Cardinal Richelieu served as minister of France under Louis XIII (1610-1643). The use of clergy in political management has certain advantages. It could help shore up the moral authority of the state as well as ensure the trust of the largest non-state institution in the realm. Not only that, the clergy tended to be some of the most educated administrators.
In any case, Cardinal Richelieu wielded amazing power in setting the foundations for the absolute monarchy. Never mind the fact that as a member of the Catholic clergy, he never married and would have no heirs. He still needed a very large palace. So, in 1633 he broke ground on the Palais-Cardinal. The work was completed in 1639.
He might have been a Cardinal, but he was also a Minister. And as such, he was also one of the strongest supporters of the arts in France and oversaw the construction on his own. He adorned the palace with paintings and sculpture. He assembled a significant library and built a private theater. Being a man of God, he made sure he had a private chapel. Being Chief Minister, he made sure the fittings were solid gold and encrusted with precious stones.
He got just shy of three year’s use out of the palace before he went to meet his Maker. He left the palace to his king and protector, Louis XIII. The palace moved from one royal family to another in a series of events that is really too boring to bother with here. The new owners liked the place, but couldn’t abide the name and changed it to the Palais-Royal. (If nothing else, it kept them from having to explain to every visitor that the Cardinal didn’t live there anymore.)
What is really important at this point is to recognize that the palace ended up being the ancestral home of the house of Orléans, which throughout the 18th century was within a heartbeat of the monarchy.
Things at the Palais-Royal really got interesting under Louis-Philippe-Joseph, duc d’Orléans (1747-94). With the monarchy safely ensconced at Versailles, the duke sought to establish the palace as a political counterweight to the official government seat. He was a large personality that sought publicity, power, and pleasure without compunction.
His big living had put him in financial straits, so the duke hatched a scheme to turn the palace into something of a strip mall of luxury shops and cafes where wealthy Parisians could gather under his hospitality.
Philippe couldn’t keep his political ambitions in check. By the late 1780s, he had cultivated a radical political dialogue which earned him a period of exile. On the eve of the French Revolution, he had hired a team of men to promote his political cause. As the Revolution stirred up, he thought he could ride it to glory. He renounced his ducal title and adopted the sobriquet Égalité (“equality”).
When the blood of the Revolution flowed in the streets of Paris, Philippe was desperate to prove his egalitarian bona fides. He boldly voted to send his cousin, King Louis XVI, to the guillotine. If the regicide/cousin-cide bought him any time, it was less than a year. He was arrested and taken to the guillotine by a path past his former home: the palace where he courted the very radicalism that would cost him his life.
Today, the Palais-Royal houses the the Conseil d’État, the Constitutional Council, and the Ministry of Culture. At the rear of the garden are the older buildings of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Perhaps a fitting end to Richelieu’s beginning.
Architectural style: French Baroque
Architect: Jacques Lemercier