holy See (firstly in 1635) for a cardinal’s hat,5 but we know not whether, if accorded him, he would have accepted the honor voluntarily; he always protested to Richelieu that the habit of St. Francis was the dearest thing to him on earth. In view of the prevalent idea that the friar-secretary was an unscrupulous intriguer and an associate of roysterers, it is curious to note that, according to the records of the time, he was as faithful to his monastic duties as any friar in the cloister.


We take from Barthélemy6 a summary of our friar’s daily life at court. He arose at four, prayed for an hour, and then recited the Office as far as Sext with his constant companion, Father Ange. Then he labored at his multifarious correspondence with the French agents at foreign courts, generally conducted in cipher; and this work must have been immense, for he received a duplicate of every dispatch sent to the King. At nine he gave audience to ambassadors and to the secretaries of state, conducting them, when necessary, to Richelieu. Only at midday did he celebrate Mass, the Cardinal generally assisting. After breakfast — which, like all his meals, was taken with Father Ange, and during which some pious book was always read, — audiences occupied him until four, when he finished the Office and made a meditation. From five until eight he shut himself in his library. At eight he supped or dined, and the rest of the day was spent in the cabinet of Richelieu; and probably these final hours were the most laborious of all.

Friar Joseph was sixty-one years of age when, a stroke of apoplexy warning him to prepare for death, he retired to a house of his 132 Order in the Rue Saint-Honoré, despite the solicitations of Richelieu. But the Cardinal availed himself of an important business conference with the Cardinal de Bichi to insist on Joseph’s return. The friar acquiesced, attended the conference, but was seized the same day by a second stroke, and died three days afterward, December 18, 1638. He was buried with all the honors due to a cardinal, and was followed to the tomb by the Parliament and all that was noble in Paris. Richelieu composed the following epitaph, which was engraved on the tomb:

“In everlasting memory of the Rev. Father Joseph le Clerc, Capuchin. — Here lies one whose virtues will never be forgotten; one who, in order to bear the yoke of the Lord, abandoned in his youth parents, titles, and wealth, and lived very poor in a very poor Order. Made Provincial in that Order, he benefited the Church by his writings and his discourses. He filled many public offices, to which he was providentially called by the Most Christian King Louis, in a holy and a prudent manner; carefully serving God, his prince, and his country, with seraphic devotion and wonderful tranquillity of spirit. He observed, to the last day of his life, the entire rule to which he had dedicated himself; although 123 for the good of the Church, he had been dispensed from it by three successive Pontiffs. By his missions and his advice he resisted heresy in France and in England, and he sustained the courage of the Christians in the East. Amid the wealth and the allurements of the court he led a life of poverty and austerity, and before his death had been named to the cardinalate.”


1   “Histoire de France sous Louis XIII.,” vol. iv, p. 115.

2  “Histoire de France,” 4me edit., vol. xi, p. 491.

3   The Holy See accorded Friar Joseph full powers for the establishment of missions in France. As for the crusade, the Pontiff gave him briefs ad hoc for the Kings of France and Spain, and undertook to influence the Emperor, the Italian princes, and the King of Poland, in the scheme. The crusade was a failure, but the missions and the foundation of the Daughters of Calvary succeeded. The name of one of the Boulevards of Paris perpetuates to this day the memory of this pious foundation

4  Against this proposition Cardinal du Perron delivered one of his most powerful discourses.

5  “Memorie Recondite dall’ Anno 1601 fino al 1610,” in the “Négociations du Maréchal d’Estrées at Siri,” Paris, 1677.

6   “Mensonges et Erreurs Historiques,” 6me edit., Paris, 1880.

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