During the seventeenth century, it was considered an honor and a sign of prestige to have one’s own guards. It was also a rare privilege in that the power of anyone who possessed his own personal guard could compromise the security of the state. The clergy of the Estates General of 1614 stated in article 137 of its petition to the King: “[The possession of] guards constitutes a sign of sovereignty and for this reason, the Estates begs Your Majesty to not permit, especially in times of peace, that any person in your kingdom keep guards, regardless of their nature.
The kings were aware of this problem and did not easily grant this favor. Henry III had even issued edicts that forbid anyone “regardless of his quality, position, dignity, office or commission in the kingdom” to maintain “men of war, either mounted or infantry … under any pretext whatsoever.
But there were exceptions.
Thus, under Louis XIII the Queen Mother Marie de Medici had her own bodyguards, as did the king’s brother, Gaston, the Duke of Orleans, and the Connétable, supreme commander of the armies.
“In the end, the King had to accept that his provincial governors be accompanied by armed cavalry when circulating in their jurisdictions to insure public order. In certain cases, he even ordered them to be accompanied as a measure of precaution. (…) But apart from these exceptions, for which there were special reasons, this practice was generally forbidden. No one in the State, be he minister or even a high-ranking one, had the right to keep his own guard.”
In 1624, Cardinal Richelieu joined the King’s Council as a simple counselor. He was somewhat ill-disposed toward Louis XIII, who had a negative view of his entry into the government and could barely stand him. Richelieu, of course, didn’t possess his own personal guard, especially since he didn’t wish to make an unwise move against the King.
“Far from exposing himself through threatening designs, he would, by way of respect, circumspection and devotion, try to win the sovereign over and slowly modify Louis XIII’s hostility and make him appreciate the value of his services by rectifying difficult political questions, to the point that Louis XIII, his esteem for his minister increasing day by day, would defend him from the hostility provoked by intrigue within the court. Then, opposition [to the Cardinal] increasing to the point of threatening troubles, the King, who by now was attached to Richelieu and even loved him, would resolutely rally to his defense. It was these circumstances and the particularly grave incidents of the year 1626 that would lead Louis XIII to spontaneously grant guards to the Cardinal.”
In fact, Richelieu found himself the victim of a general conspiracy, including death threats, after the announcement of the marriage between Gaston, the Duke of Orleans, and Mademoiselle de Montpeniser. Louis XIII was furious and decided to protect Richelieu by granting him a personal guard and even by forcing him to accept this guard.
It seems that Richelieu was not thrilled by this idea in the beginning, as he wrote to Bouthillier, secretary of commandments to Marie de Medici:
I admit that it’s rather vexing to be forced to have a guard, as it is certain that once one is brought to this point, on can say good-bye to his freedom. However … the more they strive to take my life, the more I will strive to serve the King.
On 27th September 1626, Louis XIII signed a order in which “he orders the Cardinal to always maintain around his person fifty horsemen with leaders to command them, chosen by himself”, which was an authorization in principle for Richelieu to keep guards.
According to Mercure français the cavalry in question would have been “mousquestons, and therefore mounted musketeers, but this denomination was not maintained.” This guard seemed to be of the utmost necessity in the eyes of the King and observers of that time, because Richelieu had many enemies.
This was confirmed by the Prince of Condé at Guron in 1627:
The Cardinal has more reason now than ever before [to keep guards] … The King knows full well that there is a threat to his life, that this treat still exists and that he must avoid poisons and beware of anything that enters his home.
And Richelieu writes in 1629:
I have maintained thirty guards at my expense for two years, only to guarantee myself the hatred of many enemies that had been thrust upon me by considerations of State.
In 1631, Louis XIII decided to increase the number of the Cardinal’s troops and grant him the privilege of having a guard modeled upon his own Royal Guard.
As Saint-Simon writes:
Cardinal Richelieu had the same military house as our kings: guards, gendarmes, light-horses and, lastly, musketeers; in addition, all commanded by noblemen and by men of quality under them.
“By preliminary act on 1st August 1631, Louis XIII granted ‘commission to the Cardinal to raise a company of light-horses’ of a hundred and twenty horsemen for his personal guard. This company would soon lose its name of light-horses and become simply “the horse guard of His Eminence.”
The following 30th August, the King granted Richelieu ‘commission to raise a company of one hundred armed men.’ These hundred men would be called ‘gens d’armes’ [gendarmes], but this company would rarely be deployed except within the armies…
(…) Then, the King waited three years before signing, on the 4th May 1634, a ‘commission given to monsignor the Cardinal to raise a company of armed footmen to remain near his person et to serve as his regular guard. ‘” French Archives of Foreign Affaires 823, fol.147 r° and “Roster of horsemen of the Cardinal’s Company”, ibid., fol. 281 r°
In fact, exactly as the Company of the King’s Musketeers called itself by the generic name “Musketeers”, so too did this last company choose “Guard” as its name. Speaking of this Guard, one contemporary wrote:
I remember that the first time His Eminence walked in Paris accompanied, I saw him pass on the rue des Lombards: we admired the beautiful costumes of these soldiers who were the bravest and most qualified in the kingdom.
“According to regulations, it is necessary to maintain sixty guards in permanent service at the Cardinal’s residence every day. These sixty guards will be ‘fed and served at table in their hall of arms’. Each guard’s duty lasts one hour. The guard must stand straight, ‘his pistol in his belt, cocked and the sword hidden beneath his scarlet tunic. The muskets are stocked in the guard room where one can go retrieve them in the event of an alert; the guards do not let anyone enter without an express order. If the Cardinal goes out, they mount their horses and escort His Eminence’s carriage, which they surround. But if they are going to the Louvre, they are not allowed to enter into the courtyard of the palace. Wherever the King is, there can only be his own guards. The pamphleteers did not hesitate to criticize what they saw as a scandalous spectacle: that of the minister circulating in the streets of Paris, surrounded by ‘captains, lieutenants, ensigns and guards, with pistols in their pockets and daggers in their boots.’ In principle, the captain of the guards must not leave His Eminence’s side when at the Cardinal’s manor. He has a room in each of the minister’s residences.”
In reality, outside of all this decorum, Richelieu’s guards also had other duties and completed delicate missions for the minister. They were often sent on campaigns, with the aim of verifying field operations and reporting back to the Cardinal. One can imagine that this kind of friendly “spying” did not please the armies.
Richelieu also sent his Guards into combat whenever the necessity arose. Although the King’s Musketeers enjoyed a better reputation in the field of combat, the Cardinal’s guards were no less a well-trained and imposing troupe.
“For 1636, there is a table of all the troops serving under Richelieu and scheduled for military operations for that year. Along with his horse guards and his companies of musketeers and gendarmes, the Cardinal maintained troops totaling some 3000 men.”
The very size of Richelieu’s army spread fear and spawned complaints and disputes. The size of his Guards even posed a challenge for the King and, according to numerous pamphleteers, the Cardinal “had as many kinds of guards as the King. He went into Paris with this force better served than His Majesty.”
“The people were often mistaken and would cry ‘Long live the King’ when they saw him pass by. Wasn’t this a display of confusing the banal with the extraordinary? Does it not seem that ‘the King’s person was abandoned’ because the minister ‘took upon himself all the markings of royalty’ and even tolerated that ‘more than a hundred gentlemen, paid at the King’s expense, march before him’?