1902 Encyclopedia > Cardinal de Retz (Jean François de Gondi, Cardinal de Retz)

Cardinal de Retz
(Jean François de Gondi, Cardinal de Retz)
French churchman and politician

JEAN FRANCOIS _____ DE GONDI, CARDINAL DE RETZ (1614-1679), was bom at Montmirail in 1614. The family was one of those which had been introduced into France by Catherine de' Medici, but it had acquired great estates in Brittany and had been connected with the noblest houses of the kingdom. It may be added that Retz himself always spelt his designation "Rais," and the spelling is not inconvenient for foreigners. He was the third son, and according to Tallemant des Reaux was made a knight of Malta on the very day of his birth. The death of his second brother, however, destined him for a closer connexion with the church. The family of Retz had military traditions, for the cardinal's father, Philippe Emmanuel, was general of the galleys, and his grandfather Albert was marshal of France. But it had also much church influence, Retz's uncle being archbishop of Paris, and, despite the very unclerical leanings of the future cardinal, which were not corrected by the teachings of St Vincent de Paul, who was his tutor, the intentions of his family never varied respecting him. It was in vain that, as he has recounted with some vanity in his famous memoirs, he flirted, fought duels, and endeavoured in every way to show that he had no vocation. His friends might have some excuse for doubting his aptitude for a more active career despite his vivacious temperament, for by unanimous consent his physical appearance was not that of a soldier. He was short, near-sighted, ugly (though his ugliness had much in common with that of Wilkes), and exceptionally awkward of hand and gesture. Retz, however, despite the little inclination which he felt towards clerical life, was not a man to leave any ilnd of career to which he had access untried. He entered into the disputes of the Sorbonne with vigour, and when he was scarcely eighteen wrote the remarkable Conjuration de Fiesque, a little historical essay of which he drev.' the material from the Italian of Mascardi, but which is all his own in the negligent vigour of the style and the audacious insinuation, if nothing more, of revolutionary principles. It is said, though the anecdotes of this time are always suspicious, that Richelieu's verdict after reading the pamphlet was " voila un homme dangereux." However this may be, Retz received no preferment of importance during Richelieu's life, and even after the minister's death, though he was presented to Louis XIII. and well received (the king offered him a bishopric), he found a difficulty in attaining the object of his wishes, that is to say, the coadjutorship with reversion of the archbishopric of Paris. But almost immediately after the king's death Anne of Austria appointed him to the coveted post on All Saints' Eve, 1643. Retz, who had according to some accounts already plotted against Richelieu,' set himself to work to make the utmost political capital out of his position. His uncle, who was old, indolent, and absurdly proud, had lived in great seclusion; Retz, on the contrary, by assiduously cultivating the parish cures and distributing large sums in alms, gradually acquired a very great influence with the populace of the city. This influence he gradually turned against Mazarin—partly from the general dislike which the French nobles had to that low-born adventurer, but partly also, it would appear, because he himself was not in Mazarin's place. No one had more to do than Retz with the outbreak of the Fronde in October 1648, and his history for the next four years is the history of that confused and, as a rule, much misunderstood movement. Of the two parties who, sometimes in union and sometimes at variance with each other, opposed the system of absolute monarchy carried on by an omnipotent minister, Retz could only depend on the bourgeoisie, not on the nobles, and even in the case of the bourgeoisie he had little influence out of Paris. The fact, moreover, that although he had some speculative tendencies in favour of popular liberties, and even perhaps of re-publicanism, he represented no real political principle, as the parliament of Paris did and as did great nobles like La Rochefoucauld, inevitably weakened his position. His adroitness of intrigue and his boldness in action (which was even shown on the field of battle) served him little in the long run, and when the break up of the Fronde came he was left in the lurch, having more than once in the meanwhile been in no small danger from his own party. One stroke of luck, however, fell to him before his downfall. He was made cardinal almost by accident, and under a misapprehension on the pope's part. Then, in 1652, he was arrested and imprisoned, first at Vincennes, then at Nantes ; he escaped, however, after two years' captivity, and for some time wandered about in England and else-where. He made his appearance at Eome more than once, and had no small influence in the election of Alexander VII. He was at last, in 1662, received back again into favour by Louis XIV. and on more than one occasion formally served as envoy to Rome,—commissions which have left abundant records in the shape of official documents. Eetz, however, was too shrewd, and perhaps too weary of political intrigue to attempt any interference with the new order of things at home, and he was glad in making his peace to resign his claims to the archbishopric of Paris. The terms were, among other things, his appointment to the rich abbacy of St Denis and his restoration to his other benefices with the payment of arrears.

The last seventeen years of Retz's life were comparatively quiet, and were passed partly in his diplomatic duties (he was again in Rome at the papal election of 1668), partly at Paris, partly at his estate of Commercy, but latterly at St Mihiel in Lorraine. His retirement to this place was made under circumstances which were unusual for the age. His debts were as enormous as his revenues were large, and, as the latter were almost entirely derived from ecclesiastical appointments, his creditors had no remedy. In 1675 he resolved to make over to them all his income except twenty thousand livres, and, as he said, to " live for his creditors." This plan he carried out, though he did not succeed in living very long, for he died at Paris on the 24th August 1679. One of the chief authorities for the last years of Retz is Madame de Sévigrié, whose connexion he was by marriage. Great friendship existed between them, and the cardinal was especially devoted to Madame de Grignan, who seems to have treated him with her usual selfish indifference.

Retz and La Rochefoucauld, the greatest of the Frondeurs in literary genius, were personal and political enemies, and each has left a portrait of the other. La Rochefoucauld's character of the cardinal is on the whole harsh but scarcely unjust, and one of its sentences formulates, though in a manner which has a certain recoil upon the writer, the great defect of Retz's conduct,-—" Il a suscité les plus grands désordres dans l'état sans avoir un dessein formé de s'en prévaloir. " The last two words indicate but too clearly the self-seeking which was the bane of the Fronde and of the French noblesse generally. But it is perfectly true that no general design of benefiting either himself or his country, or even any party or order in his country, can be traced in Retz's conduct, and that he seems to have kindled the fires of civil war in pure gaiety of heart. He would have been less, and certainly less favourably, remembered if it had not been for his Memoirs, which, with Madame de Sévigné's notices, give a rather high idea of the amiability of his character at the same time that they confirm its levity, and above all prove his Dossession of remarkable literary faculty. They were certainly not written till the last ten years of his life, and they do not go further than the year 1655. They are addressed in the form of narrative to a lady who is not known, though guesses have been made at her identity. In the beginning there are some gaps. Th-.y display, in a rather irregular style and with some oddities of dialect and phrase, extraordinary narrative skill and a high degree of ability in that special art of the 17th century—the drawing of verbal portraits or characters. Few things of the kind are superior to the sketch of the early barri-cade of the Fronde in which the writer had so great a share, the hesitations of the court, the bold adventure of the coadjutor himself into the palace, and the final triumph of the insurgents. Dumas, who has drawn from this passage one of his very best scenes in Vingt Ans apres, has done little but throw Retz into dialogue and amplify his language and incidents. Besides these memoirs and the very striking youthful essay of the Conjuration de Fiesque, Betz has left diplomatic papers, sermons, Mazarinades, and correspondence in some considerable quantity.

The Memoirs of the Cardinal de Retz were first published in a very imperfect condition in 1717 at Nancy. The first satisfactory edition was that which appeared in the twenty-fourth volume of the collection of Michaud and Poujoulat (Paris, 1836). They were then re-edited from the autograph manuscript by Géruzez (Paris, 1844), and by Champollion-Figeac with the Mazarinades, &c. (Paris, 1859). In 1870 a complete edition of the works of Retz was begun by M. Feillet in the collection of Grands Écrivains. The editor dying, this passed into the hands of M. Gouidault and then into those of M. Chantelauze, who had already published studies on the connexion of St Vincent de Paul with the Gond. family, &e. The edition is still incomplete, and the critical biography of Retz which it may be expected to contain is much wanted. (G. SA.)

The above article was written by: George Saintsbury.

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