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Jean François Paul de Gondi, cardinal de Retz
The family was one of those which had been introduced into France by Catherine de Medici, but it acquired great estates in Brittany and became connected with the noblest houses of the kingdom. It may be added that Retz himself always spelt his designation "Rais." He was the third son, and according to Tallemant des Réaux 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 connection with the church. The family of Retz had military traditions, but it had also much church influence, and, despite the very unclerical leanings of the future cardinal, which were not corrected by the teachings of his tutor St Vincent de Paul, the intentions of his family never varied respecting him.
By unanimous consent his physical appearance was not that of a soldier. He was short, near-sighted, ugly and exceptionally awkward. Retz, however, despite the little inclination which he felt towards clerical life, 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 drew the material from the Italian of Augustino Mascardi , but which is all his own in the negligent vigour of the style and the audacious insinuation, if nothing more, of revolutionary principles.
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, he found a difficulty in attaining 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, gradually acquired a very great influence with the populace of the city. This influence he gradually turned against Mazarin. 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 joined in it Retz could only depend on the bourgeoisie of Paris. The fact, moreover, that although he had some speculative tendencies in favour of popular liberties, and even perhaps of republicanism, he represented no real political principle, inevitably weakened his position, 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 various countries. He made his appearance at Rome 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. Retz, however, 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 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 Cornmercy, but latterly at St Mihiel in Lorraine. His debts were enormous, and in 1675 he resolved to make over to his creditors all his income except twenty thousand livres, and, as he said, to "live for" them. 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 Sévigné, whose connexion he was by marriage.
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:
"Ii a suscité les plus grands désordres dans l'état sans avoir un dessein formé de s'en prévaloir."
He would have been less, and certainly less favourably, remembered if it had not been for his Memoirs. 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, some even suggesting Madame de Sévigné herself. In the beginning there are some gaps. They 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 barricade 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 après, 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, Retz 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, etc. (Paris, 1859). In 1870 a complete edition of the works of Retz was begun by MA Feillet in the collection of Grands Ecrivains. The editor dying, this passed into the hands of M. Gourdault and then into those of M. Chantelauze, who had already published studies on the connexion of St Vincent de Paul with the Gondi family, etc. (1882).
- This entry incorporates public domain text originally from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.
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