Cardinal Mazarin was a fascinating figure from the history of France in the 17th century. Despite not being French, he was that country’s most powerful politician for 19 years, and the fact that he became a cardinal was itself bizarre given that he was never ordained as a priest!
His original name was Giulio Mazzarino. He was born on 14th July 1602 in the Abruzzi region of Italy but was raised in Rome. He went to Madrid University and then enrolled in the Papal army, fighting as a captain in the War of the Mantuan Succession between France and Spain who were fighting over the domination of northern Italy. During the conflict he made a name for himself for his courage and quick thinking.
Mazzarino joined the Papal diplomatic service and was part of the delegation that met at Lyon in January 1630 to discuss peace terms. At that event he caught the attention of Cardinal Richelieu, second only to King Louis XIII in the government of France, and Richelieu took an instant liking to the young man.
The two men found themselves in further contact over the coming years, with Mazzarino spending an increasing amount of time in Paris.
He made another important contact in Paris that had nothing to do with diplomacy. Mazzarino made a name for himself as a successful gambler. On one occasion he attracted attention at the gaming table by winning a large sum, one of the spectators being Anne of Austria, the French Queen. Mazzarino placed all his winnings on a single bet, which he won. Claiming that the Queen’s presence had brought him luck, he made her a gift of 50,000 ecus.
In 1639 Mazzarino decide to move permanently to Paris and he changed his name to Mazarin in order to appear to be French, although he never became a French citizen. He worked closely with Richelieu and became his right-hand man, even to the extent of Richelieu petitioning Pope Urban VIII to make Mazarin a cardinal, despite him never having taken holy orders.
Richelieu died in December 1641, having implored King Louis to appoint Mazarin as his successor, which Louis promptly did. Louis himself died five months later, leaving Queen Anne as regent for the 4-year-old King Louis XIV. Mazarin had no problem in remaining as first minister, given his earlier acquaintance with the Queen and the fact that he spoke fluent Spanish, based on his previous sojourn in Madrid. Despite her title, Anne of Austria was actually Spanish. It would appear that Mazarin’s friendship with the Queen was a deep one and may have gone much further than just friendship.
As First Minister of France, Mazarin proved to be a worthy successor to Cardinal Richelieu. In 1648 he was largely responsible for ending the Thirty Years War and by 1659 he had brought the conflict with Spain to a peaceful conclusion.
Mazarin helped to create the absolute monarchy that was enjoyed by King Louis XIV, who had a long and magnificent reign in which all the reins of power were in his hands. Mazarin was not popular in all quarters for furthering this trend and was twice forced into exile before he was able to overcome the opposition of a groups of nobles who had revolted.
Cardinal Mazarin became extremely wealthy and amassed a valuable art collection that included works by Raphael and Titian. His own grand mansion in Paris is now the home of France’s National Library.
Mazarin died on 9th March 1661 at the age of 59, having served his adopted homeland at the highest level with great distinction for 19 years.